5. Road to Perdition
A film that never really got tagged with the "based on the graphic novel by..." credit in a meaningful way, this Academy Award nominee is likely one of the only movies on this list that most casual viewers have no idea had its genesis as a comic book.
Still, the story of hitman Michael Sullivan makes the list. It's such a cinematic accomplishment, with such fantastic performances from actors Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, that this thriller about revenge and family would have placed higher except for the fact that it takes so many liberties with the graphic novel it's based on, it's almost hard to identify as an adaptation.
The Avengers will have a ways to go to prove that it can be the best comic book adaptation in Scarlett Johanson's CV, and we're not talking about Iron Man 2.
This bizarrely-awesome little flick starring Johansson and American Beauty's Thora Birch perfectly captured the tone and subversive humor of Dan Clowes' graphic novel and was enough of a critical and financial success to give director Zwigoff and Clowes a second chance to work together--on the underwhelming Art School Confidential--as the studio hoped to recapture the magic of Ghost World.
Honorable mention here goes to Crumb, Zwigoff's documentary about underground comix rock star R. Crumb, which was a truly fascinating film; Crumb in it is like a train wreck; it's hard to watch him, but even harder to look away.
In spite of Alan Moore's repeated objections, the shady ethical nature of the Watchmen and V for Vendetta deals and the fact that many comic book fans deride this adaptation for not being slavish enough to the source material, it was a fantastically entertaining film in its own right, which returned leading lady Natalie Portman to respectability in geek circles following her cardboard performance in the execrable Star Wars prequels.
V For Vendetta stood out among its fellow Alan Moore adaptations League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine and Watchmen as clearly the only one of the bunch that was really good filmmaking on a technical level. It also brought Moore's work into the mainstream outside of comics in a big way and set the stage for things like Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous adopting the Guy Fawkes mask.
The cleverly-meta American Splendor movie, featuring the real-life Harvey Pekar appearing alongside his cinematic counterpart, among its many delights, may be the smartest comic book movie ever made.
Paul Giamatti, a treasure in just about everything he's ever been in, gives one of the best performances of his career as Harvey Pekar, a cantankerous file clerk who turns into one of the great indie comix artists of the 20th Century. Along the way he spars with everyone from his wife and other cartoonists, to David Letterman and NBC.
Following on the heels of the movie's success, Pekar's American Splendor had a miniseries published by DC Comics, along with a number of high-profile projects like Students For a Democratic Society and The Quitter, that gave the revolutionary cartoonist a renaissance in the years leading up to his death in 2010.
Featuring the best use of comic book tropes onscreen in the history of filmmaking, Sin City's ultra-violent, ultra-stylized look and feel made it an immediate cult sensation and brought moviegoers into the bookstores hoping to get a deeper look into Frank Miller's mad genius.
Directed by Miller and El Mariachi maestro Robert Rodriguez, and featuring uniformly amazing performances by its large cast, Sin City pushed at the boundaries of how a comic book film is perceived. Stark, smart and sexy, Sin City is the kind of film that could have found a life for itself relying on the story and acting alone, but the way they integrated Frank Miller's work into the film took it to the next level.
With a sequel coming up (it should start filming soon), the real question of Sin City will be whether the second film will taint the first one in any way. As a follow-up to one of the great comic book adaptations of all time, it faces a number of challenges: neither Miller or Rodriguez are performing at the level today that they were in 2005, when the first film happened; and while the first movie came as something of a bolt out of the blue, the second will be not only anticipated but will be met with expectations by a large audience that may be difficult to meet.