As people everywhere get ready to say good-bye to the summer season, Comics on Film has reached that time in the year where we can look back on the major comics-based movie releases of the year and figure out which we liked best and which we didn’t like so much. From the blockbuster releases provided by the characters of Marvel Comics at multiple studios, to the return of the Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird-created Ninja Turtles, on down through the harsh and unforgiving streets of Frank Miller’s Basin City, 2014 has proven to be a surprisingly diverse year for comic book cinema. Maybe, even, a transformative one.
With eight live-action comic book movies released between March and August of this year, let’s get right into the rankings for 2014’s comic book blockbusters.
Although a pleasant surprise to critics upon release, the loose adaptation of the 2008 miniseries Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore from Radical Comics came about in a fashion that should give comic book fans and creators a bit of pause. According to the late Steve Moore’s close friend and part-time creative partner Alan Moore (yes, that Alan Moore, no relation), Steve Moore’s name was allegedly used heavily to promote the film with some attention being drawn to the fact that the film adapts his work, but Moore himself also allegedly never received compensation through a sneaky workaround of the legalities. Comic book creators hardly live the lives of rock stars (as the existence of the Hero Initiative clearly demonstrates), especially those who work for independent publishers.
While the film itself is competently written, directed and acted, as a comic book fan my blood tends to boil when learning about an instance where a creative mind that gave us the work in the first place is not given the proper respect and compensation for their work. Insult is added to injury by the fact that Moore died this past March, never even being able to see what resulted from his ideas in the first place. Hercules is not a bad film, but it is badly made. In that sense, this column recommends seeking out Moore’s original work that got it made in the first place instead.
7) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Sometimes as comic book fans, our collective mentality can be summed up as hoping for the best while expecting the worst– undoubtedly the mantra of many Turtles devotees heading into the latest cinematic effort produced by Michael Bay. What many fans seemed to find was a film that wasn’t quite as bad as they thought it would be — or even as bad as critics seemed to think that it was. While it’s a long way from the original comics, as most Turtles media after the ’80s animated series proved to be, the new film was definitely interesting. Maybe even a step in the right direction.
The crippling blow against it, though? A distinct lack of fun. The irreverence that fans in the ’80s and ’90s enjoyed about the original animated series and the first live-action film wasn’t there. In its place was a little too much product placement, and a few too many cheap pop-culture references that will prematurely date this film in less than five years. People aren’t against seeing new Ninja Turtles, and if the stars align in a way that gives us a sequel to this film, you can’t make it without the fun. The elements feel like they’re present, but the dynamic between those radical reptiles has to come first.
6) The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The problem with the latest outing for one of Marvel’s flagship characters wasn’t the cast. All of the actors and actresses in this series are great. It also wasn’t the director, who creates a great sense of interaction and clear choreography of rather intense action and fight scenes. No, the problem with ASM2 falls solely on the writing… and maybe the music supervisor.
Nearly every aspect of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s screenplay feels manufactured, and in the instances where it doesn’t, it still trips up by attempting to include too many characters. While Jamie Foxx is a fine actor, removing his Electro from the overall story has virtually no impact on where the story ultimately ends up by the time the credits roll. Add to that the weird inclusion of a song largely known for playing in the background of insurance commercials in the final “emotional” moments, and you have a disjointed film that doesn’t deliver as much as those that preceded it.
The adaptation of some definitive Spider-Man moments from the comics, though, was spot on, and it’s hard not to love the dynamic between Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker and Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. In the end, though, too many cooks in the kitchen trip this film up in its own web.
5) 300: Rise of an Empire
The first of two films adapting the comics-based work of Frank Miller that also star Eva Green, this sequel to 2007’s 300 was another pleasant surprise. Although based on an as-yet-unpublished new graphic novel by Miller, the latest 300 film sometimes cleverly weaves through the times preceding the original film, and even providing some aftermath to it. While original film director Zack Snyder did not return to the world he established with the first film seven years ago (he’s apparently busy building an entirely new comics-based cinematic universe), new director Noam Murro definitely brings back the stylish, and sometimes beautiful gore that was a hallmark of the first effort.
The major problem with Rise of an Empire is that it doesn’t seem to stay with audiences too far after the viewing experience, as the original film did. People seemed to be pretty finished with it not too long after release. There are enough elements here working in it’s favor, though, to warrant a recommendation, particularly the striking performance of Green.
4) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
The subject of last week’s Comics on Film, in some ways, seems to have similar issues as a sequel that Rise of an Empire had earlier this year. Although Robert Rodriguez is back in the director’s chair and having brought Frank Miller himself with him, A Dame to Kill For seems to have all, if not more of the ingredients of the original to be just as memorable (particularly with its visual flairs), but the experience doesn’t seem to have quite the punch of the first film. The surprises of the original haven’t shown up for the sequel, and in the end we’re left with a film that feels a little too similar in execution to the original to offer any new thrills.
While it’s fun seeing new tales taking place in Basin City from Miller’s mind, as well as some of the other stories newly adapted in this film, a third outing from this franchise seems like it’d be unnecessary. Much like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though, very little fault can be placed with the stellar cast. From Eva Green to Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt to Mickey Rourke and Rosario Dawson to Bruce Willis, thankfully the cast seems to have come to work. In order to make a third trip into the bowels of this hell city worth it, though, we’ll need more than the flashy aesthetic and somewhat thin story to satiate us.
3) X-Men: Days of Future Past
As someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s X-Men: First Class, there were a fair amount of doubts to be had going into Days of Future Past. Was this a reboot, or a sequel? With so many characters, will this be a cohesive experience, or a haphazard mess of fan-service cameos? Thankfully, the final experience of watching the latest iteration of the longstanding X-Men film franchise may prove to be the best of the entire series thus far. Returning director Bryan Singer, who last delved into the mythology of mutants in 2003’s X2, seemed to share similar observations as many fans that something had been lost in the intervening four films and 11 years. Days of Future Past employs old-school comic book continuity shifting with solid writing and performing to create a film that serves as a grand course correction for the oldest name in modern comic book cinema.
In addition to featuring the welcome returns of many original cast members, Hugh Jackman may have turned in his best performance as Wolverine yet. Couple this with a story that feels like it reconnects with the largely great first two films in the series while adding all of the best elements that First Class brought to the table three years ago, and you have a film series that is streamlined, back on track, and in the best form it’s been in since May of 2003. It’s easy to get excited about new X-Men movies again, and that’s owed entirely to the efforts of Days of Future Past
2) Guardians of the Galaxy
The most transformative comic book movie in years, Guardians of the Galaxy proves that audiences will gladly come along for the ride as long as they can connect with the characters. For comic book fans of years past, it may have been somewhat unfathomable that a major studio would take a chance on a property like this, especially considering that most of the stories don’t take place on Earth, feature a talking procyonid, and don’t seem to be told in a lot of human or earthly terms. Marvel Studios again relied on the strength of its characters, though, and unleashed Guardians on an unsuspecting public as the summer began to wind down. The result was many calling it the new Star Wars: a space opera with an awesome soundtrack thrown in, and an investment in the characters that saw audiences rally behind them.
Taking a reverse approach from the alleged actions that created the Hercules movie, Marvel has also apparently come to terms on an ongoing compensatory deal with Rocket Raccoon creator Bill Mantlo. Marvel Studios even did some of their own legal wizardry to secure a private screening of the film for Mantlo, who has been suffering from brain damage and requiring round-the-clock medical care. Rocket was one of the absolute best elements of an already stand-out film, and Guardians of the Galaxy itself is a unique and wonderfully cosmic addition to modern comics-based film.
1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
While Guardians and Days of Future Past are both excellent movies in their own rights, perhaps the best Marvel Studios film yet kicked off the superhero movie season in April with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A loose adaptation of the comic book arc of the same name by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting, Winter Soldier is a massive success in the continuing saga of the cinematic Avengers by showing Steve Rogers’s adaptation to life in the modern world, while also telling a compelling tale of a former brother in arms corrupted by forces beyond his control, The Winter Soldier was the first attempt by Marvel Studios to make a resonant political thriller with references to, and extrapolations of real issues that affect America and the international community at large.
In a time where American citizens hear or have heard things on the news about overreach on the part of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, and now the militarization of police, The Winter Soldier weaves an intriguing narrative that seems informed by all of these things, while still making for a satisfying addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. When Steve Rogers, a card-carrying member of America’s “Greatest Generation” is directly confronted with the new evolution of warfare and national security, he doesn’t really like what he sees. Maybe we shouldn’t either. The fact that a superhero film is asking these kinds of questions in the first place makes for a surprisingly powerful film, in addition to an awe-inspiring action spectacle.
So that does it for our rankings of this year’s comic book films! What are your rankings? Feel free to leave your own lists and thoughts in the comments below, and we’ll see you in seven days for a brand new edition of Comics on Film!
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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