Of course, everyone knows that characters like Batman and Spider-Man had their origins in comics before migrating to the big screen, but you might be surprised to find out that there are actually a lot of other well-known movies out there that started out as lesser-known comic books and graphic novels. While you may not see any cape-wearing do-gooders in these films, most of them are every bit as entertaining as the big budget superhero blockbusters that Hollywood has been churning out over the past ten to fifteen years.
So if you love comics but are getting sick of always watching muscle men in tights on screen, here are 22 movies you probably didn’t know were based on comic books. Enjoy!
22. Timecop (1994)
It may have only had a three-issue run as part of a Dark Horse anthology in 1992, but the Timecop comic managed to spawn a decent action/sci-fi movie, a television series, and a video game. Writer Mark Verheiden wrote the comic and screenplay for the film along with Dark Horse founder and publisher Mike Richardson. The movie stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as a ‘time enforcement officer’ who must protect the timestream from would-be abusers. To date, it remains one of his most successful films and showcases what is probably his best acting performance. Unfortunately, the sequel, Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision, wasn’t nearly as good (probably because Van Damme wasn’t in it) and the TV series and video game were mediocre at best.
21. The Losers (2010)
Fans who were familiar with The Losers comic series were probably pretty surprised to find out it was getting a theatrical movie adaptation in 2010. Though the comic earned a lot of acclaim as one of the best new series to hit shelves in recent years, it was still a relatively unknown property when compared to the other established comic franchises that DC and Marvel were bringing to the big screen. They were probably also just as surprised to find out that the movie was almost as much fun as the comic. True, it did get heavily overshadowed by The A-Team remake which was released around the same time, but you can’t really hold that against it.
20. 2 Guns (2013)
2 Guns was originally a comic miniseries about two undercover agents working for different agencies who join forces to bring down a drug cartel. While the movie adaptation still had Trench (Denzel Washington) as a DEA agent and Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) as a Naval Intelligence officer, that’s about where the similarities end. The most obvious difference is the use of violence and swearing in the film. The comic book has a moderate amount of action and a little bit of bad language, in contrast to the film which cranks both aspects up quite a bit. And although Washington and Wahlberg engage in a little light comic banter, the movie doesn’t do justice to the wry sense of humor that permeates the comic.
The 2 Guns movie still provides a pretty satisfying shoot-em-up, but it fell victim to the same quandary experienced by so many comic books when they get the Hollywood treatment, as the subtle charm of the story and characters was replaced with more guns and bigger explosions.
19. Surrogates (2009)
Though the film version of surrogates wasn’t all that well-received, it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of effort on the part of the filmmakers. Director Jonathan Mostow remains faithful the central concept of the comic, which involves citizens contently living out their lives through remote-controlled androids until a mysterious malfunction disrupts the whole system. It even furthers the comic by adding in an unknown assailant who destroys not only a Surrogate (like in the comic) but also its human operator, thus introducing a much greater sense of danger. It’s certainly not the best comic book-based movie (one look at Bruce Willis’s hairpiece will tell you that), but at least it remained faithful to the source material while still finding ways to enhance the story.
18. The Fountain (2006)
Normally movie adaptations of comic books simplify the original story or find ways to make complicated plot lines more accessible for audiences who aren’t familiar with the source material. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, however, proves to be the exception as it seems to make a whole lot more sense as a graphic novel than it does as a film.
Aronofsky’s original plans called for a sprawling three-narrative epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles, but it proved too costly for the studios to green-light, so Aronofsky did the next best thing and teamed up with artist Kent Williams to develop and complete the story as a comic book. Although Warner Bros. eventually agreed to let Aronofsky make his film, his initially proposed budget was cut in half which probably led to the project becoming an over-ambitious undertaking. Still, the comic book is definitely worth checking out just to get an idea of what the more expansive movie might have looked like.
17. American Splendor (2003)
American Splendor might be the most interesting entry on this list because the movie serves not only as an adaptation of the comic of the same name, it’s also partly a biography of the story’s creator, Harvey Pekar. The directors of the movie had a background in documentary filmmaking and utilized their talents to cleverly intermix appearances and interviews from the real Pekar and his associates in between all the fictional portrayals of them. The entire movie is a surreal mind trip, but it’s thoroughly brilliant—much like the work of Pekar.
16. The Rocketeer (1991)
Not long after the Rocketeer comic books began hitting shelves in 1982, efforts began to get it adapted for the big screen. After some studios tooled around with concepts for a black and white low-budget feature, eventually, Disney came along and snatched up the rights to make a big-budget version. The film tells the story of a stunt pilot named Cliff Secord who comes into possession of a prototype Howard Hughes jet pack and then gets chased around by a bunch of Nazis, gangsters, and FBI agents. The final film is a remarkably close adaptation, and although it cuts out all the nudity and coarse language that can be found in the comic, it’s a fun-filled ride that perfectly captures the look and mood of the ’30s. Unfortunately, despite getting good reviews from critics, audiences didn’t flock to the theater, resulting in a poor box office performance and the cancellation of a planned sequel.
15. 30 Days of Night (2007)
Oddly enough, 30 Days of Night actually started out as an idea for a movie, but after writer Steve Niles was unsuccessful in pitching it to studios, he evolved it into a very successful comic book miniseries about the inhabitants of an Alaskan town who have to endure a month-long polar night in the company of a coven of feral vampires. Five years after the comic’s initial 2002 publication, things finally came full circle with David Slade putting together a remarkably faithful adaptation that keeps pretty much everything intact. The only real differences between the movie and the comic are the inclusion of a few extra characters, and the fact that the vampires speak their own language—an aspect played up brilliantly by all the over-the-top acting from Danny Huston who plays the vampire leader Marlow.
30 Days of Night is one of the few adaptations that managed to improve on the original. It’s easy to see why Niles originally envisioned the story as a movie since the horror of the situation is much more effectively felt through film than it is through literature.
14. Tank Girl (1995)
Before going on to co-create the band Gorillaz, Jamie Hewlett teamed up with Alan Martin to make a psychedelic, acid punk comic book anti-heroine called Tank Girl. The comic soon gained a large underground following which caught the attention of some Hollywood filmmakers who decided they wanted to make a movie adaptation.
With Lori Petty taking the title role, Malcolm McDowell playing the evil corporate antagonist, and Courtney Love providing a killer soundtrack, this was a recipe for a great adaptation at a time when comic books could really have used one. But sadly, Tank Girl failed miserably at the box office, prompting Hewlett and Martin to distance themselves from their creation. However, years later audiences have actually developed a fond appreciation for the Tank Girl movie, noting that its cool steampunk aesthetic was well ahead of its time. They’ve also expressed that Petty’s role provides a contemporary post-feminism icon, as she displays dominant female sexuality and a “familiarity and knowing coolness of ‘outlawed’ modes of sexuality,” such as masturbation, lesbianism, and sadomasochism. Besides, how could you not love a movie that features Iced-T as a decked out dancing kangaroo?
13. Oldboy (2003)
It’s strange, but even with R-rated adaptations like Deadpool topping the box office, there’s still a prevalent stigma in North America that comic books are nothing more than “kids’ stuff.” But in Asia, manga/graphic novels are the preferred medium for storytelling, encompassing every genre and theme you can imagine. One title in particular that treads on some seriously dark and twisted territory are Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s mid-’90s title Old Boy.
The manga series has now inspired two separate adaptations about a protagonist who is inexplicably held captive in a hotel room for years before being released to follow a trail of clues that will supposedly lead him to his revenge. There are, however, a number of differences between the manga and film versions. In the manga, the protagonist is locked up for a decade; in Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film he’s locked up for 15 years, and in Spike Lee’s 2013 remake he’s locked up for 20 years. Park’s version also introduced a lot of the violence and darker elements that people commonly associate with the story. In the original manga, nobody gets killed until the very end, and there’s no famous hammer fight through a narrow hallway. Additionally, incest is an integral part of the plot in both movie versions, but in the manga, that aspect is nowhere to be found.
12. Ghost World (2001)
Based on the comic of the same name by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World is a cult film about the trials and tribulations of two cynical girls who are transitioning out of high school. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson bring the comic book characters to life but also add a bit of charisma to their roles by making the characters a little more relatable. This is especially true of Rebecca, Johansson’s character, who seems much more likable in the film version, as opposed to merely being something for Enid to react against.
The movie follows the source material in theme and tone as the girls wander around their unnamed U.S. town aimlessly, criticizing all the people and pop culture they see around them. Both the comic and the film provide an apt portrayal and examination of Generation X-ers relationships and outlooks on life. It was the perfect story for director and indie comics fan Terry Zwigoff to make into a movie, and, in 2002, the adaptation earned him and Clowes an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
11. Snowpiercer (2013)
Though the movie faced a bit of a rocky road on the way to its U.S. and U.K. releases, Snowpiercer is one of the best comic book adaptations to come along in recent memory. It’s based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, and tells the story tells of what remains of the human race following a cataclysmic attempt to fix Earth’s climate which instead plunged the planet into a deep freeze. The only way for the people of this world to survive is by living out their entire lives on board a train powered by a perpetual motion machine. But as is the case in most dystopian futures, the division of classes on the train are appallingly apparent with the rich front section passengers living a lavish life of luxury while those in the rear compartments are crammed together and forced to exist in brutal conditions. That is until Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) decides the time has come to lead a revolution, and together with a group of tail passengers, attempts to battle his way to the front of the train.
The essential element that both the comic and the film focus on is social stratification, but they also each provide an excellent commentary on global warming and economic trickle-down philosophy. When you combine this thought-provoking material with a little high-octane action, you’ve got the recipe for a very compelling sci-fi movie with director Bong Joon-ho making every encounter in a new train compartment feel fresh and exciting. The movie also does a great job of capturing the aesthetic of the comic, with the production design selling it almost as much as the acting, which includes an incredible performance by Tilda Swinton as the middle managing Minister Mason. If you’re tired of all the movies coming out that herald dystopian futures as nothing more than arenas for sexy teenagers to compete in, you should really go watch Snowpiercer as soon as possible.
10. The Mask (1994)
The 1994 movie The Mask was more than a vehicle to showcase the rubber face of funnyman Jim Carrey. The Mask was actually a cult comic book from publisher Dark Horse Comics, and the movie was an attempt to bring the visual style and flair of the comic book to life on the big screen. However, the comic book was much darker in tone and content. Producers of the movie decided to use Jim Carrey’s natural talents to make the film version more of a comedy. The results speak for themselves as The Mask succeeded in launching Jim Carrey into superstar status and also introduced the world to a young actress named Cameron Diaz.
9. Red (2010)
This 2010 movie about an aging group of CIA operatives who are targeted for extermination stars Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren in a very effective action-comedy film. And the premise and story come from a three-issue comic book miniseries published by Wildstorm. The main difference between the comic book and movie is that the comic focuses on a lone CIA agent named Paul Moses who is hunted by his former employer. The movie turned the premise into a group of former CIA operatives so as to make the film an ensemble piece. Still, the results in the movie are hilarious as the veteran actors clearly enjoy chewing the scenery and shooting off their guns – especially John Malkovich.
8. A History of Violence (2005)
Canadian director David Cronenberg received some of the best reviews of his career for this 2005 movie about a small town restaurant owner whose past as a mafia hitman is inadvertently brought to light following an untimely shooting. Starring Viggo Mortensen and William Hurt in an Oscar-nominated performance, A History of Violence also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and that screenplay was adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The graphic novel was highly praised when released in 1997, and the film version stays faithful to its tone and style. In fact, the shooting scene at the start of the film is virtually identical to what takes place in the comic book, making this movie a very faithful adaptation.
7. Road to Perdition (2002)
This heavy drama about a hitman forced to protect his son from his mafia boss employer after the son witnesses a murder stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law in one of his earliest roles. Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Road to Perdition was a critical favorite when released in 2002 and was the last movie for which Paul Newman was nominated for an Oscar (as Best Supporting Actor). And this movie certainly doesn’t seem like the content came from a comic book. Yet Road to Perdition is based on a comic books series published by Paradox Press, a division of D.C. Comics. And this is not a one-off graphic novel either, but a full-fledged comic book series about honorable mafia hitman Michael O’Sullivan and his exploits during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Who would have guessed?
6. From Hell (2001)
The movie From Hell is about the attempts of a drug-addicted police inspector to solve the Jack the Ripper murders in Victorian England. It’s an effective thriller and did well at the box office when released in 2001. And From Hell is based on a graphic novel by legendary comic book writer Alan Moore, who previously wrote both Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke. Alan Moore has a profound dislike for movies based on his comic books, and he refused to participate in the making of From Hell. Nevertheless, the film version remained true to the comic’s story, tone, and murky atmosphere. The movie is also helped by a strong performance from actor Johnny Depp in the lead role and Heather Graham as a Victorian prostitute. There is also solid direction by the Hughes Brothers – Allen and Albert.
5. The Crow (1994)
The 1994 movie The Crow is best remembered for the accidental and tragic death of actor Brandon Lee, who was the then up-and-coming son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Lee was accidentally killed on the film’s set when he was hit by a defective blank from a stunt-gun. Now a cult favorite, The Crow received much critical praise when released and its unique visual style continues to win new fans to this day. And The Crow, unbeknownst to many people, is based on a series from Image Comics. Created by American artist James O’Barr in 1989, The Crow was ranked #37 on the Imagine Games Network’s (IGN) 2011 list of the Top 100 Comic Book Heroes of All Time. Indeed, the character has proven popular enough to appear in a television show, novels and several sequels to the original film based on the comic book.
4. Mystery Men (1999)
This weird and quirky movie about a group of inept amateur superheroes predates the current superhero movie craze by a few years. Yet it is a fun and engaging movie starring comedic actors Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo and Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) as would be superheroes who have unique traits – one of them farts a lot and another throws spoons at people. And Mystery Men comes from the mind of cartoonist Bob Burden, who created the Mystery Men characters as part of his comic book series The Flaming Carrot, which has been published by both Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics. It is the movie that really fleshes out the Mystery Men and their story. They were always secondary characters in the Flaming Carrot comic book series. The Mystery Men made for an interesting film. Not interesting enough to warrant a sequel, but not bad.
3. Oblivion (2013)
This recent sci-fi film starring Tom Cruise is distinguished by some truly awesome special effects. About a man left behind on a barren Earth to extract what’s left of its natural resources only to discover something truly shocking about himself and his assignment, Oblivion is based on a comic book produced by Radical Publishing. And, like the movie, the comic book features some stunning visuals and images. Much of the movie’s look and feel were lifted directly from the comic book, which contains super impressive artwork and coloring. And, at the end of the day, it is the movie’s visual elements that stand out and are memorable. The plot is rather complicated and not easily decipherable. But audiences are willing to look past that fact and simply admire the stunning special effects and scenery.
2. Wanted (2008)
The movie Wanted, starring actor James McAvoy as a ho-hum office worker who is recruited to be an assassin by a sexy secret agent played by actress Angelina Jolie, is a decent action movie that is known for its high octane chase scenes and a number of shoot outs featuring curving bullets. But this movie is based on a comic book written by Mark Millar, the man behind both Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service. However, fans of the comic book were disappointed by the movie, which was not as faithful to the original source material as they would have liked. In the comic book, there are more allusions to superheroes that were wiped out by supervillains. The movie changed the story to focus more on the attempts to recruit the James McAvoy character into the assassin ranks and less on the bigger story about superheroes, the protagonist’s family, and the need to protect humans from evil threats. Still, the curving bullets in the movie are pretty cool.
1. Men in Black (1997)
The action comedy film Men in Black, and its two sequels are based on a comic book series originally published by Aircel Comics and later Marvel Comics. The Men in Black, who secretly protect Earth from aliens bent on invading or infiltrating our planet, was a modest hit as a comic book. But it turned into a blockbuster film directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring actors Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in the title roles. Following the movie’s success, Marvel Comics collected all of the Men in Black issues into a trade paperback graphic novel that has sold reasonably well. Marvel also has published several one-off issues of Men in Black over the years. The tone in the comics is more serious and less light-hearted and comedic than the movies. But when you have Will Smith as the film’s lead, you can only be so serious, right?