It’s been a weird year for comic adaptations. While there have been low-key (for them) successes at Marvel with Ant-Man and Daredevil, its flagship movie Avengers: Age of Ultron generated a fair bit of negative press and left those that weren’t offended with middling emotions. It also caused Joss Whedon to get while the getting is good. While most have been okay with Suicide Squad’s trailer, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has mostly driven derisive comments and lamentations about its punishing darkness. Oscar Isaac’s costume in X-Men: Apocalypse fueled days of fanboy rampage. Arrow’s third season was sneaky terrible. And Fantastic Four…well, there will be books written about its failures.
But as I’ll go into later, I love comic adaptations. They’re not all good, but I’m totally the sucker who is willing to try them all. And for the most part, I enjoy them – especially in a “rainy day on a Saturday afternoon and nothing else is on” sort of way. There’s something basely, nostalgically enjoyable about many of them that makes them very rewatchable. But some are even great, including – in my opinion – everything on this list.
In the face of the fierce negativity surrounding many of them, though, I’m faced with a time of reflection. What are the best comic book adaptations, both on the small and large screen? As I’m wont to do, its time to find out using SCIENCE*, with this week’s Very Scientific Ranking breaking down the best of their kind. To rank them, I’ve created a new statistic – which I’ll be calling the Fantastic Formula (or FF) – which is a ten point rating created by measuring each adaptation in five different categories. The higher the rating, the better the adaptation.
The five categories are:
1. Overall Quality: How well done was the movie or TV show, from the performances to the writing to the direction, etc.
2. Spirit of Adaptation: This isn’t looking for specific beats of an adaptation, but how well it captured the spirit of the source material. That matters more to me.
3. Character Work: How well did they do with the characters, from the writing to the performances.
4. World Building: Did they do a good job with the environment and mythology of the story and characters?
5. Fanboy Glee: This was rated by my wife, as she’s seen all of these with me and can better tell me what turned me into a delirious fanboy. She told me the number and I wrote it down.
I started with a shortlist of my favorites and whittled it down from there. The only requirement was I had to have read the source material before watching the movie or TV show. My apologies to adaptations like Ghost World, Road to Perdition and Stardust. Also, there was a shortlist but there were no pre-made rankings. This list was decided entirely by the ratings estimated from each category. Find out my rankings below, and as per usual, share your list in the comments.
10. Batman: The Animated Series – 7.0 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: Many will likely look at this placement and wonder why it isn’t higher. I have a simple answer: recency and urgency. It’s not that it doesn’t get favored because it wasn’t made recently, but as much as I loved this show, I don’t go back and rewatch the series or Batman: The Mask of Phantasm on a regular basis. Not only that, but I don’t feel the deep need to do so.
That said, this Bruce Timm and Paul Dini infused joint is a remarkable accomplishment that paired with X-Men: The Animated Series to inspire a lot of people my age to love comic books and the characters that came from it. In a lot of ways, this series is the Batman many think of when they think of the character, pairing the strength, humanity and genius together with a lot of the oddities the character gets saddled with from time to time. It also was a blueprint in some ways for adaptations that would come later in every format. In its own way, it showed that people of all ages could deal with a comic book story that is played straight without the cheesiness that many producers tried to cut these films and TV shows with. Rather than being self-referential and tongue-in-cheek, this was maximum Batman without apologies. That’s an important distinction.
Oh, and it was really, really good too. It’s of course remembered for being the place that introduced Harley Quinn to the world (and her ubiquitous Harley-isms like “Mistah J!”), but episodes like Heart of Ice and its rare focus on a villain like Mr. Freeze and the story behind him earned deserved praise (and an Emmy in Heart of Ice’s case).
9. The Avengers – 7.4 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: I still remember the first showing of seeing this very, very well. It was my SKTCHD Out co-host Brandon Burpee, myself and some of his friends at a midnight showing, and we somehow ended up in nearly the front row. With most movies, it would have been a downer to be that close. With The Avengers? It didn’t matter. I basically spent the entire first viewing breathing in a paper bag out of excitement. Every time something remotely exciting happened I felt the urge to high five everyone in the theater, and when moments like Hulk and Thor tag teaming one of the…I don’t know, Chitauri war horses hit, my friends were at the ready with smelling salts in case I passed out. It wasn’t my favorite, but needless to say, this movie maxed out my Fanboy Glee category.
The main reason it dropped for me was because of how well it has held up. While it’s still good, as I mentioned, I tend to rewatch these (and FX is replaying it like it’s their job right now) and the holes have gotten bigger with each passing viewing. It’s nothing glaring, the movie just drags in some parts and elements like the Chitauri being nothing more than Putties makes the stakes feel lesser. It’s still a damn enjoyable film, but it has aged less well than its peers.
8. X-Men: Days of Future Past – 7.55 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: Some would place X-Men 2 on this list instead of X-Men: Days of Future Past, but a quick note about that. I really enjoy X-Men 2, and it was certainly the best of the first wave of X-Men movies. However, it did not age well in my book. It still has some great aspects, but the early Bryan Singer stuff really feels like comic book movies made before people in Hollywood really figured it out. That’s not a crime. That’s just a reality.
However, DOFP had it figured out, and figured out well. It’s Singer again and it pretty ingeniously pairs the early versions of the X-Men story from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class with the X-Men from Singer’s original films, using the ageless Wolverine as the tie that binds. While some lament it for using Wolverine instead of Kitty Pryde like the original comic story handled things, the way they did it both makes more sense for this story and for the overall impact it would have on the greater X-Men movie franchise.
And beyond being clever, it was also a lot of fun. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver stole the show – easily besting Aaron Johnson’s Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron, who was also good – with his frenetic anti-hero with a limited attention span. In one scene, he managed to elevate the whole production by being involved with maybe the greatest scene in any comic adaptation ever. It was ridiculous.
The character work was really effective too, and it was exciting to see how everything built from the previously established relationships between Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and James McAvoy’s Professor X. In my book, this was the most well crafted and enjoyable of all of the X-Men movies, and by a fair margin.
7. Daredevil (TV) – 8.15 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: While my wife and I didn’t quite marathon this series, we did crush it pretty quickly. And it wasn’t just me, as my wife kept emphasizing to me at the end of an episode that she wanted to watch more no matter the hour. And why not? Daredevil the TV show is everything the movie wanted to be but couldn’t, and it really showcases how the mentality has changed about comic adaptations after the Dark Knight.
Like the best Daredevil stories, the TV show is a brilliant blend of character drama and street level heroics, and it’s a beautifully shot and well-acted series. A big part of why it works as well as it did was Charlie Cox’s performance as Matt Murdock. I’ve been a fan of him ever since his turn as Tristan Thorne in Stardust (also a comic adaptation), and he delivers a Murdock with the guilt, pain and gravitas that Ben Affleck wasn’t able to even scratch the surface on. The series was loaded with other great performances, like Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson and the scene stealing Toby Leonard Moore as Wilson Fisk’s assistant James Wesley.
This really is a Daredevil story come to life in all of the best ways, and the good news is it isn’t coming to an end. Another season will be coming in the next year or two, and I can promise you this: I’ll be watching.
6. The Dark Knight Rises – 8.25 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: While many consider this the worst of the Nolan trilogy, for me, it’s a fitting bookend that wraps the story as a whole and underlines that while Batman was the focal point, there’s still a man deep down underneath. It does that very well, and hits a lot of fantastic emotional beats while bringing the whole series full circle with its League of Shadows based plot. And then there’s Bane.
As much as he is a joke for some, Tom Hardy’s Bane is – incredibly enough – my favorite villain of the Nolan trilogy. I know. I’m crazy. But I love Hardy’s performance, from his sheer physicality to his voice all the way to the lines that some mock. The character works because of how all-in Hardy went, and there are only a few characters I enjoy in comic adaptations more than his Bane, and even that might be pushing it. I can’t get enough of him saying like “When it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to die” or “That’s a lovely, lovely voice” in his masked/enhanced voice with that batshit crazy accent. It sounds like I am sassing him, but I’m not. Tom Hardy took a role that in almost anyone else’s hands wouldn’t have worked, but he infused it with so much intensity and passion that it came out the other end as a joyous quote machine. I don’t think I could have loved him more.
It definitely has flaws. Matthew Modine’s character is both annoying and almost completely inconsequential, and he negatively impacts the story throughout. That’s my biggest complaint, but there are other small qualms. But while I know it’s not the best of the Nolan trilogy, I often can’t help but feel that it’s my favorite. There’s a lot of value in that, at least for me.
5. The Flash (2014 – Present TV) – 8.35 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: Even thought it is only one season in, this is my favorite comic TV show ever. While it wears its CW on its sleeve, it’s an enjoyable romp that expertly blends the interpersonal with the superheroic. Its cast is brilliant, particularly the scene stealing Carlos Valdes as Cisco Ramon and Grant Gustin as the titular hero and the nebbishy Barry Allen. It’s definitely got some cheese factor, but in terms of adaptations, it keeps the comic book elements the most prevalent without losing anything. It also has a ton of heart. That help makes it impossible not to love.
But most of all, there’s how it makes me feel. As I said in the introduction, the Fanboy Glee category was determined by me asking my wife what she’d rate my excitement as while watching with me. For most she’d say pretty quickly, “one”, “one point five”, “two”, etc. With The Flash, she thought about it for about ten seconds and said “two point five.” She was sort of joking, I thought. And then I said, “you mean two?” She looked at me incredulously and turned her head as if to say, “do you think I mean two?” Like with Spinal Tap, this one goes beyond its max. The Flash was my favorite hero growing up – well, technically Impulse was, but Wally West was there too – and to see him on TV in a show that was awesome and reverential and fun was almost too much to handle.
I’m not proud of this, but I probably screamed out of excitement four times just in the pilot. But that’s how it makes me feel. Like I’m eleven and reading Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo on The Flash for the first time. For me, that’s a pretty special feeling.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8.4 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: There are a lot of reason to love this movie. Joe Johnston was a perfect fit to direct it, as he proved with movies like The Rocketeer and October Sky that he can do period pieces with a lot of heart. Chris Evans is Steve Rogers, and Haley Atwell was everything we could ever want out of a heroine as Peggy Carter. While some of the fight aspects are a bit cheesy, they work for what they are and are secondary to the character moments. And that’s the part where this soars. The character moments that establish the hero within the superhero that Steve Rogers is.
Watch this scene. Once you’ve seen that scene, that’s all you need to know about how well this movie captured (and established) the character of Steve Rogers and what he stands for. Anyone could have been Captain America, but it’s because of the innate goodness of Rogers that the character and the movie worked. Take this quote from Stanley Tucci’s Dr. Abraham Erskine for final proof:
“The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows… compassion.”
Well done, Team Marvel. As much guff as many give you for your comics and movies, you managed to perfect the leader of the movie Avengers in a way the comics rarely do.
3. The Dark Knight – 9.0 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: While DC and Warner Bros. clearly took away the wrong things away from Nolan’s trilogy – DARKNESS! – from the looks and results of its post Nolan films, the grim and gritty feel was never what made the Nolan movies work. It was because in their own way they had the least reverence for the source material. Hear me out. Christopher Nolan never set out to make a good “comic book movie.” He was trying to make a good movie. That’s it. And The Dark Knight fits into a lot of disparate genres, but ultimately, it almost has more in common with a crime film like Heat than it does your average comic movie that preceded it. By not trying to simply make a good comic movie, Nolan permanently broke the mold, for better or worse.
And the performances were top notch. Naturally the focus is on Heath Ledger’s last full role, as he (deservedly) won the Oscar for the job he did as The Joker. But the cast was stellar all around, from Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart to even people like Eric Roberts as Maroni. This was a really, really well made film, and maybe the “greatest” comic adaptation ever. But it’s not my favorite.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy – 9.7 FF
Why It’s One of the Best: No comic book adaptation was more fun than Guardians of the Galaxy, and it’s not close. From the performances to the soundtrack, this movie is a joyous romp that might have the most replay value out of any adaptation. It’s airing on Starz right now, and my god, if it’s on I get sucked in no matter the time. I just can’t help it! It’s like it has a tractor beam at the ready and resistance is futile. For further proof, my wife is not into seeing movies more than once in a theater. Yet we saw this one four times, and if it weren’t for me telling her no, I think we would have seen it more times than that. That’s how fun this movie is.
And in many ways, it was the best Guardians of the Galaxy story ever told – with the possible exception of the Annihilation Conquest: Star Lord mini-series. I’m sure many would disagree with that, but they’re hardly a team known for their classic storries. This story was filled with charm, humanity but also a really fantastic plot that sort of bastardized the character of Ronan to their own advantage. I’m fine with that. A dude rolling around with a big hammer yelling things like “You have been accused!” before making intermittent face/heel turns isn’t going to get a lot of play as a character in the Marvel universe, so they leveraged him for all he was worth.
But it was never about anyone besides the Guardians, and for those five characters, they killed it. It also proved that Marvel can do damn near anything and find success, which opened the door for things like Captain Marvel and Inhumans. That’s an important factor.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 10.0 FF
Why It’s the Best: If The Dark Knight set comic adaptations on the path towards acceptance as not just good comic book movies or TV, but good movies or TV period; then in my opinion The Winter Soldier completely solidified it. This movie is maybe my favorite movie of the past few years, and it – as you can guess from its perfect score – garnered top marks in every category.
And why not? It’s a tremendously well made movie with top performances. It was so well honed from its source material that the writer of the Winter Soldier storyline – Ed Brubaker – highly touted it on social media and appeared in the film. The characters were brilliant, from the most multi-faceted material Scarlett Johannson has had to work with at Marvel to small bits like the nerdy tech who refuses to launch the Insight carriers on Captain’s orders. Out of all of the Marvel movies, this one most effortlessly leveraged in-universe continuity, making it feel like a unified vision without sacrificing its identity as a spy movie on steroids. Oh, and as a big fan of the Winter Soldier storyline, my Fanboy Glee-O-Meter was at its peak, with my wife even saying it “is obviously your favorite.”
So yeah, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was pretty damn brilliant, and in my book the clear cut best comic book adaptation ever. But hey, I’m open to other opinions. Share your thoughts in the comments and let me know what your favorite was.
* All rankings were created using a fictional formula I created, but the numerical ratings actually did define the list. So it’s science-ish!