Trying to rank the best comic flicks of the decade is a surprisingly tough task. I've approached it with all the enthusiasm Hester Prynne must have shown walking to the scaffold. It's not because I don't love discussing the past ten years of the genre, but because I hate ranking films. It puts me into knots of indecision. If I could, I would rank things in a sort of Venn diagram – Iron Man overlaps Batman Begins which overshadows Spider-Man.
But Venn diagrams are impossible to post, and the end of the decade demands lists. So please, take this as one humble writer's list, and use it to jump-start your own. To keep myself sane, I'm leaving off adaptations such as A History of Violence and Road to Perdition. They were based on graphic novels, and they certainly elevated the art of comic adaptation to a whole new level, but that's precisely the problem. Trying to rank Perdition against X2: X-Men United feels like a disservice to both films, and a cheesy way to flesh out the list.
So, don't think of the exclusion of American Splendor, Road to Perdition, Ghost World, Persepolis, and A History of Violence something negative. They're excellent films. They prove what rich material is often contained within a mocked genre. But I would rather think of these films as literary adaptations that belong in dramatic categories. Even that implies they're "better" than superhero tales, which I suppose is true to some extent, but also unfair. They hit us in different ways, and appeal to us on different levels. Asking Tony Stark and Marjane Satrapi to compete just because they're both illustrated is just wrong. But your mileage may vary. If you can resolve the conflict, I applaud you, and am anxious to see how you rank them.
Now, on to the rankings -- and you don't know how I longed for more time to re-watch every selection.
I'm not a member of the Dark Knight cult, who believes Christopher Nolan made lame beggars walk and blind men see. When I've dared say that out loud, I've seen faces pull down in mulish disapproval, and it's become hard to separate the film from its followers. But there's no denying that it's the best superhero movie to date. Nolan turned Gotham City into a real place, populated by real people that you actually felt something for. Even the monstrosity of the Joker never rings false. It has flaws, but it's a solid thriller that threw off decades of Batman mythology and adaptations to find its own path. Besides, any comic-based film that can whip the public into such an enthusiastic frenzy deserves the top spot.
There are many, many Watchmen detractors. I'm not one of them, and I believe it'll get its critical and fan due eventually. I believe Watchmen did what Alan Moore's seminal novel did – it took superheroes to the dark and dirty underbelly that Nolan or Sam Raimi will never visit. When you hear viewers (even those well acquainted with Moore and the world of DC's Vertigo) express a queasy shock at seeing superheroes having sex, attempting rape, or being nude and blue, you know the film did what it was supposed to. I just don't think audiences were ready for it.
3. Spider-Man 2
4. Iron Man
I originally had Iron Man at #2 or #3 before I reminded myself it wasn't a list of my favorites, but something more objective. Still, I'm inclined to put it nearer The Dark Knight because of how it takes a similarly grounded approach to its superhero. Tony exists in our world more so than Raimi's Spider-Man does, though I can't pinpoint exactly why that is. The war scenes? The military industrial complex? Tony's sex drive? Whatever it is, Favreau did it perfectly. He approached the character with passion, determination, and respect. The only reason I dropped it to four was because the battle between Iron Monger and Iron Man really was a bit much . But this is why I wish I could rank films in a goofy circle because Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, and The Dark Knight overlap so perfectly. They're equally special!
I can hear you now -- "How can you put 300 on the list, but leave out [Insert Graphic Novel Here]?!" Because 300 is undoubtedly a comic book movie. Frank Miller's Spartans are just as superhuman as anyone else on the list, and Zack Snyder's vision is so far removed from the real Thermopylae that it might as well be Metropolis. I love this movie because it never apologizes for what it is, and never pretends to be anything but glorious, bloody pulp. It revels in gore, muscle, and bombast, evoking Greek sculpture and Miller's panels in one slow-motion shot. But unlike Ang Lee's The Hulk and Sin City, Snyder's homages to his format wasn't flat or distracting (even if the speed ramping got on nerves), and he managed to strike some emotional beats within all his green screen. I actually care about the Spartans, and I think Leonidas facing down the arrows (while crying "My Queen!") is the stuff of old Hollywood epic.
6. X2: X-Men United
One summer, I was stuck in a hotel for several months straight. It had very limited cable, so limited that the only movie playing was X2, and I was so bored that I must have watched it a dozen times. To Bryan Singer's credit, the film holds up, but I'm so intimately acquainted with its flaws that I can't give it as high of a ranking others might. But it's a lot of fun and full of awesome moments -- Wolverine's school battle, Bobby outing himself to his parents, the uneasiness everyone feels around Magneto and last but not least, that Weapon X sequence. The scene where Wolverine pops his claws for the first time is the kind of raw perfection origin stories dream about. (It's all he ever needed, but we won't go there.)
I wasn't going to put Spider-Man one on the list. I figured one movie per character was only fair. But then I started really thinking how instantly iconic this film became, and how well it works on its own. If it had been the only Spider-Man film, no fan would have felt robbed. The same can't be said for X-Men or Batman Begins, and neither series has anything to match the teenage heat of the upside-down kiss between Spidey and Mary Jane. And Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin? Genius. Just think of how many films have imitated that mirror dialogue, and how far they fall in comparison.
8. Batman Begins
The cult of Nolan will undoubtedly be furious at me for not ranking Begins higher. But I don't think it's the achievement that Dark Knight is, and I don't think it's as engaging an origin story as Iron Man or Spider-Man. Begins is like the first issue of a comic book series – by itself, it's a little flat, but it sets up enough of a hook for you to say "Well hell, now I have to come back and find out who this 'Joker' is." If you never had that sequel, you would have felt robbed, and Begins would be collecting dust as a great idea that never came to fruition. Nevertheless, it's still one of the best of the decade because it was such a fine set-up, and because it dared to play a superhero completely and utterly straight. There's no camp, there's no pulp, just a miserable city waiting for a hero.
9. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Guillermo Del Toro is the yang to Nolan's yin. Where Nolan revels in the facts of Gotham's crime rate, Del Toro gleefully builds troll markets under city streets. While Batman torments himself into singlehood, Del Toro's Hellboy can find happiness with Liz Sherman and his 50 cats. Hellboy II is just pure glee and feels like a throwback to 1980s fantasy. We get so caught up in realism, maturity, and never ending franchises that it's good to have a Hellboy come along once and awhile and remind you how fun, magical, and poignant these stories can be. Most comic book movies are about rooting against someone or something, but this is a film that makes taking sides uncomfortable, and forces you to mourn a tree "monster."
I wish I could have watched this again before pronouncing judgment. Should it be higher? Would I like it more? Less? It's not a film I can watch over and over. That's not because of the nudity, the violence, or the sleaze but because it's so cold and flat. I can become emotionally engaged with any of the films listed here, but not this one. One could argue that was always Miller and Robert Rodriguez's goal -- witness enough horror and corruption and you're numb to it -- but I still feel as though there should be something more. Nevertheless, it's a remarkable achievement. While superheroes were certainly going strong by 2005, I really feel this is the first film that made audiences and critics realize just what comic book movies could be. Yes, they could be visually arresting and unique. They didn't have to be about guys and girls in spandex, and they could be very unsafe for children.