In this Critics Pick, resident writer Dorjan takes us through his all time favorite Top 5 non superhero comic book movies.
As my twelve year old self stood faced with the Sophie’s Choice of which comic books my measly two dollars could afford, I finally decided on West Coast Avengers #43 and Fantastic Four #324. Although a lot worse for wear, I still own these two books till this day. Comic books rescued my childhood from a gloomy and uncertain fate and it’s a debt that I still have yet to repay in spite of my unwavering devotion. Now that being said, you would have had an easier chance getting me to walk across a bed of hot coals than read what I considered to be the literary equivalent of brussel sprouts at that age, the graphic novel.
Not just any graphic novels, the quote-unquote ‘adult’ novels like The Sandman, The Crow or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What place did existentialism and moral ambiguity have in the Crayola colored world of the cape and cowl heroes? So now nearly twenty-five years later, I’ve found that my tastes and sensibilities have matured beyond the flights and tights. An evolution that continued until the characters that lain within the multi-paneled pages of graphic novels are not so different than you or I.
While standard comic book adaptations have dominated the silver screens lately, there were several great films over the course of the past decade that many folks wouldn’t even know were spawned from a comic book or graphic novel. Here’s a bunch of my favorites, in no particular order.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Of all the films on my list, Road to Perdition is by far the most underrated in my opinion. While this masterful film was released with little fanfare back in 2002, it still managed to garner rave reviews and an impressive box-office. Allegory is the name of the game in this film. Even the title, which in the film refers to a fictional lakeside Michigan town, is actually a metaphor for the journey that the lead characters must undertake in order to find salvation. As far as father-son dramas go, you would be hard pressed to find a more gripping story. Perdition excels in just about every arena; direction, writing, cinematography. This was director’s Sam Mendes follow-up to American Beauty and he does not disappoint with this complex tale of violence, betrayal and family ties. The cinematography on this film, executed beautifully by the late Conrad Ball, is simply gorgeous, like the dark underside of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The splendor of the Depression Era plot is not in the premise but its execution. Curious about what his dad does for a living Michael Jr., newcomer Tyler Hoechlin, stows away in his father’s trunk as his dad is called away on rainy night on ‘business.’ Young Michael turns out witnessing the death of a man that his father’s employer, local crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman), merely intended to be a warning. Rooney’s biological and unstable son, Connor (Daniel Craig), the man responsible for the unintended death wanting to ensure his secret foolishly slaughters Michael Sr.’s wife and youngest son. With his only remaining son in tow, Sullivan embarks on a warpath of bloody retribution.
Tom Hanks delivers one of his most understated and nuanced performances to date in this film as Michael Sullivan Sr., dutiful mob enforcer and reticent family man. I know that there are a lot of Hanks haters out there but this film should silence them all. In fact, all of the primary actors seem to play against type here. Paul Newman, in his final live action big screen role, is wonderful as the calculating and unapologetic crime boss and surrogate patriarch to Michael Sr., John Rooney. Papa Rooney rules the roost with an iron fist and does not suffer fools lightly even if those fools are the spawn of his own loins. Daniel Craig in an early pre-Bond role, portrays the aforementioned cowardly son, Connor, whose petty and jealous actions become the impetus of the avalanche of bullets and bodies. Also along for the ride is Jude Law, who plays the slimy weasel Maguire, a police photographer who also freelances as a mob hitman.
Along the way to Perdition to dump the younger Sullivan with relatives, Michael Sr. ends up exposing his son to the grimiest aspects of a lifestyle that he always tried to protect his family from. In the course of doing so, he imparts a lifetime of wisdom and experience in the matter of weeks. I loved the patience and complete lack of spectacle and ostentation of this film. There are scenes in this picture that are simply a pure delight to behold. And the message of the film can be summed up exquisitely in the final voice-over narration.
“When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. I just tell them… he was my father.”
Road to Perdition received an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.8/10 stars on IMDb.
American Splendor (2003)
Part documentary, part biopic, part comic strip. All exceptional. The old writing adage that everyone has a story to tell has never been truer than it has with this film. American Splendor is innovative, audacious and brilliant. As a child I loved spectacle however as an adult and a writer, I love characters. And not just perfunctory moral absolute characters either but honest to goodness real people with real problems. Never before would I have thought that such a mundane person stuck in the most banal and inane of scenarios could be so engaging until I saw this film. Mostly due to the fact that his angst so starkly reflected the disappointment I feel in my own.
Back in the 70’s, a nasaly voiced sardonic file clerk at a VA hospital, by the name of Harvey Pekar marked time by reading, writing and listening to jazz. His general disposition was about as sunny as a Seattle winter. That is until he befriends another local introvert, cult comic artist Robert Crumb. Splendor offers up the life of Harvey Pekar on a tarnished platter and the audience quickly realizes that he wouldn’t have it any other way. Instead of a Dorian Gray portrait, we’re given an unrepentant account of his self-admittedly dead-end blue collar life. Played with mordant aplomb by the chameleonic Paul Giamatti.
This art-house film was an indie darling back in Aught-Three and while that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee in my book, this is one of those rare examples where the praise is completely justified. The film is a combination live-action, archive video, and animation, including commentary from the real-life Harvey Pekar while you watch Giamatti take a break from playing Pekar. Splendor is a wonderful departure from not only the Hollywood formula but the comic book formula as well. The persona of Harvey Pekar inhabits the screen in various incarnations, all of them as cantankerous as the day is long. But don’t fret there is a trace of silver lining in Harvey’s storm front of black clouds. Manifesting itself in the form of his sardonic soulmate, Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis), a fan of Harvey’s work who admires him from afar. Proving that misery does indeed love company. American Splendor is definitely not what you would expect from a comic book movie even amongst fare like Ghost World and Road to Perdition. Be that as it may, Splendor has be the most austere and uncomplicated depiction of the graphic novel medium to date and worthy of a look.
American Splendor received a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.6/10 stars on IMDb.