Friday, May 07, 2010

Comic book movies without superheroes?

In honor of the release of “Iron Man 2,” let's take a deeper look at movies based on comics. Comic books typically bring to mind images of heroic feats by the likes of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and a seemingly never-ending list of superheros, but not all comics deal in super-powered heroics.

In the last three decades or so, the comic book, or graphic novel, has become, at least in some hands, a much more serious and respected medium with the potential to cover diverse and varied subject matters. With that in mind, here are five films that you'd probably never guess have their origins as a comic book.

“American Splendor” (2003)
OK, so given the subject matter is a comic book artist, it shouldn't come as surprise that this film had its origins as a comic book, but the film's protagonist, Harvey Pekar, didn't pen books of high-flying heroics, but rather about his own bitter, cynical, sarcastic view of the world. The film starring, Paul Giamatti as Pekar, is a completely original and unexpected blending of animation, bio-pic and documentary.

“From Hell” (2001)
Jack the Ripper is perhaps an unlikely subject for a graphic novel — but then, famed writer Alan Moore isn't your run-of-the-mill comic book writer. Moore, who also wrote “Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” has been notoriously displeased with the handling of his titles by Hollywood. Despite his protests, The Hughes Brothers' “From Hell” is a violent but compelling entertainment powered by a charismatic performance by Johnny Depp and fine support by Robbie Coltrane as the duo on the trail of the ripper.

“Ghost World” (2001)
Despite the implications of the title, this is not about a world full of ghoulish apparitions, but rather the tale of two snarky recent high school graduates (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) who play a mean spirited prank on a nerdy record collector (Steve Buscemi). Unexpectedly, an awkward, but oddly sweet romance develops. Based on the series by Daniel Clowes, this is an idiosyncratic look at adolescence that captures all the bittersweetness of those early formative years.

“A History of Violence” (2005)
Based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, the film starts out like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. In a small town diner, Viggio Mortenson seems like just another average guy behind the counter, but when a robbery turns violent he reveals shocking skills from a hidden past, a past that comes to town in the form of a scarred Ed Harris. Director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson take the material into dark, psychological territory that attempts to address whether humans are violent by nature.

“Road to Perdition” (2002)
From a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, “Road to Perdition” is a depression-era story of a gangster on the run with his teenage son. The film is noteworthy as the first time Tom Hanks sort of played a bad guy and also features a brilliant performance by Paul Newman and a slimy, creepy one from Jude Law. Beautiful directed by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), the film explores the gray area of what is right and wrong and reminds that sometimes it isn't clear who the heroes and the villains really are.

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