Top 12 live action adaptations of DC/Marvel comic book characters

So! This might seem like a random list, but considering the enormous amount of comic book based movies and TV shows, I think it’s actually a rather interesting mental exercise. Because the best character adaptations don’t all necessarily happen in the best movies.

In fact, there has been so many comic book movies in the last decade, I need to narrow the field down. So I’m doing strictly characters from the mainstream superhero DC universe and ditto Marvel Universe. No special imprints, no Image, no Dark Horse, no Asterix or Tintin. A disservice to movies which otherwise fit the competition really well (I can think of several characters in Watchmen that should make this list, for instance), but some hard choices has to be done.

Why am I doing this list now? Well, because I feel like it. But also because there’s such an impending avalanche of new ones coming up this year and in the years to follow soon. Likely – or at least hopefully – many of these performances will be drowned out by new, even better ones. So I’d like to highlight them while I can.

Then, the disclaimer. Here are the major live action adaptations I’m aware of that WOULD fit the list’s requirements, but that I simply have not seen. And yes, most of them are the old ones – I didn’t even read superhero COMICS until I was eighteen, the need felt to check out the dated stuff has not been the greatest. Also, my apologies for any major series or movie which I am not sufficiently aware of to mention on this list of things I have not seen…

Adventures of Superman (TV series, 1952-58)
Batman (TV series and movie, 1966-68, 1966)
Wonder Woman (movie and TV series, 1975-79)
The Incredible Hulk (TV series and movies, 1978-82, 1988, 1989, 1990)
Supergirl (Movie, 1984)
The Punisher (Movie, 1989)
The Flash (TV series, 1990-1991)
Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Movie, 1998)
Birds of Prey (TV series, 2002-2003)
Blade: The Series (TV series, 2006)
Punisher: War Zone (Movie, 2008)

So, then! On to the list!

Honourable mentions:
* Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor, Smallville), John Shea (Lex Luthor, Lois & Clark). Both did an excellent job as Lex, but both fell a little short of encompassing the whole character. They had the psychotic control-freak businessman nailed, but where is the brilliant scientist? Never really reared his head.
* Toby Maguire (Spider-man, Spider-man-movies). Again, a really good performance, in my opinion. But again, the fullness of the original character does not translate. He’s got the geek down, the nervous, the kind and even the slightly juvenile. But as many has remarked, where is Spidey’s trademark levity and wit? Where is the wisecracking? The performance simply doesn’t have all the major character traits of the original.
* Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier, X-men-movies). Familiar refrain. Great actor, great job, love basically every scene he’s in. But he just doesn’t have a chance to show all of Xavier’s sides. Xavier as I’ve read him is supposed to have a certain amount of menace, a hint of ruthlessness, just one little strain of his personality that eerily echoes Magneto’s full-blown megalomania. In the movies, he’s just a tad too goodie-two-shoes.
* Ioan Gruffudd (Reed Richards, Fantastic Four-movies). I thought he did a really, really good job. Don’t have any complaints at all, as a matter of fact. Problem is – Richards is really not the kind of character who can make a list like this very easily, because he, on his own, is not terribly cool or interesting. He can be, but usually in juxtapositions with others. For the adaptation of a character to stand out, the character must too, and Richards just cannot compete properly with the ones who actually made the list.
* Christopher Reeve (Superman, Superman-movies). Same thing as Gruffudd, really. Great performance. Not that interesting character, but what there is to nail is nailed.
* Michael Clarke Duncan (The Kingpin, Daredevil). Another really good performance. But it somehow lacked… evil? Kingpin is evil. In the movie, he was just… ruthless, calculating, brutal, scary, all those things. But I don’t know. Not quite evil. I can’t put my finger on it.
* Jim Carrey (The Riddler, Batman Forever). The one good thing about this movie? Yeah. And a great villain, which is why he deserves a mention. He’s not really Riddler, though. He’s silly, and tosses around jokes like a lunatic. This is a decent adaptation of Joker when he’s in a less horrific mood, but it doesn’t really say Riddler to me.
* Thomas Jane (The Punisher, The Punisher). If I remember the Net correctly, people generally don’t think Jane did a good Frank Castle. From my – admittedly humble – exposure to the character, I think he did. Sure, the movie might have fallen short a bit, but I felt he was Castle alright. But sure, he was not quite… raw enough to be so memorable as to make the list. Hence the honourable mention.

Actual runner-ups that I wish I could fit on the list, from wishing the most to the least: Kelsey Grammar’s Beast (X-men 3: The Last Stand), Joe Pantoliano’s Ben Urich (Daredevil), Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent (The Dark Knight), Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane (Lois & Clark), Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman (Spider-man 3), Kevin Spacey’s Luthor (Superman Returns), Lane Smith’s Perry White (Lois & Clark).

Finally, the list!

12. Doctor Octopus – Alfred Molina
This guy first blew me away with warmth, and then he just went absolutely mental and I bought it. I always felt Doc Ock was a cheesefest of a villain, and I was so annoyed when I heard he was going to be the villain of Spider-man 2. More fool me. This performance stayed absolutely true to the character as I remembered him from the comics – and somehow made him seem anything but ridiculous. Tragic. Awe-inspiring. Horrifying. Anything but ridiculous.

11. Foggy Nelson – Jon Favreau
I am of course talking about the Daredevil Director’s Cut – Nelson was hardly even in the stunningly inferior theatrical release. Indeed, the plotline in which Nelson gets to play a bigger part is a large part of why the director’s cut is so much better, and Favreau’s adorable performance is a central reason why. I love the little scenes between him and Murdock in the restaurant so much, I think I’ve rewatched the movie for them alone at least twice. Can I explain why? No. They’re not THAT awesome, when you really look at them. And yet, such is the power of Foggy.

10. Scarecrow – Cillian Murphy
Surprise entry, this guy. When I was mentally going through these movies and TV shows in my head, comparing characters from how I experienced them in the comics to how they came across on screen, Scarecrow didn’t really spring to mind. Sure, his character is rather close to how he is in the comics, but he is definitely less of the bookish weakling who only finds strength in the mask and the toxins, and more of a more conventional narcissistic lunatic. Not really top list of adaptation material, I thought. But then thinking more about it, he grew more on me. The basics of the characters are all there, really – we’re talking lacks and holes in degrees, not in content. And he really does come across as creepy and over-educated – which I think would be the two main components I’d hold out if I were to describe the character. Yeah, I think that this is as good an adaptation of the character as you could get without making him the focal point of a movie rather than a supporting villain. And it’s a great character, of course.

9. Bullseye – Colin Farrell
I realise I might be well off the mark here, having read only a very, very modest amount of comics in which Bullseye is featured heavily. But somehow I don’t think so. Farrell’s ridiculously high-strung kill-obsessed assassin really, really makes an impression. And he does it without coming off as just another generic super-ninja or low-brow thug or psychotic killing machine devoid of personality. Yeah. Bullesye. (Oh come on I had to).

8. Ben Grimm – Michael Chiklis
Making me want to see The Shield more than ever, this performance is the clear highlight of the otherwise very underwhelming (but I maintain rather well cast) Fantastic Four-movies. Grimm is perhaps the most touching and heartwarming big-name character in mainstream superhero comics, and it really comes across.

7. Commissioner Gordon – Gary Oldman
The fight thickens, and I increase the font size a tad. Oldman deserves it. From this point on, it’s really almost more about the mood of the day than anything else. Oldman’s Gordon is just pitch-perfect. I really liked the actor before – after this, he has joined the incredibly short list of actors whose involvements in a project actually makes me consider seeing it all in their own right.

6. Green Goblin – Willem Dafoe
Yeah, yeah, Spider-man is a pretty fair movie, but not an awesome one. But why is it fair? The plot is very straightforward, the characters, while well played, are somewhat stereotypical… So why is it not just mediocre? Well, I think it’s because every single scene Dafoe is in – at least without the goblin mask – is just above and beyond hairs-on-edge _fantastic_.

5. Iron Man – Robert Downey Jr.
Basically, see the reasoning for Dafoe above, but imagine that he was the main character of the movie.

I know, right?!

4. The Joker – Jack Nicholson
He’s not my Joker – that will always, always be Mark Hamill – but man, is he a good one. Joker is a character so multi-faceted you can argue any interpretation of the character which works in the story he’s in is a faithful adaptation. Certainly applies here. I love Nicholson’s little giggling at his own private jokes, and yet stuff like the experiments on his lover’s face makes him so chillingly creepy I still try to shake the heebee jeebies.

3. Magneto – Sir Ian McKellen

Ohyeah. He might not have the sheer mass of the original’s physical presence, but otherwise, it’s just brilliant. I feel sorry for him, I sympathize with him, I even go very far in agreeing with him – but then he does something terrible which reveals the ugly fact that deep, deep down, Erik Lensherr is a selfish, selfish man whose values are only ever heeded as long as his own security is not on the line. And then three seconds later? You absolutely adore him again, and would elect him world emperor any day. That’s exactly the sort of charisma Magneto should have. And it’s exactly what McKellen gives him.

2. The Joker – Heath Ledger

Well, what is there to say? Other than there should have been five sequels with Ledger doing the Clown Prince of Crime every time.

1. J. Jonah Jameson – J. K. Simmons

Who else?

So. Which would be YOUR top twelve picks? And which did I forget like a horrid awful person who should wallow in misery and shame for the rest of his days?

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8 responses to “Top 12 live action adaptations of DC/Marvel comic book characters”

  1. anonymous says :

    Sjura writes:I mostly agree with this list, but I would swap Nicholson's Joker with Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. She's perhaps a bit too crazy compared to her comic counterpart, but I love her to death. :')

  2. anonymous says :

    Sjura writes:Oops! Jeg hadde litt problemer med å poste kommentaren.

  3. anonymous says :

    Sjura writes:I mostly agree with this list, but I would swap Nicholson's Joker with Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. She's perhaps a bit too crazy compared to her comic counterpart, but I love her to death. :')

  4. LokiAesir says :

    Pfeiffer's Catwoman is pretty good as a character, but she's too crazy for me to consider her a good adaptation, really. Sorry! 😦

  5. LokiAesir says :

    Ingen problem, tre kommentarar er betre enn ein! 😀

  6. Loki says :

    Kind of amazing how the past seven years have been so stuffed with Marvel and DC films and televison shows that this list is thoroughly outdated. Maybe I should do a new one. Though there’s no way I can limit myself to twelve now. Top twenty-five, maybe? And even then I’d be surprised if more than half of these twelve still makes it on …

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