Recently, there have been a lot of people proclaiming The Dark Knight as "the greatest comic book movie of all time." Indeed, even this humble writer fell into this trap, but now I'm kind of regretting it. Don't get me wrong - The Dark Knight was masterful, and definitely in my Top 5 movies of this year (the others, in no particular order: In Bruges, Speed Racer, Cloverfield, and Wanted). But does that make it the Greatest Comic Book Movie Ever? Let's find out.
I admit that I got caught up in the hype when I made those grand proclamations a couple weeks ago. But now that I've had some time to think about it, there really needs to be some kind of criteria upon which to judge these movies against each other in order to qualify one as "the best" of the bunch. The problem is, that magical criteria doesn't exist.
It's pretty obvious that each major comic book movie brings something different to the table. Thematically, visually, etc. - these differences are apparent in their source material, and naturally make the transition to the big screen. Even among the same source material, there can be room for interpretation. Comparing Ang Lee's Hulk and Louis Letterier's The Incredible Hulk is a perfect example. One is more of an art film, mostly an inner search for Bruce Banner's true identity, while the other is a more formulaic film that features more action sequences. So which one is better? Well, it depends on what kind of movies you like.
These comic book movies tend to reflect our childhoods in that if we didn't read the comics or watch the animated series as kids, then we probably don't care too much about the characters. That's the truth about me, for sure - I'm much more of a Batman and a Superman fan than an Iron Man fan. If that theory holds true, I should automatically like all Batman and Superman films more than Iron Man films based on my previous familiarity with the characters and their universes. But that's not always the case. Batman Begins (which I previously thought to be the Greatest) and Iron Man are two completely different films even though their main characters are remarkably similar. But tone-wise, Iron Man was pure fun and one-liners while Batman Begins dealt with much heavier issues. Their goals were very different, but both were really solid films.
How can we objectively take a step back and look at ALL of the comic book movies that have been made and call one better than another? Unless you've read a good portion of the comics from every character that a comic book movie is based on (yeah, right) and you've seen a lot of movies, then you're probably not qualified to make that kind of decision. I know I'm not. And don't forget about non-superhero related material that was originally in comic book form like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence. How do we throw those up against Spider-Man 2 and choose the "better" film?
Also, even if we were able to somehow find a common factor to judge these films against each other, there's still the matter of taking the source material into consideration. Is Spider-Man better than X-Men 2 because it followed the history of the comics more closely? Is V For Vendetta better than Sin City just because it has more relevant political applications? I don't think we can answer these questions.
Basically what it boils down to is that you have to take each comic book film for what it's worth and decide whether it was "successful" or not. My definition of successful is if the movie captures the essence of the characters and story and presents it in an entertaining fashion. We can't possibly know if the creators of the original comics would approve of the updated versions of their works (since a lot of them are dead), but people like Frank Miller and Zack Snyder are taking those types of things into consideration and are trying to stay as close to the source material as possible. After all, if the comic was good enough to be made into a movie in the first place, why change it? [This, of course, excludes series that have been ongoing for 50 years or something. Then, you can only hope to capture the essence of the character and come up with a compelling story.]
To paraphrase an MTV article I read a while back, people were calling Iron Man the Greatest Comic Book Movie Ever at the beginning of Summer '08, and now it's all the rage to pass that title on to The Dark Knight. And if early indications are true, I've got a sneaking suspicion that the title will be transferred again to Zack Snyder's Watchmen in March of 2009. That's just the hype fuel that burns through the internet. But maybe next time we think about bestowing that title on a movie, we'll stop for a second and judge it on whether or not we felt it achieved its goal. Until next time...