Photo: ‘300’/Warner Bros
For some people, when they think about comic book films or comic books in general, the first thing that comes to mind now is superheroes. It’s understandable; superheroes have been dominating the comic book platform for decades now. So much so it’s almost impossible not to associate those colorful, vibrant picture books with women and men in tight suits trying to save the day with or without powers. This line of thinking has given comic books and graphic novels a bit of a stigma that latches onto them like a strong scent, which can sometimes lead fans of great storytelling to underestimate the quality and range that graphic novels can reward its audience.
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It doesn’t help that it’s been a while since a great graphic novel has been adapted into a great film, unlike best-selling novels that seem to get the feature film treatment every week of the month. This list is to celebrate the legendary graphic novels that were able to make the leap to Cinema in a single bound without the help of a Superman to get them there and to remind both the casual and the cinephile that comic books still have as much storytelling appeal as some of the industry’s greatest literature. Great storytelling comes in a wide variety of formats, and none of them should be discriminated against.
Graphic Novels’ Movies Without Superheroes:
‘Sin City’, based on Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, is a hyper-real Neo-Noir film that follows three separate protagonists on three separate adventures. Frank Miller, paired with Robert Rodriguez, co-directed Miller’s work, bringing ‘Sin City’ to the big screen in all of its grotesque and bloody glory. The world that they’re in is nightmare fuel; a Godless city ran to the ground by corrupt politicians with a serious shortage in morality. ‘Sin City’ boasts a dynamic and fascinating cast of characters that each earn ‘Sin City’ its name in their own vile way, and although some might claim the film might be trying too hard to be edgy, its style and themes have always felt like a natural, albeit exaggerated evolution of film noir, updating the genre for a contemporary audience.
The protagonists we follow aren’t superheroes in spandex trying to save the world, they’re men in trench coats and women in leather trying to save themselves from a world that’s a lost cause, which is a heartbreaking experience when you know the nature of ‘Sin City’ won’t allow any of your protagonists to have a happy ending no matter how attached you become to them. ‘Sin City’ is an important inclusion on this list since it demonstrated to the main audience the graphic novel’s ability to dabble into multiple genres with a heavy, unforgiving R rating that challenged the widespread illusion that comic books are geared toward children. With it grossing $160 million on its $50 million budget, ‘Sin City’ also showed the profitability of R-rated films based on non-superhero graphic novels, profitability that has only been marginally tapped into in the years since its release.
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Zack Snyder’s ‘300’ took the world by storm when it first came out all the way in 2007. Like ‘Sin City’, it’s based on a graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, which is also in turn based on the real-life Persian wars between Sparta and the Persians in 499 BC. ‘300’ is the most commercially successful film based on a non-superhero graphic novel to date. With a budget of around $65 million, ‘300’ managed to rake in $456 million in the box office, proving even more than ‘Sin City’ how financially viable these types of films can be in the right hands. ‘300’ may be a stylized, almost glamorous take on a historical event, but unlike most superhero fare, it’s uncompromising in its brutality.
After all, Snyder’s masterpiece is a true war film, showing characters dying left and right unceremoniously and unexpectedly. Admittedly, ‘300’ isn’t as character dense as its contemporary, ‘Sin City’, but it doesn’t need to be. The film moves at a breakneck pace, only slowing down to give you just enough attention on specific characters before going back to hit its stride full throttle. It also further demonstrates the range of genres that these non-superhero graphic novels can encompass. From highly stylized Noir to epic historical war film, ‘300’ shows that there’s no limit to what kind of stories graphic novels have to offer.
‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’
When Edgar Wright’s ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ first came out, it took an almost immediate nosedive at the box office. It took in $49.3 million, a far cry away from its $85 million budget, and it didn’t help that it was going up against Christopher Nolan’s massive sci-fi success, ‘Inception’, at the time of its debut, either. But sometimes the greatest films need to take their time to get the recognition that they deserve, and ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ definitely fits in that category. Over the years, the film has developed a cult following and is fondly remembered by anyone who was privileged enough to catch it in theaters during its first run. ‘Scott Pilgrim’ was based on the graphic novel of the same name, which in turn was based on a video game.
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It featured Michael Cera starring as the titular character, Scott Pilgrim, battling his crush’s, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona Flowers, seven evil ex-boyfriends to win over her heart. Like a video game or several anime, Scott Pilgrim is imbued with special powers that allow him to do battle with Ramona’s former flings, all of which also have special abilities of their own. It’s a film that, on paper, shouldn’t work. It has all the sensibilities, or lack thereof, of a video game. Pilgrim literally battles characters to the death all for Ramona’s affection, he has several lives to use and is able to hit masterful combos against opponents twice his size to pull off a victory.
But thanks to Wright’s brilliant direction and masterful editing, ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ is a rare case where a film’s flash is enough to overcompensate for its absence of substance. Apart from that, the film owes its entire existence to its graphic novel origins. If ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ was a script written from scratch, it’s hard to believe that the film would ever see the light of day. But the mild success of the graphic novel allowed this zany, wild, beautifully erratic story to be told, and the world of Cinema has been better off for it.
‘American Splendor’ might be the magnum opus of non-superhero graphic novel films. Based on a series of a slice of life comic book stories written by everyman Harvey Pekar, ‘American Splendor’ adapts some of Pekar’s comic books to produce an emotionally heartfelt film that stays with you long after the credits roll. The film gives us the daily minutia of Pekar’s work, shows us what inspired the former file clerk to create the award-winning comic series in the first place, the highs and lows of his newfound fame, and the cast of colorful people he surrounded himself with.
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Unlike the other graphic novels listed, Pekar presents his life as pretty unremarkable, which in turn is what makes his life extraordinary and a fascinating watch. It’s also an inspirational piece of storytelling, showing that anyone has the ability to change the course of their life regardless of the circumstances. It’s a film that shows graphic novels don’t have to all be about spectacle, they don’t have to possess grand ideas or colorful plots. Starring Paul Giamatti that gives an amazing performance as Harvey Pekar, ‘American Splendor’ finds an amazing story in the mundane, which ironically makes it stand out from other non-superhero graphic novels in a grand way.
‘V For Vendetta’
‘V For Vendetta’, a graphic novel based on the same name by Alan Moore, was adapted to the big screen by James McTeigue in 2005 from a script by the Wachowski Bros. It stars Hugo Weaving as V, a freedom fighter or a terrorist depending on who you ask, going up against a London whose government has been completely overtaken by a fascist, totalitarian dictatorship. His mission to free London from their overlord hits a bit of a snag when he crosses paths with a young working woman, Eve, played by Natalie Portman, who he tries to recruit to his endless cause.
This powerful graphic novel addressed timeless socio-political issues that hold relevance no matter what decade or era your section of history is in. It fosters discussion about government transparency, or the lack thereof. The importance of freedom of speech, and whether or not that freedom comes with a price, and when do a freedom fighter’s actions cross the line into terrorism. The film left such a lasting and cultural impact that even today V’s Guy Fawkes mask is worn as a symbol by many anti-government organizations, like the internet hacker group Anon, to represent freedom and fairness when it comes to government or corporate regulation.
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Tony Stallings is an avid follower of the entertainment industry who uses his passion for writing to relay meaningful, positive messages and narratives from the world of Hollywood. Tony doesn’t just focus on covering entertainment, but delving into it. He prides himself on focusing on the bigger picture, concerned with how entertainment culture affects and shapes the world at large with utmost honesty. Tony’s dedication to journalistic integrity, reliability and passion is a common bond that he shares with Hollywood Insider, and he’s eager to help people recognize the value of entertainment through their platform.