The comic book medium is one of the most versatile, fleshed out, and diverse outlets for art and entertainment. The superheroes and characters that have flown off the comic pages since 1938 have brought inspiration, joy, and thought-provoking discussion. Focusing on the adaptions that have come from the comics, there have been multiple films, TV shows, and video games that transcended the medium and created something truly special. The following are the greatest superhero adaptions on screen.
Superman: The Movie 1978 & Batman 1989
Superman: The Movie is iconic. The film birthed the age of superhero films, making them a true medium for exploration. Led by Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve, the film had unprecedented visual effects, winning a special achievement academy award, and brought comic books to the screen for a mainstream audience. Simply put, Superman was the first film to truly transcend the medium. 40 years later, modern films continue to take inspiration from it.
1989’s Batman followed the path that Superman did, transitioning comic book films for the next generation of audiences. After a slew of poor Superman films that effectively ended the genre of comic-based films, Batman not only restarted the medium, but invigorated it. Tim Burton and Micheal Keaton took Batman back to his roots, closed the door on the campy but lovable era of Adam West’s Batman ’66, and made comic book movies “serious” once again. Pairing Superman ’78 and Batman ’89 as the first entry in the list makes sense, as both come together to be the basic net that every comic film will borrow from.
Batman: The Animated Series
Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series changed the game for animation. Being known as one of the greatest animated shows in the history of television is no small feat, but one that is well deserved. Unprecedented animation, an expensive budget, an all-star cast, serious storytelling, and stylistic designs all come together to create one of the most definitive versions of Batman. The series was so successful that it spawned multiple spin off films and an entire universe of animated series in the form of the DC Animated Universe. There is simply no denying that Batman: The Animated Series transcended the medium, bringing Batman to his highest level of popularity yet. The series has a legacy that matches any adaption to come before or after, it won’t be changing anytime soon.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy
Sam Raimi ushered in the era of the modern superhero film. Much how Tim Burton’s Batman saved the medium after Superman III and Superman IV, Raimi’s Spider-Man saved the medium after Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Spider-Man is blockbuster gold. 2002’s Spider-Man brought in over 800 million dollars and the franchise kept the same pace of output throughout. Tobey Maguire brought the definitive version of Peter Parker on screen in a way that still has not been surpassed. Even more than Superman or Batman, Spider-Man brings a new layer of relatability for audiences. Sam Raimi, much like Richard Donner and Tim Burton, did not take the source material lightly, and aimed to surpass it. 2004’s Spider-Man 2 did just that and more. Considered as one of the greatest comic book films ever made, Spider-Man 2 boasted incredible performances, an impressive score, and strong storytelling. Raimi’s trilogy put Marvel on the cinematic map and changed the game for every film that followed.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy
The Dark Knight Trilogy is considered the gold standard of comic book films. With three near perfect films, Christopher Nolan took the next evolutionary step in what the potential of superheroes on film can be. Batman Begins cemented itself as the perfect origin story for Batman and one of the greatest franchise openers of all time. The Dark Knight transcended the medium like never before and simply became one of the greatest films in the history of cinema. Finally, The Dark Knight Rises provided the perfect conclusion for Batman and this grounded, layered story. Christopher Nolan is the greatest filmmaker to put his talents to comic books. His unique visual language and unmatched storytelling prowess continues to be unmatched in the industry. With incredible performances, a haunting score, impeccable directing, and beautiful themes, The Dark Knight Trilogy remains the greatest translation of Batman to screen.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Marvel Cinematic Universe in itself is a feat to be celebrated. Over the last ten years, Marvel created a franchise that grasped the audience and never let go. While the franchise is not perfect, it successfully built a decade of interconnected stories, arcs, and worlds. Kevin Feige is the mastermind behind the franchise and is one of the best franchise builders in Hollywood. Whether you like or dislike the franchise, there is no denying that their success with audiences around the world is striking. The most impressive part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the variety in storytelling. Whether its a political stories like Captain America: Winter Solider, space exploring adventures with Guardians of the Galaxy and the Thor franchise, small scale comedy adventures with Ant-Man, mythos-building stories with Black Panther, and culmination films like the Avengers, there is something for everybody. After three phases, ten years and countless memorable moments, there is no doubt that the Marvel Cinematic Universe transcended the medium and brought the Marvel characters to life like never before.
Rocksteady’s Arkham Trilogy & Insomniac’s Spider-Man
While television and film have been common homes for the exploration of superhero and comic book mythos, some of the greatest interpretations came in the video game medium. The shining example of this is Rocksteady’s Arkham Trilogy. Rocksteady changed how superheroes can translate to the video game medium. Up to this point, most superhero games were simple film extensions and an easy way for studios to make a few more dollars. Rocksteady changed that and created a new standard. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Arkham City, and Batman: Arkham Knight combine to create one of the most fleshed out Batman stories to date. Utilizing virtually every big Batman villain, recasting the iconic voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, while crafting a beautiful story with minds like Paul Dini, it is no surprise that the Arkham franchise continues to have a strong legacy.
In the same vein, Insomniac’s Spider-Man did the same for the Spider-Man franchise. While it has only released this year, it is clear that Spider-Man is one of the greatest video games ever made and will be the start of a new wave of high quality superhero video games. Both Arkham and Spider-Man have proven that the superhero medium can be transcended in multiple ways and platforms.
Wonder Woman & Black Panther
2017’s Wonder Woman caught lightning in a bottle and brought forth a film that took over the world and inspired countless of fans. Patty Jenkins had a task in front of her and excelled in her execution in every way. Wonder Woman is an iconic hero and bringing her to life requires the upmost care and consideration. Jenkins was the perfect director for the job as she led Wonder Woman to $821 million worldwide and wide recognition as one of the greatest achievements in the superhero sphere.
2018’s Black Panther is one of the hallmarks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the best films in the genre. Led by Ryan Coogler, Black Panther is simply an inspiration. Strong acting, a powerful score, and strong cultural awareness make Black Panther one of the most unique experiences for the medium. To take a second of personal insight, we were a part of the Black Panther Challenge, an initiative to take kids of color to see the film across the country. My brothers and I sat in the theatre as we took 500 middle school kids from Bronx, NY to see Black Panther after successfully raising $5000 for them. Seeing the faces of the kids after in complete joy and happiness is something I personally won’t forget and it speaks to how much this film resonated with audiences.
The reason both of these films are paired together is for a simple reason, resounding cultural and societal impact. Both Wonder Woman and Black Panther transcended the medium because they didn’t accept the status quo for what this genre can do for society. These two films aren’t just another superhero movie about good vs evil, the films had a larger point that surpasses the plot on the screen, they aimed to inspire their audience and did just that.
Daredevil is the gold standard for comic book television. Completely shattering expectations and changing the game with what one could do with superheroes on tv, Daredevil has quickly become a shining example for the medium. Daredevil is one of the strongest examples of an adaptation surpassing the source material and creating a new legacy for the character. Through three seasons, Daredevil continues to show why it is the pinnacle for superheroes on television. The strongest aspect of the series is the character work and acting. Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio are two examples of actors completely immersing themselves in their respective characters and creating a new legacy for their comic counterparts. Daredevil isn’t just one of the best comic book tv shows, it is one of the greatest superhero adaptions, period.
Zack Snyder’s Superhero Filmography
When you think about transcending the source material, Zack Snyder is one of the first names that come to mind. 2009’s Watchmen is celebrated as not only one of Snyder’s crowning achievements, but as one of the greatest comic book films to date by contemporary directors. Watchmen is a prime example of elevating the original source material while honoring it as well. The film takes from one of the most important graphic novels ever made. Widely considered an unadaptable book, Zack Snyder was the perfect man for the job. The film translates the best aspects of the story, improves on areas to make them cinematically consumable and changed the game.
2013’s Man of Steel brought Superman back to the big screen in a meaningful and groundbreaking way. Much like how Richard Donner transcended the medium with Superman: The Movie, Zack Snyder did the same with Man of Steel. Superman is one of the most important characters in fiction and his screen presence must always be treated with importance and respect. Snyder did that while also elevating the material to show as Superman reflective of the times. Superman has represented many aspects of American pop culture. When creating a modern Superman, Snyder knew he had to focus on the aspects that truly mattered to the core. The story of the immigrant, the story of first contact with an alien and the political concept of Superman. Combining these three elements in a sci-fi epic with stunning action set pieces, an incredible score by Hans Zimmer and beautiful visuals make Man of Steel the perfect superhero film.
2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice builds on the aspects that made Man of Steel special. The film once again challenged the source material and the characters that we all love, while also staying true to their respective core. A story of redemption, a story of the immigrant struggle, and a political thriller, written by an Oscar winning writer makes Batman v Superman is one of the most ambitious comic book films ever made. Batman v Superman is divisive, and it should be. It didn’t take the audience for granted and didn’t waste time in spoon feeding the narrative. Snyder had a story to tell that wasn’t like anything told before. Using iconic characters of Superman and Batman in a new, robust way, while keeping true to their nature is a tough task but successfully done. A thread between Watchmen, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman is a divisive opening reaction from audience but an ultimate respect and legacy gained in the long run. Watchmen and Man of Steel both went through this process and Batman v Superman will likely do the same.
To conclude, transcending the medium of superheroes is not an easy task. The one thing that is evident in this entire list is a strong person to lead the project. Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Zack Snyder, Kevin Feige, Bruce Timm, Patty Jenkins, and Ryan Coogler are all examples of individuals that simply aimed to be a cut above the rest. Each delivered on films, TV shows, and video games that transcended the source material, elevated the characters they adapted, and brought something new to their individual mythos. In short, these are the greatest superhero adaptations we’ve ever seen on screen.