We are certainly in the thick of it when it comes to comic book adaptations nowadays. But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when comics and superheroes weren’t exactly all "the rage." For many years, if you wanted to see any sort of comic book adaptation you had your choice of a few underwhelming movies and a fair amount of cartoon programming, but that was it. Nowadays, you can hardly walk outside without seeing some sort of advertisement for a new Marvel film, another Batman reboot, or the first Spider-Man movie to star Miles Morales. It’s an awesome time to be alive for sure. But right now we’re going to take a look back at some of the movies and TV series that blazed the trail and brought us to where we are today.
From the iconic son to the even more iconic characters, X-Men is probably the animated series that brought most people born around the late '80s and early '90s into comics in the first place. If you read comics now, if you’re here reading this article right now, then this series probably had a profound influence on you. Recreating the "Dark Phoenix Saga," animating the Days Of Future Past storyline, this series had just about everything going for it. It’s still considered one of the best comic book adaptations of all time and that’s certainly for good reason.
9. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn
Todd Macfarlane’s Spawn, which you can still watch on HBO today, is the animated adaptation that really pushed what animation in the US could do, and who it could be viewed by. Spawn was in no way meant for children, which a lot of people found odd when it was first aired. The HBO series set out to prove once and for all that animation and comics weren’t just for children’s stories anymore. The art of animation could be used to tell more mature stories; it could expound upon those stories in a way that film could not. It’s dark, violent, and a little twisted, but hey, it’s Spawn.
8. Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
I’m not going to add Batman: The Animated Series to this list for the same reason filmmakers have decided to stop telling you how Uncle Ben died. It’s old. It’s tired. Everyone knows it’s coming anyway, so let’s just assume we all know it’s there and move along, okay? Okay.
That being said, I will put Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm on this list for being just a truly beautiful example of what a Batman movie, any Batman movie, can and should be. Batman villains are made to echo the loss and torment inside Bruce, the same way Spider-Man villains all mirror the inherent dangers of technology development without regulation. Mask Of The Phantasm is no different in this respect. A tortured soul from Bruce’s past returns to Gotham just as a mysterious figure begins tormenting the cities criminals? Many of whom blame Batman himself? Sold.
7. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
You’re going to find with this list that DC comics and Batman are fairly prominent features. DC has really put a lot of effort into building up the animated universe by consistently crafting excellently animated adaptations of some of their most popular stories. Flashpoint is no exception. Barry Allen has screwed with the timeline—again—and now it’s up to... Barry Allen (?) to save... the...Oh, come on. I guess as long as everyone else forgets all of his screw-ups, it doesn’t really count, right? Barry Allen does indeed end up putting everything back together again, but before that, he introduces us to a brand new version of the Batman, giving us a truly terrifying look at what happens when you go back in time to save your mom.
6. Big Hero 6
5. Teen Titans
I’m sure a lot of the people reading this clicked this link specifically to make sure that Teen Titans was actually on the list. Don’t worry — you can go back to complaining about how Teen Titans Go will never match up to the original series. I’m right there with you. Cartoon Network really let down a lot of fans when they decided to cancel this beloved series without even giving it a chance to work through the loose threads left in the plot. Was that the real Terra? If so, how? Who’s been dressing up as Red X? And seriously, was that Terra? I guess those questions will just have to go unanswered thanks to low merchandise sales. Looks like capitalism is the only adversary the Titans couldn’t defeat.
4. The Lego Batman Movie
These next few entries are all gonna be pretty heavy on the Batman adaptations, but they’ve all earned their places here for very different, yet similar reasons. Lego Batman was probably the first Batman in a long time that was actually just fun to watch. The whole movie was packed to the brim with references for the comic geeks but in a way that made sense for the story. Bringing Mark Hamill back to voice the Joker was another excellent move made by a production team that already assembled a truly fantastic concept. Regardless of how you feel about the Lego gimmick, Lego Batman is a fantastic film for any fan of the comics; especially if you’ve been following them for years.
3. The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 & 2
DC continues to impress with its faithful and beautifully animated adaptations of some of their best comics in the last few years. Adapting Frank Miller’s haunting and dark tale about an older Bruce Wayne, forced out of retirement by a new threat to Gotham, just seems like a no-brainer. The Dark Knight Returns focusing on a much older and more broken Bruce Wayne was a wonderful change of pace from some of the other Batman films. The movie dives into just how far Bruce is willing to go to fight for his hometown and the people in it. We’ve all seen Bruce repeatedly sacrifice himself for the good of others before, but The Dark Knight Returns dares to ask what the endgame is for Bruce. How long can one man possibly continue fighting?
2. Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker
A theme around the last few entries is taking a truly beloved character and creating something entirely new for their story. I can’t think of a better example of that than Batman Beyond. It's another tale of a much older Bruce struggling to keep fighting the good, except this time, Bruce is able to find a true heir, someone to carry on his mantle and fight for what’s right in Gotham. When Batman Beyond came out, there really wasn’t anything like it. Sure, we had already had the animated series and The Adventures Of Batman And Robin, but Beyond really took the character of Bruce and Batman and gave them something more. It was the first time many of us saw what Batman could look like without all the trauma and pain of his past constantly haunting him. A healthy Batman, who woulda thunk?
1. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse
Maybe it’s a little bias considering Spider-Man is probably the best superhero there is. (Come at me!) Maybe it’s because we’re all still trapped in the glorious afterglow of the beautiful animations and character designs. But it might just be that Spider-Man: Into The Spider-verse is the best-animated comic book adaptation — possibly best adaptation of our lifetime. It isn't just that the movie has an absolutely stunning art direction that pops off the screen like a hologram-comic hybrid. It’s not just that the movie was packed with so many Spider-Man references that you could hardly blink without missing something. It's that the film gave audiences—regardless of race, gender, or even species—a Spider-Man/Gwen/Ham that they could see themselves in. Representation matters. Spider-Man has always been the people’s hero. With the release of Into The Spider-verse, I’d say that’s even truer now than ever before.