“There’s too many comic book movies these days!” You’ve heard it before, from such industry figures as Spike Lee (who’s movie Oldboy was based on a comic) and David Cronenberg (who’s Oscar-nominated A History of Violence was based on a comic), to established film critics who feel the superhero genre is stifling the originality of an industry that’s been cranking out the same “white people coming of age” movies to critical acclaim for decades. But while 2017 saw more than a dozen films adapted from comic books released on US screens, to suggest that those somehow handicap the medium of film is to misunderstand how vast and diverse the stories are within the comic book page today.
Not all “comic book movies” are superhero stories, and even those that are can be radically different in tone, topic and sensibility. Nobody could look at, say, Logan and Kingsman: The Golden Circle and feel the films were redundant any more than could say Star Wars and Alien were the same just because they were set in space. This isn’t to suggest, however, that every comic-based film of 2017 was particularly good; but neither were the wave of cheap gangster films or Westerns or sci-fi flicks that flowed from the film factories of Hollywood in their day. But great and flawed alike, we here at CBR have decided to rank them all to help you find what hidden gems you missed this past year.
18. DEATH NOTE
No one who watched this Netflix adaptation or even saw the immediate internet reaction to it can be surprised that this misguided monstrosity landed at the bottom of the list. The unsettling and spellbinding morality play that was Tsugumi Ohba’s manga has been adapted into anime, live action and even a musical before, all to great success. But this attempt to “Westernize” the story fell flat.
The usually adept Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next) made some absolutely confounding creative choices with this film, particularly some bizarre musical cues and severely under-utilizing a brilliantly cast Willem Dafoe as the death god Ryuk. The film’s sole saving grace is the superb Lakeith Stanfield as “L,” but even he can’t save this sinking ship which, in retrospect, makes Dragon Ball Evolution look like a reverent and entertaining anime adaptation. Some day America will crack adapting anime, but 2017 was not that year.
17. BAD KIDS OF CRESTVIEW ACADEMY
It’s understandable if more than a few readers had to google the “Bad Kids” franchise. While the original film, Bad Kids Go To Hell, has amassed some cult following, it’s one far too small to register on anyone’s radar. Yet, in spite of its silent reception upon release in 2012, this year saw a sequel directed by one of the original cast members.
While the style and structure of Bad Kids of Crestview Academy is different enough from its predecessor to inspire debate as to whether this improves upon it, neither one is particularly good to start. However, Crestview Academy never has enough entertainment value or intrigue to justify its own existence. On the plus side, Sean Astin turns in his second-best “goofy grown-up” performance of the year, so if you’re missing Bob Newby, or just wanna see where Drake Bell has been in the last decade, Crestview Academy exists.
16. GHOST IN THE SHELL
Ghost in the Shell proved to be one of the biggest disappointments of any genre this year, not just because a live action adaptation of the groundbreaking anime has been hotly anticipated for over 20 years, but because the actual adaptation we received this year is one of the most visually inventive and dazzling films of the year. Unfortunately, everything beyond the look of the film collapsed under its own weight.
Not all of the blame can be left at the feet of director Rupert Sanders’ seeming misunderstanding of the appeal of the original, nor the studio that seemingly didn’t believe an Asian lead could attract audiences, and then tried to work around the inevitable backlash in the worst way imaginable. Part of the problem is how pillaged the original film had been over 20 years, so as to make the idea of a faithful adaptation near impossible, given how similar such a film would look to The Matrix and its successors.
15. JUSTICE LEAGUE
We’re aware that for every person who was eager to tear down Justice League before the first frame hit the screen, there’s an equally angry fanboy ready to comment about how “you wanted this film to fail,” adamantly defending its every flaw and foible like an overly devoted mother to her obviously troubled child. And yes, this franchise is a troubled child, moved from its first misguided father (Zack Snyder) through a studio sponsored foster system who tried to rebuild it with discipline but not passion.
Justice League has some engaging moments, but it’s sloppy, slapdash and suffers from too many ideas without any structure. Arguably, the film was doomed by its untested, rushed foundation in BvS, and trying to build a castle atop soft and crumbling earth was a fool’s errand. Its highlights, like Wonder Woman’s entrance and Clark seeing Flash in real time, will live on for years on Youtube, but perhaps this “finished” film should have stayed buried alongside Superman.
This third Daniel Clowes adaptation was released to zero fanfare, which was surprising considering the cult-status of Ghost World and the ardent admirers of Art School Confidential, not to mention a cast that boasted both Laura Linney and Woody Harrelson, both experiencing a second wave of acclaim in their careers. Sadly, while Wilson isn’t particularly bad or flawed in the way those below it here are, it also never particularly stands out.
Nothing about the film feels particularly unique, no tract of its outsider plot or crassly quirky characters feels untread by previous indie films. Harrelson’s curmudgeonly Wilson never captivates the viewer, despite a solid performance, and therefor one never feels tempted to take the predictable twee-indie ride in the way the endearing Juno or the works of Wes Anderson can often convince us to. Wilson isn’t a regrettable viewing, but it also is bereft of any benefit to the viewer.
13. POKEMON THE MOVIE: I CHOOSE YOU!
Yes, this is the one where Pikachu talks. No, it isn’t as out of place or earth-shatteringly shocking as the viral video makes it out to be. Produced as a re-introduction to the story of Ash Ketchum on the anniversary of the classic anime, Pokemon The Movie: I Choose You opts to retain the fortuitous circumstances that granted Ash a starter Pokemon who refused to be confined to a Poke-Ball, but chooses to replace classic characters Misty and Brock with new, unfamiliar figures.
Clearly, the main idea of the film is to interject newer Pokemon familiar to the appropriately aged fans into a story known to their parents who first discovered the now classic series. However, short of providing some payoff to the teased Ho-Oh in the original pilot, Pokemon The Movie: I Choose You doesn’t offer much of note for new viewers that couldn’t be gotten from the original anime.
12. ATOMIC BLONDE
The idea of a “lady Bond,” as many viewers framed Theron’s lead, is a great one, and Atomic Blonde plays with the idea well. There’s no denying how cool the film is, how stylish, how well shot, and how self-assured. Just like its protagonist, Atomic Blonde strides confidently into a sea of neon and new wave, kicking indiscriminate a** along the way. The problems come when the film tries to stretch beyond what it is.
This could have simply been an audition reel for James Bond by the John Wick guys and coasted on that, but it tries to support a plot akin to a John Le Carre novel, and can’t. Trying to compensate for its confusion with more coolness, it ultimately collapses under its own weight. Eighties nostalgia can carry viewers through simple, familiar plots like Stranger Things or It, but the level of intrigue and complexity Atomic Blonde tries to achieve in between its riveting fights seems a “bridge of spies” too far for the filmmakers.
11. VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
“But wait,” you might say, “I heard this was bad.” Sure, it was critically reviled, but we assure you that while Valerian never soars as high as it hopes, there’s something charming about its grand ambitions that put it above some of the more craven and soulless comic book films this year. This was a passion project for the visionary Luc Besson, and like previous attempts by directors to make the kind of audacious and out-there spectacles people complain don’t get made anymore, it was spit-upon by those same people for daring to do something audacious and out-there.
There’s no denying that the film’s leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne, are not only horribly miscast but outright lifeless, sucking the soul out of any scene they’re in and crushing the film’s momentum. But the effects are top notch, the direction superb, and the supporting cast delightful. There’s something to be said for putting a noble failure above tolerable mediocrity.
10. THE SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE
We’re not gonna sit here and pretend that, for a discerning filmgoing adult, The Smurfs: The Lost Village will yield much in the way of pathos or catharsis. We will, however, go to bat for this fun and inoffensive little kids film that, half a century after the Smurfs made their screen debut, finally decides to make Smurfette more than just “the girl one.”
Unafraid to tackle the odd origin of Smurfette most of us learned from a scene in Donnie Darko, The Lost Village isn’t afraid to poke fun at the absurd world of the Smurfs (Table Eating Smurf proves a favorite with young audiences) while retaining the heart of the original series. Far better than its live-action hybrid predecessors, The Smurfs: The Lost Village will delight its target audience while having enough originality to entertain the adults dragged along.
9. KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Kingsman: The Golden Circle suffered from some unfair criticism. That’s not to suggest the film is flawless, as it’s undeniably weaker than its predecessor and makes some missteps in terms of plot and character development. That said, there’s an odd expectation for sequels to sleeper hits that they must deliver all of the same elements of the previous film, but also be fresh and new and not repeat the earlier entries.
Outside of this Joseph Heller-esque expectation, Kingsman 2 disappoints in its treatment of fan-favorite Roxy, its underdeveloped Statesman and its over-reliance on winking humor over exciting action (nothing even attempts to match the infamous church massacre from the original). But to see Kingsman get the same cookie cutter review Guardians Vol. 2 received, and Deadpool 2 will inevitably get, of “just being the same but bigger” is a lazy way to critique a sequel that deserved more credit than it got.
8. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE
Batman’s appearance in The Lego Movie sensed the spark of a much needed movement that The Lego Batman Movie fueled and ignited brilliantly: The de-kewl-ifiction of Batman. Just as Frank Miller’s dark, brooding take was needed back in the ’80s to recover from an overly hokey era of the Dark Knight in the public consciousness, we now need a concerted effort to rescue the caped crusader from the abyss of his own self-seriousness.
While on the surface a funny and self-aware kids film in the vein of its predecessor, The Lego Batman Movie offers the most introspective examination of the character ever on film, and the most meta-commentary on his creative direction this side of Doomsday Clock. There have been better Batman movies, and LBM may not stand the test of time as Batman ’89 and The Dark Knight have, but it does provide the most passionate and devoted observation on the character to date. Plus, its really, really funny.
7. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING
Spider-Man: Homecoming wasn’t the best Spider-Man movie ever made. It wasn’t even the best Marvel movie this year. But damned if it wasn’t the most necessary superhero film in quite some time. After he launched onto movie screens, got rebooted and run into the ground, Captain America: Civil War showed there were some signs of life left in the cinematic potential of the wall-crawler. Yet, so much was riding on Spider-Man: Homecoming, the success or failure of which would determine whether the Spider-brand had been too tarnished to sustain another solo film.
While it lacked the polish or panache of more seasoned MCU series, Spider-Man: Homecoming offered a satisfying foundation for a franchise simply by going back to basics. Peter Parker became, once again, a flawed high school student with misguided instincts, poor priorities and an array of anxieties. His world was modern, but his heart was the same one that first occupied the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15.
6. MY FRIEND DAHMER
One of the most unique and entrancing comic book movies of the year had nary a cape or superpower in sight. Instead, it asked us to stare into the face of unchecked evil and toyed with us while we forced ourselves not to sympathize. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Derf Backderf, My Friend Dahmer presents the true story of the high school years of infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer through the eyes of his manipulative and naive friends.
The highlight of the film, without doubt, is Ross Lynch as the titular Dahmer, whose performance is so nuanced and riveting that it absolutely merits the awards it’s heretofore been snubbed by. To watch Lynch, whose pleading eyes beg for understanding even while his actions display the utmost contempt for life itself, it calls to mind the anti-heroes of Nabokov or the tragic backstories of murderous villains like The Joker or Magneto.
5. THOR: RAGNAROK
In the year of chaos and fear that was 2017 outside the cinema, how good did it feel to breathe the sigh of relief at the sight of a severed dragon’s head, knowing for certain Ragnarok would not be another Thor: The Dark World? Not since Captain America: The Winter Soldier had a tentpole superhero film felt so dangerous, so fresh, like it could break all the rules without a care.
Sure, the film isn’t without its flaws. It leans too heavily into humor at times, and it could have done more to establish the colossal stakes teased in Avengers: Age of Ultron for the sake of the narrative thread weaved through the series. Hela could have used more screen time, and Lady Sif was a fan favorite seemingly tossed aside. But the sheer adrenaline rush from every chord of “Immigrant Song” is enough to counteract any complaints one might have.
4. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
James Gunn proved he was a gifted writer way back in his Troma days, arguably saving the struggling studio and playing to the iconic Lloyd Kaufman’s strengths with his Tromeo & Juliet script. Gunn would go on to prove himself a top-notch director with indie hits like Slither and Super. But here, in the final act of his superhero sequel, was where Gunn solidified himself as an artist of rare talent, successfully achieving the most audacious and delicate goal.
A single tear amidst a sky of fireworks, the sum of two films of precise writing and careful casting. A single tear that evoked equal emotion from the viewer, arguably the most evocative, cathartic and inspiring moment in the entire MCU. A single tear from the eye of a sentient raccoon who finally learned to accept a world larger than himself, and that mortality is merely a means by which a being can grapple with his purpose. Bravo, sir.
3. BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL
There seem to be two sides to the controversial and revered Japanese auteur Takashi Miike. One is the revered and disciplined master of style behind works of beauty like 13 Assassins and The Bird People of China. The other is the grimy, nasty enfant terrible who helmed in your face films like Ichi the Killer and Audition. Finally, with his 100th film, Miike merged those two sides in a piece as serene as it is sickening, an ode to suffering and sympathy.
Blade of the Immortal, based on the manga series by Hiroaki Samura, handles the difficult balancing act of “live action anime” as though it were merely a feather on its finger. No element ever feels out of place, unbelievable or under-developed, as though the story had poured straight from Samura’s brain onto the screen, with Miike an ethereal intermediary perfecting every frame.
2. WONDER WOMAN
Wonder Woman had an impact almost no other film in 2017, besides Get Out, had: it felt vital. Riding on the momentum of the Women’s March, the budding #metoo movement and unrepentant women reclaiming their time in Congress and in Hollywood, Wonder Woman provided a much needed outlet for female frustration and empowerment, but that wasn’t all it had to offer.
It also offered something sorely lacking in superhero cinema: unapologetic optimism. While Marvel relies on humor and self-awareness, and DC seemed to put all its chips on brooding, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot wore their hearts on their sleeves, unafraid to make a film entirely about hope for the future; a movie willing to be serious and sincere about things like empathy and love. It was a breath of fresh air, something that somehow felt new while honoring a long overlooked legacy of one of comics greatest heroes.
Plain and simple, Logan is a masterwork. The film is a once-in-a-decade example of every element aligning to make a perfect motion picture, a statement not just on a period of time but an entire genre. It’s the comic book film’s Unforgiven, it’s a eulogy to the heroes of yesteryear, and the age of anxiety and innocence into which they were born. It’s a meditation on the archetype of the American hero, the lone cowboy wandering from town to town, righting wrongs out of a sense of honor.
Jackman’s swan song in the titular role is his finest screen performance to date, and the same can be said for costar Patrick Stewart. James Mangold produced a serviceable story in The Wolverine, but here he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt why the character of Wolverine has endured like no other X-man has, why he speaks to every reader, and what such a rugged iconography can inspire in its audience when stripped of all its scowls and self-loathing.
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