Comic book movies aren’t always critically beloved. Of course, in recent years, that’s begun to change, as entities like Marvel have started producing consistently engaging films. Not all comic book movies are about superheroes, though. Some graphic novels have been adapted into critical smashes, which makes this list an interesting mix of genres and ideas.
In looking at this list, it’s important to remember that it uses the adjusted scores set out by Rotten Tomatoes, which adjust a film’s baseline tomato score based on how many reviews the film got. This kind of weighting tends to favor widely seen films, and pushes many of the most memorable comic book films of all time to the top of the list. The best comic book movies adapt their source material without maintaining complete fidelity to it. What they keep is the spirit, the core idea. Here are Rotten Tomatoes' 15 Highest Rated Comic Book Movies, Ranked.
15 Ghost in the Shell - 95%
While Ghost in the Shell is actually being remade this year, many still hold the original animated film as a classic work, and a masterful adaptation of its source material. The story of The Major, a cyborg who begins to question the nature of her reality, is one of the pioneering works of Japanese animation, and it’s still iconic today.
Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell wonders at what characteristics make us human, and what life as a human entails. As The Major tracks down a villain capable of modifying the thoughts of cyborgs, she begins to wonder about her own makeup, and where she comes from. Adapted from incredibly strong source material, director Mamoru Oshii uses Ghost in the Shell's plot to tap into deep and universal questions. What makes us tick? What separates her from us? The film is compelling, and it makes you think, and it's hard to ask for more than that from a single film.
14 Men in Black - 92%
Men in Black is perhaps the most charming film on this list. It’s part of a wave of outstanding Will Smith performances that end up carrying some pretty mediocre films. Men in Black isn’t carried on Smith’s back alone, though. Tommy Lee Jones is among the best straight men in Hollywood history, and he and Smith pair beautifully to create a dynamic team.
The film, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, also creates a unique world filled with aliens that live right under our noses. As ludicrous as it seems, the idea works largely because of the chemistry between the two leads. Smith and Jones sell us on the outlandish concept, and commit to the incredible levels of fun the film has with the idea. Men in Black an action-comedy that understands how silly it is. Instead of trying to play everything straight, it embraces the oddities of its source material. It steers into the skid, and is all the better for it.
13 American Splendor - 94%
The first graphic novel adaptation on this list, American Splendor is actually a combination of live action and animation. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, tells the story of comic book writer Harvey Pekar, who spends his days in Cleveland. We follow Pekar and his relationship with his wife as he becomes more successful. The film begins to weave animation in as Pekar's drawings are brought to the screen in the film.
Paul Giamatti's performance as Pekar is as specific and brilliant as anything the actor has ever done, as is the work of Hope Davis, who plays Pekar's wife and is forced to deal with his long list of problems. Of course, what makes American Splendor work so well is the inventiveness of its form. It made a simple and distinct choice. Namely, it decided to use animation to tell the story of someone who draws. It seems obvious, but it's also executed to perfection.
12 Captain America: The Winter Soldier - 92%
Of the individual Marvel films, the ones focused on Captain America have been among the best received by critics. The Winter Soldier was the second of these, and it was as political as a Captain America movie could be. The story is really one of fear and government overreach, and the problems that can come with it. The Winter Soldier is the kind of in-between film that didn’t have to be outstanding to make some money (see Thor: The Dark World).
Instead, The Winter Soldier creates a distinct feeling of paranoia, and allows Captain America to become an insurgent fighting against the country he once believed in more than anything else. Black Widow’s character also becomes a more distinct figure here as she works with Captain America in secret. The set piece inside of the elevator is a perfect indicator of the scale of the film, which favors smaller and more intimate fights, and creates a more personal experience. The Winter Soldier directors the Russo brothers kept enough Marvel elements to be recognizable, and threw everything else out. Thank goodness.
11 The Dark Knight Rises - 87%
Though it couldn’t live up to the reputation of its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises is in many ways a worthy successor to that film. Anne Hathaway’s casting as Catwoman was am incredibly smart choice, and it elevates the entire film. The Dark Knight Rises also has the benefit of being an actual conclusion to Nolan's series. Instead of setting things up for a future installment, it was able to simply resolve the story, and give everyone relatively happy endings, all things considered.
While he could never live up to his villainous predecessor, Tom Hardy's Bane is menacing in a completely new way. His sheer size makes him hugely threatening, and allows him to do something few people can-- he bests Batman. In many ways, The Dark Knight Rises is set in a world without Batman. Gotham is without its caped crusader for a large chunk of the film, and it lends an air of post-apocalyptic dread. It couldn't be The Dark Knight, but it didn't want to be.
10 Superman - 93%
The oldest entry on this list, the Richard Donner-directed Superman wears its age in the best possible way. Its premise is remarkably simple. After coming to Earth, Clark Kent works as a reporter during the day while he discovers his powers and fights Lex Luthor at night. The story didn't have to be any more complicated than that, which is a refreshing contrast to today's extra-stuffed blockbusters.
Superman's throwback appeal also extends to its tone, which is markedly more earnest and sincere than what you may encounter in a mainstream superhero film today. The tone fits the character. Superman is a good guy, and it can be easy to forget that you can make an interesting movie about him without making everything feel so dark. While the effects may not look so great today, the filmmaking holds up, and produces one of the most enjoyable comic book adaptations that has ever been released.
9 Doctor Strange - 90%
The newest entry on this list, Doctor Strange can be seen in theaters now. The film is, in many ways, very Marvel. Scott Derrickson's film plays into the same tropes as Iron Man with regard to its unlikable but charming protagonist, and with regard to his development into a hero. Doctor Strange’s new elements are largely mystical, and they come with some of the most inventive CGI that this genre has ever created.
Perhaps the most dazzling sequence comes early on in the film when Strange is sent through the multiverse in a sequence that can only be described as "trippy". The performances are solid across the board, and the cast is stacked with talents like Rachel McAdams and Tilda Swinton in its minor roles. Of course, Benedict Cumberbatch ably performs in the central role, creating a character out of the Tony Stark mold that may be able to succeed Stark, should Robert Downey Jr. ever step away. The Marvel machine rolls on.
8 Spider-Man 2 - 93%
Perhaps the first truly great superhero movie of the modern age, Spider-Man 2 does everything right. It finds pathos in Peter Parker’s struggle with his alternate identity, and uses that struggle to make the character interesting in a way the first installment couldn’t quite manage, though both were directed by Sam Raimi. On top of that, it also managed to find a compelling villain in Alfred Molina’s Doc Oc, a character driven to action by forces that are at least partially out of his control.
While it works on a personal level, Spider-Man 2 is also an incredible action movie. Perhaps the most notable scene is set on a moving train-- an intense fight that ends with some of the most iconic imagery ever to appear in a superhero film. This superhero sequel also benefits from a strong, decisive ending. More stories could be told, but you don't feel as though anything is left unsaid. Spider-Man will continue to save the day, even if we stop watching.
7 Persepolis - 96%
Persepolis is a more somber and intimate affair than most of the films on this list, and that’s for good reason. Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis tells the story of author Marjane Satrapi, who grew up against the backdrop of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This of course makes the story at the core of Persepolis much more personal, but it doesn't make it any less compelling.
As the only animated film on this list, Persepolis uses its story to reveal what growing up during such a fraught and terrifying time looks and feels like. It never belittles its characters by using them as narrative devices. Instead, it empowers them and allows them to flow within a narrative that is grounded in real stakes. Persepolis, which Satrapi also directed, is as harrowing as it is personal, and it creates a world that is all its own, even as it grounds its story in truths that apply to all of us.
6 X-Men: Days of Future Past - 91%
The X-Men universe is in many ways a different beast than the other superhero franchises on this list. The original X-Men came at the very beginning of the modern superhero boom, and this was the film that tied that original film in with X-Men: First Class, which introduced younger versions of many of the characters from the original trilogy. Shockingly, the response was incredibly positive. Bryan Singer returned with Days of Future Past, a time travel story that effectively wove together the new and old casts, and distilled the themes of the X-Men universe down to their core.
Like all of the X-Men films, Days of Future Past is really about how you should react to persecution, and what a hero’s role is in the world. Coupled with a dazzling sequence from Quicksilver and some truly excellent period detail, Days of Future Past manages to be everything an X-Men movie should be. It’s fun, fast, and resonates with the world around us.
5 Guardians of the Galaxy - 91%
Guardians of the Galaxy did as much to upset the established formula of Marvel films as any movie could, and it paid off enormously. The film is light, frothy, and full of color, and it introduces audience to some of the more delightful members of the Marvel cinematic universe. Perhaps more importantly, the film proved that Chris Pratt was a bankable and charismatic star. He carries the film ably, and provides plenty of wit as he does so.
Pratt shines of course, but those around him do as well. Dave Bautista’s Draxx is delightful in every moment, as is Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon. This cast of misfits and outsiders is remarkably lovable, and they meld in ways that are unexpected and wonderful. Of course, there’s the usual questions about infinity stones and mysterious parents, but James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy succeeded with critics by showing audiences how much fun the Marvel formula could be.
4 Captain America: Civil War - 90%
The third Avengers movie, though it may not have their name in the title, was smart in part because the Russo brothers chose to scale things down. There was no real world-ending event. Instead, the heroes fight amongst themselves for what are mostly valid reasons. They hold different beliefs, and their egos come into conflict. The core of this conflict comes from Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, two of the founding members of the Avengers.
Captain America: Civil War was admired by critics because it kept things very human. The villain in the film is motivated entirely by his desire to bring down the Avengers and for entirely personal, human reasons. On top of that, the conflict between the two sides of this struggle remains markedly small, with each side genuinely believing in what they’re fighting for. Civil War is remarkable because it isn’t so clear cut. Things get gray in the Marvel universe, and it was a change for the better.
3 The Avengers - 92%
It seemed impossible when Marvel announced it. The studio had plans to unite its individual forces, but it had never been done before. Of course, in the end they managed to pull it off. What was more impressive, though, is that the resultant movie wasn’t a jumbled mess. Instead, Joss Whedon’s guiding hand gave The Avengers a distinctive voice that also managed to unite the elements from the individual films.
Thor was just as wonderfully otherworldly, Hulk was just as angry, and Captain America was just as upright. Each character managed to maintain their individual personality even as they began to interact with one another in new ways. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki makes for a truly delightful villain, but he’s not so threatening that he takes the focus off of the core characters. He’s just one of the many elements, and they all combine to make a truly compelling film.
2 Iron Man - 94%
2008 was an extraordinary year for superhero movies. Iron Man redefined the genre, and then The Dark Knight came along a few months later and redefined it all over again. These two films are at the crux of the recent superhero boom, and Iron Man’s influence can’t be overstated. Jon Favreau's film set up the entire Marvel cinematic universe, and managed to cast Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark as the central figure in that universe.
The success of Iron Man is what led to The Avengers and every other Marvel movie there’s ever been, and it also established the tone many of those movies would go on to employ. The first time around, everything was pretty perfectly balanced. Tony’s pathos was complex, and his humor was incisive and brilliant. The story of his origin was new and fresh, and the end tease of things to come brought about the years of Marvel movies we’ve seen since. Stark says it best at the end of the film. “I am Iron Man.”
1 The Dark Knight - 94%
The Dark Knight will likely hold this spot for a very long time. It’s the kind of movie that defined an entire generation of superhero films, and nothing has ever really managed to live up to it. Subsequent films owed a great deal to The Dark Knight, in part because this film took its characters so seriously. In fact, many films would try and fail to live up to the legacy created by Nolan with The Dark Knight, in part because they understood the darkness, but were unable to capture this film’s wild energy.
An all-time great performance from Heath Ledger is often what’s singled out, and it’s undoubtedly part of this film’s lasting legacy. Just as important, though, are the turns from Aaron Eckhart and Christian Bale, who both do excellent work. The story at the core of The Dark Knight is about the lines you need to be willing to cross, and the ones that no human ever will. It’s a big story, and a small one, and it’s a truly great comic book movie.
Does your taste match the critics'? Let us know in the comments.