24 of the Best Comic Book Adaptations That Aren’t Marvel or DC

24 of the Best Comic Book Adaptations That Aren’t Marvel or DC

It only took Marvel 20-ish movies to give Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow her own solo film, but that wasn’t her first, nor even her second comic book movie character. We’ve just reached the point where most popular actors will have played at least a few comics-based characters before they retire. But we come here to praise the comic-to-film adaptation rather than pump it full of kryptonite and bury it.

I think we all know by now that comic books aren’t just about superheroes — and that, even when they are about supes, it’s not always Ironman and Wonder Woman. There are great comic book adaptations across pretty much every genre: crime noir, spy-fi, memoir…even the ever-popular “X-rated talking cat” genre is represented. The very best of these bring a bit of comic book style to the screen even as they craft something new. Here are a few of the great and important ones, a few of which you might even have forgotten started life on the page.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Though the styles are a quite a bit different, this weekend’s Black Widow and the Charlize Theron-starring Atomic Blonde might make for a pretty good double-feature: both feature impossibly athletic women who also happen to be super-spies with checkered pasts and ties to the former USSR. In Atomic Blonde, that connection is more direct: Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 agent in Berlin on the literal eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

The neon aesthetic and New Wave soundtrack give the film its distinctive look, and the spy action is more John le Carré than Stan Lee. The film is based on Anthony Johnson and Sam Hart’s great 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, which tells a similar story in a vein more suited to the page: there’s just a bit more focus on Broughton’s intellect rather than her fighting skills.

Where to stream: Binge

30 Days of Night (2007)

The Josh Hartnett/Melissa George movie got mixed reviews upon release in 2007, but works as a tight and generally effective vampire movie with a killer premise. That set-up comes straight from the 2002 IDW horror miniseries of the same name from Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith: the town of Barrow, Alaska doesn’t see daylight for almost a month during the winter, making it a perfect hang-out for hungry bloodsuckers. The influential first run has seen several follow-ups over the years.

Where to stream: ABC iView

300 (2007)

It ain’t exactly history, but Zack Snyder’s 300 is a pretty perfect distillation of the Frank Miller/Lynn Varley graphic graphic novel — in fact, the book was virtually a storyboard for much of the film, which was then shot using extensive digital chroma key-type work to give the live action an animated feel. And gallons of virtual blood. And at least as much baby oil.

Where to stream: Netflix

Sin City (2005)

Stepping back a couple of years from 300, this earlier Frank Miller adaptation similarly plays like a comic book brought to life, representing a (mostly) successful attempt to blend two very different mediums alongside 1940s-era noir stylings. Though a bit less influential than Zack Snyder’s take on Miller, Sin City, directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez, brought a unique style and energy to the comic book movie.

Where to stream: Stan.

Men in Black (1997)

Hailing from an era when comic book adaptions were few and far between, you could be forgiven for not knowing that MIB (and its three sequels) was based on 1990 comic book series from Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers. The original book was from Aircel Comics, which was bought by Malibu Comics, which was bought by Marvel just in time for the movie — so, in a very roundabout way, it’s the company’s earliest blockbuster. Or maybe it’s that we all become Marvel properties in the end.

Where to stream: Netflix

American Splendor (2003)

Harvey Pekar was one of the undisputed giants of the underground comic scene for decades, although it’s just as fair to say that he was one of the great American literary voices of any medium in the 20th century (as well as being a bona fide Cleveland legend). Taking the same autobiographical approach as Pekar’s comic work, the Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis-starring film is among the most acclaimed comic book adaptations, and a good reminder that they’re not all superhero blowouts.

Where to stream: Binge

Fritz the Cat (1972)

From still another underground comix master, R. Crumb, Fritz the Cat, on the page, was a 60s-era exploration of the counterculture and a satire of talking animal comics, generally. On film, it earned an X-rating and established the distinctive visual style of Ralph Bakshi, who would become incredibly influential through the 70s and into the 80s (it’s not nearly as dirty by today’s standards as the rating might lead you to believe). The film’s libertine reputation clashes with its own anti-counterculture politics, making for a pretty fascinating contrast between style and content.

Where to stream: N/A

Ghost World (2001)

The official movie of millenium-era emo, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (from the Daniel Clowes series) is also more challenging and interesting than that suggests, never letting self-aware snark substitute for empathy and genuine emotion. Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi are both great, as is future Black Widow Scarlett Johansson in her breakthrough role.

Where to stream: N/A

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Director Edgar Wright already had a couple of stylish, idiosyncratic action comedies under his belt when Scott Pilgrim came along: Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz alone would be enough to give any filmmaker a cult following. This adaptation of the Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novel series rather masterfully blends comic book-style with nods toward the book’s preoccupation with video games for a genuinely unique experience — a movie that, for many, represents the ultimate comic-to-film translation. It was a disastrous flop at the box office, and we owe the movie an apology.

Where to stream: Netflix

Tank Girl (1995)

It’s not an entirely successful film, but time has been kind to the manic stylings of the the Lori Petty-starring film. In a dusty future, Rebecca Buck lives in her tank and protects one of the last independent sources of water in Australia…before soldiers controlled by Malcolm McDowell come and kill her boyfriend. The comic book series on which it’s based comes from Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett, one of the founders of Gorillaz, while the film is an early work from director Rachel Talalay, whose name is all over modern television. The tone of the film is all over the place, but the unapologetically punk and feminist themes have lent the film a strong cult following.

Where to stream: Stan

The Old Guard (2020)

The quality of these type straight-to-Netflix movies has been all over the place, but The Old Guard, based on the Greg Rucka/Leandro Fernández series represents a pretty solid win. The mercenary-based action plot has a unique twist in the reveal that the mercs are, in fact, ancient near-immortals adrift in the modern world. The premise isn’t bad, but it’s the performances (including from the ever-reliable Charlize Theron) that really sell it.

Where to stream: Netflix

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Scottish writer Mark Millar has provided a great deal of source material for the movies: Wanted and Kick-Arse are both based on his original books, while Captain America: Civil War and Logan were largely based on his Marvel work. He created Kingsman in 2012 alongside Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), and the film is a fairly straight adaptation of the book, with director Matthew Vaughan capturing the tongue-in-cheek spy-fi tone perfectly. A sequel came out in 2017, with a prequel coming later this year.

Where to stream: Disney+

Wanted (2008)

Speaking of Mark Millar, the first film adaptation of his work (this time with J. G. Jones) came way back in 2008 with a cast lead by Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, and Morgan Freeman. It’s a solid and stylish action movie with a lot of style and maybe not a ton of brains, but it’s nevertheless entertaining. The comic book goes quite a bit further than the movie in portraying outright villains rather than conflicted assassins, making for an interesting contrast. A sequel’s been in development hell for over a decade, but seems to still be on somebody’s agenda somewhere.

Where to stream: Netflix, Prime Video, Binge

Kick-Ass (2010)

One more from Mark Millar, this time based on his comic book with John Romita, Jr. While popular, it generated a fair bit of controversy for its story of a teenager who sets out to become a superhero, only to be come up against the foul-mouthed, utterly ruthless pre-teen vigilante Hit-Girl. (Actually, the discourse at the time seemed to be more about then 11-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz’s potty mouth in the movie than the ultra-violence so…priorities, I guess). It’s in incredibly poor taste, which is entirely the point.

Where to stream: Netflix, Binge, Stan

Heavy Metal (1981)

So distinct is the style of Heavy Metal that it’s impossible to judge it against anything but itself…or perhaps against something like the 1973 French animated film Fantastic Planet. Though a Canadian-American co-production of 1981, there’s something undeniably French and undeniably 70s about the whole thing, which isn’t really surprising: it’s based on the comics magazine anthology of the same name, which largely imported European work from France’s Métal hurlant. It doesn’t all work perfectly, but it’s got plenty of nudity and violence, and, appropriately, a pretty kick-arse soundtrack.

Where to stream: N/A

Dredd (2012)

Another movie based on a European import, Dredd comes from the British comics anthology 2001 AD, the character having been created by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, and Pat Mills. It’s, of course, the second go at bringing the character to the big screen and, while the Sylvester Stallone version has its proponents, this is the one that gets it right. It’s a dark, dystopian, and very effective action thriller in the style of The Raid, and yet somehow made no money and was seen by no one.

Where to stream: Stan, SBS On Demand

The Crow (1994)

The comic book series from James O’Barr was created as an outlet for processing the death of the creator’s fiancée, and so it’s no surprise that the shadow of death hangs over both the book and the film adaptation from director Alex Proyas — the movie having a real-life tragic backstory of its own, one that’s impossible to separate from the movie’s dark and distinctive fictional world.

Where to stream: Stan

The Rocketeer (1991)

Director Joe Johnston would go on to earn his Marvel credentials with Captain America: The First Avenger, but he was doing comic books way back in 1991, as well. Putting a lighter, brighter spin on the 1930s production design of movies like Tim Burton’s Batman and Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer (based on the Dave Stevens book) took its inspiration from old-time movie adventure serials, resulting in an entertaining romp that was probably a bit ahead of its time.

Where to stream: Disney+

Road to Perdition (2002)

Comic book adaptations were still fairly niche in 2002, and they were, just as today, largely superhero stories. Road to Perdition was something else altogether: fresh off of his American Beauty Oscars, director Sam Mendes adapted the crime-noir graphic novel of the same name from Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner. With a cast including Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, the movie screamed mainstream prestige and earned six Oscar nominations in its own right.

Where to stream: Disney+

A History of Violence (2005)

From the graphic novel by John Wagner (co-creator of Judge Dredd) and Vince Locke, A History of Violence would become the first of several winning collaborations between iconic director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortenson. As the title suggests, it explores the life-changing repercussions on the life of a small-town diner owner following his deadly confrontation with two robbers. It’s not at all hard to find comic book adaptations that celebrate violence — this film takes a much more ambivalent approach.

Where to stream: Stan

I Kill Giants (2017)

Joe Kelly, who created the I Kill Giants graphic novel alongside J. M. Ken Niimura, wrote the screenplay for the film version — a reasonably good way to ensure that the finished product is in line with the original. The book, about a young geek who retreats into worlds of fantasy, is justifiably beloved — the movie is a small step down, but the lead performance from Madison Wolfe is undeniably impressive.

Where to stream: Netflix

Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy, adapting Mike Mignola’s first run on the character he created, wasn’t Guillermo del Toro’s first foray into superhero action (that was 2002’s impressively stylish Blade II), but it was the film where he really made a name for himself with American audiences before goin on to win Oscars. The sequel, The Golden Army from 2008, is even better.

Where to stream: Stan

V for Vendetta (2005)

With the clear and very notable exception of HBO’s Watchmen series, no Alan Moore adaptation has quite hit the mark — Moore himself wanting nothing to do with any of them. V for Vendetta, adapted from the graphic novel by Moore and David Lloyd probably comes the closest to capturing the spirit of the source. The politics are, not surprisingly, watered-down when compared to the more radical writer’s original work, but stands on its own as something a bit more thought-provoking than the norm.

Where to stream: Netflix, Binge

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

The title here isn’t some kind of metaphor: writer Derf Backderf was very literally friends with Jeffrey Dahmer in high school and right up to his earliest murders. Like the book, the movie provides a fascinating look at the formative early life of a killer, and the complex feelings of someone who was by his side for much of it. It’s disturbing, but manages to never feel exploitative.

Where to stream: N/A

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