There have been adaptations of comic book characters in media other than comic books pretty much since the creation of superheroes in those comic books. As with all adaptations from one media to another, there have been good ones as well as bad ones. There have been some where the adaptation just missed the mark, and some where they just hit the bullseye. The very first live action adaptation of a superhero comic book was The Adventures of Captain Marvel, based on the character now associated with DC Comics but at the time published by Fawcett Comics, just two years after that character's creation and only three years after the debut of Superman, credited with being the OG comic book superhero. Two years after Captain Marvel another comic book superhero got his first chance to shine in the live action motion picture media when Batman was released in 1943. Since then comic book superheroes have been a staple in movies and on television, however since Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000, comic book superheroes have been absolutely everywhere, a trend that is showing no signs of slowing down in the near future. The following is a list of some of the adaptations that hit the mark so squarely on the nose that they can almost be seen as perfect. Now, this does't necessarily mean that they are perfect adaptations of the source material, or that they are necessarily even perfect movies, but that they captured the essence of the characters and the world perfectly while transferring it believably from the page to the screen.
Arrow (And The Flash)
While these are two separate and distinct shows, they are run by the same people, set in the same universe, and have the exact same grasp of the source material, so I count them as a single entry for the purposes of this article. Greg Berlanti knows television, and he knows superheroes. Berlanti knows how to get down to the essence of a character and build a show around that essence. While set in the same universe and being helmed by the same producers, The Flash and Arrow are very different shows, each playing to the strengths of the character, yet they still mesh together very well when the shows cross over with each other. Arrow's world is dark, gritty and very much grounded in reality. Flash's world is much more of a classic superhero series, with Flash often cracking jokes and very much embracing the character's comic book roots. Flash has always had a much more interesting and fuller rogue's gallery than Green Arrow ever did, and the producers haven't cheaped out on it. Likewise, Arrow has done a good job of fleshing out the character and his world for television by borrowing villains and supporting characters from other superheroes (mostly Batman) and adapting them for the Green Arrow character. Greg Berlanti has done so much to earn the reputation as television's DC Comics guy that Supergirl, Berlanti's next television project, has been given a series order and hasn't even produced a pilot yet.
Bryan Singer's X-Men
Marvel's Merry Mutants are very different on the screen than they are in the comics, but Bryan Singer created just an engaging world, that just draws you right in, that when the movie is over your mind believes you've just seen the X-Men. And you have. The differences are largely superficial, like the lack of multi-colored costumes made of spandex, but Singer crafted a world where those costumes would have been out of place. Bryan Singer didn't just create a movie where you don't miss the costumes, and oftentimes don't even think about it during the film itself, but he created a movie where the comic book costumes would have been out of place, but he was still true to the spirit of the comic book and of the characters. And he left plenty of room for the franchise to grow, and grow it has. The X-Men film franchise has lasted seven films, there is an eighth, ninth and tenth coming next year and even talk of a television series set in the same world. There have been missteps, but the franchise has weathered them and everyone is interested in seeing where it goes next. That is success by anyone's standards, and much of that success is owed to Singer getting everything just so right the first time, and so much righter the second. It really is a shame that he didn't understand Superman the way he understood the X-Men.
The Incredible Hulk (1978)
For a lot of people, especially those in my age group, this was their first exposure to The Incredible Hulk. With the advent of the fanboy, who will cry and complain about absolutely everything, this series has gotten a lot of criticism of late, criticism that was unheard of even ten years ago. Most of this criticism comes from where the series strayed from the comics, but everywhere the series strayed served to make the character better, and Bruce Jones even drew heavily from this television series on his run of the comic, which is considered by many to be one of, if not the absolute best, runs of the comics throughout history. Kenneth Johnson, who developed The Incredible Hulk for television, stripped the character down to his barest essence and built him back up basically from scratch. Much like Stan Lee was when he originally created the character, Johnson was very much inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he was also influenced by the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables, about a fugitive on the run and being chased by a relentless police inspector. Having the character travel the nation searching for a cure did more than just give the character some pathos, it also served to isolate the audience by not having any regular characters apart from Banner and the reporter chasing him for them to identify with. Banner was the only character we got to know extremely well, and because of that every episode served to give the audience a feeling of the isolation and loneliness that Banner felt as he was searching for a way to rid himself of the Hulk. The series also reduced the Hulk to a mindless monster, running only on instinct, and got rid of the idea that the Hulk spoke in broken sentences. This was the first time someone tried to take a comic book property and imagine what it would be in the real world, and it made the Hulk a much better character because of it.
Whatever you may think of the quality of the Watchmen film, and I haven't heard a legitimate argument yet as to why it isn't a good movie, Watchmen captured not just the essence of the characters, but also the essence of the commentary that the original graphic novel was making on comic book as well as on the superhero genre. Being almost a word-for-word translation of the graphic novel, it will probably be the most faithful comic book to film adaptation we are likely to ever see realized. Some of the commentary on comic books is lost, mostly because the page layouts and art choices were very symbolic and represented a lot of clever things that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were saying about the art of comics, and superhero comics especially (look up the symbolism of Watchmen sometime, it's really interesting). However, while some of that symbolism was lost, Zack Snyder worked his own symbolic magic and managed to make a lot of the same commentaries, but about superhero movies instead of comics. So the film managed to not just adapt the story, but also adapted the symbolism for the media of film.
As with Arrow and The Flash, I am including all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or at least all of the films that came together to make The Avengers in this entry. However, The Avengers did a lot of things right in and of itself, as well as adding to the things done right already by the previous solo films. One thing that The Avengers absolutely nailed was that in a movie about a team of different heroes that came together to form a team, as opposed to the X-Men or the Fantastic Four who only exist as a team, Joss Whedon was able to give it the feel of a movie that was pieced together from pre-existing movies. What I mean by that is, when Iron Man is on the screen, it feels like an Iron Man movie, when Thor and Loki are on screen, it feels like a Thor movie, etc. The movie has no identity of its own, much like the team itself, it is a pastiche of the things that came before it. That was brilliant, and it was so subtle a lot of people don't even realize it, but they feel it. As with almost all artistic endeavors, the more you can tell your audience without them realizing you're telling them, the more of an impact it has. I don't think The Avengers was the greatest superhero movie ever made, and in fact when taken just in the context of the movie by itself, it was pretty average, but everything that led up to it, and the way in which it was executed, left such an impression on the audience that many believed they had seen something a lot more special than what was actually shown to them, and that is excellent filmmaking.
In just a few short months, Netflix will premier Daredevil, and based on the trailer it looks to be the next adaptation to get everything just perfect, but only time will tell on that one.
What adaptation of a book or comic book do you feel just nailed it? Let us know in the comments.