The newest Hellboy film is the latest in a not-so-significant line of R-rated movies based on comic books, graphic novels, or manga. Join us as we take a look at the top ten examples of these types of films – including some films you might not have realized were based on graphic print media in the first place.
R-rated cinematic adaptations of printed media are common. Think of all the books that have been made into dark exciting thrillers, violent action movies, and steamy romantic dramas. Less common are those R-rated films based on graphic printed media – comic books, graphic novels, and manga. Animated printed media has traditionally appealed to a younger demographic, a demographic for whom an R-rating would be prohibitive in theaters. Because of this, movie studios did not spend big money making R-rated adaptations of graphic printed media.
Of course, all that has changed. Those kids who grew up reading comics and graphic novels are now adults. And as adults, they will gladly pay to see an R-rated adaptation of their favorite graphic printed media on the big screen. R-rated adaptations may still pale to the number and scope of mainstream PG-13 rated films of similar inspiration, but they have grown steadily in terms of both quantity and quality over the last twenty years.
To celebrate the release of the latest big-budget R-rated film based on animated print media, I decided to rank my ten favorite films with similar inspiration. For the sake of my sanity, I chose to only consider live-action movies.
Kickass is somewhat of a spoof on the traditions of comic book superhero movies, but does nonetheless meet the criteria to be featured on this list. Based on a Marvel Comic, Kickass is a film that fully commits to its ridiculous premise that would only work in a comic book; normal people can become crime-fighting vigilantes if only they have a high enough pain threshold and commit fully to their training. The film makes full use of its R-rating to paint a picture that is equal parts hilarity and equal parts gut-wrenching violence. Kickass makes this list because it is as fun as an R-rated superhero film has any right to be.
On paper, Dredd is what we would expect for an R-rated superhero movie. A fresh vision of a known property, but toned down by a low budget. However, upon viewing the finished product, our expectations for such a film are easily surpassed. Dredd’s meager budget doesn’t restrict its entertainment value at all. The film does restrict itself to a familiar premise, and limited setting, but it makes up for it with committed performances, adrenaline-pumping neon visuals, and a plot jam-packed with deliciously brutal action. It does justice to the source material, and more importantly, provided a blueprint for other modern R-rated graphic media to follow.
- Sin City
Until Sin City, graphic media film adaptations had been just that, adaptations. They were movies with plots and characters borrowed from the source material. Sin City changed all that. It is a graphic novel brought to life on the big screen in a way we had never seen before. Sin City looks like the graphic novel transferred off of the page and onto the screen directly. It managed to maintain the trademark style of Frank Miller, but adding in the depth, motion, and those three dimensions required of live action filmmaking.
It is a paragon of technological ingenuity and creative artistry on film. Perhaps the approach is very literal, but it provides its viewer with a very unique movie-watching experience. It also helps that visionary creator Frank Miller was involved as director, writer, and producer to ensure the look and feel were brought to life in a way which more than did justice to the original source material – it did so without significant compromises.
- Oldboy (2003)
Oldboy is an odd man out on this list. Like #3, it isn’t the type of film we’d expect it to be as a graphic novel adaptation. Unlike #3, it hails from South Korea courtesy of shock-master Park Chan-wook. As a foreign film, it has had quite the staying power and made a big impression on domestic audiences (to the point of being remade by Spike Lee in 2013). What makes Oldboy so fascinating is how intriguing and off putting it is at the same time. Not only is the final twist one of the most shocking of all time, but the narrative to get to that point was full of both shock and awe. If anything Oldboy makes a mark on its audience that doesn’t fade away. It is an incredibly effective film.
Like Kick-Ass, Deadpool is a film which revels in the excess. Comedy and extreme violence combine in fitting manner for an R-rated superhero movie. But in addition to how fun and refreshing the film feels as it plays off of the stereotypes of the genre, it is also an interesting film because of how it came to fruition. Deadpool’s pathway to production was very much a product of its time, and an avenue many other prospects would like to emanate.
While the film had been trying to get the greenlight for production since 2004, it was a strategic leak of preliminary footage in 2010 which ignited a popular push to see it through. It says as much about the popularity of superheroes in today’s modern age as well as the power of public opinion. Of course, Deadpool went on to become a big success (despite a meager budget), and so the gamble more than paid off.
In many ways, I consider Watchmen to be the quintessential R-rated film based on graphic print media. This is why I have decided to rank it so highly despite the film receiving mixed reviews. This is a film which does its source material justice. Converting a graphic novel to the big screen is a difficult task, especially given the complexities of the story and the multitude of characters to keep track of.
Snyder’s film does an admirable job of telling the story without too much compromise, and his film especially nails mailese-era America the look. It is also a refreshing take on superheroes, commenting on the implications of their actions rather than just heralding them as heroes. It is the rare film which entertains both the eyes and the mind, and, oh, your ears will be happy too.
- V for Vendetta
V for Vendetta is the ultimate Anti-Establishment film. It is a quintessential dystopia, a modern interpretation of George Orwell’s seminal 1984 but with Matrix-inspired fight scenes and fueled by a more personal exploration of our innermost motivations. It isn’t the most exciting film, the pacing is kind of clunky, and the source material isn’t as well-known as some of the other names on this list. However, V for Vendetta hit a sweet spot in the realm of pop culture which more than makes up for the films’ more pedestrian qualities. The film is now considered a modern classic and has since become a figurehead of counterculture movements.
- A History of Violence (2005)
A History of Violence was nominated for two Oscars, which is twice as many Oscars than the only other film on this list to have another nomination, which was Logan. That fact alone should make it clear how different this film is compared to its peers on this list. Most people probably don’t even realize it was based on a graphic novel. But regardless of the origin, it is simply an impactful film. Director David Cronenberg is a known expert of horror and thriller films, and here he manages to pull all the right strings to create one of his greatest works. His exploration of violence is haunting because of how the film shows us those tendencies exist in all of us. The film went on to be named to many critics’ best of 2005 lists, and won many critics circle awards for its performances. The only reason I didn’t rank it higher on this list is because the fact that this film is based on a graphic novel doesn’t really impact the final product.
- The Crow
Compared to the other films on this list, and despite only being 25 years old, The Crow seems like a grandfather. It was birthed from another era of film than today’s; an era where comic book-based movies were few and far between, and R-rated action films featured names like Schwarzenegger or Stallone. This movie was gloom and doom before it was cool. It found a gothic niche so far outside of the mainstream it took pop culture more than a decade to catch up. But more important than the film’s current cult classic categorization, The Crow is a fun and exciting movie to watch. It has held up very well and is proof of how, in the right hands, graphic print media can be utilized as a tremendous inspiration for film.
Refreshing – that’s one word which comes to mind when thinking about this movie. At first glance, this word may not seem to be a good description. Logan is one last adventure for everyone’s favorite cinematic X-man – a character we’ve now seen predominantly in more than 6 films. It is a return to a universe where the films arguably haven’t been as consistent as they could have been, which should make us shrug in indifference whenever they announce a new one.
It is also toned back compared to what we are used to seeing. Lower budget means less special effects, less eye candy, fewer fantastic mutant powers to observe. But all of these aspects which seem like they could be drawbacks end up being exactly what makes this film so good. One last adventure means one last chance to tell his story right. A return to a known universe means there is familiarity – less narration of setting is required, and the focus can be more squarely on the characters.
Lower budget means we’re seeing this universe in a way we’ve never seen before. And what we see is something more personal, more impactful, and more special than anything big-budget Hollywood has been able to accomplish with the franchise. For these reasons, Logan is the best R-rated film based on graphic print media we’ve seen so far, and it really shows the high potential of this type of filmmaking.
Good, but not good enough: 300, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Wanted, Blade, Constantine