The new millennium started with a bang and never really let go, as far as comic book movies go. It was the dawn of the Marvel Age...Well, anyway, let's just dig in!
After a rough start and near extinction, the X-Men became one of the most popular and profitable franchises in comic book history, so it's no surprise that when Marvel finally got around to making a strong push at movies, they were the stars. It's no wonder, really, because for years the company has built its reputation on characters that're supposed to be relatable, and a bunch of outcasts trying to make their way in the worlds, whether blacks or homosexuals, or mutants, stood a good chance of being noticed with or without superpowers. Of course, the success of X-Men came in large part to the unexpected breakout status of Hugh Jackman, who redefined Wolverine as more than just indestructibly awesome, but downright cool, so that he's actually gotten his own spinoff franchise (the reverse of the Avengers approach, but something maybe the Hulk won't find unfamiliar). Toss in a phenomenal cast around him, and you've got something that's more than superheroes, and that's exactly what comic book movies have been needing. This changes everything.
Still known as the second movie in M. Night Shyamalan's increasingly disappointing career after The Sixth Sense, this one's also one of the most innovative and striking superhero movies ever made, an origin story that cleverly plays with all the regular tropes of the genre. Perhaps at some point fans will figure out what Shyamalan has been doing with his career, and stop overlooking gems like this.
Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
How many people even remember this movie was made? Basically capitalizing on the then-budding youth surge in entertainment, it's an adaptation of an obscure Archie Comics property that seeks to expand the scope of what comic book movies can be. On that score, it's a wild success. No, I have not seen it.
From Hell (2001)
Just as two decades earlier Hollywood fell in love with Stephen King, this marks the beginning of its love affair with Alan Moore. Actually, stalking might be more like it, because Moore has never been happy about any of it, even though his work helped expand both in comics and in movies the kinds of stories fans were willing to accept. This one's based on Jack the Ripper, by the way.
Ghost World (2001)
Here's the real transition mark, wherein Hollywood and the independent movie scene finally cross paths. Critics adored this adaptation and helped give the whole genre a gloss of respectibility.
This is pretty much the opposite of Ghost World. I still want to see it. I'm willing to bet that if Tim Burton had been involved, people might actually remember this movie today.
Blade II (2002)
Without this movie, Blade would probably have been quickly forgotten (or relegated to direct-to-video sequels, rather than a third movie and a short-lived TV show). Ah, and also, without it, we likely wouldn't have Guillermo del Toro, who went on to direct the Hellboy movies and Pan's Labyrinth. Anyway, hugely influential, helped increase Marvel's movie cache, what else can you want?
Men in Black II (2002)
Clearly a major success that at this point had no relevant connection to comic books anymore, the Men in Black franchise now rests entirely on the shoulders of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, but it still technically counts.
This is the mark of explosion for modern superhero movies. Until this point, Spider-Man was not really technically possible. Oh, sure, he'd been on TV, but no one really likes to think about that. With the dawn of digital art as a regular canvas for films to draw from, Spidey's adventures webslinging across New York City themselves became a huge draw, and it became easier to believe that a superhero could be real. That's the true distinction that's resulted in the explosion that continues to this day.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Tom Hanks did a comic book movie. No, really! (I'm sure, he's done drag and a toy cowboy, but c'mon, this still has to count as cool!) This is a gangster movie about family, and is doused in great acting and cinematography, but it's also based on a comic book. Anyone still doubting the versatility of the medium no longer had a leg to stand on. Now if we can only get people to remember this movie exists...
Believe it or not, but at the time, this movie but not a member of the black sheep of Marvel movie adventures. Ben Affleck took a steep fall not so long after, and Jennifer Garner's Elektra spinoff tanked, but at the time, small scale superheroes still worked. Of course, notably, small scale has never worked again. Audiences began demanding epics, and Daredevil is simply not an epic kind of guy. There are two cuts of this movie, and both are worth enjoying. Based almost completely on actual comic book stories, the famous Frank Miller tales, by the way, and so counts as the dawn of the geek era (well, this and the Lord of the Rings films), which has driven Hollywood pretty hard ever since.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Considered the best of the X-Men movies until First Class came along, this one helped set the precedent of creator control in these affairs, with Bryan Singer keeping a steady hand on the tiller, something that could not be said for the third flick. What it really accomplished, though, was the idea of a working, popular film franchise, the first since Batman fizzled last decade.
The whole concept of the Incredible Hulk is basically the comic book version of the classic monster genre Hollywood perfected in its golden age, and for two films, Hollywood tried to keep Hulk exactly in that mold. The first attempt came with impressive pedigree, directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana, but aside from a few attempts to give the movie a true comic book feel, it was a little too pretentious for most fans, who loved to see Hulk smash, just not in this way. Actually, this movie still basically stands as the exact basis for the entire Avengers franchise, especially in the storytelling. It only lacks appreciation, on any level. The problem is that while audiences were primed for superhero movies as a regular genre of filmmaking, they weren't yet prepared to embrace it without reservation. They'd been burned before. Who was to say it wouldn't happen again? It was the skeptic that prevented Hulk from being anything more than a monster movie. And the lack of Nick Fury.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Another Alan Moore movie, and ironically almost the exact template for The Avengers, released ten years later. Moore believed it was interesting to mash-up existing literary creations. Van Helsing believed it was interesting to mash-up existing monster creations. Anyway, neither experiment found a willing audience. The Avengers found another way to corner that market. LXG deserves more credit and more respect, especially as it was Sean Connery's last movie, his last starring vehicle, and like I said, exactly the same movie as the one that has become one of the most popular movies ever.
American Splendor (2003)
This is the story of Harvey Pekar, starring Paul Giamatti, an unlikely pairing for success, consider that to this point neither had really had any. Pekar was the kind of independent comics, Giamatti was the best unrecognized actor of his generation. Somehow combining them boosted both their fortunes. This was the zenith of the critical approval of comic book movies. Somehow there hasn't been another movie like it since. I guess it only figures.
AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)
Based more on a series of cult comic book mash-ups than either of the movie franchises from which they derive (I omit the second one because it then becomes more about movies again than comics), this one helped make a number of things possible. The Aliens franchise had been run into the ground, and the Predator films had been neglected for years. The improbable union brought both back to levels where new things could happen again, so eventually we get both Predators and Prometheus. Thank you, comic books.
Hellboy is a cult favorite among comic book fans, but to mass audiences he's still pretty obscure, so that making a movie out of him was a fairly standard move on Hollywood's part. What no one expected was for Guillermo del Toro to add his particular style to the proceedings. This is not a serious franchise, but it's pretty epic. The film series isn't wildly popular, but it's certainly distinctive, like a new Ghostbusters. Plus, how else does Ron Perlman become a bona fide movie star?
The Punisher (2004)
I think Marvel started making these movies because they thought they could have either another Blade or perhaps another Daredevil on their hands. Punisher is probably more of a Blade than a Daredevil, considering you don't even need to know or care about his comic book appearances to accept him as a viable (and somewhat familiar) cinematic character.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Notice that there's a lot more movies based on Marvel characters than DC at this time? That's because Marvel has captured the moment, and the popular imagination, and it really doesn't hurt to have a character so eminently ready to command the moment. This one's generally considered to be the best Spider-Man movie so far.
The Incredibles (2004)
Computer animation giant Pixar got into the game with this loose adaptation of the Fantastic Four, depicting a world where superheroes have been outlawed, and so everything about them must be rebuilt from the ground up. This is a deconstruction of the genre, at a point where superheroes are starting to be taken seriously, and so a key moment in the ongoing phenomenon. I'm not actually a big fan of the movie. Pixar tends to gloss over some of its movies, and this is one that could've been better. Not to be sacrilegious or anything, but it's no Megamind.
Almost everyone considers Halle Berry's Catwoman to be a black sheep (or cat, as it were) of the genre, but it makes perfect sense to the period. Hollywood still hadn't figured out how to reliably interpret the instincts of either its target audience or the potential mass audience around it. DC movies had petered out, everyone was falling all over themselves to reboot Superman and Batman, who had dominated the genre for decades, and it was still considered a safe bet to try and bring superheroes to earthly proportions. Catwoman is a mash-up of instincts (Hollywood is a town of entrenched instincts) that didn't ring true, not the least being that the central character was reinterpreted and made out to be a good guy, rather than a bad girl. You can't start something new in this genre and expect it to be taken lightly.
Blade: Trinity (2004)
The cult series that ushered the Marvel movie era comes to a close and has basically been forgotten, which is a shame. This probably happened because other Marvel movies met with far greater success, so the definition of cult hit took on a dramatic curve into the mainstream.
This is better known as a Keanu Reeves movie than the DC adults imprint Vertigo series on which it is based. Otherwise this might be considered the DC answer to Blade. A little late, guys.
Probably thanks to Catwoman, and the lack of any overt connection to Daredevil, audiences were primed to ridicule this one from the start. I still consider this to be a crying shame. But it probably helps explain why that first solo Wolverine outing basically failed.
Son of the Mask (2005)
Okay, so maybe this is why nobody is reading Mask comics today.
The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005)
Ladies and gentlemen, witness the secret origin of Taylor Lautner! This is also one of Robert Rodriguez's many attempts to make kid movies starring kids, but it's also a sign that Hollywood was willing to start creating some of its own stuff again.
Sin City (2005)
Rodriquez makes his Pulp Fiction based on Frank Miller material. Outside of Alan Moore, no comic book creator is more of an influence on Hollywood than Miller. This is one of my personal favorites.
Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan revamps the playing field with a dark, serious, cinematic, epic vision of an established comic book and movie franchise. This is the alternative that Marvel is still playing against, though The Amazing Spider-Man looks to have taken its cue directly from Nolan. What this means, and what still has yet to play out, is that superhero movies don't need to be interpreted as superhero movies anymore.
Fantastic Four (2005)
The complete opposite of Batman Begins and something that was potentially an ongoing franchise until Marvel launched its Avengers initiative, takes comic book superheroes pretty much at face value, really isn't so different from the Spider-Man movies, yet somehow doesn't get any love these days. Not great, but not terrible, either.
Sky High (2005)
Taking superheroes back to Hollywood's comfort zone. It's okay if you haven't heard of this one.
A History of Violence (2005)
The last movie to date that attempts to take serious comic book material as serious drama, in the tradition of Road to Perdition kind of fell on deaf ears (possibly because it's a little full of itself).
V for Vendetta (2005)
Another movie based on Alan Moore's work! This one probably features the most improbable superhero costume ever committed to film (the Guy Fawkes mask! the terrible wig!), and the most alliterative dialogue ever, a message movie disguised as a superhero movie disguised as a comic book move! These were good times. Many things would change.
Next: more from the first decade of the millennium!