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Comic book adaptations for adults

Ghost World’s humanistic and closely observed story nudged the comic book adaptation into new territory. Photo credit: United Artists

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Welcome, once again, to Three Easy Pieces, where I examine a specific subsection of pop culture from its birth, to how it exists today. This month, I'm thinking about comic book adaptations for adults. The subgenre experienced its biggest heyday in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but with Deadpool and Logan showing that there's an audience for R-rated comic book movies, we can surely expect to see more of comic book adaptations straying from kid-friendly territory.

BIRTH: Batman Returns (1992)

Honorable mention: The CrowTales from the CryptBlade

Ground had already been broken on adult-oriented comic book movies by the time Tim Burton got around to bringing Batman to the big screen, but those movies had largely consisted of juvenile sleaze (Fritz the CatTales from the CryptHeavy Metal, etc.) And, while Burton's Batman had moved the superhero genre into the grim and the gritty, it has nothing on Burton's positively insane follow-up, Batman Returns. Only in the MPAA's eyes is this a PG-13 movie, with any slight consideration of a child-centric audience relegated to the background.

Danny DeVito's Penguin is a grotesque monstrosity, oozing black bile and constantly making truly discomfiting sexual comments (when he's not biting noses off his political enemies). Michelle Pfeiffer does wonders with a tragic take on Catwoman, whose origin story involves her casual attempted murder at the hands of her boss, played with slimy relish by Christopher Walken. Oh, and, uh, Batman's there, too? This film is a real oddity, inadvertently setting the tone for a generation of superhero movies that don't really have a superhero -- just an ever-expanding rogue's gallery in a world of perpetual night.

DEVELOPMENT: Ghost World (2001)

Honorable mention: Road to PerditionA History of ViolenceOldboySin City

Comic books have never been exclusive to superhero stories, though you'd forgive mainstream film studios for assuming so. At a certain point, the more intimate, typically adult-focused stories prevalent in many graphic novels got their crack at the silver screen treatment. An early high-water mark for these kinds of movies is Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff's deeply humanistic, closely observed, and wryly hilarious adaptation of Daniel Clowes' beloved graphic novel of the same name. The story involves Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), two aloof hipsters who've recently graduated high school and find themselves confronted with the deeply disappointing life of the newly grown up.

Enid and Rebecca meet Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a jazz-obsessed record collector who has no real friends, but embraces a self-imposed loneliness as the cost of being a man of taste and principle. To Enid, he represents her potentially ideal future, of a person who would rather die alone than bend to the will of the squares; for Rebecca, Seymour immediately registers as a weirdo, a cautionary tale. Ghost World warmly navigates a story of growing up, the tenuous nature of friendship, and the values and dangers of being an outsider.

TODAY: Legion (2017)

Honorable mention: LoganBlue is the Warmest ColorMy Friend Dahmer

Though it's not a movie, but a TV show, Legion is one of the most audaciously psychedelic entertainments ever to air on television. Based on a semi-obscure X-Men character, Legion begins with David (Dan Stevens) locked away in a mental institution due to schizophrenia. Very early on, they dispense with the notion of mental illness, with the new diagnosis being that the voices that David hears in his head (and the destruction he seems to cause without meaning to) are symptoms of a powerful psychic ability. Further, it's proposed that roughly everything he's perceived about his life has been false.

A show as high-concept as they come, Legion functions almost entirely on dream logic, packed to the brim with jaw-droppingly gorgeous sequences and a plot so anarchic and elusive that following along sometimes feels like the struggle of having to recall a nightmare in the morning. Surreal horror, dizzying sci-fi, unexpected comedy, tons of Pink Floyd and Twin Peaks allusions, and, yes, excellent dance numbers -- these are all things that Legion regularly serves up. This is a show that bathes you in its weird brilliance, and it's astonishing to see it on basic cable every week.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Heat Wave Movies. 

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