The Best Non-Superhero Comic Book Movies

Scott Pilgrim looking at a cartoonish 1-up floating by his head non-superhero

Comic book movies dominate the media landscape. However, not every movie adapted from a comic book involves Spider-Man, Captain America, or other characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comic book medium covers many genres, from memoir to comedy to horror. These different types of stories have inspired excellent non-superhero movies that put the visuals in the comics into motion. 

1. Ghost World (2001)

Ghost World (2001) Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson
Image Credit: United Artists.

Before he started directing movies, Terry Zwigoff worked in independent comics, operating a store and even editing work by Pulitzer winner Art Spiegelman and more. That experience made Zwigoff the perfect person to adapt Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World, a series of non-superhero short stories published in his ongoing comic Eightball.

Zwigoff’s film retains many of the digressions in the misadventures of friends Enid Coleslaw (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), the former of whom forms a bond with a sad older man called Seymour (Steve Buscemi). However, the film also streamlines the plot to emphasize the changes between the friends after they graduate high school, keeping the pathos but making it more accessible. 

2. Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer Movie (2013)
Image Credit: RADiUS/TWC.

Although it began as the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by artist Jean-Marc Rochette and writer Jacques Lob, Snowpiercer feels very much in line with other films made by Korean director Bong Joon-ho.

The non-superhero story of a rigid and stratified society living in an unstopping train after the apocalypse, Le Transperceneige proved a perfect vehicle for Director Bong to explore his pet themes such as economic inequality. Snowpiercer stars Chris Evans as Curtis, one of the poor people relegated to the back of the train who leads a rebellion to the front cars, where they face the tyrannical conductor Wilford (Ed Harris) and his right-hand lackey, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton). At points, Snowpiercer recalls a traditional superhero story, especially with Evans in the lead, but Bong refuses to let it fall into simple binaries.

3. Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy, Choi Min-sik, Seung-shin Lee
Image Credit: Tartan Films.

Written by Japanese creators Garon Tsuchiya and artist Nobuaki Minegishi, the manga (Japanese comic book) Old Boy first appeared in serialized form in the magazine Weekly Manga Action. Korean director Park Chan-wook, working with his co-writers Hwang Jo-yun and Lim Jun-hyung, moved the story from Japan to their native country and changed some of the names for Oldboy, but the film follows the same basic non-superhero plot.

After a decade in captivity, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) returns to find his family gone and the world changed. The manga contains a variation of the movie’s horrific twist, but other infamous parts of the movie, including the hallway fight and most of its violence, did not come from the comics. 

4. American Splendor (2003)

Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in American Splendor (2003)
Image Credit: HBO Films.

The cantankerous Cleveland native Harvey Pekar makes for an unusual hero of autobiographical non-superhero comics, not least of which because he cannot draw. However, thanks to his penchant for observation and the help of great artists such as R. Crumb, Pekar chronicled his life for decades in the series American Splendor.

Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini cast Paul Giamatti as Pekar, with Hope Davis as his wife Joyce and Judah Friedlander as his pal Toby, but they also include the real Pekar, Joyce, and Toby in the film, using the play of documentary and narrative film to replicate the mundane nature of the original comics. 

5. Speed Racer (2008)

When Lana and Lilly Wachowski brought their live-action movie Speed Racer to theaters in 2008, most audiences saw it as an adaptation of the anime from the 1960s, not realizing that the anima came from a non-superhero manga launched earlier that decade.

The Wachowskis carry the spirit of both sources into their film, blending live-action characters played by stars such as John Goodman and Cristina Ricci, along with candy-colored CG worlds. The approach turned off viewers at the time, who expected the filmmakers to stay within the dark worlds of the Matrix trilogy. 

6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Alison Lohman and Sumi Shimamoto in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Image Credit: Toei Company.

Those who know the history of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind might raise objections to its inclusion on this list. While the Nausicaä manga does precede the film, both come from Hayao Miyazaki. Before he could produce the film, Miyazaki began writing and drawing the non-superhero manga, which appeared in Animage magazine between 1982 and 1994, stopping from time to time to work on movies. The movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind came to theaters in 1984, presenting a sweeping vision that contains several of the famed animator’s interests, including the conflict between nature and industry and wonderful flying machines. 

7. We Are the Best! (2013)

We Are the Best! Movie (2013)
Image Credit: Sofia Sabel/Magnolia Pictures.

While Swedish director Lukas Moodysson worked on his movie based on the 2008 non-superhero graphic novel Never Goodnight, he had a unique resource: his wife Coco Moodysson, author of the book.

Despite that close relation to the author, Moodysson varies quite a bit from the source material in We Are the Best! In place of the impressionistic artwork that Coco Moodysson employed, all sharp angles and striking black and white contrasts, Lukas Moodysson takes a naturalistic approach to the story of three teen girls — Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne — who start a punk band. However, even with those differences, We Are the Best! keeps the same energy and spirit. 

8. Old (2021)

The cast of Old (2021)
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

The M. Night Shyamalan movie Old falls in line with the director’s best movies, with its stylistic dialogue and bizarre premise. However, Shyamalan drew inspiration from the 2010 non-superhero comic book Sandcastle by Swiss artist Frédérik Peeters and French documentarian Pierre Oscar Lévy.  Shyamalan alters the plot in notable ways, including a twist ending missing from the book.

Despite those minor distinctions, Old and Sandcastle follow families rapidly growing old on a mysterious beach and a wistful tone. As a result, both versions tell moving and strange stories, even if they go in different directions. 

9. A History of Violence (2005)

Vigo Mortensen standing outside in A History of Violence
Image Credit: New Line Cinema.

In the 1997 non-superhero graphic novel A History of Violence by writer John Wagner and artist Vince Locke, Michigan cafe owner Tom McKenna draws the attention of the New York Mafia after stopping a robbery.

In the 2005 David Cronenberg movie A History of Violence, Indiana cafe owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) draws the attention of the New York Mafia when he stops a robbery. As minor as those differences might appear, they set the central story in two different directions. As with his most famous work Judge Dredd, Wagner uses hyper-violence to portray the effect of past crimes. Cronenberg strips out most of the brutality to explore the same theme, reserving it for certain shocking moments. 

10. Persepolis (2007)

Persopolis Persopolis
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

Working alongside filmmaker Vincent Paronnaud, cartoonist and director Marjane Satrapi adapts her own work, bringing the comic Persepolis (2000 – 2003) to the screen. This consistency allows the film to maintain the striking visuals of the original work, which chronicles the extreme changes that Satrapi experienced as a young woman during the 1980 Islamic Revolution in Iran. By setting her images in motion, Satrapi emphasizes the punk energy of her younger self’s resistance, which makes the pathos all the sweeter. 

11. Akira (1988)

Akira (1988)
Image Credit: Toho.

Even those who don’t care for anime know of Akira, the legendary 1988 film about street gangs, mutants, and a military regime in futuristic Neo-Tokyo. Before director and writer Katsuhiro Otomo made the movie, he wrote and drew the story as a manga, published in 120 chapters between 1982 and 1990. Despite having the same person behind both versions, the movie Akira streamlines the story while also fleshing out some characters. In particular, the major threat Tetsuo becomes more of a tragic victim in the movie instead of the malevolent creature from the book. 

12. Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (2010)

Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

By 2010, director Edgar Wright had already made a name for himself as a visual innovator interested in popular culture. For that reason, the Scott Pilgrim comics from writer and artist Bryan Lee O’Malley seemed like the perfect project for Wright to pick up after his hits Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.

Indeed, Wright demonstrated a keen understanding of O’Malley’s work when making Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, finding the ideal actors to portray the misfit characters and sharing a love of video games that gave the movie an energetic spark. 

13. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl Bel Powley
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

Written and illustrated by Phoebe Gloeckner, the 2002 non-superhero book The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures takes a frank look at adolescence. Presented from the perspective of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz, The Diary of a Teenage Girl chronicles the main character’s inappropriate relationship with her mother’s 40-year-old boyfriend.

Such a raw and complicated story does not lend itself to a movie adaptation, and yet writer and director Marielle Heller manages to maintain its beauty and grossness. Thanks to an outstanding lead performance by Bel Powley, Heller treats its subject with sensitivity and truth without ever sanding off the rough edges. 

14. The Death of Stalin (2017)

The ensemble cast overlooks the crowd
Image Credit: Entertainment One Films.

No one would consider a shakeup in the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party a good subject for a comic book. And yet, artist Thierry Robin and writer Fabien Nury turned the event into comedy and drama for their 2010 non-superhero book La Mort de Staline.

That absurd take on a real-world event matches the worldview of director Armando Iannucci, who recruited writers David Schneider and Ian Martin to help him bring it to the screen. The finished product, The Death of Stalin, plays up the artificial nature of the book, as stars Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, and Jason Isaacs make no attempt to change their accents. Moreover, the endless scheming of petty and powerful figures fits along with Iannucci’s other works, such as The Thick of It and Veep

15. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

As many critics have noted, Edge of Tomorrow plays like a great non-superhero video game adaptation. Directed by Doug Liman and written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, the movie stars Tom Cruise as Major William Cage, a cowardly soldier in a futuristic battle against alien invaders. Cage dies in battle, just to revive the previous morning.

Using the time loop, he trains under Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), becoming a better fighter each time. While that structure mirrors the extra-life structure of video games, Edge of Tomorrow comes from a graphic novel with a much better title, All You Need Is Kill, by writer Hiroshi Sakurazaka and artist Yoshitoshi Abe.  

16. Cemetery Man (1994)

Rupert Everett in Cemetery Man
Image Credit: October Films.

With his distinctive red shirt and monster-hunting mission, some might call Cemetery Man protagonist Dylan Dog superhero adjacent, at least as he appears in the original comics by Italian cartoonist Tiziano Sclavi. However, director Michele Soavi does not at all have heroism on his mind for Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man.

Rupert Everett, the man on whom Sclavi based his character, stars as cemetery caretaker Francesco Dellamorte. After romancing a beautiful widow (Anna Falchi), Dellamorte must deal with the dead in his cemetery coming back to life, threatening the nearby town. While that premise does lead to some horror moments, Soavi directs Cemetery Man as a sensual and moody drama/comedy, anchored by a fantastic performance by Everett. 

17. Ichi the Killer (2001)

ichi-the-killer
Image Credit: Media Blasters.

The prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike has made movies based on all manner of works, including video games (Ace Attorney) and anime (Ninja Kids!!!). However, Ichi the Killer works well as a source material and adaptation.

The non-superhero manga Ichi the Killer by Hideo Yamamoto features plenty of over-the-top violence and explores the psychological response to that carnage. Miike brings that same level of attention to the movie, making the violence even more shocking when performed by actors and portrayed with realistic effects. 

18. Sin City (2005)

Sin City Bruce Willis, Elijah Wood
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

The Sin City comics by Frank Miller owe a great debt to cinema, pulling from films noir and ninja movies. So director Robert Rodriguez didn’t have to make a great leap to bring three of Miller’s Sin City stories to the screen.

Furthermore, Rodriguez used green screen and CGI effects to replicate the look of Miller’s artwork, putting live-action actors into stark black-and-white landscapes. Audiences can debate the merits of the final work, which sometimes feels more artificial than the source material but no one can deny Rodriguez performed a compelling experiment. 

19. The Road to Perdition (2002)

Road to Perdition Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

When The Road to Perdition debuted in 2002, most of the talk centered around the amoral mob assassin played by Tom Hanks, a darker role for the Hollywood nice guy. Written by David Self and directed by Sam Mendes, right off of his Academy Award-winning movie American Beauty, The Road to Perdition follows Michael Sullivan (Hanks) as he tries to run from the mob with his son Michael Jr. (future Superman Tyler Hoechlin). However, more attention should have been paid to the story that inspired Mendes’s movie, the 1998 miniseries The Road to Perdition from writer Max Allan Collins and artist Richard Piers Rayner. The moody comic better pulls off the tone that Mendes attempts, but no one can deny Hanks’s strong performance. 

20. Heavy Metal (1981)

Heavy Metal (1982)
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Since its launch in 1977, the adult-oriented non-superhero comic magazine Heavy Metal gave readers a steady diet of edgy sci-fi and dark fantasy, all with a heavy dose of sensuality.

The magazine also inspired an animated anthology film directed by Gerald Potterton, based on stories from the magazine from creatives such as Richard Corben and Bernie Wrightson. Working with a team of different animators, Potterton mirrors the variety offered by the comic book, jumping from a nasty cyberpunk tale to a barbarian power fantasy and more. And even if not every story works for audiences, they’re sure to appreciate the rocking soundtrack with DEVO, Cheap Trick, and other great acts. 

21. Creepshow (1982)

Leslie Nielsen in Creepshow (1982)
Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures.

Creepshow features two legends, with George A. Romero directing and Stephen King writing. And what brings these two titans of horror together? The EC horror comics of the 1950s, such as Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear.

The anthology film Creepshow doesn’t directly adapt to any particular issue of those non-superhero comics but follows the tone and style. Romero uses bright colors and puts frames over the shots to replicate the comic book feel. Plus, Creepshow contains the amazing segment “Father’s Day,” which ends with a shot no one will soon forget. 

22. 30 Days of Night (2007)

30 Days of Night
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

The 2002 comic book 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith has a fantastic premise. It features a vampire attack on an Alaskan town in winter, where the sun does not rise for a full 30 days.

Where Niles and Templesmith use a hazy, moody approach to build dread, the 2007 movie directed by David Slade takes a more straightforward approach. As a result, the film plays like a different take on the same great idea, a fun action movie about a sheriff (Josh Hartnett) and his wife (Melissa George) fighting off an endless onslaught of bloodsuckers. 

23. Fritz the Cat (1972)

Fritz the Cat (1974)
Image Credit: Cinemation Industries.

Controversy has always surrounded the non-superhero animated film Fritz the Cat, not just because it was the first animated movie to receive an X-rating. Cartoonist R. Crumb, who created the Fritz the Cat comics on which director Ralph Bakshi based the movie, resented the idea of a film adaptation.

For his part, Bakshi positioned the movie against his former employer Disney Studios, and did what he could to push buttons. Furthermore, the movie’s frank imagery and satire of liberal youths upset people across the political spectrum. Despite all of that hubbub, Fritz the Cat is just okay, a movie both better and worse than its reputation suggests. 

24. From Hell (2002)

Johnny Depp and Heather Graham in From Hell (2001)
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

The Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell non-superhero comic book From Hell (1989 – 1998) tells a dense and technically complex investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders, leading to a bold conspiracy accusation. One can understand why directors the Hughes Brothers and screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias simplified the story for the film adaptation, making it a simple whodunnit starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. The movie From Hell doesn’t work in every regard, but the problems don’t stem from the attempts to simplify the narrative for blockbuster audiences. 

Author: Joe George

Title: Pop Culture Writer

Expertise: Film, Television, Comic Books, Marvel, Star Trek, DC

Bio:

Joe George is a pop culture writer whose work has appeared at Den of Geek, The Progressive Magazine, Think Christian, Sojourners, Men's Health, and elsewhere. His book The Superpowers and the Glory: A Viewer's Guide to the Theology of Superhero Movies was published by Cascade Books in 2023. He is a member of the North Carolina Film Critic's Association.