For a moment, let’s forget about movie adaptations of comics and instead look back on the movies that inspired comics. If you look at the twentietch century, you’ll see that the history of comics and the history of cinema were often closely related, as if one was a tangent of the other. The rise of the talking picture happened around the same time as the Golden Age of Comics. Is it a big surprise that so many DC characters originated at the same time that cowboys fought indians and cops shot at gangsters on the screen? Countless times people compare comics to film story boards. Here’s a few examples of early black and white pictures that I believe either directly or indirectly inspired comic books as we know them today.
1) Citizen Kane: It’s fairly well-known that many comic artists were inspired by the camera angles utilized in Citizen Kane. This is supported in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay where the hero Joseph Kavalier, a maverick artist, sees the film, changes his layout style, and suddenly his comics become more popular. This fictional scenario is very likely based on Will Eisner, whose seminal series The Spirit had many of the same angles that Orson Welles used, such as low-angles looking up. Welles himself though was inspired by the style known as German Expressionism, which you see in such films as Dracula, M, and the following:
2) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Visually, the movie resembles a comic book, especially because of the stylized artificiality of the backgrounds.
The bigger influence though would be the villain Caligari along with his somnambulist henchman. I think Caligari is the prototype of the supervillain. For one, he kidnaps women (damsel in distress) and another, his main power is mind-control. How many thousands of superhero books involve good guys fighting other good guys while hypnotized?
3) The Most Dangerous Game: This involves again an over-the-top villain who could be considered a precursor to the modern super villain. His name is Count Zaroff, and he hunts people for sport. The plot involves a man and woman running around a lush tropical island, avoiding capture. The hero also has All-American looks. Studios around this time churned out all sorts of tropical island adventure romances, but this one’s the most prominent (to read a longer review of this movie on my other site, click here). Also, this has a climactic cliffhanger scene–literally (to read a longer review on my other site, click here).
4) Scarface (1932 version): Really, everything that started out as pulp likely owes something to the Howard Hawks film Scarface. It has booze, girls, and tommy guns. Also, it features some sort of action every few minutes, much like how superhero comics have some sort of fight in just about every issue. The biggest connection though would be in the villains. Each has a distinguishing characteristic. Scarface of course has a scar across his cheek. In comics, all of the major villains have some sort of deformity or uncommon physical trait that sets them apart. Another of the villains has a constant motif: he’s constantly seen playing with a coin (like Two-Face).
5) G-Men: While a lot of the movies on the list inspired villains, I believe this one features the type of character who would later define superhero books. The hero is played by James Cagney (who almost always played villains around this time). He’s supposed to be one of the first FBI agents (I’d also add that superheroes were quite possibly inspired by the birth of the FBI). Cagney plays it in a jokey way, and he’s rarely deeply serious. Similar to heroes like Superman, Batman, Spiderman and so on, when Cagney’s done fighting, he somehow has the composure to go and flirt with girls.
To people interested in the history of comic books, I’d recommend all five. The movies are good in their own right too, so even if you’re not a huge comic fan, I’d recommend checking them out (if you’re okay with old movies, that is). I know at least The Most Dangerous Game and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are available on Youtube for free.