Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The problem with comic books (and movies)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The problem with comic books (and movies)

Over at scanners, Jim Emerson has posed a series of questions about superheroes, comic books, and movies. To answer the title of his post, "Do critics hate comic-book movies?" he surveys the collective critical reaction to movies like X-Men, 300, and The Dark Knight and resolutely answers, "No." He follows up by asking, "where did this idea that critics dislike them come from?" As I wrote in his comment section, it's a fact that most critics are condescending towards the genre, although the more rabid fanboys also fuel the perception of immaturity when they overreact to criticism.

But it's a third question, unasked yet hinted, which most intrigued me and carried over onto this blog:

Is there something fundamentally wrong with comic-book movies?

To which I respond resolutely, confidently, and without trepidation: yes, no, and maybe.

Semantic problems first. "Comic-book movie" is essentially a halfway point where fans of "graphic novels" and critics of "superhero stories" can meet. Like all halfway terms, it doesn't really satisfy either side. So, I've been tempted to throw out that term and speak exclusively of "superhero movies." After all, Persepolis - acclaimed by critics as one of the best films of the year - was unabashedly based on a comic book. No one seemed to have trouble accepting that comic-book movie as a work of art - aren't critics just objecting to the praise heaped on movies about grown men running around in tights? Yet exchanging "comic book" for "superhero" doesn't account for works like 300 or Sin City, which feel much closer in spirit to The Dark Knight or even Iron Man than to Persepolis or Ghost World (a film most viewers would not even realize was based on a comic book). Also, limiting the discussion to matters of story and character seems to leave out certain formal elements which are just as important.

So "comic-book movies" it is, by which I mean certain films of a highly graphic nature, that take on specific characteristics, in story and style, tying them very closely to their source material. Jim Emerson writes, "'Dick Tracy' is set in a world so far from 'Batman Begins' that they hardly seem to be on the same planet." Actually, to my eyes Batman Begins does occupy the same planet as Dick Tracy but tries to pretend otherwise.
This is one of my primary problems with the new breed of comic-book films: forced groping towards high drama alongside a shallow grasp of character and plot. It's an attempt to have their cake and eat it too. Batman Begins, with its glum mood, more realistic sets, and intense focus on the psychology of Bruce Wayne, is consciously trying to set itself above a mere comic-book film like Tracy. Even Sin City, which shares with Tracy an all-star cast, a surface glibness, and an attempt to duplicate the two-dimensional world of the comic strip, sets a somber mood with its faux-noir devices and monochrome palette. I most enjoyed the sequence with Mickey Rourke, a fun, larger-than-life character who would have been at home in Dick Tracy, but I remember him as an exception among characters who seem to lack a sense of humor. Batman Begins, despite its yearning to be taken seriously, can't transcend the typical limitations of its genre: there are death-defying stunts and unrealistic action sequences, skin-deep characterizations, and too-broadly-drawn themes. And if Batman Begins uneasily acquiesces to these cliches, Sin City revels in them. Both films, in their attempts to mix darkness, realism, and unabated fantasy, lose their balance and topple into the abyss of what critic Andrew Sarris once referred to as "strained seriousness."

Part of the problem with these films, part of the reason they cannot quite bridge the gap, is inherent in the comic-book form itself. A visual medium like film, comics have also thrived on a visual shorthand, a kind of code which is often attributed to movies as well. Though they have developed over the years, comics still employ an often-admired symbolic economy, almost to the point that objects and people are their own, archetypal Platonic ideals. A car speeds by to show traffic, but it doesn't really matter what type of car it is. A seedy-looking apartment is a stand-in for its own connotations. A man standing by a streetlight in a fedora signifies "noir." Symbols which were created in the movies are circulated through comics and regurgitated onto the screen and it's no wonder that critics are uneasy. Though this coded system of references, this same simplicity, is a component of filmmaking and film-viewing, ultimately the filmic world has a potential far richer and more complex than that afforded by mere symbolism. This is not to consign the comics to oblivion: their own richness is provided in the illustration, a complete fabrication which is not possible in live-action movies. Because if a drawing can approach a Platonic ideal, a photographed image cannot, and should not.

Speech and sound in comics become a visual, graphic element, fused with the people and places producing them, whereas in film the relationship is more complex. The panels in a comic book remain fixed on the page, whereas the moving image is in constant flux. Furthermore, at least in live-action films, there is always a documentary aspect, no matter how hard the system of filmmaking tries to squeeze it out. You are always watching another real human being, however disguised. So when critics fret over the celebration of a comic-book shorthand, a visual style which consciously emulates the limitations, simplicities, and codes of that graphic form, they are probably frightened about cinema losing an integral part of its very soul. This is especially true when you consider how the comic-movie phenomenon coincides with the rise of CGI. The beautiful, almost mystical, fusion of realism and fantasy which was celebrated by critic Andre Bazin is threatening to turn into a lopsided equation. As if one of the partners in this delicate dance suddenly morphed into a 300-pound gorilla and crushed its companion, destroying the tense grace that existed moments before.

To take a step back from apocalyptic rhetoric and 300-pound gorillas (which must actually be extremely light for a gorilla, come to think of it), I did really enjoy The Dark Knight. True, I don't think it was a masterpiece or even a great film, which apparently counts as damnation these days, but it managed the very difficult feat of pulling off what Batman Begins attempted. It did so mostly through its screenplay, sidestepping the formal quandaries I've raised, and its flaws still relate to the fundamental problems in using the superhero format to deal with larger issues. But because it placed the burden of its depth and darkness on themes rather than characters (who remained locked into conventional superhero-film dimensions), it became truly compelling and managed to find a more-or-less appropriate analog to the comics' propensity for mythologizing.

So, just to be clear, I like comic books/graphic novels and I think they function extremely well within their particular set of limitations and rules (all forms have several). And comic-book movies, too, can function incredibly well within the limits they set for themselves. What troubles me is when I see these limitations and rules, which belong to one medium or genre, transferred to another and then grafted - uneasily - onto alien elements. Something is usually lost in translation. Looking at "Sin City" on the page, its simplicity and sharpness seems not only right but immensely satisfying and rich with connotations. Onscreen, it feels forced, lifeless, and tiresomely self-serious. If The Dark Knight can guide the way to comic-book films which function on the level of myth, or if it's merely an aberration, we can't yet be sure. In the mean time, there's plenty to discuss, so let me know what you think. I am just starting to sort out my ideas here so if you have objections, air them: this entry is a starting point, not a fixed perspective.


Graham said...

I find the idea your dealing with intriguing, although generally I couldn't disagree with you more. I personally view superheroes as an almost endless blank slate with which anything can be done, although admittedly Hollywood hasn't done as much with them as they could. But in a year that gave us Hellboy II, Dark Knight, and Iron Man, I feel like we should all understand that "comic book movies" can look and feel any way they want to. And when people complain that superhero movies have to have a villain and a hero and a climactic fight well, so does every action movie, and I don't hear people complaining because L.A. Confidential has a hero and a villain and a climactic fight.

But what I really wanted to say is that I don't understand at all the claim that comics art is always symbolic or shorthanded to a nearly platonic degree. Where does this idea come from? Do you have any examples? It just doesn't ring true to me.

Finally, welcome to the LAMB. You write very well, which can be a rarity out here on the interwubs. I'm happy to have another voice to listen to.

MovieMan0283 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MovieMan0283 said...

Graham, thanks for stopping by - this LAMB thing could be great if keeps leading people here. Many of these posts were meant to be discussed, so it's nice to finally do so.

I'm also kind of glad you disagreed with my views, as it will force me to think more deeply about them -- no laziness allowed.

This subject, of the intersection between comics and movies, fascinates me and is becoming more and more relevant. What I hoped to point up in my entry, but may not have been clear about, is that the critical resistance to comic-book movies may be as much about the advent of CGI, changes in cinematic formal principles, and other phenomena relating to the decline in "realism" (in style, not subject matter).

I do think that comics generally subsist on symbolism & shorthand. Firstly, on the obvious level that these are drawings, not documents like photographs, and that they are drawings which usually do not receive the same realistic or even impressionistic attention as a painting. And I think this tradition, borne originally out of the rapid pace and disposability of the comic medium, has been continued for more self-conscious reason even as comic books develop and grow in other ways. I've read some tremendous graphic novels (Maus comes to mind) in which the shorthand language of comics is used in conjunction with serious material to great effect. But I just think it leaves out too many important things when it's used in movies (especially in conjunction with attempts at darkness or depth).

Your request for examples is reasonable; unfortunately at the moment the computer I'm using is deadly slow. I should be on a faster one in a month but right now it usually takes me forever to get one good image, and I have to seek them out because I can't scan. So, for practical reasons, I can't really do an in-depth visual analysis of comics and movies to flesh out my point. But I will do so eventually, and in the meantime I'd like to do a follow-up post addressing some of your points.

Thanks for your comment - check in from time to time; I've been posting every day and some interesting stuff should be coming up soon (a week or two devoted to classics, more Twin Peaks discussions, and probably another list varying on the 12 movies meme).

Graham said...


While I agree with you that comics use symbols, I would disagree that they use shorthand. And I would also disagree that film or photography represents an authentic, not referential, "document" in a way that a painting or drawing does not. But I take that position as part of a complex interpretation of Deleuzean and Metzian semiotics, not to mention Bazinian realism, and I certainly understand the common sense assertion that a photograph is a document whereas a drawing isnt. (also, sorry for sounding like a douche bag with the name dropping).

I will agree with you that the reason people attack comic book movies is because they want to denigrate things like CGI and a lack of cinematic realism. But I think you're going astray if you let their detractors convince you that comic book movies are the reason for these changes (I date them back to Jurassic Park).

I would like to point you to an article at newsarama (http://www.newsarama.com/comics/080807-hollywood-comics-2.html)
in which a number of comic book creators note that Hollywood studios are not necessarily interested in how a comic looks, or even its story, but simply the idea behind it, and they frequently option comics before they're drawn. This is problematic for a reading of comics as "visual shorthand."

Finally, I disagree with you about Sin City - I found it thrilling. But I do think your points are valid in terms of films like Sin City, The Spirit, 300, etc. These are films in which the "visual shorthand" of comics are recreated, as faithfully as possible, using CGI. And you can make a strong case that that is an uncinematic way to function. But a movie like The Dark Knight or Hellboy (neither of which use much CGI, and neither of which use many images from the comics) doesn't seem to fall into that same trap.

MovieMan0283 said...

My reading was definitely based on the writing of Bazin and while I've read Christian Metz (but wasn't really considereing, I haven't read Deleuze (or at least not for a while). I have only dabbled in the pool of film semiotics though hopefully I'll explore more in the future.

As for Sin City, mine was admittedly a very subjective reaction. I recognize the skill that went in to it; it just left me cold (save for the Mickey Rourke scenes).

I don't think it's not just the CGI which I (and more importantly, the critics I'm speaking of) find offputting, but also storytelling strategies combined with stylistic devices which are meant to convey "realism." However, I haven't seen Hellboy or Hellboy II so I won't lump them in just yet; that said, I did see Pan's Labyrinth and was a little disappointed with the ham-handedness of its moral allegory. I thought the creatures were fantastic, but I was really excited to see a film fusing mythology and the Spanish Civil War, a period that fascinates me endlessly. Obviously Pan's Labyrinth was not a comic-book film but I think it does share some qualities with the films I've discussed. Incidentally, I recently rented The Devil's Backbone so I should be reviewing that pretty soon. Right now Pan's Labyrinth is the only del Toro film I've seen so I'm interested tofind out who I like this one.

Tony Dayoub said...

I think that what you mention about Sin City leaving you cold has to do with the deliberate two-dimensionality that Rodriguez is trying to keep intact. It is an adaptation of a graphic novel, not a novel. And a pretty black-and-white one at that, both literally and figuratively. There is a flatness he wants to preserve in Sin City that wouldn't exist in a novel which tends to be a lot more internal.

I sometimes find the same flatness in movies adapted from small plays, two-handers where only two actors act opposite each other. There was a whiff of that in Doubt which was really opened up for the screen from what I understand, and I predict there will be some of that in Frost/Nixon which I hope to catch tomorrow. I belive it's just inherent in the source material.

MovieMan0283 said...

This may very well be true in the formal, visual aspect, but what troubles me is perhaps the double flatness - visually (though I do find it striking and appealing), and for lack of a better word, humanistically. Though an adaptation of a play may be visually "flat" (albeit in a different way than Sin City) is human element, the spark ignited between performers if captured correctly, usually exceeds that of most movies, whereas comic book adaptations tend to fall short of most movies.

Tony Dayoub said...

See, I was referring to the flatness you call "humanistic". Only rarely do I see a movie based on theater that leaves that flat "staginess" of the performances behind. Not necessarily a criticism, mind you. Just something I learned to accept.

MovieMan0283 said...

An interesting point, and you may be right on the whole; perhaps I'm thinking of the cream of the crop. As for Rodriguez's aesthetic choices, I don't doubt that he meant to do exactly what he did - and in a sense, Sin City may be perfectly executed. It's just that in his success I found a coldness which didn't work for me and which I thought was an unfortunate byproduct of over-faithfulness to the form of the source when the spirit (which is dependent in part, on the medium) couldn't necessarily be transposed. At any rate, it's a bit of a theoretical argument because I've only seen & read parts of Sin City, the comic book. Based on what I know, I recall the flatness and two-dimensionality working for me on the page in a way it didn't on the screen.