ince their beginning, superhero flicks have always scavenged special effects magic and visual style from the tables of preceding adventure films rather than their original source material, comic books themselves. Superman could only fly through Metropolis after Skywalker flew through the Death Star Trench; Batman only became a believable crime-fighter in the vein of Jason Bourne’s hyper-realism; and I groaned aloud in the theater when my own best-loved comic hero, Spider-Man, performed a horribly superfluous Matrix-esque slow motion flip-dodge to evade a hail of razor-sharp projectiles. Superheroes are homeless on the silver screen. The characters that inspired action films on a large scale too often prefer to dress themselves in the precedents other films rather than establishing their own stylistic identities. Good comics do more than depict fantastical stories about characters endowed with great power. They create an environment in which art and symbol converge to create semiotic storytelling that has the potential to transcend the written word. Is it possible then to develop a true “comic book film” genre, and would it have anything to contribute to the medium as a whole?
My answer: yes and yes—if it can avoid being mere extensions of the Tarantino B-movie aesthetic and if it is possible to ban Frank Miller from ever using a camera again.
Comics films have split into two camps that employ two opposing philosophies regarding special effects: The mainline trend attempts to make superheroes relevant by using the latest special effects technology to make unbelievable antics fit into a believable world. The underdogs are films like Sin City, 300, The Spirit, and most recently, Watchmen, which spend their FX dollars trying to create just the opposite: an intentionally unbelievable world in which superpowered tomfoolery entertains no pretensions of being realistic but instead create an environment with the capability to set its own rules, its own mood, and channel its own particular themes in a decidedly visual way.
In these films green-screen and CGI effects are taken in a fresh direction: one that does something artful, creating a stylized environment rather than just making the unreal appear real. This is the best way to realize on-screen the artistic contributions of the comic medium. The only problem is that, with the arguable exception of Sin City, these movies suck. But they don’t have to suck. Comic movies could represent a new kind of visual storytelling by combining digital effects with careful art direction and a stylistic use of special effects.
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a good place to start. Just to get this out of the way: I didn’t like Watchmen. I think it’s a hollow film that hides juvenile sensibilities beneath a thin veneer of “cult” cinema. It puts you to sleep with long sequences of dialogue and wakes you up with pornography and glorified violence. But it sure is pretty. If Snyder did anything right by me it was his meticulous recreation of Dave Gibbons” artwork from the original comic book. As it happens, the art of Watchmen has just as much a hand in telling the story as the dialogue and plot. In writing Watchmen, author Alan Moore took influence from William S. Burrough’s comic The Unspeakable Mr. Hart which, as Moore put it, used “repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning.” In Watchmen, Moore used the picture-book format to give the story thematic depth using suggestive symbols. Exhibit A: the bloodstained smiley-face.
This image consistently haunts the backdrop of the story’s illustrations and it’s up to the reader to understand what it means. The blood mars the face’s symmetry, like the ugliness of the human stain disrupting utopia, but look at it long enough and it resembles a clock with the hand set five minutes to midnight. Is it a statement about human nature? A countdown to nuclear apocalypse? Is it both? The image is an illustrated double-entendre that recurs at key moments throughout the book in different forms. A man’s face is scarred in the same pattern, a giant spacecraft crashes over the right “eyeball” of the Galle Crater on Mars, a grinning shark is wounded in the eye, two people embrace forming the shape of the blood droplet before they are both disintegrated when New York is destroyed.
Each event injects the symbol with new meaning and allows the reader to participate in the interpretation of it and by extension, the story as a whole. There are a plethora of similar images that recur in similar ways throughout the book. Watchmen is a deeply symbolic tale that uses imagery as a concise way to tug at the soul in ways that words cannot express. It is, in a sense, a more “Catholic” way to tell as story than a novel, as it is less bound by the abstract authority of pure logos and gives the mind more room to play in a pictorial realm of inference and interpretation.
It is just this attention to detail and understated sense of grandeur that caused the book to be deemed “unfilmable” by fans and most vocally by Moore himself. They obviously hadn’t counted on today’s state-of-the-art post-production technology, which allows for an unprecedented amount of graphic control, right down to the shape of the bloodstain on the comedian’s smiley-face button. Snyder may have failed in making Watchmen a focused and coherent film but he succeeded in translating this “semiotic storytelling” to the screen. Though most people doubtless found these details to be little more than “easter eggs” for the fans, I think it is an admirable exercise in the human propensity to recognize and perceive meaning in symbols and engage in interpretation rather than just passively accepting given entertainment.
Watchmen proved that comics have ability to engage us semiotically and add layers of understated symbolic depth using pictures rather than the written word. Snyder may not be the most mature filmmaker in the biz, but he did understand the importance of visual storytelling in truly bringing a comic book to life. This method of repeated visual cues in building thematic grandeur has been used from time to time in cult cinema (e.g. John Patrick Shanley’s Joe vs. the Volcano; Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain), but the broad appeal of comic book films, particularly those starring iconic superheroes, have the potential to put visual symbolism into mainstream consciousness and re-activate our right-brained sensibilities, dulled nearly to dormancy by ultra-realistic entertainment.
Superheroes were never meant to be realistic: they were meant to be symbols. Men and women in capes and costumes with spiders, bats, and large bold letters emblazoned on their chests do not at their core represent some escapist desire to achieve the impossible. They are iconic incarnations of man’s hopes, fears, dreams, and desires, figures with an endless potential for social and political commentary, and self-reflection but only insofar as they remain symbols. Take them out of their mythological habitat, put them in the “real world” and the only way to keep them from resembling goofy dressed-up action figures is to give them a complete makeover (à la The Dark Knight) or at least by adding in a few moments of self-aware, ironic banter:
Wolverine: [eyeing his tight, black costume] You actually go outside in these things?
Cyclops: Well, what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?
From Bryan Singer’s X-Men
Bruce Wayne: “[a] guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.”
From Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
The power of symbol is more potent than the thrill of seeing people fly or climb walls. Watchmen, for all its faults, puts superheroes back in their original semiotic habiliment, one that privileges symbolism over realism and creates stylized mythology rather than just another super-powered action movie. What would it look like to restore the pantheon of traditional comic book heroes to their original exaggerated environments instead of taking such great pains to realize them in a contemporary setting? Maybe Batman would just make more sense fading into the inky shadows of a dark CGI Gotham City or Spider-Man would be better rendered in his original bright newsprint tones. I say we put those green screens and color-correction to good use and create more permanent “myth-scapes” for our symbolic heroes who are currently lost in the YouTube generation of shaky cameras and stark, warehouse backdrops. I fear that our commitment to the recreation of reality condemns our heroes to an unending cycle of re-incarnation since what is now seen as “contemporary” will someday be considered “dated,” and archetypal characters, stripped of their mythical qualities in favor of the instant gratification of “relevance” will certainly find themselves in need of yet another update in another ten or twenty years. Superheroes deserve better.
Wayne: “. . . as a man I'm flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol . . . I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting . . .”
From Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
 Incidentally, it may seem antithetical to my point that the only blatantly stylized feature-film realization of a popular superhero also proved to be his most obviously dated and unrelentingly goofy incarnation, but I happen to think that the method of Adam West’s Batman: The Movie is just the medicine superhero cinema needs. The film and subsequent TV series faithfully captures, through color, camerawork, set design and acting, the spirit and style of the happy go-lucky Silver Age Batman and Robin comics in all their campy glory. Adam West’s Batman policed a theatrically innocent world that, though absurd, effectively contextualized the pre-adolescent ethos of 1960s America in a stylistic rather than realistic way. Using modern special effects technology, we could conceivably do the same thing today and pursue a wider range of themes.