Thursday, April 23, 2009
Watchmen, the movie, poster


Semiotic Superheroes

On the verge of a new kind of visual storytelling.

By Alexander Wilgus ::: philms ::: ::: Read the whole thing



I appreciate your thoughts, but I do, by and large, disagree (surprise, surprise).

Almost every time a “comic-booky” aesthetic has been brought the screen, I feel it has, in some way, neutered the material. Such “cartoons with real actors” very rarely truly engage or ever feel natural. They feel absolutely artificial.

This actually goes against the spirit of reading a comic book. When reading a comic book, such visual stylization does not strike the reader as blatantly artificial or stilted, but feels much more natural. Thus a film like Tim Burton’s BATMAN feels much more overtly “fake” than reading an issue of a comic.

I’d argue it was its adherence to the comic book aesthetic that single-handedly killed SIN CITY. SIN CITY tries too hard to recreate a comic book visual vocabulary that feels alive on the page, but feels entirely stale when rendered on the screen. It’s a live-action film that wants to be animated.

I know you’re not too happy with how Christopher Nolan re-imagined the Batman aesthetic by drawing from other sources (Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, Michael Mann’s HEAT), but I think two quotes from Nolan are essential:

“[A comic book] sparks your imagination with words, pictures, colors, light and shape. Just as when you adapt a novel, you do not consider the superficial form of the novel, you push to imagine the cinematic equivalent. Why should comic books be any different?”

“[The films of my childhood] created entire worlds that you believed in, and they had a very tactile, realistic, concrete sense of place and texture and, though they were all dealing with fantastic, outrageous material, they were all extreme exaggerations with idealistic heroes, but they had a recognizable taste and smell—we believe in the reality of what we see for two hours. We’re never let off the hook, we’re on that rollercoaster and we’re not looking at a cartoon. I would get asked all the time about Batman as a comic book and I would say, well, it’s not a comic book, it’s just a movie, the way that STAR WARS wasn’t just science fiction and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK wasn’t just a cartoon serial.”

I agree with him. That “tactile, realistic, concrete sense of place” is a very necessary component of a live action superhero film, if we are truly to expect it to have some semblance of life. If we are to try and replicate the comic book aesthetic, it would be better to do so through entirely animated cinema.

But you spend a great portion of your article arguing for more overtly symbolic language in these comic book films. I have no problems with that at all, but I think you can be symbolic and still maintain a significantly greater sense of tactile reality than films like SIN CITY or WATCHMEN provide. An example would be Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which brings together a distinctly symbolic and iconic aesthetic with a very detailed realism. Another would be Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, which presents a very stylized reality in a very real fashion. Even Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS adaptations manage to strike a proper balance.

So while the aesthetics of Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT’s may be derivative, they get a key part of the equation right. That tactile reality is a pretty valid - and sensible - way to go, if we are truly to make these cinematic visions feel alive. Nolan may have lost a real sense of iconography and symbol in the transition, but that’s less a casualty of his attempt to coat the story in an illusory reality than it is his consistent directorial reluctance to seek an iconic language for his films.

Posted by Ryan. H on 24 Apr 09 at 03:21 PM

I agree with alot of what you have to say.  So much so that I’m very curious as to what you have to say about the symbolic heavy - but worthy - movie ‘9’ which premiered in September.  (The one produced by Tim Burton).  Thanks, in advance!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 19 Sep 09 at 07:17 AM

I think that this thesis is premised upon a bunch of ideas that are wrong.

For instance, ‘Watchmen’ the comic is probably as realistic - or at least, not flamboyant - a comic book as you’ll read.  Everything from the panels to the layout of the panels to the dialogue is tempered and thoughtful.  (Conversely, the movie is like an MTV video: chaotic and hyper-real.  This is obvious, but most evidenced by the violence, which is very restrained in the comic book ‘til the very end, but, in the movie, is full of slow-mo shots of compound bone fractures and the like.)

Secondly, I think that the success of the new Batman franchise totally disproves that comic book movies have to be over-the-top.  To be sure, both Batman movies are totally unbelievable….but they’re believable enough (and cut very, very quickly) that you can suspend disbelief.

Then there’s the issue of compartmentalizing all comic books into being “symbols”.  Hey, I don’t want to be coarse but….how many comics have you ever read?  They’re as varied as the color spectrum!  Even within single characters.  Dennis O’Neil’s Batman (approx. 1985 thru 1995) was, like the new movie series, restrained and borderline-plausible.  Conversely, the modern Batman writers have elected to make it supernatural and wild. 

Lastly, I don’t think that ‘Watchmen’s style is anything new….at all.  CGI has been in heavy use since ‘Terminator 2’, and certainly since ‘Jurassic Park’.  So the claim that ‘Watchmen’ somehow represents any sort of technological or stylistic breakthrough is just bogus.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

Posted by David on 29 Oct 09 at 09:15 PM


I don’t mean to be coarse but, did you read my article?  I think your comment is premised upon a bunch of ideas that are wrong.

I’ve probably spent more money on comics than any other entertainment medium and I’m pretty much a Watchmen scholar, so I’ve done my homework better than you think.  I am well aware that Moore wrote Watchmen in the style of ‘realism’ but you confuse realism for the photo-reality of modern entertainment.  Moore’s realism is like Melville or Dreisler in which the narrative and, in Moore’s case, visual structure is carefully honed to communicate meaning instead of portraying a photographic reality that simply mimics our own.  Literary realism is never photo-realism.  It still involves crafting a world from the ground up (for a description of Moore’s process, see his “Writing for Comics” essay).  As Robert Mckee said, “The world of a story must be small enough that you can become the God in it,”  It is another reality, it is your own.

While Snyder’s film certainly isn’t as earthy as the comic was both do take place in a sort of hyper-reality.  I took the time to comment on Snyder’s particular brand of that hyper-reality (and my displeasure with it).  I am not defending Snyder’s vision.  As I clearly stated, I didn’t like it.  My Watchmen would’ve been more of an art film (ideally with Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott at the helm) with a lot more attention to the subtler parts of the story and a whole lot less slow motion.  But my point remains that the CGI did allow Snyder to frame the comic’s semiotic imagery which, I think, remains its most original and important feature (beyond the moral deconstruction of the superhero, which has been beaten to bloody death) because it actually is a part of the story’s infrastructure, just as important as the dialogue and paneling and it’s something only a comic book could do…‘till now.  Today every frame of a film can be so finely crafted—down to the shape of the blood-splat on the Comedian’s button—that the visuals can be used to do exactly what Moore and Gibbons did with Watchmen, create layers of symbol and do so visually.

I also obviously never wrote that Snyder’s Watchmen represented any breakthroughs in CGI.  I am well aware that “CGI has been in heavy use” for a while now as you so delicately put it.  What I am talking about is not using better and better special effects but changing the philosophy of how we use special effects to that is different from Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.  One where environment and symbol is prioritized over photo-realism.  The technology is not new but Watchmen’s use of it is, relatively speaking, a novel thing for today’s cinema (its precedents are enumerated in the article).  Like Terrence Mallick used his camera to create painting-like shots in films like Days of Heaven, Snyder used CGI to create comic book-like shots in Watchmen that represented something more than just eye-candy (the stained button, the galle crater, Rorschach’s mask shapes, the shape of Rorschach’s dying blood splat).  Yeah, the movie was a bit too glitzy for my tastes but it did prove that SFX and CGI can be a vessel for meaning, not just empty spectacle.

And yes I know that comics are different.  Like snowflakes.  No two are alike.  So I suggest we make comic movies as diverse instead of conforming to a homogenous dedication to photo-reality.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02 Nov 09 at 11:28 PM

Then there’s the issue of compartmentalizing all comic books into being “symbols”.  Hey, I don’t want to be coarse but….how many comics have you ever read?  They’re as varied as the color spectrum!  Even within single characters.  Dennis O’Neil’s Batman (approx. 1985 thru 1995) was, like the new movie series, restrained and borderline-plausible.  Conversely, the modern Batman writers have elected to make it supernatural and wild.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 25 Feb 10 at 01:09 PM

Okay your review or essay wasn’t half bad,i really liked some parts of it.But this part really raised my eyebrows a bit…

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.

(This is the part that bugged me!)
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

See…There’s an old saying,“Never forget where you come from.” I can’t stand that line in X-Men.The one in Batman Begins is forgivable because Bruce Wayne is essentially the male version of Paris Hilton.He’s just play acting.The Batman is the real son of his parents who’s names i don’t recall right now :)

But The X-Men quote reminds me of that nutter George Michael who for some reason or other decided to turn on his own former image.I love the videos and songs from G.M.’s Faith Album.(If that’s what it was called.Father Figure, I Want Your Sex, Gotta Have Faith,another song that i don’t remember the name of.Gay or straight he use to look so cool.The man had style and substance.and i even like alot of his songs after he decided to not be in his own music videos for a while.But was it necessary for him to burn the jacket destroy the guitar and all that stuff.I’m not so sure.

Even Prince had an Identity Crisis of sorts but eventually came back to using the name that he came to Fame & Fortune with (-; Michael Jackson may have had an Extreme Make-Over but i’ve never heard him diss his Thriller Album or his style of dress during that period.Personally,i think during the eighties M.J. was not only one of the Best looking men on the planet he was also one of the Best dressed!

Goofy Dressed-Up Action Figures!? Uh…Christopher Reeves and Richard Donner brought Superman to life! Not only did Mr.Reeves have the acting chops and physical presence of The Man of Steel.He looked good in an outfit that you would think no one could wear that in real-ife! Somehow he made it work.As that man said,“Say Jim that’s a bad outfit! Whoo!!” :)

As for The Dark Knight.That Film is a Masterpiece! However Christian Bale is about as awlful as The Bat-man as George Clooney was.Though i do like Christian Bales performance as Bruce Wayne.When he’s being the real Bruce as when he’s talking to Alfred or someone else that he can trust a bit more.While that Poster of The Dark Knight looks Brilliant.The Batman suits that they have made are pitiful!!

One of the most important things about that character is his striking appearance.And no one has brought that aspect of The Bat-Man across better than Tim Burton and Michael Keaton.Jack Napier/Jack Nicholson was not kidding when he said to Batman,“Nice outfit.”;) Yes it really was a kick-ass costume! Enhanced by Michael Keatons awesome Brow line Facial stucture, Voice and Lips.His Mannerisms the way he looked at people like Vicki Vale when he was taking her to the Batcave in his car.The way they used lighting on the suit especially the face of it,with that nose and brow line.Just gave it an Operatic Gothic Mythic Like Feel to it all…

It was brilliant absolutely brilliant! When Batman jacked Napier up and he said,” Jesus!!” Once again.The shock and awe he felt at that moment was real.There was nothing wink wink nudge nudge about it at all.One of my favorite scenes is the first time we see the Batman in action on the rooftop.When the criminal says, “Who are you?!” Bruce Wayne responds,“I’m Batman!” I still recall what it was like seeing this in the Theater as a kid back in 1989.The first time I saw how he looked in Tim Burton’s Film was while watching the movie.I don’t remember seeing the Trailers for it.And there was just such a great since of anticipation that i will never forget.Kind of like when family and friends are waiting for the beautiful bride to be revealed.Adorned in the finest fabric and accessories imaginable.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 18 Apr 10 at 04:09 AM

For the record, I thought both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were wonderful films.  I think the issues you had with the way the films presented the heroes is exactly the sort of point I’m trying to get at.  Burton’s Batman was wonderful for the mood it created, the enchantment it cast over the audience.  Burton’s Batman was not set in “the real world” but a moody alternate one.  Likewise Donner’s Superman, backed by a swelling soundtrack and finely crafted visuals (I love the aerial shot of all the people in suits on the street looking up toward the camera), was a wonderfully mythical presentation.  While I don’t think it would’ve been possible without Star Wars happening first, Superman was a great movie.  Batman was too, precisely because they were so un-self conscious.  They were the first of their breed.  Nowadays we are so attacked by self-consciousness and meta-narrative that we can no longer enjoy such purity without the films seeming like re-hashes of old material.  The new wave of CGI comic films represents a new era of ‘innocence’.  They are new and timeless landscapes that can allow us to enjoy the original symbolic purity of our heroes without the pretension that they must be integrated into the ‘real world’.  I would argue that the photo-realistic trend in cinema represents a degradation in peoples’ semiotic consciousness and a refusal or inability to participate in entertainment.  Everything must be obvious, straightforward and ‘real’.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 18 Apr 10 at 10:11 AM

Hey,Wilgus ;-) thanks for replying to my comment.You are quite erudite and thoughtful.I have a confession to make though.I did not know that a ‘comment’ on Metaphilm could only be 5000 Characters.So you haven’t actually seen my whole post.Sorry about that.My entire post was almost as long as your Essay :-)

Here is the rest…  I had the same sense of anticipation when i saw Batman Begins.Unfortunately the Bat-Suit in that Film and The Dark Knight was a great disappointment )-: No one reacted to Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Batman like they did to Tim Burton & Michael Keaton. Mr. Bale didn’t wear the suit.It wore him.

Image may not be everything,but it is important.Take a Ballerina, Figure Skater,and Martial Arts Forms and Freestyle Kata Competitor for example.As skilled as they are.If they were to perform in Mascot Costumes, it wouldn’t matter if they nailed all their moves both technically and artistically.Because on account of wearing a Mascot Costume.They would look very foolish and silly (-: Because looking good while your doing something very impressive is more than just icing on the cake…It’s the flour in the dough.

What one wears matters.Jason Bateman’s character in Hancock may have said it best.“This kind of goes to how you present yourself.What springs to mind when you see this?”
(He shows Hancock some generic looking Comic Book Superheroes).
Hancock says,“Homo. Homo in red.Norwegian Homo.”
Ray replies,“I’ll give you that.Let’s move on.“Elsewhere…“For when they call.I ain’t wearing that Ray.Yes you are.-Oh,no I’m not.-No you are.Actually I’m not Ray.You think your not,but you are.I will fight crime butt-ass naked before I fight it in that,Ray.You know you have fought naked.We’ve got that.That’s on YouTube.
Hancock,this is a uniform.A uniform represents purpose.Doctors,policemen,firemen.right?
-It represents a calling.”

Heroes…I have a name for the characters on this show.I call them JCPenny Superheroes LoL.Now they may have the special abilities as they call them.But there is just something off about it all.No character on Heroes in my view truly comes across as being heroic.And i say that not just because no one on that show wears mask and costumes.It just goes to my sensibilities and preferences is all.Great Superheroes tend to have three or four things in common.In my opinion.

-Presence:This refers not only to their aesthetic appeal but as well to the impact positive or negative that they have on their environment.Do they have the Public’s Trust? Are the crime Rates going down in their immediate territory? Etcetra and so forth.

-Power:Whether super-abilities or common sense.What gives the heroine or hero an edge in a fight or flight scenario.

-Purpose:What is he or she’s Mission Statement? What matters to them?What are there values and priorities?

And finally…There is -Personality:Is the Hero or Heroine interesting provocative unpredictable witty or just a really good smart-ass.Is she sassy feisty sweet innocent naive or kinda of bitchy.What set’s them apart character wise from everyone else?

I don’t know if you ever watched Justice League Unlimited on Cartoon Network,but Shaira hall for some reason or other decided to no longer wear her Hawkgirl outfit and trade it in for nothing more than a Fitness Outfit! She looked more like a Fitness Model than a Superhero.I mean honestly,Victoria Secret Catalog called and they say they want what you wore in the Photoshoot back! LMAO! Now i know Supers where some weird stuff sometimes,but you gotta have some kind of standards.

The Harry Potter Films could be spoken of as well.In the first two movies the young Wizards and Witches wore attire befitting their race and culture as magical beings.In the third moving till the latest,The Producers and whoever else said screw having to pay for a world class Costume designer to make elegant beautiful Wizarding robes and everything else that JKR describes in her books.Let’s just dress them like average teenagers! (By the way though ,initially i did like the costume change in POA.I just saw it as it is in the books.The kids can wear street clothes on the weekends.And POA is my favorite of the movies :-)

Okay,i think i’ve said enough.Keep doing what you’re doing(-;

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 22 Apr 10 at 12:20 AM

Thanks King,

I agree that our heroes could use a bit more presence but I think my article is concerned with a slightly different subject than what you’re on.  I don’t think that things like costumes and prosthetics are entirely the problem.  Your 4-part character study of the superhero is interesting, but I think I’d add ‘environment’ to that list.  The removal of a comic book character’s semiotic habiliment severely limits the character’s overall impact as a character.  Nolan’s Batman films may be the closest we’ll get to a perfect union between the real and the symbolic, but my contention remains:  superheroes are unapologetically symbolic and more at home in a mythical setting than a ‘real’ one.  Bothering less with reality and more with mythology would allow our heroes to explore the themes that they are particularly suited to explore and in the process, satisfy your desires to give them that impactful presentation and misty sense of ‘presence’ that you feel they lack.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 27 Apr 10 at 05:49 PM

Hey,you know; i just thought of two or three comic book inspired films that totally hit it out the park :-D

Alex Proyas The Crow starring Brandon Lee and Blade starring Wesley Snipes. The Crow had it all,Atmosphere Enviroment Costumes Music and Characters.Brandon Lee gave a performance that was every bit as good as Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.In fact i’m quite sure that Heath was emulating his performance somewhat.Even the Wrestler Sting,still wears his Crow Costume & Make-up ;-D The bad-guys in that film,till this day,still represent one of the Best Rogues Gallery and the Film had one of the best Ensemble Cast,that i have ever seen.I could go on about that it really :)

Blade…This is perhaps the first film to make vampires biological instead of supernatural.I still remember being shocked when Blade said,Crosses and Holy Water don’t do dick!” Van Helsing beware ;-) Blade also contrasted itself with another vampire film that came out that year.

John Carpenters:Vampires.Which was more traditional,yet very kick-ass,as well :-) The atmosphere in both films was outstanding! And once again,you truly had an ensemble cast.As the Trailer for Superman:The Movie said,“You will believe that a man can fly” I remember leaving the Theater after watching Blade thinking,that perhaps vampires really could exist!

If they lived for hundreds of years,that would give them alot of time to amass great Wealth & Power.Once-again,i could go on about this Film,too,but i’ll stop here:)

I thought Sin City and 300 were very faithful to their source material.I’m still waiting for them to make the sequel to Sin City.What’s the hold-up,with that,anyway?! :-(

I hope i’m not Off-Topic by saying all-this ;-)

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 27 Apr 10 at 06:57 PM

Not off topic at all, King.  Thanks for that.  I confess, I haven’t yet seen either of these films bit I’ll be sure to follow up on your reccomendation when I can.  Thanks for your comment.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12 May 10 at 10:54 AM

Excellent essay, so good that one of my students located it and handed it in as HIS essay. Unfortunately for him, it was so well written, I didn’t think it was necessarily his writing. Fortunately for me, I found your essay online—and get to read it for pleasure.
Donna R

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 23 May 11 at 11:46 PM
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