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This article first appeared in the April 2002 issue of Sight and Sound

 

Memories of the future are just like any others. I've tried not to dwell on the unpleasant ones.From the screenplay for Terry Gilliam's unrealised Watchmen movie

Until recently films based on comic books were uncommon, often disreputable and notable primarily for the novelty of their source material. Now, in the wake of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and the Hughes brothers’ From Hell (2001), major studio production schedules are bristling with projects based on comics and graphic novels as executives exploit the iconic nature of many comic-book properties.

With a budget of $140 million and elaborate internet pre-release promotion, Sam Raimi’s forthcoming Spider-Man has generated the greatest interest and looks sure to be one of the year’s major event movies. Launched online some six months prior to the film’s US release, Spider-Man’s two-and-a-half-minute theatrical trailer is an adrenal rush of acrobatic stuntwork, dazzling CGI and panoramic sweeps through the skyscraper canyons of a digitally enhanced New York. Nielson NetRatings, the internet audience-measurement service, reported traffic on the Apple.com QuickTime movie archive had increased by 101 per cent during the week the Spider-Man trailer made its debut.

For months newsgroups have been humming with speculation regarding Raimi’s tweaking of the character’s 40-year history. (Where the bite of a radioactive spider, as featured in the comics, seems more likely to result in leukaemia than in super-powers, Raimi’s update opts for a genetically modified arachnid. There’s even an online campaign – at www.no-organic-webshooters.com – attempting to persuade Raimi to undo his more controversial modifications.)

Hulk (2003)

Other comic-book movies currently in various stages of scripting and production include Bryan Singer’s X-Men sequel for 20th Century Fox, Ang Lee’s Hulk (which promises to obliterate memories of Lou Ferrigno’s bodypaint and ludicrous wig with an entirely computer-rendered green Goliath), the Brian Helgeland-scripted Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck as Marvel’s man without fear, and Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One, based on Frank Miller’s tale of the nocturnal detective’s early crimefighting career. Also projected to appear during the coming 18 months are Barry Sonnenfeld’s xenomorphic spoof sequel Men in Black 2, featuring Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and a cameo by Michael Jackson, Alan Moore’s Victorian sci-fi curio The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and a remake of Barbarella with Drew Barrymore as Jean-Claude Forest’s space-faring source of titillation.

Of course, the number of comic-book films now pipelined may simply indicate Hollywood’s poverty of ideas and serve further to underline the studios’ reluctance to take risks with original material. The ready-made mythologies of the comic hero are, commercially at least, a far safer option. Comic-book writers have had to reinvent their characters for each new generation, developing distinctive brand identities and evolving labyrinthine histories for scriptwriters to plunder.

At a time when mainstream film-making is overwhelmingly driven by marketing concerns, the lure of familiar archetypal figures – each with a distinctive iconography and an arsenal of desirable hardware – is proving difficult to resist. Batman, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four are a marketing executive’s wet dream: their logos and tag lines are already invented, widely recognised and just waiting to be writ large across the screen.

Spider-Man (2002)

As developments in computer-generated imagery reinforce an appetite for the astonishing, the ballistic spectacle of the comic book allows directors to venture into the surreal and depict the impossible as a matter of course, while providing effects houses with the ultimate eye-widening material for their studio showreels. And with the commercial imperative to screen films in every possible cinema on the planet, an emphasis on visual spectacle and fetishistic gadgetry to some extent sidesteps the marketing ‘limitations’ of narrative complexity and subtitled dialogue.

The comic book’s longevity and episodic nature also dovetail with Hollywood’s increasing reliance on movie franchises. Comic adaptations are ideally suited to the trend for cinematic instalments linked by some notional overarching narrative. For filmmakers this position raises the question of how to resolve the tension between the conventional conclusion of a story and the more open-ended structure required of a franchise. Readers of comic books wait a mere 30 days to pick up where they left off, but for cinema audiences the story may be punctuated by intervals measured in years. Villains can, of course, be thwarted and catastrophe averted, but preferably temporarily. (At the end of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, an incarcerated Magneto calmly announces that his escape is inevitable – a postmodern nod to the demands of such a lucrative series.)

Comics and cinema have always had much in common. Not only were they born at more or less the same time, but many of the visual techniques which came to be called cinematic actually originated in comics. Montage was a staple of comic-strip expression well before Eisenstein, and cutting, framing and panning were first employed by Winsor McCay (1867-1934), Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956) and other early practitioners of the comic form. Similarly voiceovers, the voice-off and overlapping dialogue were devices already familiar to comic readers at a time when cinema still relied on crude subtitles.

In turn, cinema has inspired and refined the techniques of comic-book visualisation, particularly in terms of lighting effects, depth of field and variations of perspective. During the 40s the rise of the superhero action comic necessitated a pronounced use by artists of cinematic close-ups and long shots, along with a development of ever more dynamic visual effects – a cross-fertilisation that inevitably produced a common grammar of shot, scene and sequence.

X-Men (2000)

Taken in their broadest terms, comics and cinema also tend towards common ends: the articulation of time and the illusion of movement. However, although both media deal with time, they do so from very different points of view. In cinema motion is manifest and fundamental to the form, but in the sequential frames of comics all movement is purely implicit. In comics time is expressed in space and the panels of a strip are divisions of time. Interviewed by Film Threat, comics writer Alan Moore famously underlined the danger of confusing the two approaches: “If you follow the viewpoint that comics are identical to cinema, what you end up with is films that don’t move.”

During the corporate assimilations of the late 80s and 90s, the comics industry became more intimately – and quite literally – tied with cinema. Shrinking sales encouraged publishers to exploit their new position as subsidiaries of vast transmedia organisations. (Of the two largest publishers, DC Comics is owned by AOL-Time-Wamer while arch-rival Marvel is now a sister company to New World Pictures.)

This cross-media ownership of comic-book characters has opened unparalleled merchandising opportunities which are, in turn, necessary to offset the extraordinary budgets comic-book movies typically require. Consequently toy manufacturers can exert considerable influence on the film-making process, often insisting on the approval of production designs and, in the case of Tim Burton’s abortive 1997 Superman Lives, even the script itself. (On several occasions the film’s producer Jon Peters is reported to have brought parties of small children into the studio’s art department, asking them to point at production designs and rate them with a view to toy possibilities.)

One project whose mention invariably attracts a reverential hush among comic cognoscenti is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s magnum opus Watchmen. Originally published in 1986 as a 12-issue series and subsequently collected as a single-volume graphic novel, Watchmen has a density of characterisation and a structural complexity that dwarfed all expectations of the comic-book form, attracting the critical radar of Nation, Time and Newsweek. Although widely regarded as the holy grail of comic-book adaptations, Watchmen contains innovations which have confounded previous attempts to bring the story to the screen, and Moore himself has described the comic as “unfilmable”.

Despite the history of interplay between cinema and comic books, Moore and Gibbons have argued that Watchmen’s merit lies elsewhere. When in 1989 director Terry Gilliam saw the comic’s cinematic potential, Moore was less than enthusiastic. Subsequently interviewed for the online bookseller Amazon UK, Moore set out his position: “I had to tell [Terry Gilliam] that I didn’t think [Watchmen] was filmable. I didn’t design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which there are, but, in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn’t.”

Spider-Man (2002)

Quoted by David Hughes in The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, Gibbons hinted at what makes Watchmen such a daunting movie project: “A comics script looks a bit like a film script and comics art looks a bit like storyboards, but there is no sound in a comic book and no movement. Also, with a comic book the reader can back-track; you can reach page twenty and say, ‘Hey, that’s what that was all about on page three’, and then nip back and have a look. We wanted to take advantage of that difference… We wanted to make a comic book that read as a straightforward story, but gradually you became aware that it had a symmetrical structure.” Certainly the plot of Watchmen often hinges on tiny visual details: graffiti, partly obscured advertisements, a pocketful of sugar cubes become loaded with significance as the story unfolds.

To attempt to summarise adequately Watchmen’s intricate plotting would be largely to miss its point, as much of the comic’s ingenuity lies in a pre-Tarantino counterpoint of parallel narratives and visual motifs. In keeping with its themes of surveillance, symmetry and time, the story emerges from multiple perspectives, incorporating flashbacks, found correspondence and precognitive clues. Essentially Watchmen is a detective story with means, ends and moral action as its ultimate concerns, the comic’s 12-issue format marking a countdown to Armageddon as one by one its questionable heroes are extinguished and the world teeters on the brink of thermonuclear war. As subsequent readings reveal additional symmetries and detail, several academic websites are devoted to exhaustive annotation of the series’ 400 pages.

Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)

Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen movie eventually stalled as the intimidating logistics of the project became apparent: to realise the comic’s alternative universe of airships, Antarctic fortresses and the casually miraculous Dr Manhattan proved beyond the technology of the time. Even with a brutally streamlined script by Batman writer Sam Hamm, the film’s budget would have exceeded a then unthinkable $100 million.

Times have, of course, changed. In the wake of Titanic and Pearl Harbor a nine-figure budget is no longer implausible, and digital technology can realise even the most outlandish of comic-book scenarios. Backed by Lara Croft Tomb Raider producers Lloyd Levin and Larry Gordon, Darren Aronofsky and X-Men scribe David Hayter now plan to distil what Gilliam described as “the War and Peace of graphic novels” into a faithful two-hour script, with Hayter as director. One further difficulty the duo face is the novel’s ending, in which New York is deliberately decimated in order to avert an even greater horror, and its similarities to the events of last September. However, Hayter remains undeterred by such uncomfortable comparisons: “When September 11th occurred, we were in preliminary discussions and I thought that might be it for the project… I thought, ‘Oh my God, the ending of Watchmen just happened.’ But ultimately, all that does is reinforce the truth behind the story.”

The Hughes brothers’ From Hell may have lost the intellectual depth and literary nuance of its graphic-novel source, but both Hayter and Aronofsky seem determined to do Watchmen the justice it deserves. As Hayter announced in a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “I believe in doing it right or not doing it at all… but I think I’ve found a way to do it. In the graphic novel, everything you see and hear is interconnected on many, many different levels. Like the book, people should be able to watch the film six or seven times and get something different from it each time.” Given that Watchmen’s infamous denouement concerns thinking the unthinkable, it seems somehow fitting that Hayter and Aronofsky should now themselves be doing precisely that.

From Hell (2001)

Within a zeitgeist that views idealism as either redundant or absurd – and in which celebrity no longer requires even the pretence of achievement or charm – it’s not entirely surprising that the heroic ambition and lurid metaphysics of the comic book should intrigue audiences both juvenile and sophisticated. When ‘serious’ contemporary literature and art are so often hamstrung by their own self-conscious postmodernism, a sense of cultural claustrophobia can be difficult to avoid. In marked contrast, the improbable heroics and arch villainy of the comic book demand a much larger and more expansive canvas. More than that, they require a world in which something is at stake and the outcome really matters.

Political retreats into either nationalistic retrospection or the moral abrogation of the market leave little space for heroism and notions of rescue. However simplistic their conventions, many comic books have a moral clarity that fascinates audiences as a reaction to their fear of economic nihilism and widespread moral free-fall. Spider-Man’s origin involves the murder of his elderly uncle – a loss resulting directly from the hero’s initial indifference to intervention – and readers have since been regularly reminded that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Bestsellers Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Kurt Busiek’s Marvels and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come all deal with practised impotence and the loss of heroic aspiration. However, the most explicit sense of public dispossession is found in Steve Darnall’s autopsy of the American Dream, Uncle Sam. With extraordinary, neorealistic painting by Alex Ross, the novel is an astringent account of degraded ideals and shrunken horizons: “What good is the moon if you can’t buy or sell it?”

As genetic patents, climate change and post-mortem impregnation become facts of 21st-century life, the bold extrapolations of comic-book science fiction now seem uncomfortably pertinent. Indeed, with its archetypal ideals and tendency to exaggerate the familiar, the comic book appears eminently well equipped to address the possibilities of our own, increasingly alien, environment.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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