You quote a critic of Zack Snyder’s work who suggests, “he cared more about the appeasement of fanboys” than about narrative coherence. To what degree is stylistic remediation in comic book films a form of fan service? To what degree is it shaped by the stereotypes nonfans have of what a comic book looks like and how it tells stories?
I think it’s both a manifestation of fan service and filmmaker interest in comic art and/or rethinking film language. When you read interviews with Ang Lee during the production of Hulk or with Warren Beatty and his team while making Dick Tracy, they seem legitimately taken in by the work they’re adapting. Ang Lee, I think, has long been interested in utilizing new technology in the service of furthering film language. Life of Pi has some of the best 3D compositions that we’ve seen and his latest film – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – uses high frame rates in a way that makes reality alienating (I’ve not seen it, given how few theaters have the technology – so I’m going off of what I’ve read). When he sat down to do Hulk, he stated that he wanted to make a film that undermined how films direct our attention. In one interview he says that young children are now faced a multimodal environment in which they’re always multitasking and that, to him, reminded him of that unique quality of comics that Scott McCloud discusses – “you choose what to see,” Lee says.
The irony, of course, is that while Ang Lee and Zack Snyder often make films that “look” like comic books, their stylistic embellishments often do not quite function in the same way that they do in comics – so I also think your latter point about the stereotypes one makes of a medium’s style is also true, particularly when these filmmakers have to create a remediation that compromises the languages of both media. Let’s look at Hulk for a moment. Lee wanted to use split-screens to produce film compositions that function the same way multiple panels on a comic book page do. Lee says this is what he wanted to achieve, his track record of experimentation makes it unlikely that he’s blowing hot air or just providing lip service to Marvel fans. But how do those split screens function when compared with comic book panels? In comic books, panels are linear in time. We read one panel at a time, left to right, top to bottom, and make certain leaps in comprehension. Split screens in film – as in Hulk – are often simultaneous in time. The moment David Banner starts the reactor in Lee’s film, we see compositions that portray multiple views concurrently – he’s making a De Palma film, not remediating a comic. Even his design team gets this fundamental aspect of comics wrong. Garson Yu, one of the visual designers, noted that Lee “wanted to develop a concept that incorporated how we normally read comic strips. He wanted to present the film in one giant comic page” but that it was “difficult to show multiple events simultaneously.”
So while there may be an appreciation of comics art in many of these directors and a willingness to sincerely try to replicate it, I’m not sure they completely understand the grammar of the medium they’re paying homage to. Hell, I’m still surprised by how many of my friends – who have read far more comics than I have and can tell you far more about the intricacies of the Marvel and DC Universes than I can – who have yet to read McCloud’s Understanding Comics. So I’m not even sure if those aesthetic stereotypes you mention are limited to nonfans.
Many critics of the television series, Gotham, have complained that it does not feel like a Batman story. Does this suggest that media makers can push too far in abandoning the process of stylistic remediation, creating works that are distracting because they do not seem to belong within the same narrative universe as the source material?
I must confess that I haven’t watched Gotham yet, partially because I’ve heard that it isn’t particularly rewarding as a Batman narrative. That said, and again I can only go by what I’ve read and been told, I’m not sure that has to do with stylistic remediation as much as it does with some of the narrative conceits and how they challenge canon.
But to return to your question, can a work be distracting or alienating because of its remediations do not seem to take place in the same narrative universe? Absolutely. I think we can see that if we turn back to Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, which of course did draw from the universe of the comics, just not the era that most fans wanted to acknowledge or cared for. Again, Will Brooker’s work on this has been extremely helpful for putting the scapegoating of “campy” Batman into a larger context. Or Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit, which produced some extremely puzzled and often angry reactions amongst fans of Will Eisner’s book.
The recent Deadpool movie came out too late to be included among your books case studies. Does it teach us anything new about the forms stylistic remediation might take in comic book movies?
What I find the most fascinating about Deadpool is it’s success where so many other self-conscious and post-modern superhero movies have failed. On one hand, Deadpool is – from a narrative standpoint – a deconstruction of what superheroes are. He isn’t a “good” guy, he’s a sociopath in a costume. How does this differ from Watchmen and why was Deadpool successful while Watchmen was not? Both films are rated R, so it’s not as if a predominantly adult audience changed the equation. Both films are extremely violent and feature stylistic remediation to a strong degree (the opening of Deadpool really captures the subjective temporality of reading a comic). Obviously, one is a ninety minute comedy and the other three hour dramatic tone poem, so that’s undoubtedly a factor. But I’d also hypothesize that some of Deadpool’s success stems from timing.
Let’s think back to the history of American comics for a minute. Like most genres, the superhero comic evolved towards a state of baroque self-consciousness and it took about forty years to get there. You can only really understand Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison within that historical continuum. Without a baseline knowledge of the different ages of Batman, you would be relatively lost reading “Batman R.I.P.” Now, let’s look at when films like Watchmen, Kick-Ass, and V for Vendetta come out – from 2006 to 2010. Think about that for a moment. The Raimi Spider-Man films, the Singer X-Men films, and Nolan’s Batman films are all coming out at roughly the same time. In terms of genre and time, that’s like reading golden age comics simultaneously with the works that critique them. The critiques require context and a bit of an education – a history that the audience unfamiliar with comics but well-versed in their screen adaptations didn’t really have five to ten years ago.
I make a similar argument about stylistic remediation in the book. It has appeared (look back at Batman 66 and Dick Tracy), disappeared in the late 1990s, reappeared in the early 2000s (think Sin City, 300), and largely disappeared again after the financial implosion of Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass in the 2010s, washed away by the inoffensive house-styles of the DCU and MCU. Might films that remediate comic book style – like Deadpool – be more successful now that audiences have more of a familiarity with the form and its genres? Well, they have a familiarity with the genre because of films, and contemporary films do not often remediate the style of comics anymore. And that audience isn’t reading comic books. And many comic book properties are largely controlled by conglomerates that aren’t terribly thrilled about dailies that – to quote former Paramount executive Peter Bart – “look like a series of comicstrips.” So I’m not terribly optimistic that the success of Deadpool and the evolution of the genre will make stylistic remediation a mainstream form of filmmaking practice. But it may foreshadow that the practice might make a limited resurgence like it did in the 2000s. If the Marvel films are getting more visually ambitious, I think that’s a fair possibility. At least, I certainly hope so.
Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism. He is also the author of the book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.