Comic Book movies are, undoubtedly, the current reigning champions of the film industry, at least in terms of sheer popularity and, by extension, profitability. Superheroes are in, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Despite countless critics claiming, for what seems like a decade now, that we’d eventually hit “Superhero Fatigue” and grow bored of the genre, time and time again they’ve been proven wrong, with each Marvel Studios film making more money than the last, and smashing seemingly every possible box office record in the process. And not just general audiences are susceptible to the charm of the comic book hero; even hard the hard-to-reach R-rated audience has succumbed to films like Logan and Deadpool , making the success of superhero near universal. (Fun fact: Deadpool, in terms of global earnings, even beat out the previous record-holder for the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.)
Trends like this aren’t uncommon. In the early days of popular cinema, the Western reigned supreme, with focus then shifting to the Noir/Detective film and then to the Buddy Cop/Action flick. But the difference is that now, for the first time, the dominant cinematic subject matter is one that is entirely based around adaptations. Despite being perhaps the most profitable genre in cinema history, the comic book film, as its name obviously suggests, is one that owes its success almost entirely to another medium. And yes, film adaptions of literature have existed for as long as the industry has, but never this symbiotically, and never with this much frequency. The superhero film exists ONLY because of the abundance of comic book fodder to draw from. It’s why studios like Marvel have been able to churn out so many films at such a high density in the past several years: They have nearly a century of stories to pull from. Nearly every single comic book movie made draws at least some of its plot and characters directly from the corresponding source material. So, one would think that, with as much as they owe to their comic book counterparts, and given the fanatical popularity of the comic book medium, these films would try and emulate the same proven, tried-and-true tone and themes featured in their ink-and-paper predecessors.
Strangely, however, this has not been the case. In fact, it seems as though comic book films are almost ashamed of their origins. They go out of their way to distance themselves from not only the visual aesthetic of the comics, but also their sense of camp and fun. While they use comic book characters and storylines, these films shy away from everything else that make comics the unique and beloved works of entertainment that they are. Bear in mind, I’m mainly referring to the modern superhero film, rather than the full history of the genre, as the earliest examples were actually fairly close to the source material in terms of their overall tone and visual style of the comics they were based on. Both the Richard Donner Superman films and the Tim Burton/Joel Shumacher Batman films were comic book-y to the point of practically being cartoons. Yet in recent years, Hollywood has seemingly abandoned this tactic altogether, apparently seeing it as too silly.
I want to think that this is at least partially the fault of Christopher Nolan’s massively successful Dark Knight trilogy, which gave the world a grounded, hyper-realistic take on the Batman mythos. Gone were the days of Adam West’s fun, colorful caped crusader. Batman was now a serious vigilante, in a world of scarily realistic villains that more closely resembled real-life terrorists and criminals rather than their more flamboyant comic counterparts. Because of the massive critical and commercial success of these films, studios suddenly decided that EVERYTHING should be done in a similar style. That’s how we got Mark Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man, where Spidey is suddenly a brooding, hipster/skateboarder with a costume with sunglasses for eyes, and The Lizard has a human face for some reason. But really, the earliest example that comes to mind is Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film. Sure, it had super-powered mutants duking it out and performing fantastical feats, but it looked nothing like the comics. The unique, decorative and individual costumes from the source material were replaced with boring, non-descript leather jackets. The closest thing we got to actual comic visuals were Cyclop’s visor and Wolverine’s hair. And as great as the film is, it reduced characters like Cyclops, who’s a multi-dimensional, boy scout-ish character in the comics, to being a typical, early 2000s, angst-ridden cool guy. Filmmakers just seem outright embarrassed to actually give us comic-accurate visuals and personalities.
And that isn’t to say that attempts haven’t been made. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy leaned pretty heavily into the somewhat whimsical and campy silver age of Marvel comic history, with characters like J.K. Simmons’s J. Jonah Jameson and Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman looking and acting like they had just stepped out of a 1960s issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. But it still tried too hard to modernize itself, particularly in the designs of some of the franchise’s villains, which, ironically, often made them look more ridiculous.
Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is celebrated for its usage of characters and storylines from the comics, took an extremely grounded approach to its characters and stories, at least initially. Yes, they adapt inherently ridiculous characters like Rocket Raccoon and Batroc the Leaper (remember, the French guy that Cap fights at the beginning of The Winter Soldier?), but they present them in such a way that makes them seem almost normal, that they could actually exist in our world. Which, given the quality of films that Marvel Studios has released since its inception, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just think it’s a shame that no one has really tried to bring the full ridiculousness of comic book art and storytelling to the big screen.
At least, not until very recently. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the release of two new comic book films that seem to finally embrace their original namesakes: Warner Bros. and James Wan’s Aquaman and Sony Animation’s Into the Spider-Verse. Both of these films relish in their comic book origins in ways that no other superhero film before them has, both in terms of their visual style and their narrative choices. Instead of hiding behind a veneer of realism or watering-down concepts so as to not alienate a general audience, these two films gleefully flaunt the stylings of the mediums that came before them. And, most importantly, both of them are an insane amount of fun because of this. However, they both tackle this to differing degrees.
Aquaman is unique among live-action superhero movies, particularly those in the DC Comics cinematic universe, in that it doesn’t hinder itself visually with overly realistic takes on its featured comic characters or action sequences. Rather than grounding everything in real-world science, like the early parts of the MCU tried to do, or muting the visual palette as well as the thematic content so as to appear more moody, like literally every other DC film thus far sans Wonder Woman, Aquaman goes in the exact opposite direction. From the first moments of the film, it says “Screw gritty realism, screw brooding, and screw colorblindness, we’re getting weird with this.” And then proceeds to do nothing but that for about two hours.
The visuals in this film are downright gorgeous. You guys remember in Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy when Marvel finally decided to get all trippy, psychedelic, 1960s-era Jack Kirby with the color and cinematography? Well, Aquaman is that, only cranked up a couple extra notches. James Wan has an insanely good eye for color saturation and framing, and makes excellent usage of those skills at nearly every turn. Every couple of minutes, there’s a jaw-dropping, frenetic action scene or a shot that looks like a splash page from a graphic novel. And the results are often downright beautiful. I mean, just look at this:
That right there is something straight out of a comic book. Wan understands the visual medium which the film bases itself on to such an extent that the animation and the effects are almost the main star of the entire piece. Underwater action pieces have a style and flow to them that completely defies reality and physics, yet makes them all the more stunning and visually compelling. Motion has a weighty buoyancy to it, making it some of the most convincing underwater footage I’ve ever seen in a film. Set pieces are works of art, with underwater cities like Atlantis appearing in saturated, neon displays of color and light. Battle sequences are epic in scale, as only comics can deliver, with complex, layered action serving as a backdrop to the more foregrounded plot pieces. But that isn’t why I’m choosing to talk about Aquaman in this context. Sure, the action is pretty to look at, and definitely comic book-y, but that’s been done before.
No, what really impresses me and excites me about this film is the look of the characters. Aquaman, historically, has probably been the most openly-mocked superhero of all time. And rightfully so. He’s kind of ridiculous-looking:
And frankly, his villains are just as bad:
Yet somehow, against all odds, Aquaman not only managed to almost perfectly adapt these ridiculous costumes into live-action, it also somehow, miraculously, made them look legitimately good. Seriously, I know it sounds crazy, but look:
That’s an almost perfect recreation of Aquaman’s classic, ridiculous, stupid costume, yet it looks fantastic. Granted, Jason Mamoa just looks genuinely more intimidating than the blonde-haired fratboy Arthur Curry of the comics, but still. An impressive feat nonetheless. And even better still, check out the film’s take on Black Manta:
I cannot stress enough how much I love this. Again, it’s an almost completely, 100% faithful adaption of a goofy, impractical comic book costume, and yet somehow it looks not only absolutely plausible, but completely badass, too. This is how you adapt the look of a comic book character. You don’t need to change it completely, or try and make it look overly realistic. Just tone down the more fantastical elements, and preserve the essence of the character. They’re iconic for a reason.
As good as the visuals in Aquaman are, they still have one major flaw: They’re bound by the limitations of live-action. You can get pretty fantastical with modern CGI and special effects, but at the end of the day, it still has to gel with real actors and physical sets. There’s just certain things that are always going to look too far-fetched in a live-action film, comic book or not. But animation, by its very nature, has no such limitations. And for some strange reason, until this year’s Into the Spider-Verse, there has yet to be a big-budget, mainstream animated comic adaption. But luckily, this one nails it so perfectly that it’s almost beyond words.
There’s a distinct charm to classic comic book art. The bright colors, motion lines, action words like “POW” and “BLAM” appearing every time someone gets punched in the face. There’s nothing like it. And unfortunately, it’s not really something you can visually adapt into live-action. But with Into the Spider-Verse, that quirky, unique style is the star of the show. The animation of the film is somewhat traditional, done in the style of most modern computer-animated films. However, there’s a key difference, one that gives it a distinct visual aesthetic that’s unlike anything else to ever come before it. Once the animation was done by computer, it was then gone over, frame-by-frame, by hand, adding cell-shading, color-by-pointillism, and various other trademark comic book visual stylings. The result is a stunning mix of 2D and 3D animation that is completely unprecedented, in a superhero film or otherwise.
Besides simply looking astonishing, it has the added benefit of allowing much more stylized, fluid action. Spider-Man is an inherently acrobatic character. His movements are beyond that of a normal human, and as such, can’t really be translated all that well to live-action. Here, we finally have a chance to portray him with all of his incredible abilities in their full glory. I swear, my inner child has never been happier in a theater than seeing Spider-Man swing in for a fight for this first time with this animation style. It’s graceful, it’s fast-past, and most importantly, its spectacularly entertaining. And the accompanying visual accents that punctuate every action only make it more so.
And the best part is, once you’ve committed to a style that evokes classic, old school comic books, you then have free reign to tackle that particular style of storytelling as well. Into the Spider-Verse has a plot which just wouldn’t work as a more archetypal live-action superhero film. It revolves around the idea of a multiverse, and of infinite, varying versions of the same character. It’s an inherently fantastical premise, one that works well in comics because that very same kind of ridiculous and out-there plot is essentially synonymous with the medium. Comics are all about the weird and the crazy. The publication that Spider-Man first appeared in wasn’t called Amazing Fantasy for nothing. I can’t imagine the MCU every tackling anything as strange and ostentatious as the menagerie of Spider-people we’re introduced to in this film, from a hard-boiled, Humphry Bogart-esque Noir Spider-Man (played by Nic Cage, God’s one true gift to mankind), to a heavily manga-inspired, Japanese, gender-swapped Spidey in a mech suit, all the way to a cartoon pig with Spider powers (portrayed by John Mulaney, who’s clearly having more fun than anyone else in this movie). And yet, because the film pulls so much from its comic book roots, it gets to play with these bizarre ideas in a way that doesn’t feel tonally out of place.
The animation style also helps to accentuate the concept, with each multiversal Spider-person having their own unique animation style. Noir Spider-Man is done up like an old Dick Tracy comic strip, in full black-and-white, while Peni, the Japanese Spider-girl, is designed to evoke a Studio Ghibli-style anime character. All of this unique visual and narrative charm, coupled with the heart and emotion we’ve come to expect from an animated film, and Into the Spider-Verse becomes not only one of the best superhero films ever, but also one of the most impressive and thoroughly entertaining animated films of all time as well.
Both of these films have fully embraced the visual and tonal style of their comic book forebearers, in ways that have opened up new and exciting ways styles of storytelling. Comic book adaptions have just gotten one step closer to being perfect translations of their source material, and given the massive critical and commercial success of both films, I’d say we’re in for a whole new wave of similar films. And I for one can’t weight. My inner, geeky optimist hopes that not only will audiences welcome this new style with open arms, but that it will also convince them to give ink-and-paper comics a try too, because they deserve every bit of love that their film counterparts do.