Balancing Style and Substance in Comic Book Adaptations

Zach Synder

Film is constructed from a variety of different elements and creative choices behind the scenes. In the typical format, directors work with writers, producers, editors, sound designers, costume designers, and the different actors involved to realize a collaborative vision. In many big Hollywood productions, producers will have the ultimate control over projects; other times the director is seen as having more control and it is “their” vision being brought to life. With so many different motivations and points of view, it can often be hard for a cohesive vision to come through at all the different stages of production and bring the film to life. Consequently, many films are unable to find the correct balance between style and substance, going too far in the direction of stylish cinematographic techniques and forgetting the story along the way. In regards to comic book adaptations specifically, there is a need to figure out the equilibrium between stylizing with the comic book idiosyncrasies, and telling a serious story. Some adaptations are able to aptly navigate both and put forward compelling films, narratively and visually; many others will lean toward either narrative or visuals, and many more end up failing at both.

Style & Substance

Film’s stylistic choices can support a narrative, and can even carry a film by itself. Alternatively, many films have great style, but is hurt by middling performances and lackluster writing. This ultimately relegates the films to being performative, no clear intention behind the visuals. This can happen because of many compromises going on behind-the-scenes, as producers are typically more interested in marketability and box office returns whereas directors prefer critical acclaim and artistry. These compromises can work, or they can hurt the film, stretching it too thin to be competent narratively or visually. An important consideration is also that it is much harder for a heavily stylized film compensating for a lack of substance to succeed than it is for a highly substantiative film to do well without much stylization. Logan (2017) is a successful comic book film that tells the gritty end of a long-beloved hero without a heavy presence of visual stylization; Zach Synder’s Justice League (2021) on the other hand, goes overboard with numerous slow motion shots and unnecessary filler that exaggerate the plot’s failings.

Logan sees the end of fan-favorite character Wolverine, drawing inspiration from the “Old Man Logan” comic storyline. It does not directly adapt the material, but expands on it in new and creative ways that take advantage of film’s conventions. Previous X-Men and Wolverine films have always discussed or hinted at Logan’s long and exhausting life full of struggle. The character has regenerative capabilities, allowing him to live for a long time going as far back as the 18th century, and as a result he has been carrying a lot of trauma with him. He has seen everyone he’s ever been close to die, in addition to numerous experiments conducted on his body messing with his memory. Consequently he escapes into nihilism and a rejection of forming intimate relationships with anyone around him. Logan takes place shortly in the future where his powers are failing and he is finally close to dying, something he has wished for a long time. Unfortunately it comes at the same time that he meets a young girl, Laura, with many of his same powers, who turns out to be his biological daughter. The film follows his struggle in protecting the girl and bringing her to safety in Canada, ending with Logan’s death. The film has a strong western aesthetic, even referencing the film Shane (1953) and many other western’s throughout the film, but these visuals are all used in an effort to help move audiences, looking beyond the spectacle and toward the humanity that is imbued in every aspect of the story. An aspect that makes the film so much more impactful is that unlike many other superhero stories, there is no imperative to do what is right and help Laura. The world will not end if he does nothing like it will in every other X-Men film. Logan has options in this film, but in the end he chooses to do what is right, getting hurt and crying all along the way, and the visuals support this. Nothing is too grand or out there, it is perfectly toned down to support Logan’s swan song.

DC vs Marvel

Alternatively, Zach Snyder’s Justice League story follows the same beats of every film before it—heroes need to come together to save the world from an inevitable destruction at the hands of an unspeakable evil—but it does so in a way that is even more bloated and uninspired than its counterparts. The film is an expanded version of the 2017 Justice League with more creative control from Zack Snyder, and there is more context provided as to the way characters act and worldbuilding elements, but much of this version can be boiled down to excess. There is an over-the-top aesthetic for scenes small and large, and there are many scenes that lend themselves to “worldbuilding” and “character development” that are unnecessary. In a film where it is constantly reinforced that the destruction of the world is soon, it seems distracting to have multiple scenes of the bad guys discussing their plans. The film’s four hour run-time is similarly extended by being nearly 10% slow-motion shots, and many teases towards sequels for the DCEU. Marvel has been successful in plating ideas and following up on them in sequels many years down the line, but DC wants the same thing without any of the hard work building the universe. Zach Snyder wanted to flex his directing and storytelling skills, but both compete for the top spot and hurt each other in the end.

A film similar to Zach Snyder’s Justice League that tries to tell a dramatic story while also being visually compelling is Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). Much like Justice League though, Lee is trapped between these two worlds and the film is hurt as a result. It is hard to find the right balance of a creative and fun stylized film that can still telling a compelling story. Hulk fails in this regard, but another comic book film that does succeed is Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010). Both try to varying degrees of success to incorporate stylized choices that play to the original medium’s strengths, and Hulk ends up taking itself too seriously, hurting itself in the end. Comic books for a long period of time were characterized as pulpy, with only the rare standout coming through here and there. Many contemporary heroes have their origins in these exaggerated stories, but the filmmaking trend has been to tell these characters’ stories with the utmost seriousness. Marvel has done well injecting humor into many of their stories, but 2003’s Hulk was not a part of this trend. Lee wanted to go in some interesting directions with this story, but in the end the film was taken in too many different directions. Viewers were disappointed with the direction of the film which tried to have both dramatic depths as well as sharp visual effects, leaving no clear tone. Lee had incorporated many stylistic elements paying homage to the characters comic book origin such as the use of split screens and wipes for scene transitions, but there is still a disconnect that hurts the film. Elements like this help make the film fun and cheesy like the comic book, but the film veers into dealing with Hulk’s humanity and split personalities at the same time. With the source material, serious topics would be explored but there was generally a separation between comic book issues; one may be more comedic in tone while the next one was exploring nuanced serious issues, and neither got in each other’s way as much as they do in Hulk. The film is unable to play the different aspects off of each other, therefore, the film has not been remembered fondly. Alternatively, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World finds a way to bring its source material to the screen and honor both mediums.

One of the most defining aspects that makes Scott Pilgrim vs. The World incredibly stylistic without losing focus like Hulk does, is it wore its source material on its sleeve. We’ve seen creators be able to take more liberties with these superheroes like in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (2017), so we can see what a creative superhero film that doesn’t take itself too seriously looks like, but unfortunately this is not the direction that Hulk was taken in. Scott Pilgrim succeeded in this regard. Part of this is due to the meticulous direction from Edgar Wright and editing that sought to elevate the comic book origins to the next level instead of just incorporate basic elements. The comic itself emulated a video game-style journey with different bosses, and the film capitalized on this by incorporating many conventions of video games and comic books like visual action lines and onomatopoeia text, extra lives, combo bonuses, etc. Lee’s film worked to bring the character of Hulk and his story into the real world, fusing realism with some comic book aesthetics, while Wright embraced the off-the-wall logic and characters, distancing his film further from the real. This can additionally be seen by the actors not blinking during the film, further heightening the fictitious qualities of the comic book origins. Wright goes and digs the heart of the story that sits between the lines and panels, letting the viewers watch and feel as if they are a part of a comic book story instead of watching one like Hulk. The stylization of Scott Pilgrim could maybe carry a whole film, but it does not need to because it has a stellar supporting story of self-improvement in addition to a large cast of engaging characters. Meanwhile, Hulk wants to have a deep introspective narrative while harkening back to its comic book roots, but the result is neither are fully realized, and the film descends into flashy editing techniques and CGI with an overly complicated and predictable story.

Is There Only One Way to Critique Films?

Critiquing films can be a challenge as there are a wide variety of criteria that go into understanding something’s value and whether it was successful or not. When topics as abstract as stylization come into the conversation, it can become much more difficult. One way to look at a film and find its relative worth is by comparing it to other films doing similar things. Hulk and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World can be contrasted in their respective attempts at stylizing their adaptations, and both can be compared to other films doing the same thing. The Incredible Hulk (2008) served as a reboot for the character in the emerging Marvel Cinematic Universe and instead of clumsily toeing the line trying to be a stylish and contemplative film like its predecessor, it sticks to being a brooding character study. This reboot was not critically or commercially successful either, revealing that there is much more going on besides a film just being stylish, substantive, or both. It takes something special—an unquantifiable artistic vision matched with a supporting crew—to elevate visual effects and virtuosic camera work and editing, which is why it can be so impactful when it succeeds. This can be seen in films like The Matrix (1999), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and Tree of Life (2011). All of these films came from a distinct intention as to what the filmmakers wanted to show and how they wanted to show it. Subsequently, these films are remembered for entrancing viewers. With these stylish films, you are transported into their world instead of being a passive recipient to the flash and spectacle of their counterparts. Oftentimes from the viewers’ perspective, it can feel as if making a successful film is like a math equation; a strong director’s vision and script, propped up with unquestioning financial backing and similarly strong behind-the-scenes crew, should create a great film. In reality, this plays out completely different as there are many unseen variables that contribute to the final product. A balance between style and substance is important for presenting a cohesive and compelling film, but more than that films need strong collaboration and just the right amount of compromise. This formula plus a little bit of luck and correct timing can help propel a film above its contemporaries.