Though I never quite committed myself to comic-book mania, I became a keen follower of movie-adaptations, all beginning with the first installment of what would become a twenty-year-long franchise: X-Men (dir. Bryan Singer, 2000). X-Men was a fun, action-packed superhero movie; its characters––especially the women––were cool and powerful, in the type of YA-book-way (“strong” and “destined for greatness”, a facade of female empowerment) that I thoroughly enjoyed. The X-Men franchise became my gateway into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a universe that kept on giving––movies being released each year with increasing rapidity. By the time Avengers: Infinity War (dir. Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, 2018) was released, I had grown much less enthusiastic.
I still watched the last of the Infinity Saga, as I had already committed myself thus far. But the films had lost much of their appeal: quite simply, the movies were no longer fun. In A. O. Scott’s words, the movies felt “like a lot of work,” almost all of them “[assumed] a heavy burden of self-importance,” centered on uninteresting gargantuan cosmic-level disasters, confronting the destruction of all human-kind or better-yet, the destruction of the entire cosmos.
When Joker (dir. Todd Phillips, 2019) was announced, from Marvel’s counterpart, D.C., with Joaquin Phoenix slated to take upon an iconic comic-world character, I was anticipating something akin to The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008), or maybe even a super-villain version of Logan (dir. James Mangold, 2017). Though the seriousness of many Marvel movies had worn me out, I had enjoyed The Dark Knight trilogy––in part due to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in the second installment. But Joker was utterly unlikeable, boasting a superficial subversiveness to the genre. If anything, the film proved to me why leaning into the “comic-book-style” made certain adaptations, well, better.
Joker is set in a 1981 Gotham City, a fictional world based in reality, modeled after NYC. The movie builds its version of Gotham on allegories: television talk shows, corrupt politicians, social inequality, civil unrest––all relevant, and easily traceable to today’s world. But while all these allegories deserve commentary, Phillips gives us absolutely none. Instead they are woven loosely around a weak narrative, given no proper meaning.
Arthur Fleck suffers at the hands of society’s ills. His mental illness, and that of his mother, is never given proper care––his therapist could care less, and she too, is a victim of the system. Teenagers taunt him, his coworker betrays him: his world is dark, and relentlessly so. Even his girlfriend is only a figment of his imagination. All that is left for him is pure anarchy, to become the Joker. By bringing the conditions of his victimhood to the forefront, one would expect some sort of nuanced commentary. Gotham’s social ills are never properly explored and so they become the film’s dark aesthetic, a hard-to-swallow pill of self-grandeur. And so the film trips over its ethos of nihilism: life can’t be meaningless when the film incessantly reminds us that it matters that society beats Arthur down (though it never explains why it matters).
If Joker were to remain in the comic-book world it came from, Arthur Fleck, and the villain he is to become, could remain a figure of pure anarchy––as he does in Ledger’s version. But, in the words of Jourdain Searles: “Joker is a movie that has watched other movies and is aware of the shorthand necessary to make viewers believe that they’re watching a realistic, important film.” Joker’s score and cinematography double down on the film’s commitment to seriousness. Hildur Guðnadóttir, the film’s composer, had a ninety-person orchestra play a single sound, making it seem as though it was only one cello––a choice which she felt mirrored Arthur’s character: “… [there] are many layers of complication behind [Arthur], but he doesn’t see it.” The issue is we don’t see it either. So each time the deep brassy cellos begin playing––reminding us of the film’s seriousness––it feels, quite frankly, obnoxious. The cinematography is no better: Lawrence Sher’s moody blue and orange color grading does nothing to elevate the film, molding it into a predictable mold that Hollywood spits out. And in the film’s insistence that it is “important” lies its fatal flaw: it has no “coherent point of view.”
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dir. Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Bob Persichetti, 2018) was everything I needed to renew my excitement for the comic-book adaptation. Its colorful, graphic art style was beautiful and refreshing, a breath of fresh air in comparison to the lackluster CGI graphic
animations of recent Disney films. Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) resuscitates the well-treaded Spider-Man origin story, transforming it into a clever and deeply fun adventure.
Not quite comic-book, and not quite 3D CGI, the animation style is dynamic and wholly inventive; it never once teeters into uncanny valley nor the monotone blandness of its contemporaries. Into the Spider-Verse’s version of New York is bright and colorful in a pop-art way––when Morales’ universes glitches, it momentarily mutates into a geometric Takashi Murakami-inspired world. Primary-yellow text panels narrate Miles’ inner dialogue, and large graphic sound effects accompany the outrageous action sequences (CRAAK! BOOM! BANG!).
In contrast to Joker’s failed realism, Into the Spider-Verse’s New York feels lively and full. A. O. Scott’s review of the film captures this well: “This may be the first “Spider-Man” feature to qualify as a great New York movie, drawn from the life of the city rather than outdated stereotypes. Streets and subways, apartments and schoolyards are beautifully and faithfully drawn, as are humans of all ages, shapes and hues. The people talk fast, the music is loud and sometimes hectic, and everyone is in motion all the time. Even the tourists from other universes are sorry to leave.”
Spider-Verse isn’t just visually attractive: it’s script is playful (thanks to Phil Lord and Rodney Rotham), building a large cast of well-rounded characters that all feel perfectly balanced in a delightful, pop-culture-filled New York. Miles, and all his companions, know that they’re all comic book characters––what’s more, is that they all know Spider-Man’s pop-culture legacy. They know that the teenage superhero’s origin story has been told time and time again; they know that audiences are well, bored. The film begins with Peter Parker’s narration: “All right, let’s do this one last time.” It plays on audience’s knowledge of previous Spider-Mans, and for newbies to the franchise, it plays on their inevitable knowledge of the figure’s many pop-culture iterations: those wonky Spider-Man popsicles or the iconic retro Spider-Man meme.
Into the Spider-Verse was everything Joker was not, and was immensely successful for it––among critics and comic-book fans alike. It championed the comic-book style through its visual and narrative playfulness. The genre could, and should, take notes: fun can be ambitious, artful, and praise-worthy.
*Joker is available to stream on HBO MAX. Into the Spider-Verse is available to stream on Netflix.