Saturday, August 30, 2014

Visual Opera: Putting the Comic in the Comic Book Movie

It is undeniable that comics are the new hottness when it comes to big screen adaptation, and as any nerd can tell you, it's not hard to imagine why...superhero comics have it all! Heroes, villains, romance, adventure, drama; big fights and bigger emotions. Superheroes stories are the modern mythology; they're the stories we tell ourselves that define who we are and who we wish to be. They comment on the times and the values we hold, and have profoundly resonated the world over.

A large part of this is, in my opinion, is because modern superhero adaptations have adopted the storytelling techniques of their source material; nothing does metaphor, particularly visual metaphor, like comics does, and the film medium can also add other layers on top of that through sound and music. The result is a modern form of storytelling that engages the audience completely on every emotional level. That isn't to say that film hasn't always used these same types of storytelling short hands or gimmicks, but comic and superhero movies afford a higher level of suspension of disbelief which allow them to be more obvious and literal, which has lead to the creation of a sort of visual opera.


Take, for example, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. Regardless of the problems the movie has with too much exposition, to many boring subplots about Peter's parents and predestination, any time the movie is doing Spider-man's BEAUTIFUL. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is one of the MOST comic book movies ever made (the only one that exceeds it is SPEED RACER), combining sight and sound to replicate the experience of reading a comic.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the scene of Electro's “debut” in Times Square, which is the most comprehensive, most beautiful, origin of a villain that's currently been committed to film. When we are introduced to Max Dillon, he is already something of a comic book character; nebish almost to the point of absurdity, Max Dillon is socially awkward, bumbling, but earnest. Our sympathies go to him immediately just from the visual of this poor, margenalized, nerd who is exploited by his superiors. It is here that we are introduced to Max Dillon's theme; a meloncholy four notes played on a clarinet which is both sad but sort of clownish, perfectly summing up his character.

Casting Jamie Foxx as Max Dillon, who in the comics is a white character, is a stroke of genius in the movie because it gives his character metaphorical depth; he is a minority, he is poor, he is exploited by rich white people who steal his work and give him none of the credit, and he feels powerless to fight a system that is overwhelming skewed against him. All he wants is to be noticed, to have a voice. When Spider-man happens by to save him from being run over during a bombastic car chase, he takes the time to make Max Dillon feel special, which is probably one of the MOST Spider-man things I've ever seen on screen, and connects with Dillon on a level that has small significance to Spider-man, who does this every day for hundreds of people, but huge significance for Dillon, for whom this is the biggest, brightest, moment in his sad life; to be singled out and told that he is special and significant.

Dillon goes on to suffer a tragic accident, which, in a beautifully subtle bit of writing, happens on his birthday; he falls into a tank of genetically modified electric eels after being eletrocuted, and is seemingly killed...only to be REBORN as Electro. Shambling forth from the morgue, confused and disheveled, the crust of his old life cracking and falling away as black ash, Dillon stumbles into Times Square, drawn by the flow of electrical current and a strange new compulsion to seek out electricity, which is something he's always really had; a desire for power. When he lifts up the grate and grabs the power cables it conceals, he is confronted by the police; representatives of an authority that has never served him; who react immediately with hostility and fear to the transformed and empowered Dillon.

Now, while this is happening, Hans Zimmer's beautiful score is in the background. Some people found the score for this movie obnoxious, with it's dubstep influence, but I find it operatic and thematically appropriate, but no more so in the track MY ENEMY (Paranoia, the Electro Suite ), which builds the tension as things slowly escalate. You can hear bits of Max Dillon's theme embedded underneath the electrical distortion, reminding you of who he was, and evoking the sadness of Max Dillon, as he stumbles forward. But, and I think this is the most clever thing about this track, you can also hear voices whispering, barely audible, in the background, as if Dillon is broadcasting his thoughts over the air to the TV's and speakers in Times Square, allowing us insight into his thoughts, which is a mechanic unique to comics; thought balloons; which literally allow you to see the characters internal monologue. Max's internal monologue takes the form of a repeating chant;

Something's Happening
Mind destructing,, Agony Inside Of Me.
My Pulse Is Raising
Mental Torture, Self Destroyer.
Can't Ignore the Paranoia.

Dillon is confused, despondent, and paranoid. Then he is attacked; he begs the police for sympathy, to listen to him, to understand him, “Stop!'s not my fault!” after he lashes out, using his powers for the first time to flip a car and send his flying, unaware of what he's doing. And as he looks around, and sees himself projected onto the many screens, the Dillon theme comes back, reminding us of how pitiable Dillon is as he finally gets what he's always desired; everyone can see him. He is the center of attention, “Y-you...see see me...” For a breath moment he is Dillon again, and this is something like the calm in the eye of the storm, before police renew their attack on his, throwing tear gas canisters as he begs them to stop (this is even more timely, unfortunately, in the wake of Ferguson, as we seen a black man attacked by Police while begging for understanding; regardless of what Dillon has done, he hasn't hurt anyone and is obviously not in his right mind).

Using his new power Dillon lashes out; this brings in more of the distorted electrical sound which will become associated with Dillon as Electro, a the cue for his transformation from sympathetic victim to angry, empowered, villain; sending police cars flying and threatening to crush one officer, as our hero, Spider-man, swings in, his own theme (three cords that seems to say, “Spi-der-maaaaan” the way a good theme should) overwhelming Electro's. In contrast to the reactionary approach of the police, Spider-man does not attack Dillon, but instead tries to talk him down (another VERY Spider-man beat).

This scene is the most like Spider-man in the comics that I can possibly imagine. Spider-man asks Electro what's wrong and who he is. Electro, still confused and struggling with his paranoia and distress, reaches out to his hero, the man who made him feel special, and is disappointed that Spider-man doesn't recognize him...doesn't remember his name. This is CLASSIC Spider-man; he does something nice for someone, only to have it come back to bite him in the ass later. He made an impact on this guys life, and could diffuse this whole situation if only, IF ONLY...he could remember his name.

As Spider-man talks to Dillon, the conversation turns from him, as Dillon's disappointment, his fear, and most importantly, as he himself admits, “This power...I've got so much of it. And I have so much anger too.” Max Dillon is not powered by electricity; he is powered by ANGER. We've seen into his head in earlier scenes; how he represses his rage, bottles up his anger, his little out, self-contained, outbursts. Dillon never vented his anger because he felt powerless, so he contained it's literally spilling out of him, crackling and sparking through is fingers; so much anger and fear and paranoia that it's literally overflowing from his body.

Spider-man almost succeeds in talking Dillon down, as his only request is “I don't want them shooting at me” indicating the police, and expressing that his only desire, looking forlornly at the TV's broadcasting his image, is that he wants to be seen, to be heard. The situation is then escalated when a sniper with an itchy trigger finger (perhaps fittingly, a white officer), shoots at Dillon, breaking Spider-man's promise, and inciting Electro to violence; the eletrical distortion picking up and becoming loud and violent as he lashes out.

Spider-man does his thing and saves the crowd from Electro's outburst, and the crowd turns against Electro; he is no long the victim deserving of sympathy, but the miscreant deserving of scorn. The crowd boos Dillon and cheers Spider-man, and the screens that surround them slowly replace his face with Spider-man's. From Electro's point-of-view, he just been betrayed by his hero, who promised the police wouldn't shoot him, and is now stealing his spotlight...putting him right back in that margenlized and ignored little box that he used to inhabit. The difference this time is that Electro realizes that he does not have to be quiet; he can DEMAND attention; he can make his anger known...and FELT. And int he background of his increasingly distorted, ugly, theme we can hear his thoughts being broadcast;

He lied to me
He shot at me
He hates on me
He's using me
Afraid of me
He's dead to me

Electro's paranoia has grown but his fear has deminished. The earlier lyrics where about how he felt about himself; scared, in pain, and confused; now they're about what he feels about those around him. How they react to him, betray him, use him, and how that makes him feel.

Spider-man is helpless as he watches everything fall apart, as Dillon accuses him of lying to him, setting him up to look ridiculous, turning the world against him, and he lashes out, attempting to make others feel his pain by sending his power, his anger, through the ground. Spider-man saves the people with is spider-sense, which is brilliantly reconcieved here not as a prescient danger sense that protects Spider-man from harm, but a superhuman situational awareness that allows him to save those AROUND him through an unparallel theat of acrobatic prowess. Spider-man's theme here is triumphant, swelling bigger and bigger, as he saves EVERYONE from Electro's outburst.

Angered, Electro attacks Spider-man, who spends him flying into a huge television screen. Electro feels the power around him, and takes two large cables and presses them against his heart, conducting the power of Times Square through is body, in a final, massive, outburst, screaming with rage, his thoughts now turning to the world;

They lied to me
They shot at me
They hate on me
They're dead to me
And now they're all my enemy

The mindset of a supervillain is often hard to understand, much less dramatize, which is why so many end up flat and boring; evil or antagonist for the sake of being so, with thin or underdeveloped motivations or goals. Electro's origin in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 dramatizes the emotions that drive a supervillain, and how they differ from those of the hero. Electro could have been a hero; but his life was such that, while ostensibly a good man as Max Dillon who never hurt anyone or wished anyone any harm, a man who believed in heroes and looked up to them, Max Dillon was also a put upon outsider, who repressed all of his rage against the world, and, when given power, now directs it at the world. His dream was always that people would see him, would listen to him...and now, as Electro, no one can ignore him. When he shouts, people listen, because his voice is an explosion. Max Dillon is what happens when an angry man who secretly hates the world that grinds him down is given power; he becomes Electro.

This is a powerful, emotional, origin that his made beautiful, big, dramatic, and most importantly, OPERATIC, through the use of metaphor, both abstract, visual, and through music. In a comic book everything is brighter, more colorful, more emotional, and more literal, and most successful superhero movies are the ones that embraces that approach; the origin of Electro, the end of the WINTER SOLDIER, where Captain America throws away his shield, his token, the literal embodiment of all he believes in, for his friend, Peter Quill the Star Lord as a runaway, the X-Men as an allegory for bigotry of all types; these big, bold, emotions are dramatized huge and colorful in a way that not only entertains, but resonates...which is why we'll always come back.