Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Thoughts on Frank Miller and the Sin City Comics and Films

This is an expanded version of an essay was originally published on Pol Culture.

Sin City creator Frank Miller began his career as a comic-book cartoonist and scriptwriter in the late 1970s. He was best known for his work on the Batman and Daredevil characters. Those efforts very effectively melded the superhero genre with the tone and atmosphere of urban crime fiction. His synthesis modulated the more extravagant aspects of the superhero material, making it more palatable to an adult sensibility. His treatments of Batman and Daredevil are considered definitive by many, and one notes that recent high-profile versions of the characters, such as filmmaker Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy," owe Miller an enormous debt.

The Sin City comics found Miller working in the reverse direction. He took urban crime fiction and reimagined it in the fanciful, hyperbolic terms of superhero comics. The results were puerile; the Dashiell Hammett-like manner of Miller's best superhero work gave way to a vulgar bombast that would have embarrassed Mickey Spillane. The plotting and dialogue were hackneyed enough to make one cringe. The stories often read like a parody of the crime genre. The difference was that Miller didn't seem to have any perspective on how silly his efforts came across. The only saving grace was the artwork. Miller took the chiaroscuro of film noir imagery and heightened the black and white to the verge of abstraction. The approach was a witty take on the visual style of classic Hollywood crime movies; it both evoked and satirized them. The books were groaners to read, but they were fun to look at.

The 2005 film version of Sin City, co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, had the same strengths and weaknesses as the comics. The look of the picture was refreshingly novel. The actors were filmed on green-screen sets, and the settings, lighting, and visual effects were created entirely with computer-generated imagery. The cast was performing the stories (three were featured) in a spectacularly realized film-noir cartoon world. But the plots and dialogue, taken all but verbatim from the comics, were at least as awful as they had been in their published form. If anything, hearing actors deliver Miller's dreadfully clichéd dialogue made the material seem worse. But it almost seemed beside the point; the enjoyment of the picture was in watching how the combination of noir and superhero visual conventions were realized in this strikingly stylized on-screen world.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the second film in the franchise, is just more of the same, and with diminishing returns. (Rodriguez and Miller again co-directed.) The stories--two from the comics, and two original--seem even more hackneyed than those in the first picture. The absurdly hyperbolic violence is numbing and ultimately tedious. The actors also seem more inclined towards hamminess this time out. I kept expecting Eva Green's femme fatale (the "dame to kill for" of the title) to reveal vampire fangs and bite someone's neck. The cartoon noir look has largely worn out its welcome. Eva Green's seen-from-a-distance nighttime swim provides the only imagery that seems fresh. The depiction of her sleek movement through the darkened water has a near-abstract quality that may well be the two films' visual high point. But overall, one watches the picture thinking been-there-done-that, and anxious for it to end.

Miller's best days seem very much behind him, but one remembers how good his work was in his 1980s heyday. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, his signature work, helped start the graphic-novel revolution and has been a perennial seller for 30 years now. One also has the graphic novels Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War, done in collaboration with illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz, and Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, both with art by David Mazzucchelli. There is also Ronin, his lavishly executed mash-up of French sf-fantasy comics and Japanese samurai manga. And of course, there's that inaugural Daredevil run from between 1979 and 1982. They are among the best adventure comics ever. They are his legacy, and no amount of bad work should tarnish them.

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