As with filmmaking, sequential art has a specific language, a vocabulary all its own. One of the things that makes most comic-to-film translations awkward is that filmmakers rarely understand that vocabulary, but, from the moment he picked up a camera, Sam Raimi has demonstrated a mastery of both media.
Before “Spider-Man,” there was “Darkman,” an original creation that managed to feel more comicbook-like than most direct adaptations. The way he used his camera to convey the impact of a great splash panel or the kinetic energy of motion lines across the gutter between panels was subtle but undeniable.
From the way he establishes the origin story to his expert use of montage, the film’s narrative is obviously comic-influenced — but it goes further than that. Raimi’s skewed, sometimes extreme angles recall the great work of draftsmen like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and a scene such as Darkman being chased across the rooftops uses shot compositions that echo Frank Miller’s famous run on “Daredevil.”
Raimi has stated that he was influenced by Richard Donner’s approach to “Superman” when he finally stepped up to giant-budget filmmaking with “Spider-Man,” but that’s more a narrative influence than a visual one. Raimi’s command of film language was evident even when he worked on low-budget films like “Evil Dead” and “Crimewave.” He’s always had a precise style, marked by visual wit and inventive energy.
Comicbooks are, by their very nature, a static form of storytelling, while film is all about motion. Raimi manages to combine both forms in an innovative way that has influenced directors such as Ang Lee, whose “Hulk” actually worked too hard to literalize the language of comicbooks.
If anything, Raimi manages to evoke the giddy sensation of comics without directly aping the conventions. Lee’s compositions, especially in his lab sequences, don’t look like anything else from his career, but they definitely look like the lab scenes from “Darkman,” right down to the angles he picked and the way Raimi uses the primary colors of classic comicbooks.
The reason Raimi succeeded where others have failed is because his filmmaking never feels corporate. It never feels like he’s following a trend. Raimi’s a true original, following a personal vision, and the more success he’s had, the more he’s been able to indulge his particular interests, a childlike worldview backed up by a truly mature sense of technical accomplishment.
(Drew McWeeny is West Coast editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he writes under the name Moriarty.)