With the latest trailer of Big Hero 6, another superhero movie has entered the fray, though this time it will be fully animated, as compared to ongoing trend of having these comic book creations filmed in live-action. But as more and more superhero story lines continue to get re-imagined (even rebooted) as films, I wonder if it would be better to keep them animated rather than fleshed out.
It’s not that superhero stories don’t work out well when in live-action, as anyone who has seen The Dark Knight will attest to. Some of the genre’s most memorable movies portray the best known superheroes, who are usually based on certain notions or qualities on which human truths can be revealed and compelling stories can be built on. Superman and Batman have theirs based on their versions of altruism, the former based a hopeful nobility while the latter on trauma and desperation. Spider-Man is the web-slinging everyman trying to make due. Hulk is our childish alter-id. Hellboy and the X-Men just want to fit in.
But there are many other superheroes in the comic book universe who come to exist out of shallower concerns, created out of the need to see what a being can do than why they should be. Heroes such as Green Lantern, Thor and Doctor Strange. They wield amazing powers, but exist in an age where CGI has made the amazing ordinary, which is nowhere potent enough to command adult interests through nearly two hours in a theatre.
The worlds which Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker inhabit are for the most part rooted in the “real world,” with human concerns and conflicts that audiences can easily identify and connect with. For their stories, live-action portrayals are entirely appropriate. But when superhero adventures and stakes become more fantastic and otherworldly; as in the case of Hal Jordan, the god of thunder and Vincent Strange; they tend to become less and less relatable. CGI can make both the “real” and the “generated” coexist, but such visual dissonance can be a distraction that detracts from a film’s overall effect.
Since incredible sights are already produced via CGI, why can’t a superhero film be animated from start to finish, especially if what it values relies on the phenomenal than the personal? The technique has many benefits to consider.
Animation is known for its ability to free a filmmaker from physical limitations. But aside from its disposing of the physical, animation also liberates audiences from certain earthly expectations. Whether it be unnatural imagery, character traits or plot conveniences, animated films tend to get a pass way more than live-action films due to its vibrant yet artificial nature. The shallow inner conflicts that afflict the characters of Green Lantern and Thor would hardly matter as much in an animated incarnation, which would allow its filmmakers to focus on more visually cosmic possibilities.
This is not to say that these superheroes should be relegated to animation because it is childish. Anyone who is familiar with the world of anime will attest to the thematic maturity animated films can bring. But it is these heroes’ motivations that are facile, immature and ultimately, uninteresting. What draws us to them are their powers which outstrip what is natural. Animation is merely the best fit to showcase their strengths.
Sometimes, thinly conceived superheroes are valued not only for their powers, but for their style. Dr. Strange is such an example as Noah Berlatsky correctly described as, “an exercise in elegantly extravagant pop surrealism.” Kubrick said that if it can be thought, it can be filmed, but even in the best superhero adaptations, a lot is lost in translating comic book art into a live-action movie. But with animation, aesthetic control can be given to the illustrator, allowing a continuance of his or her vision from print to film.
I can think of a couple of reasons why filmmakers would be hesitant to pursue a full length animated superhero picture. Animation surely must contain a different set of disciplines compared to that of live-action, so a transition would mean operating out of one’s comfort zone. It also has a stigma (at least in America) of being purely for children. But one only needs to look towards Japan or Europe to see how animation is not viewed as a genre, but a medium with genres for all audiences. Superhero films tend to be marketed towards older teens and younger adults, making an animated one can send the wrong message and break the bank. The last picture that tried to break free from being a mainstream American animated product was Titan A.E., which resulted in the closure of the studio that made it.
As a corollary to the animation stigma, there is also the perception that live-action films tend to be a more “serious” approach towards filmmaking. Seeing heroes in the flesh played by marquee actors is perceived as a bigger, more exciting draw as compared to a “cartoonish” animated version. But this is more myth than certainty, as I felt more thrills from the How to Train Your Dragon films than any Marvel superhero films of late, including The Avengers. I also wonder what would happen when these actors, such as Robert Downey Jr., become too old to play their signature parts. Animation could help solve that problem as well.
With all this said, am I convinced that outlandish superheroes would never do well in live-action? Not at all. The Hellboy films are the premiere examples of how they should be done. But take note that Guillermo del Toro was able to find the compelling quality in its hero’s story (nature against nurture), in order to justify his real life portrayals. And really, how many del Toro’s are out there who have as much intense love for the outlandish and the humane who can make it work? Besides, his animated prologue in Hellboy II: The Golden Army is probably more beautiful than anything else in the film.
It is not a weakness for a superhero film to resort to animation as a means to showcase its story. When done right, it can be best way to highlight the inherent joy in the possibilities of its improbability. Which do you remember more? The Fantastic Four or The Incredibles?
Our featured image art is by Daniel Araya. For more of his work, click here.