Sin City is often held up by comics nerds as what comic book movies should be; an absolutely precise representation of what the artist put on the page. But as I rewatched it for this retrospective, that’s more or less the exact problem. In trying to be the Platonic ideal of a comic book movie, instead it becomes what they shouldn’t be.
The Medium Is The Message
Let’s start with Sin City, the comic book. Between 1993 and 1998, it racked up nine prestigious awards in comics between the Harveys and the Eisners, and it did so for a reason. Frank Miller’s artwork on the series was a radical experiment in negative space, architectural design in art, and in design, that got people thinking about comics in new ways. Modern comics owe a lot to the work Miller did during that time.
It was also, famously, locked away from Hollywood. After Miller supposedly had a terrible experience writing the RoboCop movies, he refused to sell the film rights to anybody unless they were going to depict the books word for word, panel for panel. And eventually, someone did.
Style Over Substance
Robert Rodriguez famously used green screens and a spec short film to convince Miller to hand over the rights, being so respectful and even fawning as to quit the director’s union so Miller could receive a directorial co-credit. The problem was that Miller didn’t conceive of the books as storyboards, but as comic books.
Comics and film are deceptively similar, but they’re profoundly different media in important ways. For example, if you read a comic, everybody is either at the beginning or the end of an action; if Captain America is punching the Red Skull, he’s either followed through on the Skull’s chin or is drawing his hand back to do so. Movies need to show the whole action; that requires different framing, different lighting, and a whole host of other concerns.
Similarly, layout is crucial to a good comic book; if you look at artists who are masters at layout, you’ll notice they use the size and placement of the panel in subtle ways to emphasize the action or the emotional content. Compare, for example, the splash panel on the right from Sin City with the movie. Keep in mind they’re supposed to be exactly the same, but which is more visually dynamic and interesting?
Worse, the compromises that the movie had to make to depict Miller’s frames perfectly hamstring the actors. Everybody has to pretend everything around them is real at all times, and a lot of them aren’t up to it.
And even with the best of the cast, you still have ridiculous moments like Mickey Rourke flying around on wires because Marv was at this part of the frame doing this action, so he has to make a leap like we’re suddenly in a wuxia movie instead of basing it on real motion or action. Marv can’t just punch a guy out in this movie, he’s got to punch a guy through a wall, because that’s how the comic did it, even if it looks stupid on film.
I’m not going to argue that, say, Batman and Robin is underappreciated, but the thing about any unequivocally bad comic book movie you care to name is that they tend to be doomed right from the start. Even if you took Batman and Robin out of Batman and Robin, and stuck in some buddy cops, it’d still be a bad movie.
Sin City had the creator on set, a reasonably talented filmmaker with total creative control, the star-studded cast, and the budget and effects. And in trying to be just like the comic books, it’s stifled. The spirit of the comics has been sacrificed to adhere to the letter.
It’s wasted potential, and put next to movies like The Dark Knight, it’s pretty clear that what’s important isn’t how the panels are depicted, but how the spirit of the books are captured. And that’s why Sin City is what comic book movies shouldn’t do.