Why ‘Sin City’ Is What Comic Book Movies Shouldn’t Be

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?