Monday, November 15, 2004

The Incredibles vs. The Polar Express

The Incredibles has made, and will probably continue to make, lots more money for Pixar and Disney than The Polar Express, its fellow holiday-period animated movie. I'm no movie-industry analyst, but clearly a big part of Incredibles' success is its pedigree -- people love Pixar movies, and many times, the Disney marketing machine is irresistible (in the juggernaut sense).

Still, even without the marketing, Incredibles (which I have seen) just looks friendlier and yes, "cuter" than Polar Express (which I haven't seen). I know that PE was created using the next phase in "Gollum technology," and it's an incredible technical achievement, but that's not why people go to movies. If The Polar Express had been animated more traditionally, I feel certain it would be a bigger hit.

Superhero comics have to be careful not to follow the same allure of technique and "realism" as The Polar Express. To me the striving for realism is more of a defensive argument that superheroes do too matter and can so tell dark, depressing stories that aren't all "Pow! Zap!" fight scenes.

Right now the superhero books which give me the biggest kick are Fantastic Four, by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, and Wonder Woman, by Greg Rucka and Drew Johnson. While both sets of creators have produced some ho-hum issues, FF is more often than not a zippy pastiche of wit, slapstick, familial relations, and sci-fi adventure; and WW melds the character's roots in mythology with modern-day diplomacy and traditional superheroics. Both books are at least superficially grounded in the "real world" -- Waid had the Fantastic Four try to institute "regime change" in Latveria, and Rucka has shown Diana at the White House -- but both err on the side of fantasy and thus don't limit themselves unnecessarily.

Contrast that with the Batman line, which tries so hard to live up to the legacy of Frank Miller (and live down the legacy of Adam West) that it ends up ignoring all the Giant-Prop-type fun stuff which made the character popular in the first place. Leave it to Grant Morrison -- in a JLA book, mind you -- to invest Batman not only with a "sci-fi closet," but also with the Knight and the Squire, a pair of groupies (for lack of a better term) straight out of the '50s Bat-books.

From what I can tell, the Polar Express movie is a weird hybrid of live-action movement and computer-generated imagery. Its technology frees its creators to make fantastic scenes, but that technology also limits its characters to what the human actors can portray. In this way it can only be a more vivid depiction of live-action. Its human characters aspire to look "realistic," not like stylized animated humans. Because The Incredibles is full-on computer-generated animation, it is less restricted and more viewer-friendly.

Likewise, superhero comics shouldn't try to be a weird hybrid of other media -- they should stake out their own territory and occupy the field. I know this isn't a groundbreaking thesis, but it bears repeating.

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