Judging by the Cover: Visual Design as a Microcosm
“Don’t judge a book by its cover”, they say. “Don’t judge a movie by its trailer”, has become a modernized interpretation. But these two statements aren’t really equivalents.
When the first trailer hit and the focus were on sad teenagers with issues and not a lot of Power Ranger action, Saban’s Power Rangers looked like another in the long line of big-budget film adaptations that took something fun and bright and colorful and made it Dark and Gritty™. When the last trailer hit, and there were robot dinosaurs and giant gold monsters and Elizabeth Banks vamping it up as an ancient space witch, it seemed like we might be spared that rehashed tone and get a Power Rangers movie that embraced its own campiness. It seemed like a solid bet; after all, how on earth do you take gloriously cheesy source material like the Power Rangers, with the color coded, kung-fu superheroes and everything, and go too serious with it?
Enter the reviews. Now, most reviews maintain that there is a lot to love about the new Power Rangers movie, but there is a general consensus in the criticism that the film seems confused about whether it wants to commit to cheesy fun or go super serious, with a tone that shifts wildly between the two. For as much of a rollicking adventure as the latest trailer made it out to be, for as impossible a task it would seem to be to take the Power Rangers too seriously, I have to say, I saw this coming. How? That’s easy: I watched the trailers.
Design is Meant to Evoke
Turns out, you can judge a film by its trailer, or at least by the “look” of the trailer; you’re actually supposed to. Costume design and aesthetic choices don’t happen by accident; they are absolutely conscious choices that give a reflection of the tone, content, and even themes of the film. Think about comic books, a visual storytelling medium where the creative team tends to be broken down into two major roles: writer and artist. In broad terms, the writing involves character personalities, plotting, and dialogue. The artist’s job is to illustrate all of that. This comes down to a lot of variables, but in particular, you’ll see this in costumes; a character has to be designed visually in a way that expresses to the audience that character’s personality and powers. Superman’s nature as a big, powerful, good, trustable guy is implied by his costume; he has a bold, primary color scheme; thin fabric that shows off his musculature, with no padding or armor necessary; his face and hands are uncovered so we can look him in the eye and shake his hand.
Translating these designs into updates and adaptations is also an excellent way of seeing exactly what direction the new creative teams seek to take the character; when the CW’s The Flash first introduced Firestorm, his costume was essentially a hoodie with the glowing Firestorm logo (in the form of a gadget that augmented his powers) attached to his chest. This wasn’t just them not giving his character a costume. The character reappeared frequently in the back half of the first season, tying with Captain Cold for episode count (at least in full Firestorm mode), and Cold did get a full if subtle, costume. Firestorm had an understated, street clothes-based costume because he was less a superhero and more a civilian with newfound powers who helped out occasionally but was mostly on the run. But when a new version of Firestorm joined the cast of Legends of Tomorrow, he immediately gets a bright, bold, red and yellow costume closely matching his comic counterpart. At this point, it’s reflective of what he is: a full on the superhero, joining a team of superheroes and time traveling to save the world.
Overly Complicated Design Belies Overly Complicated Adaptations
One of the recurring challenges when it comes to visually intense genre films is how far to go. Following our analogy to comics, adapting comic visuals from page to screen is a difficult balance of simple vs. complicated. Comic characters have to be drawn repeatedly, several times a page, 20 pages a month, basically forever. In that particular situation, there is an obvious benefit to granting a character a simple design; evocative, but able to be drawn ad nauseam without getting tiring or overly busy. Similar designs in real life don’t always come out so crisp. If we’re being honest, the most direct translations of comic costumes in live action are probably Adam West’s Batman and Christopher Reeve’s Superman, but the simplicity of those costumes ends up leaving them feeling a little bit flat in live action, particularly when standing next to the infinitely more detailed and textured world in which we live. More modern adaptations have attempted to rectify this by making necessary alterations; little bits of updates and adaptations to make the costumes look right, but feel better in a live action setting. Probably the best example of this is Brandon Routh’s Superman costume from Superman Returns, which added a hint of texture to the blue, and recreated the insignia in rubbery relief form. It grounds the costume in real life design a little bit better than a pure adaptation would, while still respecting the design and the concepts it’s meant to convey. For a film that was attempting to recapture the spirit of the Reeve’s Superman films, with a somewhat more modern sensibility, this made sense.
Think, however, of situations where the changes are more extreme, like, for instance, Henry Cavill’s Superman costume in Man of Steel. The colors are dimmed, the fabric is textured to its limit, and embellishments are everywhere. The cinematography for the entire film is similarly dark and muted. Is this the result of visual designers going too far with the updates? No, not really. Personally, as much as I may not like the Man of Steel design, I will fully admit that it’s a perfect visual representation of Superman in that movie; all the complaints I have about the costume feel representative of complaints I have with the film itself and its interpretation of Superman, but that’s the point. An interpretation of Superman that was interested in the optimism and positivity traditionally associated with the character would not have chosen to illustrate itself with that design sensibility. The issues lie not with the visuals, but with the story, they are illustrating, and when the visuals come across as unappealing or inappropriate for the material, that’s because the film’s own interpretation of that material is likely itself unappealing.
Over this last weekend, the first trailer for the Justice League movie was finally released, and of note is that the movie looks more fun and lighthearted than previous DC films. But does it? There’s maybe one or two light jokes in the dialogue, and other than that most of the ‘fun’ comes from the musical choices. Visually, however, the costumes are still hyper-textured and ‘realistic’, the imagery is still color drained and grim. Keep in mind, DC put their whole lineup of movies into high gear before they had time to garner audience reactions to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is frequently criticized for being too dark and gritty. Justice League began filming about a week after Batman v. Superman was released, so other than some on set script changes, it was being made under the same creative umbrella as Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, at a time when Warner Bros. was operating under the foregone assumption that audiences wanted the grit of the previous two films in all their superhero movies. WB has been backpedaling somewhat since that grit became a frequent source of criticism, but the content has remained the same. All things considered, the trailer might be trying to tell us one thing, but the visuals are telling us another; Justice League has a strong chance of living up to the same style and tone as its predecessors.
So keep in mind, when you see live action designs going to much more extreme lengths of downplaying the cartoonishness of superhero costumes and worlds, that’s an intentional choice. When the whole closet of Zack Snyder superhero costumes are color drained and gritty, that’s a representation of the creative intentions behind the films themselves; when you see a Green Lantern design that represents ‘alien tech’ with a complete aversion to simple color blocking and clear geometric design, replacing it with a hyper-busy network of lines and formless mass, you’re looking at a movie that has no idea where to simplify; when you see a team of Power Rangers with vibrant colors but overly busy designs, you’re looking at a movie that doesn’t know if it wants to commit to realism or cheese.
The bottom line is that the costumes and the aesthetic choices made to represent the feel of a movie are just as much a part of the storytelling as the writing is. This isn’t a situation where judging the appearance is shallow and you should be focusing on the content, the visuals of a film are the content. You can get a solid idea of the tone of the writing by reading the tone of the visual design, and if you can’t, then someone’s not doing their job right. So watch the trailers and judge. Look at the visuals that have been carefully prepared to compliment the story and dialogue, and you will gather some kind of an idea of what that story and that dialogue are going to be. Be open; visuals alone are not entirely the best way to judge the quality of a finished product. But the visuals are meant to give you an idea of what to expect, so don’t be surprised if that apple isn’t any sweeter than what it looks like.