Kendall Hamby, University of Florida
In both Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man, and its 2018 film adaptation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, colors function as a means to keep the audience engaged in the story. Because the film is animated, viewers may expect the film’s colors to cultivate the same emotions as the original comic, or the colorization to at least look similar, but in reality, the colors featured by the film add a much higher degree of intensity to make the story more engaging than the colors in the comic. This contrast between the film and the source material makes the original comic seem dull. And, while using vibrant, more intense colors will alter audiences’ perceptions of the film, there is a greater framework at play. The visual aesthetic of Spider-Verse is one new to the animation community, setting it apart from its predecessors.
In order to understand exactly why audiences are affected by the colorization of the film or comic, it may be helpful to first go through some theories on how colors affect the viewership of different media. In support of this notion, William Moebius explains what he calls “picturebook codes.” In an essay, he assures readers that the comic book is “itself a kind of ‘picture book,’” including comics under the definition in the most literal sense as books that are composed of images (Moebius, “Picture Book,” 170). In a separate article, one focusing primarily on picturebook codes, he states that by concentrating “on codes in the picturebook, we are no less concerned with dignifying the artist’s creation. We are, as it were, making soundings in the harbour of ‘design-as-communication,’ marking the deeper channels of a modern art-form” (Moebius, “Introduction to Picturebook Codes,” 134). Essentially, this means that the design of a visual medium, be it a picture book or film, can communicate more complex meanings than what lies at a surface level interpretation. However, Moebius is also careful to note that the “plain, literal sense” of those visuals is also important, as it is our gateway into deeper interpretation (Moebius, “Introduction to Picturebook Codes,” 136). The colors of an image can certainly be one of the most basic pieces of information about the picture, but it is not without its complexities.
Colors in images have certain effects on the viewers of that image. Molly Bang explores this concept in her book, providing the sentiment that “specific elements such as… color… seem to call up the emotions we felt when we experienced actual… colors… It is these ‘emotions attached to remembered experiences’ that seem to largely determine our present responses” (Bang 73). In other words, certain colors can remind us of things we’ve experienced – namely, different emotions or ideas. Contrast, in particular, helps to distinguish between objects. Bang writes that contrast “enables us to see both patterns and elements” (Bang 80). Perceiving the emotions associated with certain colors becomes easier when they’re paired with a contrasting background, and often – especially in the film – that background is either black or white.
When considering backgrounds, audiences typically perceive a light or white background as day and a darker or black background as night. According to Bang, this stems from humans’ lack of ability to see in the dark – things shrouded in darkness seem mysterious and potentially dangerous. A white background, on the other hand, may represent hope and optimism (Bang 69). However, Bang also points out that both colors can represent death, as many lifeless things in nature are black or white, such as bones, snow, coal, or charred wood (Bang 69). We can see this principle at work in Volume 1, Issue 3 of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man via a spread in which Miles gets electrocuted during a nightmare by an unidentified individual (Bendis 87). Though we later find out that the unnamed figure is Electro, at this point in the story, readers might not know his identity. The scene, which features shocks of electric blue, is framed against a pitch-black background, causing readers to subconsciously develop a feeling of unease. The contrast, as Bang suggested, allows readers’ focus to shift towards the bright colors in the picture, giving them a sense of excitement.
Moebius seems to agree, noting that there is an “…association of bright colors with exhilaration and discovery…” (Moebius, “Introduction to Picturebook Codes,” 143). In Spider-Verse, we see this concept put into action. For instance, one of the more intense scenes in the original comic is from the third issue; Miles sees a burning building and heads inside to save a woman and a child. The colors in this spread are completely identical to the typical colorization from the surrounding scenes (Bendis 81). Clearly, there is a dangerous action sequence being depicted, but a reader would not be able to pick that up from the colors alone. If someone was given those colors in a palette – muted blue, brown, white, black, and a little yellow – and asked to identify some emotions evoked by the set, it seems unlikely that they would feel intensity or exhilaration. Instead, those colors seem simple and docile.
In contrast, the film adaptation gives viewers scene after scene filled with striking colors. The scene in which Prowler is chasing Miles for the first time is one particularly notable for the violet, magenta, and infrared hues it features. The contrast of the sudden flashes of bright colors against the dark black of the subway tunnel helps the audience to stay at the edge of their seat and gives them that adrenaline rush that Miles must have been feeling (Persichetti et al., Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2018). It is undoubtedly clear that when pitted against the comic, the film conveys a higher degree of intensity to its audience based on the vibrancy of the colors alone.
One could argue that the context of the scenes is what actually makes them seem more dramatic. After all, one of the most powerful scenes in the comic is when Miles saves people from a burning building, and the movie has several action sequences before culminating in a gripping final battle with all of the Spider-Individuals and Kingpin. However, even without the context of what is going on in the scene, the colorization in the film would still convey a higher degree of intensity than the comic, keeping audience members more excited. When the colors from the film are isolated, it becomes clear just how much more engaging they are than the colors in the original source material. The aforementioned burning building scene from the comic prominently features the colors in the color palette below.
Out of all five significant colors from that spread, three contain at least a hint of brown, which is a color so natural that it often does not evoke excitement from those viewing it. The gray, too, fails to encapsulate anything particularly noteworthy. The only color that stands out from the rest is the bright yellow, captured from the flames. With that one exception, this palette is very earth-toned and neutral, a set of colors that is hardly engaging. In fact, it almost seems to be a relaxing color scheme, which does not exactly match up with the original context of the scene. The movie, on the other hand, showcases a very different palette. The colors below are from the Prowler chase scene.
Clearly, this is a much more engaging group of colors. Like the other palette, there is one outlier, but the difference here is that this gray color is the only neutral. The pinks and purples are not colors that would typically be associated with nature or stillness. The only color typically connected to tranquility – the periwinkle blue – pairs well with the others in the palette without making it any less impactful. Compared to the first color scheme, this one would be far more engaging for audiences.
All things considered, the question should be addressed of why exactly it is important that colors affect audiences differently in the film than in the comic. Changing the medium of Miles’ journey not only requires altering the story to fill the one-hour-and-fifty-six-minute run time of the film, but insists on some visual changes as well. Watching a film should be engaging for an audience, and an animated flick with the colors prominently expressed in the original comic would not be so visually exciting. Instead, filmmakers use this unique medium to their advantage, creating animation that is aesthetically stimulating to watch – especially on a big screen. In A Theory of Adaptation, Linda Hutcheon quotes Peter Brook on how watching an engaging film affects audiences: “‘When the image is there in all its power, at the precise moment when it is being received, one can neither think, nor feel, nor imagine anything else.’” (Hutcheon 131). Spider-Verse does exactly that – captures audiences in a way that requires their full attention. And, because the film utilizes such a vibrant and varied color scheme, viewers are glad to give it their full attention.
However, it is more than just audiences that have praised Spider-Verse’s use of colors. The animation in the film received critical acclaim for both its unique style and colorization. A.O Scott from the New York Times writes that the film is “fresh and exhilarating” with its “jaunty, brightly colored inventiveness” (Scott 11). With a “certified fresh” rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is clear that Scott was not the only critic who found Spider-Verse to be groundbreaking (Rotten Tomatoes). Sony Pictures Imageworks details the animation, colorization, and decision-making processes, explaining that “graphic shapes, bold colors, strong composition and simplified design” were among the key principles kept in mind during the rendering of the film (Imageworks). The inclusion of traditional comic book stylization and colors and a mix of 2-D and 3-D graphics allow for Spider-Verse to move beyond the threshold that most animated films remain limited by.
Films and comics each have a unique set of needs, and with a shift in medium comes a shift in the tools to get the job done. Just because a studio could exactly replicate a comic in an animated feature, does not necessarily mean that they should. Instead, it would surely be more beneficial to fully explore alternative methods and utilize the uniqueness of their medium to the best of its ability. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a prime example of how this principle can be used to set a work apart, benchmarking a new standard for the animation community.
Bang, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work. Chronicle Books, 2016.
Bendis, Brian Michael, et al. Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. Vol. 1, Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a Subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment LLC, 2015.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation, Routledge, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ufl/detail.action?docID=1016075.
Imageworks. “Spider-Man™: Into the Spider-Verse.” Sony Pictures Imageworks, www.imageworks.com/our-craft/feature-animation/movies/spider-man-spider-verse.
Moebius, William. “Introduction to Picturebook Codes.” Word & Image, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 141-151, 158
Moebius, William. “Picture Book.” Keywords for Children’s Literature, edited by Philip Nel and Lisa Paul. New York University Press, 2011, pp. 169-173.
Persichetti, Bob, et al., directors. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Sony Pictures, 2018.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018).” Rotten Tomatoes, www.rottentomatoes.com/m/spider_man_into_the_spider_verse.
Scott, A.O. Review of ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Review: A Fresh Take on a Venerable Hero, Review of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2018, p. 11, www.nytimes.com/2018/12/12/movies/spider-man-into-the-spider-verse-review.html.