BY HUGH HART
A longtime inspiration for blockbuster Hollywood movies, comic book characters rarely made successful transitions to the small screen—until recently. With nearly a dozen superhero shows now available to viewers, pilot directors have set a bold tone for this new generation of stories. Challenged to translate 20th Century comic book properties for modern television audiences, four shrewd directors put their own spin on graphic-novel source material to reach beyond the confines of traditional "fanboy" demographics.
Gotham's Steampunk Dystopia
In the pilot episode he directed for Fox hit Gotham, Danny Cannon took pains to create a brooding urban atmosphere for the Batman origin story about young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz). "Directing Gotham was not about finding a contemporary city but creating a Dickensian world that was lost in time," Cannon explains. "Our cars are seventies, a lot of our music is eighties, our wardrobe is forties and fifties, some of the architecture is turn of the century." Filming on location in New York, he says, "We were constantly wetting down the street, using steam and smoke sources to create that thick, layered, old London town quality, or old New York from the fifties and sixties, where steam's rising from the grates as if the underneath of Gotham is an angry beast."
Collaborating closely with series creator Bruno Heller and the late production designer Doug Kraner, Cannon cites Alan Moore's classic Watchmen graphic novel and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns saga as references for the series' sinister tone. He also drew inspiration from Sidney Lumet's 1970s-era New York films and film noir classics from the 1940s, including Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep. "We imposed that influence on the graphic novel approach, where frames are rather bold," Cannon says.
To reinforce the show's vintage vibe, Cannon shot on Alexa cameras fitted with old Primo lenses. "Regular lenses are great when you shoot contemporary stuff and want a super-clear image," he explains, "but there's a softer quality to older lenses that we wanted because we were going for more of a period feeling."
Gotham's densely detailed environment prompted vivid, slightly over-the-top performances from Jada Pinkett Smith and Robin Lord Taylor as villainous Fish Mooney and Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin), respectively. Cannon says: "The backing we created for Gotham allowed the actors to feel safe about going that added distance because we're just a few degrees left or right from reality. The way Jada moves her hands or [Robin] sticks out his chin at people, the actors' physicality really pops. In my mind, it's their performances that elevate the show."
Cannon took pains to coax outsized performances from his cast. "Because there's a flamboyance to these characters, I worked extensively with Jada. She brought such energy to the character: The more I showed her visually and the more we discussed this world, the more she was able to physically find the role within her."
Harlem's Street Smart Superhero
When Marvel's Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker invited Paul McGuigan to launch his series about a wrongly convicted, extremely strong Harlem ex-con, the Scottish director decided to open the show with a crane shot panning across Lenox Avenue. From the outset, McGuigan says, "I always tried to keep the frame wide and have the background of Harlem in there as much as possible. I wanted to open up this world because Harlem is so important to the series and to the comic books as well."
After poring through Marvel's online archive of Luke Cage stories, launched in 1972 during the heyday of the politically charged Black Power movement, McGuigan immersed himself in Harlem street photography by filmmaker/photographer Gordon Parks as a tonal starting point. "I wanted to make this show about the streets," says McGuigan, who also paid homage to a sequence from 1971 blaxploitation classic Shaft by following star Mike Colter with hidden cameras as he interacts with civilians on the sidewalk. "I wanted to find the world of Luke Cage within streets that actually exist in Harlem the way it is now, with gentrification as well as these iconic places, the churches, the basketball courts, the clubs."
McGuigan and cinematographer Manuel Billeter energized dialogue-heavy sequences early in the show by using Panavision Primo lenses custom-treated with a reflective coating that produces flares. "It adds a bit of life to the frame when you have scenes that are long and talky because flares create another layer of visualization," explains McGuigan. "When you see everybody talking in the barbershop and these red flares appear, it feels like a mistake, as if the camera's pointing at something it shouldn't be pointed at. That creates a sense of tension between characters, so you're not just recording the chat."
Keeping Supergirl Grounded
In contrast to the moody Gotham, CBS' Supergirl pilot, directed by Glen Winter in Los Angeles, establishes a contemporary, bright tone for the perky DC Comics heroine. "Shooting in L.A. gave the show a specific palette," says Winter. "A lot of superhero movies take place in Manhattan or Chicago-type environments, but we wanted to play L.A. as L.A.—warm and sun-kissed."
Prepping the pilot for Supergirl, now in its second season, Winter took his cues from series creator Greg Berlanti more than from the comic books themselves. "DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns loaded me up with a lot of Supergirl lore," says Winter, "but quite honestly, I didn't want to spend too much brainpower and time delving deeply into stuff that didn't really affect the storyline of our pilot."
Winter instead focused on presenting Kara "Supergirl" Zor-El (Melissa Benoist) as a modern young woman with whom viewers could easily relate. "Even though Kara technically is an alien from outer space, it's her human-like qualities and emotions that speak to people watching the show," he says. "Sometimes Supergirl's like a Mike Nichols or Nora Ephron workplace comedy, where the camera work is fluid and the look is glossy. But the very next scene might have evil aliens, so then we go handheld and it looks as dark and gritty as Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Style-wise, it's fun to mix camera styles within an episode to play up this mix of comedy and horror and drama. Greg and I spoke early about wanting to create a world where the audience doesn't know what show is going to show up this week, or even within the hour."
Bringing Edge to Jessica Jones
Marvel's Jessica Jones debuted on Netflix last November, breaking fresh ground with Krysten Ritter's performance as a sarcastic Hell's Kitchen private eye haunted by traumatic abuse at the hands of evildoer Kilgrave (David Tennant). Charged with directing the show's first two episodes, S.J. Clarkson immersed herself in the complete set of Alias comic books featuring Jessica Jones.
"I don't really read graphic novels, so when I sat down with the comic I thought I'd give it a quick glance," Clarkson recalls. "Three days later, I'd literally read all the comics cover to cover." The allure? "I found it quite exciting that Jessica was this damaged, flawed superhero on the fringes. She wasn't out there to save the world and do good. She swore, she smoked, she drank, she was rude and sarcastic and I thought, 'Well, there's a girl after my own heart!'"
Series creator Melissa Rosenberg's pilot script specified a noir sensibility, which Clarkson translated into a subdued palette suited to Jones' personality. "A lot of the tone in the pilot comes from noir-style lighting," Clarkson says. "Jessica's such a steely character in terms of her strength and resilience but also in her emotional state. That led me to adopt a cool, slightly desaturated palette of steely blues and grays. I avoided bright primary colors because I didn't feel Jessica would be into that."
The British director drew on Touch of Evil and The Third Man to inform her brooding take on Jessica Jones. She also cites Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love as a cinematic touchstone in the craft of evoking on-screen alienation. "That film captured isolation and disconnection so beautifully," says Clarkson, who will revisit the superhero realm for Netflix as a director and executive producer on the upcoming The Defenders, which will include Ritter's Jones character. "Jessica herself is isolated and disconnected, I didn't want to give her a heroic stance in the way I framed shots. I wanted Jessica to be more in the shadows, more on the sidelines, more subversive. All of that came from the character."
And it's character, ultimately, that drives successful superhero television. Directors need a deft touch in order to weave together character arcs, atmosphere, action and mythology from strands of comic book DNA. Above all, Supergirl
director Winter, whose credits also include The Flash
and Legends of Tomorrow
, advises filmmakers to imbue superheroes with the common touch. "With all these shows, we start from a place of being grounded," Winters says. "These are real people in extraordinary circumstances, and the audience has to identify with them."