One of the draws of comic books is its art. The stories themselves are important but they’re only half complete with just words. When we look back into the Silver Age and development of the Marvel Method, exemplified by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, where the visuals of the story were every bit as important to the creation of the character as the dialogue. The Marvel Method, which is still in use today, involves the artist on a comic drawing the entire storyline of the issue, only to have the words added after the visuals were completed. Similarly, when it comes to comic book movies, I believe that visuals are just as important as the script. Dialogue is one piece, but building out a world that works cinematically and brings the comic’s art to life is another. This is the reason that I believe that horror directors have been tapped to adapt comic book superheroes and have excelled at almost every turn.
When you look down the list at Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Jon Watts, Scott Derrickson, Taika Waititi, James Gunn, and now James Wan, all have brought comic characters to life. From Hellboy to Doctor Strange and various Spider-Man movies, each director has at least one comic book film that people have fallen in love with.
While story is important, a film’s visuals are what audiences take with them once the movie wraps. From cosplay, prints, and the use of visuals in marketing, horror directors have been able to create some of the most beautiful and striking sets. In the last few years alone, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and now Aquaman, have brought audiences on a visual journey and have shot to the top as favorites in this current age of comic book movies.
Horror can be trope-filled and visually muddied when it’s bad. But when it’s good, it’s visually stunning and reflects the cultural expectations and fears of the time. It’s the same for comic books and comic book movies. They can be sepia-toned beat ’em ups or they can be dynamic visual movies that also show the best in us as well as use a villain to highlight our fears. These similarities are ones that can’t be overlooked and are essential to why horror directors have been able to knock superhero stories out of the park.
While there are many horror directors to choose from, I’ve chosen three to highlight, if not only for my personal tastes. However, I can’t name a horror director who didn’t deliver a visually stunning superhero movie.
Sam Raimi, Spider-Man Franchise (2002-2007)
In Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise, minus the third film, which we as a fandom collectively try to forget but really isn’t as awful as we remember, the director was able to use his extremely visual and slightly campy style to tell the story of Peter Parker and his journey of becoming Spider-Man. Having been the visionary behind the cult classic The Evil Dead, Raimi has had a steady career of scares including the highly underrated Drag Me to Hell.
Say what you will about Tobey McGuire’s acting as Spider-Man vs his acting as Peter Parker, the films visually embrace their comic book roots, bringing to life some of the original silver age style of dialogue and color schemes and blending it with scenes that were developed in layers. On top of that Doc Ock, played by Alfred Molina, remains one of the most iconic comic book villains and his translation from the page to the screen is something that was handled perfectly.
It’s easy to credit Iron Man (2008) with the state of comic book movies now, but while that is true for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ultimately shared universes, Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy set the bar for comic book movies starting in 2002. While the other early 2000s comic book movies may not all be amazing, his trilogy got people excited in a new way.
Guillermo del Toro, Blade II (2002), Hellboy Franchise (2004-2008)
Regarded as a master of horror and film more generally, del Toro’s additions to the world of super-heroes began with Blade II, which in spite of a poor script, was visually stunning. That being said, it was with Hellboy and it’s sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, that del Toro was able to bring his signature style of creatures to life and craft a world of the unknown in a fashion that not only looked comic book accurate but also felt alive. From Ron Perlman’s makeup to Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien, del Toro’s ability to balance practical effects with CGI to accent his narrative is central to the beauty of the films.
In addition to that, the story of a monster seeking to be seen as a human is not only a staple of del Toro’s brand of empathetic horror but also to the origins of the genre itself. We may not think about it much, but although some monsters aim to terrorize and maim, others aim to be accepted in the world, much like the super-powered beings we see in the pages of a comic. Del Toro brought this deep understanding of visuals and the emotions of monsters to the Hellboy series.
That being said, with the comic’s creator Mike Mignola is now writing the reboot, directed by Neil Marshall, we see yet another horror director taking over the franchise. As the director of one of the most beloved and terrifying horror movies, The Descent, he’s stepping into big shoes. We’ll find out on April 12, of this year, if it’s a success.
James Wan, Aquaman (2018)
James Wan is one of the only directors to create multiple shared universes and not directly based on just one film. The visionary behind Saw and the world around it, the Insidious series, The Conjuring series and it’s offshoot series Annabelle and The Nun, Wan has been able to produce and direct some of the defining theater horror films of the last 19 years. In fact, his PG-13 films and unique color palettes and cinematography define much of what studio horror is today and has essentially created his own subgenre of horror – or as the people at Frightday like to call it, “Wanre.”
So, going into the latest Warner Brother’s Worlds of DC film line up, I knew that visually the film would be amazing. In Aquaman, the use of color, costuming, and the changing tones in this superhero adventure story are perfect. Wan’s horror influence is best seen, not only in the handling of color throughout the film, but in the start of the third act when Mera and Arthur confront the creatures fo the Trench.
Creature design and use of red are done in a way only a horror mind can do and ultimately the use of small bursts of light to show the creatures swimming around the red flare, dark blue on black on green, gives an awareness of depth that only directors used to working in dark palettes can see. Given Wan’s use of darkness in Insidious, it isn’t surprising that he knocked these shots out of the water, pun intended.
There is a lot that goes into directing a film, but when it comes to comic book movies, the visual aspects is by and large a big piece of the puzzle. While it isn’t the only element, every fight scene is built on it and the use of effects as well. With the exception of some lukewarm titles, it’s safe to say that horror directors are successful when it comes to making comic book movies and in the pre-MCU era of comic book movies some of the only directors to pull of good ones.
Moving forward, the next comic book movie being brought to life by a horror director is Shazam, set to release this year. We will also be seeing Gunn’s Suicide Squad 2, which given the way he brought unknown heroes into the forefront of the MCU in a unique and hyper-colored way, I’m excited to see if he can revive what Dave Ayer left behind. With Wan’s Aquaman expected to cross the $1 billion mark next weekend, I’m sure that horror directors will keep earning comic book properties.
Do you have a favorite comic book movie from a horror director I didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.