Talking Like the Comics

I saw Pacific Rim for the first time the other day. I was struck on a few occasions by how bad the dialogue was — clunky, weird, off-putting, as if it had been run back and forth through several translators until it arrived at some approximation of English. More than that, though, I noticed that most of the conversations weren't actually conversations. That is, the sentences did not flow logically from one to another. Character A would say something, and Character B would say something else. Character B's statement could not really be considered a response, since most of the time it didn't actually address what Character A said. It was a little like watching someone assemble magnetic poetry while inebriated. Their heart is in the right place, and they're clearly excited by what they're doing, but from the outside looking in, it doesn't make much sense. Most conversation scenes in Pacific Rim felt like placeholders. They were just things that had to happen to space out the effects sequences, and they were reverse-engineered from a basic (if jumbled) series of beats about a hero getting off the mat after a loss and rising to conquer the enemy. The dialogue was just plain bad, but then, the dialogue's bad in a lot of action movies, especially those based on comic books or steeped in the kind of broadly sampled "geek culture" that makes up Pacific Rim. It's always dopey and weird, and most of the time the people seem to be talking right past each other. Yet I'm starting to realize that this isn't an accident. It's baked right into the source material with comic books.

Look at old panels from just about any comic book. There are decades of them, hundreds of thousands of issues, and most of them have really bad dialogue that's just there to give you a few pages between battle sequences. Comic books took shape in an era of arch styling and breathless hyperbole, with heroes foaming about dastardly villains and villains cackling about fiendish plans. There's a reason these things captured the hearts and minds of the young: they were direct, uncomplicated, and not that polished.

Does that mean all comic books or graphic novels are worthless? Absolutely not. It's a medium like any other, and the preponderance of bad writing doesn't negate the good stuff when you find it. But these big, broad hero titles were born aloft by tin-ear dialogue, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the movies that have followed — even those that are just inspired by them — have so often fallen on bad writing without seeming to notice or care what its effect might be. Indeed, bad dialogue is in a lot of ways the truest honor these movies can pay to their heritage. That doesn't make it easier to hear, but then, that's not what the movie wants us to listen to.