Spider-Man: An Interested Designer’s Take

I liked The Amazing Spider-Man, with reservations. But for now, let’s deal with the typography. I have an odd, familial relationship with the latest Marvel movie– The Amazing Spider-Man. If you’ve read this blog, you may already know that I designed the typeface that was used as the movie’s title logo.

I’d seen all of the posters and billboards with the title all around my home in Los Angeles. I saw the movie on Friday afternoon; I’d heard from my friend Orrin that my typeface Megahertz was also used in the movie itself. Anyone unfamiliar with the workings of Hollywood might be unaware that this is somewhat unique. Often an outside company is contracted by the studio to create promotion material for a film’s release. That company (usually an entertainment ad agency) is responsible for creating the movie’s key art for the poster, trailer and other collateral material. The logo featured on the poster is seldom the same design that appears in the film. That wasn’t the case with this Spider-Man incarnation. All of the title treatments in the print, licensing, merchandise and film itself are the Megahertz version seen above.

I admire this kind of consistent approach to a film’s visual identity. The movie and its collateral is churned into a brand. This consistent use of a design is one part of reinforcing a brand identity. It spills over to its application on souvenir cups, toys, and commercials for Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr,  Twizzlers, and even nail polish. Spider-Man is selling stuff everywhere. Amazing.

I was pleased with the opening title use. But, of course, there are a couple things I would have done differently (I do this kind of work, you see). My first criticism is the lack of color. I’ve only seen it once, and my recollection is dimensional gray letters and silver spider silk threads. Too monochrome for such a primary color superhero. There needed to at least be some red and blue reflections and perhaps some hints of green to foreshadow to the villainy to come.

My other complaint is a slight overuse of my typeface. The designer or studio opted to have both the film title and preceding title, COLUMBIA PICTURES PRESENTS set in Megahertz. Bad idea, methinks. Years of experience have taught me the importance of creating a clear distinction between a brand name and the graphics that support that brand name. In this case, the use of Megahertz for Columbia’s above the title credit weakens the brand name of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. We recognize distinctness. We discount sameness. Marks of distinction are key to successful identity.

It’s very rare to find a director who effectively integrates all of the graphic design of their film as part of the collected impression of the finished film. What I mean is this– graphic design is a component of any modern film. Within the film itself there is likely signage, printed material, computer and phone screens. If these are important enough to be seen in the finished film, they are important to the visual aesthetic of the film. Christopher Nolan, David Fincher and Michael Bay understand this.

Perhaps no modern director understands this better than Wes Anderson. Graphic design is a vital component of Anderson’s storytelling. For his latest film Moonlight Kingdom, Anderson commissioned the immensely talented designer and lettering artist Jessica Hische to create a new script typeface specifically for the titles of his film. Ms Hische understood (or was made to understand) what Anderson wished to convey. But it wasn’t just the opening titles Anderson directed. You can see his hand in the signage and book covers, as well as the animated map that traces the heroes’ journey.

Another director, Girls’ creator Lena Dunham, revealed a brilliant sense of design in her feature Tiny Furniture. The opening and closing titles for the film were created by her friends at CHIPS. Those titles were a perfect complement to Ms Dunham’s gorgeously realized film. Lena Dunham’s talents are mind-boggling; it’s as if she’s an ideal result of the coupling of two talented artists (which she is). My point here is that Lena Dunham is a director who understands that in a film a typeface is not just a typeface. And a chair isn’t just a chair; how you frame a shot shapes your film. And all of those things work together to create what becomes your artistic statement (aka film).

Of course, it’s a stretch to call The Amazing Spider-Man an artistic statement. As a commercial film product, it does pretty well. But the graphic design of the film fails to knit the film together. The Megahertz title is a fitting logo for the film, but the standalone title animation isn’t integrated at all. The best evidence of effective graphic design in this film is the use of typography in the physical spaces of Oscorp, the business where the reluctant villain and leading lady-girl work. In those high-tech halls and on office doors, a bold condensed sans serif typeface (Trade Gothic Condensed?) is there to guide the way. The real villain (known to comic book nerds as Oscorp’s) Norman Osborne, like most movie villains, places a large importance on design in the workplace and/or evildoer’s lair.

By contrast the end title segments (there are two) are pathetic afterthoughts. The first group of end credits are set in an 80s holdover typeface (Serpentine, I think) last seen on sheets of Letraset press-on letters. (Any other designosaurs out there?) Serpentine probably should have gone the way of that press-type- extinction. My guess is someone with inversely proportionate authority and taste decided on Serpentine Oblique, because it’s extended and slanted, like the Megahertz used in the title logo. The second set of end credits are set in Gill Sans Italic. I really can’t quibble with that selection. I think it works well. But these titles lack any other visual reference to the film we just saw. They are orphaned. Marvel has encouraged fans to stay until the end of the credits in their most recent film offerings. I think they owe it to their fans and the people who worked on their films to make these end titles a bit more than a rolling phone book.

Before this Spider-Man, director Marc Webb was responsible for 500 Days of Summer, a modestly successful love story (that temporarily made me hate Zooey Deschanel). He is still learning on the job and he lacks the power to make a movie that is entirely his own. He delivered a good, entertaining love story and superhero origin tale. It was far too long in many places and should have been a half hour shorter. But it was satisfying.

I just wish the type worked better in the film.


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