Danger: Diabolik and the Plot Structure of Comic Book Films

Posted: July 9, 2021 in Uncategorized

Steve Sullivan and I continued our Mario Bava watch-along with Danger: Diabolik (1968). Our viewing and discussion was great fun, and also served me well ahead of teaching the movie again this coming year for the Panels and Frames course. One thing we kept coming back to was the structure of the plot, and how it differs from other comic book films then and now.

Danger: Diabolik is episodic. It consists, broadly, of three thefts (of 10 million dollars, of emeralds, and of the country’s gold reserve). An interlude in Diabolik’s lair separates the adventures. The second of the two is the longest, and in fact the theft of the emeralds brackets the main narrative of that episode, which is the battle between Diabolik and crime lord Valmont. The closest thing we get to an overarching narrative is Inspector Ginko’s efforts to catch Diabolik, but it’s overearching in the same way as the struggle between the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. It’s a conflict that predates the stories we see here, and will continue long after.

This is different from what we get in the other comic book adaptation produced by Dino De Laurentiis the year before: Barbarella. There, the narrative also proceeds (at a rather more leisurely pace) through various episodes, until finally we get the confrontation with Duran Duran, which was the substance of Barbarella’s mission in the first place.

And Barbarella’s structure, it seems to me, is pretty close to what we get with the modern superhero film. Their plots tend to be pretty shambolic affairs if one were looking for a tight narrative, but then, that would also be looking for something different from what one gets in the source material. If we look back at the first comic book adaptations — the serials — there we see the same thing: adventures that are literally episodic until the final confrontation. So we’ve removed the chapter titles, but the essence of that form remains. (And with the MCU, we get that structure replicated at the macro level, with each film acting as a serial chapter.)

But Danger: Diabolik eschews this sense of finality, and it’s also the film where the villain is the protagonist (Diabolik isn’t stealing from the rich to give to the poor — he’s just stealing, and he will kill you if you get in his way). The film really is closer to the Roadrunner-Coyote secenario, even borrowing a gag from the cartoons.

The other, non-comic-book franchise it bounces off is James Bond. Diabolik is the anti-Bond — a resolutely monogamous agent of chaos. But the Bond collectively, like Danger: Diabolik, do not, collectively, move an overarching plot forward in significant ways (the Craig films being a partial exception). So Bava’s film also resembles three Bond narratives compacted into 90 minutes (complete with erswthile Largo Adolfo Celi as Valmont).

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