I discovered the internet fairly late. It was probably about 2005 before I realized it was possible to stream videos. Still pretty young, I limited my searches to viral stuff, Numa Numa and other early trash like that.
It was another 5 years before I discovered pirating sites, which immediately made my collection of VHS tapes and DVDs essentially useless.
And now, after having owned a smartphone for most of my adult life, I, like everyone else, have come to expect that level of extreme convenience and functionality.
I don’t understand the technology behind any of my tech, but I take it for granted just the same.
The idea that new things devalue our experiences of X, Y, and Z is undoubtedly a boomer ideology, and it’s hard to talk about the concept without leaning into the “fire bad” approach to cultural critique.
But the effects are real. As tech changes, it also changes the way we experience life. That’s not inherently bad, but it does have an impact, and we can’t really ignore that anymore.
Now let’s take the idea and translate it to the Marvel movies because it’s time for some more complainin’.
“Everyone’s Special, Dash”
When I talked about the characters in the Avengers movies, it was easy enough to explain why I thought they were just bad and ineffective. They didn’t speak to me.
But when looking at the visuals and VFX in the Avengers movies, I can’t say they’re bad. They’re not. The effects are not bad. The cinematography is not especially bad, either.
At the same time, I was never wowed by any of the visuals in any of the Marvel movies, despite the fact that they make use of some of the most impressive VFX and camera work in contemporary filmmaking.
A very brief note: I’m not a visual artist, and, like my smartphone, I don’t know how finished products come together when we’re talking about VFX in movies today. However, I do have my own tastes and I’ve talked to actual visual artists about visual style, technique, and how this all applies to big-budget movies. I even had the chance to speak with one of the VFX artists that worked on the very first Avengers movie.
So I’ll try to speak to multiple perspectives on the topic while ultimately returning to the idea that all the work that went into these movies created something that was ultimately underwhelming.
VFX in the Marvel movies is synonymous with CG. That’s the artistry in question here. There are also a fair number of practical, on-set effects at work in these movies, but CG is the important part of the discussion.
Again, the VFX in the Avengers movies are extremely impressive, and this had not been lost on visual artists. The concept art for these movies is stunning, and, on a technical level, the CG is just flawless. A huge amount of crazy monsters, environments, and even magical powers is put on display and none of it feels especially unnatural or out of place.
That alone takes a massive amount of effort and many, many talented people. If you want proof, just watch the credits for any Marvel movie and see how long it takes for all the VFX artists to scroll by.
So why don’t I (some guy who really likes to watch movies and doesn’t know much about the visual arts) have any special appreciation for the VFX in the Marvel movies?
The first big reason ties in with my earlier ramble about technology and responses to those technologies and how they’ve been integrated and assimilated into our lives.
When we’ve been given enough things of very high quality, we stop noticing it and begin to take those high-quality things for granted.
CG in big-budget movies has gotten so good that we barely notice it anymore. We just expect it, especially in a story that focuses so much on wild environments and buckwild effects and ‘splosions.
Why? The tech is good and keeps getting better and the people using that tech keep finding new and creative ways to use the tools they have access to.
Remember The Incredibles? Great movie, right? Dash wants to embrace his specialness. Then his mom reminds him, “Everyone is special, Dash.” Dash comes back with a very edgy, “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”
To the average viewer, the value of these fantastic effects is low, but the skill behind the effects is still impressive and laudable.
Part of why I wasn’t affected by the VFX in the Avengers movies is that, very loosely, we’ve seen all this before. We’ve seen so many movies that make impressive use of CG and shiny new mo-cap technology. The whole point of VFX is to blend with the world of the movie as seamlessly as possible. When that’s pulled off, people are less likely to notice.
Ok, now for the reason that’s more important to me.
And don’t you worry, I have some more super-cool analogies to better illustrate the point.
I think the effects in the Marvel movies, while objectively impressive, are bland and boooooooring.
If you asked me to envision the scary space-monsters from the first Avengers movie, I would end up describing something that sounds just like the creatures/monsters from movies and games like District 9, Battleship, Justice League, Doom, Doom (2016), Doom: Eternal, the entire Halo series, the entire Metroid series, and pretty much any other marine shooter or demon-based FPS.
What about all the cool CG tech in the Marvel movies? Ya know, there’s that big helicopter landing strip thing, and all the gadgets in Stark’s lab and his country house where he just kinda figures out time travel while sipping tea, and the Quinjet, and the Avengers training facility.
Sorry, I couldn’t tell ya outside of saying that there’s a lot of steel and cool colors, gray, black, and crazy mechanical arms and hologram screens.
All of it is forgettable. Well-executed? For sure. Memorable? Not at all.
And ok, sure, you could say that all this tech and these environments isn’t the point. It’s a series about their characters and their interactions with each other. Ignoring the fact that the character work doesn’t impact me at all (see the other article for more details), this does not mean, in the least, that all this tech and other CG content couldn’t have had more style and more interesting art direction.
Here comes a nice little analogy: the VFX in the Marvel movies is like music, from playing an instrument to actually writing and composing.
I’ve worked with many musicians who all attended a specific music school on the East Coast that will remain unnamed. This school is very well-respected in the music industry and a huge number of successful artists have come out of this school.
If you attend this school, it’s proof that your technical ability with regards to your instrument is basically beyond reproach. People come into the school already having mastery over their instrument and they only get better over the next few years.
Despite all that, when musicians leave the school and enter the music industry proper, they have to fight for jobs and many of them have to find other work to support themselves, despite the fact that their technical ability is enough to put them in the realm of the best musicians living today.
Sure, this has something to do with the amount of competition in the arts, and lots of musicians don’t get paid very much unless they squeeze into one of the rare and lucrative jobs out there for music folks.
But after working with so many of these musicians and getting a closer look at the trajectory of their careers, I’ve come to understand exactly this: technical ability and artistry are very different skill sets.
That doesn’t mean technical ability isn’t worth pursuing. Whether you’re a musician, a writer, or a filmmaker, having a foundation in technical ability is extremely important. Only then can you start to play around with foundational concepts and create something truly original.
But gaining technical ability isn’t a guarantee that someone will then also be artful and creative in their work.
I was a creative writing major myself, and it wasn’t until my junior year that a professor finally admitted, yeah, the actual creative side of the writing and coming up with great ideas can’t actually be taught, instead we just teach you the basics and you have to take the next step.
Yes, Hendrix was a killer player and he had a huge amount of technical skill, but then he started introducing some insane elements into his music, including many elements (i.e. what we could call an abuse of the whammy bar) that would make a music teacher scoff.
Picasso is another easy example here. Yes, he was perfectly capable of creating photorealistic works, but as he started to convey more complex and upsetting subjects, forms became stretched, distorted, and made more alien and unfamiliar.
I have no doubt that every one of the VFX artists that worked on the Avengers series was capable of creating more stylized and compelling CG elements and environments, but the leadership behind these movies was not interested in conveying style. Everything just needed to feel somewhat realistic and blend with the world as we know it today.
The directors attached to the Avengers movies (Whedon and the Russo Brothers) aren’t especially inclined toward hyper-stylized films. And that’s fine. But as for me and my feelings toward the Avengers movies, Infinity War in particular, somewhat realistic effects that I’ll forget as soon as the credits start to roll aren’t going to earn my praise.
I need to be able to see a vision. There’s plenty of room for movies without a distinctive visual style, especially if that lack of heightened style serves the story, but my favorite movies are very often ones that communicate a strong style, where you can tell that the director, the art director, and the rest of the crew were all on the same page about the way the movie should look.
When I say that, you might have a lot of indie stuff come to mind. Wes Anderson, Chomet, Tati, and all those artsy people. But it’s perfectly possible for big-budget movies to have a strong visual style. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not.
Very Good Examples:
Blade Runner (especially the sequel).
Other Villeneuve Hollywood movies like Arrival and Prisoners.
US, much more so than Get Out.
The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Most Pixar movies.
Mad Max: Fury Road.
Any Coen brothers movie.
And, most importantly, Thor: Ragnarok.
Completely by accident, Disney created a Marvel movie with style and a unique sensibility. A creative filmmaker took some liberties and led a fantastic cast and crew to make something that felt new and, most surprisingly, fun.
Even the spaceships in Ragnarok are some of the only ones I actually remember from the Marvel universe. Why? They’re not from the Marvel Universe and they weren’t designed by anyone at Disney. The designs were taken wholesale from the concept art for Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune that was never made.
It’s possible to incorporate style into the Marvel universe, but style represents a risk to a major studio. Some people might not like it. So when the biggest movies in the series were being produced, there was no way anyone was going to stray from the corporate-approved gameplan.
The Cool Down
Got a bit worked up back there. Let’s take a minute to cool off.
So why did I bother explaining why the effects and visuals in the MCU are so bland? Well, it’s part of the larger argument. So many people have tried to convince me that Infinity War and Endgame elevated themselves above typical superhero movies, but for me, they just didn’t.
A movie’s visuals are extremely important. I know, it’s quite a concept. You could even say they’re the most important aspect, since silent films were around for decades before sound was even introduced into the art form.
The Avengers movies just don’t deliver in the visuals department. There’s plenty of skill at work, and I’ve gone to great lengths to admit that.
But all that work and skill resulted in a series of products that left me thoroughly underwhelmed. I never once felt like there was a vision at work. Instead, the movies felt like heavily focus-tested narratives that are crafted to appeal to as many people as possible.
And would you lookit that: that’s exactly what they are.