While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, undoubtedly, one of the most successful film franchises of the 21st century, there are two major complaints that are lobbied at the MCU as a whole pretty regularly. 1. Their films have yet to include an iconic film score or theme, and 2. Their visual palettes, by virtue of having to all fit inside the same universe, are one-note. To the first point, they do seem to be improving as evidenced by Michael Giacchino’s solid work on Doctor Strange, but to the second point, there is certainly still a sameness and, frankly, ugliness to the Marvel aesthetic that I haven’t been able to shake.
And now, a new video essay by Patrick H Willems explores the MCU aesthetic in depth, specifically as it relates to their decision to control the color grading on all the movies so they look similar. Willems argues that it’s not necessarily the sameness that’s an issue, but the decision to drain the color out of the picture and ignore true black values. He presents a number of examples, even doing some rudimentary color grading of his own to show how a film like Guardians of the Galaxy would look if the blacks were blacker, thus allowing the color in the film to pop more.
This essay makes a lot of great points, and puts a finger on something that’s been bothering me for pretty much the majority of the MCU. All of the movies looks very digital, and oftentimes aren’t even really that cinematic. That’s certainly a consequence of Marvel approaching this film franchise like television—each director gets his or her own “episode”, but that episode has to fit within the established aesthetic of the MCU as a whole. This established aesthetic, unfortunately, is quite plain, and while directors like Joe and Anthony Russo can shake things up by giving a gritty, handheld quality to a film like Captain America: The Winter Solider, at the end of the day the color grading is still going to drain a lot of the vibrancy out of the image.
Willems also notes that with the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, director James Gunn is using the Red Weapon 8K camera instead of the MCU-standard Arri Alexa, so it’s possible there could be some change coming. Of course, the color grading will still be the deciding factor, so it’ll be interesting to see if this aesthetic problem persists with a new camera or if Gunn is gonna shake things up.
Watch the video essay below (via reddit) and sound off with your sure-to-be passionate comments below.