Review: Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Flack, 2019)
Running parallel to the ongoing battles about women superheroes is another that flashes across the surface and into the depths of Captain Marvel (Anna Boden and Ryan Flack, 2019): a fight about the status of animation within the blockbuster (Fig. 1). Christopher Holliday (2018), Stephen Prince (2012) and Paul Wells (2008) are among those to have discussed the integration of CG animation technologies into the fabric of Hollywood filmmaking, in guises as diverse as character animation and digital grading. CG animation now skitters across the surfaces of big blockbusters – perhaps especially the fantastic worlds of superheroes - producing characters like Rocket Racoon and Iron Man, creating the worlds they inhabit and the powers they use. But there are also less showy sides to CG animation in the superhero blockbuster, not least the incorporation of 3D-friendly colour schemes and digital grading that makes de-aged stars seem to gently glow from inside. Wells (2008) has argued that these big blockbuster films are now animated films, a position it is hard to contest when Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool shouts, “Big CGI fight coming up!” towards the end of his second outing in 2018. So, how does Marvel’s first female-fronted superhero film buck this trend?
Captain Marvel’s promotion has included a surprising emphasis on the analogue. For instance, Variety (Heuring 2019) carried an article about how Captain Marvel’s DP Ben Davis worked with Panavision’s Dan Sasaki to generate new lenses that would mimic analogue film properties, despite using digital cameras with higher resolutions. The result was the creation of a new lens that did away with the need for digital post-production tampering because its “susceptibility to light … created big rainbow flares and lifted contrast” in camera (Sasaki, quoted in Heuring 2019). In this account, the primacy of digital filmmaking is questioned and brought back into touch with analogue technologies because of the need to sell the ‘vintage’ 1980s and 90s look of Captain Marvel. The promotion of Captain Marvel, therefore, became intimately connected to notions of the analogue and this noticeably impacted on how much they have discussed the use of CG animation as special effects within the film.
The one big discussion about CG-generated VFX in Captain Marvel has lingered on the creation of de-aged characters. This is interesting in its own right, because it works to produce an atemporal star performance, using digital animation technologies to invoke the star’s earlier performances and looks (Holliday 2019). In doing so, it makes Captain Marvel not just a film full of alien characters, but a film filled with human characters who look subtly alien because of the way their star performance idiolect has been altered by CG animation (Drake 2006). The way this has been tells us more about the battle between perceptual realism and the fantastic spectacles of such de-aging technological strategies. Lola VFX’s digital de-aging techniques were first used on Marvel characters in X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner, 2006) according to an account by Petrana Radulovic (2018), but they first worked in the Marvel MCU with the digital de-aging of Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym in Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015). A complex process involving the use of archival footage of the actors involved, and the tweaking of everything from facial muscles to the radiance levels of the actor’s skin tones, Lola VFX has become Marvel’s answer to the difficulty of maintaining character across temporally vast networks of film. However, it is worth noting that these technologies are not without their detractors (Barker 2018) and in Captain Marvel there are still occasional compositing and detail issues that throw audiences into the Uncanny Valley.
The battlefront is formed on this divide between the filmmaker’s promotional focus on analogue mimicry over discussion of their widespread use of CG animation. When Captain Marvel finally powers up towards the end her film, it is in exactly the kind of big CGI fight that we have seen elsewhere. And the shifts between the registers of the real and the animated are just as obvious to us in Captain Marvel as they might be when telegraphed by Deadpool (Fig. 2). Carol Danvers/Brie Larson’s digital double has an alternate space-suit costume that immediately visually signals her animated nature. Her side-kick “cat” Goose has a noticeably animated double when a trip to space suddenly makes him weightless. But, more than this, the film’s CG animation of everything from hair to powers breaks with the analogue fidelity being trumpeted by the filmmakers. The film’s spectacle is entirely reliant on CG animated sequences (unless you count the real-world sets dressed as a Blockbuster Video as spectacular). And some of these CG effects are diverse and often beautifully rendered. Stand out sequences include Carol Danvers returning to the bar she used to frequent as an air force pilot and being surrounded by digital ghosts; and, the use of carefully-coded colour schemes throughout a joy, revealing Captain Marvel’s powers in a shining display of colours specifically coded to earth’s mightiest heroes. The relative invisibility of these carefully constructed effects hides the centrality of animation to the world of Marvel’s superheroes. By focusing on techniques that are essentially aimed at hiding the gaps, the filmmakers have created at least a dissonance for their audiences, if not a fully-fledged conflict, between the bread-and-butter VFX of the superhero film and their attempts to ‘ground’ Captain Marvel in the past of actors and filmmaking alike.
Drake, Philip. “Reconceptualizing Screen Performance,” Journal of Film and Video 58, nos. 1/2 (2006): 84-94.
Heuring, David. “How DP Ben Davis and Panavision’s Dan Sasaki Picked the Right Lenses for ‘Captain Marvel’,” Variety (2019), available at: https://variety.com/2019/artisans/news/panavision-cinematographer-ben-davis-picked-the-right-lenses-to-film-captain-marvel-1203157816/
Holliday, Christopher. The Computer-Animated Film: Industry, Style and Genre (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).
Holliday, Christopher. “Retrofaming the Future: Digital De-Aging Technologies in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema.” Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference (2019).
Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).
Radulovic, Petrana. “How Marvel’s De-Aging Effects Evolved to Pull Off Captain Marvel,” Polygon (2018), available at: https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/20/17873724/captain-marvel-young-nick-fury-agent-coulson-special-effects
Wells, Paul. The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).
Rayna Denison is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Television and Media at the University of East Anglia, where she does research and teaching around contemporary Japanese cinema, animation and superhero films. Her work includes the monograph Anime: A Critical Introduction (Bloomsbury, 2015), the Eisner-Award-nominated collection Superheroes on World Screens (co-edited with Rachel Mizsei-Ward for University of Mississippi Press, 2015) and another edited collection titled Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli's Monster Princess (Bloomsbury, 2018).