Superhero Films Industry: Plot and Development of Visual Effects


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People love good storytelling, story is key and wins over genre, style or age-old rivalry. Arguably, the superhero genre has been putting narrative in the corner in favour of action-packed set pieces and expertly choregraphed fight sequences. Director James Cameron started an online outrage and received extreme backlash by musing that he hoped superhero fatigue would happen sooner rather than later due to lack of original content.

“Not that I don’t love the movies. It’s just, come on, guys, there are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process.” Said James Cameron. “We can see the market drives us to a sort of science fiction now that’s either completely escapist and doesn’t require a technical consultant—an example of that would be Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s just fun”.

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Without a doubt, Superheroes define this cultural moment that surrounds us yet come under fire and are labelled overrated. Yet the box office performances speak for themselves, latching onto cultural conversation and refusing to let it go. The stories continue to evolve but with a much wider scale, Marvel itself has made a fine art out of training audiences to look out for hidden Easter eggs, nods to old and new things to come. Many of the films in the Superhero genre rely heavily on foreshadowing, by presenting plot devices that don’t necessarily affect the film they are presented in, but more the films that are scheduled to release after. Unfortunately, films that stand on their own narratively are overlooked by audiences who have succumbed to constant speculation about what’s next, therefore refusing to engage with these individual condensed stories. Within Marvel, a more recent release, Ant – Man and the Wasp , was its own story, disregarding any other hero in the universe it lives in. Yet despite being a success, its theatrical release just months after the team up movie Avengers: Infinity War, meant its earnings were incomparable and disappointing even when compared to other ‘stand-alone’ pictures in the universe. Despite being a sequel to an established franchise, Ant – Man and the Wasp ranks 15th out of the 21 pictures released within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This further reinstates that the narrative of these pictures is much wider, with the stories ultimately merging together as chapters, consistently developing further along in other films as an incentive for audiences to return.

Infinity War was a culmination of everything before it which made it one of the most anticipated movies of all time. It evolved from what the franchise started out as with Iron man in 2008 and became a much more complex animal. Coincidentally or not, the superhero boom exploded right after the horror of September 11th, and the subsequent war on terror. Perhaps it’s not surprising that stories of American icons, imbued with power and hope, battling chaotic forces of evil who aim to destroy cities, became so wildly popular. But I have a feeling that the city-demolishing phase might be nearing its end, as audiences begin to demand something more intellectually stimulating from their beloved caped crusaders. The emotional effect the climax of Avengers: infinity War had on audiences merely represents an eye-opening perception of how Marvel, over time, has conditioned its viewers into preparing themselves for a long slate of sequels and origin stories yet to come. It’s a mere example of being intensively marketed and subject to elaborate publicity strategies that build anticipation months prior to release, some films address themselves to a global spectatorship as crucial media ‘events’.

Marvel has received criticism for lacking depth, with each film reducing the stakes to keep a consistency throughout the franchise and following the same formula. If you boil down a Marvel movie, to its basics, it will have the following: a likable protagonist with clear motivations and a good heart, a fairly straightforward plot, an upbeat tone with ample humor, an unlikable villain with clear motivations, and a happy ending . Although there are exceptions, Black Panther exists as its own introverted piece of the Marvel puzzle, making a cultural splash through its maturity and politically engaging stance. It is not your regular film nor is it merely a piece of Blaxploitation, it treaded new ground by creating its own new culture that can’t be generalized or compared to as well as uniting a coalition between black comic book readers and multiple ethnic movie audiences. The narrative was completely different as it isn’t only a hero’s journey, but it presents itself as a journey for black culture. The renewed conversation around race that Black Panther enters into extends beyond the entertainment industry. As the first black superhero film in a cinematic universe that’s spent the past decade focused primarily on white superheroes, it underlines the chasm that exists between society’s treatment of black Americans and white Americans .

This resulted in its being nominated for seven Academy awards yet the titular characters return in Avengers: Infinity Wart saw his screen time reduced to just seven minutes. The library of content both Marvel and DC have is not ruining storytelling, but team up films such as Avengers: Infinity War and Justice League are. It’s important to reinstate movies at hand being the audiences focus instead of them looking forward to an unreleased slate of films that removes the independence and speciality of the films that are available in front of us. Yet these films do function importantly as spectacle, trading heavily on the appeal of even grander special effects sequences that sometimes seem motivated by little more than their own spectacular presence and box office appeal which is why the Marvel films continue to perform well, they have a formula that works and revenue that always turns a profit. Yet each film can feel like a recycled version of the prior, only with different characters and locations. The DC films approached their franchise the same way marvel did, with each film being interconnected, yet their critical response was much lower as was some of the box officer performers. They are pursuing further films with independence, each film having its own universe to move past the critical failures of both Batman v. Superman and Justice League. The films featured a bleak tone with lack of humour or even colour, and the stories became too convoluted for audiences to enjoy, unlike Marvel, these films just were not considered fun. But with less concern for a cinematic universe like Marvel, DC can push for innovative ideas that don’t have to connect the films together, every story can have its own ideals and independence which could vastly differentiate it from the comparison of Marvel. These stand-alone movies can fly or fall without affecting an entire interconnected universe. Heck, Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad show that the DC Films flicks that are more outside-the-box are as successful, if not more so, than the more conventional superhero fare. Freed from the limitations of challenging MCU’s dominance, they can (if they choose) play around in different genres, offer Elseworlds and go a little off script to at least differentiate themselves from the competition .

Superhero Films have become a profusely popular stigma in people’s lives, particularly in this millennium because they have us believe and look up to these heroes amidst being in awe of the spectacular action brought to life on screen. Now due to the incredible advances, the capabilities in special effects are endless; films can now make superheroes look grounded and believable due to the seamless use of CGI imagery. The reason impressive and visceral special effects are so important is Spectacular cinema is sold partly on the basis of its sheer size and impact, its physical scale of image and multi-channel sound: its function specifically as attraction. Its role in Hollywood is to offer audiences a scale of audio-visual experience that will bring them back to the cinema .

Before the fast development in technological advances, the success of superhero films was few and far between as they were not an established genre of film. Its undeniable that Tim Burton’s Batman was a huge success. There have been countless attempts to replicate the success, amore recent example being Green Lantern which was a huge critical and commercial failure  featuring Ryan Reynolds in an entirely CGI suit that was poor in quality. In the space between Batman and Avengers: Infinity War, the huge change in technology can be seen through the focus of the Batmobile Tim Burton created. The 1989 version of the Batmobile excited audiences due to its intricate design and attention to detail. It featured a more streamlined appearance than that seen in earlier adaptations like the television show of the same name. like many of the sets in Tim Burton’s film, the Batmobile was both practical and functionally built, instead of the use of special effects.

Whether the effects used can stand the test of time is regarded to individual preference, yet audiences are more forgiving with the quality as the first feature films of not only Batman but Superman  were without a doubt a step up from their televised counterparts. Initially, for the most part, these live action superhero stories looked exactly like they were: adults unflattering costumes. Seeing real life people in Unitards attempting battles with over the top villains would lead to an association with buffoonery, robbing the genre of all the magic it established in the comic books. At the time of its release, Superman had high expectations with a marketing campaign that gave promise. The films tagline read ‘You will believe a man can fly’. Despite a good depiction of a live superhero, the technology available was restricted and we never really believed a man could fly. In the comics there was no limit to the stories that could be told, in the depths of space or grounded on Earth, though only obstacle was the artists imagination. Film and Television just couldn’t compete with the Mise en scene the comic books provided.

The 21st century marked a huge impact on both the superhero genre and filmmaking in general with the arrival of X-Men . Suddenly people believed beyond the idea that a man could fly, to the extent of a woman being able to control the weather and another turning into a blue beast. Along with accomplished Actors and Directors and great developments in costumes and capabilities, these attributes helped finally elevate the genre of superhero films from being unrealistic to irreplaceable.

The CGI was both beautiful and believable, marking the most significant change, rendering the superpowers and action set pieces into something the audience could behold. Despite being fantasy, these films were finally somewhat grounded and realistic in their visual grandeur. Technology had finally reached a point where it could do what comic books had always been able to do; present a strong story featuring a hero who is enhanced by the fantastical imagery that surround them. Special effects finally reached the point of not being a distraction, but rather an attraction.

Yet the quality of CGI is always an important factor in these films, but the execution can result in a mixed consensus. If the special effects don’t impress or immerse and audience it impacts word of mouth and box office returns because the audiences is not receiving the quality they are promised. DC’s Justice League was criticised for its overuse of CGI as well as the factor that the special effects just were not very good. This was due to extensive reshoots and a rushed post production featuring interference from the studio executives. The most obvious explanation for the poor VFX is Justice League’s rushed schedule. Before he was fired, Zack Snyder had achieved picture lock on his cut of the film and was already working on finalizing some VFX shots, but his version of the movie was mostly scrapped for footage reshot by Joss Whedon as late as August 2017, just 3 months prior to the movie’s release . Therefore, CGI that isn’t fully realised just results in an awkward and unintentionally funny response. However, every film has its flaws, but marvel spends the majority of their budgets on cast and vfx, more specifically Avengers, whereas Justice League spent a vast amount of its budget on the extensive reshoots. Marvel consists of some of the best special effect’s practices in Hollywood, successfully merging real life with fantastical imagery to create a world that remain consistent through all of its slate of films. Avengers: Infinity War featured some of the best special effects to ever be seen on screen which is why it received such strong responses from critics and audiences. Kelly Port from Digital Domain is quoted “From a technical perspective, we used a technical innovation from machine learning, on this project, that hadn’t been done before. That allowed us to get that subtlety, which was really important. With those subtle performances, it wouldn’t have been as effective or as believable, as a character. It certainly wouldn’t have been able to convey a non-dialogue performance as well because it was so subtle” .

What these superhero characters can now accomplish unveils a distinct cinematic pleasure, casting away the burdens of the real world we live in. However ridiculous, Superman can shoot lasers from his eyes and fly through buildings, we as an audience can’t help but become immersed in the fantasy because it looks so realistic, presenting images that portray themselves as both remarkable and believable at the same time.

Superhero films cannot be considered childish in quality though they do provide child like thrills for both the young and older audiences to enjoy. The standards of special effects now merely showcase how films of the genre crystallise our desire for the theatre experience to be larger than life itself. No matter how dynamic a comic book can be to read, it still remains a static image left for the imagination to endure. Today’s superhero films may feature more overwrought plots about balance and the fight between good and evil, but they appeal to our basic desires to see something visually spectacular.  

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