Anthony Pantalone, Editor
With the recent release of “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe now touts thirty-one movies and eight television shows released over a span of almost fifteen years. While its newest film, “Quantumania”, is being critically maligned for a variety of reasons, this article will not be delving into any critiques or analyses of that film. People can dunk on Marvel for many things. If you’re Martin Scorsese, these movies represent the creatively bankrupt capitalist commodification of cinema and the destruction of the independent theater industry. Also, how Joss Whedon’s tongue-in-cheek writing has nearly ruined humor for all big studio blockbusters, for others, the breakneck pace of film and television show releases has created fatigue in even the most avid follower of this global franchise. I am not here to offer any substantial contributions to Marvel discourse. Simply put, there is not much left to say that hasn’t already been said much more eloquently by another person. What I will discuss, however, is a problem that has plagued these movies for the last decade: color and color grading.
Color grading can have a positive, creative effect on films of any genre. In many movies, it can help establish a certain mood or atmosphere or be used as a creative tool for filmmakers. The film industry has played with color in shots since the dawn of color in cinema. On film, the process was referred to as “color timing” and has always been an important element of the filmmaking process. With the rise of digital filmmaking in the new millennium though, color grading has seen a monumental shift. As Emily St. James writes, colors in many films and television shows all now “have been pulled way back, giving everything a slightly washed-out appearance.”
Now the desaturated, “slightly washed out” look in modern digital color grading does not always have to be a weakness towards a film. This look again can be effectively employed to have a profound effect on the viewer. Denis Villenueve’s devastating sci-fi thriller “Arrival” appears mostly devoid of color yet makes this creative choice with purpose. In an effort to not spoil a movie that came out seven years ago, I won’t say exactly what happens in the movie. The desaturated grading though makes the viewer feel like they are in an ethereal trance—a dreamy state in which they can become unstuck in time like a Vonnegut character.
Arrival (dir. Denis Villenueve, 2016)
Also, color grading has been utilized in the past decade to great effect when specifically used to emphasize certain colors. A good example of this idea is the use of yellow in “Magic Mike”.
Magic Mike (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011)
Outdoor scenes in Magic Mike look like they were bleached yellow. Typically some of the only scenes in which this color grading is not noticeable is during performances at Mike’s club. Outside though, the yellow color palette bleeds through every shot and conveys the greed and instability of the recession era in which the film is set. The movie looking sun-bleached is supposed to make you as the viewer feel that something is off or amiss. It’s a creative choice to highlight the setting and themes of the story. For the protagonist Mike, his financial predicament prohibits him from doing what he truly wants to do, which is making furniture—even though he has the money to start a business. Instead he is forced to continue his life in the Florida male stripper scene where every single aspect of his life feels transactional and his body has been commodified by his employer. He therefore feels aimless and lost in this fast paced lifestyle. The color grading establishes that mood and feeling perfectly.
In the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, digital color grading was seen as revolutionary as this motion picture used it to make the feel like the era in which it was set: the Great Depression.
O Brother, Where Art Thou (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000)
In Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides”, color timing successfully captures a feeling of nostalgia for the 1970s and a dreamlike trance that permeates throughout the film.
The Virgin Suicides (dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999)
The issue with the Marvel movies though is desaturation. These movies should feel colorful and vibrant, but Marvel Studios’ color grading makes them feel bland. Video essayist Patrick H Willems made a video delving into the color grading of this franchise back in 2016, but the problem has only been exacerbated in the years since. The reason why they depend on such strong gray color grading is pretty simple. Cutting CGI costs.
When a Marvel movie features messy or unfinished CGI, desaturating color in a shot is the method by which they get around this problem. It’s almost common knowledge at this point that Marvel overworks, underpays, abuses and even threatens to blacklist the VFX artists they contract. A lot of work is still being finished even up until the very day of release of a movie—and even in some cases after the film had already been released like with “Thor: Love and Thunder”. With a release schedule that has only continued to intensify in the past few years, unfinished CGI has become more noticeable in their films. Marvel utilizes it to help cover these costs while trying to make their films at least watchable still.
A prime example of this color grading and CGI having a negative effect on a good Marvel film is “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” which came out in September 2021. In what is otherwise a great movie, the entire third act of the film feels entrenched in a dark gray confusing cloud. This creative decision that negatively affects the film is due to the excessive amounts of CGI. Now they could have simply spent more money to make it look better, but that decision would not have been financially advantageous even though it radically hinders the film and the viewer experience. This decision is contributing to why audiences are growing fatigued with Marvel. More and more products for audiences to consume but with increasingly lesser visual quality.
One of the worst offenders of this color grading is Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The grayish color added in post-production as an extra layer of protection for the CGI simply makes everything feel blander and boring. Hulk’s color looks more grayish than green. The reds in the outfits of Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man don’t pop visually on the screen even though they ideally should. Captain America’s shield looks almost completely gray. This shot of the main protagonists all together should feel exciting. And it doesn’t.
This scene is set in Nigeria and purposefully is graded to play into racist notions of what African countries “must” look like according to Hollywood.