Before starting our discussion, let us know the difference between CGI and VFX. CGI, or Computer-generated Imagery, is when something is completely created from scratch using computer programs. VFX, or “Visual effects,” is a broader term that focuses on adding effects to an existing piece of film or image. It can either be creating a character using CGI or tweaking real things to add to their purpose. So, CGI falls under VFX. That being said, there lies an uncanny valley between great VFX and overused VFX. And when discussing VFX, both the adjectives can be used interchangeably. Since the dawn of the MCU, VFX has become one of the most talked about aspects of films among cinephiles, especially in recent times.
Needless to say, VFX accomplished great things long before the MCU brought them to the forefront. Films like “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Star Wars”, “Jurassic Park”, “The Terminator” franchise, “The Matrix”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “King Kong”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” and many more, were all path-breaking in their own ways in terms of VFX. But when “Iron Man” arrived in 2008, directed by John Favreau, it was the rebirth of VFX. Superheroes weren’t a part of our lives at that point like they are now. In this article, we will be talking about the MCU and VFX’s role in it, since its inception and some of the movies whose VFX affected our opinions about MCU, be it good or bad.
Iron-Man, Captain America, Hulk, Ant-Man, and Thanos
“Iron Man” (2008) is undoubtedly one of the best movies to come out of the MCU, if not the best. And what made it attractive was Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and, equally importantly, the Iron-Man suit, with its mechanical intricacies that were made accurately based on mechanical design. Furthermore, the VFX had a certain tangible quality to it that made everything appear more realistic. Even in “Iron-Man 2” and “Iron-Man 3”, the effects were effective in that they didn’t have a pull on our suspension of disbelief. And for those who found “Iron-Man 3” to have an overuse of VFX, how else would you plan to create more than 30 suits? Overall, it has to be said that by the time “Iron Man 3” arrived, the use of visual effects in the MCU was prevalent but not overwhelming. So things were bearable.
Coming to “Captain America- The First Avenger,”; it was no small feat shrinking Chris Evans to a short skinny guy. And other than a few shots where the effects were visible, there was no way to figure out that it was a visual effect. The effects were indeed seamless. And the film also came out in 2011, which means the MCU was only 4 films old then. Naturally, the VFX was new in its own way, especially with Red Skull, the heli-carriers, and the Tesseract being revealed to us for the first time.
Hulk, like Captain America, was a significant step for Marvel toward creating a CGI character. However, it was in “The Avengers” and not in “The Incredible Hulk” that the Hulk became photoreal. In “The Incredible Hulk,” due to the technology being limited at the time, the Hulk turned out to be hyper-real rather than photoreal, appearing like a video-game version of the character. But with “The Avengers” and later on, in “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Avengers: Endgame,” Hulk started to look like Bruce Banner. This was a huge breakthrough in VFX because a CGI character looked completely like a real person. “Avengers: Endgame” has the most “Mark Ruffalized” Hulk, which again proves how far VFX has come in the MCU and as a whole. The same thing happened with Josh Brolin’s Thanos, detailed to the extent that even the pores on Thanos’s face stretched based on his expressions. Definitely a win for the VFX team.
While Hulk and Thanos made their actors larger, for Ant-Man, the character needed to be the size of an ant. Here the question that the creators faced was when ant-man shrinks, does the camera remain full-scale, or does it shrink with him too (which would make the environment huge)? However, they achieved the feat here as well, and the result was again effective. And suspension of disbelief wa thus taken care of.
From characterization, let’s now come to large-scale VFX shots. It is one thing to concentrate on a CG character and a whole different thing to pay attention to all that is happening in a large-scale VFX-heavy scene. “The Avengers,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Avengers: Endgame” are the ones we will consider for this. All four movies had more VFX shots than we realized. But as we proceed from the first Avengers film onto the second and third, and then fourth, the VFX just ceases to matter to us. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t effective, and neither do we blame Marvel for their use. But our brains have been bombarded so much with VFX by the time “Avengers: Endgame” arrived that nothing appealed to us anymore. The VFX breakdowns of MCU movies available on Youtube prove just how much they depend on VFX. And it seems that we have reached a point where we have nothing more to expect from the MCU visually. But then, too, if we consider the Avengers movies, we will feel that visual effects have become progressively more ineffective. We might think that the graphics are visually stunning, but it is only the situation that makes them so. The effects were great in the first Avengers film, where they were quite near to practical effects or seemed to be so. In “Age of Ultron,” things had to be taken up a notch as the main villain itself was a CG character that had more than enough bots in its army, all CG as well. The same thing happened in “Infinity War” and “Endgame.” And so, basically, there were numerous scenes in both films where everything was CGI. There were a lot more VFX shots in these films than in real ones. Frankly speaking, the fact that viewers have started taking CGI for granted is also the reason why it has become unconvincing. They are just lackluster, despite their grand scale. Even “Infinity War,” which bagged an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, doesn’t affect us the same way anymore. However, “Jurassic Park” still has the same effect. This has thus become the topic of debate now, so much so that audiences are vouching for films that are more into practical effects rather than CGI, unless it is path breaking. The latest examples of this are “Top Gun: Maverick” and the upcoming “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.” This is because the audience is now opting for the thrill of realism rather than stunning VFX-heavy visuals, unless, of course, they are promised a transcendental visual experience like “Avatar 2: The Way of Water”. But that is rare.
Special Mention: The Time Travel Suits in “Avengers: Endgame” were all CG. Kudos to Marvel for nailing the suits. No one was able to tell that they weren’t real. And to answer the question of why they didn’t opt for actual suits and waste money making them CG, it is because “Endgame” was filmed back to back with “Infinity War”, and at that point of time, the creators didn’t know what the characters would be wearing. So they shot the actors in their original costumes, i.e, Thor had his bathrobe, Captain America had his usual star-spangled suit, and so on. Later, CG suits were created.
“Doctor Strange” introduced warping architecture (the mirror dimension) where, more than making it to appear real, the creators decided to explore what can be achieved by VFX and CGI. The recursive procedural fractal animation constituting “Doctor Strange” was really something that hadn’t been done before in that perspective-shifting way. Watching VFX replicate real life is one thing but creating something that messes with reality certainly qualifies as a good use of VFX. This was an excellent VFX work by Marvel. However, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” had nothing new to offer in terms of VFX. Rather, Strange’s third eye was a disaster. The MCU will have to fix it as soon as possible.
Black Panther & Black Widow
Two of the most badly received MCU movies in terms of VFX are “Black Panther” and “Black Widow.” And we all know why. The last fight sequence between T’Challa and Killmonger still haunts us in our dreams. And so do the last scenes of “Black Widow” atop the heli-carrier. It was perhaps the “Black Panther” fight scene that garnered negative reviews and ignited the whole topic of Marvel’s use of VFX. The reason why the scene looked nothing more than straight out of a video game is due to the short timeline that the VFX artists were provided to work on the whole scene (around 6 weeks). Something for which Marvel recently faced backlash from numerous VFX artists (regarding its tight timeline). Fans then came across “Black Widow,” which was also not at all well-received for the VFX as well as the story. It proved how Marvel was either rushing its VFX or apparently paying less heed to a movie whose lead character hadn’t really garnered enough praise for its portrayal (you may blame whoever you want to for it, but it is the truth.)
MCU’s latest show She-Hulk did garner negative reviews after its trailer came out. Many stated how She-Hulk CGI looked “straight garbage,” “trash,” and “terrible,” among other things. However, in the show, things were much better. Herein also comes the fact that most of the time, all the shots we see in a trailer are pretty much the only shots that have been prepared but are still being worked upon. Now that the show is out, it is easy to tell the difference between She-Hulk in the trailer and She-Hulk in the show. Our minds have been accustomed to Bruce Banner’s Hulk, a character that we have been watching for the last 10 years. But we are looking at Jennifer Walters in her green avatar for the first time, so it is our mind, too, that is trying to cope. For the most part, She-Hulk looks great, and hopefully, things will get even better for her with time, just like they did for the Hulk.
All in all, the MCU is filled with both good and bad VFX, and it is up to us to decide what to concentrate on. We can either let go of our inhibitions and watch the movies or continue to critically analyze their use or overuse of VFX. With so many MCU movies and shows about to come, and VFX sure to upgrade, we have to wait to find out whether MCU too applies newness in its visual effects or remains within the boundaries it has drawn for itself.