Hollywood’s Digital Salt Mines
Plus: a tense classic, assigned!
The most notable aspect of the two most recent Marvel movies—Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania—is just how bad they looked.
Marvel has always been FX-dependent, and that dependency has always led to some … odd things. Like, for instance, big, exciting battles that look as though they took place in an industrial park’s loading bay. Still, I think it’s fair to say that in the post-pandemic era, the visual FX work has gotten shoddier and shoddier. There’s a softness to both Wakanda Forever and Quantumania, a sense that no characters are ever really standing where they’re standing, an almost-fuzziness to the backgrounds.
Both of these movies stand in stark contrast to Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron’s years-in-the-making sci-fi extravaganza that, whatever else you might say about it, is one of the most striking visual accomplishments in the history of blockbuster filmmaking. The unreality that plagues Marvel’s efforts has no place in Cameron’s utopia, and audiences have responded: despite doubts as to the picture’s cultural relevance and subsequent worries that no one would care about a sequel 13 years in the offing, The Way of Water is now the third-highest grossing movie of all time, worldwide.
Now look: It’s probably not fair to compare the Marvel Cinematic Assembly Line to James Cameron’s dream project. It’s like comparing a Ford to a Ferrari: that Bronco you’re eyeing might be reliable but it’s not going to be as flashy as a hand-crafted, lovingly designed and assembled Roma.
The problem, it seems, is that there are simply too many movies requiring too much visual work and too few people to do all that work for it to be done properly. Vulture has done an excellent job chronicling this issue in a series of stories. Most recently, a trio of folks who worked on Quantumania noted that not only were they asked to make last-second changes to the movie—a not-uncommon occurrence in Marvel movies—they were also stripped of resources and manpower, which were diverted to Wakanda Forever.
Sometimes the FX artists are basically asked to serve as replacement directors and cinematographers. As anyone who has seen the original Black Panther can tell you, that movie was pretty good until the final action sequence, which was one of the dumbest, ugliest sequences in Marvel history. One anonymous source explained why last year:
when we’re in postproduction, we don’t have a director of photography involved. So we’re coming up with the shots a lot of the time. It causes a lot of incongruity. A good example of what happens in these scenarios is the battle scene at the end of Black Panther. The physics are completely off. Suddenly, the characters are jumping around, doing all these crazy moves like action figures in space. Suddenly, the camera is doing these motions that haven’t happened in the rest of the movie. It all looks a bit cartoony. It has broken the visual language of the film.
I don’t know if a VFX union will fix these problems; studios are already loathe to spend money, and making them spend more for less work isn’t likely to improve the overall product (even if it will improve the lives of the artists involved). But something has to change. Or, more likely, a series of somethings: more money to hire more people; more time between release dates leading to fewer FX-heavy spectacles each year; and more prep work done during principal photography to ensure that the FX teams aren’t having to essentially re-shoot movies that get changed at the last minute.
Still, nothing’s likely to change as long as these movies make money, and these movies remain the only things that are reliably making money. That’s just one of the topics Peter, Alyssa and I tackled on this week’s bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle.
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And if that doesn’t convince you, well, maybe this will: If you don’t subscribe, you won’t be able to listen to Sarah and I talk about the Oscar movies on this week’s Secret Show. Do I care enough about the interior lives of women? Does Sarah care too little about the multiverse? All this and more on the Secret Show!
This week I reviewed Cocaine Bear, a movie about a bear who does cocaine.
For more on the legacy of Cocaine Bear and its intellectual predecessors, make sure to check out Scott Tobias’s piece on Snakes on a Plane, the first movie ever to get a social media rewrite.
I loved talking to David Thomson last week about his new book on acting. Really fun interview, I hope you give it a listen.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned AMC+ as a potential acquisition for the Warner Bros.-Discovery empire, and that was mostly tossed in because I don’t quite understand what, precisely, AMC’s purpose is. Enter Julia Alexander at Puck, who went deep on AMC+ this week in an effort to suss out what, exactly, they’re going to do in a potentially consolidation-happy landscape.
I was glad to have Zandy Hartig back on the site this week to write about Peacock’s Poker Face, a delightfully entertaining show.
Will The Pope’s Exorcist be the best movie of 2023? I wouldn’t rule it out!
The charges against Alec Baldwin were reduced since he was, you know, charged with something that wasn’t a crime at the time of the shooting on the set of Rust.
Harvey Weinstein, meanwhile, got sentenced to another 16 years in prison, this time for a rape trial in Los Angeles.
Assigned Viewing: Uncut Gems (Showtime)
A viral Twitter prompt this week asked people what Martin Scorsese movie they would drop Adam Sandler into if they could replace the lead actor with the Sandman. I picked Casino, in part because Ace Rothstein is Jewish and the anti-Semitic broadsides in that movie would make more sense being leveled at the guy who wrote “The Chanukah Song,” but also in part because Rothstein is, temperamentally almost the opposite of Sandler’s Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. And then I decided to rewatch Uncut Gems because I’ve had the Criterion 4K for almost a year now but haven’t been able to work up the nerve to rewatch it, as it’s an incredibly stressful viewing experience.
And you know what? STILL STRESSFUL. But also great, and just a command performance from Sandler. That he wasn’t even nominated for best actor in this movie is a damning indictment of the Academy Awards.
Uncut Gems not getting any nods is what broke any belief I once had in the Academy actually acknowledging great performances regardless of an actor's past roles. Utterly masterful, powerful role put in by the Sandman that got no love it really did deserve.
Just saw WAKANDA FOREVER over the weekend, and there’s that scene where Shuri is flying through some underwater highway à la FINDING NEMO. Just the way her scuba suit (or whatever) is being like dragged back and forth across the CG background has to be some of the worst fx I’ve ever seen.