Starting this week, I’m doing a biweekly column, called the Sunday Matinee, that focuses on the more technical aspects of CBM filmmaking. I studied film in school, and work in the field of production, and I want to bring that knowledge to the reviewing sphere!
People love to talk about tone in superhero movies. I’d argue tone was the major buzzword of 2016, in fact. That said, I don’t believe tone describes the argument actually being had under the surface of the discourse. I want to posit that people actually had problems with color grading instead.
Color grading is mostly an invention of the 21st century and digital filmmaking. Where lighting, color design, and the like existed as the province of mis en scene, art direction, and cinematography in the first century of filmmaking, going digital allows for more complicated looks at color. I work as a digital colorist on a freelance basis, and so find myself often attuned to color when watching a movie.
So when people started arguing about tone last year, I started thinking about color in comic book movies instead.
People complained most often about the DCEU and its ‘desaturated’ character in comparison to Marvel. I didn’t really see that — I saw dark, rich colors and deep blacks. People talked about Captain America: Civil War as having a better visual tone, and I didn’t see that either. I saw muddied colors and desaturated tones.
Maybe that surprises you — after all, the narrative dominating the superhero press is that DC has a dark, grim, desaturated tone, and Marvel doesn’t.
So, thinking about color, I decided to look at the trailers for Civil War and the major superhero movies slated for 2017: Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Justice League, and Thor: Ragnarok. I came to a few conclusions, and I’ll lay them out below:
Captain America: Civil War
Marvel’s flagship movie of 2016, sometimes described as Avengers 2.5, debuted to major critical and commercial success. With a worldwide gross that topped a billion dollars and a press that couldn’t get enough, Civil War seemingly outstripped everything that came before.
Except…it looks dull. On a purely visual level. Take, for example, the following image:
Iron Man’s suit, which is nominally red and gold, but actually comprises several shades of burgundy, pink, and a vague green. The amount of true black is insignificant. And everything is pretty much in the lower half of the saturation scale.
This scene is set in broad daylight, and is meant to evoke high emotion in the viewer.
Compare, for example, how I would have graded the same scene, given the opportunity:
This is probably a matter of personal preference as much as color theory, but see the difference? The heightened presence of red creates an immediacy and draws the eye. The brighter colors look more photorealistic, and oversaturating the blue gash on Rhodey’s suit you draw attention to the violence in the scene.
I can’t say for certain why Marvel chose such muddy colors. That said, Marvel seems to be picking up its game in this year’s releases. I think that serves the company well in putting its money where its mouth is in terms of being the ‘bright’ comic book movie studio.
My immediate response to the trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming was: Holy #$%^ that’s a lot of orange.
Orange is one of those colors that doesn’t appear very often in film, like pink and lavender. For whatever reason, these colors don’t generally fall on directors’ and designers’ radars. That’s not the case for the Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer I saw, which has a significant amount of screentime for a very orange ferry.
The moment that struck me the most was this one, which I’ve capped and paletted below:
See the diversity in that color palette? While there still aren’t really saturated colors, it’s a realistic level of saturation for the lighting, and we have reds, oranges, and blues in the same shot. The orange really makes it in my opinion.
Additionally, Spider-Man: Homecoming seems to understand skintone much better than Civil War did, as a closeup of Peter in the trailer looks like this:
Note the warmer browns and beiges that make up Peter’s hair and skin in this cap, as opposed to the pinkish taupe of Tony’s in the Civil War screencap. We get a sense that he’s walking around in bright sunlight, likely in the summer or fall.
Visually, these caps suit both the implicit tone of the trailer — that this movie is a coming of age flick about a teenage hero, and who gets into teenage hero shenanigans. It has an emotional core, but is meant to ultimately uplift its target demographic.
I definitely got a John Hughes, 80s Brat Pack vibe from it, visually speaking, though with perhaps a Mean Girls edge due to technical advancement.
Now, let’s take a trip into outer space to evaluate what’s going on with Cosmic Marvel!
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok
I’m lumping these two films together because, as has been pointed out already around the blogosphere, they look a lot alike. In fact, when I watched the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok for the first time, I was a little repelled by the visual aesthetic — it doesn’t quite fit with the established visual ‘look’ of previous Thor movies, in my opinion.
While I confess, this looks more similar to Civil War in terms of saturation and contrast, the diversity of colors is still striking, and speaks to a decision by Marvel to shift its visual aesthetic for the MCU toward being more colorful and brighter than it has been.
I believe this has to do with an overall shift toward Cosmic Marvel in anticipation of Infinity War. The brightness of Spider-Man: Homecoming, which departs, as shown, from the previous visual style for terrestrial Marvel films. Given that Infinity War will join terrestrial Marvel with cosmic Marvel, saturating everything more will make the visual tone of Infinity War, if I can make an educated guess about that, less jarring for longtime MCU viewers.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 also speaks to this aesthetic, in my opinion, and runs even brighter than Thor: Ragnarok, as seen below:
Gold, blue, and a deeper black characterize this shot, even when you discount the superimposed cross-dissolve. Brighter, too, than the other two Marvel examples from 2017 — this seems to be the aesthetic they’re going for for cosmic Marvel.
I really like this decision to shift the aesthetic to a higher-saturation color grade. I think it’s a good way to differentiate the Marvel Cinematic Universe visually from other franchises. Considering DC has started its ascendency in the shared-universe arena, this could prove pivotal for maintaining market share for Marvel.
And speaking of Marvel, and market share…
Logan opened this year to incredible critical praise, and a box office that has, so far, blasted it past everything in the XMCU besides Deadpool and Days of Future Past.
Visually, the defining factor in this film is that the visuals serve the performances of the actors. There isn’t a lot of visual spectacle, particularly in the realm of color.
Logan, stylistically, matches most of the genre conventions of the Western — take, for example, The Searchers:
This palette, with a similar lighting scheme, is very nearly identical.
I feel that this has to be intentional — considering the rest of Logan‘s adherence to the conventions of the Western — and it’s quite brilliant. The brilliant part of both Logan and The Searchers‘ visuals, is that they fall in the background in comparison to the performances.
The only thing about the color grading in Logan that I noticed erred away from the photorealistic, is the way it subtly enhances the blues and yellows over the course of the film. That was really cool, as a color nerd, to see.
Finally, let’s look at the most contentious visuals in superhero cinema right now: the DC Extended Universe.
Wonder Woman & Justice League
DC will be releasing two movies in 2017, the much awaited Wonder Woman and Justice League. Visually controversial from the outset with the steel-and-stone-toned Man of Steel in 2013, the DC Extended Universe has a reputation for being ‘dark,’ ‘grim,’ and ‘desaturated.’ Artistically distinct from the predominantly low-contrast, dull look that defines the MCU, the DCEU creates a high-contrast, deep-color look that varies significantly from movie to movie and director to director.
Overall, yes, much of the DCEU consists of night-time or ‘dark’ visuals in scenes, more a function of mis-en-scene and plot decisions than color grading, but I personally don’t know if that’s the terrible thing it’s been cast as.
That said, ‘desaturated’ is a claim that doesn’t hold up when you hold its feet to the fire, especially when looking at the upcoming entries into the series.
First, let’s look at Wonder Woman. The visuals we’ve seen so far have been dominated by two sets of tones (golds and blues), and two different levels of variance; let’s start with Themyscira, in the shot below:
Blue and golden-brown dominate the shot, and the bright daylight and high saturation make it clear that Themyscira is a different place than we, as viewers of the DCEU in general, may be familiar with. It’s almost alien in its tropical beauty — a hyper-real paradise.
The other level of variance is what we see in ‘Man’s World.’ Much of the interior visuals we’ve seen are highly incandescent — graded to emphasize browns and golds, with occasional shock of blue, as below:
See here many of the same colors as in the previous shot — but we’ve shifted over to the gold/brown side of the spectrum, which makes Diana’s deep blue gown stand out.
The other option, colorwise, comes in night-time outside shots in ‘Man’s World,’ — the shots that we generally see set on the battlefield or in the woods. They tend to look more like this:
This shot shifts to the blue side of the spectrum and takes away some of the saturation — a gloomy tone appropriate for a gloomy and dark time. Emphasizing the blues is clearly a very intentional decision here, especially considering the emphasis on golds in the indoor shot shown before.
That said, a focus on blue tones is very common in the trailers for Justice League, DC’s other 2017 release, as well. I would argue that the majority of the shots we’ve seen so far are graded to emphasize blue — but not, as some claim, to desaturate the images.
This is graded in such a way as to create a color scheme dominated by blue and blue-green tones. But, while an analogous color scheme can run into the same issues with contrast that a greyscale or desaturated image can, they’re not the same thing. It’s a disservice to the colorist and art-director to say that a shot like this is ‘desaturated.’
While blue tends to dominate most of the external shots in the Justice League footage, we do have a strong presence of warmer colors in certain shots, particularly for interiors and to draw attention to certain things. For example, take this shot of Lois Lane looking up behind her into the distance:
Note the strong presence of dark and blue tones, but also pay attention to how Lois’s skin and hair contrast with those background tones of blue and black. Like the picture of Diana I used as a Wonder Woman example, this uses a shock of contrasting color and lighting to make a subject stand out from the background. People have theorized that this might be the moment of Superman’s return, and if so, the sunset-colors attached to it would make a lot of visual sense.
Overall, I would argue that while yes, colors in the DCEU tend to be darker, they are by no means desaturated. The use of color in the upcoming two films, in fact, fascinates me, because while they both match a similar visual aesthetic, that aesthetic is high-contrast and deep-colored, unlike previous efforts by the MCU. In fact, I would argue that Justice League’s color grading probably has inspiration in Snyder’s art history background, especially for striking shots like the Lois shot above.
The first thing I want to say is this: I’m not trying to knock any given scheme here. I have my preferences, and while some movies, like Civil War, don’t fit them, I’m sure that there’s a perfectly good reason behind the creative decisions that the colorist made. I think it is great, however, that there’s such a diversity of visuals on the scene now, especially considering the public’s blowback against that variation when DC started to provide it.
I’m excited, as a colorist myself, to see where the cosmic branch of the MCU is headed, visually, and equally excited to see if my theory about the visuals for Wonder Woman and Justice bears fruit — if we get any visual homages to famous art or classic artistic tropes, then we’ll know. I love the decision Logan made to have the spectacle take a step back from the acting, but subtly enhance the very same colors the X-Men are associated with in a movie that arguably contains no X-Men. I hope that artistically, all of these franchises have room to grow and improve as the years go on, while remaining true to their artistic cores.
Whatever happens, you can bet I’ll be in the seats, watching as it all plays out.