After decades of bad comic book movies, directors finally started to get things right. Now we’re a full decade into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we have enough movies to fill up a day and a half of time. Despite loving most of these movies, even I have to admit that some of them can get to look kind of same-y. The same color filters, the same costume design – it can all start to blend together. But a few of Marvel’s movies stand head and shoulders above the others, like a giant green guy in a crowd.
Every Marvel movie is, from a technical standpoint, pretty impressive. Getting comic-book VFX right was part of what held these movies back, and Marvel has managed to establish a visual style for the superpowers its varied heroes use.
What makes them stand out is the artistry and imagination on display. A look that sets it apart from everything else in the MCU. These are the movies we could just about watch on mute.
Many of the films Marvel Studios have put out since Iron Man made sense. There have been a few eyebrow-raisers, and up near the top of that list is Doctor Strange. The very concept of the character is kind of a hard sell these days. He combines Marvel’s penchant for middle-aged white dudes of exceptional ability with the 1960s obsession with Asian mysticism into a sort of magical version of philosopher Alan Watts.
What we ended up with, though, is a movie that puts Marvel’s effects houses on display. Marvel movies can have a tendency to look kind of same-y, with similar film grain and character design, but Doctor Strange stands out as original.
The movie fully embraces all the trippy black-light-poster visuals of the comics, with space folding in on itself endlessly, colors moving in kaleidoscopic patterns.
In short, it looks weird. It opens the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to the world of magic and all that entails, and it does it with visual flair that separates it from anything else Marvel is doing.
Paul Rudd’s comedy-heist might not seem like the most obvious entry on this list, but the design team behind Ant-Man had a couple difficult and very specific jobs ahead of them to make the movie work.
First, they had to make world we live in look novel and alien on its own. Marvel special effects are, with a few notable exceptions, dependent on making powers look interesting. Ant-Man’s powers aren’t about shooting lasers or flying, but rather about making him Micro Machines-sized. The ultra-sized world around him is the real visual flair of his powers.
And thankfully the team behind the movie got it just right. Whether Scott Lang is trying to figure out how to get out of a bath tub, taking his first stroll in an ant colony, or fighting YellowJacket on his daughter’s Thomas the Train set set, everything looks hyper-real. Real-er than real. It looks magical.
And that’s before he drops into the quantum realm, showing us a beautiful representation of what a subatomic world might look like when even that starts to look gigantic.
The constraints ahead of the Ant-Man team were very different from any other Marvel movie so far, and it did an awesome job making it work.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
You could easily put either or both of the Guardians movies on this list, but we wanted to leave room for all the wild-looking Marvel flicks, so we had to make the tough choice and pick one.
In the end, the accolades in this particular category go to the second film. While Knowhere is a fascinating spot for the heroes to end up in the first movie, Ego the Living Planet is even better. The inside might be rotten, but the outside looks like a paradise from a Doctor Seuss book, with a rainbow of colors in just about every shot, strange plants and shapes surrounding the team whenever they’re on the planet.
And while the inside of Ego might reveal his true nature, that doesn’t stop it from being great looking and totally fantastical. It also gets us perhaps the best line ever uttered in the MCU: “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”
Nothing else in the MCU looks quite like Guardians of the Galaxy, and you can likely chalk a lot of that up to director James Gunn. There’s a reason Marvel Studios has him in charge of the cosmic branch of the Marvel universe – he seems to have a better grip on it than anyone else out there. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next phase of Marvel movies, and Gunn and his Guardians are a big part of that.
With Thor: Ragnarok, it’s all about homage. Each of these movies has had a unique struggle for its designers and artists, and for the Lord of Thunder’s third outing, it was getting the visual styles of previous Thor and MCU movies to mesh with the disparate styles of Norse mythology, epic album art from heavy metal classics, and Jack Kirby’s colorful characters and worlds.
Kirby is one of the founding fathers of the Marvel universe and so his influence is inevitably somewhere in every Marvel film, but Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige said that Ragnarok is a “direct translation” of Kirby’s work meant to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the influential artist’s birth.
“We really wanted [Thor: Ragnarok] to be an unabashed love letter, and a film by Taika [Waititi],” Feige said speaking to ScreenRant. The team would consult Kirby’s artwork throughout the design process, and Waititi would push for closer parallels to that art, Feige said. That’s what got us the over-the-top world of Sakaar, looked over by Jeff Goldblum’s colorful Grandmaster. It’s arguably one of the best destinations we’ve seen the MCU hit, right up there with Wakanda and Ego, if not surpassing them.
But then the story takes us back to Asgaard where Hela looks to snag the power of the gods for her own. Here, we see the huge wolf Fenrir taking on Hulk, Thor leaping into a horde of draugr as lighting crackles around him (set perfectly to Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”), and Surtur bursting forth from the depths of Asgaard to rend it to pieces with his gigantic molten blade. One after another, we get these shots that combine the heroism of Marvel characters, the headbanging coolness of metal albums, and the colorful lightness of Taika Waititi’s visual style. Before you underestimate his influence on the visual style of the movie, check out the twitter account devoted specifically to his fashion.
What would a place blessed with freedom from intervention by the outside world, with access to technology decades ahead of the rest of society look like? Enter Wakanda. A place that exists in the modern world and must feel at home in it, but also has stood apart from it and must have its own culture. It’s the past and the future existing in the present.
Wakanda, from top to bottom, is magic. Black Panther is filled with cool (in the color sense, not the awesomeness sense) neon colors, dark shadows, and open spaces.
Whether we’re in T’Challa’s throne room, M’Baku’s mountain fortress, or Shuri’s lab, we see influences from sci-fi Afrofuturism and traditional African culture. The costume designers might’ve had the toughest job on the entire crew. You can make just about anything work in CGI these days, from space ships to war rhinos to MegaMan-style handcannons. But the costume designers are who we can thank for making Wakanda feel like a real place. For it to be real, we have to believe that people live there and exist there full time the way we do in our own homes.
The costume designs for T’Challa’s family and the other politicians make Wakanda feel diverse, varied, and physical in a way no other Marvel movie has.