In ‘Space, Place, Spectacle’, Andrew Higson defines two interweaving concepts – narrative and spectacle – that, he argues, push and pull against each other; a conflict that is a prominent factor in the fundamental experience of cinema.
Narrative – in part, the sense of something lacking, installing a desire to explore, to find out what is missing, to move onto a new scene, and the possibility of achieving what is desired… And spectacle – the spectator confronted by an image which is so fascinating that it seems complete; no longer the desire to move on, no longer the sense of something lacking. (1984: 3)
The conflict of spectacle and narrative at times can be extremely effective in enveloping an audience into a film’s world and story, with the spectacular elements supplementing the narrative and ultimately providing a deeper experience. Other times, spectacular elements may be distracting or overbearing, ultimately compromising the importance of the narrative and taking the audience out of the film’s constructed world. Particularly in an age of visual effects and computer generated imagery, cinema has unlocked the potential to tell fantastic stories that were once thought to be impossible. The advent of these technologies have become a fundamental part in elevating cinematic spectacle to bold new extremes. This essay will explore the concept of spectacle in modern film; the ways in which visual effects have become a vehicle to generate the spectacular, as in the case of Back to the Future Part II (Zemeckis, 1989) and Transformers: Age of Extinction (Bay, 2014); and finally directly comparing the ways in which the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) both use spectacle in an attempt to expand their cinematic worlds and weighing up how effective each film is in doing so.
Spectacle and Visual Effects
The importance of spectacle in cinema has been present since its advent – part of the pull of cinema is its potential to completely wow an audience. The writing of Tom Gunning surrounding the ‘cinema of attractions’ explores the fixation on spectacle in some of the earliest days of cinema – which he specifies as 1896-1907. He describes this age as ‘an exhibitionist cinema’, in that ‘it is a cinema that bases itself on… its ability to show something’ going on to explain it as ‘a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator’ (1984: 382). Gunning’s description of this era is particularly applicable to understanding the roots of spectacle within modern cinema. In the advent of cinema, grabbing the audience’ attention played a key role in lifting moving pictures into prominence and forming the foundations of the industry that exists today; in creating spectacular images that stunned spectators, early filmmakers formed markets of audiences hungry to see what more cinema could do – hungry for cinema that was bigger and better. In many ways, this idea is still at least partially prominent in modern cinema, though metamorphosed into something new. Modern blockbusters and studio films strive to hook audiences by promising the ‘biggest’ and ‘best’, just as in the cinema of attractions, though instead of the audience’s hunger to be wowed by the raw medium and apparatus itself (the ability to display moving images), modern cinema’s ubiquity and cultural prominence has evolved this desire into a desire to see unique methods of storytelling, but also to see entirely new, unique – and previously impossible – stories; audiences now understand the fundamentals of the medium and industry that has formed, and strive to see how the technology can be adapted and used in new ways, as opposed to in the cinema of attractions, where audiences (and filmmakers) were barely beginning to understand film. This metamorphosis of what is still essentially the cinema of attractions forms the foundation for spectacle in modern film.
Technology has been an important factor in generating spectacle since the cinema of attractions. As aforementioned, the initial invention of the apparatus of film and its capabilities were spectacular in and of themselves, but as audiences grew familiar to its principles, technological advances to further film’s abilities became spectacular. The films of Georges Méliès, for example, emphasised spectacle, generated by adapting and developing the technology available. Méliès saw film as a tool to further his illusions and in focusing on that, drove technological and logical advancements in the field through experimentation. In modern cinema, the very same drive exists, but for new reasons. Generally, modern cinema accepts narrative primacy in films as the default – already directly contrasting the attitude Méliès took. As Gunning translates in ‘Cinema of Attractions’, Méliès intended to present spectacle, with narrative as an afterthought to highlight the spectacle:
As for the scenario, the “fable,” or “tale,” I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the “stage effects,” the “tricks,” or for a nicely arranged tableau. (1984: 382)
Since 1907, it could be argued that generally, a shift has occurred, in which the dialectic of narrative and spectacle has inverted; that generally spectacle is now the addition to highlight the narrative, or at least to in some way expand the cinematic world the filmmaker is presenting. In Art, Image and Spectacle, Isaacs discusses the work of James Cameron in a similar way to Gunning of Méliès:
I locate Cameron’s aesthetic orientation at the intersection of the two competing interests of the High Concept film. The auteurist vision subsists in the attempt to “invent cinema”, to make cinema new through the exponentially advancing technologies of the spectacle… For Cameron vision is more than a medium for the conveyance of “reality.” The special effect is never purely mimetic, but transformative. (2011: 91)
The drive that Isaacs argues Cameron plays a part in pioneering is extremely comparable to Méliès’ drive to adapt technology to further his illusions, however Cameron intends to adapt technology to further his narratives and expand the boundaries of the cinematic world he creates; Isaacs goes on to mention Cameron’s use of vision in The Terminator, allowing the audience to peer through the eyes of the Terminator himself – a tactic which not only creates great spectacle, but also arguably assists the audience in understanding the world and narrative at a deeper level. The scenes create a sense of tangibility – that this character is real, alive and ‘thinking’ – presenting a believability which supplements the film’s narrative and immerses spectators into the world of the film. Cameron’s principles are held by many modern filmmakers: that technology can create spectacle that can be used to enrich the narrative of the film – it is here that visual effects have become a vehicle for the spectacular.
A reliance on visual effects to generate spectacle in film emerges from the successes of in-camera special effects created through experimentation in the age of the cinema of attractions, such as the illusions of Méliès, and their refinement and adaptation through to the sixties and seventies onwards. Scenes like Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1956) and almost countless scenes in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) proved that narratives could be heightened by intense, spectacular effects, whilst also connoting a potential for entirely believable new narrative universes, grounded in complete fantasy but at extreme new levels of realism or believability – a potential that was eventually exploited by the fantastic settings, creatures and vehicles, all made possible through visual effects in Star Wars (Lucas, 1977). Due to these massive advances in visual effects technologies, filmmakers like George Lucas had paved the way for the technology to be used by many to many different extremes in order to expand the narrative world of their films. Some films use extreme visual effects to generate gratuitous spectacle that still becomes the forefront over narrative and does not serve any other purpose than to wow, similarly to the ways the cinema of attractions used this spectacle. This is obvious in the case of an almost infamous example: Michael Bay’s Transformers series, which seems to pride itself on compromising narrative depth for the sake of spectacular action sequences with each release. In Transformers: Age of Extinction (2017), a pivotal fight between Optimus Prime and an ancient legendary warrior is continuously interrupted by spectacular slow motion punches, enormous explosions and a dragon-dinosaur transformer breathing fire at nothing. Angela Ndalianis eloquently describes this calibre of spectacle as ‘an invitation [that] is extended to us to marvel at the speed, special effects, camera work, and ability the cinema has to extract from us a sense of wonder when confronted with these effects’ (2000). While undoubtedly spectacular, and however impressive a feat of CGI, the scene’s spectacular interludes pause the narrative briefly, just to forefront the effects.
Conversely, an important example of how effective the inclusion of spectacular visual effects, even at relatively subtle levels can supplement a narrative is in the case of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Trilogy – though perhaps most notably in Back to the Future Part II (1989). As with many contemporary blockbusters, spectacular visual and special effects are abundant in Back to the Future Part II, some are eye-catching moments of intensified spectacle (hoverboards, skyways and parodic CGI sharks), but some are relatively subtle illusions that intend to be unquestioned or unseen, whilst still maintaining spectacle – these effects are the quintessential example of how spectacle can supplement a narrative. Using miniatures and compositing tricks, the Delorean in this installment of the trilogy is given the ability to fly – an effect which, at the time of release, is not unfamiliar. This being said, in one sequence during the film, when Marty and Doc drop a fainted Jennifer home in 1985, virtuosic compositing and visual effects are used to seamlessly blend composite footage of a miniature and footage of the real, practical Delorean. The Delorean comes in to land in front of Jennifer’s house visualised by an animated miniature composited over an empty background plate, shot using motion control. The take then continues as the miniature Delorean is slightly obscured by a street lamp, hiding a split screen that unveils a second motion control take, featuring the practical, full size Delorean on set on the other side of the post; in one seamless take, the Delorean flies into shot, touches down and drives to the porch for the car door to open and Einstein to step out. This moment is extremely spectacular – it is a feat of visual effects, pushing the bar for motion control cinematography of the time and is an impressive moment – yet it entirely revolves around being ‘invisible’ to the audience. What this presents is an antithesis of Gunning’s ‘exhibitionist cinema’ – this moment is an example of where arguably extreme spectacle is used exclusively to supplement the narrative, in an attempt to avoid audiences questioning the technical apparatus of the film. The effect itself is unquestionably spectacular, yet the seamlessness of it immerses the audience into the world of the film, as opposed to taking them out of the world to ‘show something’, as Gunning states of the cinema of attractions. Bob Gale, producer of Back to the Future Part II explains that this was the intention behind the effects of the film:
We take [the effects] for granted. The story is the most important part of the film, and if the audience is involved with that story, the effects are there to enhance that enjoyment and make the story more believable, not to call attention to themselves… What we tried to do was make sure these effects are so tightly incorporated into the story, no one will question how they were done until they’re driving home from the movie. (1989)
Unlike other blockbusters of the time, spectacular elements are employed into the film specifically to serve the narrative and not just to exist as they are. The advancements made in technology to allow for these spectacular effects and elements were not driven by a necessity for eye-catching moments, but driven by the desire to supplement the narrative. These two different ways in which films use spectacular visual effects to prioritise and elevate either spectacle or narrative will serve as the foundation for comparison between spectacle’s usage in Marvel’s Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) and Avengers: Infinity War (A. and J. Russo, 2018) and its effect on their narratives.
Black Panther and Infinity War
Coogler’s Black Panther, like most entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, heavily relies on spectacle and visual effects as a vehicle to generate this spectacle. Throughout the film there are many strong examples of the use of spectacle to immerse the viewer and expand the film’s constructed world, supplementing the narrative. One of the film’s biggest strengths is rendering the city of Wakanda in spectacular detail in CGI and digital matte-paintings. In one example, as T’Challa first arrives in Wakanda in a flying vehicle, the audience is presented with a flyover of vast African plains occupied by wildlife and people alike, who wave at the passing vehicle – to enforce to the audience that these people are real and inhabiting the fictional world. Following this, the ship plunges into the trees and emerges ahead of Wakanda, in all its glory – great skyscrapers tower above the skyline, boats travel up and down the river, districts with individual streets form the city, all occupied by miniscule cars driving, with futuristic trams and hyperloop trains whizzing by alongside them. While this scene of course provides wonderful eye candy for an audience to acknowledge on the surface, the immense subtlety and detail serves a similar purpose to the aforementioned sequence in Back to the Future Part II; the decision to employ spectacle of this kind, in this way convinces the viewer that the world within the film is as real as the world outside the cinema. In an article for the website CityMetric analysing the fictional city, Stephen Jorgenson-Murray eloquently distinguishes Wakanda from other cities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
Fictional cities in previous Marvel films… don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces. Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city. (2018)
This inclusion is absolutely integral to the success of Black Panther and plays a huge part in supplementing the narrative. The audience are invited to follow a plot about a battle for the future of an entire nation implicating real world, contemporary racial politics, the consequences of which would not easily be felt without the sheer spectacle of the visualisation of Wakanda; without rendering the civilisation – arguably a character in its own right – in the extreme, spectacular detail the filmmakers chose to include, major character decisions that bear weight due to the grand repercussions against the nation, would lose the impact they require to keep the story believable. The cultural and narrative weight of the film would be undermined without the setting of the film being realistic, believable and applicable to the real world. The use of visual effects to render this detail and create such a cinematic spectacle directly supplements the narrative.
Contrary to this, at many times Black Panther employs spectacle in the same vein as the aforementioned example within Transformers: Age of Extinction. In the climactic battle towards the end of the film, the action is intensified by spectacular moments, aided by visual effects. What begins as armed combat between tribes is exacerbated when a character uses a horn to summon enormous rhinos to aid in their battle. Dan North explains of spectacular visual effects that ‘the first step in rendering an effects sequence consumable as spectacular fodder is to segregate it from the main body of the film’ (2005), an instruction that Black Panther follows: what is an otherwise intense character driven battle implicating all the leaders of the factions that the audience has been introduced to, is temporarily suspended and the audience is distanced from the narrative as the CGI war rhinos emerge from the ground. The rhinos’ gratuitous presence seems to make no difference to the narrative of the battle, providing no real obstacle for the characters aside from a relatively minor set-back to the protagonist, when he is flung through the air at a rock. The inclusion of the rhinos and complete pause of the narrative to showcase them, is left as nothing more than spectacle added for the sake of wowing an audience, at one point even including a slow-motion rhino beat-down, extremely reminiscent of the aforementioned Transformers scene. Sequences like this are incorporated into the film throughout and compromise the narrative just to forefront the spectacle of the visual effects.
The Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War, a seemingly generic entry into the MCU, takes a radically new approach to spectacle by introducing the primary antagonist of Thanos. Thanos as a character presents incredible production challenges, due in part to his alien species, but also due to the necessity to make him feel believable. Infinity War intends to partially subvert the conventions of the MCU, treating its villain as a character with depth and motivation and not as just a shallow, evil force lacking in motivation. It could be argued that the film’s narrative follows Thanos’ journey and the obstacles he faces in reaching his goal more than the journey of the Avengers, which is only bolstered by the film’s subversive ending, where Thanos is successful in reaching his goal. What was necessary, then, for the character of Thanos, and by proxy the entire film’s narrative to function, is on the one hand to present his spectacular appearance, with fantastic biology, but equally maintaining the capability to hold as much emotional depth as an ordinary character, so as to be a fully believable character and role in the unfolding story. Thanos in Infinity War attempts to become a balance of spectacle and narrative, providing spectacle whilst being fundamental to the narrative. In the film, Thanos is rendered in arguably unprecedented photoreal CGI with excruciating detail; elaborate muscle systems and physics simulations combined with ultra-high resolution modelling and texturing, and motion capture performance of Josh Brolin create the ultra-realistic antagonist. Absurd attention to detail furthers the illusion, with visual effects teams even including stubble that grows on Thanos’ head as the film progresses. Hopkins argues that ‘For the viewer to successfully… leave the real world and enter, if only partially, the imaginary cinematic place, the spectacle on screen must resemble at least vaguely the spectacle of everyday life’ (1994). In creating a spectacular CGI character that this closely resembles reality, the filmmakers maintain the spectacular appearance of Thanos, comparable to the aforementioned spectacle in Transformers, whilst also persuading the audience to accept Thanos in the same way that the unquestioned moments of spectacle or ‘invisible’ visual effects function, serving the same purpose as the described moments in Back to the Future Part II; ultimately balancing the inclusion of spectacle whilst avoiding compromising the narrative of the film.
Even with Infinity War’s immense strive for spectacle to assist in immersing the audience in its narrative, the film still is arguably mostly constructed of spectacle. One could argue that despite the attempts of the filmmakers to make Thanos feel realistic enough to supplement their narrative, fundamentally the entire idea of including Thanos in the film was a decision fixated around spectacle over narrative; it is likely that Thanos was selected to be the film’s antagonist due to the spectacle his on screen presence would generate. Additionally, Infinity War is guilty of the same gratuitous inclusion of spectacular elements purely for the sake of showcasing these elements. In the many large scale battles of the film, in order to ‘raise the stakes’ of the battle, the filmmakers introduce spectacle to wow the audience, as opposed to narratively introducing new obstacles for the characters to overcome. In the case of the battle that takes place on the planet Titan, the stakes of the fight never develop or evolve, but to contrast this continuity the filmmakers employ spectacle to intensify the scene. In a moment of sheer, unadulterated spectacle, Thanos tears a moon from its orbit and sends its debris crashing down upon the Avengers. While the sequence serves as immensely visually stimulating material, the narrative repercussions of this action are near non-existent; the Avengers are almost entirely unphased, with the only reaction to the event being a quip from Iron Man. This entire moment serves as nothing more than spectacle, disrupting the narrative, compromising the immersion and jarring the audience out of the constructed world for a moment to gaze in awe at the event itself comparably to Black Panther’s rhinos and Transformers’ dragon.
Overall then, the conflict between spectacle and narrative continues to affect cinema greatly. Filmmakers are able to use spectacle to supplement their narratives as in the case of invisible effects, made up of spectacular detail. Equally, some filmmakers rely on spectacle to intensify elements of their narrative in place of a more narrative driven solution, ultimately compromising their narrative in favour of spectacle. An analysis and comparison of Black Panther and Infinity War reveals the methods contemporary blockbusters use to incorporate spectacle. Both films at times incorporate spectacular elements to immerse their audiences into the worlds they create, whilst at others halting the immersion and exhibiting pure spectacle as is. Despite emerging as a tactic to draw attention to the medium of film in the age of the cinema of attractions, the inclusion of spectacle is arguably still a necessity for modern cinema, as it forms foundations to create new stories; without elements of the spectacular, driven by technological advancements and visual effects, the ability to tell believable yet fantastic stories with believable yet fantastic settings, as in the case of Black Panther, or believable yet fantastic characters, as in the case of Infinity War, would not exist.
Thanks to Barry Langford for his incredible insight and thorough feedback.
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Back to the Future Part II. (1989). Directed by R. Zemeckis. Hollywood: Universal Pictures.
Black Panther. (2018). Directed by R. Coogler. Hollywood: Marvel Studios.
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Transformers: Age of Extinction. (2014). Directed by M. Bay. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures.