Research Into the Use of Mise-En-Scene and Narrative to Study the Diverse Variety of ‘Superhero’ Portrayals
Mise-En-Scene is the technical term for the visual themes we see on screen. These include; acting, set/location, props, costume, lighting and camera angles. I will be focusing my research on Marvel studios and their array of films within their ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ (MCU). This includes (in chronological order so far): Iron-Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron-Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America the First Avenger (2011), Avengers Assemble (2012), Iron-Man 3 (2013), Thor the Dark World (2013), Captain America the Winter Soldier (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Avengers Age of Ultron (2015).
These films offer a variety of different ‘Superhero’ characters with different ages, genders, backgrounds, mind sets/morals, ambitions, hopes and dreams. Not all Superheroes are alike. It’s interesting to pick them all apart and study how the mise-en-scene and narrative are effectively used to emphasize these characters traits. Just because they’re similar in terms of saving lives from threats doesn’t mean that they’re all the same. I will analyse how their individual characteristics clash and flow with other characters and how they all stand out in their own way from a technical aspect.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe started as an idea with Marvel producer Kevin Feige. He had the ambitious and risky idea of bringing a variety of intertwining superheroes to the big screen. The MCU started with Iron-Man in 2008. Producers knew that this character would eventually interact with future superheroes so it was important to make each and every one of them to stand out in their own unique ways. Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Tony Stark is an arrogant business man who first creates military weaponry like his father before him. He uses his inventive skills to build an unrivaled energy source which later powers his Iron-Man suits. He realizes the corruption within the military and their weapons investors and leaves that life to focus solely on his suits and how they can change the world. Iron-Man is portrayed as better than anyone else. He always has a way out of tricky situations because of his suits and brains. Tony has a smart and clean hair cut, he has the best cars and his house has just as many gadgets as his suits do. He walks around confidently knowing he’s probably the richest and most important person wherever he’s at which of course is his weakness. His ego creates over-confidence which means he often refuses to see the small things which have, on numerous occasions, come back and haunted him. In all three Iron-Man films we see the same common theme of rival and jealous business men that envy and crave Tony’s signature suits. Upon defeat of his enemies we are reminded that Tony is always the best when it comes to armor wars. We’re given an interesting twist on the character in the third film. Iron-Man 3 is set after The Avengers which is the first time most of these characters have witnessed and battled extra-terrestrial threats. After the events of The Avengers, Iron-Man is left paranoid and panicked about what is beyond his reach. He’s used to being able to deal with any threat because every one of them has been close to home. He becomes distracted by unnecessarily creating over forty suits. After revelation on whether the suit makes the man or if the man makes the suit, Tony feels more comfortable and settled back into his usual self. Upon witnessing how this character deals with something out of his control (outside of Earth), we see he’s just as fragile as any other person. He puts on a confident face when he’s in his comfort zone but when dropped into an uncomfortable position we see the desperation of a typical person. It shows that even the most confident of people have limits and restrictions that need accepting which is a realistic and relateable aspect to the real world- no one is untouchable.
Iron-Man’s microcosm of superior technology isn’t too far from reality and the plausibility of creating robot suits to that standard which shows that the films effectively offer a realistic aspect. However, The Incredible Hulk is more science-fiction yet he’s part of Iron-Man’s world. Hulk, or his human alter ego, Bruce Banner is a scientist with equal brains to Tony. He attempted to replicate the Super Soldier project from World War II (which was Captain America’s origins) for the power hungry military. Bruce was unable to replicate it and was exposed to gamma radiation which meant he’s able to turn big, green and impossibly strong whenever his heart rate gets too high. Hulk is an interesting character to examine due to the fact that him and Bruce are pretty much different people. It’s much like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde where the same person is both man and monster. The fact that Bruce is bland and monotone amplifies his alter ego’s outlandishness upon transformation. Bruce is timid with his hands to himself yet Hulk is an exposed beast destroying everything in his way. When Bruce transforms he keeps his human features. The only differences are his size and skin color. This shows that Hulk is still very well human, but only exhibits features of rage and anger. The color green expresses balance and growth which is the perfect analogy of the character- Bruce must balance his two sides of him self so that he doesn’t become something bigger. The whole film is about Bruce on the run and trying to free himself from the burden of his alter ego. He is a sensitive character that doesn’t want to be disturbed for the sake of the health and well-being of people around him. In The Avengers he mentions the fact that he tried to put a bullet in himself but, “the other guy spat it out”. This character is like two sides of a coin, one side being small and anxious, the other being large and loud. At the end of The Incredible Hulk Bruce realizes that The Hulk is who he is and learns that he can’t control his other side, but he can at least aim it. In The Avengers he confesses that he’s always angry which means he can transform at will if he wants, but there’s still going to occasions where his heart rate increases unwillingly. This is a feeling of acceptance and using what he has to his advantage. We sympathize with Bruce even though he’s half monster. He can be seen as an anti-hero who can be on both sides of the fight depending on what situation he’s in.
At this point within the MCU, we’d only seen characters from Earth which easily offered relateability and plausibility to the audience. Thor was next in the line of films. Thor was the first time audiences were given a superhero outside of Earth within the MCU. The arrogant prince of Asgard, his home world, is banished to Earth after disobeying his father. He’s no longer able to wield his hammer due to the fact he’s no longer worthy of it. He must redeem himself and regain his honor by offering self sacrifice and heroism which were traits he initially lacked. In the movies, humans consider Thor and other Asgardians as God’s because of their otherworldly origins. They’re a take on the Viking Norse Gods which were simply considered myths until Thor arrived on Earth. It is mentioned in Thor: The Dark World that Asgardians live and die just as humans do, give or take 10,000 years. Thor is much stronger than humans and his hammer grants him the powers of lightning and flight. When Thor loses the right to the hammer he must live like a human. When he finally earns it back by sacrificing himself it’s shown that he didn’t technically need the hammer to be a hero. In real life people can be materialistic and think that objects of great wealth or awe make you the person you are. This can be corruptive and make people selfish and forget what really matters in life. This certainly happens to Thor. At first he thinks that him and his people are more important than anything else in the galaxy. Upon losing his abilities and hammer he realizes that humans are just as entitled as he is. Thor becomes much more noble and uses his new found self to help bring peace and order to the planets him and his kingdom now watch over rather than rule over. Thor is very muscular which is what Iron-Man lacks. Tony doesn’t need to have the physical attributes as long as he has the mental ability to build himself a suit. Thor is nothing but strength and the fact he has been deemed worthy enough for the hammer. The fact that his weapon is in fact a hammer is both reflective upon the Vikings choice of weaponry and also what it stands for. The character pays homage to the Vikings interpretations of a God so nothing has necessarily changed in terms of weaponry upgrades. The hammer could also represent a tool as well as just a weapon. A hammer is used to fix and build things which is what Thor does. He brings together all of the worlds he watches over by fixing the issues they individually go through. The hammer could also represent the law and how in a court the slam of the hammer/gavel means to enforce or compel with the power it possesses.
However, Captain America wields a shield. A shield that’s said to be unbreakable. This represents what he stands for. Captain America defends and protects his country and the world. In Captain America: the First Avenger, before he undergoes his super soldier transformation, he says that he “doesn’t like bullies, it doesn’t matter where they’re from”. Captain America stands for the oppressed and wants justice for all. He often disagrees with other characters who seem to war monger at times. Captain America doesn’t necessarily want to fight people, he just wants to fight for the sake of making the world a better place. The colour scene of his suit is red, white and blue and includes a star which resembles the American flag. You could say that Captain America is what the country stands for or at least hopes it represents. He is considered the perfect soldier so it’s interesting to witness their interpretation of ‘perfect’. Captain America/Steve Rogers is over 6 foot tall and is extremely muscular, much like Thor. If Steve is the movies version of perfect in terms of physical traits then the majority of characters are also perfect. Besides Iron-Man, every superhero is extremely toned and muscular. This could reflect with the real world where people associate perfection with manliness and a muscular posture. Captain America puts others before himself in every situation which is where him and Tony Stark have issues. Iron-Man and Captain America are pretty much polar opposites. One fights for him self and the other fights for everyone else.
It’s important for characters to not only flow but clash with each other to add depth and entertainment. The fact that each superhero is different in their own way also means that the audience is provided with a variety of characteristics which people will favour more than others depending on preferences. Adding this diversity to such an array of characters within the same genre effectively offers many different relatable traits for the audience. In a sense then film makers have taken conventional narratives, applied them to superheroes and placed them in the same universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy gives something new to the franchise by featuring five anti-heroes as the main characters. Each of the five characters have came from criminal backgrounds to different extents but then come together to do the right thing and save the galaxy. They stick together with their new found heroism and continue do good rather than bad. Much like Hulk, they leave destructive paths but ultimately what they do is for the best. The five characters are diverse within the group; a half human space pirate, an enhanced assassin titled the deadliest woman in the galaxy, a revenge-driven killer covered in self inflicted scars, a sentient tree and an augmented talking raccoon. This offers much more in regards to the fantasy genre seeing as though the previous films have provided plausibility and realism in most occasions. We see that anyone and anything can become a superhero in this universe when provided with the particular narrative. The latest superheroes to join the roster in Avengers: Age of Ultron are twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Both of them start as villains fighting against The Avengers. This emphasizes that anyone can become a superhero, even if they start out on the opposite side.
It’s interesting to analyse Mise-En-Scene during The Avengers movies once all of the characters are together. Camera angles help us perceive certain emotions and make certain characters look a certain way. During an argument between Tony and Steve the camera keeps swapping from one over the shoulder shot of one character to the other. Both shots show the opposite character as smaller than the other. Of course when the over the shoulder shot swaps then the other character is now the smallest. This shows that both characters are the bigger character and they both share the same traits. As for Bruce, he’s later given a high angel shot whilst everyone looks at him which makes him look really small. However, later on when Bruce becomes the Hulk the camera features much more low angle shots to emphasize the sheer size or the character.
All these films seem to feature the same aspect of storytelling on the outside. Each story follows a character or a group of characters rising up and becoming the person/people they find inside of themselves after being put to the test of moral and reason. They all individually offer something unique such as a weapon, physical ability or intelligence. The most important thing to note is the fact that none of these characters were born with the title of superhero, they ‘earn’ it by what features they provide. The narrative ensures that each character is placed within a life and death situation where they must fight against all odds and come out on top. The films offer male and female gaze by ensuring the actors chosen are physically on top of their game. Almost every character has a six pack which shows the extent in which the movies go to portray their interpretation of the superhero.
During stand alone films we see everything they have to offer but once they’re put together (in The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) the characters must share the screen and flare their traits between each other. In a way, it’s easier to see what each person has to offer when we see them together because you can see first hand how differently they are.
This was an assignment for University. I thought I’d post it on here too. It was rushed because me and deadlines don’t mix!