Superhero comic book narratives are notorious for their convoluted time schemes, their constant resurrection of dead characters, and their penchant for clones and multiple versions of the same character. The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) utilize the visual effects (VFX) technology of digital de-aging to visualize this comic trope, and the attached clip showcases the most prominent examples of this technology in the MCU. Digital de-aging offers the characters of the MCU a flexible mortality akin to that of their comic book counterparts. This visual technology provides Tony Stark with the ability to interact with his younger self in Captain America: Civil War. It allows Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, Hank Pym, and Ego the Living Planet to exist in multiple temporalities within the same narrative universe.
The difference between the filmic and comic book versions of these characters, though, is that the film versions are embodied by flesh-and-blood human actors, beings that experience the full range of corporeal existence. Whereas the comic book versions reside in a nonlinear version of time, bounded only by the imagination of their writers and artists, the film versions require digital assistance to exist in such an unstable temporal plane. De-aging technology allows a digital composite to interact with its profilmic counterpart, and this enacts a tension between the seeming immortality of the digital body and the inevitable decay of the organic/profilmic body.
Within this schema, the digitally-augmented body is frequently depicted as an improvement over the profilmic body. It is more pliable, porous, and malleable. It is a mediation between the profilmic realities of an actor’s body and the imaginations of VFX artists. The digitally de-aged body visualizes a posthuman fantasy that merges code and the profilmic body to achieve a kind of immortality. As in the comics, the MCU characters don’t age linearly, they don’t understand time as a series of successive moments, and they don’t experience death as a finality. In the MCU, one of the superheroic powers of characters is the ability to move seamlessly between the profilmic and the digital, to time travel through various eras, and to resurrect and interact with their younger selves. These superheroes are heroic, in part, because their bodies can move seamlessly between the analog and the digital.
Stardom and MCU's Phases
Drew, thanks for your post. I'm curious what you think about the deaging strategy in relation to how the MCU deploys stardom. The MCU has sometimes been described as a perfect franchise for a media conglomerate because it does not rely on actors with an initial fandom to draw audiences to the screen. Indeed the characters are often more important to the fandom than the actors portraying them (a theory that will presumably be put to the test in the films following Avengers: Endgame). Yet, the relationship between the stars is leveraged (perhaps overleveraged) during the publicity of the films. What then is the funciton of the deaging strategy in this tension between the use of stardom and the replaceablility of the actors? Put another way, why not just use younger actors in these roles if we are going to be following a new Cap, Iron Man, and Thor in the next phase of the franchise?
Drew, as I said over email, I am very pleased to see someone else writing on/discussing the frequent use of digital de-aging technology in the MCU. I recently wrote a seminar paper on the same topic, but I am really interested in your couching of these images in the context of narrative temporality. I think you are correct to say that these technologies allow the actors to appear in multiple timelines in a way that would not be as seamless or spectacular as using traditional make-up effects or re-casting.
Your final sentence ("their bodies can move seamlessly between the analog and the digital") makes me curious, though. I feel like there's often a lot of pushback against digital de-aging because it falls into the "uncanny valley," which would seem to puncture that seamless transition. I tend to agree with you - that there are moments, especially moments of stillness - where the technology achieves a flawless, temporal illusion/chohesion between the analog and digital performer, but I am curious about what you would say regarding those who see these images as "uncanny" and unseamless.
Established actor de-aging
One of the things that I have found really interesting about the Marvel de-aging process is that it has been used on a number of the MCU performers with longer more established careers. We all know what Samuel L. Jackson looked like in the 1990s, as well as Robert Downey Jr. at a much younger age. I am curious what you think of this specific element and perhaps what it might say about the role of out-of-text stardom within MCU content?
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