Digital De-Aging in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Curator's Note

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.


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?

Thanks for your comments/questions, Ethan. There's a lot to chew on here. My initial thoughts went to a probably implausible future where filmmakers don't need to recast roles. They can simply resurrect/reanimate actors in a form of digital immortality (e.g. Paul Walker in Furious 7 or Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting his younger self in Terminator: Genisys, or Tupac singing at Coachella). So, Chris Evans can retire, but he can still play Captain America as a digital version of himself. But that's a little too unrealistic for today's technology...however interesting it is to consider.

As a more direct response to your questions, I do think that, contrary to the Times article you linked, the actors playing the characters in the MCU have become central to the reception of the films. Chris Evans, for example, has applied his Captain America persona to his political comments on Twitter. In many ways, Evans has become synonymous with the character of Captain America (at least within the MCU). Additionally, I don't think audiences will readily accept another actor playing Iron Man or Nick Fury. Those characters have become linked too strongly with the actors who play them. In other words, I don't think the MCU can do a James Bond-style of swapping out actors. Even if Bucky Barnes or Sam Wilson take over for Cap, they'll always be a replacement for the original, rather than a seamless transition to a new iteration of the character. (This strategy also didn't work in the print comics, as Marvel abandoned their movement of replacing characters with younger versions--Jane Foster for Thor, Riri Williams for Iron Man, Sam Wilson for Cap--and returned to the "legacy" versions of characters.)

The extra-textual material, as you point out, is also important. Seeing Scarlett Johansson and Evans playing Game Boy on set or watching Mark Ruffalo spoil the ending of Infinity War with Don Cheadle adds a lot to the enjoyment of the films. In other words, I don't think the actors are easily replaceable, at least not immediately. It might work in a reboot 20 years in the future, but for Phase 4, I think it'll be hard for audiences to forget the actors.

I'm definitely curious to see how the MCU handles the (almost certain) departure of their core actors at the end of Phase 3. Unlike the comic books, where characters return from the dead all the time, actors retire and move on. Will these actors sign on to do small cameos? Will they return as digital facial replacements? Will the roles be recast? Or will the films simply acknowledge that the characters are gone?

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.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jayson, and thanks for organizing this theme week! In terms of the "uncanny valley," I think technological advances and audience familiarity with digital techniques have made this less of a problem. Firstly, the VFX images of de-aged faces look more photorealistic than in the past (say, in Tron: Legacy). Secondly, regarding the MCU specifically, so much of the visual material in those films is the product of CGI and VFX that digital faces "fit" aesthetically within the context. So, a young Sam Jackson is no less believable than a cat with tentacles in its mouth or a person flying through space and destroying spaceships. When everything looks animated, an animated face doesn't stand out as much. Thirdly, audiences have come to expect a certain amount of digital trickery, expecially in blockbuster VFX films, so a digital face is just as common as digital snow or a digital billboard.

That said, I do think there's an initial uncanniness in the encounter with a de-aged actor. For me personally, it was strange seeing a young Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robery Downey, Jr, and Sam Jackson. At least at first. Then I quickly got used to it and totally forgot about the de-aging. (Except for Kurt Russell. His face always looked a bit off to me.) In other words, I'd agree that there's an uncanniness to the image, but I think it has less to do with the "photorealism" (if we can even use that term anymore) of the image than with the encounter with a clearly de-aged actor.

Thank you, Drew, for contributing such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post!

The technology is, without a doubt, improving, and it's clear that Disney and Marvel have been intentionally including flashback scenes to create an excuse for refining the process.  I think you are also correct about the abundance of CGI/VFX in superhero films "cushioning the blow," so to speak.  I would also say the superhero genre can get away with more elaborate or stylized digital effects, as these films are adapted (in one way or another) from an illustrative medium; one form of drawing is turned into another.

Like you, I am also usually disconcerted when first coming upon these de-aged faces.  Though, what I think is interesting, is that when I talk to others about these, everyone has different feelings about which are uncanny and which are not.  For instance, you mention that Russell's face in Guardians vol.2 was weird for you, yet I think that's one of the better looking examples.  So, I have wondered what makes one example work for one viewer and not for another?  In the paper I recently wrote on the topic, I was calling them "memetic faces," because (as Jennifer Barker, who was teaching the seminar, suggested) they seem to rely on and respond to cultural memory of star images; very much what you and Monica are discussing below.  With that in mind, I wonder if, as you point out, it's not sometimes more about our familiarity with the image of the star's younger face; essentially, does the visualization of the memory line up with our actual memory? 

Honestly, it's something I'm still very much working through.  Your post has been extremely helpful in that regard and I am really going to try to keep up with your research on the topic going forward.

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?

Thanks for the questions, Monica. From a production standpoint, de-aging well-known actors makes the process easier, since there's so much imagery on which to draw. For an actor like Downey Jr., there's an extensive library of images from his younger years with which to reanimate his younger self. But this cuts both ways. Since (almost) everyone knows what Downey Jr. looked like in his 20s, it's difficult to cast another actor to play that role, especially given the expectations that VFX can accomplish the trick. For a less well-known actor--or an actor who didn't have a long career before the MCU--it might be easier to simply cast another person in the role. Audiences don't come to the film with prior knowledge of the actor's appearance, so de-aging isn't as crucial here.

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