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All the things not said in Thor Ragnarok

OK so let me wax a little bit poetic about the costuming in Thor Ragnarok, and a little more specifically how they may be telegraphing a new arc for Loki post-Ragnarok.  I am, as anyone who’s taking one of my classes will tell you, a huge fan of the use of color subtext in film and other visual media.  It’s subtle, it’s often clever and it can be as big an emotional driver as sound and story in the right hands.

Colors are chosen for a reason. You get that right?  Much has been made of Superman’s “red/white/blue” color scheme or Batman’s transitions between blue or black capes and cowls during different periods of his run.  In any society, even in contemporary society, colors mean things. In the United States red is used for love, white or silver is used for purity, you get the kind of thing I mean.  This subtext is going to change depending on where you live, but with the globalization of media, those lines are getting blurred all the time.  Right now, however, there is a color language that everyone innately understands because of their cultural context, even if they can’t call out the meanings case by case.

In Thor Ragnarok, Loki, who up until now has been our favorite mischievous evil-doer, has his look and his top black-sheep status swiped by Hela.  His older, adoptive sister storms into the film in her own iconic green and black threads and her own stunningly horned headgear. 

Hela in full vamp.Hela in full “Battle-dress”

And then she promptly kicks everybody’s ass, essentially making Loki look like he’s been playing dress-up in his big sister’s vampy heels, rather than embracing evil on a serious and visceral level.  As far as “evil” is concerned, Loki is and has been a poser.

Loki in his green Asgardian “super suit”at the start of the film.

When we next see Loki his color palette has changed.  He hasn’t gone with the primary-colored stylings of his brother (who undergoes his own costume-transformation) but rather than the green and black and gold-tones we have become accustomed to seeing as Loki’s “Asgardian super-suit”, everything is cast much more blue

Thor and Loki, post ass-kicking

He’s ceded the black and green of the “bad-guy” for shades of blue and brown. He’s aligned himself, color palette wise, with his brother (look at how the blue on Thor’s left shoulder brace matches the blue on Loki’s everything). With the good guys.  Someone else has taken up the mantle of Big Bad, and Loki has begun to reinvent himself…  Or has he?

When we get to the final fight sequence, the green comes back, it’s a lot more subtle, a lot more subdued than Loki was sporting at the outset.  BUT, let me draw your attention to those knives Loki’s sporting.  See those handles?  See that blue there?  Whatever change Loki started after Hela took his look is still there and is helping to drive his actions.

The focus of this film is Thor, lets be clear about that, but in the background (playing younger-brother second fiddle as always, I suppose) we’re being shown the start of a change in Loki’s character, possibly with an eye towards an “Agent of Asgard” spin for our favorite almost-villain.  I mean, in the mythologies, Ragnarok was the end of all things, followed by a reboot, the world starting over.  You wouldn’t have to stretch very far to suggest that, now that Loki’s arc as the “bad guy” is over, that character might evolve into something new.

Before Leia dropped the “Princess”

I have to admit, when I was younger, I always hated Princess Leia (I knew nothing of Carrie Fisher, the person, until decades later so for me, at the outset, there was only Leia). Perhaps not the most popular idea right now, when so many women are coming out and citing her as their inspiration, their role model, the quintessential “non-princess”.  As her character evolved (and I grew older), my opinions of that character certainly changed for the better (particularly when she took out Jabba the Hut), but for a very long time the idea of Leia was tainted by how she was translated into real-life.

Princess Leis in her detention cell.

Post the release of Star Wars, this was the only subject on which all the kids in the neighborhood could agree to play.  Every group game became Star Wars, no more Cowboys and Indians, no more Firefighters and Forest fires, which was AWESOME for a while.  Everyone on the block had seen the movie (some had actually seen it TWICE, which was almost unheard of) so we all had a common world to build on.

Except for that annoying “Princess” thing.

In practical application, Leia got categorized with every other Princess (note the Capital “P”). Nobody remembered that she was the only one other than Han who could shoot straight.  Nobody remembered that she had kept her secrets under torture, that she was the one who stepped up to lead when Han and Luke’s half-baked rescue plan unraveled.  She had Princess in her name and that meant one thing only.

Whomever played her had to sit on the sidelines and wait until someone bothered with a rescue.

So for a very very long time, I HATED Princess Leia and would simply bow out of any game that involved her.  There was never a win to be had, I had to be Leia because I was the girl.  Fortunately, the boys in the neighborhood took the hint and we eventually agreed on an “invisible” Princess who would wait and do all the boring things until the game came back around to rescue-time (yeah, okay that may not have been a “better” solution per-se, but we were little and it solved the immediate problem).

I feel that a lot of people forget where the world was back in the 70’s when this film was first released.  That girls were still supposed to be “girly” and boys were supposed to be “heroes in training”.  The value (to me) in the Star Wars franchise, is not that they provided a strong female character to identify with in science fiction, because at the outset they didn’t, not in real concrete terms.  Instead over time that character evolved.  The writers and showrunners learned and grew and took a character that was supposed to be a slightly more exciting Girl in a Tower and turned her into force to be reckoned with.

 

Background Noise in: The Force Awakens

Screenshot of Rey and Finn running from a tie-fighter

 

Normally I like a bit of punnage in the title, but I couldn’t think of a good one this time, my apologies.

So I’ve been to see the force awakens. I don’t think the below’s going to be terribly spoilery unless you’re an art nerd like myself.  Just in case though, stop here if you haven’t seen it yet.

 

 

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Okay, you’ve been warned.  Shall we press on?

One of my pet peeve’s in cinematic design is the recent trend towards the overuse of the visual noise used to kick environmental realism up a notch. We have a long pushed towards making scenes and backdrops lush and complex in order to make them feel like they are actual places. Like they are lived in.  The original Star Wars, Episode IV, was one of the first to make their universe feel really lived in. Spaceships were worn and dirty, robots had rust marks, random bits of sprue and geometric shapes could be seen littering the backdrops and worlds. Occasionally a random creature would wander through the establishing shot. It began a new way of looking at environments as characters (okay, not wholly new, Jim Henson and Co. laid some of the groundwork, you got me there.)

But the addition of wear and tear did not mean they had allowed their backgrounds to become busy. There is balance within the shot.  Background information is conveyed in layers of gray on gray on blacks, rather then each individual object being distinct and easy to recognize. Objects are vague, without an actual purpose to attach them to.  It conveys the impression of depth without giving us enough detail to linger and be confused.

The Star Wars prequels made the mistake of becoming self involved. The environments were glorious, hugely, delightfully detailed.  They are what you get when you allow your environment designers to pour all of their love into a project. But the environment designers are not supposed to be the guiding eye of any given scene.  They build their piece or pieces with an eye towards making that single part the best it can be.  They will build you something so beautiful it can make you weep, but once you throw characters into that environment everything changes. From a cinematic perspective it was easy to lose track of the action in those films, sometimes you had to hunt for the characters in scene. It gave you a more “real” world, but at the cost of the story.

The Force Awakens has taken lessons from both the classic Star Wars and the CGI heavy prequel. They still have enormous set pieces, epic scale architecture that reminds us just how small these characters are against the backdrop of the world, but the detail is dimmed by elements like atmospheric perspective, by thoughtful use of color and contrast (and often lack of contrast). There is just enough to tell you that the detail is there, but not so much that you spend all of your time trying to pick your characters out against it.

In TFA this extends to a depth that I have not seen very often in modern cinema. There are scenes in the film where stormtrooper battles take place in front of dark environments, the bright white of their suits making it easy to follow the action.  We see black empire ships silhouetted against the light sandy dunes of an alien world. The visual design is very thoughtful and goes along way towards enhancing the viewing experience.