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Marvel Has a VFX Problem

As Phase 4 has faltered, the MCU’s effects-heavy visuals—and the ways in which they’re produced—have drawn increased scrutiny

Marvel Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Despite mixed reviews from critics and audiences, Thor: Love and Thunder has been yet another box office hit for Marvel Studios. Even with a precipitous 68 percent drop-off in its second weekend in theaters—a record decline for an MCU movie—the fourth Thor installment tacked on an additional $46 million after earning $144 million in its opening act. However, for the studio at large, a bigger problem has emerged during the film’s rollout than its reviews or box office margins. Love and Thunder director Taika Waititi has recently taken some heat over negative comments he made about the CGI in a particular scene in the film, which comes at a time when VFX artists had already been speaking out against Marvel Studios about poor working conditions.

Waititi’s comments came during a scene breakdown video he did for Vanity Fair last week along with actress Tessa Thompson, who plays King Valkyrie in Love and Thunder. “OK, does that look real?” Waititi asks Thompson, referring to Korg, the rock warrior whom Waititi voices in the film.

“In that particular shot, no, actually,” Thompson responds with a laugh.

“Doesn’t he need to be more blue?” he then asks, before pointing to Thor and asking: “Well, does he look real?”

“No, none of us do,” Thompson replies, before adding that “something looks very off” with her character.

While it’s certainly not a good look for a director and one of his actors to poke fun at the CGI in their own movie, the ensuing controversy is less about the comments themselves than it is about the larger VFX issues at Marvel Studios. Waititi and Thompson may not have meant to cause such a stir when they mocked the work done by the film’s VFX artists, but they effectively drew more attention to a studio- and industry-wide problem. And Marvel needs to address it now more than ever.

Visual effects artists—in the entertainment industry at large and those working with Marvel Studios in particular—almost never get the credit they deserve. Consider the role that VFX plays in a movie like 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, the fifth-highest-grossing film of all time. Out of more than 2,700 shots in Infinity War, only 80 didn’t feature any visual effects, according to VFX company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). That means less than 3 percent of the 2.5-hour movie was created without the aid of visual effects. The film nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, among many other accolades from various voting bodies, but the award cycle failed to recognize or reflect the sheer volume of VFX work involved in the production; only Marvel Studios and a handful of the VFX supervisors really received that award recognition. (Just take a scroll through the visual effects section on Infinity War’s cast and crew page on IMDb to get a sense of how many people worked on it. It’s quite a workout for the fingers.) And for all the stunning CGI shots, or scenes that viewers may not even realize feature VFX, it’s often the moments when the CGI quality is lacking—such as Bruce Banner’s head floating above the Hulkbuster suit—that garner much of the attention.

Thanks to dramatic advancements in technology, CGI has gotten so good that it’s often easy for viewers to take it for granted. And it’s even easier for it to be distracting when it’s unconvincing, whether it’s an un-lifelike Egyptian jackal rising out of the ground in Moon Knight, villains crumbling into cartoonish skeletons in Ms. Marvel, Doctor Strange growing a third eye in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or pretty much the entire She-Hulk: Attorney at Law trailer. As someone who frequently writes about Marvel Studios projects, I’ve shared my thoughts on lackluster CGI when I’ve seen it, as have many other viewers on Twitter and elsewhere. But what I’d imagine myself and many others can’t see or fully understand is what goes on behind the scenes of these MCU projects when it comes to the visual effects process. And VFX artists have recently made it clear that the studio has been setting them up to fail.

Many of the allegations made against Marvel started appearing a couple of months ago on the subreddit r/VFX, an online community where artists from across the industry have shared their negative experiences working with the powerhouse studio. (Marvel doesn’t handle any of its VFX in house, so it hires various VFX studios to work on its projects, such as frequent collaborator ILM; more than a dozen VFX houses contributed to Infinity War alone.) In a thread titled “I am quite frankly sick and tired of working on Marvel shows,” a Reddit user named Independent-Ad419 got the conversation started. “Marvel has probably the worst methodology of production and VFX management out there,” the Reddit user wrote. “They can never fix the look for the show before more than half the allocated time for the show is over. The artists working on Marvel shows are definitely not paid equivalent to the amount of work they put in.”

Others quickly chimed in, citing unreasonable deadlines and intense pressure imposed by poor management, with several commenters sharing that they’d requested to not work on Marvel projects in the future. “They expect a smorgasbord of options so they can change their mind 3 more times,” one user wrote.

By early July, the thread had grown enough that The Gamer posted an article—published on the same day that Vanity Fair happened to post their Love and Thunder scene breakdown—covering the rising number of claims made against Marvel Studios. A former VFX artist named Dhruv Govil, who worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming, then shared the article on Twitter, writing: “Working on Marvel shows is what pushed me to leave the VFX industry. They’re a horrible client, and I’ve seen way too many colleagues break down after being overworked, while Marvel tightens the purse strings.”

Govil’s tweet has been liked over 85,000 times. In another comment, he added: “Because a lot of folks have mentioned it, this has been the case since the earliest days of the MCU. It didn’t start recently, and it’s not because of [Disney CEO Bob] Chapek. The issue is Marvel is too big, and can demand whatever they want. It’s a toxic relationship.”

These issues of extreme workloads and a culture of crunch are reminiscent of those that developers have long faced in the video game industry, where a labor movement is currently underway to improve work conditions. And between Waititi’s comments, the article by The Gamer, and Govil’s tweets, Marvel’s VFX issue is starting to become too big for the studio to ignore. According to Govil, at least, this isn’t a new issue. But it’s one that has likely become even more prominent in recent years as the studio’s success has grown and as its increased output on both the big and small screens has made its appetite for footage more acute.

For context: Phase 1 featured six films across four years, while Phase 4 has already tallied six films and six live-action TV shows over the span of a year and a half. (That content pileup may also have something to do with pandemic-driven production delays that postponed releases originally scheduled for 2020. Even so, Marvel oversaturation is real right now.) It’s doesn’t seem as if these Marvel TV shows require less work or are on a significantly tighter budget than the films, either; on the contrary, WandaVision’s number of VFX shots was higher than the number required for Avengers: Endgame, according to WandaVision costar Paul Bettany, and The Hollywood Reporter previously reported that MCU series like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Hawkeye cost as much as $25 million per episode to make.

Even though it seems Marvel’s VFX issues can be traced back to the early days of the Infinity Saga, the faltering quality of CGI and VFX in the studio’s TV shows and movies has been more glaring and subject to criticism in Phase 4, in part because the quality of recent projects has varied overall. There have been plenty of bright spots, but the MCU is facing both a quality and a quantity problem, and without any real indication of where the franchise is heading as this phase comes to a close, it’s becoming less crucial—and more challenging—to keep up with everything that Marvel releases. (Although it seems like the MCU is working toward a Secret Wars crossover event, and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has promised that Marvel’s master plan will come into focus soon enough, the so-called interconnected cinematic universe has not been building toward a common goal as effectively as it did in the Infinity Saga.)

Given how dominant a force Marvel has remained at the global box office as audiences have returned to theaters—last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home made over $1.9 billion at the box office on its way to becoming the sixth-highest-grossing movie of all time—Phase 4 may ultimately be regarded as an awkward transition between the Infinity Saga and whatever the next chapter will be. But as middling reviews come more frequently, and the second-weekend box office dropoffs—like Love and Thunder, Multiverse of Madness, and Eternals all just experienced—become more pronounced, superhero fatigue appears to be hitting the masses, leading to diminished patience for suspect CGI.

As long as Marvel Studios continues to rake in revenue at the box office, it may well wait out this VFX controversy until the VFX industry takes some form of collective action, such as unionizing to fight for better equity and working conditions. Attempts at forming unions and trade associations have failed in the past, though, revealing the challenges of establishing solidarity within a global industry that has only grown more competitive. Still, given all the attention this issue has received in recent weeks, Marvel’s CGI and VFX will likely be scrutinized even more closely as long as the MCU stays in this creative limbo. And with She-Hulk—a series that features several characters made almost entirely of visual effects—approaching in August, this VFX conversation may soon get louder still.