Storytelling is undoubtedly one of the oldest informative tools; a universal language that has transcended generations and cultures, and has been adapted into different media such as video games, theater, and film. Regardless of how old the narratives are, the success of these adaptations relies heavily on production - the visual and audible elements - and their ability to allow viewers to fully immerse themselves in the storyline. In this article, we explore the magical and captivating world of Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how architecture played an important role in contributing to the movies’ notorious storylines.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the biggest and most successful superhero sagas in modern-day cinema. Produced by Marvel Studios, the movie franchise is an adaptation of American comic books published by Marvel Comics, and explores the stories of different superheroes from across the universe, and how they “fight enemies who threaten their world’s existence”. Although many of the MCU films feature crossovers from one another, each displays a unique storyline, plot, timeframe, and visual identity, constructing the mise-en-scène. A film’s mise-en-scène describes the general setting of a scene, which includes everything visible in front of the camera and everything that contributes to the visual nature of a production. One of the most important components of a movie scene is without a doubt the architecture and environmental design, as they are able to influence the authenticity of the story’s plot and how viewers and actors engage with it.
In the case of MCU movies, the cities and structures used play a huge role in the movies’ storytelling. Depending on the story’s location, production designers have mixed real life sites, such as the busy streets of Manhattan or the Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nepal, with futuristic, out-of-this-world locations to create this duality of fiction and reality, one of the most prominent characteristics of the entire saga. For instance, this duality is heavily seen in “Doctor Strange”, a movie that particularly revolves around alternating between dimensions and locations. Through visual effects and computer-generated graphics, the creators of “Doctor Strange” chose to highlight the notion of “bending reality” by distorting orderly and structured architecture, and transforming all its elements: the arches, windows, lighting, etc., into enigmatic kaleidoscopic patterns.
Read on to discover the correlation between the storyline and environmental design of Iron Man, Thor, and Black Panther, 3 of MCU’s 27 films to date, along with a description of the design process by MCU's Production Designer Ra Vincent.
One of MCU’s first movies, Iron Man, stars Tony Stark, a self-proclaimed genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. The character is a genius inventor who was kidnapped and forced to build destructive weapons, but instead of complying, built a high-tech suit and escaped imprisonment. Set on the cliffs of California, Tony Stark’s mansion is the perfect embodiment of his luxurious, futuristic, and tech-driven “go-big-or-go-home” character. The mansion, which also includes his private laboratory, features elements of stainless steel, glass, floor-to-ceiling glass facades, white concrete, and interactive surfaces, filmed in an actual private residence in California and inspired by the Razor House in La Jolla. Complementing the modern appeal of the interior design, the furniture throughout the house is kept clean and minimal, and organized neatly across open-space halls. The exterior, however, is a computer-generated structure that reflects “simplicity with an extravagant twist”. The design was inspired by billionaire’s existing houses in the region, with an additional futuristic appeal of irregular-shaped silhouettes.
I first respond to the written word, sometimes a script will be really descriptive and visual and so your imagination forms the environment for you. Characters that inhabit spaces might have certain character defining traits that are reflected in the dressing of the environment. The scene that plays out in this space is super important. If there are many characters or it’s an important dramatic moment in the story then I’m tempted to make the background more simple so as to not distract from the scene. – Ra Vincent
Set in the mystical realms of Asgard, Thor’s storyline revolves around his inheritance of the throne from his aging father Odin, king of the Norse gods, and the obstacles he encounters such as being banished to Earth, before his coronation. As previously mentioned, MCU movies incorporate a lot of duality between reality and fantasy, and Thor is no exception. Asgard is a small and flat asteroid-like planetary body that floats into the void, housed by aliens, gods, and creatures with human-like physiques. The citadel of Asgard, home of the royal family, is one of the most striking settings of the movie. Mostly generated through computer software, the citadel features intricate architectural details that signify the family’s social status and wealth. The interiors see an excessive use of gold, vaults, colonnades, geometric forms, and ornamentation, with architectural elements and spatial layouts that illustrate hierarchy and circulation. As for the layout of the city itself, it was influenced by complex geometric shapes to indicate a world of organized chaos, hinting at an otherworldly and lavish version of ancient Greece with a collection of elaborate buildings, spires, pyramids, statues, terraces, and columns.
Often for period film design I will research deeply and then start to mess up the convention a little. No world is a perfect instruction manual for architecture. – Ra Vincent
One of MCU’s most acclaimed movies is Black Panther, set in the fictional “afrofuturist” Wakanda. The award-winning movie tells the story of prince T’challa, who becomes the heir to the throne after his father’s death and is challenged by another proclaimed rightful heir. The rest of the world sees Wakanda as a primitive agricultural nation, when in fact it holds the largest amounts of Vibranium, the “strongest metal on earth” and main material of MCU’s weapons. As explained by set designer Hannah Beachler, traditional African architecture was the starting point of Wakanda’s architecture and urban planning, combined with unprecedented technology, automation, and innovation due to the country’s abundance of Vibranium. To create Wakanda, the designer traveled across Africa and South Korea to research people, architecture, and geography, and observe the habits and lifestyles of different tribes. One of the biggest inspirations of the movie’s environmental design was Zaha Hadid, particularly the DDP building in Seoul and Wangjing SOHO in Beijing, which “were curved and futuristic, yet had references to natural elements”.
The buildings of Wakanda are a compilation of towers, mid-rise buildings, and indigenous huts, surrounded by water features and lush landscapes. All buildings have references to African architecture, employing conical thatched roofs, earth hues, and natural materials. As for the interiors of Shuri’s laboratory, prince T’Challa’s sister and mastermind behind Wakanda’s weapons and costumes, the design was intentionally made to contrast the native essence of Wakanda, and present the technologically advanced part of the country with reflective and interactive surfaces, glass, lighting fixtures, and steel structures, combined with vibrant African tribal patterns.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: The Future of Architectural Visualizations, proudly presented by Enscape, the most intuitive real-time rendering and virtual reality plugin for Revit, SketchUp, Rhino, Archicad, and Vectorworks. Enscape plugs directly into your modeling software, giving you an integrated visualization and design workflow.
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