Advancing in the Wrong Direction
A few weeks ago, a new TV spot for Captain America: Civil War was released during Super Bowl 50. As 30-second spots go, it’s pretty good, and I’m still looking forward to this movie as much as anything else this year. Of the many new bits of footage and action to be seen in the trailer, one in particular stood out to me: this quick action beat featuring Iron Man and the Winter Soldier.
Neat little gizmo, huh? Probably has something to do with nanotech or teleportation or quantum something or other. But as neat as this new piece of Iron Man tech is, it’s crystallized something for me, a feeling that’s been slowly dawning on me for the past few years now.
Iron Man’s tech is kinda boring now.
Not because it isn’t doing cool things, but because as the cool things it does become fancier, flashier, and more advanced, watching it work becomes less about watching a machine in operation, and more about watching special effects in operation. What we’re watching when Iron Man deploys some manner of technological doodad these days isn’t what it once was. Once upon a time, Iron Man’s tech was fun to watch in action, because it had a logic to it, a progression, a kind of sense. We could see what was going on and appreciate the thought that went into designing the process.
Cast your mind back to 2007, and the first time you watched this scene.
Even though some of the effects already look dated, this scene really illustrates that technology on screen is more visually interesting when we can understand, even in a basic sense, how it works and why. Even though the Iron Man armor isn’t 100% plausible from an engineering standpoint, it’s easier to accept that, and more fun to watch it work, when we have a sense of what specifically is going on rather than taking it on faith. Watching the above sequence, you can see how the Iron Man armor attaches to Tony’s body, how it fits together and interlocks. You can see support pieces and rivets holding things together. You have a sense of the armor’s construction, and watching it come together is like watching a puzzle being assembled or a watch functioning. The sequence tells a story, the story of a bunch of machinery and armor panels connecting and forming a humanoid shape. You understand the process, and when you’re watching it you become engaged in it by that understanding.
This even remained true in Iron Man 2. Watch the suitcase armor sequence and tell me there isn’t a certain appreciable logic behind the way a chunk of metal the size of a Playstation 4 unfolds into a humanoid armor. You can see how the panels unfold from a stacked configuration into a shape that can contour to the human body.
But as time went by, and Iron Man’s tech became more advanced, this was slowly lost. Iron Man tech became more fancy, more complicated, and eventually impossible to follow or understand visually. Watching Tony suit up or use whatever piece of technology he’s using in a given scene is becoming less engaging with each film, because that ability to engage the viewer by keeping them involved in the process went away.
Take a look at this gif of Tony activating a suit in Iron Man 3.
You could watch this gif over and over again and never come to any kind of understanding of what’s going on beyond “the suit just sorta wraps around him”. There’s no story to the process, nothing you can really follow or be engaged with. By this point, the process had become less of a visual narrative and more….
The term “technobabble” refers to a trope you often see in science-fiction, and usually one indicative of mediocre writing or storytelling. It means long stretches of mostly made-up technical-sounding nonsense, designed to sound like something that actually means something or makes some iota of sense and using important sounding words and terminology. For example, a character might say “If we reverse the polarity of the ionic flux chamber, it could cause a resonance cascade through the forward relay manifolds, which would overload the enemy’s thermal matrix!” Unless the writer of a particular piece of fiction has his or her world’s science fleshed out and explained to a ludicrous degree, odds are if you hear a sentence like that, it actually means next to nothing.
Technobabble is a form of Deus Ex Machina, a way to conjure up a solution to whatever problem is currently at hand out of thin air and ten-dollar words. In many cases it presents a failure on the writer’s part to come up with a credible outcome for the situation using the mechanics and rules of the world as they’ve been established, instead making up a solution where the “how” is of very little consequence.
“Visual technobabble” is a term I use to describe an aesthetic quality seen (in my estimation) far too often in science-fiction film these days. While sequences like the suit-ups in the original Iron Man films follow a certain logic and present a kind of mini-narrative that the audience can follow and engage in, visual technobabble sacrifices any kind of audience engagement with the technology on display in a film by making it essentially incomprehensible.
While Iron Man’s more recent technological wonders are one example of this, it isn’t the only one present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Take a look at Star-Lord’s helmet in Guardians of the Galaxy. While again, you could probably conjure up some explanation for how this piece of tech works, the long and short of it from a visual standpoint is “the special effects make it go away”.
But if you want a really good example of visual technobabble, four films worth of it in fact, you need look no further than Michael Bay’s Transformers series.
The transformations in Bay’s films don’t have any kind of visual logic or follow-able sequence, at least not one that can be seen when viewed at regular speed and through the lens of Bay’s usual style of camera work and visual presentation. One minute you’re looking at a vaguely humanoid robot, and after a bunch of sound effects and a million or so moving pieces, it’s a shiny piece of Ford product placement. There’s no sequence to the effect, or at least none that can be followed or engaged with visually. Like the recent Iron Man tech, Star-Lord’s helmet and a million other examples, effects like these are effectively nonsensical, and by that lack of sense become less of a sequence or process and more of a visual cacophony.
While the kind of technobabble you hear spoken aloud often represents a failure (or at least, a shortcut taken) to come up with a solution to a given problem based on rules and ideas we’ve been taught previously, visual technobabble represents a failure on a design level to me. Or, if you want to be kind, a move towards an aesthetic that doesn’t serve the audience. Rather than crafting an interesting sequence with a progression and flow to it, this visual trope substitutes that for sequences that take us from point A to point B by making everything that comes between essentially visual nonsense, at least as far as we can observe. These sequences aren’t stories, they can’t even rightfully be called sequences, and that detracts from their visual “punch” more than I think we realize.
Couching sequences like these in things we can basically grasp, like engineering, visual logic and a kind of “technological narrative” gives us something to grasp, something that grounds the sequence and makes it easier to believe that such technologies could be possible. It’s the same as how, no matter how fantastical a world a film or piece of fiction is weaving, you can still make audiences connect with it by couching it in emotional narratives that we can understand and relate to. Luke Skywalker or Rey feel real to us because almost anyone can empathize with the idea of wanting to get out, of being trapped in a stagnant state, of feeling overwhelmed when that stagnant state is finally left behind. Good storytelling meets us halfway by giving us an entry point we can understand: an emotion, a basic process, anything, and from there it can take us anywhere and make it feel real. The visual storytelling of technological sequences is no different.
Watching a piece of technology work, like an Iron Man suit being assembled, a helmet deploying, or an Autobot or Decepticon going from one form to another, should be approached as a tiny little narrative. It should be couched in things we can understand, even if it’s as simple as “this piece attaches to that piece, and when they’re not in use they fold together and store out of the way like this”. In the same way that characters become more “real” when they have an emotional entry point, technological sequences and objects feel more real when they have at least some aspect that we can understand.
Any Technology, Sufficiently Advamced, is Indistinguishable from Magic
It all comes down to the very fine line between science-fiction and science-fantasy. In science-fantasy, magic and technology are essentially interchangeable, and how and why they work is besides the point. What matters is the purpose they serve in the narrative and how they help it move along. In more ways than one, Iron Man’s tech is becoming more and more akin to magic ever day.
Not that there’s anything wrong with magic on its own, since after all the Marvel Cinematic Universe is no stranger to magic and sorcery. We should be getting a trailer or teaser for the Doctor Strange movie any day now, and despite how many times Natalie Portman can say ‘quantum’ or ‘entanglement’, the Thor movies are still ABOUT THOR. At any point in those movies, Anthony Hopkins can show up on a nine-legged horse to save his son the thunder god from frost giants. Sure, it’s all very scientific.
But the problem is that given how we’re going to be seeing more and more magic in the MCU, Iron Man, being the premiere tech-based character in Marvel, needs to retain that sense of technology over magic if he wants to stand apart. And this is especially true given that he first captivated us by presenting us with technological marvels (pun intended) that we could appreciate and engage with, thanks to a sense of visual logic and storytelling. When Doctor Strange summons a mystic bolt or conjures up an object, we won’t know how it technically works. We can’t, really, but we have faith that it works anyway. That’s really what magic is, at the heart of it. Technology, by contrast, should have at least some sense of logic, something we can get our head around, even in a basic way.
And the simplest way to do this, to ground these technological sequences and make them appreciable as a piece of engineering, is to ensure that watching them in action is an involved, engaging process. We can’t be allowed to simply accept that it makes sense on some level, the way we do with technobabble, we need to be involved spectators, wrapped up in the process by our basic understanding of it.
For one last good example of how technology like in Iron Man or the Transformers can be visually interesting while still fantastical, I’d like to present you with a sequence that, for me, presents possibly one of the best examples of these kinds of processes done well.
As silly as it may seem on the surface, after watching that sequence once or twice, you probably understand perfectly well how a robot, a bullet train, a drill tank, and a stealth fighter can combine into a single form. Even though the above sequence is the definition of outlandish and silly, it never stops feeling like you’re watching engineering at work. From start to finish, you remain involved in the process, watching the sequence progress and understanding what each component does, how it changes, and how it interacts with the components around it. Everything has a sense of mass and weight, and even though what we’re watching is a 2D animation, it feels credible despite being ridiculous. Of course, this isn’t to say that whenever a transformer changes form, or Robert Downey Jr. suits up as Iron Man, it should be a protracted anime-style stock-footage sequence. But pay attention to the things that this sequence is doing right, the line it walks between being just detailed enough to be interesting, but not so over-complicated that it becomes 40 seconds of visual noise. Qualities like these are what we need to see more of, not just in Iron Man or Transformers movies, but whenever we see futuristic technology on screen. In our rush to make futuristic and advanced technology seem flashy and cool, we can’t lose sight of the qualities that make processes like these fun and engaging to watch.