It was not so long ago, children, that a person desiring to watch a movie at their leisure had no choice but to purchase a round, shiny object called a Digital Video Disc. The early days of DVD continued and widened a debate begun during the VHS era, in that many titles were released in both “widescreen” and “fullscreen” formats from which a discerning customer could make their own choice. The widescreen presentation would fit the theatrical projection to the average consumer TV, “letterboxing” the frame with black bars called mattes above and below to squeeze a long rectangle into a shorter one. As promised by the name, fullscreen versions instead filled the entirety of the TV by cutting off space on the left and right of a shot. This was the demonstrably inferior option – you’re missing parts of the movie, sometimes elements integral to the text – but customers kept buying. For them, the feeling of seeing more overruled the fact that they were in actuality seeing less.
Fast-forward to today, and the cinematic medium now faces an odd inverse of this schism in visuals. The notion that every inch of our massive televisions should be put to active use has compelled Disney to re-release 13 of their Marvel Studios films in “Imax Expanded Aspect Ratio”, ostensibly bringing the immensity of the multiplex into the living room. In practice, this special feature of the Disney Plus streaming app unmasks the image, restoring space on the top and bottom that had previously been cropped out for ordinary theaters. The taller Imax screens allow for a width-to-height ratio of 1.90:1, as opposed to your given movie house’s anamorphic standard of 2.35:1, without the sacrifices in visibility of a fullscreen DVD. Disney wants to extend this experience to the home, where the usual high-def TV has a ratio of 16:9 (or more relevantly for comparison here, 1.77:1). As the press release on Marvel’s own web site puts it, this on-demand Imax “offers up to 26% more picture for select sequences – meaning more of the action is visible on screen, just as the film-makers intended”.
Whether this represents the realization of the film-makers’ intentions is between them and their god, but it’s true that in terms of simple volume, we’re afforded greater coverage of the hectic battle scenes that have become this studio’s trademark. For a scene like the climactic Götterdämmerung that closes out Avengers: Endgame, wherein every speck of the frame has been crammed with computer-generated visual information, the Imax ratio has a practical utility. In the extreme wide shots of the fracas, the expanded canvas affords a view of additional flying ships, Iron Man’s robotic minions, and Thanos’s enemy combatants as they clash everywhere at once. For those Marvel obsessives set on digesting every crumb of content, this boils down to a basic question of volume, this new functionality allowing for another step toward total completism by showing what’s been previously unseen.
But for those viewers who wish only to enjoy a film in its most logical and natural form, there’s a distracting toll to be paid. When the Imax versions aren’t revealing the full scale of scenes jam-packed with commotion, they’re destroying the composition of passages that would otherwise be normal, unremarkable film craft. Consider a moment early on in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, when the martial arts master Xu Wenwu first meets the forest guardian Ying Li; when they exchange dialogue before scuffling, what should be a by-the-book shot/reverse shot set-up is turned sparse and strange by the thick stripes of negative space in the Imax-enabled zone. A few inches of emptiness hang over Wenwu’s head, moving him from the frame’s center to an awkward lowered position, as if his photograph has been taken by someone not that fluent with point-and-shoot camera use.
This counterintuitive maximalism comes from the same paradigm of blockbuster muchness that has compelled many MCU entries’ run times to strafe the three-hour mark. We’ve been made to believe more is more, despite control and restraint having always been keys to film-making brilliance. Just as the sprawling lengths of these films come at the price of brisk, satisfying pacing, so too does the anti-grandeur of this pseudo-Imax distort the very art it attempts to take to the next level. There’s a reason this format has been restricted to brick-and-mortar cinemas up until now, and not just because it plays better when looked up at from an auditorium seat rather than down on from a couch. The thrill of this moviegoing mode depends on its huge proportions, a dwarfing sensation completely lost when transposed to the TV. The streaming giants would love nothing more to prove that there’s no difference between exhibition in public and the home, but this latest innovation succeeds only in proving the opposite.