A Mean Look: Visual Style in LUKE CAGE (2016) and IRON FIST (2017)

I’m just finishing up with the first episode of Iron Fist (2017), and while the series premiere leaves much to be desired, the showrunners, cinematographers, and set decorators deserve credit for breathing new life into an old idea. It has long been known to the producers of James Bond movies that villains demand a thoughtful design. Not just in the way they look and move, but in the way their lairs, quarters, or apartments feel. (See this composition, featuring SPECTRE’s secret headquarters in Paris, from 1965’s Thunderball.) Evil masterminds tend to be homebodies. They hatch schemes and exercise control over other bodies from spaces they rarely feel obligated to leave. They prefer to be sedentary, while others around them are active, at risk. Their private abodes become nests of comfort, extensions of their personalities–a sinister will made manifest in spaces only a select few ever gain access to. From the creator’s standpoint, then, villains demand special visual treatment.

Fig.1. Luke Cage, episode 1.

I first noticed Marvel’s attention to this aspect of storytelling and style in episode 1 of Luke Cage. A shot (fig.1) that appears at the end of the scene that introduces us to Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes relies on hues that mix warm and cool. The amazing Mahershala Ali, visible in the aperture created by the foreground railing, just below frame center, carries this hybrid style into the performance. Through his baritone voice and long, elegant face, we form the impression of character who will walk the line between grace and vulgarity, style and heft.

Fig.2. Luke Cage, episode 1.

Later in the same episode, we are given further studies in visual contrast featuring Cottonmouth. This time, he’s in his office (fig.2). Dorsally framed, Cottonmouth sits relatively still on the right side of the frame. The rest of the shot tempts the eye with abstraction. The strong diagonals of his high-gloss hardwood desk just about turn the surface into a slanted parallelogram. At any rate, it’s strikingly angular. This conflicts with the concentric circles that pop from a strategically placed background lamp, whose form repeats near the bottom corner of the desk. The color scheme–analogous burnt yellows and browns–mutes these geometric extremes somewhat, attempts a reconciliation.

Fig.3. Luke Cage, episode 1.

Circles and squares yet again–in this highly stylized, almost iris-like composition, also from episode 1 (fig.3).

Fig.4. Luke Cage, episode 3.

This motif of contrasts carries through to episode 3 (fig. 4). Abstraction to the point of geometry, and radical contradictions in form–a clash of rectilinear and curvilinear designs–continue to track Cottonmouth, in this case in the space where he will later meet his demise.

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How does Iron Fist treat its villains visually? Overall, the look of episode 1 is bereft of character, nondescript–a Marvel “zero degree” (polished, unremarkable). That is, until we reach the villain’s hidden lair (fig.5)–that of Harold Meacham, played by David Wenham. At that point, we’re greeted with an intriguing a burst of eclecticism (in terms of set decoration)–a masculine touch here (the punching bag), a feminine touch there (fine art on the walls)–and a strikingly symmetrical composition.

Fig.5. Iron Fist, episode 1.

In fact, the symmetry of the shot, which appears 42 minutes in, calls back to an earlier one, taken in a very public space–the lobby of Rand Enterprises, whose publicly disclosed owners (which include Meacham’s son, Ward (Tom Pelphrey)) Meacham is content to manipulate from behind the scenes (fig.6).

Fig.6. Iron Fist, episode 1.

Similarity is also mixed with difference. The earlier shot (fig.6) gives a strong impression of modern classicism–of a firm that wishes to project consistency and transparency–but which comes off to the viewer as a vulgar display of intimidating uniformity, immensity, power. This is achieved by way of strong vertical and horizontal lines, reflective surfaces that amplify the feeling of depth, high key lighting, and a background that draws attention with a bold vanishing point.

The later shot (fig.5) puts forth a sense of reserved intimacy, of warmth (neutral colors have a little life to them, while the primaries and secondaries–blues, yellows, and greens–are somewhat muted). There’s even a desire to recreate a tamed version of the outside world. There’s a mock-sun (the golden glow of the embedded niche at frame center), a mock-sky (the arched ceiling overhead), and some shrubbery on the right, encased in glass.

In this show, balanced control of the image appears to suggest that public and private spaces contain something sinister.