Inspired by a number of YouTube comments saying that the muted color pallet Marvel Studios uses gives their films a more realistic feel, Patrick Willems decided to make a video analyzing what exactly we mean when we talk about realism in films and, perhaps more importantly, whether or not we should actually care if a film is realistic.
The discussion of film realism dates back to the 1940s, when German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer drew a line between the two extreme approaches to filmmaking: realism and formalism. Adhering to realism, as one would suspect, means trying to make the look of the film resemble real life as much as possible. If you’re a realist, you don’t want the audience to be constantly reminded they’re watching a movie so you use extended cuts and real life settings. Formalism, on the other hand, is highly stylized, like a musical or a Wes Anderson film, and has no interest in representing reality. As Willems notes, the majority of modern movies fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, but have increasingly leaned toward realism in recent years, as that form asks less of its audience.
So, should we care if movies are realistic? Well, it really depends on how that realism—or unrealism—is used. Formalist technics can be worked seamlessly into modern films, like the comic book qualities of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, or they can be sloppy, like every time a current Top 40 hit makes its way into the soundtrack of a period piece. Willems spends a good amount of time praising the Wachowskis’ divisive 2008 film Speed Racer for its strict adherence to formalism, which places the viewer in a world nothing like reality and yet still manages to deliver on an emotionally compelling story. In short, films shouldn’t have to be gritty or “real” in order to be good, but their style should follow logically from whatever feeling the director is trying to convey.