Young Nick Fury Is the Best Example of Creepy De-Aging Technology in Movies Yet
At a certain point when I was watching Captain Marvel, I forgot that the Samuel L. Jackson that was on screen had been fed through a metaphorical blender and emerged looking impossibly youthful. There were also times when the spell broke. Take, for instance, a scene in which Jackson's S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury and Brie Larson's eponymous hero are running from bad guys in the vast archives of a top-secret facility known as P.E.G.A.S.U.S. Larson moves swiftly, befitting her status as a superhero, while Jackson sort of limps behind her. Contextually, it's not out of place. She's a fighter with alien blood; he's a mere mortal. But then it dawned on me: That's the body of a 70-year-old man up there.
This CGI-aided de-aging of our most beloved actors is the kind of hubristic shit the Greek gods would punish people over. Marvel has fundamentally changed the movie-going landscape, but is it now tempting fate? Will we be smote for trying to turn back the clock? I couldn't help but wonder.
The reality is: probably not. The studio has been playing with de-aging for a while now, approaching the 15 year mark. In previous films, we've seen blips of Kurt Russell looking like he stepped off the set of Big Trouble in Little China in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Michael Douglas as fresh faced as he was in Wall Street in Ant-Man. Robert Downey Jr. pops up in a scene in Captain America: Civil War as if it were an outtake from that one season he was on Saturday Night Live; Michelle Pfeiffer appears in Ant-Man and the Wasp as if she could reprise her role as Selina Kyle. And of course, there are the other movies -- even ones that aren't total popcorn fare -- that have experimented in this cursed realm. Blade Runner 2049 revived replicant Sean Young; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button took Brad Pitt both forward and backward in time as Hollywood de-aging's first major project. In every case, an actor's skin is rendered eerily smooth as if they've walked out of a time machine.
Already, have we become desensitized to a technique that, by its very nature, is totally freaky? When Peter Cushing, who died in '94, appeared from the other side of the grave in Rogue One in 2016 it was genuinely an unnerving experience. Mere years later, we're ready to spend an entire movie with a de-aged star.
Unlike, say, Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, who was transformed into his younger self for scenes as the youthful god Ego with the help of a body double, Jackson required no such thing. Getting rid of a couple wrinkles was, apparently, no big deal.
"The traditional way of doing this process is you have to have a younger double, basically in every setup, who basically performs the scene after the actor, and then you kind of take pieces of their face and put it on the actor," Captain Marvel co-director Ryan Fleck told Fandango. "Fortunately, we did tests and prep, and we realized we didn't have to do that with Sam, because he looked so good already." According to Anna Boden, the film's other director, technicians from Industrial Light & Magic, the effects company largely responsible for these types of jobs, were "hand painting" each shot of Jackson in order to strip away the years. Jackson himself told Yahoo! Entertainment that he believes the artists used his face from 1998's The Negotiator as a model.
Perhaps the reason why this technique works so well in Captain Marvel is that the image of Jackson in the public consciousness has remained largely the same since he became a movie star in the late '80s and early '90s, when he was already a middle-aged man. More than 20 years later, it still feels like he could play Pulp Fiction's Jules Winnifield with the same menace and verve he did in 1994. When you think hard about it, the fact that we're seeing a younger Jackson on screen is incredibly disconcerting, but it doesn't necessarily feel all that unfamiliar. In this year's Glass, Jackson reprised his role as mastermind villain Elijah Price from 2000's Unbreakable. With zero digital tinkering, he played Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, at 57 -- 13 years younger than he actually is. In fact, his makeup made him look older than he appears in real life. (It also raises the question as to why Marvel hasn't tried this with its other star who somehow has defied the normal toll of the years: Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd.)
Compare Jackson and his career to two other actors who are set to get this treatment in the coming months. One of the next major projects reportedly featuring large-scale de-aging is Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. The first half of the movie about legendary Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa will be populated by youthful versions of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro as Hoffa and his killer, Frank Sheeran, respectively. If Jackson is a prime example of an actor whose work embodies timelessness, Pacino and De Niro are the opposite. They do not resemble The Godfather: Part II's Michael and Vito Corleone any longer; they aren't even the same guys they were facing off at that diner in Heat. A hefty section of De Niro's recent work has been markedly embracing him being, well, old. See, for instance, his run that includes Dirty Grandpa and The Intern.
The Irishman de-aging -- another ILM effort -- is a "risk," according to Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and it's obvious why. For one, there's no element of fantasy in this movie as there is with most of the other films that have attempted to make their actors younger. (The other big de-aging project coming out this year finds Will Smith as a younger clone of himself in Ang Lee's Gemini Man.) But the bigger issue is how the audience will be able to reconcile our current visions of these actors with our memories of their iconic performances of days past.
What Captain Marvel teaches us, though, is that these effects can be convincing, but they are nothing without the actor underneath. Sure, we're given more time to get used to seeing the younger Jackson on screen in a way we aren't with his compatriot Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), for instance, who still feels eerily wooden. Yet, the fact that the de-aging on Nick Fury isn't a total trip into the uncanny valley has less to do with the visual wizardry behind it and more to do with the brilliance of what Jackson accomplishes in his performance. He's not playing the same beats he does in The Avengers where Fury has a weariness trying to wrangle the disparate superheroes he's collected to fight Loki. The Nick Fury audiences encounter in Captain Marvel's 1995 setting isn't jaded by the idea of superheroes or even by cute cats. He may run like a 70-year-old man, but there's a glint in his eye of someone who hasn't seen too many people fall out of the sky just yet, and you can't fudge that with CGI.