The Shot Turning the Marvel Universe Upside Down

'Avengers: Infinity War' is just the latest MCU film to use a camera movement that signals the story is being upended.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
'Avengers: Infinity War' is just the latest MCU film to use a camera movement that signals the story is being upended.

Avengers: Infinity War knocked fans for a loop — but audiences can’t say they weren’t warned.

Directors the Russo Brothers and cinematographer Trent Opaloch used a particular camera movement early in the film to clue in audiences that they were in for a wild ride. The roll, a movement that turns up in several films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is unlike tilting or panning, in that it doesn’t mimic our natural head movement as we look up or down or from side to side. Instead, it rotates the entire image, sometimes just on one side, upside down, or even in a circle.

Directors have used rolls for decades as a storytelling tool. Sometimes this movement helps show a character’s disorientation (after a knockout in 2015’s Creed) or paranoia. Other times, it offers the audience a visceral connection to something unsettling, unusual or special (moving through the Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Fred Astaire literally dancing around a room in 1951’s Royal Wedding).

Director Christopher Nolan uses the roll to great effect in several films, notably 2010’s Inception, as well as one instance in 2008’s The Dark KnightViewers empathize with Batman (Christian Bale) as he dangles the Joker (Heath Ledger) upside down, but as the Joker explains his skewed worldview, the image slowly rotates so that he’s right-side up while gravity still affects his coat and hair. It’s like peeking inside his topsy-turvy mind.

In Avengers: Infinity War, the roll happens early in the film as Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) streaks across the sky like a meteor before crashing into the sanctum sanctorum and heralding the arrival of Thanos (Josh Brolin). This shot first appeared in the film’s second trailer, showing New York City upside down and then rotating upright, indicating our heroes’ world is about to get crazy. The moment is shorter in the final film, but it’s still striking. (See below.)

Want to really go for a spin? Check out some other uses of this camera movement in the MCU:

Iron Man (2008): Back home after his captivity, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) blasts off like a rocket in a sleeker version of his first high-tech suit and whoops with joy in director Jon Favreau’s kickoff of the MCU. As the Mark II’s thrusters carry Tony higher, the ground rotates behind him in the shot from cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Tony — and Marvel Studios — are in uncharted territory, and the roll perfectly captures that exhilaration. (See the moment at about 1:26.)

Thor (2011): Thor (Chris Hemsworth) couldn’t pick up Mjolnir, his signature hammer, until he’d learned humility on Earth. But when Thor steps up to take on the Destroyer without his godly powers, he becomes worthy once more. Director Kenneth Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos combine a crane shot with a brief roll right before the ground around Mjolnir cracks and the hammer returns to Thor’s hand, heralding his redemption. (Watch the moment at about 1:54 below.)

The Avengers (2012): The Avengers didn’t gel as a superhero team at first because of their disparate personalities. But add the mischief of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the power of the Mind Stone (the Infinity Stone first housed inside Loki’s scepter), and they really butted heads. As the heroes argue more than we’d like aboard the SHIELD helicarrier, director Joss Whedon and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey upend the entire image, showing the scepter is pulling the strings. (See the moment at the end of the clip.)

Doctor Strange (2016): You should expect a film about the Sorcerer Supreme to have a dazzling visual look, and director Scott Derrickson and cinematographer Ben Davis use two camera rolls to comment on character. In the film’s opening moments, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tangles with the duplicitous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in the Mirror Dimension. As she rolls the world on its side, the audience sees she’s a powerful force to reckon with. (Watch here.) But when Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) tries out his newfound mystic knowledge on the same foe, he gets schooled. Kaecilius throws the world off-kilter this time, sending Strange and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) running for their lives.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017): Director James Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham playfully combine several special effects and camera movements as Yondu (Michael Rooker) takes revenge against his mutinous Ravager crew, with the help of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Yondu moves his sound-sensitive arrow with a whistle but also heart, and as this rolling overhead shot pulls back, the audience senses poetry amid the chaos in those red ribbons of light. (At about 3 minutes below.)

Black Panther (2018): The official trailer showed T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) entering the throne room in a rotating shot promising Wakanda’s new king would shake up the status quo. But in the Ryan Coogler film, this shot actually occurs once Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has defeated T’Challa, overturning the country and the order that he says he wants to burn to the ground. In retrospect, the camera movement shifts the audience’s perspective just as Killmonger’s attitude ultimately shifts T’Challa away from isolationism. 

Check out the trailer version of this shot from cinematographer Rachel Morrison about 1:16 below.

  • Valerie Kalfrin