When the word “background” is mentioned while talking about film, two things come to mind: the actual, physical background of the film itself and the backstory or events leading up to the beginning of the film. Both are two important cornerstones of what makes a good film – you can’t have a good story without a good backstory against a beautiful background.
Some films, specifically action-driven films, use their backgrounds as a way to incorporate even more storytelling into their plot.
I’d like to take a quick look at two films and their use of background-as-storytelling: Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015) and Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (dir. James Gunn, 2017). Though the films are quite different in terms of their stories, they use their backgrounds to add more detail and depth to their stories.
For many critics (and fans, including myself), Mad Max: Fury Road is considered one of the best films of the 2010s, making the Top 10 lists for Rolling Stone, IndieWire, and Vulture (among others) and holds a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The film takes place in a dystopian future, where Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is trying to find the mythical “green place,” where she, the wives of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) would be safe. Like many dystopian films, the background helps to drive in the point of a bleak future. The background of Mad Max: Fury Road is a never-ending golden desert, mile upon mile of dirt and sand. The landscape of the background is broken up every once in a while with rock structures or abandoned cars, but is mostly just pure desert. It helps to reiterate the feeling of hopelessness that is prevalent in many dystopian films, forcing the viewer to believe that this is the only option that the remaining people on Earth have. There is nothing but sand and the remnants of the past, helping to also emphasize Furiosa and the wives’ desire to find this “green place.” They are desperate to escape this landscape and hopefully find a place where it looks and fundamentally is different from the society and the desert that they are seeking to leave.
The desert background also amplifies the drive and reasonings behind the support Immortan Joe gets from his subjects and war boys. Because of how vast and seemingly never-ending the desert landscape is, people are desperate for any source of water, as evidenced early in the film when Immortan Joe opens the dam of water for less than a minute and people fight over the last drops of water as he closes it. The desert and the knowledge that there is no water anywhere around them forces their loyalty to Immortan Joe. The war boys, Immortan Joe’s warriors, are more driven by this sense of loyalty and the scope of their loyalty, like the background, is never-ending. Some of the most powerful shots of the film come from the action scenes, where Furiosa and her war rig have to fight off the attacks from the war boys. In the foreground, there is usually just one car, probably driven by Nux (Nicholas Hoult) with Max on its hood, but in the background, it shows how many loyal war boys Immortan Joe has. The background shows the desert and the sheer volume of war boys and their cars behind it, while also showcasing the various different types of vehicles and weaponry that Immortan Joe has given them. These little details add more layers to the overall story and amplify its storytelling.
Speaking of details in action films, the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are notorious for adding extra background details. The films in the universe rely on small background details to help tie their films together, to give a feeling of cohesiveness. These range from characters in the background to quickly spoken lines. Sometimes, the universe’s various directors tend to add callbacks to their former television shows (Joe and Anthony Russo adding Tobias Funke in the background of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War) or something more subtle, like the colors of the Australian Aboriginal flag to a ship (Taika Waititi with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok). The films use cameos as well in their backgrounds, the most famous being the late Stan Lee appearing in the background of pretty much every Marvel film. Additionally, the films like to add “Easter eggs” to acknowledge the very rabid comics fanbase but to also tease future films. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 uses the “Easter eggs” generously in its background.
With Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, its release was preceded by the audience’s knowledge of the connected universes in Marvel. The audience knew to expect some references to either tie into the comics that the film is based off of or to foreshadow an upcoming Marvel film. The references can be very obvious or can be little-known, as James Gunn, the writer/director of the film, is a self-proclaimed obsessed fan with the Marvel Comics. He cleverly hides the references in the background of the film, where one would really need to pay attention or have a deeper knowledge of the comics to understand the reference. The film has quite a few of these “Easter eggs” and Gunn even revealed that the audience still hasn’t found one last reference, leaving the viewers to comb through the film again to try to find it.
Gunn typically hides the “Easter eggs” in busier, more crowded backgrounds, forcing the viewer to pay more attention to the full scene. In one scene, a character named Howard the Duck (Seth Green), a more obscure character from the comics, is shown talking to other characters in the background of a party on the planet Contraxia (which also acts as another “Easter egg” for more dedicated fans). In the screenshot above, part of a scene where Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) find the skulls of Ego’s (Kurt Russell) deceased children, Gunn revealed via Twitter that if viewers looked closer, there were many “Easter eggs” in that one scene alone, with the skulls probably referencing even more lesser-known Marvel characters. It is a pivotal scene in the film, coming in at its climax, and the amount of referential skulls in this background alone help to further its story along by providing more detail. The use of these references serves the same point as Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit in a different way. These small referential details at once provide a sense of reward for dedicated audiences, but they also begin to expand the cinematic universe that Gunn’s film is a part of. The background helps to further the overall story of the cinematic universe, while also adding important context to the individual film.
Backgrounds in action films are often just looked at as high-octane eye candy that wow viewers with special effects. However, action films do use their backgrounds to help aid their storytelling by adding more depth, detail, and context. It is only more noticeable if the viewers actively watch their film and try to look for its meaning, instead of just being impressed by the special effects.