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Why Marvel movies on Disney Plus jump from black-bar widescreen to fullscreen

It’s all an attempt to replicate the IMAX experience

Captain America holds up his shield and Thor’s hammer in an IMAX-sized box frame from Avengers: Endgame Image: Marvel Studios
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

As Netflix, Disney Plus, Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, and the rest of the streaming services vie for attention, new hooks for the home viewing experience have emerged, from 4K resolution to deluxe sound and elaborate ways to watch stuff with friends. But perhaps the most well-intentioned-but-confusing feature to roll out in the post-pandemic years is Disney Plus’ “IMAX Enhanced” viewing experience. Bolstered by a recognizable theatrical brand name, the feature popped up on Disney Plus in late 2021, and by the looks of it, it continues to perplex casual customers.

What is IMAX Enhanced? And why does it cause Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to suddenly switch from black-bar widescreen to a fullscreen aspect ratio randomly throughout the movie? The short answer is: This is how the movie was actually made — but you can turn it off.

What is IMAX Enhanced?

IMAX Enhanced launched on Disney Plus in November 2021 with the premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and was enabled with 12 other Marvel movies at the time: Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Black Widow. Subsequent Marvel releases like Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder have all had the feature at rollout.

The collaboration between Disney and IMAX promised that any film viewed in the IMAX Enhanced format would expand vertically into a 1.90:1 aspect ratio when appropriate, adding “26% more picture for select sequences — meaning more of the action is visible on screen, just as the filmmakers intended,” Disney said in a news release at the time. For more recent movies, much of that footage was shot in native IMAX using the company’s preferred camera systems. Films like Iron Man make use of IMAX Enhanced by taking advantage of the “open matte” style of shooting, where more picture is captured during filming and ultimately cropped out when widescreen mattes are applied. Jon Favreau couldn’t have predicted that Iron Man would one day stream in IMAX Enhanced on the Disney Plus platform, but he was accidentally prepared by shooting with open matte (instead of a more constricting widescreen framing).

How to turn IMAX Enhanced on or off

While Disney clearly labels Marvel movies — and potentially other future IMAX-ready tentpoles, like planned Star Wars movies and the Avatar films — as “Now streaming in IMAX Enhanced,” the streaming service also sets the feature as a default when you hit play. If a person isn’t mentally prepared to be watching the picture bounce between widescreen and fullscreen, the format might catch them off guard.

The way to turn the feature on and off isn’t obvious, but it is easy: To find the settings, navigate below the play screen to additional options. Squeezed between Suggested, Extras, and Details is a Versions tab where viewers can choose between the IMAX Enhanced or theatrical formats.

The Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Disney Plus tab for Versions, selecting either IMAX Enhanced or theatrical formats. Image: Disney Plus

With IMAX Enhanced, a theatrically driven technology company makes a play for longevity in an increasingly streaming-driven landscape. This is not the only play the company has made, either: In September 2022, IMAX acquired SSIMWAVE, a tech company that has “mapped the human visual system to produce one of the most accurate measures of perceptual quality, which its AI-driven software applies to enhance video streams and files in real time,” according to a news release at the time. The hope is that SSIMWAVE’s innovations in the AI visuals space would allow IMAX to increase resolution and image fidelity across all mediums — including any platforms enabled with IMAX Enhanced.

The future is bright for watching big movies at home, but whether anyone wants their movie to bounce around between aspect ratios is a big question. For now, it’s easy to toggle on or off, whatever a Marvel-loving heart may desire.

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