Although ‘The Avengers’ is not High Art, it is a very well crafted story. It’s not some revolutionary tale of the ages that perfectly captures the zeitgeist, but it does manage to be fun, exciting, and it manages to subdue all of the worst excesses of Joss Whedon’s particular brand of writing.
(Oh, really, Joss? Everybody is a wise cracker with a one-liner for every occasion? Good to know, glad none of these characters have their own voices or anything. Yeah, just leave the task of characterisation entirely to your actors, great stuff.)
So anyway, the other day I put ‘The Avengers’ (AKA ‘Avengers Assemble’ in the UK) on in the background whilst I went to do some washing up and some tidying. Two hours later, I was still sat on the sofa, watching the Avengers varyingly assemble. It’s a really captivating film. And it’s a perfect example of positive repetition in a story.
Here’s the basic premise: if you want your story to land, you need to set it up at least three times over in the first half of the film (or book, if that’s how you choose to live your life). A lot of my own criticisms in the past, and probably a lot of other peoples’, probably hinge around this concept more than you realise. More than I have realised.
We’ll use ‘The Avengers’ to explore this further.
As the title of the film no doubt gives away, the story, the heart of the story, is about a group of weirdos overcoming their differences to work together. That is the backbone of what the film’s about.
It would be easy to think that it’s about Loki, or the weird skeletal motherfuckers on the big snakey sky whales, but the core of the narrative is about cooperation despite contradiction.
Here’s how that’s demonstrated to us:
- In the first instance, Hawkeye is brainwashed by Loki, making him a literal enemy of the Avengers.
- Black Widow meets Bruce Banner and points a gun at him as soon as she gets worried.
- Later, Captain America and Iron Man meet for the first time, and are immediately at odds.
- Soon after, they both come to literal blows with Thor over who gets to take Tom Hiddleston home with them.
- Later, they spend a lot of time on the Helicarrier arguing. Like, a lot of time arguing, with Bruce Banner now thrown into the mix.
- Captain America even goes a little rogue, and breaks into SHIELD’s secret room of illegal stuff.
- Then we get to see the Hulk tearing his way through the Helicarrier, attacking everyone in his path.
Each of these moments demonstrates to the audience that this is a group of people who Do Not Get On. The Not Getting On-ness of this assembly of Avengers can not be stressed enough. It forms the undercurrent of almost every scene and piece of dialogue in the first half of the film.
Why, though? Why hammer the message home so repetitively?
Well, the answer’s simple:
You don’t want anybody to miss it.
There’s a scene, during the final fight in New York, and it’s that scene, you know the one, where all six Avengers are stood in a circle, mid-fight, all working together, and the camera pans around them and the music plays and reaches its highest point and you actually feel inspired. Like, they feel like Heroes.
That’s the moment that the film is working up to, and it’s the moment that crystallises the essence of the story. And it’s beautiful. And it only works if the audience is absolutely convinced that these people didn’t like each other at the beginning, but they do now.
It’s the repetition of the setup that allows the finale to deliver emotionally. Imagine if you had that same ensemble scene, but the only sign of disagreement between any of them had been Tony Stark using the last of Steve Rogers’ favourite cereal or something. Or Thor leaving his hammer on top of Bruce Banner’s tax returns and then going on holiday.
Imagine if you tried to do the finale ensemble moment, but the only scene you kept in the first half of the film was the fight between Thor, Iron Man and Captain Amercia in the forest at night. Then, they got back to the Helicarrier and spent the rest of the time agreeing with each other. And also Hawkeye was never brainwashed, but was just kind of there the whole time nodding sagely and complimenting everybody’s haircut.
There’s no way you’d feel the same emotional response at the end, when you finally see everyone pulling together.
Compare ‘The Avengers’ with ‘Age of Ultron’, which suffers because it simply lacks the same narrative focus as ‘The Avengers’. At the beginning, we start off with everyone working together as a team. Then we get a bit of argument over the nascent Ultron program and its use. Then we have a party, where everyone’s working together still.
Then everyone falls out for a bit. Iron Man and Hulk fight. There’s some drama with The Vision. Then, by the time we get to the final arc, everybody’s back to being friends again and… it’s really hard to care. Because they started off as friends. They made some new friends with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, sure, but what’s the core narrative here? What’s the essence of the conflict?
Another great example is ‘Star Wars’.
‘Star Wars’ (the first one, ‘A New Hope’), is a tale about a bored farm boy becoming a hero who saves the day. That is, again, the essence of what the story is about. There’s a lot of other stuff going on, but that’s the narrative that the audience is buying into. Luke is who we spend the most time with, and it’s his life that we see the most of.
Getting the audience to buy into Luke’s story means selling it, and that’s exactly what the film does, through thematic repetition:
- Luke complains to Threepio about never leaving Tatooine.
- Luke stares longingly at the Binary Sunset.
- Luke asks to join the Academy, but is told to stay on Tatooine.
- Luke gets told to do his chores, when he really wants to go see his friends at Toshi Station.
- Luke complains to Ben about having to get back home because it’s late.
All of this points to a young man frustrated with his mundane life, so when Luke becomes the hero of the day, we’re all right there with him, thrilled that he’s found the excitement he’s been looking for.
The same approach is applied with the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire. The very first scene of the movie is the Empire capturing Leia’s ship and taking the Princess prisoner. We see them wipe out an entire planet. Every single encounter with Storm Troopers results in our heroes running away from them – in the Cantina, in the Mos Eisley docking bay, during the Death Star escape.
Again, this pays off when Luke finally launches that torpedo down the thermal vent. The Rebel squadron fighters have nearly been wiped out, but the Rebels pull through anyway.
(As an aside, this is also why ‘Rogue One’ compliments ‘A New Hope’ so effectively – the Rebels do not win in ‘Rogue One’ – in fact, they barely escape with a handful of ships left. If ‘Rogue One’ had finished with a victory against the Empire, the unlikely victory in ‘A New Hope’, chronologically just a few days later, would be vastly devalued.)
‘The Last Jedi’ is a more interesting example, because it gets this concept both right and wrong.
First off, where it gets it right, which is again in Luke Skywalker’s arc. Here, we are repeatedly exposed to Luke’s uninterest in the outside world: he throws the lightsaber away, he continues his daily routine of spearing fish and indulging his xeno-lactation fetish, he repeatedly tells Rey to fuck off. It’s hammered home enough that when he does turn up on the Salt Planet to face off against Kylo, it’s a big, emotionally satisfying moment, because he’s finally returned to being the hero.
But, when it comes to Poe Dameron’s arc, and that of Finn and Rose, we get the opposite. The emotional beat that we finish on is the endearing message that we need to “save the things we love, not destroy the things we hate,” but that’s a an emotional note that hasn’t been earned earlier in the film.
Admittedly, the opening scene is of Poe sacrificing ships and pilots to take out the Dreadnought, but it isn’t explored enough afterwards. With just a single example of Poe’s recklessness (not including his attempted mutiny, which had no consequences), the repeated “pay off” at the end, where we see multiple examples of Poe realising the moral of his story, doesn’t end up feeling like a journey for Poe. It doesn’t feel like he’s changed as a character, so much as he learned one new thing today.
Likewise with Finn and Rose. Finn’s journey from recklessly attacking his enemies to trying to preserve his loved ones occurs in a single scene, in fact just one portion of a single scene, during the speeder attack at the very end.
If Finn’s adventures on the Rich White People planet or on the Mega Star Destroyer had included him repeatedly trying to attack First Order soldiers, jeapordising his mission for the sake of revenge, or abandoning Rose because he saw an opportunity to attack, then his finale with rose during the speederbike scene would feel more thematic for the character. As it is, it feels “tacked on” – the work hasn’t been done beforehand to earn the emotional weight it thinks it deserves at the end.
A further bad example of this style of narrative being executed is ‘Pacific Rim’. Like the other examples, ‘Pacific Rim’ has a lot going on narrative-wise, so pinning down the central story is tricky, but best I can tell it’s about the under-funded, unsupported Jaeger program proving that the only way to fight giant monsters is with giant robots.
We start off the film with Gypsy Danger getting defeated by Knifehead, which is the low point. But after that, the Jaegers win every fight against the Kaiju. Admittedly we see Crimson Typhoon and Cherno Alpha get fucked up, but ultimately there’s no battle after the opening scene that isn’t won by the giant robots.
Which means that when we get to the big climactic underwater battle at the end, the Jaegers win, and the audience reaction is “Well, yup, that fits the pattern, that matches everything we’ve seen previously, the robots defeat the monsters, I had no reason to expect anything else.”
Compare that to ‘Independence Day’, where we literally spend the first two acts of the film watching humanity get its arse kicked across the face of the planet. We see cities leveled, fighter squadrons wiped out – we watch humanity lose a thousand times. Enough that, come the final victory against the aliens, it feels a thousand times more satisfying.
The same applies in literary storytelling, indeed basically anything that is structured around The Hero’s Journey. Look at ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, which starts off with all of the hobbits happily enjoying parties and pubs and not being chased by orcs. We explore the idyllic life of the Shire, and the safety and comfort that it represents, and in many different ways, which means that when Frodo decides to head off on his own with the Ring from Amon Hen, and Sam with him, we, the audience, fully appreciate of what it is that they’re letting go.
Most of this is probably not going to be new information to experienced writers. It was news to me, simply because I’d never viewed it in these terms before (also because I am just a manufacturer of a trash blog that spews bile about the difference between an Astronomical Unit and a Light Year).
But if you walk away from a film or show with a slightly dissatisfied feeling, as though something didn’t quite hit home, try to identify one of the key emotional moments and see if it was satisfactorily set up.
Not every story has to follow this pattern, obviously, and there’s plenty of room for subtlety and nuance in a more unusual narrative. But when a movie is trying to hit big emotional notes, as most movies do these days, whilst following a pretty standard plot, it has to earn its laurels.
The essence of this whole thing is “get your setup right.” But the specific objective is to get your setup unequivocal. There shouldn’t be any confusion, in your audience’s mind, about what your story is about. If you can achieve that, then there won’t be any confusion in your audience’s mind about how they should feel.
Which may sound manipulative, but we’re not talking about great art here, we’re talking about emotional storytelling – about taking your audience on a journey from intrigued, to invested, to sad, to joyous. It’s not complicated, it just requires a little focus.