By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
When Avengers first came out, I saw it twice in theaters and brought the DVD as soon as it was available. Very few movies rate highly enough with me to be watched a second time in theater or to be purchased afterward for repeated home viewing.
So I went in to Avengers: Age of Ultron with high expectations…that weren’t met. The trailers looked fantastic, but the movie itself didn’t deliver. The more I’ve thought about it, the sadder it makes me. It makes me sad because of all the missed opportunities. It makes me sad because, given all the money this movie is almost guaranteed to make, some writers out there will use it as an example of how they should be able to do the same–flawed and awful–things in their story. It makes me sad because it sets a precedent for more movies in the future where the special effects and fight scenes are valued over the actual story and character development.
I ended up with enough material for more than a single post on this, so this is going to be a two- to three-part series, but I believe there’s a lot we can learn–as writers–from where this movie went wrong. While I normally like to use only positive examples, things that we should be emulating, I’m making an exception this time because this movie has the potential to send future storytelling in a negative direction. So grab a snack, settle in, and at the end of each post, please let me know what you think.
Mistake #1 – No Character Arcs
I respected Joss Whedon’s writing in The Avengers not only because of his snappy dialogue, but also because he found a way to allow the characters to be unique and to grow, despite the large ensemble cast. As a general guideline, the more characters you have in a story, the more difficult it is to bring each of them to life. One of the ways Whedon did this in The Avengers was through the character arcs.
In The Avengers, Tony Stark wasn’t originally considered for the Avengers Initiative because he doesn’t play well with others. He’s not a team player. Early on in The Avengers, Captain America accuses Stark of not being the type of guy who sacrifices himself for others. He says Stark isn’t the one who’ll lay down on the wire and let others crawl over him. Stark, flippantly, replies he’d just cut the wire.
And then, at the end of the movie, when there is no option to “cut the wire,” Stark has grown enough as a team player that he sacrifices himself to take the nuke into the alien realm and blow them up rather than allowing it to destroy New York and everyone there. Everyone thinks that’s a one-way trip and Stark is going to die. Tony even tries to make one last call to his girlfriend to say goodbye. He’s willing to lay himself down on that wire and make the sacrifice.
Stark isn’t the only one with an arc. In The Avengers, Bruce Banner is the tormented genius who believes he’s a monster and who fears himself as much as other people fear him. He doesn’t believe he has anything of value to offer. He hates himself so much he’s tried to commit suicide. He doesn’t know how to properly harness his anger so, when the movie starts, he’s hiding.
Through the course of the plot, he’s put into situations where he has to face what he is and figure out a way to make peace with the Hulk inside him. He has to accept himself and realize that his anger can be used for good. Because he needs to become part of the world, as the Hulk, to save it. (If you want to see my in-depth look at his character arc, check out my post “It’s Okay to Be Angry.”) The pay-off moment in this arc is where the Hulk smashes Loki into the ground as Loki tries to tell him how worthless he is. He won’t listen to those voices anymore.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the groundwork is laid for another growth arc for Tony Stark. He’s going to have to face his narcissism this time…And then it’s never fulfilled. It’s worse than never fulfilled. It’s almost like Stark backslides from where he was in the first movie. So does the Hulk.
In fact, none of the characters have a significant, satisfying arc, and I think that’s in part because of Mistake #2.
Your main character needs a character arc because great stories are about growth and change. Your character has a problem/character flaw. The story puts them in situations where they must confront and deal with their flaw no matter how much they don’t want to. They’re forced to change. Seriously, that’s all there is to a character arc, and it’s the core of a memorable story. Even in a large or ensemble cast, make sure you give some of the characters a complete and interesting growth arc.
Mistake #2 – Too Many Characters
The Avengers was already an ensemble cast, which can be tricky, but in the first movie, they managed to find the balance. They had six star characters (Tony Stark, Captain America, Bruce Banner, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Thor), and they found a way to make us care about each of them. They even found a way to make us care about Phil Coulson, a secondary character. (So much so that his character had to be brought back to life to star in Marvel: Agents of Shield.)
Part of how they managed this was each character had a distinct personality, and they had enough room in the movie to give each of them emotional struggles and a bit of their own plotline and backstory. I won’t go through all of the characters, but I’ll show you a couple more (we talked about Stark and Banner above) and hopefully you’ll see what I mean.
Captain America is the straight-laced, honorable one who was struggling with his place in a world that had changed so much since he’d last been in it. He feels the world is evil and his morals are no longer valued. What he discovers is that there will always be evil to fight, and so there’s still a purpose and a place for him.
Thor is the arrogant “god” from another realm who is hurt by his brother’s continued betrayal and who needs to learn that he’s not as superior to humans as he originally thought.
When we move into Avengers: Age of Ultron, they dumped in Falcon, War Machine, Scarlett Witch, Vision, and Quicksilver. In other words, they almost doubled the key cast. And all those additions weren’t necessary. What was the point of all those characters? They didn’t improve the story.
My husband pointed out that “they’re assuming you’ve watched all the other movies.” But I’ve watched all the movies, and that didn’t make it any better just because I knew who Falcon and War Machine were. I can’t help but wonder if it’s more about trying to make you want to watch the other movies, and doing a crap job of it because they don’t seem to understand that a walk-on cameo by a character won’t make anyone interested enough in them that they run out and buy the other movie to find out more about them.
By adding in so many of them, none of them received the development they should have had. And, as I mentioned above, the development of the original characters suffered as well.
I wasn’t as invested in the characters, and the story felt scattered and shallow.
Too many characters can clutter our stories rather than making them feel populated and real. How many characters do we really need to tell our story? Can we cut a character and give the role they play to someone else? Have we given each of those characters (at least the ones who are supposed to be important) a distinct personality and struggles of their own?
One of the current trends is to write short stories, novellas, or even whole new series about secondary characters in an already popular series. That’s a great idea, but we need to be sure those characters deserve their own stories. Cameo appearances by characters also shouldn’t be added just to “check in” with those characters. If they don’t forward the plot of the current story, they don’t belong in it. (This also ties in to Mistake #4 that I’ll share next post.) This is especially true if we’re bringing in cross-over characters (character who appeared in a separate series and are playing a walk-on role in this one). We can’t assume that all readers will have read the other series as well, and so we need to make sure they can follow each series independently of the others. (Again, more on that later in Mistake #4.)
What do you think? If you think I’m off-base about Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’d love to hear your reasons. If you think I’m right, did you enjoy the movie anyway and will you watch a third one?
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