What Marvel Taught Me About Writing, Part Two

Attention readers!

If you have not read Part One of this series, do so by clicking here. This post will make very little sense until you do.

If you have read aforementioned post… good work. I’ll shut up and let you read this one now. 

If the intended audience would want it bleeped out, don’t write it.

And all the movie reviewers immediately subtracted five points. (image credit)

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I wince every time I hear a profanity and squirm every time an… er, steamy scene comes on. That sort of content is expected in films made for adults, and I can accept that fact. But do those elements have a place in family adventure movies? Come, now.

Of course, this problem isn’t specific to Marvel movies, but Marvel certainly does a fine job of  squeezing non-family-friendly stuff into allegedly family-friendly films. I can recall my dad muting at least one whole scene with Nick Fury in The Avengers thanks to swearing. I winced multiple times at the violence in even the mildest of the series, Thor. From what I’ve read, certain you-know-what scenes in Iron Man would have made it unacceptable even for adults sixty years ago. Deadpool was the culmination of this pattern, earning the first R-rating ever for a Marvel cinematic film. So much for family-friendly, Disney.

The result is that a lot of kids don’t get to watch these films. I know that most of my siblings don’t, and I can point to many other families who hold to the same standards as us. Let me tell you, Marvel loses a good percentage of its intended audience every time it chooses to write in a swear word, and so will you. Know your audience, fellow writers, and respect their values.

Don’t stress over the outline; go where the story takes you. 

Honestly, this would be a great ending shot for any movie. (image credit)

Marvel is so dedicated to the Big Outline that it’s not even funny. By sticking to that outline, they have deprived fans of some really great movies. Including a certain movie called “God of Mischief”…. but again, that’s for another time.

Take the example of Captain America: The First Avenger. That was a credible, enjoyable story with round characters and a clear message- even for me. I could get over the fact that Steve was using steroids (come on, he’s Steve), and I could even tune out for the four minutes of USO girls and annoying parade music. In fact, when Steve crashed that plane into the ice, my cold INTJ’s heart felt the tiniest twinge of grief. You know that shot near the end of the movie with the little boy holding Captain America’s shield? That would have been such a perfect way to end the story.

And then they blew it with that last scene. Steve wakes up in a hospital in modern-day New York. He didn’t die after all- but the movie did. The message’s power rested in the fact that Steve died protecting the people he cared about. To turn around and say “Oh, but Steve didn’t actually die” is to take away that power. Sure, he gave his all for his country, but he turned out to be just another invincible superhero who did another superhero thing. His story no longer makes a difference in the real world.

The writer would never have ended the movie in such an awkward, crushing way if Captain America had been a standalone movie, but he had to keep with Marvel’s all-powerful outline. Lesson learned: don’t be a slave to your outline. Branch out and take a few risks with writing. As Pixar says, “Story is testing, not refining.”

So perhaps Marvel’s escapist films earn a lot more money at the box office than slower, more thoughtful films like Les Miserables. As my dad says, Marvel offers “leave-your-brain-at-the-door humor,” and sometimes people just want to laugh and give their brains a break. But that doesn’t mean the storytelling is of higher quality. In fact, the underlying problems in the movies can be downright frustrating.

By all means, go and watch a Marvel movie- preferably a PG-13 one. The acting is usually excellent, some of the jokes are downright funny, and I won’t deny that a few of the movies teach good lessons. However, when you watch these or any other movies, try to learn something. Think about what is going into your head! Otherwise, you become content with leaving your brain at the door, and none of us should do that. Very dangerous.

What’s your take on Marvel movies? Whether you love them or hate them or couldn’t care less, I want to hear what you have learned from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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What Marvel Taught Me About Writing, Part One

I haven’t made any secret of the fact that, basically, I don’t like Marvel movies.

Don’t get me wrong. Superhero stories are a wonderful subgenre, just like every other kind of story (except perhaps vampire romances… but that’s a post for another time). If well-done, a superhero movie can be pretty darn awesome. Take Batman Begins, for example; I loved that film. It completely changed my perspective on superhero movies.

The thing is, most Marvel movies aren’t well-done. Be honest with yourself; would Shakespeare look at The Avengers and applaud? No. No, he wouldn’t, and you know it. Fortunately, I think I have figured out the reasons (yes, plural “reasons”) why this particular series is a flop. And, cynical optimist that I am, I have turned it into a list of lessons to be learned for writers that I will share over the next two weeks. You’re welcome.

And yes, I will absolutely spoil the movies for you. Sorry I’m not sorry.

You can recycle an old plot, but you should at least tell a new story.
Still of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in The Avengers (2012)

“Tony, do you ever feel like you’re suffering from severe deja vu?” (image credit)

Paul Assay comments in his review of Thor: The Dark World, “Marvel movies are as reliable as a six-pack of Coke: Every can tastes the same.” I couldn’t have said it better than that. Yes, I understand that we have a limited number of plots, but we have unlimited stories to tell, countless lessons to teach. You’d think that in eight years, Marvel would have come up with a new message to teach its huge fan-base.

Yet pick any Marvel movie at random and see how well it fits my description: Hero has problems, hero encounters bad guy, hero’s friend “dies” (but not really), and hero sacrifices himself and overcomes insurmountable obstacles to defeat bad guy. Moral of the story: a hero is someone who does good heroic things and beats bad guys.

How did I do?

Look, even when you are rewriting an old plot, if you want to write to be distinguished from all the other twaddle out there, you need to tell a new story. Have a character learn something new about heroism or strength, and your story will be all the better for it.

If nothing else, take the time to write a solid story and characters.

“That’s my secret, Loki. I’m always angsty.” (image credit)

If you’ve read this blog for some time, you know something about my conflicted feelings for the movie Thor. The storytelling drives me crazy. Leaving all the terrible acting and dialogue aside, the story just didn’t work, and for that we can blame the characterization.

Let’s start with Thor. All he ever does is whine, smile obnoxiously, or walk around without a shirt on, and I for one do not find any of those things attractive. Even within the context of the story he is a vain, greedy, cruel boy. And we are supposed to care?

Jane. She was supposed to be the Strong Female Character who changes Thor’s character for the better. How, by getting him a cup of coffee and then watching the stars with him? As cute as that sounds, it won’t teach the arrogant Jotun-slayer about the value of humility. 

Ah, but it doesn’t stop there. As for Odin… seriously, what kind of person tells their son that he’s a failure- while the son is hanging off a bridge?? Then he throws a big party after he thinks Loki is dead.

What about Loki, though? Most people agree that Loki would have made a better protagonist than Thor. I agree. Yet Loki has his own character problems. Despite being promoted on several posters as “the god of mischief,” he doesn’t really work much mischief in this movie. Thor does that very well on his own. (I tell you, their roles should have been reversed! Confounded comic books.) As popular as Loki is with fans, he doesn’t even live up to his label.

The most disappointing thing is that Thor did have a chance to be a genuinely good movie with poignant lessons about kingship, sacrificial love, and family values, but the lack of characterization ruined that chance. Don’t let the same thing happen to you. Get to know your characters.

Ah, there’s more… but that will have to wait another week. Check back next week for Part Two!

What do you think so far? Am I right, or do you disagree with me on any of these problems?