The Avengers: Efficiency in Exposition
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we discuss The Avengers, and how the film is designed to catch you up in case you missed the last five movies.
A note before we begin: In the past couple of years, and particularly the past few months, several actors and writers have come forward to discuss the horrible behavior of writer/director Joss Whedon, the lead creative force behind The Avengers. We'll discuss it more next week, but in broad strokes, I spent a lot of my life admiring Joss Whedon's writing, and it's disappointing to find out how terrible he is as a human. But the purpose of these articles, and so much of what I do with my platform, is to try to demystify what makes art impressive, and try to figure out why it works and how we can replicate it.
So I hope that my articles about this film and its sequel will help show what Whedon could do well in his writing, to help aspiring writers like myself learn these same tricks... and that way, people can stop hiring Joss Whedon. Because he's a bad dude, and if his last few films are any reflection, his writing seems to be getting worse.
Anyway, let's figure out what makes The Avengers work, and how it was able to launch the MCU to its ultimate success.
The beginning of The Avengers is definitely not as bombastic and exciting as the ending, but when we watch it as writers, we should be able to see a ruthless efficiency at play. It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when the folks making Marvel films didn't assume you'd seen all the other films in the series. So this film has to catch up the audience who may not have seen the previous five films, while also not boring the audience members who have seen them. No small feat.
So, let's break down the first act to this film and see how they do it.
After a quick clip of exposition spoken by an alien warlord, we open on a high-tech S.H.I.E.L.D. research base, staffed by bad-ass spies, led by Nick Fury, who is obviously a bad-ass because he has a trench coat and an eye patch and is played by Samuel L. Jackson. But the first face we see is Agent Coulson's, and that's important. We automatically want to like him, not just because he's cool under pressure, but because humans want to make connections with other human faces. And we need to make a connection with Coulson throughout the first two acts of the film, because his death is pivotal to the push into Act 3.
Fury meets Dr. Selvig and Hawkeye, and then a portal opens up and Loki arrives and kills a bunch of soldiers. Loki's introduction also comes with a great speech about his insane philosophy that humans need to be ruled (not the last one he'll give), and then he kidnaps two of our leads and escapes while the base explodes. This sequence establishes that Loki is more powerful than S.H.I.E.L.D., and creates a situation where Fury would be forced to take the drastic measures he does.
We meet Black Widow as she's being interrogated, and we discover she's actually doing a reverse-interrogation. This is valuable set-up, because Black Widow plays this same trick on Loki halfway through the film, so we need to see how she does what she does. Then she beats up some Russian thugs, so we know she can fight.
Next we jump to India, so Black Widow can recruit Bruce Banner. We learn that he's dangerous when he's angry, but he's actually got far more control than we expected. He pretends to lose his cool so he can test Black Widow and see how she'll react, and gets her to prove that she was lying about having back-up. He gets her to drop her veneer of pleasantries, and establishes that she - and S.H.I.E.L.D. - do not trust Bruce, and probably aren't to be trusted. We'll find out later in the film that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a lot of secrets, so this scene helps establish that they are likely to do some lying.
Then we get Captain America's intro, and because his backstory is a bit more complex than Hulk's, we need to do an actual flashback to the last movie, while throwing in a quick shot of him getting defrosted. Sometimes, the only way to quickly convey something is by re-using an earlier scene; it's not pretty but it gets the job done. Fury and he talk about the state of the world, and this scene establishes that Cap isn't naive; he may not be up on the times, but he understands war and he understands missions.
We meet Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, and here's where we get a lot more of Coulson, but we also get a great establishing sequence for Stark Tower, which we need in preparation for the final fight. We also have the MCU's fourth introduction of Tony Stark in a film, so they know by now just how to quickly communicate his characterization to a new audience. Plus, his films were overwhelmingly successful, so they're banking on the fact that he's likely the character that the audience is most familiar with.
At this point, they start bringing characters together, and after a delightful exchange between Cap and Coulson (where we establish the running joke that Cap doesn't know pop culture references, and Coulson becomes more endearing when we discover he's a Captain America fanboy), Cap meets Bruce and Black Widow. Mark Ruffalo does a fantastic job communicating how uncomfortable Bruce is around soldiers and spies, but Cap puts him at ease by communicating that he doesn't consider Bruce a liability or a danger; he considers him an ally. This hopefully makes us like Cap, but it also establishes how different his character is from Tony Stark, who will spend half of Act 2 provoking Bruce to transform.
Then the helicarrier rises into the air, and again we get a tour of the space where we'll spend so much of the film, and where a pivotal action scene will take place. And again, we see how S.H.I.E.L.D. works, and we see how good they are at their jobs... which should help indicate how worried they are about Loki, if they need such unpredictable individuals like Bruce and Tony.
Now that the plot has begun, we have done most of the major establishing information about the previous films. There will be more references later on, mostly to the Thor film because Thor is introduced much later in the story. These references come in quick lines, like Loki insisting he "is a king," Thor discussing how he grieved for Loki, and Loki making a reference to his true parentage and his beef with Thor.
But Thor arriving so late and having much less prior exposition around him actually helps serve a story function it makes him feel the most like an outsider. This is vital, because Thor should feel really weird and alien compared to the other Avengers... but he's not actually that much weirder than a billionaire with a flying metal suit, a nerd who becomes a giant rage monster, a super-soldier from the 40s, a spy with a bow and arrow, or a vaguely-Russian spy who fights almost exclusively with that flipping scissor-leg move. But by introducing him late in the story, he seems more bizarre, which is useful for the story.
Plus, by the time Thor has arrived, Tony is with the group and able to offer funny commentary on Thor's behavior and appearance. And sometimes that sort of humor is more valuable than any exposition, because it tells the audience, "Yeah, we know this is kind of ridiculous. It's supposed to be. Tony's saying what you're thinking. Boy, this sure is wild, huh? Anyway, on with the movie."
Your story may not be a sequel to five different films with four different lead characters, but you might have some exposition to get out. Despite how everyone always says "Show don't tell," sometimes we have no choice but to tell. And when that happens, we can learn a lot from how efficiently The Avengers get to the point of each establishing scene, and how they get a lot of exposition to the audience as quickly as possible.