As I’m sure you know, there’s a whole species of TV drama known as “precinct drama”. These series follow a group of characters who work in a specific place – typically a police station or a hospital, because, as wiser people than I have observed, stories walk right in the door of those locations, rather than having to be sought out.
The “precinct” provides a location that can be reused from week to week, cutting down on location and set-building costs, and also provides a rationale for the characters to spend time together – they all work here. And by focusing on the workplace as a whole, rather than a specific family/person/ job title, changes in cast can be managed without destroying the tone or the integrity of the series.
But what a lot of writers don’t seem to appreciate is how much a recurring location can add to a feature script.
For a start, there’s still that whole issue of time and money. If you can set those five scenes between your hero and love interest in the same local diner, rather than five different meeting places, you just saved the expense of four locations, and the time it would have take to move the whole unit four times. Your location manager loves you!
Then there’s the relaxing effect on the audience. Each time you show the audience a new location, that’s something else for them to take in. And any time they’re thinking “where are we?” or “is this the bar she was in before, or a different bar?”, they aren’t concentrating on your story. Take them back somewhere they know, they relax a little. Indeed, recurring locations are great for exposition. If you have something really important or complex to get across, doing so in a familiar location gives the audience one less thing to take in.
But reusing significant locations has thematic benefits too. Let’s take a look at the two recurring locations in The Avengers, and see what they’re adding to the plot…
First recurring location: Stark Tower, which appears three times in the movie. The first time we see it, it’s a scene of domestic bliss (of a sort), interrupted by Coulson arriving to ask for help finding Loki.
Note: Tony Stark is the only Avenger who’s seen to be attached to a physical location. Thor comes from another dimension: Banner is a fugitive (and we don’t see his home in Calcutta, only places he’s giving medical help). Rogers has an apartment we never see, but he’s adrift in time, doesn’t belong anywhere in modern society. Barton and Romanov are out doing their jobs, presumably living out of suitcases. No one has a “home” in the full sense of the word –
Apart from Stark, whose home is so ‘his’ that his name is on the front in lights. We even see him playfully arguing with Pepper about whose name should be on the lease and how much credit she should take for it. The message is clear: This Space Is Mine.
Next, the action moves to the second recurring location: the Shield helicarrier. What does that symbolize for the story? Well, it’s a place where these wandering, homeless characters can come together. It has a lab, and weapons, and space for everyone’s armour and costumes and scientific specialities. In any other version of this story, this would be the team’s “precinct”.
But this is The Avengers according to Joss Whedon (and Zak Penn, of course), and for him, the military-industrial complex is never going to be a fitting home for these characters. They don’t quite feel comfortable here. There’s a wonderful lab for Banner, but there’s also an inescapable cage. There are locked doors hiding secrets, and computer files full of weapons of mass destruction. When the helicarrier comes under attack, it proves to be woefully vulnerable, and elements of it (the cage that traps Thor, the fact that The Hulk is on an aircraft with nowhere to run) are as much a danger to the occupants as any enemy action.
The helicarrier, for all it’s initial promise, is not the home these characters are seeking. It stands for the wrong things. It’s a trap, a physical and ethical danger to them – and some of them are a danger to it.
So we’re into Act Three, and it’s time for our second visit to Stark Tower, which has literally been invaded by the forces of evil. The Tesseract is on the roof, opening the portal – the safety of “home” is under attack from an entire other dimension! – and Loki has taken possession of the penthouse (Stark’s personal space) and external platforms (associated with the Iron Man suit), which soon become a battleground.
In order to win it back, Stark has to walk defenceless into what should be his own territory and face his adversary (answering Rogers’ earlier question, “Take off the suit, and what are you?” in the process). He doesn’t succeed initially. Rather than defending his home, he has to go fight the wider battle before being able to repossess what’s his. Indeed, he won’t fully win back his personal space without the help of the rest of the team.
Third time – and we all know about the magic power of showing things or saying things three times, don’t we? – is at the very end of the movie. The Tower is largely wrecked, but Stark and Pepper are planning to rebuild. And what’s the only letter left in the name on the outside of the tower? A, for Avengers. What was Stark’s private property has now become, at least symbolically, a home for the whole team.
All that thematic resonance, just from a choice of locations!