Things I Learned From… The Avengers

I enjoyed The Avengers a lot more the second time round. Which may account for it’s phenomenal box office takings, I guess! In my case, I think it took me a second viewing to get over my residual dislike of many of the characters – Thor isn’t authentically Viking enough for my liking, Captain America is dull, and Iron Man’s just annoying (though he comes over as much more rounded and empathetic here than he has done previously)…

So, having got over that and appreciated The Avengers for what it is – a superb piece of screenwriting that deftly balances action, exposition and character arcs, and handles the ridiculous number of main characters it’s inherited with aplomb – what can we learn from it?

Hollywood talks about the four quadrant picture: a movie that appeals to the four main audience groups – young men, young women, older men, older women. (And as usual, by ”older”, Hollywood means over twenty-five…)

The Avengers isn’t a four quadrant movie (though for a superhero movie, it’s doing excellent business among female cinemagoers – as much as 40% of the audience).

But what writer-director Joss Whedon and writer Zak Penn do deliver is a kind of ”four quadrants of screenwriting” movie: a film that delivers on the four essentials that really hook an audience, that draw them back for repeat viewings and have them urging their friends to see the movie too. That considered, the box office numbers shouldn’t be a surprise at all.

So what are these ”four quadrants of screenwriting”?

Characters that we care about. You would have thought that was a given, but many tentpole movies assume we’ll empathise with the lead character just because their name’s in the title. Every character in this movie not only gets a moment where they look cool: they get a moment of humour, of sadness, of vulnerability, of human connection. They relate to one another on an individual level, and not always in admirable ways. And above all, they suffer. They endure physical pain, fear, and loss, and then they truly feel the triumph that follows their sacrifices – powerful human experiences that an audience longs to share with them. As I said, I’m not a great fan of many of these characters –  but I felt deeply for every one of them at some point.

A story that fulfils our expectations – but never the way we expect. Cheating your audience is the fastest way to empty seats yet devised. If you promise scares, or action, or deep human drama, then you’d better deliver. If, as in The Avengers, you have pre-existing characters and relationships, signature moves and dialogue styles, you have to fulfil those expectations too.

But delivering exactly what the audience expects produces a so-so movie, a ”meh” story that leaves the audience unimpressed, even if they don’t know why. So Whedon and Penn take care to twist every expectation. We expect an Asgardian to plunge out of the carrier in the escape-proof cell – but it’s not the one we thought. Black Widow goes to Loki to bargain for a friend’s life, but things are not as they seem. We’ve seen Stark don new Iron Man suits before, but never while falling out of a building… All the way down to the ”who would win?” fights between the characters, all the things we were promised are delivered, but there’s always a surprise, a twist, a new experience along with them.

Emotions, and lots of them. Strangely enough, triggering an emotional response in the audience is the thing that tentpole movies are worst at. Admiring the special effects is not an emotion. Even whooping because something big just blew up in 3D isn’t an emotion, not in any meaningful sense.

Emotions are what we really go to the movies to experience, and they’re the things that we’ll remember long after we’ve forgotten the special effects and the story and even the lead actor’s name. Here, Whedon and Penn deliver by the truckload. Anger, fear, humour, pride, jealousy, love and joy, the full range of human experience. And one of the best measures of a great film is how wide a range of emotions it offers the audience. Ask the woman sat behind me who yelled ”No!” when (REDACTED) was stabbed, or the people who roared with laughter when the over-excited Hulk realised the only person left to punch was his own ally –  and punched him anyway…

A theme that’s played out in the characters, not just shoehorned into a line of dialogue. Too many movies think that spouting a trite line about heroism or sacrifice in the final reel makes them meaningful. But whatever your theme is, there’s only one place it can be played out – in the lives, hearts and minds of your characters. They live the moral of your story. They prevaricate and try and fail, and then, changed by their experiences, they finally do what we’ve always wanted them to do and they always feared they couldn’t. Banner chooses to hulk out, and controls his other self; Stark makes the ”sacrifice play” Rogers said he was too immature to make; even Fury defies the Council because he believes in his ragtag team. And it works, dramatically, because we’ve seen those changes brewing within them and longed to see them realised in action.

So, character, plot, emotion and theme – the four quadrants you can maximise while writing your story. You might not make the money The Avengers is making, but if you can send your audience away just as happy, you’ll have have done your job well…