If you've been with me for a while now, it's no secret that I'm a proud dork. Movies, video games, comic books, TV, cartoons ... you name it, I've probably flailed about it for a couple of months at some point. But there's one common thread running through them all, which I believe accounts for the success of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) films over the last nine years: they all tell a damn good story. I'd like to illustrate this point by comparing the first of them with the most recent. If you'll kindly indulge me, there are some great writing and plotting lessons to be had amidst all the explosions and - yes - spandex.
Exhibit A: Iron Man (2008)
I shouldn't have to worry about spoiling anyone for this one, but the gist? Super-smarmy, self-important, booze-soaked billionaire Tony Stark gets a serious reality check when he's kidnapped by terrorists and has to invent, engineer, and snark his way out to freedom. Once he's out, he realizes he's got to fix the mess he started, and thus, we get Iron Man. That, alone, sounds like a pretty good story, right? It gets better. The writers (it took four of them) add in little subtle layers to raise Tony's stakes even higher. He's got family issues in his past, which seem a little obligatory, but provide great hooks for his later development. He's got a romantic arc which, to my great delight, didn't actually resolve itself by the end of the first movie... or even the second, or third, or ... you get the point.
But the best thing about Tony's story isn't necessarily his "jerk-to-good-guy" redemption: it's the growth he has to undertake to get there. He doesn't just lose his creature comforts. He's reminded of some hard truths, he loses, he fumbles, he falters. People around him fail to understand what's going on in his head, because they weren't there for these things: they just see sudden change, and react with frustration and bewilderment, which makes it just that little bit harder for him to maintain The New Tony Stark. Why does this make a better story than the "bad things happened, now it's time for REVENGE" tale it could have easily been? I have a one-word answer for you: empathy.
Everyone knows what it's like to go through personal changes and not be "heard", to be understood or completely validated. Everyone has multiple stakes in their lives, and everyone has issues which can't be resolved within a two-hour or two-hundred-page storyline. The key to a great story, for me, is the growth. It's not just about how much they lose (I'm looking at YOU, George R. R. Martin), but how much they gain back, and how. It's about shedding any previous conceptions about the world that may have been keeping them from moving forward. Enter Exhibit B.
Exhibit B: Spider-man: Homecoming (2017)
This is, refreshingly, not a third take on "oh no, my Uncle Ben died, with great power comes great responsibility, and now I have to save my girlfriend from a villain who I thought was a mentor". Marvel does themselves a favor by skipping the bits that we, the audience, already know, and dropping us into the thick of something new. Peter Parker knows he's got these awesome powers, and he's pretty high on them. He caught Tony Stark's attention - he feels like the king of the world. He knows he can help, he can make a difference, and he's very eager to do so. He reclaims a bike without even knowing who it's been stolen from. He helps old ladies cross the street. His heroism is both big and small ... but it's the big stuff that gets him in trouble when he gets in over his head. Despite his great intentions and his giant squishy heart, Peter's Achilles' heel is the same as Tony's - his ego - and because of that, we're cringing for him from day one, because we can sense where this is going to go. Downhill.
Downhill it does, in spectacular fashion: not once, not twice, but three times, and by the end of it, you really just want to see the kid figure it out and triumph, because by this point, he really deserves it. Again: empathy.
So, what can a writer learn from these movies? SO much, but I'll give you the biggest bullet points:
I hope you enjoyed this little foray into fandom as a teaching moment ... If you have any movies, shows, or other media which have taught you about story structure, drop me a line in the comments: I'd love to start a discussion on this! Please join me back here next week, when I'm going to take a brief detour into crafts and DIY to show you a great writing tool.
Until next week, be yourself, create something good, and have FUN!
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