May 29, 2012

The Avengers

The Avengers is why Disney bought Marvel and paid them so much money. It’s all about the character bank. In a worldwide market, companies put a premium on branding, which is selling an already recognizable product, and transmedia, which is telling the same story through many media forms. If you own a large bank of appealing, recognizable and repeatable characters, you rule the storytelling world.

But the characters in your bank can’t just be distinctive and memorable. Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire won’t help you here. They have to be characters who can go on many adventures, which is why they almost always come from the myth and action genres, and they are heroes, superheroes and gods.

Marvel has made a number of hugely popular films focusing on a single superhero, like Thor, Spider-Man and Iron Man. But The Avengers takes this genre to a whole new level, because it’s all about the lure of the All-stars, the Dream Team.

The all-star story is as old as myth itself. The Greek gods on Mt. Olympus and the Norse gods in Asgard are each communities of the best in their field. In more recent story forms like the caper film (Ocean’s Eleven) and the suicide mission story (The Dirty Dozen), the pleasure comes from watching a bunch of highly talented individuals come together as a team to accomplish an apparently impossible goal.

Few writers get an assignment like The Avengers, but you can create your own all-star story, and start a wildly successful character bank of your own. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as writer-director Joss Whedon makes it appear. Using The Avengers as our guide, let’s explore some of the challenges of the all-star story.

Just because these are superheroes or gods doesn’t mean you don’t have to establish a strong weakness-need for them at the beginning of the story. One of the strengths of the Marvel characters has always been that they run counter to the old conventional wisdom that superheroes are all good. In a great story, regardless of genre, the plot always plays out the character’s internal flaw.

Marvel characters have loads of flaws. For example, the Hulk has a real problem with rage, Thor is arrogant, and Iron Man’s Tony Stark is a raving narcissist.

All well and good. But with all-star stories you face an additional challenge in this area. You have to establish the weakness-need for a lot of major characters, and you have to do so in a relatively short period of time, without delaying the plot. This challenge is what hurt the Watchmen film. It took so long to establish the ghost and weakness-need of each of the major characters that the story died before it ever got going.

Whedon’s smart solution to this character challenge is to use two story techniques at once. The first technique, which Whedon brought over from his experience as a television writer, is to generate the primary conflict among the heroes. In the middle of the film, the heroes have gathered together but are not yet a team. Some of the Avengers imprison the main opponent, Loki, in their huge mothership. Loki doesn’t seem to put up much of a fuss about this, and that’s because he is planning to defeat the Avengers by getting them to fight amongst themselves.

Conflict among the heroes is more dramatic because we care more about our heroes than some super-villain. In TV you always want to generate most of your conflict among the leads, not between the leads and an outside opponent new to that episode.

This internal conflict also delays the unification of the heroes into a Dream Team. That’s another huge advantage because, when they do unite, during the final battle, it is under the greatest possible jeopardy.

And how do our heroes fight each other? They attack each other’s ghost and weakness, ultimately destroying their own ship in the process. So we get a plot beat – attack by the opponent – along with quick character sketch of each hero’s flaw. It’s all interesting to the audience because it’s expressed through conflict, not as boring exposition.

Notice the dissension also sets up the basic character change in the story, which is from troubled individuals to a perfect team. That moment of character change, when the heroes form a ring to fight as one against the alien forces, is the sweetest emotional moment of the film.

Here’s another tough story challenge. If you are going to have a team of all-star heroes, you have to come up with an equally strong opposition to match them. That’s hard, given that your heroes together must surely be the most powerful force in the universe. So your tendency is to create a team of all-star opponents, the Nightmare Team. But now you face story chaos, because you have to service so many heroes and opponents.

Again Whedon’s solution is instructive. The Dream Team element meant he wouldn’t try to come up with a single opponent, like The Joker, who would attack the heroes morally, questioning the very concept of the savior, or superhero. But he also didn’t go for the single opponent who would try to match the heroes’ physical abilities. Other than his apparent imperviousness to pain, Loki has no special superpower. Instead, he is the master schemer, a god whose distinguishing quality is his brain. He is potentially stronger than all the all-stars combined, because he can outsmart them. He can use his knowledge of the special weakness of each superhero to defeat the entire team.

The Avengers is an action-myth story, so we need a big physical battle. To take on the opponent’s role of physical action and fighting, Whedon brings in alien forces that not only have super powers, they attack by the thousands. Loki and the aliens form a nice combination of brains and brawn that can seriously challenge the Dream Team.

The Avengers shows us once again that the all-star story is one of the most popular in storytelling history. But it’s harder than it looks. If you remember to start by identifying the form’s unique story challenges, you will be halfway home.