A Lesson in Storytelling from Marvel Movies: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
Anybody in here Marvel fans? Specifically of the ongoing saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe run by Marvel Studios? Yes? Great. Because I’m here to talk a little bit about a small, somewhat under-the-radar film called Avengers: Endgame. I know. You came here for writing advice, but don’t worry, there’ll be some of that, too. Think of this post as a case study on storytelling, with the subject being the obscure, very low-budget movie I just mentioned. Still with me? Awesome. Here we go.
Before we get too deep into this conversation, I’m going to warn against some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame even though, like, it came out all the way back in April, the internet is literally dripping with spoiler-y memes, they’re showing huge spoiler-y clips on TV right now, it’s about to hit digital and blu-ray. I mean, I... I honestly don’t know what to tell you. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, and you have still somehow managed to avoid spoilers, then sure, look away. But also, just watch the movie. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.
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Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk shop. By now you know that I’m joking about how “obscure” and “low-budget” Endgame is. It wasn’t just the biggest movie of the year, or even the last five years—it was the biggest movie of my lifetime. Not only that, but my wife and I happen to be gigantic superfans of the MCU. For one thing, we saw the very first Thor on our second date and have seen all the rest of the movies in the franchise together since. And for another thing, we’re both just really invested in the story and its characters.
So when tickets for Endgame went on sale, you better believe that my wife and I were online at precisely 8 a.m., selected great tickets for a Thursday night preview, watched in horror as the Fandango servers crashed literally as our payment was being processed, watched in even more horror as our transaction went through then was immediately reversed, and then finally, eventually, after waiting in a virtual queue for an hour and a half, settled on great tickets for noon on Friday, the day it was released. In IMAX, of course.
None of this has anything to do with storytelling—I just want you to really understand how invested I am in the MCU and Avengers: Endgame. Because what typically happens when I go see a movie or read a book or watch a TV show, is that I go into it from a storyteller’s mindset. Whenever I read a book, I almost always skip ahead and read the last page before I even get to Chapter Two. Why? Because I want to understand the journey not from a reader’s perspective, but from a writer’s.
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However, going into Endgame, it was one of the very few times that I specifically avoided ruining the ending for myself because I just wanted to enjoy the experience. And since I had seen every single other MCU movie that came before it, I understood (and loved) most of the references that Endgame made to the saga as a whole. Did Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus (the writers who penned the script for Endgame—jealous) sacrifice screen time that could have been used for telling the story of Endgame instead of giving nods to the past ten years’ worth of Marvel Studios films? Sure they did. But I mean, come on. They had three hours. And it was enough. It was plenty. Because one of the things that McFeely and Markus (along with Joe and Anthony Russo, who ultimately shaped the overall behemoth into something palatable) do well is they don’t talk down to their audience. They know that we as viewers are smart enough to put the pieces of the puzzle together (or in some cases, come to our own conclusions) without them having to lay out every minuscule detail for us. They didn’t waste our time reintroducing Captain Marvel because they knew that if you were there to see Endgame, you’d probably seen Captain Marvel and the post-credits scene that tied the two movies together.
These are lessons that I learn every time I dive into a new story, and they’re lessons that you can learn, too, if you’re a writer. In this case, the lesson is to not sweat the small stuff. Are there trolls online who picked apart Endgame and whined about some of its various plot-holes? Of course. There always are. Even for movies that aren’t the cinematic event of the last decade. But honestly, why does it matter that we didn’t see Captain America return to the main timeline the same way he left? I’ll tell you why. Because it wouldn’t have been good storytelling.
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Telling a story that leaves a mark on people isn’t always about meticulous plotting and connecting every last little dot so that it looks neat and polished and perfect. Good storytelling is about switching off that part of your brain and letting your emotions take the wheel for a while. It means taking what we know about a character—how they act, what their history looks like, who they are as a person—and using that to drive the story instead of making sure that we include a snippet of boring exposition just so we know that we covered all our bases. The story doesn’t have to make perfect sense. It just has to move us in ways that we weren’t expecting. We didn’t have to see the part where Doctor Strange decides to rally all the troops and come to Cap’s aid. The part that had me and my wife and an entire theater of strangers cheering at the top of our lungs was watching all those portals open up and seeing characters that we know and love emerge onto the battlefield, having returned from their dusted fate. Was the universe ultimately saved because a rat accidentally switched on a machine built inside of a van that was sitting in a storage locker for five years? Hell yeah it was. It doesn’t always matter how we get there. What matters is that we get there.
I had a bucket of popcorn sitting in my lap during the entirety of Endgame, and the butter leaked through the bottom of it. So when I came out of the theater, my clothes were covered in grease, my eyes were red from crying, my whole body hurt, I had to pee like a race horse. I was a wreck. But I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was thinking about that story and all of the amazing moments that some people like to refer to as fan service or pandering or whatever. Moments that took my breath away not only because they were woven from the same fabric that had helped create more than twenty other movies before this one, but because they worked, they felt right. Putting those scenes in that film didn’t have anything to do with worrying over the mechanics of the story. It was instinctual. Emotional.
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An argument can of course be made for the fact that it’s easier to do this kind of thing in movies or TV. If you’re, say, writing a YA novel, you don’t have the luxury of a good actor making a single facial expression and the audience understanding exactly what it means. A picture is worth a thousand words, yada, yada, yada. I know one of my personal crutches as a writer is that I have to constantly remind myself about ongoing aspects of the story, pieces of information that are integral to the world I’m building. As a result, my readers end up getting reminded about them, too, which isn’t always great. Slipping in what might feel like a cool detail just to reassert a fact that you mentioned twenty pages earlier (and twenty pages before that, and twenty pages before that, and way back in Book One) can start to feel clunky. If your readers are paying attention (and they probably are) then they’ll know what’s going on. They don’t need you to hold their hand.
Which is exactly what the creators of Avengers: Endgame understood about their audience going into the movie. It’s part of the reason why they only showed us the tiniest snippets of footage in the trailers before it was released—audiences are, for the most part, full of intelligent, empathetic, and imaginative people. As writers, we don’t have to continually serve up every piece of information on a silver platter. Our readers can get up from time to time and peruse the buffet, serve themselves.
I’ll say it one more time: Don’t sweat the small stuff. We know that Thanos somehow found a way to reverse-engineer the Pym Particles that he stole from future-Nebula so that he could get his ship, and therefore his entire army, through the Quantum Realm (god, I pity the person reading this who has never seen an MCU movie). We didn’t need the writers or the directors or whoever to tell us that’s what happened. In one scene, with only a couple of lines of dialogue, all of that information was insinuated by past-Nebula handing over the vial of particles to her father. And we definitely didn’t need a whole scene where Thanos and Maw yammer on menacingly about the science of the particles and how to use them to get to the future. That would have been boring, and most importantly, it would have been bad storytelling. The writers would have been talking down to us as an audience, it would have pulled us out of the avalanche of the movie, out of the moment.
So when you hear someone on the internet complaining about something, like Why didn’t they just do this? or Why didn’t they explain that? you hopefully are now equipped with the answer: Good storytelling. Emotional storytelling that gives the finger to the so-called rules and gives us exactly what we want to see, or read, even if it means creating more questions than answering them. It’s what I strive for in my own writing. Maybe now you will, too. Thanks for reading!
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