Almost all of my “10 Lessons You Can Learn From” posts have dealt with classic, or at the very least, well-respected films. I’m not sure I’d put The Avengers on that list. It was a fun movie. But like a lot of summer movies, it was meant to be viewed once on a Saturday night with a theater full of teenagers. I don’t believe it’s meant to go toe-to-toe with any “respected” film. Having said that, I’m always breaking down films that are critically loved, with the film’s commercial success being secondary. As a commenter brought up the other day, “Why are you always knocking Transformers? It made a billion dollars worldwide. People saw it and enjoyed it.” It’s hard for me to quantify that statement. Yeah, people are going to see the movie, but they’re all 14 years old. I don’t know anyone over the age of 23 who actually enjoyed Transformers. But the commenter was right about one thing. SOMEONE is going to see these movies and enjoying them. So almost as a challenge, I thought it would be fun to look at the highest grossing movie of 2012 (by almost 200 million dollars) and see if we couldn’t extract 10 screenwriting tips from it – maybe figure out some screenwriting tips for the summer blockbuster writer. Here we go!
1) What’s your problem? – In most big budget movies, you want to introduce the problem in your story right away. Once you have a problem, you can begin introducing characters who are going to solve that problem. So here, that problem is the Tesseract. It opens up. Loki (the villain) comes through it. Now we got a problem.
2) Set-pieces are driven by URGENCY – Whenever you write a big action set-piece, you have to incorporate urgency in some way – preferably via a ticking time bomb. So here, after Loki arrives, the Tesseract’s lack of stability causes the building to start imploding, giving them only 2 minutes to get out. This makes the impending chase of Loki even more intense, as they must also escape the area before they’re destroyed along with it.
3) Refocus your script after set-pieces – Set pieces are fun and wild and crazy. But a mistake I find a lot of amateur writers making is that AFTER their set-piece, they don’t re-orient the reader. Remember, we were just in action mode. Enjoying explosions. Enjoying super-heroes fighting. Now that that’s over, we need to be re-briefed on our character goals. So immediately after that first set-piece in Avengers, Nick Fury gets on the phone and says, “The Tesseract’s been stolen by a hostile force. Everybody we know, I want them after it.” The goal has been established. We now know what we’re doing. This may SEEM obvious, but rarely do I see the new writer do it. They often assume you know what the goal is or, in drastic cases, don’t establish a goal at all.
4) Don’t get bogged down in exposition – You should always try to limit your exposition. That’s because exposition is boring. No matter how you dress it up, we’ll be bored by it. If there’s one major fault in The Avengers, it’s that once we get to the airship, we get about six or seven scenes of exposition and discussion. The film slows to a crawl as a result. Remember that your primary focus in any screenplay is to keep the story moving. Don’t get bogged down in exposition. One – or in drastic cases a maximum of two – scenes is enough.
5) Capture your villain – It’s hard to maintain a single unchanged plotline for an entire screenplay. If something’s unchanged for that long, there’s a good chance we’ll get bored with it. To keep things fresh, you want to “interrupt” that plotline with something unexpected. A perfect example is here with Loki. The plot COULD HAVE HAD the Avengers trying to find and destroy Loki the entire time. But Whedon switches things up by having us actually CAPTURE Loki, which adds a fresh new dynamic to the story. In general, you’re always looking to keep things fresh in your scripts, so you want to make unexpected choices whenever possible.
6) Once again, the best dialogue often results from conflict – Some of the best dialogue in Avengers is when Stark is battling it out with Captain America. Why? Because they’re on completely opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Stark is carefree and does whatever he wants. Captain America is uptight and follows orders. If you put any characters like that in a room together, the dialogue’s probably going to be good, so it’s not surprising it works here. Contrast this with the dialogue between Banner and Stark, who both respect each other. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as alive and fun as when Stark and Captain America talk.
7) If two characters don’t get along or don’t like each other, put them around each other a lot! – This is an extension of the last tip, and an important one. If you have two characters who don’t like each other, keep them around each other as much as possible. Make them work together! Note that when the airship loses an engine, Whedon doesn’t have Stark and Banner work on it together (they like each other!). He has Stark and Captain America work on it together.
8) Fights and battles must have high stakes or we won’t care – A lot of people complained that the Thor Iron Man fight in the forest was pointless, just an excuse to have Iron Man fight Thor. To a certain extent this was true. I mean, Thor did want to take Loki back to be tried on his planet and Iron Man refused to allow that unless Loki gave them the Tesseract. So there was SOME motivation to the fight. But let’s face it. It was weak. We didn’t really feel the stakes of the fight. So it was nice eye candy, but left us feeling empty. To fix this, always keep the stakes high in every fight/battle. In The Matrix, when Neo fights Smith in the subway, we know that if Smith kills him, the world is doomed. Neo is THE ONE, the only hope mankind has. So the impact of that fight hits us much harder and we’re therefore way more invested.
9) Set-pieces are about BUILDING – You don’t want to throw the kitchen sink at your characters right away during a set-piece. You want to slowly build it up. The set piece should feel like things are getting worse and worse for your heroes at every turn. So in that final battle in Avengers, where the portal opens up and the aliens arrive, first the small guys on speeders show up. When they’re handled, the big worm thing shows up. When they defeat that, MULTIPLE worms show up. There’s something about struggling to defeat something only to see it get much worse that really pulls an audience in.
10) Yup, even big summer movies (minus Transformers) have character arcs – Not everyone has to arc, but a couple of your characters should. Here, Stark needs to learn to buy into the team as opposed to only care about himself. Bruce Banner must learn to embrace his dark side instead of focusing his entire life on avoiding it. When these characters learn to overcome these issues, that’s how the Avengers win in the end.
These are 10 tips from the movie “The Avengers.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!