Writing Excuses 8.21: What the Avengers did Right

We here at Writing Excuses enjoyed Marvel’s The Avengers. This isn’t a movie review, though. This is a discussion of what the movie did right from a writer’s standpoint. The things we focus on?

  • Dialog and character voice
  • Balanced handling of an ensemble of main characters
  • Scenes that serve more than one function
  • Pacing

Obviously there will be some spoilers here. The film is available for rental now, so you might consider watching it again with this podcast and these points in mind. And generally speaking, it’s a good exercise for writers to look at movies (or books, or comics, or whatever) that they enjoy, and then attempt to identify the reasons those things were enjoyable.


Take an ensemble cast, and have them fighting each other as a prelude to fighting what needs to be fought. Alternatively? “Hulk smash.”

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, narrated by David Colacci

24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.21: What the Avengers did Right”

  1. While I haven’t listened to this one yet, I’d enjoy it if you guys would do one of these types of podcasts on Wreck-It Ralph, since I think that one used the Hero’s Journey and I’d enjoy seeing you guys analyze it.

  2. I find it highly amusing that I watched The Avengers the night before this podcast. Excellent points all, especially about Action Movie Fatigue. The third Transformers movie doesn’t work for me because half of it is this continuous action scene that becomes horrendously boring by the end. Well, that’s one reason it doesn’t work, the other being Shia Lebouf.

  3. I disagree about Tony Stark’s character arc being forced. I saw it at natural dealing with Tony’s feeling about Yensid sacrifice back in Iron Man 1. Tony wanted Yensid to stick to the plan which in Tony’s mind is him cutting the metaphorical wire fence for both of them to get out. But Yensid realising they didn’t have time so he jumps on the wire to save Stark’s life. Stark never got over that, so Phil’s death triggered the same helpless feelings to Tony about losing someone he cared about through what his pragmatic minds sees as a waste of life. Plus Tony’s character arc is also him learning to fight in a team and not be a lone wolf, so Tony’s arc a mix of learning to take one for the team and become a team player.

  4. Thanks for doing this one. I really liked how Avengers handled their huge cast, all consisting of characters who where the heroes in their own movies. Not only that, but these characters also have a life time of comics and fans attached to them, so I think the movie handled making it it’s own movie, while still making long time fans happy. That can’t be easy to do.

    Oh, and I TOTALLY second the ‘Wreck- it Ralph’ idea. My husband and I watched that thing three times in theaters. We of course decided just to buy it when it came out since we had practically paid for it by then anyways. Like Major said, I think they handle the hero’s journey well, but also creating unique, enjoyable characters that both children and adults could appreciate. And I thought the plot was tight and the foreshadowing very well done.

  5. First, the praise: I really enjoyed this talk and found much of it helpful and on point. Particular high points for me were the discussion of the multi-motivated scenes (Coulson stands in for fan viewers; we get to see Captain America’s uncomfortableness with that position; and the Captain America cards get set-up).

    Now, my questions/issues: Since this movie is a continuation of the multi-movie franchises, do you think this movie is particularly helpful to those writers working on series? After all, they don’t really need to introduced these characters again, but just quickly nod towards them, as with Black Widow telling Captain America that Thor is a god. But if you’re introducing characters for the first time, especially with complex magical/reality issues going on, you might have to work that in elsewhere.

    Also, I’m not entirely sure what some of the arcs are for some of these characters. I see Tony Stark’s arc (from self-centered playboy to martyr-with-nuclear bomb, which I think is more set-up, especially around Coulson, who, you remember, he offers to fly out to Portland to see the cellist); and Captain America’s (from exiled loner to guy who gets references and leads the team). But when you say that Hawkeye is a prop for Black Widow’s arc, I’m confused–she has a backstory (from villain to hero), but where’s her arc in the film?

    Also also, while I loved Mark Ruffalo’s fidgety anxiety as Banner more than the previous two Hulks (Bana, Norton), I’m a little confused about the idea that this film offered Hulk’s hulking out as liberation being so different than the other two movies, both of which end with Hulk climactically being released. (Nuance: in the Norton Hulk, I think Betty talks Hulk out of killing the Abomination, which again brings in the idea of restraint. But up to that point, it’s all been Hulk smash.)

  6. @ BenjaminJB
    I agree with your comment on series verses stand alone books, and I don’t think they would have been able to pull it off as well without the other movies. This is the same principle that makes fan fiction so easy and popular to write, people already know the characters and setting, the rules, so now you’re free to mess with them more, to do something interesting and fun because these characters are the way they are (For example, I love Stark teasing Banner and poking at him to try and set him off, yet there is also some comradeship between them.)
    Describing and presenting your characters I think goes into the same subject (in part) of plotting, and making each scene matter.

  7. Great podcast, covering a great film. A shame you ran out of time to talk about pacing, as I don’t think pacing is something you cover as much as character arcs.

    Still, all good stuff and Joss Whedon is the king of the character arc, so no surprise there.

    Now I have to watch Avengers again – ho hum.

  8. RE: non-realistic dialog.

    One of my favorite quotes on dialog comes from Sol Stein in Stein on Writing:

    “Dialogue has to make us interested, curious, tense, or laugh. At its best, it has a liveliness that makes the words seem to jump from the page straight into our bloodstream, like adrenaline. Readers enjoy dialogue. I’ve never heard anyone say that they enjoyed a transcript of recorded speech. If you wander around a crowded mall these days, much of what you might overhear is idiot talk. People won’t buy a novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives, friends, and strangers.”

  9. I’d love to hear you looking on the latest Star Trek “Into Darkness”. I think there are some opportunities to learn as a writer. The movie was fun to watch and the character interaction was great, but I think it was near the edge to “not working”. Action movie fatique (thanks for teaching me a new phrase) was one issue, plot consistency another (why the heck did Bones fiddle with Tribbles just after half the ship was blown off and the sickbay had to be filled with injured crewmen?).

  10. I really like the discussion. I think your point about action movie fatigue is a good one, although in the particular bit you cite, I don’t think it’s so much fatigue from the battle in general as from that particular shot. The Hulk punching Thor moment comes just after their big show-off centerpiece, a long tracking shot that starts with Black Widow, then tracks with Iron Man as he flies down to help Captain America, then up past Hawkeye, who shoots an arrow that we track to Hulk and Thor fighting side-by-side atop the behemoth. It’s a long and complicated shot, with lots of frantic action that demands close attention, and yes, by the end of it, you’re ready for a joke to break the momentum and let you reengage with the story.

  11. I feel that Action Movie Fatigue is the direct result of plot stopping for the action. Stories move forward when plot happens, not when stuff goes boom. If the stuff blowing up changes the direction the story and characters are moving in, then yes it’s plot too. If it is merely a continuation of the path the characters are already on then it is not plot. Too much “not plot” in a row will induce boredom or indifference. The viewer/reader will begin to tune out.

    Now a good writer will ensure that even when stuff is blowing up, plot is happening too. They will dual purpose the scene to show character development (or regression), reveal a major twist, create a new mystery, raise the stakes, or deflate the tension.

  12. After I watched Avengers the one, burning question in my mind was, “This movie is so huge, with so many different characters, WHY does it work so well? I found the amazing answer in director’s commentary by Joss Whedon. Oddly enough, I felt the secret was the brilliant transitions between scenes and how all the different storylines were edited and put together. Basically, jaw dropping brilliance in story structure. All the parts that we love, the trading cards, the witty banter and the action, made the the movie good, but the transitions and the structure made the movie GREAT. I recommend that every writer watch the director’s commentary. It’s hilarious to compare Joss Whedon’s comments with Brandon and Howard’s. Especially since they talk about the exact same things.

  13. [I apologize for this…]

    So Robo-Bush and The Reaganator are the intergalactic tag team wrestling champions. They struggled early in their partnership but have been undefeated now for over 3 seasons.

    Bush: We are undefeatable.
    Reagan: Yep.

    All of a sudden out of nowhere Saddammit Man and Bin-Ladinfire come jetting out of the sky.

    Saddam: You’ve no claim too the title you’ve yet to defeat us.
    Bin-Ladin: Yeah!

    So they start to fight. Robo-Bush locks up with Saddammit Man but is rebuffed by the profuse profanity. He tags up on The Reaganator and things start to get crazy.

    Bin-Ladinfire, being a big cheater, starts shooting fireballs into the ring. There’s no ref because this is a grudge match. Luckily the Reaganator is immune to fireballs so just shrugs it off shaking his head.

    Reagan: Get real Bin-Ladinfire, I’m made of pure Americanium. A strong spirited metal.
    Bin-Ladin: Curses!

    Seeing how the other side was already cheating, Robo-Bush decides to just jump into the ring and beat the crap out of someone. He blind sides Saddammit Man while he was distracted by the Bush Twins (ring girls), gets him on the ground and really starts working him over.

    Bush: Don’t look at my daughters!
    Saddam: They are fit for my harem.

    At this point Robo-Bush gets really cheesed off so transforms into a giant freakin’ bald eagle. No joke. Like pterodactyl size. It looks like the end for Saddam.

    Meanwhile The Reaganator and Bin-Ladinfire have been shooting stuff at each other. Fireballs fly and patriot missiles return, but both dodge out of the way. The ring and stadium, not to mention the spectators, are getting a lot of ordinance in their face but they don’t mind. It’s way too awesome to complain about.

    Then out of nowhere comes this freakin’ giant baby faced monstrosity bashing through the arena.

    Kim: I am Kim Jong-Unstoppable. You are all has beens. It is my time to reign.

    So The Reaganator powers down the victory nuke he was about to pop off on Bin-Ladinfire, and Bin-Ladinfire cools down the solar nova he was about to engulf the ring with. Robo-Bush is a bit slow to get off of Sadammit Man, but after a moment they are all standing.

    They are all looking up at Kim Jong-Unstoppable and they totally start to get scared. Always the quick thinker, Robo-Bush uses his brain processor to think of a master strategy.

    Bush: Hey Saddam & Bin Ladin…what say we take care of this big brat?

    Nods and murmurs of assent all around.

    Robo-Bush then wonder launches Saddammit Man with his robo beak right at the face of K.J.U., the big bratty faced loser can’t even dodge, he’s way to big and slow. Saddammit just starts screaming an endless stream of ‘f’ bombs into K.J.U’s ears and totally distracts him.

    That’s when Robo-Bush repowers up his victory nuke and fires it into Bin-Laddinfire. This totally charges Bin-Laddinfire’s internal heat reactor and it goes critical.

    But right before it blows up and kills everyone he releases the energy through his freakin’ eyes right into the crotch of Kim Jong-Unstoppable.

    And that’s the story of how Kim Jong-Unstoppable was stopped.

    The End.

  14. Loved the discussion of Avengers. It’s amusing how many people (myself included) had connections to the movie just right around this podcast. I do wish there had been a little discussion on what Avengers didn’t do as well. The plot seems to be quite poor, and yet, I have a really hard time caring that the plot was, at several points, ridiculous (why did Loki let himself get captured, for example?). Was it just by making the characters and pacing so engaging that the movie made up for the plot weaknesses, or was something else going on?

    @ D.R, I’d agree that Tony actually had two different character arcs, but I’d say that the first one is if he can be a team player, while the second is if he is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. The Yensid connection could be a very powerful one, but that isn’t something that the Avengers even hinted at possibly thinking about touching upon.

    It’s that second arc that was forced and a problem. Is Tony willing to sacrifice himself? Yes, that was the climax of the first Iron Man movie. Sure, a nuclear explosion is a bit bigger than an arc reactor going critical, but Tony expected to end up dead in both cases. To make this an arc for Avengers, Tony’s character had to take several steps back, to mid Iron Man 1 levels. That’s, I think, why it felt forced.

    Contrast this to the first arc (can Tony be a team player?). This one was beautifully done, in part because it’s a question that was discussed but not resolved in the first two Iron Man movies. In the first one, Tony doesn’t work well with Rhodey, Stane, and barely well with Pepper. In the second one, Tony doesn’t work well very well with Pepper, not at all with Team Military Industrial Complex, not at all with Hammer, and poorly with Rhodey/War Machine (together they did defeat the Hammeroids, but that was presented as more of an instinctual cooperation than an intentional one). So, in Avengers, we don’t know if Tony actually can work with a team. The Helicarrier attack reiterated the answer from Iron Man II (yes, Tony can, when there’s no time for him to even think about it). However, the jewel was in the Stark/Banner interactions. Tony had faith in Bruce/The Hulk, more so than Bruce himself, and when the latter showed up to help in the final fight, that’s when we realize that yes, Tony can work as a team, but in a different way than we expected. That was confirmed when he told Cap to call the shots. Honestly, I’m not really sure Coulson’s quasi-death was really needed for this development. It felt like it affected Cap more.

  15. What I loved so much about this movie was what you touched on in the podcast about making each scene perform several duties. It shows a lot of hard work and forethought to make every scene do such heavy lifting. We get character voice, background, magic system infodump, good dialogue packed into one scene without it ever feeling forced or just expository. Another bit I loved was they went even deeper and gave away the ending with the hilarious Galaga reference from Tony Stark. Check out this article that details how that little joke sets up the ending with zero heavy handedness to be sure. They were light as a feather.


  16. I wonder if the reason Hawkeye falls so flat is that he doesn’t tie into the theme of sacrifice? The sacrifice theme is Iron Man’s arc, but you can find it in most of the others too. Captain America lost his time period, Black Widow lost her country, Hulk lost his girlfriend and his place in society, Thor lost his brother. Coulson, of course, is the sacrifice. But if Hawkeye lost anything, the film doesn’t say.

  17. Hawkeye lost his sense of WHO HE WAS. “Have you ever been undone?” And he regained it by participating in the final battle and being accepted as a member of the team even though he’d been compromised.

  18. IMHO, I don’t agree that Iron Man is the protagonist in The Avengers. There IS a story arc that involves him, but it’s not the main arc of the movie/story. The Iron Man arc is about the invasion, but the invasion arc doesn’t require The Avengers.

    Picture this for a moment, the wormhole opens up, The Avengers assemble, and while they are getting ready to fight, the X-Men show up, say “Step aside noobs!” and defeat the invaders.

    Or Dorothy Gale shows up, clicks her ruby slippers 3 times and all the invaders turn into munchkins.

    Or Bill & Ted show up, play their Wyld Stallyns theme causing all the invaders to grab their heads in pain, which then explode.

    As you can see, the invasion is just the McGuffin. It’s the reason the REAL arc takes place. The McGuffin could have been a super villan, a natural disaster or an act of Congress.

    The main arc/story is the creation of The Avengers. Dorothy Gale can’t do this one for them, they have to do it themselves. The Protagonist in this arc is Nick Fury himself. He wants the AVengers Initiative to go forward because he doesn’t like the superweapon approach. The antagonists are the Avengers themselves as they are too busy fighting each other to actually work together. Nick needs a Dynamic Character* to tell him how to succeed.


    “This was never going to work… if they didn’t have something… to…”

    Now Nick knows what he needs to do in order to get them to shape up and be a team. Now we can go into the resolution phase and kick alien booty.

    *I’ve seen it called Dynamic character, relationship character and sympathetic character.

  19. As always this was an excellent podcast. I tell everyone I can about how amazing Writing Excuses is. I learn something new every week and I look forward to the week to come. To make a request. I would love to learn what ya’ll think about going through first person point of view. Specifically when you have multiple first person point of views. I have a story idea that would be an amazing experience if told from first person point of view but a large part of the story has to be told from a second point of view due to geographical limitations in the nature of the idea. I would love to learn what ya’ll have to say about the complexities of multiple first person point of views as well as books that do it well and poorly. Thank you all so very much for everything.

  20. In my experience, never watch Avengers with a bunch of chemistry grad students. The entire film will be drowned in howls of derision after Dr. Banner delivers the “Put the spectrometers on the roof and set them for gamma rays” line. But that’s a whole ‘nother podcast.

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