Key points: Handling an ensemble cast is difficult. Giving a wide range of people, with different power levels, equal opportunities to contribute. Dialogue is key. Media dialogue is not realistic dialogue, it is better! Let your characters have lives "offscreen" and point to them. Make every line and scene serve multiple purposes. Make sure character voices are distinct. Don't marginalize characters. Give every character their own arc, their own desires, blocks, and growth. Give each character a role in the team. Watch for pacing, and mix things up.
[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 21.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What the Avengers Did Right.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] All right. We used to do these. Well, we've done a couple of these. It's just been a very long time. What we do is, we take a film and we analyze it from a writer's perspective. This is not a review. We're not going to tell you what's awe... We're not going to tell you how awesome the film is, we all know it's awesome. The point is to look at it writer's eyes and determine what things the film did exceptionally, or in some cases, what it might not have done as well as it could have done. But once again, not a review. All right. So, the Avengers. We were all very excited for this film. It came out, and it actually was good. What, in your minds, podcasters, is the primary thing the Avengers did right from a writing standpoint?
[Mary] I think that the way they handled an ensemble cast was...
[Dan] Yeah. That's what I was going to say as well. Giving a wide range of people, with very different power sets, equal opportunities to contribute.
[Howard] I think the way in which the ensemble cast was handled had a lot to do with dialogue.
[Brandon] Okay. Dialogue was...
[Howard] I like the way Joss Wheadon... Whedon...
[Brandon, Dan] Whedon.
[Howard] Whedon writes dialogue. The talking scenes in this movie, you didn't want to miss them. There were no spots where watching the film I thought, "Huh. Well, that was just mindless exposition. Oh, how nice of them to let her have some lines so that we're reminded that she's in the movie." There wasn't any of that. It was all very...
[Mary] I think the best example of this, actually, or the one that is easiest for me to point to is when Phil goes to visit Tony Stark, and there's the "here is the folder" that is the plot thing that...
[Howard] Here is the folder.
[Mary] Here is the folder. That's the plot thing that the scene is supposed to be doing. As Phil is exiting, he's out of focus, he's no longer the focus of the scene, there's this background dialogue between him and Pepper in which he talking about this cellist. What about the cellist? Oh, she moved back to Portland. That's really all that's there. But it gives you enough of his character that you feel for him later.
[Brandon] It gives her character, too. Pepper, who basically has no point, part in this movie. Yet she's better characterized than many characters who are main characters in other films.
[Dan] The simple fact that Pepper and Agent Coulson know each other, and that they drew very subtle attention to that by having Tony Stark be kind of sort of jealous about it. That suggested this is a real person. He has a life outside of this scene. You'll be sad later.
[Brandon] It's what we always try to get people to do.
[Howard] Phil? Who's Phil? His first name is Agent.
[Brandon] Is try to get people to believe in your writing that all the characters have lives offscreen. One or two lines gives us all of that. I do want to mention, I should've said at the start. Spoilers. You should watch this episode, in fact, we should, if we were on the ball, have given you a warning that this episode was coming so you could rewatch the Avengers.
[Howard] You had a year and change.
[Brandon] Okay. I want to take each of these things. By the way, I'm going to throw pacing into the mix as something it did very well. So we're going to talk about pacing, [later on the podcast?] We're on dialogue right now. Let's continue with the dialogue boat, and then we will jump and do one of these other two in-depth.
[Howard] Character voice. I think that with a few exceptions, the character voices were handled in a way that you could tell who was talking just by the words that were being said. One exception is the one where Thor says he's adopted. A lot of people have picked on that line, and said, "That doesn't feel very Thorish." But the line was so perfect in that scene that I'm...
[Mary] I was totally willing... That's why it's funny, is because it's not...
[Howard] Yeah. You're willing... Exactly. I'm willing to suspend disbelief that those words would come out of Thor's mouth. Because I had to hear those words come out of Thor's mouth. It was that good. I think this is something... It's the sort of compromise that a good writer has to be willing to make.
[Brandon] If he wants...
[Howard] Nobody else could have delivered that joke.
[Brandon] So the first thing that on dialogue we will say Joss Whedon did right was he gave each character individual voices, and the writers. We shouldn't just say Joss, because he was helped out. Each of these... If you even took away the actors as Howard was saying, you could tell who was saying these lines. I particularly like how the dialogue enhanced many of the characters, such as Captain America who is very different. In a lot of films, this character would have been marginalized in some way. Yet he was able to deliver lines that the others would have been ridiculous saying, but from him, was...
[Dan] I specifically wanted to call out Captain America because he is so... He, more than any other character in the movie, runs the risk of being very one note. He's the Boy Scout who is always this, and he's always this. The movie didn't look at that as a liability. It used that as, "Well, yay, here's a different note that we can play in our ensemble cast." It gave him kind of the respect that it gave the rest of the characters, rather than saying, "Aw, let's make fun of the Boy Scout."
[Mary] It also... He is aware that he is out of time. They keep playing that, right? The two scenes that pop into my head most are the... The scene where he is boxing, and he's boxing in this old rundown thing, but it is familiar to him. But he's clearly angry. Everybody else is like, "Ugh, very... Do not want to go do this." But his thing is that this is what he's for. Then the other point was somebody made a joke in one of the meetings and he's like, "I got that! That one I got!"
[Dan] I got that reference.
[Mary] It's funny, but it's also really poignant, too. It's like, "Oh, guy. You poor thing."
[Dan] To talk about things doing more than one thing, one of the great moments is when it turns out that Agent Coulson is a Captain America fan boy, and has collected paraphernalia and old trading cards and stuff, which shows us that Captain America is displaced in time, and it gives more character to this guy that we need to like. Every little moment in the movie is like that, it's serving two or three purposes.
[Mary] It's also planting a gun on the mantle, which they use later, which are the trading cards.
[Howard] It's also a subtle nod to the culture... We've talked about this in previous episodes. When a fan comes up to you and talks to you, there's a relationship there that's a little odd and a little awkward. Agent Coulson did it really well.
[Brandon] It was a mode shift.
[Howard] He engaged on a professional level, and then said, "Pardon me for being a fan boy. Would you sign my card?"
[Brandon] Let's mention the dialogue in this. A criticism that is sometimes leveled at Joss and at many writers, I'm one of them, is that the dialogue is not realistic. I will say the dialogue is not realistic in this film.
[Howard] The dialogue is a caricature of real dialogue.
[Brandon] I personally enjoy that type of thing in my media. It's why I like Oscar Wilde plays and things like this. But it is something we should highlight, since we're talking about the dialogue. This is not real dialogue. People are too witty, too pithy, and it all falls into place in just the right way.
[Mary] They are superheroes.
[Brandon] They are superheroes. Yes.
[Howard] Conversation... Any one of the conversations that we listened to in that film, in a real environment, real people, that number of people talking about that issue would have been talking for hours.
[Mary] Actually, I think probably the one that is most realistic in some ways is the one that Loki was manipulating, which is the giant argument that they are all having. Because they are talking over each other and at cross purposes. At the same time, it is also serving two functions. Or two or three.
[Brandon] Let's do our book of the week, and then we'll jump into that, because we'll transition into characterization of an ensemble cast. Dan. Kavalier and Clay.
[Dan] The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. We were looking for a good superhero story, and this is actually a story that's kind of sort of a retelling inspired by the lives of Shuster and Siegel, the creators of Superman. So it's telling the early days of the comic book industry in this fictionalized version. It is fantastic. If you never read a Michael Chabon book, he's a wonderful writer. This one in particular is fantastic. It does not have supernatural elements in it, but it's telling the story of these two Jewish boys in New York growing up with all of the prejudice that they have and all of the business problems that plagued the early comic book industry, and it's just a fascinating book. I loved it.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30 day free trial membership, pick up a copy of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Have it read to you in the luxury of your own car or iPod or whatever...
[Brandon] Or super jet.
[Howard] Or super jet.
[Mary] Invisible super jet.
[Howard] Invisible super jet. Wonder Woman, we're looking right at you, even though we can't see you.
[Brandon] We can see her, we just can't see her jet.
[Dan] We just can't see the jet.
[Howard] Okay. Obviously I need to brush up on my DC mythos.
[Mary] We did cross the streams there, didn't we?
[Brandon] Yeah, we did.
[Mary] So, finish your...
[Howard] Oh, no. I'm done. I'm way done.
[Brandon] All right. Characterization of an ensemble cast. What Joss does here is something that George RR Martin also is good at, which is a large cast of characters which received relatively little time, and yet receive a great depth of characterization. How did the writers of Avengers do it, and why did it work?
[Mary] I would like to know that so that I can try it. Tell us, Brandon.
[Dan] One of the first things that he does, is like we've said, first of all, every scene is serving more than one purpose. The first scene with Black Widow is a good example, because you show up and she's tied to a chair, and she seemingly being interrogated, and we need to have the scene where she is called into the team. Every character gets called into the team. Her scene is showing her getting called into the team, but it's also showing how capable she is physically and also how devious she is mentally. Because by the end of the scene, we realize, "Oh, she's not being interrogated, she's interrogating them!" She's letting them monologue as villains until she has all the information she needs, and then she escapes and beats them all up and escapes. That tells us she's incredibly capable and competent, in these two specific areas.
[Brandon] I would say that's one of the major things. Doing multiple things. Letting characters have lives offscreen and then indicating them is a great way to do it. Another one is a lot of films will take like one character to be your growth character. That character gets an arc. In this book, at least half of them, if not all of them, had some sort of arc going on. Things they want, reasons they couldn't have them, and ways they needed to grow as a character in order to obtain what they wanted. He got those across very well in a short period of time. It was very well done. You see Captain America wants to be the Boy Scout, but he's having his illusions shattered. He's actually on a downward arc in some ways. Things are going poorly for him. At the same time, you've got Banner at the top of his arc. He's figured things out. We get a sense that he's at the apex. There's not a lot of motion there, but we get enough to see he has had... There's momentum to all of these characters. Then you get the interaction between Black Widow and Hawkeye, that they have a past together, that there are things going on there. There's just... Everybody is growing and changing a little bit through the course of the story.
[Howard] That said, I was talking with Lou Anders at Deep South Con about Avengers. He feels pretty strongly, and I agree, that per the Hollywood Formula, Tony Stark is our protagonist and Loki is our antagonist. The symmetry between those two... I mean, everybody gets arcs, which is what makes the whole movie fun, but the payoffs for many of those arcs all happen fairly close together, and it's right there at the end. Right there at the end where it's supposed to be.
[Brandon] I will, if I were going to offer one criticism... This is a fantastic film, but we can analyze. I think that Tony Stark's character arc was forced in this. They had to kind of back him up a little bit from the previous films, and say, "You don't know how to be a hero. You've never sacrificed anything." Looking at the previous films, I feel that that's growth he's kind of had, just not done quite as well as in this. Then they push him forward to sacrificing his life, maybe, and things like that. It was a little heavy-handed for me.
[Dan] The character that didn't work for me was Hawkeye. It felt for me kind of shoehorned in, we have to make him bad because that's how he was in his first appearance in the comics. He didn't really come together for me, and seemed to be there so that Black Widow could have an arc.
[Brandon] I will agree with you there. Of all the main characters, he received the least... In fact, he received less than Coulson did.
[Dan] He actually had a lot less than Coulson did. The one thing that movie did do well with Hawkeye, like I said, is it gave him a role in the team. He's a sniper. We need a sniper. Hooray.
[Brandon] I will say giving everyone a role, and we mentioned this earlier... Let's talk about varying power levels. This is something that people in writing fantasy, in some cases science fiction, are going to run into. Dan, you run into this. I mean, your protagonist is a teenage boy in some of your books. Different people are going to have much stronger than him. It's very easy for some characters to get marginalized in stories like this. Because they aren't Iron Man. Yet I felt all along that people are being used...
[Howard] I think that this film did a really good job of exploring that, because in many superhero films, you don't establish tension by putting the superheroes at risk. Because in one sense or another, they're indestructible and you know they're going to get out of it. When Black Widow is up against the Hulk, we've known since the beginning of the movie that Banner and the Hulk terrify her. There are not many things that she is afraid of, and this is the only one that we're shown. Then, at a larger level, that fight is mirrored in several other places. We see the heroes going up against each other, we see conflict in the team, and it's used, in my opinion, to explore those power levels, to look at who can do what and to establish, "Yeah, maybe there are some imbalances." We want Black Widow to be able to play to her strengths, not to go toe to toe with the heavies.
[Mary] That's... That was... I mean, part of her arc was the... If she's playing in this arena, she is going to have to go toe to toe with heavies and she's... That is not where she's trained. Which brings me around to a question about the Hulk as well, because that... I also thought that was a really fascinating pairing between those two. One of the things that they were doing is of course setting up the magic systems. But does the Hulk have a conflict in his magic system? Which is...
[Howard] Is he sentient?
[Dan] His sudden ability to distinguish friend from foe in the final battle.
[Mary] Yes. I am torn on that between thinking that that is incompatible and also thinking it is... That they show us him making the decision to trigger the Hulk, and is that enough?
[Brandon] I think that it is a slight weakness. It is believable. To me, like when you said, you started [talking this line?] he made the choice one time and he didn't the other. You could very easily set up situations like if I choose to bring up the Hulk, then the Hulk is me. If I don't, we're in trouble. That was not set up.
[Howard] I actually felt... It wasn't explained explicitly. He shouts at her. He accuses her of lying to him. He's injured and angry and it is her lie. We're going to be okay, we're going to get out of this. He is angry at her. So that's who he goes after. Then he gets clocked by Thor, so that's who he's fighting. Then he gets shot by the jet, so that's what he goes after. Whereas in the final fight, he turns around and faces the biggest of the aliens and Hulks out. Then Cap points him at the bad guys and says... And we love that moment... "Hulk. Smash."
[Mary] I do have to give the actor credit there. Being able to deliver that line earnestly.
[Dan] I want to talk about the Hulk because there have been to previous Hulk movies which, while I enjoy them both, they haven't really worked. I think it's important to say one of the reasons that the Hulk as a character worked in Avengers better than in the others is because the other movies were about repression. In this one, we got that really wonderful moment where we finally see the Hulk as a liberation. That Bruce Banner is constantly repressing him and won't let him out. Then, when he does, it's just in the final half hour of the movie, he's everyone's favorite character. Because there's so much wish fulfillment going on.
[Mary] Particularly his defeat of Loki. I love so much.
[Dan] He just could... Everything that he did was like, "Yeah. I am so glad he finally gets to let loose."
[Howard] The other big moment for Hulk was the sidepunch of Thor.
[Howard] What I found so wonderful about that is in the moment previous, Hulk and Thor are standing on the back of this flying creature, beating the snot out of bad guys. That was, for me, the only moment in the film where I started suffering from action movie fatigue. A little piece of my brain said, "This fight has been going on a little while. I mean, this is really cool. I'm on board. This fight's been going on a while. Oh, it's crashing now. All right, fight... WHOA! Hulk just punched, and I'm completely on board again." I have to think that at some point, the writers or the editors said, with something carefully measured, this is action movie fatigue moment. Here's where we need to break things up.
[Brandon] We need a joke.
[Dan] It's what Brandon said earlier about the pacing. The pacing in this movie is brilliant.
[Mary] It's so good.
[Brandon] All right. If we could just hand all of Michael Day's movies to Joss Whedon, life would be wonderful. We are out of time for this podcast. We hope this has been helpful to you. Does someone want to give us a writing prompt?
[Mary] Hulk. Smash?
[Brandon] Hulk smash?
[Howard] Okay. Here you go. Write... Take an ensemble cast and have them fighting each other as a prelude to fighting what needs to be fought.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.