telling stories the marvel way

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My wife and I saw Avengers: Infinity Wars in a nearly packed theater. After ten years of filmmaking Marvel would finally close the book on heroes we came to know and love…or so I thought. Kevin Feige, and everyone else working on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, gave me a masterclass in storytelling.

The Marvel movie machine adapts a model familiar to fans of their comic books: make stories that seem stand-alone, but tack on cliffhanger endings to other characters and universe-shaking plot lines; then, resolve your apocalypses by precipitating consequences that require even more stories and team-ups to resolve. It’s easier said than done, of course. How can ordinary writers utilize this system? Can people who aren’t so great at outlines and plotting (myself included) create complex stories while leaving audiences hungry for more? And how can any one writer do it well, without making mega-franchises in the process?

Telling stories “the Marvel way” starts with a few basics. If you’re in the middle of writing a story, or planning one, consider:

  • Raising the stakes high enough for protagonists to bother fighting in the first place. What do your characters care about, and why? Are they fighting to protect what they have, or to gain something better? What are they willing to sacrifice to ensure their mission is completed? What happens if your heroes fail?
  • Making the antagonist unstoppable through conventional means. If your character gets too close to solving a problem, either snatch the victory from their hands, or in solving the problem they create more issues than they fix. This will force heroes to find ingenious solutions to insurmountable troubles.
  • Envisioning a villain that has their own desires. Heroes and villains are similar in that they both want something the other is denying them. The lengths to which an antagonist disrupts a hero’s world should be proportionate to what the antagonist wants. In the case of Marvel stories, where villains seek to change the universe in their image, they need universal power that the heroes won’t let them have. Any assault upon the protagonists should be devastating enough to literally and metaphorically destroy their world.

I walked into Infinity Wars anticipating a hot mess of a film. What I got was a surprisingly good movie, one that resolves as many issues as it creates, and grants as many pleasures as it denies. There’s a lot more I could say, but for now I’ll end with this: nice job, Russo brothers.