In twelve years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has managed to release twenty-three blockbusters that, at worst were still successful at the box office, and at best currently hold the record for the highest-grossing film of all time.
When it comes to blockbuster franchises, only the James Bond series has more films among its ranks. Yet the MCU has managed to earn twice as much as any other series in history, including that of said super-spy.
Over the last three issues of this magazine, I have discussed one major issue that all of these films share. That issue is the general tendency they all have of containing copy-and-paste end battles. Throughout those articles, I have analyzed and ranked all the films based on the originality of said end battles.
The list started with The Incredible Hulk, which was far and away the most generic good-guy-vs.-bad-guy-with-the-exact-same-powers punching match in the whole of the MCU. It went on from there all the way until the most unique and original film, Avengers: Endgame.
This list was not based on the quality of the films as a whole, but rather how different their end battles managed to be, and how much they managed to stand out from the crowd.
But in my opinion, the most important reason for us as authors to look at, review, and analyze other stories such as these is so that we can take away lessons from them and make our own stories all the better for it.
Through thousands of years of history, humanity has demonstrated itself to be one big collaboration. Humans have learned from each other, learned from history, and built off of what’s come before. While some writers are very apprehensive about looking at the works of others for lessons, I believe that it’s an absolutely essential aspect of our humanity.
So, what can we learn about the end battles of the twenty-three films of the MCU?
Limiting the Suspension of Disbelief
One of the most obvious things that we can find while analyzing all of these films is that the more original and out of the ordinary the film, as well as the hero, are, the less original the villain and the end battles usually tend to be.
In a film that’s meant to introduce you to the concept of a real-world hero in a technologically advanced super-suit, the suit itself is where the line is drawn for the suspension of disbelief. Imagine if Iron Man, in the first Iron Man film, had faced Dormammu, or even Ronan the Accuser. The writers of this film already had to prove to us beyond the shadow of a doubt that the technology of these suits is not just possible, but real. Introducing such odd and unique varieties of characters and settings would extend the suspension of disbelief and pull you out of the story.
Iron Man 2 continued the theme of villains stealing technology from Stark. It wasn’t until Captain America: The First Avenger introduced super-soldiers that Iron Man 3 felt comfortable providing us with a unique villain, a walking reactor rather than a suit thief.
Ant-Man and Black Panther likewise introduced us as the audience to new and different technologies and settings. Doctor Strange provided the audience with one of the biggest leaps we’ve seen so far. To solidify all these new concepts and ideas, rather than have him fight a man in an advanced suit or a shape-shifting alien, the writers pitted him against a fellow sorcerer. Even the inclusion of Dormammu felt like a clear evolution of the celestial beings in Guardians of the Galaxy.
So, as authors, is it necessary for us to resist taking it too far with our own suspension of disbelief? Do we need to keep things within a category when we write, not veering too far from what’s been established already?
This is a hard question to answer. In a way, this is the very definition of genres. When someone picks up a fantasy book, they expect knights and wizards. When someone picks up a sci-fi book, they expect robots and spaceships.
Are there fantasy stories with robots and spaceships? Yes, there are. Take as an example Final Fantasy. Are there sci-fi stories with knights and wizards? Yes, there are. Take as an example Destiny.
But are these the exceptions that prove the rule? That’s where things get a little bit complicated. For every successful story that blends genres, there are a thousand more successful stories that don’t risk it.
I think the number one thing you need in order to successfully develop large-scale stories with multiple unique elements is a proven track record. It’s important not to start your career off by breaking the rules. This may work for the rare author, but for the most part, I believe that we need to start with the basics and establish ourselves as writers before we branch out.
What’s Best for Character Development
Another lesson that I believe we can learn from the MCU films is the way originality affects character development. For the most part, the greater the similarity of the villain to the hero, such as in Iron Man and Doctor Strange, the more they fade into the background, placing the focus solely on the hero and their development.
So, from this point of view, you could conclude that making them essentially the same characters but evil allows the villain’s personality to be a foil to that of the hero. This permits you to develop the hero to the greatest extent possible in the story.
Of course, that’s not always the case. It can’t be that easy. Some of the best character-driven stories of the MCU come when the hero is faced with a unique and different villain. Doctor Strange (on the flip side) and Spider-Man: Far From Home come readily to mind. While they could have demonstrated the same character development if they were being reflected off of identical villains, it’s ultimately the uniqueness of the villains that offers the setting necessary for their character development.
Mysterio was the physical personification of the lies and self-doubt that Spider-Man had to learn how to look past to develop as a character and move beyond Tony Stark’s death. Dormammu presented Doctor Strange with such a unique set of circumstances that he was able to demonstrate his skills and resolve the battle in a way that would have been impossible against Kaecilius alone.
But for every Doctor Strange, there’s a Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel was wholly unique in the fact that Carol Danvers was so completely overpowered when compared to her enemies. Yet that provided her with virtually no opportunity for character development. We didn’t see her resolve. Rather, we only saw her empowerment.
So yet again, there’s a caveat with the question of what’s best for your storytelling, and that is that it just depends on your story. It depends on what situation your character needs to confront to fulfill his character arc.
What your character needs to face could be a reflection of himself, to demonstrate his evolution and the ending of his character arc. Or it could be something completely unique, to emphasize other qualities that they’ve had to develop along the way, such as bravery and creativity.
Same Old Same Old is Boring
Finally, there’s one lesson from these twenty-three films that I feel is undeniable. For the most part, having the hero face an evil clone of himself is just plain boring.
The less the ending of the film is used to reflect the main character’s personal arc, the worse the result is, because the only thing that was capable of carrying the story forward, the unique character development, is also lacking.
Examples of this include, beyond a shadow of a doubt, The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. Neither of these films had overly interesting or well-developed main characters with profound character arcs. And neither of them had an end battle that was in any way necessary or significant for their character arc. So, what we’re left with is an even planed battle of veritable similitude that never achieves the status of “interesting” or even “entertaining”.
On the other hand, some of the most outstanding end battles in the MCU have earned their position because of their uniqueness. One such battle that comes to mind is that of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The way the story evolved past a super-powered punching match and allowed Steve Rogers the opportunity to just give up rather than kill his best friend was so unique and so profoundly fresh and enjoyable.
Likewise, seeing Thor realize that he actually had to give up in Thor: Ragnarok and utterly destroy Asgard to save the Asgardians is a profound and emotional event that stuck with us long after the film ended.
So now let’s open it up to you, dear reader. As unique human beings with unique histories and experiences, each one of us is going to have a different take-away, even when looking at the exact same stories with the exact same objective and perspective.
So, let’s collaborate. What lessons do you believe can be learned from the end battles of the twenty-three MCU films? Let me know on Twitter at twitter.com/qj_author. I look forward to hearing from you and having the opportunity to learn from your own unique perspective.
Next week’s issue of The Writer’s Everything is going to look at the roles of the two Captain America: Civil War bugs, Ant-Man and Spider-Man. Were they misplaced in their respective roles? Find out next time.