Tag Archives: Cinematic Storytelling

Ranking the Marvel End Battles, Part Four

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.

Ranking the Marvel End Battles, Part Three

Critics can level all sorts of accusations regarding the quality of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and even superhero films in general. If there’s one accusation that is more valid than any other, though, it would be regarding their paint-by-numbers end battles.

The hero learns to use his powers, only to be confronted by another character with the same powers, but evil. It’s the tried and true formula that can’t help but be repeated again and again.

Over the last two issues of The Writer’s Everything, I have been developing a list of every MCU end battle in order based on their originality.

We are now in part three with the final seven entries in this list. These following films are the most original, most unique, and most notable end battles in the MCU. So, let’s finish this list, film by film, and then next week, we’ll look at the list on a whole from the perspective of what we as writers can learn from it.

7—Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel was, in most respects, fairly paint-by-numbers. Of course, it was the first female-led solo MCU film. The end battle, however, will no doubt stand out for a long time to come. It was, honestly, a rather risky decision from a storytelling point-of-view, but it certainly bucked the trend of having two virtually identical characters on an even playing field, with the winner being whoever has a hero’s resolve. In this case, Captain Marvel discovers the true extent of her powers shortly before the battle with the Kree, and she proceeds to decimate their forces, leaving two of their three ships in ruins and scaring off the third. Did they feel like it would upset the masses if the first female-led MCU film featured an under-powered protagonist? I don’t know. Are the writers of the franchise going to find themselves at the bottom of a very deep hole when it comes time to write Captain Marvel 2? Absolutely. Nevertheless, it was in all respects unique, and easily earned its place above Avengers: Infinity War.

6—Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 was the first film of Phase 2 of the MCU, being released directly after Marvel’s The Avengers. This wasn’t the only first that this two hour and eleven-minute action-adventure extravaganza presented us with. It also happened to be the first film in the Iron Man series to not feature a villain in a custom-made Iron Man suit. Instead, it featured Aldrich Killian as the fire-breathing, Iron Man-suit-melting villain who takes upon himself the title of The Mandarin. I have to get this out in the open right now: I would have much rather had the real Mandarin in this film. He could have been the Heath Ledger of the MCU. However, this setup still delivered us a unique end battle. In fact, it was the only film out of the first nine MCU films that had that distinction.

5—Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok was an absolute joy to watch. It’s one of the most fun films in the history of the MCU, and one of the few that I can watch over and over again on repeat while maintaining the same level of enjoyment. While Hela, the goddess of death, is essentially an evil version of both Thor and Loki, the end battle of this film managed to be unique in a different way. After a mostly successful team-up of the Revengers, Thor realizes that he can’t save Asgard. The only way to defeat Hela and remove her powers is by allowing Ragnarok to take place and Asgard to be destroyed. A terribly timed, mood-ruining little quip from Korg notwithstanding, the ending of Thor: Ragnarok was both emotional and dramatic. The fact that it avoided throwing identical characters against each other in a punching match certainly served to make it a highlight of the MCU.

4—Doctor Strange

Amazing, mind-bending graphics or not, Doctor Strange follows the Marvel formula quite faithfully through most of the film. This is the case all the way until the end battle. The end battle itself appears to be just a typical MCU action fest until, at the last second, the status quo is altered drastically. Rather than dueling against Kaecilius the entire time, Doctor Strange finds himself confronted with Dormammu, whose goal is to absorb all of the multiverse into his Dark Dimension. To stop this from happening, Doctor Strange placed Dormammu and himself in a never-ending time loop. He willingly suffered agonizing deaths over and over again until he drove the celestial being mad. This is such an outstanding end battle because it puts Doctor Strange’s unique quirks on clear display. It was his ravenous hunger to learn and his desire to increase his understanding that led him to master the forbidden spells he used in this end battle, and it was his unique capacity for problem-solving that showed him how to use them in a way no one had ever imagined before.

3—Guardians of the Galaxy

Here we are at the top three. This entry may well be a divisive choice for many comic-book movie fans who hated the ending to the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. They believed it to be the epitome of everything that is wrong with the MCU, including its childishness and emphasis on humor over realism. Honestly, Lee Pace’s dramatic, “What are you doing?!” was certainly over the top and added some validity to these complaints. However, we have to remember that films are over-simplified representations of life. The ending of Guardians of the Galaxy served to demonstrate that Peter Quill chose to do the one thing that only he would do to save the universe. It just so happened that that was initiating a dance-off. It really highlights Peter’s child-like naivety and makes him so unquestionably heroic in the face of his severe limitations.

2—Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home was the last MCU film to have been released in theaters, and honestly, I can’t go on enough about how much I love what they did with the end battle in this film. Mysterio was my favorite Spider-Man villain ever since I was a child. I used to dream of what he could do if his powers were ever brought to the big screen. Far From Home certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. It provided us with an end battle so unique and different from anything the MCU had done before. Instead of a duel of genetically enhanced gods among men, he’s fighting against a guy with some projectors and his own 3D animation studio. Even better, Peter Parker doesn’t just punch his way out of this one, as was done in Black Panther. No, he has to finish his journey of self-discovery to see through all of Beck’s lies and deceit, and the end result serves as a fantastically emotional and moving ending for an MCU film.

1—Avengers: Endgame

I’m going to come right out and say it. I would have loved to have let Spider-Man: Far From Home have the top spot on this list of most original MCU end battles. It certainly has that position in my heart. Unfortunately, Avengers: Endgame had to go and be the epic, emotional, fulfilling culmination of everything that the MCU had been building to since Iron Man first came out in 2008. The end battle may not in itself be original or unique. Honestly, you could say it’s just another Avengers movie in some senses. However, the scale of this end battle is unparalleled, not just within the MCU, but in the history of live-action filmmaking. We’d never seen anything like this before, and we won’t soon see its equal. The way they effortlessly weaved dozens of main characters from over 20 films into this end battle was simply jaw-dropping. If that in itself isn’t enough uniqueness for you, there are also a couple of well-earned moments of pure fan service, namely Captain America’s wielding of Mjolnir and Tony Stark’s heart-wrenching final line, “I am Iron Man.”


Well, here we are at the end of the list. There’s no doubt in my mind that you didn’t agree with some of the entries. You more than likely swore at the screen of your electronic device of choice, saying, “How stupid can he be putting X ahead of Y!”

However, I hope that, for the most part, I was able to win you over, if just for a moment, to my point of view.

Now that we’re done with this list, though, the question for us as writers is, “What does it all mean?” Are there lessons within the end battles of these 23 MCU films that we can use to perfect our craft?

That will be a discussion for next week’s issue of The Writer’s Everything. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter at qjmartin.org/newsletter so that you’ll receive Issue #014 sent directly to your inbox upon release.

Ranking the Marvel End Battles, Part Two

While Disney still has several entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) planned for the next few years, it’s hard to imagine them ever building up to an event of such an epic scale as Avengers: Endgame.

The twenty-three films that make up the MCU, however, did not just contribute to an epic team-up adventure the likes of which we’ve never seen. They also provided us with a baseline by which to judge superhero films on a whole.

That is not to say, however, that every individual entry in the MCU is a complete and indisputable masterpiece. As I mentioned in last week’s issue of The Writer’s Everything, there is at least one problem in particular that almost every MCU film shares.

Nearly every one of them has the same climactic end battle. The hero has mastered his powers and must now face off against his mirror opposite, an individual with the same powers as himself, but evil.

Last week, I began analyzing all twenty-three films in the MCU in order, beginning with the least original end battle and going up from there.

So now let’s continue with part two of this analysis, beginning with the fifteenth entry in the list and going on through to the eighth. Then, in next week’s article, the final seven films in the list will be presented, with number one being the all-time most original end battle of the MCU.

15—Thor

The end battle of Thor starts out feeling typical. A super-powerful god fights against another super-powerful god, but evil. This end battle, however, excels in that it quickly takes things in a whole other direction. As Thor quickly and decisively disables Loki, we see the culmination of his character arc over the course of the film. We get to see if those couple days he spent on Earth managed to move him to greater heights than ever before, as his father hoped, or if they did not. As it turns out, Thor ends the battle by selflessly giving up the connection to the planet, and the woman, he loves. Then, he even goes as far as to talk some sense into his brother, reaching out to rescue him when Loki chooses a free-fall into the abyss of space instead. In an otherwise typical end battle, it’s those few moments that move Thor to its position above Iron Man on this list.

14—Ant-Man

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. A hero in an advanced shrinking suit fights against another character in an advanced shrinking suit, but evil. That’s old hat, as we’ve seen already. However, it still manages to keep things fresh with some fantastic set pieces the likes of which we’ve never seen before. After all, watching these two grown men desperately trying to defeat each other, all while riding on the back of a Thomas the Tank Engine, was just fantastic. It certainly captured the uniqueness of its premise in the end battle, if not that of the plot, and earned itself a position directly ahead of Thor.

13—Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The end battle of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, when judged based on the metric used for this list, is very similar to the end battle of the previous entry, Ant-Man. Once again, we have two characters with similar powers fighting each other. And once again, it’s the uniqueness of the premise that makes this battle stand out. Peter Quill’s crazy retro-imagination adds a great deal of fun to this end battle, and baby Groot is just enough to cause it to scrape past Ant-Man on the list.

12—Captain America: The Winter Soldier

A lot is going on during the ending of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The most important of the myriad events that transpire during this climactic end battle is, without a doubt, Captain America’s struggle to disable the deadly helicarriers before they take their position as the violent Big Brother of a new world. So of course, this end battle includes a super-soldier fighting another super-soldier, but evil. The Winter Soldier blows away all the entries in the list up to this point, however, the second Captain America disables the last helicarrier. His love for Bucky moves him to drop his shield, giving up the battle, and even his life, to save his friend. This is a highly rare case in which the victory of the end battle is an emotional one rather than a physical one, and that emotion certainly carries it past Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in my book.

11—Marvel’s The Avengers

Just like with Iron Man, I can’t fault this film for setting the standards that future sequels adhered to much too closely. There is certainly plenty to like in the end battle of Marvel’s The Avengers. The villains aren’t all the same, as they include ground troops, flying skiffs, and giant space snakes. And, even better, the goal of this end battle is not to simply beat someone to a pulp, although the Hulk took care of that in a moment of pure movie magic. The goal of the Avengers, closing the space portal, as well as the film’s status as the first of the Avengers movies, just barely place it ahead of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on this list.

10—Ant-Man and the Wasp

Let’s be honest. Ant-Man and the Wasp was not a memorable movie. I couldn’t even recall one thing about the end battle when writing this article. I had to search for it on YouTube and then scan through the clip to try to refresh my memory. I now am aware of three things that happen during the conclusion of this film. That being said, I should mention before I forget that the end battle of Ant-Man and the Wasp is unique in several ways, including alternate power sets for the heroes and villains, not to mention Ant-Man’s transformation into Giant-Man. All of this adds up to a more unique, if not better, end battle than Marvel’s The Avengers.

9—Captain America: Civil War

While the airport battle between the feuding groups of Avengers was certainly a highly enjoyable bit of superhero cinema, I’ve decided to consider the face-off with Steve and Bucky on one side and Tony on the other as the real end battle of this film. The way these two old friends team up against Iron Man, beating him with their hands and their skill, rather than any sort of advanced technology, and taking Stark down a notch in the process, is handled deftly and provides us with an enjoyable alternative to the hero vs. the evil twin scenario.

8—Avengers: Infinity War

I have to start by saying that there isn’t really anything special about the end battle of Avengers: Infinity War. It’s honestly par for the course when it comes to Avengers films. On one side you have the eponymous group of superheroes, and on the other side, a faceless alien army. There are several things, however, that really set this end battle apart from those of the previous team-up films. First was Doctor Strange’s confrontation with Thanos, which was absolutely epic and fantastic. Then there were the tragic results to both Iron Man and Thor’s personal struggles. And finally, the obvious thing that sets this end battle apart is the way it finishes, with the death of half the universe. We all knew they would be coming back, but it was still a welcome emotional gut punch.


How do you feel about the order of numbers 15-8 on this list? Do you think that these films deserved their rankings? Is there anything you would adjust or change up to this point? Let me know by sending me a message right here on Twitter. In next week’s issue of The Writer’s Everything, Issue #013, we will finish this analysis of the MCU end battles, before looking at the lessons for us as writers in Issue #014. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter by clicking right here to receive them directly in your inbox upon release.

Ranking the Marvel End Battles, Part One

There is no film series more popular than the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Starting with Iron Man in 2008, both the solo and team outings of the various Avengers have since exploded in popularity. After eleven years, Marvel has amassed a collection of successful, interconnected movies that few, if any, will be able to replicate any time soon.

Yes. Many, many people enjoy MCU films. At the same time, many others, especially storytellers, can’t help but notice the similarities between each new entry and the last. For them, it feels as though Marvel has discovered a formula for their films, sacrificing originality for the sake of success.

I’m not necessarily going to side one way or another on this debate. Marvel movies are hugely entertaining, and they rarely leave their comfort zone.

What I will criticize right here and now is the fact that nearly every end battle in Marvel’s history has been the same. The hero has mastered his powers and must now face off against his mirror opposite, an individual with the same powers as himself, but evil.

These battles have certainly had their low points, but there have been a few that managed to successfully reach for greater heights. What I want to do in this week’s Cinematic Storytelling is rate the Marvel end battles based on, primarily, originality. The quality of character development will also be taken into consideration, as will, in one case, the quality of the effects.

See if you can guess which film I’m referring to before I name it.

So, let’s analyze these twenty-three films, looking for lessons that we can learn and information that we can apply in our own stories. We’re going to start with the least original end battle and go up from there. This list will be divided into three parts, published over the next three weeks. Then the fourth part will analyze specific lessons we can learn from this list.

23—The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk had one of the worst end battles of the entire MCU. Although this was only the second film in the series in which a superhero faced his evil twin, it was all the more disappointing because of the tremendous waste of potential. There was so much depth to the story, so much depth to Edward Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner, and then it just devolved into a meaningless computer-generated fistfight. The film truly set the bar by containing the least interesting, most formulaic end battle possible.

22—Black Panther

It’s such a shame for a movie of this pedigree to end with such a disappointing slop of a battle. Once again, the potential for a glorious, deeply philosophical ending was there, but it was given up in favor of…a literal catfight. The worst part is how terrible the graphics looked.

Captain America: Civil War introduced Black Panther with fantastic, kinetic action scenes that looked amazing. It’s so hard to believe that the effects that brought the eponymous hero of Black Panther to life fell so far so quickly by its end battle.

The only redeeming feature that puts it ahead of The Incredible Hulk was the absolutely wonderful ending moment where the two of them watched the sunset as Killmonger died. If we could have gotten more of that and less of the poor CGI and un-cinematic framing, this film could have shot up to one of the top locations on the list.

21—Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World was, on a whole, utterly forgettable. There was quite literally nothing special about it. On top of that, unfortunately, the sequel to Thor placed its titular hero against the most generic, boring villain in the history of the MCU. Malekith had no character development and no real motivation. His goal was as generic as wanting to ‘make everything dark’. I chose to place this end battle above that of Black Panther, not because Thor: The Dark World was a higher quality film, but because the inclusion of portals added a fairly interesting dynamic to this end battle.

20—Iron Man 2

The goal of Iron Man 2 was fairly simple and straightforward. Do what Iron Man did, but bigger. Instead of one hero in an Iron Man suit fighting against one villain in an Iron Man suit, they did two heroes in Iron Man suits fighting against one villain in an Iron Man suit and a few dozen drones in Iron Man suits. It’s really difficult to place the films that are from 21-17 on this list, being that they’re so unfortunately similar to each other, but I chose to place Iron Man 2 above Thor: The Dark World simply because the villain had more depth and motivation. Of course, he certainly could have and should have been developed more.

19—Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron followed the same path that Iron Man 2 did, with the goal of doing the same as Marvel’s The Avengers, but bigger. It’s also par for the course when it comes to having a potentially interesting villain that failed to live up to his potential. Scarlet Witch’s inclusion in the end battle, as well as Cliff Barton’s expanded role, were both more than welcome, and all together managed to just barely push the film past Iron Man 2 in this list.

18—Spider-Man: Homecoming

Peter Parker’s climactic showdown with the Vulture was yet another case of tech vs. tech. In this case, however, Spider-Man’s tech in the final battle was limited to his web-shooters. Honestly, the end battle wasn’t about the fight itself, but rather about Peter’s character arc. It was about him learning to be a responsible superhero… by doing the exact opposite of what Tony Stark demanded of him. Yeah, the message was a little muddled. I think the strength of this end battle, though, lies in Peter’s relationship with Liz Allan. The shared history they had, the emotional baggage, and the significance of the end battle in their real life, no matter who won, were all things that made the end battle so much more significant than that of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

17—Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America’s first adventure ended exactly how you would expect. A super-powered main character faced off against his evil twin. It’s not that interesting, even if you consider it a necessary moment to forward the plot, but the dialogue between them is certainly a bit of a highlight at times. What makes the end battle so outstanding is what happened after Red Skull was transported away. Steve Rogers decided to sacrifice himself by crashing the plane into the arctic ocean rather than let it ravage an inhabited city. That was certainly an emotional highlight that stayed with us long after the credits rolled and earned this film its place above Spider-Man: Homecoming.

16—Iron Man

I’m going to cut Iron Man some slack. It started the whole ball that is the MCU rolling. That being the case, we honestly can’t accuse it of being formulaic. And it certainly wasn’t a rehash. Even so, we’re dealing with a superhero in an advanced suit fighting against an evil mirror image of himself in an advanced suit. What I love so much about this film is that, unlike with the weaker entries such as The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World, it’s obvious that this end battle was tied directly into Tony Stark’s character arc. Later on, this would be considered formulaic, but for this list, it stands out against films such as Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk because it came first.


Come back next week to find the entries that place from fifteenth to eighth in this list. If you’re not already subscribed to my mailing list, then you can sign up at qjmartin.org/newsletter and have future issues sent directly to your inbox.

When Subverting Expectations Is A Good Idea

A more and more common creative choice for storytellers in our modern age is the practice of subverting expectations. What that means is that the audience goes into your story expecting one thing, and what you give them is something different.

The problem with this habit is that it is quickly overshadowing the quality choices that would make for better storytelling and more fulfilling arcs. In Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, for example, we are introduced to Rey, and one pivotal question is raised. Who are her parents? In the sequel, Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson has gone on record as saying that he wanted to provide the most shocking answer possible, one that no one would have seen coming. Her parents were nobody.

The problem isn’t that her parents have to be major players in this galactic saga. The problem is that the first movie as good as told us that the identity of her parents is important and that we should postulate on who they might be.

In like manner, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones shattered expectations by making it so that any character, whether top-billed or not, could die at any time. This was shocking and effective at first, yet now has become just as worthy of the title of trope as the original habit of having the main characters survive everything.

I’ve already talked at length in a previous article about the negatives of subverting expectations (Issue #005), so I’m not going to continue expressing my frustrations with this habit that so many writers have picked up. However, it’s surprisingly not all bad when it comes to the act of subverting expectations. Every so often there is a piece of storytelling that not only does a passable job at it but succeeds with flying colors.

How is it that these writers can pull this off when so many others have failed?

The key to subverting expectations successfully is that the unexpected events you include must be of greater entertainment value than what they expect.

Happy Death Day is one example of a movie that subverts expectations and turns out all the better for it. In it, Tree Gelbman is forced to repeat the same day over and over, a concept that was made popular by Groundhog Day, and has since appeared in a surprisingly large number of quality films, such as Edge of Tomorrow and Before I Fall.

The expectation that has developed from these multiple forays into the concept of a repeating day is that the main character, the one stuck in the time loop, must live a perfect day before he’s able to escape from it.

Happy Death Day leans into these expectations, having her struggle over and over to live a perfect day so that she can gain her freedom. She finally achieves her goal, wakes up the next morning, and discovers that she remains stuck.

This method of subverting expectations builds off of tired, over-played genre tropes. Such subversions of expectations are great for comedy, having been used to perfection in such films as RED, Cabin in the Woods, and the classic Airplane!

There are a couple of things to remember about these subversions of expectations.

First, they must play off of expectations that come from overuse. In other words, the events that are expected by the audience should not be the most enjoyable series of events for them to watch. When the audience has seen it all before, repeatedly, and the idea of their expectations bores them, maybe even making them roll their eyes as the story progresses, then giving them something unexpected, something greater, automatically elevates your story. The entertainment value of your story shoots through the roof, and those in the audience walk away feeling thoroughly entertained, willing to enjoy the story again and again.

On the other hand, if your audience is looking forward to their expectations, if they feel like the promised story is going to be fun and enjoyable, epic and amazing, then subverting those expectations will do nothing but turn your audience against you. Rather than adding to the viewers’ (or readers’) experiences, you are taking away the potential for their enjoyment, and don’t think the audience won’t call you out on it.

Think of the moment at the end of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens when Rey holds the lightsaber out for Luke to take. This lightsaber is important. It’s significant to the plot. After finishing the movie, we were forced to wait two whole years just to find out why it matters so much. That’s the foregone conclusion. That’s what the film promised us. There’s something to find out. It’s something epic. When you find out what it is, you’re going to be too giddy to continue watching.

Take note: this is not the time to subvert expectations.

When Luke finally takes the lightsaber in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, looks at it forlornly, then throws it over his shoulder and walks away, it is certainly a subversion of expectations. However, it does not add to the entertainment value of the film. Millions of Star Wars fans grew up on the epic story of Luke Skywalker, who transformed from a simple farm boy to a bad-ass wizard. We all wanted to see him become amazing, more amazing than Yoda, more amazing than Obi-Wan.

Taking that away from us by turning his character into the butt of a few meaningless jokes was not just a bad subversion of expectations. Rather, it was a robbery from the audience. It took a potentially epic and entertaining moment from the viewers and replaced it with a sight gag.


Remember, your audience is offering you a little bit of their valuable time. In return, they want to, above all else, be entertained. So, make sure that you give them the moments that they’re hoping for, and don’t detract from their experience just so that you can be unexpected. As long as you do that, then the times that you do choose to subvert expectations will be fresh and enjoyable.

How To Differentiate An Ensemble Cast

There are very few writing choices as risky as creating a novel with an ensemble cast. So much could go wrong, especially for the beginning writer. Yet, if done right, the rewards are more than equal to the challenge.

The question is, though, what is the secret to creating a satisfying ensemble cast?

Unique Characters

The key, in my opinion, is to give each character at least one major, unique characteristic.

For example, think of The Lord of the Rings. The story is set in a fantasy world that none of the readers can directly relate with. As such, it would be very easy for the characters to blend in with each other.

Four tall characters that live a long time? Ok. But do these characters all come off as the same?


Aragorn

Aragorn is a talented swordsman.

Gandalf

Gandalf is a wise and powerful wizard.

Legolas

Legolas is an exceptional archer.

Arwen

Arwen is willing to give up immortality for Aragorn.


Of course, we know that each of these characters holds a unique position in our memory. But they were also much easier to relate to. What about characters that aren’t so easy to relate to, such as the four little hobbits?


Frodo

Frodo is self-sacrificing and brave.

Samwise

Samwise is loyal to a fault.

Merry

Merry is a troublemaker with a deep-seated sense of duty and honor.

Pippin

Pippin is clumsy and brash, choosing to act before he thinks.


These four characters could have easily blended together and become indistinguishable from each other, but that’s not the case. While I might argue that Merry and Pippin were not necessarily easy to tell apart in The Fellowship of the Ring, even they eventually developed characteristics that stood out firmly from each other. Compare that with The Hobbit. There are thirteen dwarves in this story, and in the book, they are nearly indistinguishable. While the movie adaptations did make efforts to give them unique qualities, it didn’t help that they all had names that rhymed with each other or simply blended together in a list.

What if the entire cast is made of preteen youths? Well, think of Stephen King’s It. Read off the following list of words and tell me if every character doesn’t immediately pop into your head as clear as day:

  • Writer
  • Architect
  • Voice-Actor
  • Hypochondriac
  • Historian
  • Accountant
  • Designer

That’s not to mention their physical characteristics, such as stutterer, overweight, female, Jewish, or their interests, like birdwatching, smoking, etc. The point is, each character has multiple unique aspects that help them to stand out among what could have potentially been an identical cast of young children.

Try It Out

If you’re writing a novel with multiple main characters, then grab a piece of paper, or your favorite note-taking app, and put each of their names as a heading. Now try to give each of them one or two unique characteristics.

That doesn’t mean that they can’t all have something in common. For example, they could all love D&D, but one of them could be obsessed with writing the adventures, and another could love to do voices, and another could always be quick to run into things without thinking, with the whole group suffering the consequences. With a little bit of effort, you can develop a wide variety of colorful, interesting, and above all, memorable characters for your novel.