Monday, May 7, 2012

Avengers - making introductions and re-introductions more than just exposition

It's been a while since I've discussed the importance of introducing characters in an interesting way.  I think sometimes weak openings comes as a result of the writer's inability to put themselves in the audience's shoes and recall that THIS is the moment that makes the first impression.

After all, the writer has lived with their character for weeks or months, so in their mind, this first scene just has to get the character on-screen.

I couldn't help but think of this during the opening half-hour of The Avengers, which has the task of introducing nearly a dozen major characters who have previously appeared in other Marvel films, either as headliners and supporting characters.  But the filmmakers would be wrong to assume that everyone buying a ticket to this film would have seen all or even ANY of the other movies.

And obviously, it's to the film's financial benefit that the movie appeal to audiences beyond the core Marvel fans.  So that forces the movie to introduce these characters as if it's the first time the audience has met them - without completely boring those viewers familiar with the earlier movies.

It's harder than it sounds, but I think the script did a pretty solid job of telling us everything we need to know for the sake of this movie.

First, there's a scene at a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. research center.  Here we introduce the Tesseract (previously an element in Thor and Captain America) and showcase that it's basically a mysterious and powerful form of energy.  Sure, we could trace the whole history of this thing, but it's really not that important.  In other words, screening the prior two films is unnecessary.

Loki shows up, and it's obvious that he's the villain of the piece.  He puts a few characters under his mind control spell and blows up the base, with Nick Fury and Agent Colson among those who get out in time.

So in the first few minutes we have: Villain, MacGuffin, Heroic Mastermind, Sidekick, and Brainwashed Hero.  Do we know Loki's full history or everything that Fury's got his hands in - but we know enough and they were introduced in a context that allows the audience not to feel lost.

Director Fury decides to activate the Avenger Initiative, which necessitates a series of scenes in which each member is met in turn.

- Black Widow is given a great sequence in which she appears to be a prisoner, only to turn the tables and kick ass without breaking much of a sweat.

- Then, Black Widow tracks down Dr. Banner in India, where's he's been living below the radar.  The exposition here is more dialogue-driven than visual, but the dialogue takes a turn that's either cryptic (if you're ignorant of Banner's "Hulk" alter-ego) or foreboding (if you know what they're referring to.  Either way, a couple important points are made: Banner's being recruited for his smarts, BW is very concerned about his temper, and that concern led her to bring an entire special forces team with her.

- Captain America admittedly gets one of the more mundane introductions, in addition to one of the more dialogue-laden ones.  The exposition here is more than made up for by the time we see him in action though

- And of course, Tony "Iron Man" Stark makes his debut while finishing up some technical doo-dad that we're told will turn his tower into a source of clean energy.  A lot of points are made here, including showcasing Tony's armor, reminding the audience of his relationship with Pepper Potts, and establishing both his "billionaire genius philathropist" persona.  There's also a fair amount of Tony's cocky showboating.  And of ALL the characters, I feel he's the most firmly established via just his intro scene.

Why do I say this? Because while you might argue that some dialogue given to other characters could be easily transposed to another character, there's not a single line of Tony's that could be swapped out to someone else as written.  His "voice" permeates everything he says.  If someone else would have to say something given to Tony, the rewrite would need to go further than just changing the character name above the line.

Other than Captain America, pretty much every character gets a opening scene that either conveys their function in the story, or the conflict that will define them throughout the script.  (In a few cases, we get both.)  Better still, most of those moments are entertaining scenes in their own right, either through comedy or tension.

In the wrong hands, the first half-hour could have been a bore while the viewers of previous films waited for the new audience members get caught up to speed.

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