I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron the other day and quite enjoyed it. The film had problems, though, and ones that any writer can relate to. I’ve always admired Joss Whedon for his work on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as well as projects like a modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, and of course the first Avengers film. Avengers was taut because Whedon had a definite focus: showing how these heroes, and egos, learn to respect each other and work as a team. But past that, where do you go in a superhero film? Age of Ultron features more of everything: more action, more explosions, and more humour. Whedon is a funny guy, no doubt, but in AOU his heroes are so relaxed in the face of peril that they’re perpetually wise-cracking. Even the villain is witty to the extent that he never gathers any sense of threat. Yes, there are some good moments of character development in between the action, but they feel overshadowed by the need to pump things up, up, up so that AOU isn’t overshadowed by its predecessor.
It’s the same challenge that leads to comic book writers embracing Batman and warily regarding Superman. The latter can only be challenged by other worldly threats, and is a natural hero, whereas Batman is mortal, driven by grief, and has a host of psychological issues to chew on. AOU stumbles because Whedon already found the right balance with Avengers, but the public doesn’t want to watch the same thing twice. Problem is when you turn a few jokes into lots of jokes then you shoot past diminishing returns, and start actively hurting your work. I think this reflects a greater trend in modern fiction, too. New authors should end every chapter with a cliff-hanger, to start work in media res, and to regard any lull as the potential loss of a reader. Probably the same folk who council you to cap short stories with a twist. This has led to the average reader’s expectation of instant gratification climbing, just as much as what they are willing to pay continues to drop.
So is this a call for more beard-stroking, literary efforts? Not as such. The advice to maintain momentum in your work isn’t automatically bad, but the demand for more, better, and faster, assumes that the audience know exactly what they want. I’m in danger of sounding condescending (arrogant, conceited, take your pick) here, but sometimes a writer is just as much a parent. Your reader may be baying for more pirate ships and plundering, but you know they’ve reached their RDA for swashbuckling today and serve up something else. Otherwise they’ll get bored, and while that boredom may be a surprise to them, as they got exactly what they asked for, you don’t have that excuse. This is the age old danger of not showing your work to anyone before it’s finished, for fear they may influence it, but magnified by a thousand because these days many authors are instantly contactable. Like any parent, you have to develop the unique kind of hearing which is deaf to selfish demands but open to genuine thoughts and concerns.