This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Age Of Ultron and various other comic book movies – if you’re not entirely up to date, then watch out as you read on…
As you know, we’re enjoying a golden age of comic book movies and there are around 30 more of them pencilled in before the decade is out. Since Marvel Studios started experimenting with continuity between movies and whole franchises, there’s been criticism of its use of MacGuffins and plot exposition – it provokes nightmares of long-winded recaps of already established stuff, starting with dreaded phrases like “as you know.” And who’d start anything with those three words?
It’s not that we’re mistaking the use of exposition for poor storytelling – it’s a super-broad term to describe something that’s kind of essential to most stories. It can work well or poorly no matter what the approach. Subtle exposition can either give context to the story without breaking stride, or go sailing over the audience’s heads. Equally, blatant expository dialogue can either clang horribly in the moment, or hang a lampshade on why it’s so necessary.
Infamously, Michael York’s M figure in Austin Powers is called Basil Exposition and he lives up to both his name and his counterpart in the James Bond films. We’ll submit that there’s no finer example of cinematic exposition than when Basil explains time travel in the second film by telling Austin (and the audience) “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.”
One or two traditional outlets could stand to take that advice when watching and then writing about comic book movies, because for all of the think-pieces about how confusing these movies are, there are definitely those who look down on blockbuster storytelling for one reason or another.
At the same time, the visual wonder of putting a comic book splash page into live action is sometimes mitigated by the differences of storytelling in the medium. There are no handy pop out boxes referring to previous issues in Avengers: Age Of Ultron or X-Men: Days Of Future Past, although it sometimes felt like they could’ve used them well.
But what of the truly confusing exposition dumps? Even if you’re au fait with the source material, sometimes a comic book movie can straight up make you go “… eh?” This is our look at the areas in which superhero storytelling can fall down.
Your mileage may vary on Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie, even when it comes to the widely acclaimed opening title sequence. Before we’re even introduced to the characters, we get a potted 50-year history of the alternate timeline that perfectly sets the tone for the film. Likewise, the concentration camp prologue to X-Men (and reprised in X-Men: First Class) immediately makes you sit up and realise that you’re in for a different kind of comic book movie.
On the other hand, a film like Warner Bros’ Green Lantern doesn’t fare quite as well in its extended introduction, starting with narration by Geoffrey Rush’s Tomar-Re, which explains the function of the Green Lantern Corps and provides backstory about Parallax. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring pulled this kind of thing off quite well, but it’s all information that comes up later.
With Green Lantern, we could also point out how there’s little in the subsequent scene showing the death of young Hal Jordan’s father that comes to bear much on the plot that follows, but at least that part is dramatised. First and foremost, the movie’s approach to the whole space opera thing is to lay a bunch of narration on the viewer in the first five minutes.
Narration isn’t always used badly – the running gag of Tony Stark telling the story of Iron Man 3 to Bruce Banner pays off nicely at the very end and, if for some reason you really feel like writer/director Shane Black needed to excuse himself here, it might even explain the perceived goofiness of the film in comparison to its predecessors.
However, voiceover is often used in post-production to cover gaps and plotholes left by scenes that are no longer in the movie, so it’s not usually a good sign when it comes to pure exposition. Marvel have been guilty of this too – both Thor films start with Anthony Hopkins doing story time, but the sequel in particular leans on using this scene to introduce the film’s MacGuffin, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Introducing characters and their powers
“Show, don’t tell” comes up often in storytelling and one major similarity between films and comics is that both are visual mediums, so it’s relatively simple to visually articulate characters’ superpowers and abilities in the adaptation. To give credit where it’s due, Green Lantern does just fine in showing how Hal can manifest things from his imagination using his power ring, even if we’d have liked him to be a little more imaginative at times.
When we get to crossover movies like The Avengers, the characters’ power sets are elaborated upon by putting them alongside each other for scale. For instance, Thor can knack Iron Man in a fight, but has a harder time holding his own against the Hulk. On the more expository levels, Age Of Ultron has Maria Hill’s marvellously pithy introduction of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – “he’s fast, she’s weird.”
Some films are so adept at showing rather than telling, they never bother to explain powers. Most of the Superman movies to date have taken the lead character’s omnipotence in their stride, expecting that if the audience believes a man can fly, they’ll also believe he can then fly around the world so fast that he travels back in time. By the time of Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, you might have trouble believing that a man can create bricks and reconstruct the Great Wall of China with his eyes, but that’s for a different article.
Elsewhere, especially in sequels, some movies put too much into having characters explain other characters to each other by way of introduction. We see Bane very early in The Dark Knight Rises, but we haven’t the foggiest idea of where Alfred gets his Wikipedia article on the villain to read out to Bruce in the Batcave. It’s certainly very comprehensive in linking him back to the plot of Batman Begins. The sudden but inevitable betrayal of Talia al Ghul (nee. Miranda Tate) jars at the end of the film too, but it’s not so strange as Michael Caine’s History of Bane.
Spider-Man 3 also has a very clunky way of introducing Sandman after we’ve already seen his supervillain origin story, with the much-maligned retcon that turns him into Uncle Ben’s killer. Over the course of three films, Spidey’s circle of allies and antagonists is pretty much reduced to Peter Parker’s Facebook friend list, but that’s not the worst or most confusing piece of exposition in that movie.
And on the other side of that scale thing that The Avengers did so well, look at how X-Men: The Last Stand introduces a hitherto unmentioned classification system of mutant powers for the express purpose of turning each of the characters into Top Trumps cards. The Phoenix-powered Jean Grey is now a “level 5,” rather than just being an incredibly powerful character who has already been seen to flippantly claim Professor X and Cyclops for the back of her deck.
The Superman films may have had it right with this one – the second you say “Superman can’t,” the most obvious retort is that “Superman can’t do anything that he does.” On the other hand, trying to over-explain this sort of thing in a visual medium can be a bit of a drag.
On the subject of dragging, the ever-increasing running times of tentpole films can be seen to lead to baggy second acts all round. One rule of thumb is that blockbuster movie scripts seldom go ten pages without a set piece, but unless you’re Mad Max: Fury Road, a breather becomes necessary to maintain that pace.
The clunkiest of these will find the film parking the main plot instead of continuing the momentum. As many criticised in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that Thor goes off on a vision quest with Dr. Selvig at a particularly low point in the team’s troubles, and the exposition that leads to the creation of the Vision ahead of the third act hardly defogs the confusion.
The Infinity Stones are obviously Marvel’s big gambit, but they’ve been best used in Captain America: The First Avenger and Guardians Of The Galaxy, where the separate gems were MacGuffins and the heroes (especially in the latter) didn’t particularly care about their purpose. So it becomes necessary to let the Earthbound Avengers know what’s going on, even after the Guardians got a better picture of this one film earlier.
All praise be to Joss Whedon for handling Age Of Ultron in such a way that it stands as its own film while still being open at both ends to the larger universe. But it was still cut down in post-production, rendering Thor’s bath detour somewhat incoherent in the finished film.
Looking back at an earlier point in Marvel’s grand plan, Iron Man 2 really relegates the main threat of Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer to some terminally quirky cutaways for around 30 minutes of screen time, so that Tony can work through his daddy issues and the most 12A version of a chemical dependency imaginable as he aims to synthesize a new element.
This part of the film is often criticised for being a setup for The Avengers, but Nick Fury, Black Widow and Agent Coulson are only there to forward Tony’s internal quest for a MacGuffin, which does no service to a main plot that was already underpowered and doesn’t come back around in the team-up movie either.
As to the dependency angle, we didn’t need Iron Man 2 to be an adaptation of the acclaimed Tony vs. alcohol arc Demon In A Bottle from the comics, but after the earlier raucous party scene, it would have made a little more sense for Tony to be wrestling with booze than with the alchemical cul de sac we got instead.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has an almost identical dad-related detour with even less stimulus, with the ongoing retcon to make Peter destined to be Spider-Man by his father’s experiments. As in Iron Man 2, the villains are left with no one to talk with but each other while Spidey swans off trying to find out why his blood’s so important. It all feels a bit Batman Forever again.
But the exposition, when it comes via a video message from the dear departed Richard Parker, doesn’t clear anything up and doesn’t add anything into the plot of what would turn out to be an abortive arc. While future generations may be frustrated by the dangling threads of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 because they never led anywhere, it doesn’t feel like there was ever going to be a pay-off any more satisfying than the build-up.
Anyway, back on topic…
So let’s look at the big guns of clunky exposition in comic book movies – the wonky plot turns that are backed up by even wonkier dialogue. Having thoroughly over-explained how we got here, it’s time to look at why some examples just prang the whole movie by not making any sense whatsoever.
Some of them just tug on an otherwise unnoticed plot thread and leave a gaping plothole. X-Men Origins: Wolverine has Major Stryker unveil an adamantium bullet that he believes will pierce Logan’s adamantium skull. But the moment at which he chooses to give this particular piece of exposition unpicks everything that happens before it.
Let’s set aside how Stryker has just spent millions on making Logan indestructible and then when he can’t wipe his memory, he tries to destroy him. No, the adamantium bullet business is so silly because it comes directly after a scene where Agent Zero, whose mutant power seems to be marksmanship, fails to kill Logan. Just from telling us that he had it, and that “Zero never stood a chance”, you’re left trying to follow Stryker’s logic all the way through until Deadpool shows up (we’re leaving that one alone.)
Other scenes aim to clarify something we’ve already seen, but only contradict and obscure things further. We’ve already mentioned Sandman killing Uncle Ben in Spider-Man 3, but at least there was wiggle room there, even if it rang false from a character perspective.
Sam Raimi’s heavily compromised third film has more than its share of clunky moments, but there’s nothing so baffling in any of the Spidey movies (Amazing or actually good) as the scene in which John Paxton’s character, who hasn’t really had a line before this film, regales his young charge with a monologue about how Norman Osborn must have died by his own hand, because his wounds were consistent with being stabbed by his own glider.
You would think that Harry would be furious that his butler’s watched him obsess over hating Spider-Man for a number of years now, to the point of self-experimentation and facial disfigurement, without piping up about this little nugget of information. But there’s a finale coming up and that little bit of exposition is just going to have to cover it.
It’s a staggeringly terrible shortcut to help Harry come around to the good side in time for the last battle, which ignores all sorts of things that have been established up to this point in favour of ruthlessly advancing the plot. Given all that we know about this film’s production, it’s possible that the scene was a reshoot to patch over deleted scenes, but at best, it’s a stretch, and at worst, it’s not great writing.
And then there are just hot messes of comic book movies where even fairly understandable things become grossly confused in the delivery. There’s nothing particularly confusing about what’s being said in Frank Miller’s The Spirit, when our hero discovers that his own origin was just a side effect of his arch-enemy’s plans to become immortal. But why are Samuel L Jackson and Scarlett Johansson dressed as Nazis in that scene?
It’s a nice easy shorthand as villainy goes, but if Miller really wanted to have a scene where characters dressed up as Nazis for no reason, you wouldn’t think that they’d try to tell us anything important at the same time. The Greek mythology behind the Octopus’ plan proves less confusing than his wardrobe choice, but then that shouldn’t be a surprise given how The Spirit turned out.
As we know, exposition really is a very broad term for a storytelling necessity and one that comes across as particularly important in comic book movies, whether they’re establishing unfamiliar worlds for a new audience or establishing a long continuity between features.
When a film has to stand on its own merits, the more confusing exposition dumps can be used as a stick to beat the genre with as a whole, but if we’re going to get nitpicky about this sort of thing, then there’s going to be less fun in going to watch them. Bottom line? We suggest you don’t worry about such things and try to enjoy yourselves. At the same time, please send your answers on a postcard if you understand that whole Nazi party thing…