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April 25, 2018

Arc of Triumph

by Ross M. Kitson

Image from MovieWeb
This week marks the release of Avengers 3: Infinity War, which I’m sure everyone with a social media account/ television/ eyes/ ears/ child is aware of. For those with only a passing interest in pumped-up actors fighting through a CGI saturated environment, you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes and wondering what all the fuss is about. Yet beyond the likely movie profits that’ll rival the GDP of a small third world nation, I think the Avengers 3 marks a key moment in movie history—the culmination of a movie plot.

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Most of us are familiar with the concept of story arcs as applied to books and TV series. A story arc is a plot device which over-arches a set of individual stories within the series, which all the stories will either contribute to or will have small side-scenes or events that do so. In my mind, it’s distinct from the ongoing plot of episodic series where each episode furthers a story but does not conclude within the time of said episode. So, for example, Lord of the Rings has a plot that drives the series (about the One Ring), a few sub-plots, but no resolution at the end of the individual three books. Compare this to the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson where each book can stand alone, but events contribute to a larger story arc. Indeed, Harry Potter can be seen as the story arc leading to Harry’s ultimate battle with Voldemort.

In television series, the story arc is commonly used to allow individual episodes to be their own tales but to build up a larger plot usually towards a season finale. The writers of the modern sci-fi series Doctor Who embraced this concept, and this was a marked contrast to the older seasons before its rebirth. For example, the whole of season one had references towards a ‘Bad Wolf’ which ultimately turned out to be Dr Who’s sentient spacecraft warning him about the Dalek trap in the season finale. Other examples would include the UK version of Life on Mars, and Ashes to Ashes; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Firefly, and pretty much any soap opera on the TV (would that make the series that I love ‘space opera?’). I read somewhere that Hill Street Blues was one of the first series to have story arcs, and oddly I do recall loving that about the programme—the way little nuggets of the plot would pop up in the episodes and then magically coalesce into a major plot event later in the season. St Elsewhere, another childhood favourite of mine, did exactly the same.

Image from TV Tropes
Back to Avengers 3, and how I feel it occupies such a significant position in movie history. The Marvel Cimenatic Universe works on so many levels, but most interestingly it works for the fans of comics. In the 1960s Marvel weren’t the first to have their superheroes popping up in each other’s issues, but they were the first that had them all existing in the same place. These cameos set the tone for Marvel comics throughout the 70s and 80s, and ultimately led to the ‘event’ comics which have started to get rather onerous now. An event comic has some major occurrence in the Marvel Universe that pulls in heroes from numerous titles into its plot (an example being the Civil War comic which pit Iron Man’s guys against Captain America’s guys, and was emulated in Captain America 3: Civil War). The cynic would put the ‘event comic’ down as a major sales booster, wherein a fan of a certain comic book would buy comics from less well liked teams as it all fed into the same ‘event.’

For me, in comics, the masters of the story arcs were Chris Claremont and Jon Byrne whose work on the Uncanny X-men in the early eighties established the popularity of the mutant team. Each issue had its story, occasionally drifting into a two or three parter, but with little plot nuggets that set up a larger plot arc. The Dark Phoenix story represents the best example of that—we had a slow build up with Jean Grey being re-born as Phoenix, little episodes where we learned more of her power, and then strange time-slips where she became drawn in by the Hellfire Club, and finally the finale where she loses the plot and becomes Dark Phoenix, ultimately ending in tragedy. The X-men films tried to follow this, and probably will try again, but the shorter culmination of the plotlines that they follow and the convoluted continuity of the films just haven’t worked for me.

Image from io9
So how have the MCU films done it? Quite simply they’ve taken their time and built up their universe. Eighteen films to date netting nearly fifteen billion dollars began with Iron Man 1. They hit the ground running with the charismatic Robert Downey Junior, a fab plot, and a tone that felt much like the previously best superhero movies—the Spiderman trilogy by Sam Raime. It could have just remained as a great superhero film except for the inclusion of S.H.I.E.L.D and the inference that more events were occurring out with the plot of Iron Man. I can recall the buzz of seeing the post-credits scene, now a mainstay for MCU movies, and Nick Fury meeting Tony Stark and saying, “You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr Stark, you’ve just become part of bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” So here were our first hints of the story arc—the phase one arc which ran through Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: First Avenger, and finishes with Avengers 1. What a great film that was, with the additional ‘minor’ characters of Black Widow and Hawkeye (who’d popped up in Thor, and Iron Man 2) complimenting the big-hitters.

The end of Avengers gave us the first glimpse of Thanos, a name and image that would crop up through Phase Two and Phase Three of the MCU movies, latterly with the (sometimes contrived) appearances of the Infinity Stones. These six stones will form the key plot device for the Avengers 3 film, having featured now in Captain America, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor and Dr Strange. Originally seen in the comics as the Soul Stones and hunted by Thanos since the 1970s, they were part of a major ‘event’ when linked to the Infinity Gauntlet, which we now know Thanos has popped on in anger at the end of Avengers 2. As an aside, we know five of the stones have featured thus far, but the location of number six… the soul stone… is still a mystery (well, until Friday).

Image from Variety
To build a plot up over eighteen films is a remarkable achievement and one that I’m certain Fox with its X-men franchise (which of course now includes Deadpool), and Warner Brothers’ DC extended universe would be desperate to emulate. Does it boil down to the expert marketing of the Disney-Marvel machine, the rather biased reviewing of non-MCU films in the media, or simply that the MCU films are more consistent and keep a narrative between them, rather than chopping and changing like X-men and DCEU? Who knows, but once the phase three finishes in a few years with Avengers 4, and Marvel’s MCU enters a new era with a fresh phase and fresh plot arc we’ll find out.

To be continued as they say in the comics!

Ross M. Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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