Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Loud & clear - but case not proven

I see a lot about “show don’t tell” on the Internet. Suddenly everybody has writing advice to offer, and the trouble is that most of it is wrong. Here’s an example of would-be show-not-tell from Age of Ultron - a movie that I’ve already been thoroughly unkind about but its carcass is still twitching and my blood is up, so here goes.

Spoilers ahead, by the way.

You know the scene I really liked? Thor puts Mjölnir on the coffee table and everybody has a go at lifting it. In the comics (I’m sure you know this; I’ll say it anyway) there’s an inscription on the side of the hammer: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

Even before making the attempt, Tony Stark proves himself unworthy with his crack about reinstating jus primae noctis. And there’s a lovely character bit a little further on. You know the moment I mean. Anyway, nobody gets to wield the hammer and that’s that. Nice moment in between all the surround-sound action. Except, this isn’t just a character scene, it’s the set-up for something that comes later:

Now then. The Vision gives Thor his hammer back. (Yeah, I did mention spoilers, didn’t I.) You know why that's there. Because Joss Whedon has a dump truck full of characters to cram into this movie. Even worse, the Vision has been created in almost the exact same circumstances as Ultron, and he’s the reason everyone is running about and shouting jokes at each other. So how do we show that the Vision is worthy? Why, by having him pick up Thor’s hammer.

Except – that doesn’t show us, it tells us. When Cap budges the hammer slightly, that draws on many scenes from earlier movies where we’ve seen that he’s just about as decent a human being as you're ever going to meet. (Steve Rogers don't break no bad guys' necks.) There's another one of those scenes later in the movie, when Cap refuses to evacuate Laputa or whatever it's called and leave thousands to die. But the Vision – well sure, I know he’s worthy ‘cause I’ve read the comics. But in the context of this movie, all we see is that he is able to pick up an item that we’ve been told detects a character’s moral goodness. It’s second hand. We don’t see him do anything to earn it. We shouldn’t feel something just because Mjölnir tells us it’s so. Show us the thing itself, Joss, not the label.

There was no other way to do it, of course. The finale was roaring in like a juggernaut (but not the Juggernaut, which would have been fun) and we already know the whole team will have a big CGI fight with lots of jokes and then kill Ultron. So we just need to get rid of the annoying inner voice that’s saying, “What, you’re going to trust this red robot? Sorry, synthezoid. You just met him!” So it’s: look, he can pick up Thor’s hammer. So shut up and eat your popcorn.

As we left he cinema, my friend Rob Rackstraw said, “A movie like that is a hell of a thing to land safely.” And indeed it is. But a dog walking on its hind legs is also doing something pretty tricky, and there I’m with Dr Johnson.

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