This blog post was originally published on the old Word Foreword on December 26th, 2017.
Over the last two weeks or so we've been re-watching the Avengers movies for the inevitable release of Avengers: Infinity War. A meme going around mapped out a calendar to watch one film each week to sync up with the culmination of Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU movies do quite a few things right; they have great characters, settings, plots (most of the time) but more importantly, they do something that no other film franchise had done before; create a simultaneous and connected film universe that sprawls other films, brands, and series. If you're here, you probably already knew that. The MCU is one of the most groundbreaking and intricate concepts that hits on a previous topic I wrote about; scope.
So, how does the MCU keep pulling these things off correctly? How do they continually up the stakes without letting the scope get beyond their reach 17 movies deep? The answer lies in the diversity of scope. My last post assumed that you knew what scope was – and that was presumptuous of me.
Scope is directly related to the size of the threat or obstacle in your plot. In that original post, my highlighted flaw was with Doctor Who and cited that many episodes over the last several years threaten not only the world, not just the galaxy or the universe but time and space itself. That's a vast scope, isn't it? And that's cool – it's exciting! That's a HUGE threat, and you can write a LOT about it! Here's the problem; audiences tend to want a bigger scope. Once you've threatened all of time, space, every dimension, every alternate universe; what do you have next? What's left for the next episode/movie/book? Not a lot.
The MCU is already (as of this writing) 17 films big. It also spans 5 seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., 2 seasons of Agent Carter, 2 seasons of Daredevil, and 1 season each of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher, and The Defenders spinoff. That's a lot of content to spread around. But, for the most part, the MCU continues to maintain its size and meaning in a lot of ways.
In my original post (here), I wrote a little about the MCU and its strengths and weaknesses in scope. Strength being that all the standalone Phase One movies were very personable and small in scope, which culminated in The Avengers which highlighted the grand gesture that Marvel was trying to enact while not getting out of hand. The weakness being that Avengers: Age of Ultron didn't really follow that up in the proper scope. Age of Ultron felt much more personable (directly with Ultron being a villain created by Tony Stark) than grand.
So what is the diversity of scope? If scope is the size or obstacle, then diversity of scope is the pan of all the different threats in your story. Most stories have more than one story to follow; in Avengers one of the stories is to get and maintain control of the Hulk while the main story follows Loki and the Tesseract opening a portal to another world. The Hulk is quite the threat, but the size of that threat in this movie is small compared to Loki summoning an alien army.
Let's go back to the Phase One movies. These are all really personal stories about the four main Avengers. Thor follows the Asgardian as he screws up, gets banished from his home, and learns and grows while he struggles to find a way home. Yes, he's a god from another world. Yes, he has a magic hammer. Yes, a giant alien robot comes to Earth to try and kill him. That's a pretty large scope, right? Wrong! Thor only really interacts with a handful of people, his brother Loki doesn't really kill anyone, and that giant alien robot lands in a desert and barely makes it into a town that seems to have less than a thousand people. The world at large is never really threatened or in any kind of actual danger. The scope of the plot is relatively small.
The Avengers, on the other hand, provides a threat (Loki, again, but this time with new toys) capable of laying waste to the majority of downtown New York City and has a great potential for being a threat to the whole planet (enter Chitauri army). The scope is so large that six heroes are forced to come together to manage the threat. This makes the audience feel like there is a real threat. You've seen these characters and how strong, smart, and "super" they are – what force could feel like a threat to one, let alone six, of them?
A lot of you may be thinking; great! But you said the audience always wants bigger! We're 17 movies in and that's only film number 6! How did they maintain the rest? Well, as strange as it sounds, they didn't! This is the most interesting thing about the scope of the MCU. Think about this; after The Avengers was Iron Man 3 which saw Tony Stark explore part of his past. This is a more personal story. It has a bigger scope than Iron Man 2 (who's villain was from Stark's father's past) because it sees Tony struggling with the events of The Avengers. If Iron Man 3 had aliens invading again and upped the stakes from The Avengers why wouldn't Tony have called Cap and Thor back?
The MCU works because each movie is part of a series that's part of a bigger series. Iron Man 3 doesn't want to have bigger stakes than The Avengers. It wants to have bigger stakes than Iron Man 2 which allows it to cheat the audiences' expectations of "what's bigger scope?" This is a wild outcome, and something that seems to be exclusive to this "cinematic universe" format, but is great for storytelling.
Scope is one of my favorite aspects of stories, and it's something I put quite a bit of time and effort into in my work. It's easy to get lost in the story or to just put "cool scenes" in there. But it's important to me that the threat and the obstacles fit correctly into the story I'm trying to tell and the themes I put into my pages. It's fun to right small scope, personal stories that feel deeper and imposing – they're some of my favorites. In a future post, I'll talk about my all-time favorite type of scope.