What I’ve Learned About Storytelling from the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Two years ago, I was a Marvel novice. I had only watched bits and pieces of random Marvel movies with my boyfriend, Josh. It wasn’t until Infinity War and Endgame that I became immersed in the film series, as those were the first I watched in theaters.

Weird? I know. Try knowing what happens to Tony, Cap, and Nat and then going back to watch all the films in chronological order for the first time. 😦

Over the course of the past year, Josh and I have been going through each Marvel movie of the current cinematic universe, and I’ve picked up tips about storytelling along the way. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Lesson 1: The Best Heroes Aren’t Perfect

When I first started watching Marvel movies seriously, I fell head-over-heels for Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) in The First Avenger. He was my instant fave, and I thought he’d always be my fave, until I was introduced to Tony Stark in Iron Man. Over the course of the film series, I found that Tony has a more interesting character arc. Why?

Morally Gray, Imperfect Character

The thing about Tony Stark is that when we first meet him, he’s shown as a selfish playboy who uses his vast amount of resources to do whatever the heck he wants. As the series progresses, we find there are many layers to Tony, and that deep down, he is a truly caring individual who will fight to protect others, no matter the cost.

The extreme contrast between the original Tony Stark and our final image of him makes for a brilliant and irresistible character arc, which I feel is why Iron Man is one of the most beloved characters in the MCU.

Am I Hating on Cap?

No, I still love Cap to death, but I wasn’t as impressed by his heroism as the others because it always seemed to be an innate characteristic of his from the first time we see him. In The First Avenger, he wants to fight for freedom so badly that he gets genetically altered so he can join the military.

The only time I can remember Cap making a questionable decision (and please correct me if I’m wrong in the comments, because I have only seen each movie once), is in Captain America: Civil War, when he doesn’t want the government controlling the actions of the Avengers, taking the side that the Avengers have the best judgment when it comes to fighting crime. Even then, Cap made the decision believing firmly in his conscience that it would benefit the most people.

This doesn’t make him a bland character, per say; it just doesn’t give him as strong of a character arc as Tony or some others. I like Cap and Tony equally, but this shows how having characters who grow for the better throughout the series captivates the audience.

Lesson 2: Tone Plays an Important Role

Before Josh and I began watching Marvel movies regularly, we watched a few DC films. No offense to any hardcore DC fans out there, but I just can’t get into most of those movies, with the exception of Aquaman.

Some of y’all are gonna laugh (or roll your eyes) when I explain why I’m able to focus more on, and enjoy Marvel movies, more than DC’s:

…they’re not as dark.

I know, Batman has this whole aesthetic and all, BUT I CAN’T SEE WHAT’S GOING ON.

Or, in most cases, I fall asleep. The #1 rule of storytelling is to captivate your audience. Cultivating sleepers is a big no no.

Marvel, on the other hand, features bright and spunky color schemes, making me feel energized when I watch MCU movies.

I know what you’re thinking: “What the heck does this have to do with writing, Allyson?” Well, buddy, let me tell you.

Tone Sets the Mood

DC oftentimes has a dark aesthetic to convey the more serious tones of their films. On the other hand, Marvel uses a variance of colors to allow for a range of emotions to be shown. We as writers can accomplish the same thing through our descriptions and dialogue that film studios portray through film.

Though the nature of superhero movies are mostly serious due to genre expectations, MCU movies make an effort to incorporate humor, thereby sifting lighter tones into the mix to lessen the tension when needed. This practice is oftentimes referred to as comic relief, and may be central to one character. For example, in the MCU, we often receive comic relief from Groot, Rocket, Peter Parker, and Thor (mostly drunk Thor 😛 ).

Writers who watch MCU movies can learn how and when to incorporate humor into the story without taking away from the serious scenes. This knowledge helped a ton when I was writing The Fall, which deals with tough topics such as grief and depression.

Humor Humanizes Characters

A major reason that stands out to me as to why the MCU seems to draw in more attention than DC films is that their incorporation of humor and lightheartedness helps humanize the superheroes rather than put them on a pedestal where no one can relate to them.

Again, I don’t claim to be an expert on DC films or charcters, but from the bits and pieces I’ve seen, Batman has always came across as robotic, and Superman too perfect. I could relate to Aquaman more, because his story was more character-driven.

Meanwhile in Marvel, Bruce Banner deals with depression. Tony Stark deals with pride. Cap deals with grief and loneliness. Thor struggles with a sense of worthlessness. Etc., etc.

These characters have struggles regular people like you and I can relate to, making them more memorable and enticing to follow.

Lesson 3: Cameos/Collabs With Other Characters Within the Universe are Golden

The coolest thing about Marvel, to me, is when characters from different standalone movies meet and their stories intertwine. In essence, this is what all of the Avengers movies do, and as the series progresses, more and more characters come back to fight alongside these heroes.

There’s something irresistible to readers about our favorite characters popping in unexpectedly in another work. The queen of Contemporary YA Romance, Sarah Dessen, does this in her standalone novels and it’s something I’ve incorporated into my own books. And, believe it or not, true fans will notice. They’ll feel like they’ve been let in on an inside joke of the author’s because they know this cameo’s backstory.

As I said earlier, the #1 rule of storytelling is to captivate your audience. What better way to do that than to sprinkle in nuggets you already know readers enjoy into new stories to spice things up?

How to Organically Insert Cameos

It’s not even that hard to do. Of course, if you’re wanting this cameo to play a major part, you need to give them a believable reason to be there and make sure their presence moves the plot forward; however, as McCall Hoyle does in Meet the Sky, she has her protagonist have a short conversation with the main character from her debut novel, The Thing With Feathers, in the hall at school and leaves it at that. Even brief cameos can still make readers squeal because their beloved character is back!

Let’s Recap!

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taught me the following about storytelling:

  • Lesson One: The Best Heroes Aren’t Perfect
  • Lesson Two: Tone Plays an Important Role
  • Lesson Three: Cameos/Collabs With Other Characters Within the Universe are Golden

Talk to Me, Arrowheads!

What else have Marvel movies taught you about storytelling? If you’re a DC fan, please comment with what they have taught you about storytelling as well. Again, I am not an expert on either film franchise, so I’d love to hear your thoughts. Today’s lessons are just things I’ve picked up on and my opinions.

Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.

-Allyson 😀

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As an author and blogger, my goal is to teach writers that there is a way to write realistic, thought-provoking, redemptive Christian fiction that honors God while not sugarcoating the realities of the world. 

6 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Storytelling from the Marvel Cinematic Universe

  1. Tony and Steve’s respective character arcs are one of my favorite things about the MCU- along with Nebula, Rocket and Thor and Loki’s relationship. I feel like while Tony’s arc was embracing that he was indeed the person who would and did make the sacrifice play Steve’s was really about letting go of the need and desire to prove himself as that person.

    The MCU is so good on many levels I feel like it doesn’t really get the accolades it deserves for character work and writing across so many movies especially. As much of a DC fan as I am they just cannot compete!

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  2. Great post, Allyson! Though, part of what I liked about Cap was that his arc was just being so straightforward about being good and having to deal with how complicated that can be. His villains go from obvious Nazis, to hidden in Shield, to his own well meaning friends.

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  3. I absolutely love this! 💚💚 I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies twice (in order) and watched my favorites plenty of other times. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is how to balance a huge cast of characters and how to tie their separate stories into one central plot thread. Their character arcs are also superb! Thanks for this great post, Allyson. 🙂

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