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Things The Marvel Universe Taught Me About Writing

Face front, True Believers! Thor: The Dark World is premiering early in my current town of residence tonight and I could not be more excited. I know some people are a bit lukewarm about the God of Thunder, but I am just not one of them. Still, Thor is just one of Marvel’s greater successes, at least in my humble opinion. In honor of our big blond teddy bear god hitting the silver screen tonight, I’d like to take a quick look at some of the things that the Marvel Movie Universe has taught me over the years. I’m also taking a bit of freedom here with the term ‘Marvel Universe.’ I’m not simply talking about the continuity they created starting with Iron Man. I’d also like to take a look at their previous franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men because they are huge parts of my childhood as well as great teaching tools.

Know thy fanbase. This is one thing that Marvel has nailed repeatedly in recent years. They have an unparalleled ability to listen to their fans and figure out where to go from there. They didn’t always have this talent, mind you. A perfect example would be the horrific abomination that is Spider-Man 3. It’s common knowledge that one of the movie’s biggest reasons for sucking was due to executive meddling, where the studio poked their big nose into Sam Raimi’s script and told him to do stuff. It resulted in an overstuffed, over-the-top farce of a film that laid waste to the film’s previously excellent reputation. Here’s where knowing the fanbase kicked in.

Disclaimer: I didn’t like the Amazing Spider-Man. I’m sorry. Hate me if you wish. I just couldn’t help myself because Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 are without a doubt two of my all-time favorite superhero/comic book movies. I grew up on them. I watched them hundreds of times, and I still have to stop every time one of them comes on. They have so much heart and depth and wonder to them. However, it turns out that while those two films broke box office records and definitively proved that superheroes are worth the general movie audience’s time, a lot of fanboys and girls were unhappy with certain aspects of them. The most vocal complaint was Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson, which I understand completely. I liked Mary Jane well enough in the first film, but by the second and third films, I kind of wanted her to get the Gwen Stacy treatment. She was weak and nagging and got stuck firmly in the “damsel in distress” role whereas in the comic books, she often kicked ass and sassed people like no one’s business.

Marvel gathered up these comments and then made the brilliant move of picking everyone’s favorite redhead (ironically to play a blonde; double ironically because she’s a natural blonde) Emma Stone to be Gwen Stacy. My dislike of Amazing Spider-Man notwithstanding, I fully admit this decision was a God-send. Emma Stone is funny, sexy, snarky, and an absolute joy to watch. While I still would have liked her as the new MJ, she did everything that I hoped she would do. Marvel understood that the best way to win over their fans was to listen to them and learn from their past mistakes.

In terms of writing, Marvel’s method is something I think all writers should enforce. I would never try to pander to my fanbase (if I had one), but I would take a serious look at the criticisms that arise for my work. Writing is subjective. So is the act of reading. No one reads a book the same way, and fans will inevitably find something in my writing that I didn’t know was there, or that I never considered could come across. If it’s a universal problem, it would be wise to address it either in a blog post, or more likely, subsequent works of mine. There are very few drawbacks to accepting detailed, intelligent arguments against your own work. Even if it pisses you off to your very core, you can only go up from there.

Give a damn about your own work. Strap in, folks. Mama’s about to lay the smackdown on some things here. To me, it is always easy to tell when Marvel gives a shit about their work. The quality of the filmmaking is the most telling of all. Stuff like Daredevil (bite me, nerds, it’s a shit film and you know it), Elektra, The Punisher (which I admit still has a corny charm to it), X-Men: The Last Stand (and that’s coming from someone who kinda likes it), Ghost Rider, and Fantastic Four have clear evidence that they weren’t invested in their products. I argue that each of the listed films lack charisma, effort, and heart, and was pushed out more to make a profit than to actually be considered worthy of the Marvel name.

On the flipside, films like The Avengers, X-Men and X-2, Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor have evidence that Marvel gave a crap and wanted to make great movies for its audience. They chose great directors, writers, and actors—people we love and trust to bring our favorite comic characters to life. Do you remember the day they announced Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark? We all flipped our shit in celebration of such perfect casting. Same with Joss Whedon getting to direct The Avengers, which is arguably the best Marvel film to date, or Edward Norton getting to play Bruce Banner. These movies all went on to do incredibly well at the box office because Marvel put their foot down and opted for quality over profit. They knew that profit is a result of quality. They recognized that if they took their time to make a fantastic film franchise, they’ll make bucketloads of cash and keep us happy for decades to come.

It seems like common sense to give a crap about your own writing, but sadly, these days it is not. Anyone can be a writer. We live in a world where a faux masochistic relationship that was ripped off from a creepy codependent relationship between an emo teenage girl and a vampire both out-grossed the intricate, beautifully written world about a boy wizard. We live in a world where the crappiest of films can get sequels. We live in a world where actual effort is an afterthought. The easiest thing in the world is to not try.

Don’t be that writer. Sure, E.L. James and Stephanie Meyer are literally swimming in cash, but that doesn’t have to be you. The happiest authors in the world are the ones who stay true to themselves and write honestly. They write from within. They strive to make the best for us readers because they care and they want to create a wondrous world for us to dive into. They want to leave behind a legacy they can be proud of. Authors like Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and John Green are all down-to-earth, humble, and full of life because they give a shit about what they put out there.

It’s unwise to compare oneself to bestselling authors, but they can also simply be a north star for young authors. Yes, it’s daunting that crappy novels make money, and crappy movies make even more money, but for every turd there’s a gem. Shoot for that instead.

Have faith in your own product. There’s a line from the movie Hitch that I always think about when it comes to certain aspects of writing.

Albert: You’re selling the stuff, but you don’t believe in your own product.

Hitch: Love is my life.

Albert: No! Love is your job.

Marvel is by no means perfect. I’ve already listed the films I consider to be travesties. But that’s also something I think they have learned well in the past decade. One of the main reasons why I favor Marvel over DC in the film department is the overwhelming amount of faith that they appear to have in the characters as well as their audience. They seem to recognize that there is a reason these films do so well. These characters and stories helped many of us grow up. We read them dozens of times as kids and we still follow them as adults because heroes inspire us. Heroes make us believe in the impossible. They make us want to be better than who we are. The Marvel films that tend to be better in quality are those where you can tell that the writers, directors, and actors actually care about the subject matter and want to do it justice. Tony Stark is by far the most popular of the Marvel universe, and guess what? He’s an asshole with a drinking problem. We can totally relate to that. Sure, he’s a billionaire, but most of us know someone like that—an insanely talented friend who has a good heart, but lacks focus and belief.

Marvel is out there kicking the box office’s ass every year because they believe in our heroes. They don’t always get it right (I’m still angry about Barakapool from X-Men Origins and whatever the hell they did to Beast in X-Men: First Class) but it is clear that they realize if they make a good film, we’ll watch it. We’ll stand outside in a line to San Diego Comic Con for hours just to catch a glimpse of the next one. We’ll waste hours online crying over Tom Hiddleston’s perfection. We’ll buy tickets early and dress up in costumes even when it’s nowhere near Halloween. It’s love, plain and simple.

Maybe you’re not Jim Butcher or Stephen King. So what? Do you have something to say in your writing? Do you want it go be good? Bam. There you go. That’s it. That’s your secret. No one said you had to be Shakespeare. The best way to become a great writer is to invest in your product the same way you invest in the TV shows and books and movies and video games you love. Pour your soul into your writing, even if your soul is twisted and scary and broken. Authenticity is key. No one will believe in your work if you don’t believe in it.

With that in mind, I hope that Thor: The Dark World uses the positive examples I discussed above. We have a lot of exciting films coming our way in the not-too-distant future and I can’t wait to see more as long as they adhere to their better works. Here’s to you, Marvel. Excelsior!


P.S. While I’ve got you here, did you know that the giveaway for a free copy of my novel, The Black Parade, is still going on? Why not pop by and enter to win? It only takes a second. It ends Monday, November 11, 2013. Don’t miss out!