Superhero movies are crap.
There, now I have your attention. Although I will assure you that sentence has more purpose than to grab your attention, because by and large it’s true. Fight me. No, don’t, unless it’s at Street Fighter and I can pick e Honda. Super hero films are, mostly, shite. They fall back on the same characters who by the will of the studios, can’t grow, fight the same handful of well-known antagonists, and tell stories already told. Often multiple time.
Seriously, Uncle Ben and Bruce’s parents have been killed more times than Jack Harkness.
But, as usual, there are exceptions. Man of Steel (fight me again) is one, for reasons I won’t go into here, and the Avengers, for a particular reason I will.
There are a few reasons the Avengers is a standout. Joss Whedon is one, that it can forgo the character and scene setting most other films have to sink time into is another. But I want to talk about a particular shot. This one, in fact. And more specifically, the last 8 seconds:
For those who haven’t seen the film (and there are many, because superhero films are crap, remember?) here we see Bruce Banner being convinced veeeeery gently to come join the fun. But it’s the last part which is telling. Throughout the scene the hut has been surrounded by a squad of heavily armed soldiers. But why? Nothing happened. We saw nowt. In and of itself, that scene isn’t great, but that eight second camera swap was the payoff that made.
They were scared. That’s tight storytelling. That tells the viewer, even if they don’t know who Bruce Banner, that there’s something terrifying just below the surface.
The same technique is used in Inglorious Basterds, where we first meet Donny Donowitz, AKA, the Bear Jew:
And if you want a longer build up of the same, Jaws, where an entire town is held in sway by a threat we know is there, but all we see are the after effects of what that threat is capable of.
Done right, this technique is effective as hell. It draws on the viewer / reader’s own imagination because they – and us writers often hate to admit it – can conjure up much more frightening sights than we ever could. It’s one reason why The Blair Witch project and Paranormal Activity were so bloody frightening.
We’re often told to show, don’t tell, but not showing can be even more effective. By purposefully not showing, but describing around the subject, we give it context, we amplify its meaning, its potential.
Perhaps the best use of this in fiction is my firm favourite Adam Nevill, especially in his novel Last Days. The first half of the novel is the usual scrabblings in the dark, the shuddering of cupboards from within, btu delivered with Nevill’s visceral style.
Another example would be Horus Rising by Dan Abnett. Even non-fans of Warhammer 40k (and there are many, because if anything can suck harder than superhero movies it’s IP fiction – fight me all over again) would do well to read this first novel in the Horus Heresy series. Abnett treats the Astartes (giant, power-armoured supersoldiers of the far futures) as a antural disaster, showing us the after affects of these soldiers’ actions on the regular humans who witness them and who – and here’s the thing – are on the same side. Shell shock by proxy. Before you even see them you’re in awe of what they can do. It’s effective. Hell, it’s effecting.
Don’ describe the monster. Once it’s a monster, it’s a monster, and monsters can be beaten. But beating something that exists only in your head? Aye, give that a go.