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Captain America: Lying to the Audience

by John Finnegan |

Here's a quick screenwriting tip: don't lie to your audience. If you tell us a character is dead, keep it that way. If you go out of your way to convince us of something in the story, you don't get to flip-flop later on and do a 180. Case in point; Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I was a big fan of the Marvel films when they started over a decade ago. But then I lost interest during the second phase, and for me, one of the most frustrating films in the series was Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I didn't mind the story so much, but it was the weight and significance they gave to the big shocker at the end of the first act - the supposed death of Nick Fury - that irritated me.

In the film,  we seem him bleed out on the floor, flatlining in the operating theatre, and finally lying lifeless on a table as Black Widow and Cap stand over him in mourning... Anyway, turns out he's not dead. He faked his death for reasons I can't recall. And that's infuriating. Not that he faked his death - that's a ploy as old as cinema itself. It's the fact that we as an audience establish our entire foundation for caring about this journey based on Fury's death. It's the driving force of the rest of the movie, and it's for nothing.

Now in the case of Marvel its made even more infuriating because we know Nick Fury (or Sam Jackson to be precise) has a LOT more films left in his deal with Marvel. So even if you believed that thematically or tonally these movies are capable of going down that road, the business of Marvel ruins the story for the grown-ups.

So this is a very specific example, and as you can tell, it's a real source of frustration for me. But it doesn't have to be a character dying or something like this. It can be a character desperately trying to convince us that they are a good guy and then suddenly turn heel at the last minute. Now, you might think, how else are we supposed to bluff the audience? How else are we supposed to write these types of plot twists into movies? The answer is simple - do it any way you want, just don't tell the audience something that isn't true.

Take Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember the scene where Marion is supposedly killed in an explosion and Indie drowns his sorrows afterwards only to find her alive and well later on? Well, Spielberg never actively told us she was dead. Indie assumed she was, and we trusted him. We thought she was dead also - or at least we were supposed to think that.

In the case of The Winter Soldier, the filmmakers went out of their way to tell us that Fury was dead by reinforcing it in several scenes. If it had been a case where Cap was forced to leave him behind and make a run for it, then we could assume the worst, but the way they handled it instead just doesn't work in my book.

It's already so difficult to get your audience to trust you on anything you do nowadays. They are always going to be trying to figure everything out - trying to peel back the layers of the story before you've even had a chance to establish them. So when you try to tell us a character is dead, we are already going to be distrustful. If you break that trust by doing a 180 later on, you won't earn that trust back.

Look at Avenger's Infinity War. As powerful as that climax is  (and you know the sequence that I'm talking about), it doesn't hold as much weight as Marvel and its fanbase would like to believe. Remember, they've pulled this trick before...

I'm not saying you can't write these types of plot points and twists. Of course you can and I love when these are done well. But to do them well involves being very clever about how you approach it. It means letting the audience make assumptions that are led by your protagonists' own beliefs. Not by blatantly stating something that isn't actually the case later on when it no longer suits the plot.

Don't treat your audience like idiots - eventually, they'll stop buying what you're selling.

(Image copyright: Disney)


John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247


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