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Calculated Risk

First off, let me start of by saying that as I am writing this I have not yet seen Avengers: Endgame – so there will be NO SPOILERS. (Though I may spoil Infinity War somewhat.)  I’m not here to talk about Endgame plot wise.  I’m here to talk about it’s impact.  It’s effect.  And the calculated risk that the Russo brothers took when they or Kevin Feige or whoever first pitched it came up with the combined Infinity War/Endgame gambit.

And I do think it was a gambit.  A risk they knew they were taking, but they also knew the reward would be the insane box office numbers we’ve seen this weekend if they could pull it off.  

See, Infinity War broke the rules. We talk about this in romance.  The unwritten contract with the reader.  In romance novels, the protagonists will find love together and an emotionally satisfying happily-ever-after (or happy-for-now) follows.  In action epics like the Avengers, our heroes and heroines will save the day, even if some of them fall.  Those are the rules.   Our contract with the reader (or viewer in this case) includes an unshakable promise of catharsis – and Infinity War didn’t just fail to deliver, it willfully flaunted that rule.  

I remember when the movie came out there was a passionate group of MCU fans who swore they would boycott the next movie because they were so angry with filmmakers over the ending.  (Including one of my best friends, though I would be curious to hear if she still remembers she said that.  Repeatedly.)  There was so much frustration and anger, so many people talking about how disappointing it was.

How soon we forget.

I never planned to boycott.  I knew I had to see how it ended.  I wanted to see the rest of the story (and I will today)–I was just annoyed that it had been marketed as a stand-alone and not as Part One of a two-parter, because then at least I would have been mentally prepared for what we were getting.  (Though I understand why they didn’t, since that might have impacted the Infinity Wars box office numbers.)

I wonder if the filmmakers were happy with the reception.  Was it hard to have millions on the internet bashing their work?  Or did they see that anger as I did?  As a sign that people were that fired up about this movie and were going to rush to the theatres that much faster for resolution?  It was a risk, pissing off their base by breaking the contract, but I think they knew that the payoff would be in the billions.

Add in the fact that this particular movie phenomenon isn’t based on an established book with an already revealed plot (unlike most other major franchises who have tried this two-part finale since The Empire Strikes Back) so no one really knew what was coming even if theories abounded…  And then also consider the current spoiler-saturated internet culture where you have to see a movie during the first weekend or boycott outside contact entirely to have any chance of completely avoiding spoilers, and their box office mega-dominance was guaranteed.  It didn’t even matter if Endgame was well-received in the long run–it was going to make all the money it needed to be a massive success in the first three days.  (Though if it doesn’t satisfy, the next movie is going to have a hard road.)

It has me thinking about the line between frustrating and satisfying your audience.  I think if your audience trusts you will ultimately satisfy them (as you have with a 20 film legacy) then frustrating them is actually a brilliant move. It’s definitely more effective at firing up your base than completely satisfying them ever could be.  It generates the kind of anger-fueled, debate-ridden, speculation-filled frenzy that no mere marketing campaign can match.  It gets people fired up to rewatch the entire franchise and train their bladders to sit through a three hour epic.  

But can we do that in romance?  Can we break our cardinal contract? 

Well, not with it still being a romance, but there are tons of romance-adjacent genres where having an on-going will-they-or-won’t-they arc is one of the things that sends readers leaping from book to book, desperate to see how it will turn out.  Look at Charlie Davidson, Stephanie Plum, and Anita Blake.  

It’s a brilliant move.  Satisfy and frustrate.  But are we brave enough to take that risk?  Would you ever break the cardinal rule of a genre?

And are you wondering like me what Marvel is going to do next?

4 responses to “Calculated Risk”

  1. Tamara Hogan says:

    I haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame or Infinity War yet (misophonia makes going to movie theaters pretty much a non-starter for me; alas I have to wait for Netflix) but your post reminds me of a book that raised a similar hue and cry in Romancelandia last year: Nalini Singh’s 2018 Guild Hunters release, ARCHANGEL’S PROPHESY.

    Singh’s Guild Hunters urban fantasy series is anchored by an established couple, Guild Hunter Elena Deveraux and Raphael, the powerful Archangel of New York. ARCHANGEL’S PROPHESY is the 11th book in the series, so needless to say, a lot of (great) sh*t’s gone down since Book One. 🙂

    The writing? Gorgeous, as always. The characters? To die for. The world-building? Fascinating, and utterly unique. The book? Essential reading for series fans…

    …in part because IT ENDED ON A CLIFFHANGER – an UNADVERTISED cliffhanger – and one which left readers WONDERING WHETHER A MAIN CHARACTER WOULD SURVIVE or not. It also left the story feeling half-told, because it was.

    So many aspects of the reader contract, broken. Reaction was mixed, to say the least.

    I think a lot of the reader hue and cry could have been avoided if Singh’s publisher had advertised the book as Part One of a two-parter right out of the gate. But on the other hand, I don’t know of a single Singh fan who won’t pick up Book 12, ARCHANGEL’S WAR, this September, if only to find out how the story ends.

    I don’t know what Singh’s plans are for the Guild Hunters series – will ARCHANGEL’S WAR wrap up the series arc, or will the story continue? – but despite the cliffhanger snafu, I’m there.

    The book’s already in my cart. 🙂

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    • Yes! Because she has built trust with her readership that the emotional payoff will be worth it. We’re just used to getting that emotional payoff without having to wait for another book.

      I’m a huge Nalini fan, but I actually have a (slightly pathological) security blanket when it comes to my favorite authors – I almost never read their latest book release until the next one comes out because I always want to have one in my back pocket. So I haven’t read the latest in either of her series yet – even if it tests my willpower.

      And PLEASE do you think we could get a Marvel or GOT-quality film or TV series made of the Guild Hunters series? It is so unbelievably amazing and Nalini really SHOULD be the next George R. R. Martin if there is any justice in the world.

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  2. Addison Fox says:

    I LOVE this post! And I think you really keyed in on a creator’s dilemma. There are calculated reasons we build certain scenes and character experiences into our work. We can see the broader story or know where we ultimately want to go.

    It’s a challenge, but it can be a fun one to tackle.

    But it IS a challenge. As a writer, it’s important to understand why you’re taking the risk.

    And then even more important to take the leap if you believe that’s what the story takes!!

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    • –>> “We can see the broader story or know where we ultimately want to go.”

      THIS. Exactly this. We can’t just break the rules to break the rules – we have to know where we are going and what we are hoping to accomplish with by breaking our contract with the reader.

      Failure can often be much more emotionally compelling than victory and it can be a fascinating area to explore in characters who are so accustomed to projecting strength and success. It makes me wonder which came first – the storyline they wanted to explore in these two movies? Or the decision to make a cliffhanger two-parter? Can you separate marketing from plot?

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