We’ve already established that conflict is at the heart of compelling fiction. Since we deal with conflict daily, we find hope in seeing others triumph in spite of it. But conflict for conflict’s sake is not enough to keep an audience engaged. If you doubt that, consider how many times you’ve turned your television off when politicians start mudslinging. Opposing forces must have more at stake than poll numbers if they want their audience to keep listening.
Fortunately, writers understand that better than government officials. That’s why they provide a confrontation between a protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain) in which the stakes are too high to simply walk away. James Scott Bell refers to this as the “bonding agent.” It’s the reason the contenders stay in the fight.
According to Bell, there are a few ways to create this special bond, and one of the best examples of how this dynamic plays out is found in the 2012 box office hit The Avengers. The characters in this movie provide an in-depth view of the special alchemy of confrontation.
Loki, the villain of the story, provides the initial ingredient for this cauldron of conflict. He has, at least to his way of thinking, a reason to kill. His brother Thor has usurped his opportunity to rule in their world. His anger ignites his thirst for revenge, and he decides to conquer Earth, Thor’s home away from home. Loki believes he’ll have the satisfaction of defeating his brother and ruling over an inferior race at the same time.
Thor, realizing that their sibling rivalry has created the problem, feels responsible for the havoc Loki is wreaking, and he cannot allow his brother to drag innocent bystanders into their personal battle. Determined to right a wrong, Thor believes he has a moral duty to save the Earth from Loki’s apocalyptic plan.
The Black Widow also rallies to the cause out of a sense of moral duty. She’s a former Russian spy who carries a lifetime of regret. Twice in the movie she refers to having red in her ledger and wanting to wipe it out. She seeks redemption and uses her work for S.H.I.E.L.D. as a conduit for repaying her debt to society.
Captain America is the ultimate patriot. Loyal to God and country, he joins the fight because he’s called on to do so. Though he’s from a different time, he understands that his call to duty is timeless. He cannot leave the world to the schemes of a maniacal dictator now any more than he could during World War II. His professional duty demands he engage in battle, and he does so without reservation.
Though Iron Man is the least likely of the group to follow anyone’s orders but his own, he understands the need to put away his egocentric tendencies for the greater good. His is the highest profile personality, and it’s his turf Loki decides to attack first. The invasion of Loki’s alien army brings the superheroes together in one physical location, the island of Manhattan. Add to this assault the threat of a nuclear attack by his own government, and Iron Man’s pride and professional duty bring him squarely into the ring.
Each of these characters has a legitimate reason for taking up the fight. Though they are initially skeptical of the mission and of each other, their sense of duty brings them together and makes for a riveting story. The delicate balance of personality and motivation creates a confrontation that is worthy of the big screen. There is no doubt the actors were superb and the special effects were top quality, but the secret to this movie’s success lies foremost with the writers who knew how best to create conflict and suspense.
Which movie confrontations do you remember best? What are your favorites? Share your opinions in the comment section and check back to find out about the final element of conflict: Knock-Out Endings.