The Small Moments

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May 21, 2013 by Devin

Sometimes, I don’t think Joss Whedon gets enough credit.

Okay, being given the keys to the biggest superhero franchise in history along with critical and financial acclaim is quite a lot of credit, but I do not know if he gets enough credit for the way he manages to make small moments incredibly important.

For example, look at the Dark Knight trilogy for how not to do this. Now, I like the Dark Knight trilogy (at least the first two), but one of Christopher Nolan’s biggest problems is his tendency to make grand sweeping moments that ultimately mean little. The best example I can think of is the famous line at the end of The Dark Knight: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” This is a line that sounded really cool for a while, but does not say much. Why does Gotham deserve Batman? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that Gotham deserves Batman?

I want to compare that to Iron Man’s decision to grab onto the bomb in The Avengers. Throughout the Iron Man movies and in The Avengers, Tony Stark learns to go outside of himself and give a damn about the world around him, eventually culminating in his decision to sacrifice himself to save New York. I want to go to a moment that you may not remember. It is not on Wikiquote. I had to watch the actual scene in order to get it exactly down, but it encapsulates and concludes Stark’s transformation perfectly.

Stark: “How long?”
Fury: “3 minutes, max. Payload will wipe out midtown.”
Stark: “Jarvis, put everything we got into the thrusters.”
Jarvis: “I just did.”

That last line gives me goosebumps.

Let’s look at these lines and see why they are so fantastic, shall we?

These lines show how assumptions can bring out character. When the threat becomes present, Tony does not decide to go sacrifice himself. He does not weigh the options, putting the pros of self-sacrifice on one end and the cons on the other end and then stare at them deliberately.

His immediate reaction is action. He simply assumed that if there was a threat that would require him to take his own life, he would do it. Tony truly is a new man compared to his persona in Iron Man 1 and 2, where his motives were about his ego as much as their effects on other people. And Jarvis is in the exact same mindset. In a weird way, it also shows growth for Jarvis. The two of them bickered (politely) all throughout Iron Man 1 with Jarvis often trying to caution Tony from doing anything dangerous, but here he actually encourages it. Jarvis and Tony are now in-sync with each other and their desires, and Jarvis really understands that this is something that Tony has to do.

What a character assumes is so much more telling of their personality than what a character decides. If a character decides to give his sister his ice cream, that does not say much. If that character assumes that his sister will get his ice cream, then there is a lot more being said without any more emphasis needed.

Another example from Joss Whedon that I really like: in the TV show Firefly, there is a character named Jayne Cobb who goes through a similar arc. He is never as narcissistic as Tony, but he is out for his own gain and does some pretty terrible things to achieve that. However, by the end of the movie Serenity, he is a different person. When the ship is falling from the sky, his reaction is to check the seatbelts of the female crewmembers. This shot is a blink-and-you-miss it shot, but it says so much about Jayne Cobb and the type of person he has become. And no one ever had to say, “Jayne is the hero (of Canton) that we deserve, but not the one we need right now.”

All of this is to just say that the minor moments are so important in characterization. I am confident that many people do not pick up on these moments consciously but are affected subconsciously. And furthermore, it is important to note that just because a character does not have a dramatic moment where they tell the audience how they have changed, that does not mean that the character has not changed. It’s the little things that count.

Agree with me? Don’t agree with me? Comment below, and follow me on Twitter @D_A_White.

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