Part 17 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
If you ask me, the trifecta of must-have story elements are: relationships, action, and humor. Of the three, arguably the most difficult is learning how to write funny. You can’t fake humor. It either works or it doesn’t.
This might prompt some writers to avoid it out of insecurity with their ability to pull it off. But don’t do that either. Well-executed humor won’t just make your story more entertaining, it will also offer the ability to bring greater depth to almost every other aspect of your story—including character, theme, and even plot.
Why? Because good humor is true humor. And when it’s true, it heightens every part of your story. Even the darkest story can benefit from not just humor itself, but an underlying understanding of what humor does and how it does it.
In Which Thor: Ragnarok Does Indeed Save the Trilogy
Welcome to Part 17 of our ever-expanding exploration of the storytelling techniques found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The third (and conclusive?) installment in the Thor trilogy was much anticipated, not least because its addictive trailers hinted at a completely new take on the character. Happily those hints were fully paid off in a delightfully rompy movie that is not only easily the best of the three but also made a concerted and impressively successful effort to clean up its predecessors’ mess.
The Thor movies have always been the most problematic within the MCU. They’ve each struggled under a load of individual weaknesses that mostly stemmed from general confusion about what exactly to do with this character and his world. Muddy themes, overcrowded plots, and misplaced romances all contributed. Admittedly, I liked both Thor and Dark World, but that liking came mostly because I recognized the underlying good points of the characters and storylines—even though they weren’t fully executed.
But that was before director Taika Waititi, previously known primarily for his brilliant indie film Hunt for the Wilderpeople (oh yeah, and Team Thor), took the reins, took over, and took it to the house. He course-corrected the Thor storyline with a radical change of direction that refocused the story on the character’s strengths (hello, dorky humor) rather than trying to make him into something he never should have been (goodbye, epic lover).
I feel like I say this in preface to every Marvel post, but: this is not a perfect movie. As is par for the course, its villain conflict is largely ancillary. It’s a little scattered in places. And some might argue it changes tonally too much. But bottom line (and I know I say this all the time too): I loved it. It was ruthlessly fun, knew exactly what it wanted to be and what it should be, and closed off the character’s thematic arc in a deeply satisfying (if cursory) way.
Almost all of that was due to Waititi’s masterful understanding of humor-driven storytelling.
But before we dig down into what we can learn from his chops, here’s my highlight reel:
- Hela. Is Cate Blanchett ever not awesome? Other than the fact that she looked Ragnarokin’ (see what I did there?) in every scene, I really loved the little plotline that made her Thor’s unknown older sister. It made very personal what would otherwise have been an even more ancillary conflict, as well as neatly mirroring some of the earlier thematic elements with Thor’s relationship to Loki—not to mention giving Odin new and interesting complexities. I wish she could have been developed more, but, hey, villains never have been Marvel’s strong point.
- More Loki. Finally! From Day 1, Tom Hiddleston has been the bright center of the Thor movies, despite being sadly underused in almost all of them. But finally, he was brought on board as a main character and, even better, a main supporting character rather than an outright antagonist. This not only allowed for better development of the troubled brother relationship, but also gave Loki’s mischief-making duality the perfect playground.
- Matt Damon. That little play Loki-as-Odin was enjoying when Thor first returned home to Asgard looked hilarious—but I honestly have no idea what it was about since I was too busy rubbernecking: “Is that Matt Damon? That looks like Matt Damon. That’s not Matt Damon, is it?”
- Jeff Goldblum. Reportedly, when Goldblum came on board to play the Grandmaster, he asked Waititi: “Basically, you just want me to play Jeff Goldblum, right?” ‘Nuff said.
- Waititi. Obviously, Waititi is this movie, from start to finish. But he gets extra props for also playing the entirely lovable leader of the Grandmaster’s “prisoners-with-jobs.” Plus: yay for Kiwi accents!
- Valkyries. Because I totally agree with Thor: Valkyries are awesome.
- Lightning. Raise your hand if you thought Mjolnir getting destroyed was a bad thing. Raise your other hand if you no longer think that. *chills*
- No Jane. So this is kinda a highlight and kinda not. I loved Jane Foster in the previous movies, even while knowing she was one of the main reasons the stories never found their proper footing. So I wholeheartedly agree it was a good move axing her from this movie—but I wish they’d found a better way to do it than having her “dump” Thor, since that basically negates the whole point of the second movie.
- The funnies. Why do we love this movie again? Oh yeah, that’s why.
How to Write Funny (Even in the Middle of an Apocalypse)
It’s not enough to write funny just for the sake of writing funny. Do that, and all you’ve got is a stand-up routine. In order for humor to contribute meaningfully, it must matter. It must be a carefully conceived technique that advances plot, character, or theme—or, preferably all three. Ragnarok nails them all, thanks largely to the following four tenets of how to write funny.
1. Be True to Your Characters
The best humor is character-centric humor. It’s humor that’s funny because it’s coming out of this person’s mouth. Put the same words in a different character’s mouth and the result just wouldn’t the same. It isn’t the joke that’s funny, it’s the character.
What this means, of course, is not every character can be funny. And no character can be funny in the same way as another character. You can’t superimpose the humor on top of the characters. Rather, you must dig down into the characters and find the funny that’s already there.
The only way to do this is to:
1. Be entirely aware of your character. Who is this person, really? Smart, dumb, strong, weak, brave, cowardly?
2. Love your character. Humor almost inevitably arises from making fun. If you’re making fun of a character from a place of disdain, it’s rarely as funny as when you’re doing it from a place of affection—and it’s much more likely to be offensive. But when you love your character not in spite of the personality traits you’re making fun of, but because of them—then you’ll find yourself in just the right environment to dig deep for the really funny stuff.
3. Make fun. Once you know and love your character, you get to exaggerate the larger-than-life personality traits that make this person interesting—because, really, that’s all humor is: something interestingthat catches us off guard.
HOW RAGNAROK ACED ITS CHARACTERS
Honestly, up until Ragnarok, nobody at Marvel really seemed to know what to do with Thor. The best parts of his appearances in both his own movies and the Avengers’ movies were always thanks to the cheekiness with which Chris Hemsworth plays the character’s larger-than-life pomposity, bravado, and general obliviousness. The films kept trying to play up his epic-fantasy role as a warrior prince or star-crossed lover, and the results have always been mixed with more than a fair dose of corniness.
Waititi’s greatest triumph in this movie is letting Thor be Thor. Face it, in his best moments, the “strongest Avenger” has always borne more than a slight resemblance to an overgrown Lab puppy: big, destructive, overeager, and obliviously good-natured. Waititi saw that and took full advantage of it, letting Hemsworth turn loose his considerable comedic skills to make fun of the series’ most over-the-top character.
Although Ragnarok emphasizes this part of Thor’s personality far more than previous films (giving Ragnarok a completely different tone), it doesn’t invent any of this. It just takes advantage of it in an honest way to mine the humor that was always lying there under the surface.
2. Be Unexpected
Humor in a nutshell: the art of the unexpected. Learning how to write funny is largely about learning how to surprise readers by giving them something they didn’t see coming. Think the character is going to say this? Nope, she says the opposite. Think the character is going to react with anger? Nope, she’s actually laughing her head off. Think she’s gonna trip on that banana peel? Nope, she neatly dodges it—only to trip over the manhole cover.
In truth, this is really just the art of good writing, period. If readers can anticipate the end of your every sentence—if they know how one character is going to respond to the other before the words are out of her mouth—if they can guess the gag’s payoff from its setup—then it’s not only not funny, it’s boring.
This is true for every aspect of your story—from beat-by-beat action to the plot itself—but it’s perhaps nowhere more true than in dialogue. We see this especially in funny dialogue. When you’ve heard the joke before, it’s not surprising, and therefore not as funny (perhaps not funny at all).
With every sentence you write, you should be thinking twice about your first instinct: is it unexpected? is it entertaining? Even if it’s not meant to be funny, it should keep readers on their toes in exactly the same way humor does.
THE REAL REASON RAGNAROK WAS SO FUNNY
Waititi’s brand of humor is all about the unexpected.
Think Thor’s going to throw that ball through the glass and escape the Hulk’s prison in heroic fashion? Nope, the ball’s going to bounce right back and smack him in the head in the middle of his epic speech.
Think the leader of the gladiators is going to be gnarly and nasty and make life miserable for Thor? Nope, he’s an adorable sweetheart who tried to start a revolution by printing pamphlets.
Think Thor’s going to triumph over the Hulk by using the Avengers’ “sun’s getting real low” code to bring Banner back? Nope, turns out he’s not quite as persuasive as Black Widow in that department.
Honestly, we could go through this movie beat by beat and talk about how almost every single moment makes use of the principle of the unexpected to hold its viewers’ interest, keep them entertained, and spark their laughter.
3. Give the Audience What They Want
At first, this one seems like a bit of a paradox. How do you give audiences what they want while also subverting their expectations?
Here’s the thing: your readers want to be surprised. But deep down, they want to be surprised by things they either subconsciously expected or consciously desired but were misdirected into feeling were unlikely. When you can set readers up to want something, then make them think they’re not going to get it, then circle back to give them exactly that in an unexpected way—they will love it.
Not all humor will be about pleasant things. There’s a reason the banana peel is a staple of physical humor. But often, the most enjoyable humor arises from giving audiences (and thus, characters) exactly what they want.
You have to be careful with this. Giving readers and characters what they want should never be straightforward. After all, if you keep giving characters what they want, you’ll run out of conflict fast.
Instead, give them what they want with complications. This is the essence of good scene structure. The character thinks he gains his scene goal—only to have it end with some disastrous complication. If you’re wanting to figure out how to write funny, this plays right into your hand. You get to delight readers with the outcome they wanted, while still surprising them and driving the conflict with unexpected eventualities.
HOW RAGNAROK GAVE AUDIENCES EVERYTHING THEY WANTED
We might go so far as to say this is the principle that made this entire movie: this film was exactly what Thor fans wanted (a movie that worked), but in a way no one saw coming (a space comedy more in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy than the previous Thor movies).
Waititi demonstrates this principle over and over again throughout the film. Perhaps the most blatant example is the Midpoint battle between Thor and the Hulk. The trailers unfortunately (if inevitably) spoiled this moment, but it was still awesome.
When the Grandmaster’s “beloved champion” bursts into the arena, we expect it to be some incredibly big, ugly monster. But what we want is for it to be someone we know. If it’s someone we know and love, even better.
So we’re both surprised and delighted when the monster smashing through those doors turns out to be the “innncreeeediiibleee…” Hulk!
4. Use Humor to Smooth Over the Rough Spots
There is no greater magic in storytelling than humor. It fixes just about everything (including crazy, mish-mashed plots, on occasion). This is especially true for your characters. As we talked about in our first point, above, humor is all about accentuating the extremes in your characters’ personalities. However, by their very nature, extremes are often problematic, sometimes even unlikable.
Your character is a jerk (hello, Tony Stark), a goody two-shoes (um, Cap?), a humorless bigot (Drax, anyone?)—no problem. A little humor greases those wheels, helps readers get past your characters’ less-than-attractive traits, and even eases them into the ability to empathize with and love these people fortheir faults.
But, again, this only works if you’re coming at your character from an “inside perspective” and using it to create situations that are self-deprecating. Creating humor from an “outside perspective” can also be useful, but instead of smoothing over the rough spots, it will serve to emphasize them—and not in a kind way. This can work when you’re making fun of truly awful traits or actions, but it is not a feel-good kind of humor and can easily cross the line into offensiveness. The former is about poking fun at ourselves; the latter is about making fun of “others.”
WHY RAGNAROK GIVES US OUR BEST THOR YET
Like all of Marvel’s characters, Thor is a deeply flawed person. As the (essentially) immortal royal son of Asgard, both his strengths and his weaknesses are epically larger than life—to the point of cartoonish-ness on occasion. Particularly in his first movie, he was a short-sighted, arrogant, brawn-over-brains lummox. As Loki emphatically stated, “My brother is an idiot.”
One of the main reasons for the character’s struggles in previous appearances was that the movies tried to play him, in all his Asgardian glory, too straight. Humor was his only saving grace—which Hemsworth seemed to realize, even if no one else did. Wisely, he never took the character, or himself, too seriously and always played the Mighty Thor with a little twinkle in his eye.
Waititi recognized that and finally gave us a version of Thor that takes full advantage of the character’s undeniable silliness—which, ironically, also gives us what is, in my opinion, the most epic version yet. By using humor to acknowledge and lovingly joke about Thor’s extreme personality traits, the character becomes more realistic, relatable, and endearing. His pomposity becomes a joke on himself. His careless (and usually lucky) mistakes become a useful plot device. His oblivious destructiveness transforms him from an unbeatable immortal into a relatable klutz.
This is the Thor who’s always been there, but finally Waititi has pulled him out from under all the unnecessary baggage, dusted him off, and given him a proper chance to … sparkle.
Don’t be afraid of learning how to write funny. It is a teachable technique arising from the strong foundation of well-realized characters and story beats. Immerse yourself in your characters, look beyond plot cliches, and be honest about the story you’re telling. That’s all you have to do discover the kind of humor that will raise any story to the next level.
Stay Tuned: In February, we’ll visit the Black Panther in Wakanda for the first time.
Previous Posts in This Series:
- Iron Man: Grab Readers With a Multi-Faceted Characteristic Moment
- The Incredible Hulk: How (Not) to Write Satisfying Action Scenes
- Iron Man II: Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist
- Thor: How to Transform Your Story With a Moment of Truth
- Captain America: The First Avenger: How to Write Subtext in Dialogue
- The Avengers: 4 Places to Find Your Best Story Conflict
- Iron Man III: Don’t Make This Mistake With Your Story Structure
- Thor: The Dark World: How to Get the Most Out of Your Sequel Scenes
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Is This the Single Best Way to Write Powerful Themes?
- Guardians of the Galaxy: The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory
- The Avengers: Age of Ultron: The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Foreshadow a Story
- Ant-Man: How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your Story
- Captain America: Civil War: How to Be a Gutsy Writer: Stay True to Your Characters
- Doctor Strange: 3 Ways to Test Your Story’s Emotional Stakes
- Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: How to Ace the First Act in Your Sequel
- Spider-Man: Homecoming: 4 Ways to Write a Thought-Provoking Mentor Character