Unsurprisingly, I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron at 11pm on the Thursday before opening (the first “midnight” screening at our local theater was at 7pm—this irritated me until I attended my first post-40 late-night opening [which will also be my last because I am too old to be driving home at 3am] but now the idea makes me very happy). Also unsurprisingly, I loved it. Yes, there are problematic things but there is also a lot to love—the one-liners, the cameos and easter eggs, Wanda’s creepy finger movements.
One of the things that struck me most, though, comes near the climax of the film. Our heroes are stuck, along with a group of innocent civilians, on a chunk of city rising into the sky so that it can plummet back to Earth and set off an extinction-level event akin to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Captain America, his jaw never squarer, says he won’t leave the city with anyone else on it. Black Widow asks, “Who said anything about leaving?” They can stop the plan but they and everyone on the island will die saving millions of lives below them. “It’s not so bad,” she says, chinning at the clouds floating just past the edge of the chunk, “where else am I gonna get this view?”
Then comes the sound of crackling static and Nick Fury buzzes over the teams’ comms and, viola, the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier rises through the clouds, signaling salvation as only a deus ex machina can.
And I was thrilled. The overhead shot of clouds shifting over the deck of the carrier, the sound of its turbines… It was a great moment.
And entirely, utterly cheesy.
Recently, I attended an interview and Q&A with the insanely talented Yiyun Li. In the course of the interview, she brought up the idea of “cheesiness,” particularly how she worries about sentences and sequences in her stories being cheesy. She gave no definition of cheesy, but everyone in the room knew what she meant.
As an example of this worry, she pointed out the last lines from her short story “After a Life” (from the remarkable collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers):
Her husband comes close and strokes her hair, gray and thin now, but his touch, gentle and timid, is the same one from a lifetime ago, when they were children playing in their grandparents’ garden, where the pomegranate blossoms, fire-hued and in the shape of bells, kept the bees busy and happy.
Yiyun Li read this phenomenal sentence, a beautiful time capsule of two lives, and then asked, sincerely, “Is that cheesy?”
Almost everyone in the room made sounds indicating that no, it was not cheesy. I say almost because, in that moment, reading the line decontextualized, I realized that, uh, yeah, it is a little cheesy. It is exactly the kind of line one expects to cap a story by an author that is a favorite of The New Yorker and wins all sorts of awards: it is a lyrically presented image that smacks of symbolism. The line, beautifully written as it is, feels like a parody of the literary fiction ending.
Why then, does it feel so absolutely right?
“After a Life” is the story of Mrs. and Mr. Su, an old married couple with a severely handicapped daughter, Beibei. They have, over the years, cut themselves off from (or, in the case of their younger child, a son, been abandoned by) friends and family as they care for their daughter while keeping her a secret. Recently, Mr. Su has made a friend, Mr. Fong, a man cheating on his recently-released-from-prison wife. Mrs. Fong has begun a friendship of sorts with Mrs. Su since her return from prison, calling every day to complain about Mr. Fong and the affair she is sure he is having and that Mr. Su is covering for (in truth, both Mr. and Mrs. Su are covering for Mr. Fong). As Mr. Su goes about his day at the stockbrokerage and Mrs. Su takes care of Beibei, the facts are slowly revealed: Mr. and Mrs. Su are first cousins, were counseled against having a child when they ignored their family and married, and have lived with the consequences ever since.
It isn’t Beibei’s condition that’s eroded their marriage, though. If anything, Mr. Su believes it was the birth of their son, Jian, a healthy and bright child who is now away at college. Mrs. Su worries that Mr. Su wants a more “normal” family and Mr. Su worries that Mrs. Su has come to feel only the unhappiness of her situation with Beibei.
In the end, Beibei passes away (possibly due to an overdose of sleeping pills Mrs. Su gave her), and, as they realize what happens, the story closes with the line above. The description of Mrs. Su’s hair, gray and thin, is the present, the image of the flowers and the bees, is the past filled with life and hope, and Mr. Su’s touch is the bridge between the two. Because of the work Li has done making her readers invest in the Sus, their relationship, and their world, this “cheesy” ending instead comes off as “surprisingly right.”
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been systematically debased and dismantled. The loss is, in a very real way, the impetus to create Ultron in the first placethe world has lost its shield and needs a new one, “a suit of armor around the world,” to quote Tony Stark. When audiences were first introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D., it was a shadowy organization (that was still looking for a name, in fact). Over the course of Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor, S.H.I.E.L.D. became a trustworthy force for good. Once audiences were sold on that idea with The Avengers, the organization was corrupted and destroyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If S.H.I.E.L.D. had been summarily and handily dismantled at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron, then the return of the helicarrier at the end of Act II would be nothing more than cheesy. Because Marvel took its time, did the work, and gave the audience a reason to care, the moment transcends its cheesiness, entering the realm of “surprising rightness.”
Many writing teachers/mentors/editors/what-have-you will talk of endings that are both satisfying and surprising. That can put a lot of apprentice writers on their back foot. A tall order, it seems, crafting an ending that both fulfills and defies reader expectations. What they are really talking about, though, is earning the ending, not creating it out of whole cloth. This is an exercise not only of language (because, let’s face it, you have to find a new way of presenting the cheesy) but also of structure. A story needs every moment to be fully explored and given its due. Nothing can be taken for granted. And if you do that, then your ending will rise up out of the clouds just in time to save you.