On Friday I found myself with precisely two hours and fifteen minutes of leisure time, so I opted to watch The Avengers once again. I quite liked the movie the first time around, when I saw it in the theater, but it lacked a bit of the pizzazz that characterized the first Thor. What delighted me about Branagh’s treatment of Loki in that film was the deep gamesmanship, the long cons he was running. He gets great mileage out of a few timely lies, and all of his actions and decisions ultimately boil down to a handful of accessible motives. In The Avengers the motive mechanics seem a little chancier–while Loki’s schemes almost result in the annihilation of S.H.I.E.L.D., he seems principally invested in breaking apart a team that has not yet formed. Many of the principals (Thor, Captain America, and others) agree that Loki’s easy capture simply doesn’t pass the smell test, but his ultimate agency in that gambit is contingent and fortunate. Hiddleston’s performance still conveys the same complex interiority, and one feels there are layers behind layers to be excavated (especially in terms of his relationship with his alien allies), but the sudden escalation in the third act of the movie ultimately leaves those motives undisclosed.
There is, I think, a dual challenge in representing any deep scheme, and deep scheming is a fairly common currency in many popular cultural productions. The first challenge is endowing the schemers with higher-order intellectual capacities without making them utterly inaccessible–giving the Lecters, Lokis, Moriartys, and Morgan le Fays of world their characteristic gifts while making their motives and machinations legible to most readers. The second is, I think, a necessary extension: offering other characters in the piece enough evidence and/or motivation to arrive at the wrong conclusions for very good reasons without making them seem like gullible lunkheads. The case-making efforts of those figures often stands in for the reader’s own reckoning, which makes for fairly finicky work. One has to assign them enough intellectual credit to puzzle out a probabilistic solution to whatever enigma the schemer has engineered (or, like the Avengers, to arrive at a right assessment of the evidence without being entirely sure of the ploy in play), but one must also make their inability to see the bigger scheme (one revealed when even more evidence comes to light, or when people with different, discrete informational sets at last collaborate) forgivable. It’s a tough balance to strike, doubly difficult to strike concisely, and trebly difficult to manage in a manner that satisfies the reader. As a reader I’m ready and willing to be deceived (and, as a result, delighted and surprised) by some twist I didn’t anticipate because I had fingered the wrong suspect or failed to assign enough weight to a plausible motive. I’m less willing to let characters and their creators slide if the brilliant scheme of the evil genius hinges on dumb luck, or if her motive is mere madness, or if the heroes and heroines neglect to pursue manifest leads that any amateur sleuth would follow as a matter of course.
The longer the fiction, alas, the more complex the challenge gets. Readers of short fiction can usually handle a good 175° twist after 5,000 words, and most viewers can stand the shock of an astonishing revelation 75 minutes in to a 90-minute flick. When the clues and corresponding deductions are stirred in to the midst of some 80,000 words, however, the pressure to strike the right balance increases. It’s a matter I mull over a little too often in my idle time, as I’m working out the kinks of sundry plots and possibilities in my mind’s eye. Ultimately the only way to know if the contrivances and connivings work is to commit them to pixels and submit them to the scrutiny of other eyes and minds. The starting, as always, is the hardest part.