A pattern exists in Marvel productions, whether movie or comic book, but I didn’t pick up on it, strangely, until they forgot to use it. This is what I call the Marvel Mistake, and contrary to expectation, the mistake is not on Marvel’s part– it’s on their main character’s part.
How does it work? Simply have the main character make a mistake in the beginning, then have that mistake become a turning point in the final battle.
This works best with hero stories where the hero is learning about his powers. In Iron Man, Tony Stark has just built his suit and he’s testing the parameters. He’s having fun flying around, and decides to see how high he can go. He’s climbing, climbing, climbing, and then ice crusts on his suit and causes it to fail. He starts to fall.
Now, I won’t spoil the end of that scene for you, because there’s an hour left in the film, but that tiny slip-up of going into cold climates without sufficient antifreeze technology was useful. Later, when Iron Man was battling Iron Giant, Man takes the fight into the higher reaches of the atmosphere and asks, with the usual hero attitude, “What did you do about the ice problem?” The bad guy plummets to his suit’s near death, and the whole thing goes downhill for him from there.
Is this a good technique to use? Absolutely. It simultaneously gives an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome as well as a tool for the antagonist’s defeat. Not only that, but it adds what’s called a callback to the story– with this later rendition of an earlier problem, you remember the earlier scene and see how far the protagonist has come. Furthermore, it gives the heartwarming idea that the bad guy is truly destined to lose– surely, if he couldn’t overcome a mistake like this the way the good guy had, he isn’t worthy to defeat the good guy. This technique is basically an action movie character arc in a bottle.
That being said, does it have to be corny and formulaic? Must it come with a clever quip by the main character? Of course not! Not everyone can quip like Tony Stark or be corny like Thor. I mean, that hair.
Seriously, though, it doesn’t matter. You can make this just as meaningful as any other technique anyone uses to their advantage once too often. How to do that will vary from story to story, but as long as you don’t have the main character planning to use that weakness against the villain from the beginning of the final battle, you’ll be fine. (Disclaimer: it can be done to plan for that weakness. I’m not saying it can’t. I’m just suggesting a way to make it less cheesy. Do it as you like.)
As I said, I didn’t pick up on this technique until Marvel forgot to use it. In their new TV series Agents of SHIELD (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it), the second episode concerns a laser of some sort, using tesseract technology. This laser turns out to be an important plot point. At the midpoint of the episode, they’re analyzing the laser and they point out that the tests they were doing on it could have accidentally activated it. Later, they use those same tests to activate it and end the final battle.
A friend pointed out the lack of suspense in this episode, and I believe this was exactly the problem. Marvel forgot their trademark. They could have solved so many problems with that simple technique, but they decided to tell instead of show. (That’s another perk of the technique.)
I suggest you try this out in some of your final battles. It takes a little foreshadowing, but it will tie things together quite nicely. I certainly will use this in upcoming novels.