What’s the best way to start a story? How do you convey to your audience the tone, the feel, and the roadmap for your story in one scene, one moment? Let’s take a look at the movies that do it best.
It’s possible to have a terrible movie, and still have a great movie opening. But, you can’t have a great movie without a great opening. A great opening has three components: the character introduction, the major conflict introduced, and a roadmap for the main character’s development. As simple as these components are, movies rarely get them all right. Let’s take a look at some examples.
KUNG FU PANDA (2008)
This opening delivers stylized animated martial arts, cute animals, funny dialogue, and all the main characters. It also provides an interesting segue into the critical plot device in the final act, the Secret Ingredient. The only thing really missing from this introductory sequence is the threat. We don’t understand the nature of the threat until we see Shifu’s reaction to the possibility of Tai Lung’s escape. Otherwise, this is a perfect opening.
The opening scene of Marvel’s Avengers was entirely devoted to setting up the threat, Loki, equipped with a scepter that can turn friends into foes. But, the problem with this opening is that it is ALL threat. There’s no hint about the tension between Captain America and Iron Man, which is the best part of this movie, and a driving force in the MCU as a whole. The best way to remedy the problem is to start the movie with Nick Fury approaching Steve Rogers, and then flashback to Loki’s arrival. This allows us to connect immediately with Rogers, the primary character, understand the threat, and establish the theme of Rogers bringing the team together.
PRINCE OF PERSIA (2010)
Is there anything worse than being told the same thing twice? The Prince of Persia starts by telling us in narrative form everything we will learn from the characters about the Sands of Time over the course of the movie. We don’t need the opening exposition at all. The film could have skipped the pointless narration and gotten straight to the action. It’s always better to show than it is to tell.
So, a great opening scene helps the audience understand three main things: the identity of the main character, the primary conflict, and the roadmap for the main character’s development. You’d be hard pressed to find a better movie opening than Kung Fu Panda, but if you have one, let me know in the comments!