Linear and Non-linear in Arrival and Iron man, why and how does it affect Narrative storytelling?

In this essay I’m going to be exploring the concept of linear and non-linear narrative in storytelling and comparing the two with the films Arrival and Iron Man and their own storylines and character development and cinematic world.

Arrival(D. Villeneaue, 2016)  is a film that breaks the classic conventions and ideals of alien films and that’s why having a split non-linear narrative benefits the film because it requires a far higher audience interaction for it to succeed.

It tackles the alien subgenre in a very different fashion to most films within this category, as an Ideological factor which has shaped the narrative is that there are so many films which show aliens in the same overplayed way of coming to earth and killing people, from historically back with Predator but even more so in today’s society with technology becoming an increasingly stronger theme in films and this one breaking the Hollywood trope.

Arrival Is a postmodern narrative as it has flash backs and forwards playing with the spatio-temporal reality as with part of the scenes including a flashforward they’re filmed in such a way to promote the audiences thought of it being a flashback showing a previous event rather than an event which is yet to come and affect the future story as Postmodernism is a reaction to the failure of Modernisms ability to provoke thought and challenge audiences ideologies. In some cases, at the start it isn’t clear whether the character is seeing the same thing the audience is or whether it’s an image we are seeing from her mind but as the films progresses this becomes more clear with each one as it becomes more jarring and heartfelt. 

The film messes with time in a way which paints the fluidity of the time loop as ever changing within the narrative.


Arrival uses a non-linear narrative to tell its story using flashbacks and flashforwards which at the time of showing, the audience doesn’t quite understand their significance to the plot but as the narrative escalates and advances they start to tell a side plot/narrative that the audience sees separately while still being a part of the primary plotline however as the conclusion nears the audience can piece together that the flashbacks actually form an aftermath of the films events. From the introduction of the main female protagonists’ children to her budding new romantic affliction with the secondary protagonist but as a twist the audience already know how the relationship ends before it even starts due to the non-linear narrative’s introduction of the flashbacks. This is feature of Postmodernism which runs in line with the 21stcentury as postmodernism has started to creep into the real world and become normal such as Charlie Brooker’s tv series “Black Mirror”(C. Brooker, 2008-).


This film inspires thoughts into how the worlds societies would react to an alien entity arriving on our planet in a different manner to what we would expect as so many alien encounter films promote the ideology that aliens are violent and would come to earth and begin slaughtering us but instead they are incredibly passive and they initiate peaceful contact with humans, this breaks social concepts but also challenges the way we view aliens. The film is imitating reality by staying as consistent to real life as possible despite the alien presence such as the scene in which one of the 8 alien ships gives a word and its translated to “Give weapon” up to this point in the film the worlds governments had been staying in constant contact albeit suspicious to help each other but once this is said to China they cut communications and following this so does Russia and north Korea following suit “Have you met General Shang whatever he does four countries follow”-(Arrival, 2016) very much like the Domino effect which was present during the Cold war and the rise of communism. They film imitates as much as possible how the world would actually react to such a situation from happiness and wonder to even violence and fear which is played out when a group of marines try to blow up the aliens after being provoked by a live-streamer,  almost killing the protagonists in the process out of fear and anger of the aliens.

How Audiences are presented things on screen changes the meaning, the use of camera angles to connote different things to the audience is much more prevalent in Arrival as the film itself is much more of an in depth  and intricate narrative, this is apparent when the main female protagonist first enters the aliens viewing chamber and as she and the team walk into the chamber greeted by bright white light the camera angle is inverted upside down, this could be argued is to do with the gravity inside changing but the alternative is that it is foreshadowing that all is not quite right inside and that this is different, this fits in line with the alien encounter itself but also to a later event in the film with an explosive device.

The murky nature of the black surrounding the humans connotes a lack of clarity of their situation and the short scene much like the rest of the film is thought provoking and therefore is open for audience interpretation as it could be inferred that this scene is a visual representation of “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla”(R. Wagner), as the solid murky black around the humans staring cautiously towards the bright white light from which the aliens emerge from it could show us that humans believing they are the top organism are wrong and challenge our perceptions of God and creation.

Iron Man was the first introductory film into the new marvel cinematic world which is another reason it was a linear film since Marvel films are about superhero’s and fall under the action category but for this film its market was young teenagers as well so it was made to be simple and as a lead on to not only other marvel characters introductory films such as Thor(K. Branagh,2011) but more importantly the Avengers franchise because in the new film industry making money is an incredibly important focus for a company such as Marvel and by not only having separate films for each character but also having a huge blockbuster with all the characters teaming up is a sure-fire hit with the fans of said films, and because of this they remain very and ordered in their narrative with it being Linear to keep a wide audience entertained and focused.

Marvels Iron Man was a linear film, it had one short spot of non-linearity at the very start but aside from that it runs as a linear narrative which is for many reasons one of which is the ideology around introductory superhero films in that the character is given a role of someone with a need for change however this is not always apparent to the character at first. The film usually consists of a lesson in some form and Iron Man follows this, it doesn’t give the audience much to interpret or think about and lays most of the story out for the audience to watch and makes it extremely easy for them to follow which is another reason the studio chose to have it as a non-linear film because they wanted it to be an easy and simple blockbuster that they could market towards adults and young teenagers alike so they could digest it and make as much revenue not only at box office but also after with merchandise and games. 

 This was also the case as Iron Man was built to have a Sequel and ended up having a trilogy so the storytelling led up to this with big blockbuster hype and actors but little thought provocation, you could think of it as a pilot episode in a TV Series in the sense it was the first one to capture the audience and keep them begging for more with the loveable characters and their amazing journeys such as Tony Stark into Iron Man.

Arrivals non-linear take on narrative structure was also affected by the fact the film was shot and written to be a standalone film not part of a trilogy or other films series so the crew was able to make the film more in depth and thought provoking for the audience as it was a film requiring the audiences full thought, in a way you could argue it was an Arthouse style film “Artistic vision.. social-realism style with a focus on characters contemplation of their existence”(Wonderful Cinema, 2019), with its wildly different take on aliens and a plotline of an alien type film as at the end of the film the realisation is that the film has been following the main character Louise banks and how the aliens affect her, as out of everyone its only seemingly her who is affected in that way. The time loop in arrival incapsulates the entire films concept of time and the aliens.

“China mobilised forces and now Russia is following suit, Shang is about to start something”(Arrival,2016)

Just before the asking of the big question that the researchers have been leading up to it opens the shot with a canted side angle of the duo protagonists walking up to the room signifying the miscommunication that’s about to take place but also to once again foreshadow that the area they’re entering is going to have something negative happen to it as angles such as that represent unease or disruption. 

The way these two films handle character progression and plotlines is very different, 

Arrivals form of storytelling jumps back and forth and delving into different points in the narrative to tell a sophisticated story arc. Whereas Iron Man has a flat and basic structure to its story following Todorov’s theory of equilibrium- as Iron Man begins the equilibrium gives us some exposition about the character and what he does and what he’s currently doing, it furthers the story by having a pressing incident which takes the form of him being ambushed in the desert after a weapons test and he is almost killed and then taken as a hostage to build weapons, the main disruption of the equilibrium is broken and a new one is formed after arriving home and dealing with the stress of returning home to lead a company but then encountering an issue dealing with his position of power and being Iron Man, new equilibrium is formed after the conflict between Stark and Obadiah which ends in a climatic Dual upon the ark reactor which might symbolise the battle based around starks Iron Man reactor in his chest.

Iron Man was the starting film in the trilogy of Iron Man films with leading actor Robert Downey JR, it begins with a brief introduction to his character Tony Stark and the audience can start to see what type of character he is and the basic premise for his development.

 Iron Man’s story is massively propelled in the true Hollywood fashion as a blockbuster hit with “$140 MILLION BUDGET”(, 2019) And filled with big high-class A listers such as Robert Downy Jr himself, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff bridges and Jon Favreau which in its own right gives the film a successful basepoint to go from. It does rely on having a fanbase already from not only the comic book series of Iron Man but also marvel hero films in general and from having films about superhero’s already released it gave the studio a plan of how the films plot would lay out. 

Iron Man follows a Meta-Narrative which although usually a bad thing by only gives one account of the events which unfold in the narrative and blocks out some minorities, which Iron Man is guilty of when it comes to the war in the middle east and its people which are affected, it does actually work in this case as it’s a superhero film and it’s about Iron Man and his progression. Iron Man’s war standpoint was affected by historical events at the time of its release as during its release year (2008) there was escalating violence in Iraq as “a suicide bomber kills 30”(Beth Rowen, Infoplease)and the attacks got worse which could be used to argue the film has realist aspects.

Each film portrays their characters differently but they both share a similarity despite the narrative structure differences in that they both Follow Vladimir Propp’s theory about characters to a degree. He stated in all films there are 8 character types such as the Hero, The Villain, The helper, the dispatcher, Etc. Now while neither film has all 8 they definitely share some of the same archetypes, In Iron Man the “hero” is Tony stark, “the helper” being Pepper Potts and debatably the “Princess”, after this however the characters take on more than one role with Obadiah being “the Villain”, “False Hero” and to a degree “the dispatcher”. Simple and basic however in Arrival its more blurred but still features similarities in that Louise plays the “hero”, the “helper” is Ian Donnealy but this is the last similarity as the character types end, the only villain-type character is time and governments defensive violence as the aliens pose no threat which again is open to audiences interpretations to whether the film is implying humans are their own enemy. 

The linear/non-linear structure affects characters because of this it changes how each narratives handle death is very different as with Iron Man the major death which is shown is the death of the other hostage scientist Yinson and with this the film captures the audience’s attention and emotion in that what stark does next by murdering a group of terrorists is justifiable as to not influence the films younger audience. But with Yinson’s death they play on the comedic aspect of someone massively outgunned when he comes round the corner faced with 10 or so armed terrorists and then when we see him next he is slowly passing away and exclaims to Tony Stark that this is best for him because he’s going to get to see his deceased family which although tragic it does give the audience solace in the fact he goes peacefully and is happy to die. 

Whereas in Arrival the one key death the film keeps hinting at is the death of the protagonist’s future child which the film opens with the protagonist crying over the child and throughout the film it flashes forward to the future event, but it plays like a real-life death reaction as in the person continuously reminisces about them it doesn’t just happen, and they forget and move on like Stark appears to do in Iron Man. The death of the child in Arrival affects the protagonist before the event takes place which is another way that Arrivals take on death and its resulting aftermath differs to that of Iron Man, they take a much more real and explicit approach and the resulting audience emotional response.


In conclusion after looking at the two films and comparing different aspects and themes side by side its clear that having a linear or Non-linear narrative affects the storytelling and how audiences view it, not only in who watches it but more how the different audiences react to it with the two different levels of interaction & engagement whether it provokes real deep thought such as Arrival does or whether you come out of the cinema with the view that it was a cool blockbuster and cant wit for the next one such as Iron Man. In both instances the films are successful for their own reasons.


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