For every Marvel Studios production announcement there is a corresponding chorus of “Not another super hero movie!” from a portion of the general public. The leading complaint against these incredibly successful films is that, after awhile, they all end up feeling kind of the same. Despite whatever personal conflict or witty dialogue exchange occupies our heroes in the first two acts, they’ll undoubtedly be battling it out with a giant CGI baddie in the final twenty minutes. Inspired by a David Fincher quote decrying this exact dependence on formula, the latest installment of Lessons From The Screenplay reexamines 2012’s The Avengers to see if it really is that formulaic or just well-written, and if those things are mutually exclusive.
Traditionally, most films are thought to fall into a three-act structure, popularized in Syd Field’s 1979 book on screenwriting. There’s a set-up, confrontation, and resolution with a couple turning points in there during which the characters make decisions. Alternatively, there’s the five-act structure used famously in the works of Shakespeare that subdivides that large middle act into rising action, climax, and falling action. Over the years, these narrative guideposts have turned from tools of analysis into crutches for inexperienced writers, resulting in countless uninspired yet structurally sound screenplays.
But The Avengers doesn’t fit neatly into either of these structures. This fact inspires Lessons From The Screenplay host Michael Tucker to create a new, character-centric definition of an act that begins when a narrative question is posed to the audience and ends when a character provides the answer to that question. Through this lens, the film consists of five, story-driven acts.
So, does The Avengers rely on a formula? Sort of. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Nearly all films, especially big budget Hollywood ones, depend on tried-and-true narrative structure. The difference between a good film and a bad film (let’s say Captain America: Civil War and Thor: The Dark World) is how you fill that structure.