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How Does The Avengers Use Three-Act Structure to Tell Its Story?

The Avengers was massively successful, both at the box office and with the critics, and many reviewers cited its excellent use of the three-act structure as one of the keys to its success. But how does this three-act structure break down in the film itself?

In the above video from his YouTube series, Lessons from the Screenplay, filmmaker Michael Tucker uses Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting to explain the traditional three-act structure. “According to [Field], it looks like this: three acts, two plot points. Act I should make up the first 25% of the script, providing all the setup for the story … At the end of Act I comes the first plot point, during which the protagonist makes a difficult choice and enters a new world … The middle 50% of a script forms the second act, where the protagonist struggles to achieve their new goal. Since 1979, this section has somewhat evolved. It’s now common to include a mid-point, a big turn that comes exactly halfway through the screenplay. This mid-point splits the second act into two halves … In Act III, the protagonist knows what they need to do, but must overcome their weakness to do so.”

Tucker then looks at how The Avengers conforms to this model, and compares the three-act structure we usually see in screenplay to the five-act structure that dominates older fictional mediums, like Elizabeth drama. He then looks at what purpose these structures, which are often accused of producing formulaic films, can serve to make better, more effective storytelling. Are these really best thought of as structural questions, or are they instead questions about which pivotal decisions the characters make, and when they make them?

I’m always curious to figure out why a film works, or why certain scenes and character arcs land when others don’t. Tucker’s discussion here is really illuminating.

(Featured image: Walt Disney Studios and Marvel Studios)

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