Plot Structure Analysis – Marvel’s The Avengers

With the release of Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron tonight (I see it tomorrow), I thought that it would be the perfect time to conduct an analysis of the plot structure of it’s predecessor: 2012’s critically-acclaimed, perfect popcorn movie, Marvel’s The Avengers. I had recently picked up a copy of the blue-ray package and went through the entire movie with the time stamp while I took notes (Yay iTunes!). I’m also watching it right now in a tiny box to get me into the mood for this article. The movie is that good.

In this article, I’m not going into too much detail. Instead, I’m going to look at the broad structure, break the story down into acts and try to analyze why the structure worked so well in this movie. I’m basing my analysis on the great work the FilmCriticHulk has done in challenging the traditional consensus that movies must have a three-act structure. This is not a review of the screenplay (I leave that for wiser folks than I) but how the story appears in the final product on screen. Almost please note that all time stamps cited in this article are approximate. I hope you enjoy it.

Prologue (00:00 – 01:15)

The move starts with a short expositional prologue that introduces the Tesseract, the Chitauri, introduces a mysterious villain behind the scenes and summarizes Loki’s general plan that “burdens him with glorious purpose”. Now I want to introduce a word here “exposition” that you’re going to hear a LOT in this article. It simply means a scene or sequence of scenes whose primary purpose is the explain something to the audience.

Truth to be told. This prologue is really unnecessary. Nothing is included here that is not better explained later on in the movie. I suppose that the filmmakers were concerned that viewers who hadn’t seen the earlier Marvel movies would be confused. In retrospect, I don’t that would’ve been a concern.

Act 1: Setting up the MacGuffin (01:15 -11:41)

Wow. This ten minutes carries a lot of weight. It mixes the introduction of the MacGuffin (the Tesseract), several major characters including Fury, Hill, Coulson, Selznik, Hawkeye and of course Loki; a ticking-time bomb, Loki’s sceptre, Loki’s theme of “freedom from freedom”, a fun chase scene and a massive explosion that everyone barely escapes. All of this right in the introduction. It is extraordinary who much these ten minutes has to do. The act is primarily expositional. It has to explain to the viewer almost everything they need to know for the rest of the movie. The fact that Whedon was able to mix all of this exposition while keeping everything fast-paced and fun is an extraordinary achievement. This will be a common refrain during this article.

Act 2: Avengers Introduced (11:50 – 36:06)

The purpose of this section is to introduce the Avengers, set up their internal conflicts and major relationships and bring them to the Helicarrier. Now the delineation of this act was challenging as it doesn’t include the introduction of Thor, which I believe should be grouped in Act 3. Once again, this act is dominated by exposition. In short order, we are introduced-

  • Introduced to Black Widow, her unique skills in interrogation, and her understandable fear of the Hulk.
  • Introduced to the Hulk, his need to help people, how his affliction works, establish the running joke about he controls “the other guy”, exposition regarding the Tesseract and why they need Dr. Banner (it emits gamma radiation).
  • The strained relationship between the Shield and Fury, the rational behind the Avengers, and the mystery that is “Phase 2”.
  • Introduce Captain America, his conflict as a man out of time, more exposition of the Tesseract and its connection to Cap’s old nemesis “Hydra”.
  • Introduce Iron Man through a clever transition, re-establish his relationship with Pepper and provide more exposition regarding the Avengers Initiative.

Following a brief interlude which provides more exposition of Loki’s deal with the devil (which establishes the high stakes for Loki and drives his motivation), the Act concludes with all of the Avengers (minus Hawkeye and Thor) on the Helicarrier as they watch in amazement as it takes off into the air.

Once again, this act of nearly thirty minutes in length is almost purely expositional. But it’s so well put together that you don’t notice and you don’t care.

Act 3 – Avengers Dissassembled (36:06 – 1:28:02)

If Act 2 was about bringing the Avengers together, then Act 3 is about ripping them apart. This is also the place where the plot really starts to get moving. We start with an expositional scene (again) between Loki and his brainwashed henchmen explaining what they need (Iridium), how they have to get it (scientist’s eyeball) and where they have to go (Stuttgart). This scene also foreshadows the assault on the helicarrier.

The Avengers apprehend Loki in Stuttgart but not before he has re-established his theme (Freedom from Freedom), had his team steal the Iridium and laid a beating on Captain America that has him questioning his place in this time. In Loki’s defeat, we also establish a conflict between playboy Iron Man and straight-laced Captain America that will be resolved much later.

The Avengers transport of Loki is interrupted by Thor who takes Loki away to the Black Forest for some family time. This scene gives the movie the chance to provide more exposition regarding Thor and Loki’s relationship (“shadow living in the shadow of your greatness”, provide context to Loki’s motivation and again provide opportunity for Loki to expand on his “Freedom from freedom” theme.

But don’t worry. After all of this exposition, we get a fight. This fight establishes the parameters of their powers (remember Thor’s lightning) and gives Cap an opportunity to establish his leadership position that grows during the movie while building respect from the other Avengers (in this case, Thor especially).

Following his capture, Loki is brought back to the Helicarrier where he is imprisoned. Despite Loki’s helplessness, the Avengers began to fall apart due to their internal conflicts and mistrust. We establish that with Loki’s presence, Banner doesn’t quite feel right, we get more exposition of the Chitauri, the purpose of the stolen Iridium (stabilize the portal), explain the portal and what it’s to be used for (bring the Chitauri army to earth), all the while showing the heroes growing more distrustful of each other and SHIELD. The Act comes to a head when the Avengers learn about Phase 2, leading to an argument that, mixed with the assault on the helicarrier, the unleashing of the Hulk, the death of Coulson, the reveal regarding the location of the Tesseract, and the disabling of the helicarrier pulls the Avengers apart and leaves them at their lowest points.

Again, we got a lot of exposition but it’s worth it to finally see the Hulk in action and see how terrifying he truly is. Things to watch out for are the surprising but perfectly suited friendship between Banner and Stark, Black Widow’s interrogation of Loki, and Cap’s belief that Stark is selfish and not capable of making the sacrifice play. It’s also interesting that both Cap and Stark are right. Stark is right to not trust SHIELD while Cap is right that Loki is trying to play them. Well done Mr. Whedon.

We also get the joy of watching Black Widow run from the Hulk, the Hulk and Thor fight, Iron Man and Captain America forced to work together, Thor and Loki argue, Coulson’s death, Black Widow and Hawkeye fight, and finally Loki’s escape.

When the movie was released, the only major criticism of the story was there didn’t seem to be a reason for Loki to allow himself to get captured. In short, the assault on the Helicarrier didn’t make any sense. In watching the movie again, it is suggested that Loki, under Hawkeye’s, felt the need to disable the only identifiable threat to his plan. So I think it’s acceptable. Besides, who cares? Did you not see the summary above. This Act is awesome!

Act 4 – Avengers Reassembled (1:37:27 – 2:08:46)

In the beginning of this act, we find our heroes broken. It takes a manipulation by Fury (Coulson’s cards) to push them back into action, not before we get more exposition regarding the Tesseract, the Avengers Initiative, Hulk’s reflection, the deprogramming of Hawkeye and the realization that Loki will use Stark Tower as the portal.

Reinvigorated, the Avengers reassemble just in time to take on the invasion of the Chitauri. At this point, the exposition that has dominated the movie up until this point takes a back seat to the action. It still jumps in to explain what the heroes have to do to beat the Chitauri and close the portal but it’s a supplement to the action, not the major driver of the story. This act is more about the action and closing a lot of the loops that it has opened throughout the preceding 100 minutes such as Hulk’s secret (“I’m always angry), Cap’s ascension to leadership and finding his place in this world, and Stark’s choice to sacrifice himself to save New York City from being destroyed by a nuclear blast.

Act 5 – Resolution (2:08:46 – 2:13:09)

With Loki vanquished, all of the story threads are closed in relatively short order. Loki is arrested and taken back to Asgard (at least until Thor: The Dark World), the Tesseract is taken out of reach, the heroes disperse back to their “regular” lives and Fury confronts the council. This final act also gives the audience an audience to enjoy our heroes success and say their goodbyes (at least until the next Marvel movie).


In short, that’s the plot breakdown of Marvel’s The Avengers. I admit that my article is a little on the wordy side but there is so much in this movie to talk about. The biggest surprise for me in writing this article was the realization over how much exposition was in this movie. When I say it the first couple of times, I didn’t even notice. Typically, writers try to avoid exposition because it’s usually boring. However, what is remarkable in this movie is how Joss Whedon is able to make it work and make it fun. He mixes in so many jokes, character moments, conflicts, and other clever tools that you don’t even notice. It is a massive accomplishment that he was able to make this work so seamlessly.

So to close, if you’re a writer and you have to write an exposition scene, watch Marvel’s The Avenger and see how you can make it fun. As for the rest of us, we’ll be at the multiplexes watching Age of Ultron.

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