A Writer Re-Reviews: Thor (and Captain America)


Yes, I know, I’ve already done a review of Thor.  However after viewing it again last night, I wanted to revisit my earlier review and look more into  the actual failing of the film by looking at another movie that succeeded.  There are a number of examples I could choose from, but let’s stay within the comic book genre, even within the Avengers lead-up films, and pick Captain America: The First Avenger.

What am I looking at in both films?  The traditional three-act structure of a movie.  And I want to specifically talk about how it’s typically used in the superhero origin story movie, which both of these movies are, and how both deviated from that structure.

In most super hero origin movies, the acts are as follows:

  • Act One: Establish the person behind the hero.
  • Act Break: Person gets super powers.
  • Act Two: Person learns how to use powers.  Villain origin story.
  • Act Break: Villain directly threatens hero.
  • Act Three: Hero works to defeat villain.

This certainly isn’t every superhero origin, but just to go back to the first Avengers movie to see how it’s done cookie cutter (but well).  In Iron Man, Act One focuses on the background of Tony Stark and his time in captivity, Act Two is after he emerges from the caves and works to improve his suit and life for down trodden middle easterners while Obadiah Stane gets his own suit put together, Act Three is the big showdown.  It’s a standard formula that both Thor and Captain America tweak.  In one it worked, in the other it didn’t.

So how did the three act structure fail Thor?  The big tweak to the structure is the flipping of the traditional first and second acts.  Act One focuses on Thor having all his powers in Asgard and Jotunheim.  Act Two focuses on him trying to be just a brawny dude on earth, learning to be a hero and not just someone with a bunch of awesome powers.  The problem here is that it means his entire character arc happens not over the course of the entire film but over the course of only the middle act.  This is where the film falls apart, by giving too little time to too important of a part of the story.  It also means that the Asgard section feels padded in order to get to the right time code for the break into Act Two.

So how did the three act structure get massaged to work better for Captain America?  Well, it’s right there in the Act Two bullet point.  Typically within a three act structure, Act Two introduces the secondary characters within a movie.  In the superhero origin movie, those secondary characters tend to include the villain of the piece.  Captain America instead presents the villain fully formed, from the beginning.  He’s given little bits of back story, but not an entire origin in the way of Green Goblin in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  By treating him as an established character, by having him exist before the Captain, it does several things at once.  First, it gives the character action in Act One, breaking up the typically slow alter ego introduction section of an origin movie.  Second, it gives the Captain some focus to his actions after getting his super powers, instead of having him just show off his powers in ways that ultimately won’t connect to the main plot.  Third, it frees up time in Act Two for more plot development, and for more of what we want to see out of a super hero movie: ass kicking.

Now.  I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend that Captain America is some awesome paradigm of film.  It’s not going to to be nominated for Adapted Screenplay.  All I’m saying is that we have two Marvel movies that played with the traditional presentation of three acts within the super hero origin story.  And that’s great.  With the sheer number of super heroes being optioned into films, something needs to be done to keep the films from looking and feeling like the same script adapted for a different power set.  But with experimentation comes successes and failures, and that’s what came out of the 2011 Marvel releases.

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  1. avatar

    #1 by Shaun on December 22, 2011 - 12:14 am

    I have to admit that I hadn’t looked at Thor in the three act nature, I just thought it seemed rushed and poorly done. But what you are saying makes perfect sense, they were trying to show his arrogance to everything thinking he was unstoppable. Then they humbled him basically, but there was just that second when he realizes what important and that is supposed to be the moment of change and everything is back to normal. They did it so rushed in the movie though that it just seemed cheesy, like they just wanted tog et it done so they could move on to something else. Captain America was a well put together predictable superhero movie. Which if you think back to our wonderfully cheesy predictable action movies from the 80’s, same premise, same predictability, same one liners and we still love to watch them. Or it all could show want type of part each character will have in The Avengers, basically pointing out that Captain America is going to be more important in the next movie so we will take our time and do it well, while Thor is a secondary character, and got that same type of billing in his movie. I have all the marvel movies in my DISC queue with the Blockbuster Movie pass, my wife wanted to see them all after I rented Captain America because she thought the movie was that good, and she had the same thoughts about Thor. She found Iron Man streaming with the movie pass as well, which she compared Iron Man to Captain America as being the best two movies she had seen so far. At least I got her interest in something that I like, and for $10.00 a month, the movie pass is well worth getting to spend some time with her. I will have to thank my coworker at DISH for convincing me to give it a try.

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