(Warning up top - I'm talking film structure here. And like the arrow in the FedEx logo, once you see structure you can never unsee it)
So when I say that all the Marvel movies have the same structure, what does that mean?
Well humans love patterns. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism, your brain is programmed to give you a hefty hit of dopamine whenever you spot a pattern as a way of keeping you alive.
Imagine you’re a proto-human stalking the jungle primeval. You see some dashes of colour in the shrubs ahead. Your brain looks for a pattern in those splotches of colour. Because that pattern might just be a tiger waiting to pounce. The guy that sees a tiger and it’s just a trick of the light - he gets to breed. The guy that sees a trick of the light and it’s actually a tiger - he’s dinner.
So we love patterns, we’re literally chemically addicted to them. We get disappointed when those patterns don’t appear. And one of the most common sources of pattern we encounter is in storytelling.
Joseph Campbell literally wrote the book on the structure of storytelling with “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” and it’s still as true today as it was back when he wrote it, even if the book itself also shows how far we’ve come in regards to casual racism.
He describes the Hero’s Journey thusly:
As you can see, these plot points - the monomyth - fit everything from Gilgamesh (possibly the oldest tale we know of), to Beowulf, to Lord of the Rings, to Dune, to Star Wars, to Harry Potter, to The Matrix.
We’re comfortable when we see that structure and we’re uncomfortable when it’s violated. That’s why you’re playing with fire when you “subvert expectations”.
It’s a tightrope that storytellers constantly have to tread - if you stray too far from the tropes then the audience will feel violated and hate you for it, if you stick too closely then they’ll actually see the strings on the puppet and they’ll hate you for it.
It’s the “No Good Toupee” fallacy - you think there is no such thing as a good toupee because all you see are the bad ones. A good one actually looks like hair, so you never notice it.
Marvel have realised how to tweak Campbell’s research into something that is as close to a sure thing as you can get in art. They have a core structure, a framework, that they use for every film; this allows them the time and space to work on the things which are more important to a good story - setting, dialogue and character. (Assuming of course that the people involved have the talent to do such)
The structure is as follows:
Three acts with two major plot points per act.
Act 1: Setup and exposition.
This will comprise the first quarter of the film. All of this is setting up what comes after. You introduce your protagonist(s), your antagonist(s), your inciting incident and your stakes.
Iron Man: Tony is kidnapped, learns the consequences of his business, has to use his genius to escape, is permanently scarred and discovers a conscience - leading him from being a carefree playboy to someone who feels the responsibility of power.
Black Panther: T’Challa must challenge for the crown of King of Wakanda, experiences a vision of his father’s deeds, and hears conflicting ideologies regarding the tradition of Wakanda versus their obligation to help the world. Killmonger also encounters the same plot points in his own journey.
The Avengers: Loki steals the Tesseract, along with Barton and Selvig. Banner must learn to trust S.H.I.E.L.D. and Rogers must come to terms with the new world he finds himself in. They all have to come together to stop Loki taking over the world.
Act 2: Rising tension and climax. Act 2 is comprised of two parts which all up account for half of the story. In the first part the characters overcome their initial hurdles. It’s the resolution of the first act and concludes the first half of the film. Complications begin to occur and tension mounts.
Ragnarok: Thor and Loki find Odin after dealing with Dr Strange.
Ant-Man: Pym rescues Lang from jail.
The Avengers: assemble and track down Loki, capturing him.
The second part of Act 2 is the start of second half of the film. This is when things start to fall to shit. The initial success they enjoyed is now shattered and things start to sink to their darkest point. This is the nadir, what Campbell calls “ordeal, death and rebirth”. This is the tipping point between success and failure, triumph and disaster. Here the story could go both ways, the heroes need to dig deep if they want to conquer; they need to be reminded of the stakes - why they’re fighting and what they stand to lose.
Dr Strange: the London Sanctum is destroyed, the New York sanctum is attack and The Ancient One is revealed to have been using the power of Dormammu.
Homecoming: Spider-Man has his suit revoked after the incident on the ferry.
The Avengers: Loki reveals his trap, the Avengers are scattered and Coulson is killed.
Act 3: Catastrophe and triumph.
This is the final quarter of the film, if you’ve been following the maths.
The characters make proactive choices and actions instead of being reactive. They taste failure, a continuation of the end of Act 2, and find their resolve. Their mettle is tested.
The flaws are overcome, doubts are erased, courage is found and the fight is taken to the antagonist. Through the lessons they’ve learned over the course of the film our heroes are able to triumph over the villains, who have not had the benefit of such revelation and are at a disadvantage because of it. The hero wins, the day is saved and we go forward into a brighter future.
Winter Soldier: S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists side with Rogers over Hydra, Rogers and Barnes save each other, Fury makes a comeback and Hydra is thwarted. Romanov gives up everything to a spy - her anonymity and the record of her crimes, to ensure Hydra’s downfall.
Guardians of the Galaxy: We are Groot.
The Avengers: Loki is beaten. The portal is closed. Stark learns the hero play, Banner comes to terms with the Hulk, Thor learns to respect mortals, Rogers realises that while the world has changed, he himself hasn’t and there will always be a place for a hero.
You can take any of the Marvel films here and the beats won’t change a bit. Not even Infinity War, it just has a sadder ending and a sense of disappointment.
You only see it when it isn’t done well. Winter Soldier does this in a way that you don’t really see it happening - because the characters, dialogue and setting are so well established you slip away into the flow of all of it. Black Panther feels boring because you can see all of these beats happening, as if they’re telegraphing them to you as they happen. This is the part where he has his first success. This is where he learns humility. This is the nadir, we know this because he is literally thrown off a cliff.
There’s nothing wrong with the structure - it’s necessary, but you need to be doing something creative with it. Just like how you need a certain amount of non-negotiable elements to make a cheeseburger, you can get creative with sauces and side dishes. And if you take any of those essential elements away, it’s no longer a cheeseburger.
Movies are a lot like recipes. The recipe exists for a reason. You can stick to it too closely and get something as bland as Black Panther, or you can have fun with the wiggle room you’re given and get Ragnarok. But the real danger is when you abandon the recipe altogether. If you get so caught up with your own artistic vision and “subverting expectations” and instead of serving a cheeseburger you decide that what the diner wants is actually tofu, then you can’t be surprised when people get pissed off.