The Superhero’s Third Act Problem

The bane of the superhero movie has always been Act 3. Think about Iron Man for a minute. The first act of the film has Tony Stark get captured and escape by building the Iron Man suit, effectively becoming a superhero. The second act shows him playing around with his new superpowers, and hunting down random bad guys in the Middle East. And it’s an absolute blast. We get to watch technology based super-powers beating up people who richly deserve it and who obviously don’t stand a chance. That, in a nutshell, has always been the appeal of the superhero genre. We want to watch a cool hero doing cool things. But that’s not enough for a story.

And there’s where we get the Act 3 problem. Because stories feed off of conflict. Conflict is the main thing separating a story from a list of loosely connected events. Act 1 of Iron Man actually has an excellent conflict, and stands really well as a story on its own. Tony Stark is a megalomaniac whose ambition and vanity get him captured by terrorists; he wants to escape, and they want to force him to build weapons for them. It’s great material, and it makes the first act of the film an immensely satisfying story. Act 2 is definitely more of a list. There’s conflict, but it’s minimal, and the antagonists are too weak to really stand a chance against our protagonist.

Again, that makes for some really fun scenes, but it leaves the filmmakers’ options for the third act limited. If they continue to simply provide the viewer with cool scenes, they will have a film that never feels resolved because it has no big conflict or question to be resolved. The result will be fundamentally unsatisfying to the audience. But, as we break into the third act, there is little conflict present in the story for the filmmakers to mine. That means that most of the groundwork for building tension has to be done in the third act itself. In Iron Man the film’s plot takes a sharp left turn. We find out that Tony’s friend and coworker, Obadiah Stane, has been working against him the whole time. Stane steals the designs for Tony’s super-suit, builds a better one, and tries to kill our hero. One big superhero fight later, and we have the resolution to a conflict that is just barely passable to end the movie on. 

So, the filmmakers behind Iron Man managed to cut a corner and limp over the finish line. I’m being a little unfair here; I’m sure this was the story arc planned from the beginning, and it’s become more or less ubiquitous in the genre. But that doesn’t quite change the fact that all of the films sharing this arc have very weak third acts. You can almost always feel the moment when, like an emergency flair calling out for rescue, the super-villain will leap from the background into the foreground to engage our hero in an unmemorable and melodramatic final battle. Almost all of these third acts are the same. They tend to be the most boring parts of their respective films. And part of that is that they tend to substitute explosions and brute combat for interesting action. But the greater part, I think, is that the conflicts in these final acts almost always come with little to no set-up in the preceding two. Instead, they leap out of left field and manage, by the skin of their teeth, to convince us that we sat through some kind of coherent story. It may be better than the immediate alternative, but it’s also a fundamentally unsatisfying way to end a film.

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3 thoughts on “The Superhero’s Third Act Problem

  1. Interesting point about the left turn most of these movies have to make in order to reintroduce conflict. I think it comes down to a screenplay that isn’t tight enough. As Joss Whedon once said: “Your problem’s not the third act, your problem is everything that comes before it.” I think this is mainly due to the fact the most comic book movies are origin stories (or rebooted origin stores) and it’s hard to tie the origin in act one with the conflict in act three. It’s probably why I think sequels – like The Dark Knight and Spiderman 2 – are usually better.

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    • I agree completely. Or maybe to put it another way, the third act is a problem because of everything that came before, and because the filmmakers think that they can use over the top action to cover up the third act’s lack of connection to the first two.

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      • There’s definitely a “more is more” quality to action movies in general, and superhero movies specifically. I think it’s especially obvious in movies where the hero ends up fighting multiple badguys at once just to up the stakes.
        I heard a great comment on The Dissolve’s old podcast (RIP) bemoaning the lack of “small stakes” in action movies. Instead of wondering if the Avengers are going to save NYC/the world, there’s a lot of joy to be had in wondering if the hood ornament will support Indiana Jones’ weight.

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