My take on Avengers: Infinity War’s story structure.
Warning: The following text will analyze the three-act structure of Avengers: Infinity War and will, of course, include spoilers galore. If you haven’t seen this movie yet and want to keep the suspense, please stop reading now. Otherwise, please join me in my musings about IW’s structural composition.
As always I’m going to use the story structure elements known to result in a classic three-act structure. If you are not familiar with it, please visit K.M. Weiland’s site for a brilliant overview of the three-act structure and story theory. You’ll find additional possibilities and extensive descriptions for a deeper dive into all related elements.
I’ve toyed with the idea to draw out a story structure that is based on Thanos as the main character. He is the central (albeit antagonistic) force that drives the story forward and his character arc is the most pronounced – however, Thanos as the main character didn’t really add up with the story beats.
But who is it, then?
At first, I couldn’t identify any other character that would fit the role. Everyone finally comes together. The core group from Earth and Black Panther, Thor, Bucky, Spiderman, Dr. Strange, and the Guardians – there are just too many good guys and they all are in different locations, too. So where to start? Who’s the one with the most impact or the highest stakes?
Only after some days of pondering the issue, did I come up with an idea: the clue is in the title. It’s not an Iron Man or Captain America or Guardians of the Galaxy movie – it’s an Avengers movie! I hadn’t done a story structure analysis for any Avengers movie so far, but when I went so far as to treat the Avengers as a group as the protagonistic force, suddenly the story structure beats made sense. (Yes, that might be a controversial approach but it’s my solution to the structural setup.)
Overview of the story arc / structural elements for Infinity War
Inciting moment: (pre-story): Thanos acquires the Infinity Gauntlet
Hook: Thanos attacks the Asgardian refugee ship & acquires the Space Stone
Key moment: Thanos sends his Children to Earth to get the two infinity stones from there
First Plot Point: Cap, Natascha, and Sam return to defend Wanda and Vision (or, more broadly spoken Earth)
First Pinch Point: Thanos abducts Gamora
Midpoint (2nd plot point): Gamora reveals the location of the Soul Stone
Second Pinch Point: Thanos’ forces arrive on Earth and prepare for a fight in Wakanda (and Thanos sacrifices Gamora)
Third Plot Point: Dr. Strange hands over the time stone to save Toni
Climax: Thanos arrives on Earth and joins the (quite lopsided) fight
Faux Climax: Wanda destroys the Mind Stone
Climactic Moment: Thanos reverses the time and claims the Mind Stone and Thor is too late to prevent Thanos from snapping with his fingers
Resolution: Thanos wipes out half the universe, The Avengers have lost the fight and are heavily decimated. Thanos escapes.
Detailed Analysis of the story and the connection of the structural beats
The Inciting Event is usually described as the event that sets the story in motion. In Avengers: Infinity War, the story is about preventing Thanos from killing half the Universe or as he would say “to bring balance to the universe.” In short, the story is about preventing Thanos from controlling all six Infinity Stones. His first actions to achieve this goal happen way before the movie starts when he attacks Nidavellir and forces Eitri to forge the Infinity Gauntlet (gauntlet-shaped device that enables the wearer to wield all six Infinity Stones without getting harmed by their power.) The audience learns about these events only later. Afterwards (also pre-movie), he heads to Xandar where he wipes out half of the population and acquires the first Infinity Stone – the purple Power Stone.
(One could argue that forging of the Infinity Gauntlet is merely a preparation and not the launch of the overall plan of getting the stones. Without the device, however, even Thanos wouldn’t stand a chance to control all stones so the Gauntlet is a vital part of the storyline.)
The movie itself hooks us in with the attack on the Asgardian refugee ship. Just barely escaped from Hela and the destroyed Asgard, the ship is heavily damaged and corpses cover the floor. Loki and Thor are in a tight spot; even Hulk has no luck in stopping Thanos. This first scene sets up Thanos, his brutality and his goals within minutes. He seeks to give “balance” to the universe. He has been after one or the other Infinity Stone before (in The Avengers he sends Loki to Earth with a Chitauri army for the Tesseract (and the Time Stone?); in The Guardians of the Galaxy he’s after the Power Stone but both Gamora and his Kree puppet Ronan betray him.)
Now, he’s changed tactics and isn’t after one but all Infinity Stones to grant him powers hitherto unknown – godlike, even – and achieve his evil deed with the snap of his fingers. Naturally, Thor, Loki and the rest of the universe beg to disagree that this is the way to go about it, so the conflict/opposition between both sides is instant and unnegotiable.
However, neither Loki nor Thor nor Hulk are a match on their own and after acquiring the blue Space Stone from the center of the Tesseract, Thanos sends his Children off to Earth to bring back the two stones that are currently there. This is the moment where Thanos’ actions draw the rest of the Avengers into the storyline – it is the Key Event.
Now, the rising action of the plot kicks in. Earth is forewarned about the pending attack (courtesy of Heimdal who sends home the unconscious Hulk in a last heroic act) but not at all ready or prepared to deal with what’s coming. The aftermath of Avengers: Civil War still looms large and divides the forces of the earthbound Avengers.
The Maw and Cull Obsidian show up in New York. Hulk is a no-show after the severe beating from Thanos and Dr. Banner in his human form isn’t of any help in a fight. That leaves Toni, Wong and Dr. Strange the sole fighting protectors of the Time Stone. Even with Spiderman showing up mid-fight they barely manage to stay alive. They get rid of Cull Obsidian via a wizard portal to Antarctica (?), but can’t prevent the Maw from abducting the stone along with the immobilized Dr. Strange. Toni and Peter follow and make it (unseen) to the Maw’s spaceship last minute. (not so earthbound anymore, eh?)
Thanos’ second crew, namely Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive, sets out for Vision’s stone – the yellow Mind Stone – and attack him and Wanda in Scotland. After the fight in New York Dr. Banner has informed Cap (and Natasha & Sam) about the recent events and the dangers ahead. They arrive just in time to help fight back the attackers. Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive’s fail to retrieve the Mind Stone. That sets back Thanos’ plan considerably but more important, it serves to reunite the Avengers in one cause. Therefore, I’d identify this moment as the First Plot Point. All our heroes are now engaged in the fight against Thanos, even though they aren’t literally fighting side by side but spread out across the universe.
Thanos, in the meantime, marches on with his original plan. We learn about that plan when Thor recounts the inciting event(s) to the Guardians just prior to the First Plot Point. This sets up a rough roadmap of expectations for the audience and – following the reasoning that there are two tasks for the Guardians and Thor (acquire a weapon able to kill Thanos – and getting to red Reality Stone currently in Knowhere with the Collector ahead of Thanos) they split up.
While Groot, “Sweet Rabbit” Rocket, and Thor are en route to Nidavellir, the rest of the crew makes for Knowhere. On the way there, Gamora goes to some length to make Quill promise to rather kill her then let Thanos take her (foreshadowing.)
When they arrive on Knowhere the place seems deserted and of course, Thanos is there, threatening the Collector. Gamora doesn’t waste any time. She overpowers and kills Thanos in a quick series of battle moves. And when she’s done, she cries over his dead body, anguished by what she did. Promptly, Thanos reveals himself. The audience witnessed nothing more than a twisted version of reality, a fake. Thanos isn’t dead at all and already in possession of the Reality Stone. Even though Quill does, after agonizing moments of indecision, shoot to kill Gamora, Thanos’ reality control thwarts the effort. Thanos disappears with Gamora, leaving Quill, Drax, and Mantis amidst the burning Knowhere. The story has arrived at the First Pinch Point showcasing the (rising) power of the antagonist with actions that confirm the worst fears.
In the next scenes of the storyline, we return to several different locations where several Avengers make headway with plans to stop Thanos. On Earth, Cap and crew arrive at Avengers HQ and rejoin Rodes and Dr. Banner. They devise a plan to separate Vision and the Mind Stone and make for Wakanda. Toni and Spiderman free Dr. Strange and kill the Maw but, unable (or unwilling) to turn the spaceship around, they are now Titan-bound, ready to fight.
On this happy note we near the Midpoint that brings us back to Thanos’ ship. He is after the Soul Stone but doesn’t know where it is. He suspects Gamora knows (and there have been multiple foreshadowing moments by this time that the audience assumes it’s true.) Thanos now needs to find a way to bring Gamora to disclose its location to him. After playing nice for a short time, explaining his reasoning and still getting dismissed by her, he resorts to torture – of Nebula. Gamora denies, is confronted with indisputable proof; the torture escalates and Nebula’s pain proves too much for Gamora – she eventually reveals the location of the Soul Stone.
The pace picks up now. The audience suspects that Thanos is only moments from acquiring the Soul Stone while the protagonistic forces struggle with different tasks. They do make headway, though: Team Thor is on Nidavellir, setting to work on forging the “Thanos-killing-kind” of weapon (Stormbreaker) with Eitri’s help. Nebula escapes capture and sends a distress signal to Mantis. They are to meet on Titan.
There (after some comic relief) the Guardians join forces with Team Toni only to have Dr. Strange up the stakes with his remark about the 1 in 14 million chance to win this whole fight…
In the following scenes are two events that might qualify as the Second Pinch Point: the landing of Thanos’ forces on Earth and Gamora’s death on Vormir. The latter event follows closely after the Midpoint and while Thanos walks away with yet another Infinity Stone and therefore increased power, I think the scene informs more deeply on Thanos’ character arc and could be seen as an extension of the Midpoint.
Better suited in timing to qualify as the Second Pinch Point is the re-appearance of Proxima Midnight (and Corvus Glaive) on Earth, more precisely on the Wakandan border with an army of beastlike aliens in her wake. Her cold rage and the sneer about the sheer amount of “blood to spare” pose an immediate and serious threat to Wakanda’s defenders even if they show some (misplaced) attitude about it. I suppose, in the end, Cap and the others know that they don’t need to win-win this fight but simply need to give Shuri time to extract the Mind Stone from Vision’s forehead.
With Gamora dead on Vormir we are down to three major locations with protagonists fighting and moving the story forward: Nidavellir, where Thor helps Eitri with the forge in a near-suicidal act that even shakes teenage-Groot out of his video game stupor and prompts him to give an arm to finish Stormbreaker; Earth, where the fight turns ugly fast while Shuri is at work separating Vision from the Mind Stone; and Titan, where Thanos shows up, courtesy of the Space Stone once again, expecting the Maw with the Time Stone ready to be delivered to him.
Instead, he walks into a trap. Dr. Strange, Toni, Spiderman, Nebula and the rest of the Guardians execute a series of attacks. Mantis mind-sedates Thanos but struggles to keep it up. The group fails to get the Infinity Gauntlet off his hand before Quill blows it (moron!). The fight intensifies, Thanos winning ground until only Toni is left standing. They fight but Toni is in trouble – his suit’s capabilities are no match for Thanos and he severely injures Toni.
Now, Dr. Strange intervenes and trades Toni’s life for the Time Stone. Thanos accepts and, true to his word, leaves. Everything just changed – we’ve come to the Third Plot Point. Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone despite his former assertions to never do such a thing. Thanos is five stones down, one to go. Even Dr. Strange mentions the significance of the event when at the closure of the scene prompted by Toni’s “Why did you do that?” he simply states “We are in the endgame now.”
And the endgame (AKA the Climax) goes down on Earth. Shuri’s attempt to separate Vision from the Mind Stone have been thwarted when Corvus Glaive raided the lab after Wanda joined the fight in the field. Cap calls everyone to order, but “Heads up, stay sharp!” is of no use. Thanos shows up and works his way through defenders with sickening ease. Vision and Wanda’s time is up and they know it. Vision begs her to end it and she finally sets to work. Holding off Thanos with one hand (You go girl!) she melts the Mind Stone with her other hand and succeeds – blasting Vision and the stone to smithereens. The audience only gets a short moment to enjoy this triumph – it’s a Faux Climax after all – and after Thanos is done commiserating with a heartbroken Wanda, he simply turns back the time and plucks the Mind Stone from Vision’s forehead, casting his dead body aside like a broken puppet.
Now, everything seems lost. Thanos fits the last stone to its socket in the Infinity Gauntlet and…gets Stormbreaker square in the chest. Thor for the rescue! The promise of Stormbreaker’s power seems to be true. The weapon is indeed strong enough to injure Thanos. The only problem is: he can still snap his fingers with the weapon embedded in his chest. And he does – in the true Climatic Moment. The gauntlet crumples, but the deed is done. Thanos won.
The Resolution follows instantly. Everywhere people start dissolving. On Titan, Nebula states the obvious: “He did it.” The audience is left to hope that Dr. Strange’s last words to Toini before crumbling (“There was no other way.”) might hint at the fact that this had to be part of the one chance in 14 million to win, but it’s a weak consolation. Half the Avengers/Guardians are gone while Thanos gets to retire to his hut overlooking a lush landscape, watching the “sun rise on a grateful (?) universe.”
The after credit scene is no ray of sunshine either: Director Fury curses when he sees Maria Hill dissolve and as he starts to go the same way, he at least got time to send out a last distress signal…
The Audience is left to deal with Thanos’ victory and to mourn the dead.
That’s it! Do you have anything to add? If so, please leave a comment.
Please note that this analysis is my personal opinion. I do not suggest my musings to be the absolute truth nor do I claim to know what the scriptwriters had in mind.
I have done similar posts for the movies Black Panther and Wonder Woman. Please head over there and read those, too, if you enjoyed this one.