This short essay on the structure of the Avengers Infinity War story comes very late, I know, but I started studying the film not long after it came out as I was blown away by it. I then decided to write about it but as I was building up to it, many things came to disrupt my plan: work, the birth of my daughter, Endgame, etc., and I never got to write things down.
I am now finally taking the time to get this done as I just can’t get enough of the mastery with which this story is told. What you will find here is a compilation of thoughts on the structure of the film, based on the idea that it was built with a five acts structure. I will first look at the act breaks, then theorize as if Thanos may actually be the protagonist of the story, I will then look at the connections within the story and conclude on a question that I couldn’t answer so far.
Of course, this text is filled with spoilers for Infinity War and a bit for Endgame too so if you haven’t seen these films, be aware that the following write-up will definitely spoil the experience for you. If you do choose to read on, I will assume that you have seen the film and therefore that you already know the story.
Let’s first look at the act breaks that define the five acts structure.
Act Breaks Breakdown
There are several definitions of act breaks but the one that resonates with me the most is that an act break is the moment when the protagonist makes a decision that changes the course of the story, leading said protagonist onto a new path that he/she can’t come back from. In Infinity War, there are a lot of characters so using the word protagonist would be misleading. Instead, I prefer to think of it as the “forces of protagonism” vs the “forces of antagonism.” I know that the first of those two sound strange but at the very least, it is quite explicit.
In the team for the forces of protagonism, we have all out super heroes, the warriors of Wakanda, and some. As for the side of the forces of antagonism, we have Thanos, as well as the infinity stones. They are such a powerful force that there is an argument to be made when putting them in the “bad guys” camp. May it be when they are used by Thanos to wipe out half of all life in the universe, or by Tony Stark to wipe out Thanos’ army, in both cases, it is genocide. And in both cases, whoever uses the stones do so for their vision of the greater good.
So, when looking at the Act Breaks in a complex film such as Infinity War, the most important part is to focus on the decisions made that bring about a change of course for the story as a whole. There are plenty of decisions made throughout the film, but which ones actually bring a significant change?
Here are my suggestions as to what the Act Breaks might be:
ACT BREAK I: at 34 min. Rocket split the Guardians of the galaxy when Thor decides to go to Nidavellir. The two of them and groot create a new team that has for sole purpose to get the weapon that gives them a chance to kill Thanos, while the rest of the Guardians decide to go to Nowhere to face Thanos.
LOW POINT at first act end: Thanos is on his way to Nowhere and if he gets the stone that is hidden there, he will be too powerful to stop.
HOPE at second act start: there is a weapon that can kill Thanos, and Thor knows where to get it.
ACT BREAK II: at 1 hr 15 min. Tony Stark convinces Doctor Strange to head for Thanos home planet to fight him far from Earth.
LOW POINT at second act end: Doctor Strange tells Tony Stark that he will not hesitate to let him die if he has to choose between Iron Man’s life and protecting the stone.
HOPE at third act start: Spiderman is knighted as an official member of the Avengers.
ACT BREAK III: at 1 hr 28 min. Thanos decides to kill Gamora in order to get the Soul stone.
LOW POINT at third act end: Gamora dies.
HOPE at fourth act start: I would like to argue that since this act break is Thanos’ one, the ‘hope’ from his perspective is that he didn’t sacrifice his daughter for nothing, and he now has the Soul stone. If we look at this from the Avengers’ side, this is when things keep going downhill. It is Thanos decision to kill his daughter that will continuously bring him closer to his goal, and gets the Avengers further from victory.
ACT BREAK IV: at 2 hrs 1 min. Doctor Strange decides to give the Time stone to Thanos.
LOW POINT at fourth act end: Thanos has yet another stone. This one is also the stone that will allow him to get the final stone too. And just as Peter Quill says, barely believing it, they have lost.
HOPE at fifth act start: Tony Stark is still alive.
I chose those based on the impact they had on the story, they relative placement in the story, and the musical cues that also kick in at each act break during the film.
As you can see, i gave the third act break to Thanos. I did so because there is a case to be made where Thanos is the protagonist of the film.
Thanos as the Protagonist
If we wanted to follow the last argument of the previous paragraph, we have plenty of clues that tell us tht Thanos could very well be the protagonist of Infinity War. He is both the bookend of the linchpin of the story.
Opening: we start with Thanos being introduced by his minions in the middle of a genocide as they finish off the Asgardians on a spaceship. We get to know him as a threat and as a fully fleshed out character. We get to discover his goal, his strength, and his relationship to death. He doesn’t kill for the sake of killing, he does so with a purpose only.
Closing: we finish with Thanos, his work done, the Avengers defeated, as he sits to look at the sunset, just as he said he would.
Mid-point turnaround: I believe that the crash landing on Titan, although not an explicit mid-point turnaround, is still an important representation of what comes next. If everything before that can be defined as being “above ground,” everything after that is “underground,” flipping the story upside down. This is why, having the third act break initiated by Thanos’ decision makes sense to me. We switch perspective and show Thanos’ upper hand to build up towards the final showdown, and the demise of the protagonists. From there onwards, the decision to kill Gamora saves him on Titan, Peter Quill loses his tempter when they almost get the glove off of his hand, which leads to Thanos on the verge of killing Tony Stark, which then leads to Doctor Strange giving away the Time stone to save Tony Stark, then Thanos uses the Time stone to get the Mind stone, and finally he snaps his fingers.
So am I saying that Thanos is the protagonist of the story? No, I am not.
We have followed the members of the The Avengers for the past 10 years and suddenly flipping the switch to give the central sit to Thanos would be a terrible move. However, Thanos did benefit from all the character development on all the protagonists’ previous films, opening screen time for his own backstory. The key here is that we don’t need to learn anything about the protagonists so the antagonist gets a chance to be developed to a point where it’s not a mish-mash monster of the week. Thanos is a real character with depth and Infinity War is the story in which we get to discover that.
So, to conclude on this, Thanos is simply a really well written antagonist who benefited from the writers and filmmakers not having to develop the protagonists.
Connections Within the Story
In story, everything is connected and Infinity War does a masterful job at anchoring all the connections in each key moments of the story.
Doctor Strange tells Tony Stark that he won’t hesitate to let him die rather than give the stone to Thanos at Act Break II. Then, at Act Break IV, Doctor Strange gives the stone to Thanos to spare Tony Stark’s life.
While in Nowhere, Peter Quill comes to terms with Gamora’s death as a way to beat Thanos. However, when he learns that Thanos killed Gamora, he loses his composure and gives Thanos his chance to escape and finally win the battle. Peter Quill is then the one to ask “did we lose?” even though he is most likely the one to have brought this result around.
At the end of ACT I, Thor is fueled by his complete dedication to kill Thanos, it drives him throughout the entire story, whereas the other characters merely want to stop him, death being one of the ways to make that happen. It is Thor, however, who fails to actually kill him, simply because he wanted to be face to face with him one last time. His ego has taken over his dedication to kill his enemy at the cost of half a universe worth of lives.
When Thanos first meets Gamora, he gives her a knife and shows her how perfectly balanced it is, thus teaching her his own philosophy. He then takes the knife back when she tries to kill him with it. Finally, she steals the knife from Thanos to kill herself so that he can’t get the Soul stone. This knife is at the center of their relationship and I may stretch it as far as to say that the knife represents the love that Thanos has for Gamora. Thanos murders Gamora’s family, he gives Gamora a perfectly balanced weapon (his love), she tries to kill him with it (using his love against him), she tries to kill herself with it (his love is a burden that is killing her), Thanos ends up killing her since she is the only person he loves in the universe.
Captain America comes to Vision’s rescue when he is under attack in the UK. It is once more Captain America that comes to Vision’s rescue towards the end as one of Thanos’ minions is about to finish him off.
Thanos sacrifies the person he loves for a stone. Scarlett Witch kills the Vision, whom she loves, to prevent Thanos to get the last stone. Therefore Thanos needs to revive Vision. Sacrifice for a stone, revive for another.
The Oder of Deaths After the Snap
I wonder if there is another level to the order in which the characters are dusted at the end of the film. Right now, I can’t think of any special connection. Here is the order of deaths:
Buckey, Wakanda warriors, Black Panther, Groot, Scarlett Witch, Falcon, Mantis, Drax, Peter Quill, Doctor Strange, Spiderman.
So this is it for this entry. I will continue to study the film and if anything else seems content worthy, I will write about it on this site but this wonderfully executed five acts structure is really what compelled me to write this entry. I may do another structure based essay about Endgame.