In Defense of Marvel Studios’ Work-In-Progress Third Acts

While Marvel Studios’ third acts are often criticized, creatives at the studio ensure they’re always striving to better them.

We’ve previously written about how Marvel Studios continues to innovate and where it could improve. Marvel Cinematic Universe projects are often critiqued for prioritizing spectacle over emotional and thematic resonance in its third acts. At the same time, it’s clear from interviews that the studio seriously contemplates the decisions that go into their finales. This deliberation allows the studio to experiment. While experiments can result in occasional falters, it is a long-term approach that succeeds more often than not in resonant finales. 

Marvel Reveals Another MCU Mystery Dragon on New Shang-Chi Poster - The  Direct

Marvel Studios’ films and tv series are often reviewed as sacrificing satisfying conflict resolution for spectacle in their third acts. This is also an element those making the films are aware of and are always working to improve. Nat Sanders, one of the editors of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, described on The Rough Cut podcast how the third act was a main focus to improve during the pandemic shutdown:

“We had a hiatus period, we had to shut down and before we came back up, along with really cutting and refining the 6 weeks worth of material we had at that point, our other main big focus was pre-vizing the third act and really continuing to develop the third act because it felt potentially just a hair underbaked in the script, compared to everything else, and we thought there was more to keep working on, so it ended up before a really great thing that we had that time for that part.”

Nat Sanders

The editors also spoke about how Marvel Studios emboldened them to make big decisions with the director Destin Daniel Cretton. They mention cutting half an hour out of the third act, and  how these were considered good value even if a change in look for one character cost more than the entire budget of another film. Harry Yoon, another one of the editors, mentions how this empowered decision making met with an experimental attitude that focused towards continually improving the film’s emotional conclusion: 

“[With the Marvel Studios producers] there was this attitude of ‘if we can make it 5% better or 3% better by addressing this one comment, then let’s try it.’ […] After a while you start to feel like you have permission within Marvel to make bold decisions […] That’s where it got very exciting towards the end, once we started to understand that character, story and audience were the big priorities and not these other things.

Harry Yoon

All of this suggests Marvel Studios keeps its collaborative spirit from within the Parliament, and extends it out to their project-based collaborators. This in of itself keeps fresh while also consistent. Regardless of personal opinions on the matter, it is a process that strives to keep improving. 

doctor strange variants

It’s fairly commonly received wisdom that a singular vision rather than an interdependent conception is what empowers creative and successful films. Yet Marvel Studios seems to empower its collaborators to make impactful decisions throughout the process and potentially change aspects of the result as they go. Benedict Cumberbatch recently reflected on this experimental attitude in regards to his Doctor Strange sequel: 

“With the first film, you’re always locked into a script, because it’s the origin story,” he says. “But there was a lot more freedom this time around. I guess, because we were … not literally making it up as we go along, but sometimes it feels like that. Marvel has this amazing ability to come into production: ‘We really just have to start shooting now. It doesn’t matter that the third act is not quite where you want it to be.’ You really do things on a wing and a prayer sometimes.”

Benedict Cumberbatch

This experimental attitude will always result in hits and slight misses. On one hand it’s brilliant that Marvel Studios gives its creative collaborators freedom to keep improving a script or scene they are not quite happy with. This can, with different perspectives or more thought, often help a scene arrive at a better place. On the other hand, however, an impending production timeline might mean a completely satisfying conclusion is reached. It also suggests that we might get different kinds of conclusions as the studio as a whole works on improving, which we know is a key motivation of the producers there. It seems as though the difficulty of third acts is a studio wider discussion. Jac Schaeffer recently spoke about how hard it can be to resonantly blend scale with emotional conclusions:

It’s the third act of a Marvel movie. I’ve been around the block on some of those, and they’re so fun — but that’s always the hardest to land. The emotional part of the finale was always very clear to me: their goodbye and the goodbye to the children. That was the grounding force. All the pyrotechnics and making sure that Wanda’s win against Agatha at the end really sings, that’s stuff that takes a long, long time.

Jac Schaeffer
Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision

The Marvel Cinematic Universe at large is a work-in-progress and this filters down into the production elements of each project. Loki featured a conclusion that was largely an amazing set of Jonathan Majors’ monologues. Yet it was also satisfying through aspects of action, scale, emotion and theme. Post-credit scenes as a feature, are significantly part of the additive delight which makes these films and streaming series so compelling. Characters and concepts are introduced, and for the creatives, part of the fun becomes figuring out how these characters and concepts play into the larger narrative. That wider narrative is perhaps the most significant point. While there might be immediate conclusions in particular projects, the wider narrative remains a work-in-progress. This gives Marvel Studios the freedom to produce better endings that delight us all. 

Sources: The Rough Cut podcast, The Hollywood Reporter

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