It’s All An Act!

Breaking the act structure of Man of Steel by M. Schinke

When reading criticisms or articles about films, or watching videos about the same, I will often hear the author throw around the word, “act” in reference to the structure of the piece. This will typically be part of a complaint that the second act drags or the third act was weak. This term is thrown around as if the reader, or viewer, is supposed to know what the author means in using it. If you’ve never taken a writing course, studied play or screen writing, or even been inclined to look up it up, it’s likely that you aren’t as familiar with what an act is as you may want to admit; I sure wasn’t. The problem is many of these critics and reviewers aren’t either, but their business depends on you believing that they know more than you. Understandably this can lead to a lot of issues in terms of understanding films and how they play out because; if you don’t know how to evaluate them, and the people you trust to evaluate them don’t know either, then who do you turn to for guidance?

As anyone who has read an entry on this blog can attest; I am not a writer. The fact that I can string two sentences together with any shred of a coherent thought linking them is more amazing to me then it would be to anyone else. After having been told numerous times that Man of Steel, a movie I greatly enjoy, had a severely compromised act structure, I began to question exactly what that meant to begin with. How could a writer with a list of credits as long as David S. Goyer write a screenplay that badly? More than that, how did it get by director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan and every executive at Warner Bros.? It can’t be just because Goyer is a bad writer; he wrote the screenplays for the Dark Knight Trilogy that so many people love. Even if you want to say that Chris Nolan salvaged the bad screenplays for those films and turned them into something great, he still brought Goyer on to do Man of Steel and approved the screenplay he wrote; so the guy must be doing something right. No, I needed to understand more about the concepts at play before I could begin to wrap my tiny brain around these criticisms. To do this I acted as any right-thinking person should when face with these problems; I turned to the internet.

An act is defined by Wikipedia as:

“… a division or unit of a theatre work, including a play, film, opera, and musical theatre. The term can either refer to a conscious division placed within a work by a playwright (usually itself made up of multiple scenes) or refer to a unit of analysis

That’s a pretty clinical definition that kind of wraps back on itself, but this entry is a great place to begin developing an understanding. In basic and act is how the story is divided up for presentation. What’s taught in most general courses that cover it is the, “traditional” three act structure. Again, according to Wikipedia:

Act one

In Act I the conflict of the story is discovered. In this act, the exposition, the introduction of the protagonist, and other characters that the protagonist meets take place, as well as the dramatic premise and inciting incident (the incident that sets the events of the story in motion) occurs approximately halfway through the first act.

Act two

At this point, the main character encounters an obstacle that prevents the character from achieving his or her dramatic need. This is known as the complication. The main character reaches his or her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the dramatic need or objective and it seems like there is no longer any way that the protagonist can succeed.

Act three

The climax occurs as well as the dénouement, a brief period of calm at the end of a film where a state of equilibrium returns. In other words, it is simply the resolution.

This is possibly the broadest scoped outline of play or screen writing you will find, but it isn’t always applicable to every piece of work. Pieces with structures featuring four, five or even more acts have been produced to great effect. Different genres have born out their own structures for use, with some types of act structures lending themselves better to certain types of narratives. Additionally, the medium you’re working in can have an effect on how man acts you have and how they are used. Plays, television and films all have conventions that make certain types of act structures easier to manage than others.

Where one act ends and another one begins is usually referred to as an act break. An act break can be a hard break, where the break is obvious, or a soft break, where it is more impressionistic or inferred. Television and theater typically have hard breaks. In theater, they are usually used to cover set or wardrobe changes. In television, the act breaks typically fall at the commercial break, or rather the commercials are inserted into the act breaks; it’s hard to tell which begets which. Since film is continuous, with no need for a hard break, act divisions become more fluid.

In my readings, the most satisfying definition of an act, or act break specifically, I have come across describes it as a point of no return; a moment or event which cannot be undone and from which the characters and the story can no longer go back. An example of this would be in Star Wars: A New Hope; when Luke decides to leave Tatooine and follow Obi-Wan to rescue Leia he makes a choice that alters the story and cannot be undone. The hard part in film becomes identifying these places in the narrative. Because film is fluid and unyielding, unless the movie is very blatant about it, it can be very difficult to pinpoint where the act break occurs. Because of this it’s just as difficult to count how many acts there actually are in the film. Even with the, “standardized” forms available the truth is there is no limit to the number of acts a film can have. There are many, “rules of thumb” out there regarding the, “correct” number of acts that should be used but the best one I’ve heard is, “as many as it takes to tell your story”.

Often, the first and final acts are easy enough to peg. As the introduction and climax of the film, respectively, it’s pretty simple to tell where they fall in on the films timeline. This is where you’ll find critics will start to say the film gets long in the middle, or the second act is bloated, or pacing gets wonky or weird or some such other comment. In a lot of cases this is because what they are calling the second act may in fact be broken into more acts then they are taking into account.

An act can often contain its own mini-arc. Like a chapter in a book or a story within a story, an act can have its own tone and its own pace that is different than the other acts that surround it, depending on what the story calls for. In terms of pace, common thought is that the film should constantly build towards the end, picking up steam and intensity as you go along as the stakes raise and the circumstances become direr. The individual acts can accomplish this by working in tandem, each act building upon the last one to push the film forward. However, when and how the film picks up steam or not is entirely up to how the film makers want the story to be delivered. Again, with each act having its own mini arc and some act breaks being more obvious than others it can be difficult to spot where the film is picking up its steam and why.

Additional to the acts, a film can also contain special scenes at the beginning and end of the narrative. These scenes are commonly referred to as prologue, denouement and epilogue. Typically, a prologue will contain an event or information that is related to the films narrative but takes place outside the films current time frame. These can contain information that is important or lends context to the rest of the film. The extend prologue in Batman v Superman, the murder of the Wayne’s and the flashback to Man of Steel, serve to set up Batman’s character and motivations in the film. The denouement will cover a period between the climax and the final scene. This area of the narrative brings closure to the action of the story and gives the characters and audience time to process what has just happened. An epilogue will appear at the very end of the narrative. This is usually used to give final closure to the narrative and provide information on the status of the world at the stories conclusion. Richard Dreyfus’s wrap up at the end of Stand by Me, wherein he reveals the fates of his childhood friends, is considered the epilogue of that story.

Man of Steel has been accused of having no act structure at all, which is of course a ridiculous statement to make. It has also been accused of being a badly paced three act film with a ridiculously bloated second act and a third act which is all, “destruction porn”. I refused to believe that this was true so, taking these few tools I have in hand, I started to chisel away at the structure of Man of Steel to see if I could figure out where the joints are. Once I felt I could identify the act breaks, I could then look at the individual acts themselves and try to understand their place in the overall narrative; how they relate to one another as well as how they work together to create the over all film. The unconventional use of flashbacks (something I plan to write about soon) in the film can, understandably, make breaking down the acts in the first half of the movie a little more difficult if you don’t understand their purpose. Once I felt I was able to wrap my head around all of that, I was able to develop a map that I feel is fairly accurate in regards to the structure. What I feel the movie uses is a 9-act structure with both a prologue and an epilogue. The film also breaks into two halves; each having their own arc. I believe the acts break down like this:

Prologue: Begins with Kel-El’s birth and ends with Kal-El’s ship crashing to Earth

Act-1: Begins with the fishing ship and oil rig rescue and ends with Clark hitch hiking north.

Act-2: Begins with Lois arriving at the military site and ends with Lois at the Daily Planet

Act-3: Begins with the scout ship and the Jor-El hologram and ends with First Flight

Act-4: Begins with Lois tracking down Clark to Smallville and end with Lois telling Perry White she’s dropping the story

Act-5: Begins with Clark coming home to his mother and ends with Clark turning himself over to the military

Act-6: Begins with Clark’s, “arrest” and ends with Clark and Lois being taken on Zods ship

Act-7: Begins with Clark and Lois arriving on Zod’s ship and ends with Zod releasing the World Engine

Act-8: Begins with the World Engine dropping and ends with Lois, Clark and the survivors at ground Zero

Act-9: Begins when Zod emerges from the wreckage of the scout ship and ends with his death

Epilogue: Begins with Clark and Martha at Johnathon’s grave and ends with Lois and Clark at The Planet

I further believe the story halves of the film break along these lines:

Part 1 is encompassed by acts 1-4 and is about discovery, both Clark’s discovery of who he is and Lois’s discovery of him.

Part 2 is act’s 5-9 and is about the invasion. The Kryptonians come to Earth and Clark must now step into his role as the planets protector.

This is not definitive obviously, because the movie doesn’t really feature many hard act breaks. There is some wiggle room in exactly where the breaks fall. The act breaks fall more on story beats then they do time stamps, and there are a couple of places where the story beats have been broken up or arranged in a way that works on film but makes pegging it to a structure a little more difficult. It’s also a complex structure, asking for a lot more attention to detail from the audience. More than content I think this is what differentiates a kids film from a film meant for a more mature audience. A family friendly, meaning kids, film has to deliver the information in a way that doesn’t lose less sophisticated viewers and keeps them constantly engaged. A film meant for a more mature audience assumes that the audience will willingly invest it’s attention. All these mini arcs in multiple acts having their own beginning, middle and end means that you have a constant rising and falling action. If Man of Steel were an action or an adventure movie this would be a problem; but Man of Steel is neither of those things, so the rules that govern those types of films should not apply. A common mistake is in attempting to make the film conform to the expectations of an action or adventure film, which just doesn’t work.

So all this in mind, let’s see if we can’t dive in and identify the arcs in the acts and how they relate to one another.

Prologue: Krypton

As defined, a prologue is a scene that adds context or information to the rest of the story but is outside the narratives time frame. This should be easy enough to understand with the Krypton scene. In it we not only see Kal-El’s birth, but we are given the reason why he was born and why he had to be sent away. We get introductions to Jor-El, Zod and the codex; all of which will factor into the film later, and we see the destruction of Krypton. The codex isn’t simply a macguffin, or an object to be fought over between the hero and villain. Clark is never looking for the codex; where as Zod needs it. By binding the codex to Clark, Jor-El makes him the object of the search. If the codex were another item Zod could take it and leave, making Clark secondary to the object. If Clark is the Codex, this makes every ones story about him specifically; he is the focus of the entire film from every characters perspective. Instead of just being in the way of what Zod wants, he IS what Zod wants; but neither of them knows that yet.

Act 1: The Drifter

In the first act we are introduced to Clark Kent, though not by name, working as a deck hand on a fishing boat. We see him briefly interact with his shipmates and get a quick snapshot of information that informs the limits of the characters powers; he can be taken by surprise. This means his powers are as much an act of will as they are inherent to his physiology. When an emergency call comes in about an accident on an oil rig, Clark heads off and save the rig workers and winds up getting blown into the water below. The rig rescue introduces us to some of his powers; his strength and physical resilience, as well as immediately informing us that he will go out of his way to help people in need. While in the water we have the first flashback. In this, we are introduced to the remainder of Clarks powers that we will see in the movie; his hearing and sight abilities and his, “heat vision”; represented here as invisible projections of heat as they were depicted by John Byrne in the ‘86 Man of Steel mini. This flashback also introduces the idea that Clark is persecuted for being perceived as different and introduces Martha Kent and their relationship.

After Clark leaves the water and finds some clothes we get the second flashback; the school bus crash and Johnathon Kent’s infamous, “maybe”. I do not agree with those that say this flashback introduces the question of whether or not Clark should help people or stay hidden as the main thrust of the movie. As so many critics point out this question is answered before this scene occurs. Why people latched on to this one, relatively minor aspect of this three minute and twenty second scene where the idea is mentioned once and never brought up again, is completely beyond me but it became a major sticking point that skewed the evaluation of the film for so many that they are still making videos essays about it now. In my observation, the flashback provides the reason why Clark is acting anonymously instead of just flying around being, “Superman”. This is a story point that is adapted from the ‘86 Man of Steel mini as well. I also introduces us to what Clark is doing out in the world; looking for where he comes from. From here we catch up to Clark working at a bar where he over hears talk about something being found up north. He steps in to help the waitress who is being harrassed, takes a beer to the face and decides to leave; not just because of the dufus he confronted, but to check out what he overheard. Of course, he doesn’t leave without teaching this jackass a lesson about manners. The act concludes with Clark hitch hiking north towards the scout ship.

Act 2: Lois Lane

Act 2 is primarily focused on Lois Lane as she encounters Clark for the first time. As the main character in this act there is almost nothing that happens without her presence, even the scenes we see of Clark alone in the scout ship can be accepted into this because Lois is in the ship at the same time. It’s a reach, but a reach is good enough for this purpose. The act starts with Lois arriving at the military site, with Clark being treated as a background character in her story. Lois is there to check out reports of a mysterious object found in the ice and while shooting pictures at night she sees Clark enter the scout ship and follows him. There is a bit of action as Clark explores the ship, discovers the Jor-El hologram and Lois is attacked by one of the drone robots. Clark rescues her and the ship takes off. We get a voice over of Lois reading her story while we see her being picked up off the ice. We cut to the Daily Planet where Lois is finishing reading her story to Perry White and, after being told he wont print it, takes her story to an online journalist to be published. This act begins and ends with Lois and is all about her encounter with Clark. Clark is treated with continued mystery but he continues to portray the same willingness to help when he is needed, as well as showing kindness to Lois and putting her at ease to allow him to assist her.

Act 3: The Discovery

This act begins with Clark on the scout ship as the Jor-El hologram begins to tell him about who he is, where he comes from and why he was sent away. We are given a deeper explanation of why Krypton suffered it’s fate. We are told the way Kryptonian society functioned in regards to it’s people and we are introduced to the Genesis chamber; pieces of information that will be important as the story progresses. Clark is given the suit that will become his identifier as Superman and Jor-El tells him what his hope would be for him on Earth; to give the people something to strive for so that they don’t make the same mistakes that Krypton did. Clark begins to test his powers and learns that he can fly, and we end the act with a sequence of shots showing him flying high above the Earth and rocketing back towards the surface.

Act 4: The Meeting

Act 4 is another Lois focused act that begins with her on the hunt to track down her, “mysterious rescuer”. She traces him back to his home and meets him at his fathers grave. Clark relays the story of his fathers death. He prefaces the story with the idea that his father believed the world would reject Clark out of fear if they knew the truth of his origin, the story of his death reinforcing the strength of that belief as being so great that Johnathon was willing to give his own life in it’s cause. When the story is over, Clark asks Lois if she believes his father was right nor not? She answers this for the audience when she tells Perry White that she’s killing the story and, in the end, Perry agrees with her and Johnathon; the world isn’t ready to know the truth yet.

End Part 1

Begin Part 2

Act 5: The Threat

Act five sees Clark return home to his mother, revealing to her that he has found his people and knows where he comes from. His mother tells him a story about his early life and how, even though she knows the truth about him is beautiful, that she was afraid if the truth came out, “they” would come and take him away. Clark promises he isn’t going anywhere. That night, Zod breaks into the airwaves and broadcasts a threat to the entire planet; if humanity doesn’t turn Clark over to him in 24 hours he will make them suffer. The next morning, Clark speaks to a priest while working out what to do in regards to Zod and Lois is arrested by the FBI.

Act 6: The Arrest

Clark turns himself over to the government in exchange for Lois’s freedom. He is brought in for evaluation and he and Lois, “chat”. Clark allows himself to be turned over to Zod and he and Lois are taken aboard the Black Zero.

Act 7: The Black Zero

Lois and Clark arrive aboard Zod’s ship, the Black Zero, where Clark succumbs to the atmosphere and collapses. Zod tells Clark the story of how he and his followers survived Kryptons destruction and of his plan to remake Krypton on Earth. When Clark tells him he can’t be a part of his genocide, Zod responds, “then what can you be a part of?” The Jor-El hologram appears, tells Lois how to stop Zod and helps Clark and Lois escape. Clark rescues Lois from a crash landing in an escape pod. Clark rushes to the farm to save his mother. The battle in Smallville ensues and Zod returns to the Black Zero. Upon hearing that the Codex has been bonded to Clark, but that he need not be alive to retrieve it, he orders the World Engine released.

Act 8: The Metropolis Incident

The act begins as the Black Zero and it’s World Engine separate and begin to assault the planet. The military’s counter attack proves ineffective and Metropolis begins to be demolished. Clark appears with Lois to present a plan. Zod takes the scout ship and it’s Genesis Chamber and prepares it for use when the World Engine, destroying the Jor-El hologram in the process. Clark flies to India to take o nthe World engine while the military prepares to assault the Black Zero. Metropolis continues to be pounded by gravity waves from the combination of the World Engine and Black Zero. Clark destroys the World Engine and opens the Black Zero up to attack. Clark downs Zod and the Scout Ship to allow the attack on the Black Zero to successfully complete. Clark rescues Lois again and delivers her to the Earth as survivors begin to gather at ground zero.

Act 9: The Climax

The final act begins sometime between Clark and Lois’s kiss and the sound of Zod emerging from the wreckage of the scout ship. After some dialog from Zod we get a solid 6 minutes of combat, ending with Clark breaking Zod’s neck in an underground train station ( I believe). The denouement comes as Zod’s neck snaps and his body falls and lasts until the scene cuts.

Epilogue

Clark speaks with his mother about how his father would have felt to see him and what his future plans are. We see Clark riding his bike to the Daily Planet and being welcomed by Lois Lane. The new satus quo has been established.

Finding the act breaks in Man of Steel is not impossible, but they can be very subtle at times. I think by looking at the film from the, “can’t go back” point of view helps solidify where the story beats are and helps to separate the pieces. It’s still an unconventional narrative; particularly the idea that the main character takes a backseat to his co-lead in the second act. For what is supposedly a Superman film to continue to bounce the story between Clark and Lois as almost equally important characters is nothing new in dramatic storytelling, but it isn’t something typically seen in comic book movies. This is a point that I have tried to make in my discussions about the film; that it is in fact a drama that happens to be about a comic book character, and not a, “comic book movie”.

That little bit of editorializing aside I think the structure of the film is quite sound. All the individual acts have an arc to them, with some leaving, “cliffhanger” endings as they lead into the next act. All of them serve a clear purpose in furthering the narrative and pushing the plot along. The first half of the film ending at act 4 is a full and complete story on its own as is the second half, though this does rely on the information in the first act to make sense. That the mid break cleanly divides the films narrative into two such distinct parts was likely a bit confusing for some audience members trying to force the whole thing into one box but I don’t think it throws the narrative flow off. Additionally, the climax of the film could have all been contained in act-8, with Zod and all the Kryptonians all being soundly defeated and sent back to the Phantom zone en masse. This likely would have avoided some of the criticisms that the movie endured in regards to it’s final volley. I think there is enough of a break between the end of act-8 and the beginning of act-9 to provide necessary breathing room so it doesn’t all run together, despite what the very damaged recall of many people will say. As for how you feel about the finale; I’ve had enough conversations with people who are so observably wrong about what happened in that last fight it could generate it’s own article.

Understanding act structure has nothing to do with how you react emotionally to a film. Being able to peg a film to a 5, 7 or 9 act structure should not make a movie subjectively, “better” in anyone’s eyes, and this entry is not an attempt to alter how anyone approaches the film emotionally. This is nothing more than an attempt to understand the construction of the film. If you don’t like the movie that’s your thing; it doesn’t change anything for me.

I hope this can spark at least some kind of internal conversation for you as a movie viewer, if not about this particular film then for other films you may come across. The more we understand about how films are constructed, the more we can elevate the conversation concerning them.

Clever endings aren’t my bag. Laterz

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3 thoughts on “It’s All An Act!

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