Deus Ex Machina – It’s More Common Than You Think


Deus ex machina – or “God from the machine” in Latin – is a plot device used in literature and film whereby a seemingly impossible situation is miraculously solved in a convenient, unexpected, or inconceivable way. The term originated in ancient Greek and Roman theater, where a “god” was lowered onto the stage via a crane and wires (“the machine”) to resolve tricky plots. In movies, deus ex machina can serve as a thankful resolution to the story, but, if used improperly, it can feel unsatisfying or lazy to the audience. It may undermine the characters’ hard work or the plot’s progression.

While the term may be unfamiliar, let’s take a look at some examples from popular movies, and you’ll realize just how often it’s used:

1. The Eagles in “The Lord of the Rings”: In both J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, the Eagles serve as a classic example of deus ex machina. During the Battle of the Black Gate in “The Return of the King,” when Frodo and Sam are trapped on Mount Doom with seemingly no hope of survival, the eagles suddenly appear to rescue them. While their arrival provides a dramatic and uplifting moment, it also raises questions about why they didn’t intervene earlier. This particular example has been argued over by fans for years.

2. Captain Marvel in “Avengers: Endgame”: Thanos’s army is overwhelming our beloved heroes, “raining fire” down from his ship. Just when it seems like the Avengers are on the verge of defeat, Thanos’s ship turns its guns to the skies, trying to face the unstoppable force that is Captain Marvel. She tears her way through the ship, completely destroying it and leaving Thanos looking more nervous than we’ve ever seen the villain. While it was certainly an epic moment, it also seemed too convenient. She’d played a very small role in the movie thus far. Where had she been this whole time, and why show up now? It can be argued that if her character had been more involved in the plot throughout the movie, the writers could have effectively avoided this narrative trope.

3. The Crane in “Toy Story 3”: Our favorite toys have accepted the end as they fall further into the garbage incinerator. How could they possibly make it out of this situation? Are we about to see the end of Buzz and Woody? Just as our hopes falter, a bright light shines from above. A giant crane, driven by the three-eyed alien toys obsessed with cranes, finds the doomed toys and lifts them away to safety. The audience is relieved, but where did they come from? It seems all too convenient that the toys were saved at the very last second. But while this example fits the deus ex machina trope, it also ties in with the heart-warming, humorous, and fun themes of these movies. With the power of friendship and loyalty, these toys can conquer anything they put their minds to; even when they’re plunging into a fiery pit!

4. Ross Declaring His Love in “Friends”: In the finale of this popular sitcom, Ross is desperately trying to reach Rachel – the woman he’s had a complicated but passionate relationship with for decades – before she gets on the plane to Paris and her new life. The universe seems to be against him as he races against the clock, driving to the wrong airport, having to buy a ticket, and well-meaning friends slowing him down. At the last second, Ross stops Rachel from getting on the plane and confesses his love. What convenient timing! It would have been a very different ending if Ross hadn’t been able to reach Rachel in time. But, in this case, the audience can be grateful for the common trope. It gives us a satisfying conclusion to the Ross and Rachel storyline.

5. Multiple Examples in the “Harry Potter” franchise: One of the most popular franchises of all time is still often guilty of using deus ex machina. In the first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Harry is facing off against his worst enemy, Lord Voldemort. The Dark Wizard, controlling Harry’s teacher Professor Quirrell, leaps across the room and locks Harry in a chokehold. But as soon as Harry grabs Quirrell, his hands turn Quirrell’s skin to ash. Screaming in pain, Harry can defeat Quirrell, and thus Voldemort, by grabbing his face and turning his entire body to ash. While these sudden magical powers are later explained, at the moment it seems entirely random that Harry can turn people to ash with just a touch. Another example of deus ex machina was in the second film, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” when Harry is once again facing off against Lord Voldemort, and this time, he’s joined by a terrifying basilisk. The odds are against Harry, but suddenly, the headmaster of Hogwarts Professor Dumbledore’s companion phoenix named Fawkes delivers the Sword of Gryffindor to Harry, allowing him to fight the basilisk as Fawkes pecks out the basilisk’s eyes. Even later, when Harry is dying from basilisk venom, Fawkes returns to heal him with its tears, known for their magical healing properties. Let’s be honest, if Fawkes hadn’t arrived to help Harry more than once, he’d have been a goner. Whether it’s too convenient or fits perfectly in the magical world of Harry Potter, it’s largely up to the audience and how willing they are to accept certain writing choices.

Deus ex machina can be a divisive narrative device, as it can provide convenient resolutions to complex conflicts. But it may also feel silly, lazy, or unsatisfying to audiences if not executed effectively. Keep an eye out for this trope in movies you watch, and you may be surprised at just how often it pops up.