Spider-Man’s conclusion is nearly as uninspired, a long and expensive-looking but singularly uninteresting battle, in the air and on the beach, between our Spidey and his nemesis the Vulture – a battle, like Wonder Woman’s, pre-vized and CG-ed within an inch of its life, in which the obvious fakery of the effects translates to a weightlessness of the characters, and thus a lowering of the stakes. And this virus has infected plenty of other superhero movies: quick, when you think of Captain America: Civil War , what big action sequence do you think of? It’s the Avenger vs. Avenger rally on the tarmac, isn’t it? Yeah, guess when that happens? Midway through the movie; the climax is so forgettable, I literally had to check the plot summary on its Wikipedia page for a reminder, and I still can’t remember a damn thing about it.
And then, for fun, keep going backwards. Iron Man 3 peaks, action-wise, at the three-quarter mark, with the clever fighting and slapstick mixture of Tony’s escape from Killian’s lair, accomplished by slowly arriving pieces of his Iron-Man getup. But the movie itself peters out with a climax that consists, literally, of empty suits fighting each other. Guardians of the Galaxy’s prison escape is far more entertaining than the intergalactic battle sequence that ends the film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s highlight is the breathless elevator fight, not the airborne fisticuffs. Hell, even Batman v Superman (in addition to its many, many, many other flaws) doesn’t have the good sense to end with Batman fighting Superman; they have to team up with Wonder Woman to fight another big, terrible, CG monster (can’t remember, not gonna look it up, don’t care) in a fire-and-smoke void. When you get down to it, the last superhero movie that actually ended with its best action sequence was the first Avengers – because it was the culmination of the movie’s themes and conflicts, this disparate group of heroes finally managing to mesh successfully. It felt, dare I say, organic, rather than like a genre-mandated obligation.
And that, ultimately, is what this seems to come down to. America’s primary manufacturers of cinematic superhero product will go to the trouble of hiring writers and directors with some sensibility and voice (usually a comic one), and the midpoint climax often feels – aside from the structural/narrative necessity of dramatizing our hero coming into his/her own – like the one they’ve been allowed to personalize, and to synthesize to their particular preoccupations. The endings feel, to a one, like ceding to the house style, a one-for-them-and-one-for-me inside the same damn movie, all but indistinguishable from similar sequences that have ended that brand’s previous films, and will presumably end future ones.
Is there a solution? Sure: for producers and studios to lighten up the reins a little bit, and let directors like Homecoming’s Jon Watts and Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins extend their sense of play and personality throughout the entirety of their movies, rather than tossing the keys to their second units at the two-hour mark. You would think, considering what a financial lay-up these movies are, that they’d be willing to take some chances with them; witness the hefty returns for out-of-the-box superhero flicks like Deadpool, Logan, and The LEGO Batman Movie . But those were relatively low investments; something tells me that at the end of the day, when a Marvel or DC logo at the top is about the only drop-dead guarantee in mainstream moviemaking, they’ll continue to play it safe – and to insist their directors do the same.