Why does every superhero film have to end in a big fight?

Feature Andrew Blair 13 Nov 2013 - 06:10

The climactic fight has become a staple of superhero movies, but, Andrew wonders, do they always have to end this way?

Superheroes can move now. Previously they were static images, conveyed via paper and ink and Dr Whisky. Now they are fleshy bulbosity writ large across IMAX screens, a fixture that shows no sign of being worked loose from cinema listings. Marvel are expanding into television too, and planning movies long past all of our (inevitable) deaths so that even Captain Britain will be getting killed on screen at your local multiplex sometime around 2150 AD.

In the present, Thor 2 bounds across our screens like a slovenly-edited Labrador, overcoming its obvious cuts by being generally enthusiastic and hilarious. It ends with a funny and imaginative fight scene, one that is almost strong enough to stop you from remembering that, in fact, basically every single superhero film now ends this way. And, indeed, every comic.

Fighting, then a brief coda. That's how it goes. Even with teleporting spicing things up, Thor 2 does nothing to deviate from this structure, with Thor triumphing by virtue of being brave and strong. Who knew? 

How do Iron Man 1 and 2 end? With some men in metal suits battering the bejeezus out of each other. Iron Man 3 bucks this trend by having all the men in metal suits being on the same team, and all the folk without metal suits having the strength of men in metal suits. They are, of course, fighting.

After being spinally-disenfranchised by Bane, what is Batman's cunning plan to defeat his impossible nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises? Coming from the vast, yawning mindtank of Christopher 'Cerebral is my Middle Mane' Nolan, surely it'll be something pretty damn braintacular, yes? Turns out, it's “Go back to Gotham and fight him better”.

What do The Avengers and Man Of Steel have in common? Several things, but also the city-levelling finale that takes up a large swathe of the running time.

These films are just taking their cue from the comics. Let's look at some Marvel Event titles: Secret Invasion – everyone fights till the good guys win. X-Men Vs Avengers – guess. Civil War – everyone fights until they realise this isn't helping (ooh, twist).

The Killing Joke ends with a fight. Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? ends with a fight. Even Alan Moore can't always resist the template. Watchmen's finale is mainly a debate between superheroes about Consequentialist morality opposing Deontology, throwing up endless questions about the ramifications of superheroes' actions (most of them have an absolute morality they dare not compromise, although in the case of recent Superman and Batman movies they do break their own rules because of drama. I could go on about this for a several articles). Watchmen is a rare exception in both fields. Alan Moore and Christopher Nolan are rightly lauded for their work, but even they can't resist the lure of men touching men, really fast and hard. 

Fighting, then, is both the primary resort of superheroes and a moral grey area. The in-universe explanations are varied and debated (Pat Mills' scorn on the subject of superheroes has produced many memorable comics), but let's be honest: they're there because fights look cooler than talking. It's simultaneously understandable and shallow.

This isn't to denigrate fights, by the way. Who doesn't love a good fictional fight? Hell, people have written whole blogs devoted to the subject. The problem is simply that there are so many superhero films doing the same thing that it becomes repetitive, monotonous, and increasingly difficult to innovate.

Fighting as finale is not a new development. It's been part of the make-up of superhero comics since their beginning, although early Superman films and comics were more limited in the amount of action they could show - the first Action Comic sees Superman scare a corrupt senator into submission by simply holding onto him and jumping around until he gives in. Superman And The Mole Men (1951) has more of a mild skirmish than full on fisticuffs (following a lengthy scene of the Mole Men walking into town holding a big laser), but it's notable that Superman does no actual fighting. Instead, he negotiates a truce and stands in the way of the laser. In many ways, it's vastly more satisfying than Man Of Steel. 

1978's Superman film ends with a big set piece. It's more of a test of Superman's strength and morality than a big fight scene, however, and the sequel's finale hinges on outwitting the enemy rather than just biffing them into submission. While the structure of blockbusters generally leads to a large-scale event occurring, it wasn't inevitable that this would be a fight. It's with the recent box-office stranglehold that superhero movies have firmly established this template (although as the Superman films get worse they move towards it too).

It's arguably 2000's X-Men film that started this process, followed by Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk and The Fantastic Four. All of them end with a big fight. 2005 begat Batman Begins and - even with the huge pulsating Mekon-brain of Christopher Nolan at the helm – it too went for pugilistic smackitty-whacks as the centre-piece of its denouement. 

Occasionally the fight sequence will be enhanced with some feat of intelligence or outmanoeuvreing of opponents, but for the main part the superhero movie's dominance has caused a problem for its fans: even if they span the genres, become more personal, and are set in different universes with different tones, they all end up with a CGI enhanced boomdown, often following the same pattern of:

Equal > Baddie Winning > Baddie Definitely Going to Win > But Wait > Goodie Summons Up Reserves of Energy/Fights for Love of Good Woman/Just Because > Goodie Wins.

This lack of imagination in the final third is not isolated to superhero films, but because studios are now seeking to link up their franchises into distinct yet cohesive storylines, the similarities have become as apparent as the differences. This begs the question: how else do you end a superhero film?

Really, the two obvious endings are 'fighting' and 'subterfuge', or some combination of the two. However, looking back at the 1978 Superman film, it's clear that there are other options that really test the character beyond how hard he can hit things. However, films have now used this for so long without much fuss or complaint from the audience, it's not necessarily the case that persisting with them will be an issue. 

The problem for superhero films is more likely to be that some of the audience may well find – with some franchises now set to outlast most household pets – the lack of variety is too much. It all depends on how large this group of the potentially bored is, and how much of a dent they will make on box office figures.

Without knowing how many viewers this approach could lose, and what losses the studios would consider to be acceptable, it's impossible to say whether anything is going to change. Personally, I would prefer some more variety, but film studios obviously operate under the maxim of 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

For most people it ain't broke, and the films are made for most people. At the moment, it doesn't look like anyone's going to be fighting over this one.

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