Lots of blockbuster films have increasingly bold and intriguing ideas. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has strong elements of 70s political thriller. Man Of Steel questions how welcome an outsider is on Earth. On the same theme, X-Men films, at their best, look at the toleration of differences in modern, and modern-ish society. By many measures, the core of blockbuster cinema is getting more intelligent, more ambitious, and more willing to take chances. Give us themes such as those over the hollow core of Wild Wild West any day, thank you.
But why, no matter how intriguing the set-up, does it now seem compulsory for a modern blockbuster movie to conclude with a last act generally packed to the gills with often-incomprehensible action? Why is there some unwritten rule that suggests audiences just want lots of action sequences, or people hitting each other, after sitting through a build-up that’s offered so much more than that?
To be clear on something first: I love action cinema. I love really good action sequences. I just despair that most big films seem to have no other way to conclude their stories.
Inevitably, Man Of Steel is the most obvious exhibit. Having explored the origins of Kal-El, seen him land on Earth and face a powerful alien foe and deal with his father issues, the pay-off was destruction and fighting. Lots of it, in that case, going on for what felt like forever. But whilst Man Of Steel attracts the ire, it’s far from the only guilty party.
Last year alone, The Wolverine took the title character to Japan, and managed to do things a little differently by asking questions of him, and changing his surroundings. The character was removed from whatever comfort zone he did. How crushingly disappointing then that after putting in the work, The Wolverine ended with more dull fighting, that the only way to wrap up the film was two seemingly indestructible forces just belting each other.
In fact, go down the list of last year’s comic book movies in particular. As well as those mentioned, we have Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The year before? The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man. How many of that lot ended up with a final act punch up (admittedly some being much, much better than others)? Every single one of them.
It’s worse too because no matter what the stakes, you know who’s going to win the fight. Superman was always going to beat Zod, it was just a question of how. Likewise, who really thinks that come the end of The Wolverine, Thor 2 or The Amazing Spider-Man, it’s going to be the title character who’s lying on the floor in a pool of blood?
This has, of course, gone on for some time, which doesn’t help matters. In the 80s, Superman III had Superman fighting Superman. Batman had the duel between the title character and The Joker. In both of those instances, the films concerned boiled things down to a one on one battle at least, which was more effective. Even then though, the outcome was never really in doubt.
More recently, I remember when Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith was in production, and much was made in advance of the apparently epic lightsaber duel between Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin (Hayden Christensen) that the film would build to. They had to learn lots of lots of moves, we were told. It was going to be an amazing fight! And yet before one lightsaber had hit another, everyone watching the film knew who was going to win.
So, without wishing to be unkind, what was the point? Why focus all the energy and time on what amounts to the most predictable part of the film? Why not cut the predictable bit down to its bare bones, and beef up other elements?
After all, just because the formula has long since been laid down, that doesn’t mean it can’t be challenged. Film makers are challenging pretty much every facet of the comic book hero genre in particular, they just seem to be leaving most of the last third of them alone.
Now granted, there’s something very logical, from a storytelling point of view, in building up to a confrontation. But heaven forbid moviemakers try something as bold as the end of the richly-lauded Batman story The Killing Joke, where – without giving anything away – the conclusion was subverted, and the ending as a consequence has been long remembered. The closest in recent times was arguably the brilliant ending to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where the two lead characters had both basically lost. It was intelligent, it treated its audience with respect, and it’s still enthusiastically talked about five years later.
It would be fair to say that few blockbuster movie endings could say the same. But why don’t they look elsewhere for inspiration? Switching genre slightly, I remember sitting through the last third of Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide on the edge of my seat. I knew what was likely to happen there, but it didn’t matter in that case, because Scott had invested so much in his main two characters. The final act ultimately amounted to the pair of them standing side by side waiting for a message. They didn’t hit each other: they didn’t need to. They’d done that earlier in the film. As a result, by the time matters came to a head, the tension was clear, as was the animosity.
The Raid 2, again without giving anything away, shows that action cinema doesn’t have to give up come the ending. Go back to John Woo’s brilliant The Killer as well. Examples are there to be found, they’re just not making it into films budgeted at over $100m.
So: do studios really think we’ll all get up and walk out if we’re denied a few punches? When we salute everything that Captain America: The Winter Soldier got right, we talk about the early stages, the political undertones, the characterisation. How many of us go on about the eventual fisticuffs? Very few, I’d wager.
Contrast that with what’s effectively a very slowed down action sequence in Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers (a film that we saluted in more detail here), as Robert Redford has to basically inch across a room without setting an alarm off. Why can’t a big modern blockbuster do that too: raise the stakes and tension by applying the brakes a little? At the point the audience is expecting the most noise, pull the rug and slow things down?
It’s easy to conclude by saying it’s not good enough any more for a big blockbuster to build up a seemingly-unbeatable antagonist for two thirds of its running time, before watching them getting beaten in the final act. It’s like having a Bond villain who can’t feel pain, and then suddenly finding that repeatedly hitting him works. Yet the financial evidence is to the contrary of what I’m saying, and I do – sadly – recognise that.
For the problem is, of course, as far as accountants at film studios and as far as those who cut trailers are concerned, this action is a safety net, and very much perceived as what mass audiences want. Even with a nonsensical action finale, reviews of such films tend to praise at least two thirds of the running time, giving a decent enough Rotten Tomatoes score. The box office numbers are satisfying. So everyone’s happy: apart from those who genuinely crave something far more interesting than just another big CG fight/destruction procession dominating the last 20 minutes (sometimes more) of major blockbusters.
The thing is, cinema for decades has proven that there are lots and lots of interesting, often quite brilliant ways to end a movie, even an action one. And they don’t all involve fights, special effects and the dilution of what’s gone on before in the film concerned. There is another way, and there has been for a long time. I’d be willing to wager for one that Man Of Steel‘s audience wouldn’t have run the other way had the Zod vs Superman showdown been a fifth of the length. I just don’t think that Warner Bros, even now, would take the bet.