Has Hollywood lost the ability to end a blockbuster movie?

Hollywood blockbusters are getting better at delivering strong build up. But are they getting worse at giving us the pay off at the end?


Spoiler warning: this article starts by discussing dialogue from the end of The Dark Knight, and a bit from the end of Batman Begins.

Why’s he running, Dad?” “Because we have to chase him.

A simple exchange from the end of The Dark Knight, but one that stuck in my mind long after the film finished. I’d always thought that topping the ending to Batman Begins would take some doing, with the revelation of the playing card, but there was something quite wonderful about where The Dark Knight left Batman at the end of Nolan’s second trip to Gotham City.

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My problem is that, outside of the current Batman franchise, I genuinely struggle to remember when a Hollywood blockbuster came up with an ending of real note, or a final act that utterly delivered on what came before. I say this not to be churlish or snippy. My point is that what modern day blockbusters seem to do now is start exceptionally well, but rarely do they end so impressively.

The first act of modern blockbusters, as we saw in the likes of X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger, Super 8 and Thor, tends to be very strong. Yet, in each of those cases, they had nothing of such note at the back end of the movie to match it. That’s not to say necessarily that the last acts of those films were bad, just that they were less impressive than the rest of the movie.

It strikes me that this is the trade-off of the modern day blockbuster, though. We saw it with the latter Brosnan Bond movies, where a seemingly intriguing choice of director would be hired, but only allowed to effectively make half the film. Take Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day, a film with no shortage of detractors. Yet, for the first fifty minutes or so, the film threatens to be darker, and is far more interesting than it’s given credit for.

Sadly, by the time the last act kicked in, the movie had been handed over to the stunt and special effects teams. And that’s, perhaps, the modern day problem. That, for a film to be a blockbuster, it has to have explosions, special effects, lots of bang and a heavy dose of loudness for the trailer. Those moments tend to get saved up for the final act, where the mantra is, no doubt, to outdo the ending of the last big, loud movie (and, consequently, gather some stuff for the trailer). And the problem is that, as build-ups have improved (in line with the hiring of more interesting directors for blockbuster movies in recent years), the denouement has felt more of a letdown.

It’s worse when you get the clues as to how a film is going to be resolved in advance, too, and then you find yourself waiting for the movie in question to go through the motions to get there. Last act surprises, it seems, are very thin on the ground.

Perhaps what I’m talking about, though, is a disappointment brought on by just how good the build up tends to be. I think back to Ang Lee’s Hulk, a film for which I continue to proudly wave the flag, and the compelling first ninety minutes that led to the oddity of the last act. The film turned damn near incomprehensible, with said final act only saved by the last line of the movie.

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Inception, too, really stuttered for me as it hit the ‘blockbuster’ part of the movie. For two thirds, I was utterly gripped, and the firefights in the snow seemed a distraction from where I’d hoped the film would be spending more of its time, as it neared the end credits.

Is this the future, then? Is this deal for enjoying a season of blockbusters that’s been as impressive as we’ve had in 2011? Or is there someone out there with the courage to take a slightly different tack in the final act of the film? After all, it’s not as if the most memorable special effects and blockbuster sequences tend to end up there.

Super 8‘s astonishing crash sequence isn’t too far into the movie, while the main attraction for Iron Man 2 was the superb introduction of Whiplash in the Grand Prix part of the film. I could barely tell you a thing about the big action moments at the end of Iron Man 2, in all honesty, other than lots of money appeared to have been spent on them.

Maybe the ending is the hardest part to get right. I’d always figured it was as tricky to start a story and hook us in as it was to leave us with a satisfying conclusion, but the by-product of the higher concepts generally demanded by a blockbuster is that they sell big ideas, rather than fully rounded stories. And, for filmmakers, it increasingly looks as if those ideas are easier to get into than they are to satisfyingly conclude.

I’m not grumbling, even though it sounds like it. We’re coming to the end of a summer that’s given us a lot of good films. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2, Fast & Furious 5, X-Men: First Class, Thor, Super 8, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Captain America have all met or exceeded expectations (I’ve not seen Cowboys & Aliens yet, but that, too, looks fun).

But the thing is, there’s not a great final act amongst them, from what I can tell. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes comes closest to it, for my money, with Kung Fu Panda 2 also deserving credit. (although I know some will happily wave the flag for Fast & Furious 5). Potter‘s last act? It never really stood a chance of matching the demands of the seven and two thirds films that built up to it.

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The new trend might be signalled with two of the films that I’ve mentioned. In those cases, it was what happened after the end credits rolled, rather than immediately before, that seemed to get people more interested.

It’ll be interesting to see next summer just how satisfyingly Christopher Nolan ties up a three-film story arc in The Dark Knight Rises, now that he doesn’t have a tease into the next movie to fall back on. But I do feel, even taking Inception into account, that he’s the one who’s coming closest to providing a satisfying final act (I’d probably bundle Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies in with him, too), without trading it off for two-dimensional action and effects.

Hollywood blockbusters, I do believe, have improved this year. But even at their best, with just one or two exceptions, they feel as though they’re getting two thirds of the way there. That’s better than we’ve had in some time, but I’d still love to see Hollywood give it one extra push.

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