WHY DO SO MANY COMIC BOOK MOVIES FALTER AT THE END?
How The Wolverine may be just another good CBM that still stumbles at the finish line
*THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS*
There are few things more exciting for a fanboy than watching a beloved comic or superhero get the big screen treatment. The characters, the costumes, the worlds just come to life, and it’s as if Hollywood has given validation to that thing you loved on the page, and agrees that it is worthy of being shared with the population at large. And the best part is, geek cred aside, they still work as simply great action/adventure pictures. So why is it, that unlike great action/adventure movies, comic book films have a tendency to completely bungle their finales?
Who can forget the showdown between The Terminator and the T-1000 in T2: Judgement Day? The face-melting finish of Raiders of the Lost Arc is a cinematic classic. I can think of few moments as emotionally complex as The Bride finally meeting her daughter and killing Bill, her lover/mentor at the end of Kill Bill. This is what great action movies do. They leave you satisfied and vindicated after a crazy ride- kind of like great sex. But while some comic book movies will deliver the satisfying conclusion, more still fumble the climax with awkward changes, unjustified decisions, or simply the desperate need to have a ‘twist’.
Let’s look at some of the major franchises (though, this could easily apply to non-comic superhero movies like the end of Chronicle or Hancock, too) and try to examine what went wrong.
I’ll start with the inspiration for this editorial, The Wolverine. But before I get there, it is worth noting that I didn’t have problems with X-Men endings until X-Men 3, where by the end of that film half the damn team is dead, the much-hyped Angel amounted to nothing but 3 scenes worth of screen time, a series that concludes focusing on a relationship between two characters that never should have happened, and Rogue taking the cure, basically betraying the entire conceit of why the X-Men was created by Stan Lee in the first place.
The hits just kept on coming in Origins: Wolverine, where the climax of that film sees Logan and “brother” Sabertooth working together to defeat some Baraka-looking monster-man the credits are calling ‘Deadpool’. Gambit saves the day and a silver bullet wipes a memory. How the F did this ending make it past the focus groups?
The continuity-raping X-Men: First Class did a lot of re-jugging for its reboot/prequel purposes, but that movie actually had a final act that worked. The beach with the Cuban missiles, Magneto’s vengeance on Shaw, and Xavier’s paralyzation, fire on all cylinders to make, imo the most satisfying conclusion to an X-Men film so far, even if not the overall best X-flick.
So in The Wolverine, we get a movie that is at least 3/4ths pretty grounded, and pretty broody. The word ‘mutant’ is hardly ever used, and the lack of emphasis on such fantastical elements this series is known for helped make Wolverine feel unique in the world he lives in. This was excellent storytelling. So imagine the utter shame in how prominently the poisonous Viper emerges by the film’s final reels and how downright jarring the serious tone shifts to cartoonish villainy by the time a Mech Samurai shows up and chops off Logan’s claws. The whole mess is a letdown of a finish to what is otherwise a pretty good story. At least the ending was saved by the post-credits sequence that teases what’s in store for the franchise.
But The Wolverine is only the most recent example of a good CBM with last act issues. The Silver Samurai can join the ranks of Hulk and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, where the build up to the ‘Big Bad’ ends up a big dud. However, a diarrhea cloud is still better than nothing at all. Talking to you, Mandarin! Well, debatable, I guess…
The Iron Man trilogy actually kind of has a reputation for having somewhat underwhelming finales. I liked Jeff Bridge’s Iron Monger in the first movie, but that climatic battle left me wanting. Iron Man 2 had an awesome moment working side by side with War Machine, but how they disposed Whiplash and Hammer, as well as the subplot with Tony’s dying heart leaves the film a little clumsy.
Of course the most egregious example of a movie fumbling its 3rd act can go to Iron Man 3 and whatever they were trying to do with The Mandarin. At this point, the movie’s big non-reveal is infamous in comic bookdom, but that isn’t even at the end of the movie. There’s still all that mess with Extremis, the other suits and the plot holes that brings up, and whatever the heck it was that happened to Pepper Potts.
Iron Man 3 tried to use source material to blend with what they established (read: changed) in the movie universe, but to mixed results. Watchmen, a 95% faithful adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel, still took it upon themselves to change the ending. It might work better in the context of being more acceptable for film, but it does leave plot holes, and undermine some of the point of what the original work was trying to say.
Kick-Ass has a similar problem. Here is a mostly faithful re-telling, that decides to go big for the finish, and perhaps tried a little too hard. This is a film that started by being a commentary on how absurd being a superhero would realistically be, consequences and all, but then it ends by turning into an absurdity itself.
Perhaps it’s best if we go back to the beginning. Even going back to the big one that started it all, Richard Donner’s Superman is a master class in adapting a comic and turning it into something more. For these reasons we forgive the time-altering finale, which makes absolutely no sense.
It is frustrating to note that decades later, Superman Returns still doesn’t get it right (lifting a kryptonite continent? Really?), and even the love-it-or-hate-it Man of Steel is undeniable in the problematic destruction caused to Metropolis by the films end. The damage and likely casualties so can’t be ignored that, amusingly, it is collectively assumed by audiences that this chaos must and will be addressed in the sequel. Funnier still, that sequel isn’t happening. A cross-over is in the works instead!
And that brings me to my finale. The Batman movies. Specifically, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. I think if there is any set of films that help make my point, they might be this series of movies. Let me be clear that I think all 3 of these flicks are fantastic for different reasons. Begins is the best origin story told from any comic film, bar none. The Dark Knight transcended the genre and became a respected and legit crime thriller. And The Dark Knight Rises brings the trilogy full circle while also cleverly alluding to years of different Bat-storylines from No Man’s Land to Knightfall.
But I’d be lying if I said the finale of Batman Begins did anything for me. Ra’s Al Ghul and the monorail, gassing the city, Rachel Dawes zapping Scarecrow and he runs away. Nolan may be a brilliant visionary, but he can’t shoot action for dick. It’s all a giant “meh”. TDK fairs better, with the modern classic “Hero they deserve” moment, but many critics of the film point to the story veering towards Two-Face, and that peculiar stand-off at the end, as making the film bloated.
I’m betting those same critics would still prefer those climaxes over TDKR’s arguably infuriating series of events. The city battle, Talia’s reveal, Bane’s demise, Robin’s name, and a partridge in a pear tree. Personally, I quite enjoyed all of these moments (and as an aside, I specifically want to talk about Batman’s return fight with Bane- he didn’t win because he just fought stronger or trained better. He won because he damaged the mask, which was the equivalent of the only way he beats Bane in the comics: damaging his gear. It’s the ‘cut off the venom’ moment). But I can’t ignore the backlash from many who were disappointed by the film. Perhaps vacationing in Europe was going a bit too far.
So what does all this mean? Are comic book movies doomed to falter in the final act? Is it just inherent in the material? I don’t think so. Many, if not all of these cases are just a matter of screenwriters trying to go big in the best way they thought. There’s appeal, and tropes and all these things to consider when trying to reach the broadest audiences possible- which is why Hollywood even attempts these movies to begin with. But they have to forget that mentality.
I think it’s good to know there are some movies that deliver the right way at the end. Thought the CG was lame in Daredevil’s church fight with Bullseye? The Incredible Hulk shows you how it’s done versus The Abomination. For when Spider-Man 3 epic fails with anticipation for Venom, The Avengers epic wins with anticipation for their team-up. I think both of those Phase 1 movies are cases of celebrating the source material, and giving the fans what they want at the end. For a CBM, maybe the best note to finish on is fan-service.
What are some CBM’s that actually had great finales?
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