There is no film series more popular than the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Starting with Iron Man in 2008, both the solo and team outings of the various Avengers have since exploded in popularity. After eleven years, Marvel has amassed a collection of successful, interconnected movies that few, if any, will be able to replicate any time soon.
Yes. Many, many people enjoy MCU films. At the same time, many others, especially storytellers, can’t help but notice the similarities between each new entry and the last. For them, it feels as though Marvel has discovered a formula for their films, sacrificing originality for the sake of success.
I’m not necessarily going to side one way or another on this debate. Marvel movies are hugely entertaining, and they rarely leave their comfort zone.
What I will criticize right here and now is the fact that nearly every end battle in Marvel’s history has been the same. The hero has mastered his powers and must now face off against his mirror opposite, an individual with the same powers as himself, but evil.
These battles have certainly had their low points, but there have been a few that managed to successfully reach for greater heights. What I want to do in this week’s Cinematic Storytelling is rate the Marvel end battles based on, primarily, originality. The quality of character development will also be taken into consideration, as will, in one case, the quality of the effects.
See if you can guess which film I’m referring to before I name it.
So, let’s analyze these twenty-three films, looking for lessons that we can learn and information that we can apply in our own stories. We’re going to start with the least original end battle and go up from there. This list will be divided into three parts, published over the next three weeks. Then the fourth part will analyze specific lessons we can learn from this list.
23—The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk had one of the worst end battles of the entire MCU. Although this was only the second film in the series in which a superhero faced his evil twin, it was all the more disappointing because of the tremendous waste of potential. There was so much depth to the story, so much depth to Edward Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner, and then it just devolved into a meaningless computer-generated fistfight. The film truly set the bar by containing the least interesting, most formulaic end battle possible.
It’s such a shame for a movie of this pedigree to end with such a disappointing slop of a battle. Once again, the potential for a glorious, deeply philosophical ending was there, but it was given up in favor of…a literal catfight. The worst part is how terrible the graphics looked.
Captain America: Civil War introduced Black Panther with fantastic, kinetic action scenes that looked amazing. It’s so hard to believe that the effects that brought the eponymous hero of Black Panther to life fell so far so quickly by its end battle.
The only redeeming feature that puts it ahead of The Incredible Hulk was the absolutely wonderful ending moment where the two of them watched the sunset as Killmonger died. If we could have gotten more of that and less of the poor CGI and un-cinematic framing, this film could have shot up to one of the top locations on the list.
21—Thor: The Dark World
Thor: The Dark World was, on a whole, utterly forgettable. There was quite literally nothing special about it. On top of that, unfortunately, the sequel to Thor placed its titular hero against the most generic, boring villain in the history of the MCU. Malekith had no character development and no real motivation. His goal was as generic as wanting to ‘make everything dark’. I chose to place this end battle above that of Black Panther, not because Thor: The Dark World was a higher quality film, but because the inclusion of portals added a fairly interesting dynamic to this end battle.
20—Iron Man 2
The goal of Iron Man 2 was fairly simple and straightforward. Do what Iron Man did, but bigger. Instead of one hero in an Iron Man suit fighting against one villain in an Iron Man suit, they did two heroes in Iron Man suits fighting against one villain in an Iron Man suit and a few dozen drones in Iron Man suits. It’s really difficult to place the films that are from 21-17 on this list, being that they’re so unfortunately similar to each other, but I chose to place Iron Man 2 above Thor: The Dark World simply because the villain had more depth and motivation. Of course, he certainly could have and should have been developed more.
19—Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron followed the same path that Iron Man 2 did, with the goal of doing the same as Marvel’s The Avengers, but bigger. It’s also par for the course when it comes to having a potentially interesting villain that failed to live up to his potential. Scarlet Witch’s inclusion in the end battle, as well as Cliff Barton’s expanded role, were both more than welcome, and all together managed to just barely push the film past Iron Man 2 in this list.
Peter Parker’s climactic showdown with the Vulture was yet another case of tech vs. tech. In this case, however, Spider-Man’s tech in the final battle was limited to his web-shooters. Honestly, the end battle wasn’t about the fight itself, but rather about Peter’s character arc. It was about him learning to be a responsible superhero… by doing the exact opposite of what Tony Stark demanded of him. Yeah, the message was a little muddled. I think the strength of this end battle, though, lies in Peter’s relationship with Liz Allan. The shared history they had, the emotional baggage, and the significance of the end battle in their real life, no matter who won, were all things that made the end battle so much more significant than that of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
17—Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America’s first adventure ended exactly how you would expect. A super-powered main character faced off against his evil twin. It’s not that interesting, even if you consider it a necessary moment to forward the plot, but the dialogue between them is certainly a bit of a highlight at times. What makes the end battle so outstanding is what happened after Red Skull was transported away. Steve Rogers decided to sacrifice himself by crashing the plane into the arctic ocean rather than let it ravage an inhabited city. That was certainly an emotional highlight that stayed with us long after the credits rolled and earned this film its place above Spider-Man: Homecoming.
I’m going to cut Iron Man some slack. It started the whole ball that is the MCU rolling. That being the case, we honestly can’t accuse it of being formulaic. And it certainly wasn’t a rehash. Even so, we’re dealing with a superhero in an advanced suit fighting against an evil mirror image of himself in an advanced suit. What I love so much about this film is that, unlike with the weaker entries such as The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World, it’s obvious that this end battle was tied directly into Tony Stark’s character arc. Later on, this would be considered formulaic, but for this list, it stands out against films such as Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk because it came first.
Come back next week to find the entries that place from fifteenth to eighth in this list. If you’re not already subscribed to my mailing list, then you can sign up at qjmartin.org/newsletter and have future issues sent directly to your inbox.