Critics can level all sorts of accusations regarding the quality of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and even superhero films in general. If there’s one accusation that is more valid than any other, though, it would be regarding their paint-by-numbers end battles.
The hero learns to use his powers, only to be confronted by another character with the same powers, but evil. It’s the tried and true formula that can’t help but be repeated again and again.
Over the last two issues of The Writer’s Everything, I have been developing a list of every MCU end battle in order based on their originality.
We are now in part three with the final seven entries in this list. These following films are the most original, most unique, and most notable end battles in the MCU. So, let’s finish this list, film by film, and then next week, we’ll look at the list on a whole from the perspective of what we as writers can learn from it.
Captain Marvel was, in most respects, fairly paint-by-numbers. Of course, it was the first female-led solo MCU film. The end battle, however, will no doubt stand out for a long time to come. It was, honestly, a rather risky decision from a storytelling point-of-view, but it certainly bucked the trend of having two virtually identical characters on an even playing field, with the winner being whoever has a hero’s resolve. In this case, Captain Marvel discovers the true extent of her powers shortly before the battle with the Kree, and she proceeds to decimate their forces, leaving two of their three ships in ruins and scaring off the third. Did they feel like it would upset the masses if the first female-led MCU film featured an under-powered protagonist? I don’t know. Are the writers of the franchise going to find themselves at the bottom of a very deep hole when it comes time to write Captain Marvel 2? Absolutely. Nevertheless, it was in all respects unique, and easily earned its place above Avengers: Infinity War.
6—Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 was the first film of Phase 2 of the MCU, being released directly after Marvel’s The Avengers. This wasn’t the only first that this two hour and eleven-minute action-adventure extravaganza presented us with. It also happened to be the first film in the Iron Man series to not feature a villain in a custom-made Iron Man suit. Instead, it featured Aldrich Killian as the fire-breathing, Iron Man-suit-melting villain who takes upon himself the title of The Mandarin. I have to get this out in the open right now: I would have much rather had the real Mandarin in this film. He could have been the Heath Ledger of the MCU. However, this setup still delivered us a unique end battle. In fact, it was the only film out of the first nine MCU films that had that distinction.
Thor: Ragnarok was an absolute joy to watch. It’s one of the most fun films in the history of the MCU, and one of the few that I can watch over and over again on repeat while maintaining the same level of enjoyment. While Hela, the goddess of death, is essentially an evil version of both Thor and Loki, the end battle of this film managed to be unique in a different way. After a mostly successful team-up of the Revengers, Thor realizes that he can’t save Asgard. The only way to defeat Hela and remove her powers is by allowing Ragnarok to take place and Asgard to be destroyed. A terribly timed, mood-ruining little quip from Korg notwithstanding, the ending of Thor: Ragnarok was both emotional and dramatic. The fact that it avoided throwing identical characters against each other in a punching match certainly served to make it a highlight of the MCU.
Amazing, mind-bending graphics or not, Doctor Strange follows the Marvel formula quite faithfully through most of the film. This is the case all the way until the end battle. The end battle itself appears to be just a typical MCU action fest until, at the last second, the status quo is altered drastically. Rather than dueling against Kaecilius the entire time, Doctor Strange finds himself confronted with Dormammu, whose goal is to absorb all of the multiverse into his Dark Dimension. To stop this from happening, Doctor Strange placed Dormammu and himself in a never-ending time loop. He willingly suffered agonizing deaths over and over again until he drove the celestial being mad. This is such an outstanding end battle because it puts Doctor Strange’s unique quirks on clear display. It was his ravenous hunger to learn and his desire to increase his understanding that led him to master the forbidden spells he used in this end battle, and it was his unique capacity for problem-solving that showed him how to use them in a way no one had ever imagined before.
3—Guardians of the Galaxy
Here we are at the top three. This entry may well be a divisive choice for many comic-book movie fans who hated the ending to the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. They believed it to be the epitome of everything that is wrong with the MCU, including its childishness and emphasis on humor over realism. Honestly, Lee Pace’s dramatic, “What are you doing?!” was certainly over the top and added some validity to these complaints. However, we have to remember that films are over-simplified representations of life. The ending of Guardians of the Galaxy served to demonstrate that Peter Quill chose to do the one thing that only he would do to save the universe. It just so happened that that was initiating a dance-off. It really highlights Peter’s child-like naivety and makes him so unquestionably heroic in the face of his severe limitations.
2—Spider-Man: Far From Home
Spider-Man: Far From Home was the last MCU film to have been released in theaters, and honestly, I can’t go on enough about how much I love what they did with the end battle in this film. Mysterio was my favorite Spider-Man villain ever since I was a child. I used to dream of what he could do if his powers were ever brought to the big screen. Far From Home certainly didn’t disappoint in that regard. It provided us with an end battle so unique and different from anything the MCU had done before. Instead of a duel of genetically enhanced gods among men, he’s fighting against a guy with some projectors and his own 3D animation studio. Even better, Peter Parker doesn’t just punch his way out of this one, as was done in Black Panther. No, he has to finish his journey of self-discovery to see through all of Beck’s lies and deceit, and the end result serves as a fantastically emotional and moving ending for an MCU film.
I’m going to come right out and say it. I would have loved to have let Spider-Man: Far From Home have the top spot on this list of most original MCU end battles. It certainly has that position in my heart. Unfortunately, Avengers: Endgame had to go and be the epic, emotional, fulfilling culmination of everything that the MCU had been building to since Iron Man first came out in 2008. The end battle may not in itself be original or unique. Honestly, you could say it’s just another Avengers movie in some senses. However, the scale of this end battle is unparalleled, not just within the MCU, but in the history of live-action filmmaking. We’d never seen anything like this before, and we won’t soon see its equal. The way they effortlessly weaved dozens of main characters from over 20 films into this end battle was simply jaw-dropping. If that in itself isn’t enough uniqueness for you, there are also a couple of well-earned moments of pure fan service, namely Captain America’s wielding of Mjolnir and Tony Stark’s heart-wrenching final line, “I am Iron Man.”
Well, here we are at the end of the list. There’s no doubt in my mind that you didn’t agree with some of the entries. You more than likely swore at the screen of your electronic device of choice, saying, “How stupid can he be putting X ahead of Y!”
However, I hope that, for the most part, I was able to win you over, if just for a moment, to my point of view.
Now that we’re done with this list, though, the question for us as writers is, “What does it all mean?” Are there lessons within the end battles of these 23 MCU films that we can use to perfect our craft?
That will be a discussion for next week’s issue of The Writer’s Everything. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter at qjmartin.org/newsletter so that you’ll receive Issue #014 sent directly to your inbox upon release.