This is it, friends. We’ve made it to the end. We started our journey oh so many years (months) ago with the MCU’s phase one climaxes, and now here we are with the second part of phase three. Will these final films stick the landing, or will Marvel continue its tradition of multimillion-dollar films with shoddy endings? We’ll soon find out, and then we’ll be finished! Unless they make more of these things, I guess. What are the odds of that?
Avengers: Infinity War
I must be honest: I’m amazed Infinity War works as well as it does. I really expected this film to crash and burn under the weight of so many characters, but to my immense surprise, they made it work. The movie has a number of plots taking place in different locations, from Thanos getting the Soul Stone* to Thor undoing his character growth from Ragnarok – I mean, forging himself a new weapon to replace Mjolnir. It can be tough to keep track of, but, fortunately, it all comes together at the climax on Earth as Thanos grabs the final Infinity Stone.
This is the battle at Wakanda, and before Thanos’s arrival, it was your standard-issue Big Marvel Fight, complete with a faceless CGI army. Not super exciting. Fortunately, Thanos livens things up quite a bit. For all the problems with his plan, our purple giant is quite threatening, so it’s tense and exciting to watch hero after hero try to stop him. We also get to see Thanos thinking on his feet, an underused technique with villains. When the final stone is destroyed, Thanos activates the Time Stone to give himself a quick do-over. Very clever.
The turning point comes when Thor hits Thanos with a big ol’ magic axe. Thanos does not enjoy this, and for a second, it looks like our heroes have won, but then Thanos gives his “you should have gone for the head” line and activates the stones anyway. Most of the characters turn to dust, and we’re left wondering why Thanos killed half the animals as part of his plan to preserve resources. Also, did he kill half of all plants? Really, what’s going on with this plan? Oh, and we might also be very sad that so many of our favorite heroes died if we weren’t 105% sure they’d return in the next Avengers film.
In most films, I would call this a weak turning point. Whether the heroes win or lose, there should be a karmic balance behind it, and that isn’t the case here. At first I thought maybe Thor is supposed to be paying the price for his arrogance, but a rewatch showed me that he’s only ever confident, not arrogant. And it’s not like he made a deliberate choice to avoid a head shot; he just made the best attack he could. So Thanos wins by luck, not because of anything our heroes did wrong. Normally, that would be really unsatisfying.
However, Infinity War isn’t actually concluding a story. It’s just part one. Dramatically speaking, Thanos hasn’t really won; he’s just put the heroes at a low point from which they’ll have to struggle to recover. In that context, the villain winning through luck is acceptable. Of course, that puts more pressure on Endgame to have a satisfying climax, but Infinity War is doing pretty well for itself.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Oh boy, another MCU film I avoided on release and only watched several months later during a long flight.* I’m still irritated by how the last movie skipped over so many interesting Marvel characters and decided to go for bargain bin Iron Man, but at least this time they’ve added the Wasp. She should have been in the first Ant-Man film, but better three years late than never, I suppose.
Anyway, this film is the inverse of Infinity War. It has very little happening, plot-wise, but then it has an extremely crowded climax. This climax is a three-way chase where the heroes and two different villains both try to get their hands on Hank Pym’s shrunken lab while Hank himself shrinks down to the Quantum Realm to rescue Janet. Fortunately, we only have to focus on one villain, a phase-shifting assassin named Ava. The other villain is just there to provide some throwaway mooks.
Ava is one of those rare MCU villains with actual motivation, even if it is based on technobabble. Her phase shifts are both extremely painful and slowly killing her, and the only way she can stop them is by harvesting some quantum energy* that will kill Janet. The heroes can’t allow that, hence the fighting. Unfortunately for them, Ava finally gets her hands on the lab, so it’s time for the final confrontation.
Or at least, that’s what I expected. Instead, our heroes easily defeat Ava, Hank returns from the Quantum Realm with Janet, and that’s it – climax over. Janet does use some of her leftover quantum energy to heal Ava, but that’s firmly in the falling action. Ava’s no threat by then, and even if she was, she no longer has a reason to attack them since there’s no energy to harvest with Janet back in the macro world.
This is, as we say in the biz, not great. The chase scene has some funny jokes, but the actual climax is pretty lackluster, and there’s no turning point to speak of. Janet’s healing Ava could have been a gesture of goodwill, but it happens after the heroes have already won. It doesn’t help that Ava is clearly outmatched by the good guys’ combined strength, so her only means of victory is hoping the other side makes a mistake.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: Captain Marvel is a great film, and it shouldn’t have taken until 2019 for the MCU to finally produce a female-led movie. Timing aside, Captain Marvel is a fun burst of ’90s nostalgia with likable characters and an engaging plot all bundled together with the Marvel brand we’re used to by now.
The climax arrives after a big reveal where Captain Marvel not only learns her real name is Carol Danvers, but that the supposedly evil Skrulls are just trying to find a new home where the Kree can’t subjugate them. This is a bit of a shock since Carol had been fighting for the Kree up to that moment, but she takes it in stride and decides to help some Skrull civilians escape. Before that can happen, Carol’s old team of elite Kree soldiers arrives and takes all the good guys prisoner. Carol will be sent back for reconditioning with the Kree Supreme Intelligence while everyone else is set to be spaced. Uh-oh!
Carol’s part of this conflict takes place inside her own mind, where the Supreme Intelligence plans to re-indoctrinate her. This is both the climax of the film and the culmination of Carol’s character arc: breaking free of the Kree’s control. Until now, they’ve told Carol that her powers came from them, and that she needs to reject any sense of self or they’ll take those powers back. Now Carol knows that the Kree aren’t the source of her power. In fact, the Supreme Intelligence has been keeping Carol’s powers inhibited so she doesn’t become too much of a threat.
Armed with that knowledge, Carol wins a battle of will against the Supreme Intelligence. It’s well handled, with the Supreme Intelligence showing all the times Carol failed, and then Carol remembering how she got back up after every loss. There’s also a clear feminist angle, as most of the failures involve Carol being told that girls can’t do whatever it is she’s trying to do. Upon winning this battle of will, Carol takes full control of her powers and the rest is falling action. Carol’s allies break free and escape while Carol herself makes short work of the Kree fleet in some satisfying payback.
The only problem is that Carol also fights her old team during this falling action, and it’s not very satisfying. Carol has a personal connection with these Kree, so it would have been a lot more interesting if she’d fought them before getting a huge powerup. As it is, she spends a fairly long scene easily wiping the floor with them. It’s not the worst thing to happen in a Marvel ending, but it’s a little disappointing.
Despite that, Captain Marvel’s ending remains strong. For some extra satisfaction, Carol easily shrugs off a “DEBATE ME” moment from her old commander before leaving the ’90s behind and heading out into space. Don’t worry, she’s definitely not so powerful that future films will need to invent contrived reasons for her to be somewhere else.
Welcome to Endgame, the film that invented contrived reasons for Captain Marvel to be somewhere else. It’s five years since Infinity War, and after Ant-Man asks why no one has invented time travel yet, Tony invents time travel. It makes total sense if you think about: Isn’t time travel just a hop, skip, and a jump away from armored combat suits? That’s why after several years as a professional editor, I’m ready to build a space station!
Awkward inventions aside, we have another film that does an impressive job handling its huge cast of characters as they travel around in time grabbing Infinity Stones. After replacing a few dead characters with time clones, setting up a few spinoffs, and bringing back everyone who got dusted in Infinity War, the various plotlines converge for the final battle against Thanos. That means it’s time for the portal scene, which I watched again for research purposes. Well, maybe I watched it a couple times. Fine, it was at least six times – are you happy now?
Once every single character we care about arrives, it’s time for the big battle. At first, the goal is to get the stones back to their original timelines, and there’s a lot of fun back-and-forth on that since all the major heroes show up to help in their own way. The main problem is that several characters have the opportunity to use the stones, which would easily defeat Thanos, but they don’t seem to think of it. The film does make it clear that a normal human can’t survive using the stones, but it seems like superhuman characters like T’Challa or Carol Danvers could manage it.
Thanos changes the game when he destroys the last time machine, once again showing that he’s good at tactics as well as punching.* A few more heroes have a go at him, but none can quite take him down. That’s when we get to the sacrifice turning point: to stop Thanos from using the stones, Tony uses them first, giving Thanos a taste of his own dust medicine. As predicted, the power is too much for a regular human, and Tony doesn’t survive.
This is a pretty solid turning point. No other heroes are in range to help, so it makes sense for Tony to do something drastic. The film also does a good job showing that Tony’s suit is busted up, which gives an unspoken reason that he can’t just fly away with the stones. It is a little weird that Thanos doesn’t notice when Tony takes the stones, but we can forgive that. Dramatically, it’s satisfying for the MCU’s first hero to die defeating Marvel’s biggest bad.
The resolution isn’t quite as good. While the funeral for Tony is nice, it’s weird other characters who died barely get a mention, with Natasha Romanov being the most notable. There’s also a lingering awareness that since time travel is relatively easy now, all of this could be undone at any time. Even so, Endgame does a good job capping off the MCU’s first mega-arc.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Oh right, there’s another movie in phase three, isn’t there? Or, maybe this is phase 3.5 now? Who knows? Anyway, it’s time for Spider-Man: Iron Man Is Dead. I joke, but spending a film dealing with the emotional fallout from Endgame is a good idea. Granted, it’s a little weird that Endgame’s entire emotional fallout is bound up in Tony Stark, but you take what you can get in superhero films.
This week’s villain is Mysterio, AKA Quentin Beck, who leads the Evil League of Disgruntled Ex-Employees. Beck has a plan to get into the Avengers by faking a supervillain attack that he will then defeat. Why he wants this is unclear, since he’d then have to do actual superheroing, but we won’t worry about that. As for how, Beck has taken control of a huge drone fleet that can both create illusions and also shoot things with bullets. Apparently Tony made them back before Endgame and then just didn’t use them. Sure, Marvel.
The climax is Beck launching his fake attack, which will devastate London despite being staged, and Peter trying to stop him. Even though I love Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, the battle is not great. For one thing, it’s hard to believe Beck will succeed, since the other Avengers aren’t known for being easy marks. They’d see through his scheme in a heartbeat, especially once the illusions start failing under Peter’s assault. For that matter, where are the other Avengers? This is a problem in every MCU movie, but it’s especially noticeable in Far From Home because Beck’s entire plan hinges on the other Avengers existing.
It also feels like Peter should have died at least three or four times. Again, this is a common problem in MCU films, where everyone is made of invincible rubber, but it’s especially bad here. The drones attack from so many different angles that it’s hard to believe Peter isn’t hit, no matter how many flippy jumps he makes. Honestly, it’s a lot more fun to watch Peter’s human friends try to escape from a single drone; at least their struggle feels plausible.
Finally, we get to the turning point. Peter confronts Beck, who uses the drones’ illusion powers to effectively blind Peter. This worked for Beck earlier in the film, but this time Peter has a secret weapon: his spidey senses.* This allows him to completely ignore the illusion and fight without a problem. That makes sense, but it’s not particularly satisfying.
In fact, Peter’s spidey senses are a major source of confusion in this film. They’re referenced a couple times earlier, but it’s never clear what exactly they do or when Peter can use them. Is he only just now activating an ability he had the whole time? Did he do something to make the spidey senses work when they didn’t before? I don’t know, and the film doesn’t want to tell me. For this turning point to be satisfying, Peter would have to do something to earn his new ability. He might put in a lot of extra training time or cleverly realize what was preventing them from working in the first place. Since he doesn’t do any of that, all we’re left with is Peter suddenly having a power that seems specifically designed to defeat Mysterio. Yay?
Despite the weak showings of Ant-Man 2 and Far From Home, this round of MCU climaxes is more good than bad. Three out of five isn’t a terrible rating by Marvel standards, which is nice because it would have been a real bummer to end this series on a low note. Speaking of which: that’s it, we’re done! The next MCU film isn’t scheduled until May of 2021, and with plague times being what they are, who knows how far it might be delayed. It’s also about a character who’s already dead, so I suspect interest will be limited. But who knows, maybe I’ll be back in 2022 with a phase four list. Anything is possible with the magic of Marvel!
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