I won’t sugarcoat it: going through the MCU’s phase-one climaxes was a real slog. The action and quips might be top notch, but the climaxes are limited to nonsense deductions and meaningless sacrifices. Fortunately, there are way more of these movies to look at. Specifically, it’s time to dissect the climaxes of phase two and see if they hold up, especially the climactic turning points.
If you need a refresher, the turning point is that all-important moment when the heroes go from losing to winning, or winning to losing for sad endings. You find them everywhere in stories, because plotting is fractal, but the climactic turning point is most important. It’s what provides satisfaction and closure, what makes the ending more than just the place where the story stops.
Iron Man 3 answers the question we’ve all been asking: Who the heck was that random kid at Tony Stark’s funeral in End Game? You know the one I’m talking about. This party crasher right here:
Turns out that’s Harley Keener, and in 2012, he was a little kid who Tony hung out with while pretending to be dead. That might seem weird, but I’d probably fake my own death too if it got me out of the dismal, confusing labyrinth that is Iron Man 3’s plot. There’s a bad guy who hates Tony for missing a business meeting, a plot to create a fake terrorist group to cover up the real terrorist group, and then a plan to kill the president, because why not at that point?
Finally, we get to the final confrontation: Tony Stark and his self-flying suits versus Aldrich Killian and his super strong terrorists who can heat up and also explode sometimes. It’s a good thing Tony has all those suits backing him up because in this movie, his Iron Man armor is really fragile for some reason. Not only can the bad guys rip through it like tissue paper, but it also comes apart from more mundane threats like getting hit by a truck. I shouldn’t be surprised that the law of inverse ninjas applies to Tony’s tech as well, but it’s weird to watch after three movies where his suits are almost invincible.
Even though the suits are seemingly made of Lego bricks, Tony is as invincible as ever, giving this fight the standard Marvel movie feel. There’s a lot of action going on, but it never feels like the good guys are in that much danger. Still, it’s fun to watch some energetic fighting after a movie that’s mostly Tony having an emotional spiral from the time he nearly died in Avengers. Why this is different than all the other times he nearly died is unclear.
After some more explosions, the battle comes down to a confrontation between Tony and Killian. Somewhat to my surprise, the turning point is actually quite solid. Since the Iron Man armor is made of cardboard now, Tony is at a significant disadvantage against Killian’s superstrength and extreme heat powers. Eventually, Tony is down to his last suit: a prototype that doesn’t even work properly. Knowing he can’t punch his way out, Tony instead has the suit latch on to Killian, then activates the self-destruct. Beyond the initial explosion, this maneuver also plays on Killian’s pre-established weakness: if his body temperature gets too high, his powers run out of control and damage him.
This doesn’t actually kill Killian, but it weakens him enough that Pepper finishes him off in the falling action. This is a decent clever deduction turning point, with some elements of a hidden plan as well, since it’s not 100% clear when exactly Tony had this idea. The only significant technical problem is that in previous clashes, Killian is pretty good at dodging Tony’s attacks. It’s not clear why he couldn’t dodge this one, but I’m willing to chalk it up to a lucky shot.
After phase one and Iron Man 3’s overall mediocrity, I wasn’t expecting such a strong turning point. Nonetheless, I always give credit where credit is due, and this was quite the satisfying end to a big superhero punch up. Granted, the resolution afterward leaves a lot to be desired. Tony blows up all his suits and decides he’s done being Iron Man because he thinks it’s a romantic gesture, I guess? Sure, Tony. We totally believe that’ll stick.*
Do you remember that last time I mentioned Thor’s sacrifice in his first film is really weak? You might recall that he destroys the Bifrost Bridge, supposedly preventing him from seeing Jane again, but all logic says the bridge will be rebuilt soon. Well, when the second film opens, that’s exactly what’s happened. Instead of being unable to reach Jane, Thor is staying away from her because his father disapproves, I think. That’s Thor for you – he’ll disobey direct commands so he can murder Frost Giants, but the threat of a mild scolding is too much for him!
Now that we’re done tearing all possible meaning out of the previous film’s ending, let’s see what’s happening in this film. I guess some dark elves want to use a magical McGuffin to end the universe because… they’re evil, naturally. Malekith is the dark elf leader, and he’s fortunately the only one we need to remember. Jane gets involved with the plot when, thanks to portal shenanigans, she accidentally absorbs the McGuffin in question, so now the dark elves are after her. The dark elves attack Asgard, Thor enlists Loki’s help, Loki pretends to die, and so on until it’s finally time for the climax, which conveniently takes place on Earth.
Here’s the situation: in just a few minutes, there will be some kind of cosmic conjunction that Malekith can use to blow up the universe. Seems like something the other Avengers would want to stop, but I guess Thor doesn’t remember their cell numbers. Instead, Jane and the other humans defeat some dark elf mooks by opening portals underneath them, while Thor takes on Malekith alone.
Thor and Malekith battle their way through several portals, neither able to gain the upper hand. There’s a ticking clock, but it’s, shall we say, extremely flexible. Despite dialogue claiming that the conjunction will happen in seven minutes, Thor has time to catch a subway back to the fight after a portal deposits him in a different part of London. It’s also interesting that these portals can either go to a host of alien worlds across the cosmos or to places in England that are within easy driving range of the main shoot locations, but never mind that.
Finally, it’s time for the big moment, the climactic turning point, with only seconds to stop Malekith before he destroys the world. Unfortunately, despite Malekith’s previous strength, all Thor needs to do is grab some portal machines from Jane, and the fight is essentially over. This is supposed to look like Thor’s gaining an advantage from his new tech, but it looks more like Malekith is just standing still and letting the God of Thunder take him apart.*
Not only is this badly choreographed, but it also doesn’t have any satisfaction. In the last entry, Tony won by using his armor in an unconventional way. In this movie, Thor uses the portal machines exactly like Jane has already been using them, so all that’s changed is he remembered to grab some from her this time. As if this weren’t enough, Thor doesn’t even kill Malekith. Instead, the defeated elf falls through another portal, and is then squished by his own spaceship. That’s definitely how a film should treat a villain who we’re supposed to take seriously.
You know what makes a fun break from talking about bad MCU films? Talking about good MCU films! With compelling character moments, high-action spy drama, and even a gentle critique of drone warfare, The Winter Soldier certainly qualifies. It’s easily the best film of phase two, and it’ll probably be in the top five of MCU films generally for some time to come. Its biggest flaw is that, yet again, we just have to pretend that the other Avengers don’t exist so that Steve Rogers can have a solo film. That, and Winter Soldier seriously undermined Agents of SHIELD by, well, destroying SHIELD. I guess you can’t make a movie-omelet without breaking some TV-eggs.
The Winter Soldier’s climax has a lot going on, so finding the turning point may be tricky, but I know we can manage it together. HYDRA is about to launch three helicarriers to carry out their evil plan of shooting anyone with a comic book name,* so our heroes make a plan to stop them: switch the carriers’ targeting systems so they attack each other while also exposing HYDRA to the world. This requires Steve to board the carriers with the help of Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, while Natasha Romanov and Nick Fury hack HYDRA’s files.
Standing in Steve’s way is the titular Winter Soldier, who is secretly a brainwashed Bucky Barnes, Steve’s best friend from WWII. Well, it’s a secret unless you are even vaguely aware of Captain America characters in the comics, but never mind that. The point is that Steve has to plug a special chip into the carriers’ main computer while also fighting his best friend. Very dramatic! There’s also so much queer romantic tension that Marvel would later have Steve make out with his old girlfriend’s grandniece so they could keep selling movie tickets to homophobes, but that’s another story.
After a bunch of action that’s surprisingly hard-hitting by MCU standards, it’s time for the turning point. Steve’s out of time – he has to plug in the chip in the next few seconds or all is lost. But before he can, Bucky shoots him. Oh no! Steve initially collapses from the shock, staring down at the bullet wound in his chest. But then, with a surge of willpower, Steve clenches his teeth and reaches up to the console, plugging in the chip at the last possible moment. This is a classic battle of will turning point. In a prose story, the author would use internal narration to show how Steve is able to keep going despite the pain of his injury. Since this is a film, they use Chris Evans’s acting skills and some heroic background music instead, but the end result is the same: a satisfying win for our heroes.
Hang on though, Winter Soldier isn’t quite done. Even though the carriers are defeated, Bucky still wants to complete his mission and kill Steve. At first, it looks like they’re going to keep fighting, which would be awkward given how serious Steve’s gunshot was a few seconds ago. Instead, Steve goes for a gesture of goodwill turning point. He drops his shield and says he won’t fight Bucky. From there, Steve tries to remind Bucky of his true identity, even as Bucky gives Steve several punches directly to the face.
This gambit pays off. Bucky stops his attack, and when an unconscious Steve falls from the crashing helicarrier into the water below, Bucky jumps in to save him. With this dual turning point, Winter Soldier ties off not only its main plot but also its most important character arc. It reminds me of how A New Hope weaves the Death Star attack and Han Solo’s arc together at the climax, except this film resolves the larger conflict first. Whatever the order, it’s a great combo that makes for an excellent ending.
The first Guardians film definitely raised the weirdness quotient for MCU movies. Just a few months after the grounded, almost gritty Winter Soldier, we got a movie about a talking racoon and a tree alien that can’t say anything other than his own name. Even the group’s leader, Star-Lord, is unusual by dint of not being terribly competent. Gamora is probably the one most like a classic MCU hero, and she actually starts out as a villain.
With an unusual setup like that, it’s no surprise that the climax and turning point is also an outlier, at least by the standards of previous MCU films. The premise is pretty simple: Ronan the Accuser is trying to get his hands on the Power Stone, a magic artifact that kills most wielders but can give powerful beings like him the strength to devastate planets. Why does he want to do that? Because he’s evil, obviously. Meanwhile, our group of unlikely heroes is thrown together by circumstances, and pretty soon it’s clear that only they can stop Ronan.
Most of the movie is spent watching our heroes learn to work together. First they fight over who gets to either sell the Power Stone or collect the bounty on Star-Lord’s head. Then, they make an uneasy truce to escape space jail. Finally, they decide to take Ronan on together, even though there isn’t much obvious personal gain. How much you enjoy this will depend on how well you like characters. For my money, they’re mostly fine, though it’s telling that Marvel went with a talking racoon rather than, say, adding a second woman to the team.
So after a massive space battle where our heroes are tossed around like rag dolls but somehow never get so much as a bruise, it’s time for the climactic turning point. Star-Lord manages to get the Power Stone away from Ronan, but that only creates a new problem: now Star-Lord is being torn apart by the stone’s magic. What’s he to do? Turns out he’s not going to do anything. Instead, the other characters* join hands with him, and that not only undoes all the damage to Star-Lord’s body but also allows him to control the Power Stone and vaporize Ronan.
From a logical standpoint, this works reasonably well. If a single person can’t handle the Power Stone’s magic, it’s believable that you could solve the issue by spreading the power out among multiple participants. The Power Stone also seems to operate on plug-and-play principles, so it’s not hard to accept that Star-Lord was immediately able to use it against Ronan. I am left wondering what about this process healed the damage Star-Lord had already taken, but that’s a relatively minor problem in a movie that already acts like its heroes are made of rubber during fight scenes.
Dramatically, this climax uses the film’s team-building arc as its turning point. The satisfaction comes from seeing that the other characters are willing to put their lives on the line to help Star-Lord, when earlier in the movie they’d have happily stabbed him in the back and left him for dead. It’s similar to the way some stories use their central romance as a turning point, only with less kissing. So long as you like the characters, this turning point should work fine for you. If you don’t, that’s a bigger problem than the climax can fix.
Ant-Man is a historic film for the MCU because it showed us just how far Marvel would go to avoid making movies about women or people of color. Not only did Marvel pass up the countless marginalized heroes at its disposal in favor of a guy who’s basically store-brand Iron Man, but they actually continued the theme within the film itself! You see, Hank Pym needs someone to use his shrinking suit for an important heist. His daughter, Hope van Dyne, wants the job, and she’s already trained in how to use the suit. Plus, she’s a kickass martial artist. Instead, Pym decides to recruit Scott Lang, a thief who is distinctly okay at stealing things. Sure, Marvel. Nothing illogical about that!
Once you get past the blatant sexism, Ant-Man is part heist movie, part training montage. The montage is spent teaching Scott how to use the suit, with a few scenes dedicated to establishing that he has a daughter who he can’t easily see because of his criminal record. The heist section is all about stealing shrink-suit tech from Pym’s old business associate, Darren Cross. Instead of getting billions of dollars from the U.S. military, Cross is going to sell his new suit to terrorist organizations like HYDRA and the Ten Rings. It’s a lot less money, but Cross takes his role as Generic Marvel Villain very seriously.
Once the heist actually starts, most of it is remarkably easy. With his shrink suit, Scott can go nearly anywhere, and he’s effectively invincible in a fight, at least against mundane security guards. He also has little discs he can throw at things to make them grow or shrink, just in case his ability to punch out a grown man while he’s the size of a dust mite wasn’t enough. Things only get challenging when Cross puts on his own shrink suit, putting him at a major advantage since this newer suit has flight and lasers built in. Of course, Cross should need his own training montage before he can use the suit, but the filmmakers are happy to skip over this little detail.
The climactic showdown has several major problems. First, they shouldn’t be fighting at all. Cross has several chances to escape, which was his goal originally, but instead he comes back to punch Scott some more. It’s not like this is some kind of grudge match; Cross doesn’t even know Scott! If you can get past that, then the inconsistent shrinking physics are the next hurdle. Every MCU film is inconsistent with its superpowers, but Ant-Man takes it to new extremes. Within the same scene, we have Scott damage Cross’s suit by throwing toy blocks at him, but also a toy train bounces off Cross without doing any harm. The film waffles back and forth so often that it’s difficult to tell what’s happening in the fight.
Finally, we get to the turning point: Cross has Scott’s daughter at laser-point, and the only way for Scott to stop him is to get so small that he can fit between the molecules of Cross’s suit, which will allow him to sabotage it from the inside. He’s been warned not to do this because supposedly if he shrinks down that far, he’ll disappear forever. This is a simple sacrifice turning point: to save the day and his daughter, Scott has to give up his own life. But wait, there’s more!
Like a few other MCU films before it, Ant-Man employs a double turning point. After Scott shrinks down and disables Cross’s suit, he keeps shrinking, and his suit isn’t responding. Pretty soon, he’ll be lost forever in the Quantum Realm. But with a clever deduction, Scott figures out that he can use one of his enlarging discs to supercharge the suit’s regulator, returning him to normal size and allowing for a happy ending.
At first, this looks similar to Avengers, which I dinged for using Tony’s sacrifice as a turning point but then not having Tony die. However, Ant-Man avoids a similar fate for two reasons. First, it’s simply a much lighter movie with far less at stake. Scott is only trying to save one person,* not the entire world. Second, the second turning point shows how Scott avoids death, whereas in Avengers, Tony seems to have fallen back through the portal entirely by luck. Dramatically, this climax hits the right beats.
Logically, it’s fraught with issues. The most obvious is that if Scott is small enough to pass between the molecules of Cross’s suit, he has no way of damaging it. Watching the film, we can see Scott slashing wires and breaking circuit boards, all of which are noticeably larger than a molecule. Maybe he got bigger again, but if that’s the case, why would he keep shrinking into the Quantum Realm? It’s also unclear why the enlarging disc would work when the suit’s normal size controls don’t. Maybe the disc is more powerful, but that’s never established. These are both significant issues that mar an otherwise serviceable climax, but on the bright side, it’s still not as bad as The Dark World. I don’t think anything can be as bad as The Dark World.
In our final entry, we look at phase two’s attempt to recreate the magic of Avengers. It does not work. Mostly, the film is hampered by shoving three origin stories into an already crowded team-up movie. This leaves little time to develop the villain or even set up a meaningful conflict. Then, we have bizarre choices like the Banner/Romanov love story, spending a good chunk of the run time on individual farm vignettes, and Thor running off on his own to swim in some magic pools.
Given those problems, it’s no surprise that the climax is a mess, partially because it’s so long. Bad guy Ultron straps rocket boosters to a city so he can lift it up and smash it back down to kill all humans, and our heroes have to stop him. This takes about 25 minutes by my count, and at first, I couldn’t even tell where the turning point was. There doesn’t seem to be a moment where the tide shifts in the fight against Ultron, largely because Ultron isn’t actually much of a threat, physically speaking.
That might sound weird, considering Ultron is supposed to be some kind of ultimate AI monster, but look at what he brings to the table. He’s got one main body that’s about as strong as Iron Man or Thor, plus a lot of robot minions that the Avengers cut through like butter. Until this point, he’s been propped up by Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, but those two have switched sides now. The Avengers have also gained Vision, for reasons, and they still have everyone from the original team. That’s probably why Ultron is handily defeated every time the heroes clash with him, other than the time when Quicksilver forgets to dodge out of the way of some bullets.
So if defeating Ultron isn’t the real conflict, then what is? At first, I thought it might be stopping the city from crashing down like a Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. But then Tony and Thor figure out how to destroy the city with a little technobabble. Finally, I realized the real conflict: getting civilians off the city before it explodes. This is the only goal that’s ever in serious doubt, and it’s also the only one with a distinct turning point: Nick Fury showing up with a helicarrier.
Just before that moment, our heroes discuss the moral ramifications of blowing up the city while there are still people on it. Steve and Romanov conclude that while it might be necessary, they’ll both choose to stay and die along with the civilians. Some peaceful music plays as they stare off into a serene cloudscape, having accepted their fate. Then Fury’s helicarrier rises up alongside to heroic fanfare. From that point, the heroes have a way to evacuate civilians and the rest is falling action.
There are a few issues with this turning point. It’s played like a sacrifice, but it’s not clear if Steve and Romanov had a way off the flying city to begin with. At the same time, staying behind to die doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than maybe soothe their consciences, so it feels rather pointless. The best possible interpretation is that they do have a way off – maybe one of the flying heroes was going to carry them – but now the plan is to let a few civilians have that spot instead. This requires a lot of guesswork, something you shouldn’t have to do for a story’s climax. Worse, there isn’t any connection between the heroes’ sacrifice and Fury’s arrival. He’d have shown up even if they’d chosen the more utilitarian option.
The film is trying some emotional sleight of hand here. It shows the heroes doing something virtuous, at least according to the film’s moral framework,* which earns them good karma. The film then spends that karma on Fury’s helicarrier. This karmic balancing is a staple of good storytelling, and most turning points use it to some extent. However, a good turning point also has to show how events are logically connected, and that’s something Age of Ultron fails to do. Its turning point is smoke and mirrors with little substance underneath.
Where phase one’s turning points were nothing but disappointments, phase two is a mixed bag. Four out of six get passing grades, and of those four, Winter Soldier’s turning point manages to be really good. Ultron and Dark World are still really bad, but that’s a definite improvement nonetheless. The question now: Is this a fluke, or is Marvel getting better at turning points as it goes? The only way to find out is to continue on to phase three, which has eleven entire movies in it. Yeah, that’s gonna take me a while. Also it means I finally have to watch Doctor Strange, something I’ve been avoiding on principle since 2016.
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