The Mixed Climaxes of Marvel’s Phase Three, Part 1

Spider-Man holding Captain America's shield.

The last time we looked at MCU climaxes, phase two had made significant improvements over phase one. The results still weren’t great, but at least there were some bright spots. Now it’s time to look at phase three, or at least the first half of phase three. With eleven entire movies in this era of Marvel filmmaking, there’s no way I’m going to cover them all in one article. So for today we only look at the first six films, which lets me save Infinity War and Endgame for next time. Thank goodness; those films have so much going on it’s hard to even find the climax.

Captain America: Civil War

The characters from Civil War arranged on opposing sides.

Imagine it: you’re a powerhouse studio and your latest big team-up movie, Age of Ultron, was less than well received. You’d like a do-over, but your next Avengers film isn’t scheduled until 2018. What’s a multibillion dollar corporation to do? Easy: just make your next standalone movie into an Avengers story. I’m not even complaining; I’m just confused why they decided to keep branding it as a Captain America film.

Civil War is all about our heroes turning against each other for… reasons! Actually, it’s due to Steve Rogers not wanting any civilian oversight of his incredibly violent superheroing, while Tony Stark wants to implement that oversight in the silliest way possible. It’s like a holiday gathering where your racist uncle rants about how the poor should be left to starve, and then your health-obsessed cousin insists that no, the poor should be fed, but they should only be given organic kale. They’re both wrong, but one is clearly more wrong than the other.

Despite the silly premise, Civil War is a pretty good movie. Even if the reasoning doesn’t hold up, the actors do a great job of selling the idea that these are old friends who turn against each other over something important. Granted, the villain’s plan is absurdly complex, and Steve makes out with his dead girlfriend’s grandniece, but at least most of the fights are between people we’re attached to.

That brings us to the climax. The bad guy has lured Tony, Steve, and Bucky out to a remote location. There, the villain reveals that back when Bucky was a brainwashed assassin for HYDRA, he killed Tony’s parents. As predicted, this puts Tony into a murderous rage, so Steve has to throw down to protect his boyfriend.* We can sympathize with Tony, but Steve is clearly in the right. Bucky was operating under powerful brainwashing, so he can’t be considered responsible for his actions. Also, murder is wrong.

The fight itself is pretty good. It feels less like everyone is made of rubber than in most Marvel fights, and I’ll take a fight between two heroes over a fight with some generic villain any day. The main problem is that Tony should easily win because Steve is explicitly not bulletproof, but that ship sailed a long time ago in the MCU, so we’ll let it slide. There’s also an unintentionally funny moment where Tony tells his AI to analyze Steve’s fighting style, and in seconds Tony is kicking way more ass than before. Maybe lead with that one next time, eh?

Then there’s the turning point, and it is unexpectedly weird. Tony is finally winning the fight, knocking Steve down and even giving him a bloody lip, which is how you know it’s a serious fight. But then Tony seemingly forgets that Bucky is there, allowing the former Winter Soldier to get in a sneak attack. This gives Steve an opening to disable Tony’s suit, and after that it’s all falling action and emotional recrimination.

Normally, I would consider that a really weak turning point. Heroes shouldn’t win just because the villain got careless. But in this case, it works reasonably well because of all the good karma that Steve’s gained from protecting Bucky earlier in the film. That effort cost Steve a lot, destroying his friendship with Tony and making him a fugitive. After all that, it feels right that Bucky is able to help Steve land the decisive blow.

Doctor Strange

Mordo, Strange, The Ancient One, and Wong

Ugh, I just watched this movie for the first time and to my complete lack of surprise, it isn’t very good. Strange isn’t really involved in the plot until about the halfway point, the villain is generic even by Marvel standards, and also there’s racism, yay! The story of a white dude going to a South Asian country and learning their mystic secrets was never going to be good, and Marvel managed to make it worse by whitewashing the Ancient One. Pro moves all around.

But I’m not here to critique the whole movie, just the climax. Fortunately, the climax is also very bad, so I don’t have to rethink my approach. Mr. Generic Villain wants to summon a big ol’ demon-thing called Dormammu, and Dormammu will destroy the world by absorbing it into himself, I think. The movie gets a bit mystical on that point, but it’ll be bad news regardless. Supposedly, the bad guy wants to do this because he thinks Dormammu will give him eternal life. Why he thinks that is anyone’s guess.

First, Strange has to battle the villain and his remaining minions because all the other sorcerers have mysteriously vanished. Maybe the bad guy killed them; I don’t know, and the movie doesn’t seem to care. Here we learn that Strange can stop and reverse time, something that probably would have been useful to use against Thanos but never mind.

Finally, the villain actually summons Dormammu, and Strange defeats him by creating an infinite time loop. Just like that. Apparently creating infinite time loops is something Strange can do. This isn’t even part of the magic he spends most of the movie learning; it’s a spontaneous ability he gains from the Time Stone. Looking closely at the dialogue, I believe the idea is that Dormammu is uniquely vulnerable to this trick since his native dimension exists outside of time, but he seems to behave just like any other temporally linear being when we meet him. Even if we accept that was a limitation of what the film can realistically show us, it’s still unclear how Strange thought of the idea in the first place.

For a clever deduction turning point to work, the audience needs to understand the mechanisms involved. That’s what gives us the “ah ha” moment when the hero figures out a solution. In Doctor Strange, all we’re told is that Dormammu’s dimension exists outside of time, and from there, we’re supposed to intuit the rest. Except that we could just as easily go the other direction and say that not having time would make Dormammu immune to Strange’s magic, like how a creature whose molecules don’t vibrate based on temperature probably wouldn’t be vulnerable to fire.

Instead of the leap we’re supposed to make, it just looks like Strange can create time loops whenever he wants, another power he could have used against Thanos. The only part of this plan that requires actual effort is that Strange has to die over and over again for the time loop to restart. That could have been a major sacrifice or battle of will, but the film brushes it off as no big deal, and it doesn’t seem to be part of Strange’s arc either. We can only hope that the next film’s climax doesn’t rely on a character spontaneously gaining new powers.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The characters from Guardians 2

Sigh. Well, I knew that was too much to hope for. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Guardians 2 features a lot of personal drama, the most important of which is between Star-Lord and his celestial father, Ego. Good news: Ego seems to be a super cool, chill dude who just wants Star-Lord and his friends to hang out on a scenic planet. Bad news: Ego is actually super evil and wants to use his godlike power to consume the universe. Also, he is the planet they’re staying on. Uh-oh.

To get our requisite Marvel Movie Banter™ in, the heroes spend a few minutes fighting some unrelated bad guys from earlier in the movie first, but the main action is against Ego. The problem is that Ego is effectively all-powerful, so fighting him is pointless. Sure, the heroes can destroy his energy forms, but he can summon more with a thought.

Watching the fight, it looks like Ego is toying with the Guardians. He could kill them at any time, but he doesn’t because he still needs Star-Lord’s cooperation for the evil plan. Or at least, I thought that’s what he wanted, until we see he can just force Star-Lord to cooperate, so that’s a mark against the climax right there. Also, Ego proudly brags that he killed Star-Lord’s mom, which makes it even harder to imagine that he cares what Star-Lord thinks.

The turning point is Star-Lord using Ego’s own celestial-powers against him. That makes sense conceptually; as Ego’s offspring, it’s reasonable that Star-Lord can access the same abilities. Dramatically, it’s a satisfying way for Star-Lord to stand up to his abusive father. The problem is in how Star-Lord gets these powers. He goes from not having any powers to complete control in a split second, and the catalyst is Yondu saying he controls his main weapon with his heart rather than his head. For some reason that does it.

I’m not sure what to make of this exchange. Yondu is sort of Star-Lord’s adopted father, and Yondu is in serious danger as he’s talking, so maybe that’s the point? It’s believable that Star-Lord could access formerly unknown abilities to save someone he cares about. But the way the shot is framed, it really seems like Yondu’s words are supposed to be important, though I have no idea how. At the same time, Yondu also treated Star-Lord badly when the latter was growing up. He’s mysteriously much nicer in this movie than he was in the last one, but it still interferes with the idea that Star-Lord is motivated by danger to someone he cares about.

Once Star-Lord activates his new power, there’s a bit more fighting, and then the Guardians win the day by exploding Ego’s brain. In the falling action, Yondu sacrifices himself to save Star-Lord’s life. It’s a sad moment, but it feels like the other Guardians could have saved them both with slightly better coordination.* More importantly, Yondu’s past actions make it seem like the movie is saying that Star-Lord should reject his abusive bio-dad in favor of his abusive adopted dad. That’s… certainly a choice.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man balancing between two rows of cages.

Even now, years after Homecoming was released, I’m still grateful it isn’t an origin film. I love Uncle Ben and his “with great power comes great responsibility” line, but we won’t need to see that in a movie again for several decades at least. Even better, a big part of this movie’s plot is about where Peter and his Spider-Man alias fit in an MCU that’s already populated by heavyweights like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.

Speaking of Tony, his relationship to Peter is what sets up this movie’s climax. Basically, Peter keeps trying to go after bad guys above his pay grade, which gets him in trouble, and then Tony has to bail him out. Sometimes Peter only gets himself in danger, but in at least one instance, he nearly gets an entire ferry full of people killed. The message is clear: Peter needs to stop acting rashly and start thinking first.

Which is why it’s weird when the climax is another example of Peter acting rashly, but this time it works out great. Peter learns that a bad guy who goes by Vulture is going to hijack a plane full of powerful tech so he can sell it on the black market. For some reason, the plane is totally unguarded even though Tony and the authorities know that Vulture is active in the area. Maybe we should have another movie where Tony learns the value of paying for proper security.

After the previous lessons about not putting civilians in danger, Peter naturally decides that the best plan is to intercept Vulture on the plane and fight him while they’re flying over New York City, one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. Don’t worry: when the plane inevitably crashes, it just so happens to hit an abandoned beach instead of plowing into thousands of people. Is super luck one of Peter’s powers?*

The fight itself, while well choreographed, isn’t particularly satisfying either. Peter and Vulture exchange blows back and forth until Vulture’s tech breaks down. I’m sure some of that damage is from Peter’s punches, but it mostly seems like a flying suit being pushed beyond its design limits. This gives the impression that Vulture defeats himself. There’s a nice moment where Peter saves Vulture from burning to death, but it’s clearly part of the falling action.

Afterward, Tony offers to let Peter into the Avengers, but Peter says no. He also turns down a fancy new suit, for reasons. Maybe the writers thought that getting into the Avengers was Peter’s emotional arc for the movie, and saying no showed growth, but that’s not what they wrote. What actually happens is that the movie sets up an issue with Peter’s problem-solving approach, but then he triumphs using exactly the same approach. Homecoming is still a fun movie, but its climax lacks any form of satisfaction.

Thor: Ragnarok

After the first two Thor movies, my hopes for Ragnarok’s climax weren’t high. Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Like the rest of the movie, the climax is great, both in its main turning point and the emotional growth of our heroes. Are we sure this is a Marvel film?

After some wacky adventures on Jeff Goldblum Planet, Team Good heads back to Asgard and the film’s villain, Hela. The only problem: she’s way too strong. Even when Thor finishes his character arc of learning to use cool lightning powers, the most he can do is stun Hela for a few minutes. That’s okay; the good guys’ plan isn’t to beat Hela, it’s to evacuate the remaining Asgardian civilians and escape.

Despite some hiccups, that part of the plan goes relatively well, thanks to Loki arriving with a handy evacuation ship.* But then Thor realizes that even if they escape, Hela will eventually turn her wrath on someone else, and he can’t allow that. She’s his sister, so he feels responsible for stopping her. But he still can’t outfight her, so it’s time for a turning point.

To create a turning point, Thor makes a sacrifice. Earlier in the film, Thor stopped a big fire monster who wanted to destroy Asgard. Now, Thor sends Loki into the royal vaults to revive said fire monster, and give it a huge boost of power from some handy artifacts. This will make the fire monster strong enough to defeat Hela, but it’ll destroy Asgard as well.

To Thor, that’s an acceptable sacrifice. As king, albeit a reluctant one, he has to consider his people’s safety and the greater good. Asgard is just a place, and destroying it is a price worth paying. The plan works, and after a few more action sequences, Asgard explodes in a climactic flash while our heroes escape.

There are still a few rough patches of course. Taika Waititi’s rock alien character makes a particularly awkward joke just as Asgard is exploding, which I assume is supposed to be funny, but really detracts from the moment. Meanwhile, Karl Urban’s character has a redemption sequence that plays like an NRA commercial for AR-15s. Marvel, please take note: it’s hard for me to suspend my disbelief about the heroes not using guns when you show how easily the bad guys can be taken out by an assault rifle.

Despite those issues, Ragnarok’s climax is strong and easily the best we’ve seen so far in phase three. Can the next movie top it? Let’s find out…

Black Panther

King T'Challa on this throne.

…No, it can’t. Overall, Black Panther is one of the best films Marvel has produced to date. There’s a strong case to be made that it’s the reigning champ. It has deep character growth, a villain who’s finally better than Loki,* gorgeous visual design, and the most radical condemnation of systemic inequality that we’re ever likely to get from the MCU. It’s also got a main character who’s super compelling without being a quipster, which I didn’t think was even possible for Marvel.

Despite all that quality, the climax is average at best. First there’s a big fight between the forces of King T’Challa and the usurper Killmonger. It’s better than most MCU battles by dint of neither side being a faceless CGI army, and the fighting is fairly well choreographed. We get to watch secondary characters like Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia kick some ass for a while, but then it’s time for the main event: a one-on-one fight, T’Challa versus Killmonger.

This is where the problem appears: the battle has no significant turning point. T’Challa does have Shuri activate some machines that disable both combatant’s suits, but that doesn’t change the fight in any material way. T’Challa and Killmonger were evenly matched with their suits working, and now they’re still evenly matched. It feels more like an excuse for why they’ll be able to hurt each other, but even that isn’t necessary. The panther suits are strong, but they aren’t like Iron Man’s armor. There was no reason to think that our superpowered combatants couldn’t have punched through.

After exchanging both blows and heartfelt dialogue, the fight unceremoniously ends when T’Challa stabs Killmonger in the chest. The only indication that this attack is any different than what came before is that T’Challa throws the blade up in the air first, but there’s nothing to indicate why Killmonger would fall for this feint and not others. There’s no point where everything clicks together, no good karma to show why T’Challa deserves to win right at this moment.

That’s the textbook example of a bad turning point. T’Challa won either by being a better fighter or by being lucky. Neither is satisfying. The fight could have ended several exchanges earlier, or it could have gone on another few minutes and still turned out exactly the same. You could sum up the whole battle as “T’Challa fought good” and not leave anything out.

Was there a better option? Yes, but it would have required some revisions earlier in the film. In particular, if Killmonger hadn’t killed T’Challa’s advisor and choked an old lady, then the film could have ended with a gesture of goodwill. Black Panther does a fantastic job establishing Killmonger’s legitimate grievances against Wakanda, so much that T’Challa even agrees with Killmonger that something must be done to help the victims of anti-Black racism across the world. By the end, they mostly disagree on the method. If Killmonger was just a little less evil, then the day could have been won by redeeming him.

So far, despite a general improvement in film quality, Marvel’s turning points haven’t improved. In fact, I’d say phase two was actually better. In this round, only Ragnarok scores an A. Civil War isn’t bad, but it’s not great. The rest are either mediocre or worse. But we’ve got five more films to look at, so Marvel could still pull a surprise turnaround. Stay tuned to find out!

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  1. SunlessNick

    The turning point that mattered to me in Civil War was T’Challa’s – both his refusal to go the same way as Steve, Tony and Zemo were going, but also “The living are not done with you yet” – the acknowledgement that Zemo deserved to answer for *all* the blood on his hands, not the just the blood T’Challa specifically cared about.

    Regarding Dr Strange, while they do give the magical manifestations a “mandala” look, I’m dubious about how much we should be conflating comic book magic with Nepalese culture. I know the comics did (well, Tibetan), but the film gave me the impression that Nepal was just where the Ancient One had chosen to live, not the source of mystic secrets.

    Regarding Black Panther, I think the turning point was Wakanda’s, not T’Challa’s. The appearance of the Jabari, Okoye stopping W’Kabi’s war rhinoceros, and W’Kabi finally taking in what’s happening. Killmonger’s power, from his Western training, is tearing things apart – he lost in parallel to Wakanda refusing to be torn apart.
    I’d also say it was Nakia T’Challa agreed with rather than Killmonger. At the start, he was sympathetic to her calling, but restrained by a perceived need to protect Wakanda via its isolation – but Killmonger showed that its isolationism didn’t protect it, and could even threaten it.

  2. Dave L

    Vulture’s suit failure sounds similar to Stane’s suit ice buildup in the first Iron Man, only w/out proper setup

  3. Arturo Serrano

    You say Doctor Strange’s repeated deaths don’t seem related to his arc, but they totally are. That small line, “Pain is an old friend,” means everything. It is the culmination of his learning to let go of his ego. He’s spent the entire movie running away from pain, refusing to accept it, refusing to admit any blemish on his perfect self-image, and now he’s found a way to use his pain to save others. He wouldn’t be willing or able to endure infinite deaths if he hadn’t come to terms with living with pain.
    It’s a theme that stems from a Catholic sensibility. The rest of mainstream US culture doesn’t focus so much on this view that suffering has saving power. As it happens, Doctor Strange was written and directed by Scott Derrickson, whom Beliefnet has described as “A committed Presbyterian who flirts with Catholicism.” Catholics believe that the death of Jesus happened in time, but also in eternity; he’s always accepting the load of suffering it takes to save the world. Every Catholic Mass reenacts his sacrifice.
    Casting your hero in a Jesus role is the oldest cliché in cinema, but this director took it seriously and let the theme run all the way to its logical implications. Doctor Strange’s choice to die and die again is the final step in his victory over selfishness.

  4. Justin

    I don’t even have to agree or disagree with any of your points. I enjoy reading your articles so much, it’s irrelevant. Your sense of humor is spot on and your delivery is flawless. You could write an article convincing me to vote for Trump and I’d love the article (and still vote against that asshole). Love your site.

  5. Prince Infidel

    Sorry, but I have to disagree with your assessment of the final battle between Killmonger & T’Challa. Part of T’Challa’s arc through the film was his reluctance to commit. He wants a romance with Nakia but is hesitant to take the steps necessary. He wants to be a good leader but is more comfortable in his previous role as a warrior. He agrees with Nakia’s views but doesn’t want to bring such grand changes to Wakanda. He initially seems like wants to accept Eric into the family, but doesn’t cause he knows that it will mar the legacy of his father (which is quickly made moot by Eric’s own actions). Even his first fight against Eric, T’Challa gains the upper hand & has Killmonger on the ground, blade pointed at his neck. Then T’Challa just tells him to surrender (which of course Eric doesn’t do), obviously going easier on him then he did in a similar situation with M’Baku, because of his conflicted feelings.

    The final battle was about T’Challa no longer doing things by half measures. The disruption of their vibranium suits is meant to mirror the first fight by having them both be more vulnerable. He succeeds here where he failed before because while he still agrees with & sympathizes with Eric on many levels, he believes Eric needs to be stopped & is willing to commit to stopping him. It seemed to me, that the movie had already told us that on even terms, Killmonger was dangerous but T’Challa could already beat him. The real question was could he resolve his internal conflict enough to triumph.

    T’Challa’s arc is about following through with what he believes in, even if it’s difficult.

  6. Bellis

    “If Killmonger was just a little less evil, then the day could have been won by redeeming him.”

    Definitely! Except then it would have been really difficult and seemed contrived that they would fight so bitterly in the first place. Killmonger is already so sympathetic*, both due to his backstory and his broader goals, that if his methods hadn’t been overly brutal, he would just be the antihero sidekick, not the villain.

    *I think we all cheered when he confronted the archaeologist about how the museum exhibits were all stolen!

    • SunlessNick

      I don’t find Killmonger’s broader goals sympathetic. He’s not fighting to protect or liberate anyone, whatever his rhetoric. (Notice how right after confronting the museum curator, he then takes a piece he has no cultural connection to either, just because he “feels” it).

      He does have a sympathetic origin though. And he does help weave a compelling moral tapestry. (But Nakia is the one who was right).

      • Bellis

        Nakia’s totally right!

        I believe that Killmonger believes he is fighting to protect and liberate people, but I agree that that’s not actually what he does or what his plans would result in, because bad methods will lead to bad outcomes regardless of intent. His worldview is skewed and simplistic, too.

        • SunlessNick

          Still a great villain though, whatever I said.

        • Julia M.

          I think Killmonger also wants power though. He is using the veneer of liberation to justify the uprising to himself.

  7. Erynus

    I still don’t see why people keep saying that Killmonger is a good villain. He only kills defenseless people and even then he have a hard time doing it (come on, 4 shots to kill a maimed guy?). Loki is an ex villain redeemed by the power of popularity, but lacks the brains and the power of his comic counterpart. Marvel have the habit of downplaying villains.

    • Bellis

      He doesn’t need to be a good shot to be threatening. He’s competent in many ways, he actually gets things done. He steals vibranium, becoming one of only two people on earth outside of Wakanda to optain it. Later he defeats T’Challa and almost kills him, winning the throne.

      He also has strong and clear motivations and goals and it is realistic for him to actually achieve them and cause a great deal of harm by starting massive wars. He is smart enough, charismatic enough and has enough support that he is a threat, even though he started out as a total underdog.

      He’s also a good foil to T’Challa, as Prince Infidel points out, because T’Challa’s arc is about learning to commit, whereas Killmonger is not only committed, he’s fanatical and ruthless.

      Plus, he’s sympathetic in a way that few movies can pull off. This brings some nuance and depth to a movie in a genre and franchise that’s not exactly known for that.

      Anyway, those are some of the reasons I personally like him. But, tastes differ.

      • SunlessNick

        Plus it looked like some pretty damn good shooting when he killed Klaue.

        • Erynus

          I just reviewed the scene. He shoot six times (one point blank), missed 3, that’s 50%
          If they want us to see him as a “master assassin” then they rather make him don’t miss.
          All that he brags about is off-screen, for most of the movie he uses Klawe’s planning and resources, and when he get to be king, don’t even wait the dust to settle to begin a war, which is a dumb move for a new ruler.

  8. Theguy

    The only reason that the ancient one was whitewashed in doctor strange is because china wouldn’t release the movie if they had a character from Tibet in it.

    • Julia M.

      The director could’ve cast someone else in the role. Preferably someone Nepalese, since the movie takes place in Nepal. I read his commentary on it, and apparently he didn’t want to conform to the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. I understand, but I do not think that is a good enough reason. He had the resources to hire some sensitivity watchers.

  9. Julia M.

    “Marvel can have this ship when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

    Me too. Same with Frodo and Sam. No one can make me doubt that they were made for each other.

    Bucky + Captain America!

    SPOILERS FOR ENDGAME!!! (Of course it doesn’t happen, and we get the Captain back with Peggy, and Falcon gets the shield.)

  10. J

    In Homecoming, the plane crashes into the beach because Peter steered it away from the city, not because of luck.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Peter does steer the plane away from one part of the city, but by the time it crashes on the beach, it’s been out of his control for quite some time. He certainly didn’t steer it there.

      • J

        He clearly did tho. He steers it away from the city and towards the beach, and a few seconds later it crashes there.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        The beginning of this clip makes it very clear that he did not have the control to do that. The plane was moving in the general direction of the beach when he lost control, and could have hit almost anywhere in that area. It’s pure luck that he struck the beach.

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