Gather round, ye olde Mythcreants fans, for we must once again discuss the climactic turning points of popular stories. Last time, I did all nine of the main Star Wars films, which made for a rather hefty article. This time, we’re looking at the MCU, but even I don’t love the sound of my own typing enough to do all of those in one go. Instead, we’re focusing just on the phase-one films, back when it wasn’t obvious that Marvel would come to completely dominate the film industry. I’m also skipping The Incredible Hulk for three reasons:
- I haven’t seen it.
- It’s debatable if Mark Ruffalo is even playing the same character as Edward Norton.
- Literally no one cares about The Incredible Hulk.
Here we go: the film that started it all, catapulting Tony Stark from a popular comic book character to being the center of a multibillion-dollar film franchise. This movie established the MCU’s irreverent, quippy tone, something that’s both core to Marvel’s brand and a welcome break from the otherwise endless field of grimdark superhero films. Granted, this film also established the MCU’s habit of villains with weak motivations and a total lack of lasting consequences.
Another Marvel tradition established in Iron Man is the mirror-mode final battle, where the hero fights someone with the same power set, only evil. After seeing it approximately one million times, this trope has become really tiresome, but back in 2008 it was still fresh and new. That fight is between good boy Tony Stark and rude dude Obadiah Stane, who has to be in the running for “most obviously villainous name.” That’s the climax of the film, but how good is the turning point?
Pretty good, actually. Earlier in the movie, Tony flew too high and nearly crashed due to ice building up on his suit. Now, he uses a clever deduction to do the same to Stane. Tony leads his opponent higher and higher, knowing that while Stane has a more powerful suit, he’s less experienced at using it. This works, and the ice buildup locks Stane’s suit, sending him hurtling down in an obviously fatal crash. Well done, Tony, you used proper setup and execution to –
Wait, hang on, that’s not the turning point? Stane somehow survives the crash and is totally fine? WHAT? Ugh. So now we get to our actual turning point, which is Tony telling Pepper Potts to overload the Stark Industries Arc reactor so it will disable Stane’s suit. This turning point is already worse than the first one. Sure, it’s reasonable that overloading the ARC reactor could do something like that, but we had specific foreshadowing for the ice buildup plan, whereas this feels like a last-minute invention by the writers.
It gets worse from there. Tony is actually standing over the reactor when it goes off, but for some reason the energy discharge politely pushes him out of the way rather than frying him the way it fries Stane. Stane then falls into the reactor, which explodes, taking most of the building with it. Did I mention that Pepper was standing right next to the reactor just a few seconds ago? Somehow, she’s completely fine. I guess she has offscreen superspeed or something. Also, even though the explosion was definitely big enough to incinerate Pepper, it’s a remarkably small explosion for a giant fusion reactor.*
Worst of all, we have no reason to trust this second turning point either. We’ve already established that Stane is invincible when the writers want him to be, so he could easily walk out of the exploded reactor totally fine and continue the fight. Fortunately that doesn’t happen, but it leaves us guessing when we should be enjoying the satisfaction of Tony’s victory. Not off to a great start with your turning points, MCU.
With the first Iron Man film out of the way, it’s time for Marvel’s first sequel film, sure to be bigger and better than what came before. Well, it’s bigger, certainly. Now there are two good guys with Iron Man suits, and one of them is totally Colonel “Rhodey” Rhodes from the last movie, we promise. Pay no attention to Marvel recasting a Black character because they didn’t want to pay the actor his asking price.
We’ve also got a bunch of Iron Man drones and, sigh, another main villain in an Iron Man suit. Yay, it’s only the second time, and this mirror-mode finale is already getting old. This time the big bad is Ivan Vanko, possibly known as Whiplash, though for the life of me I cannot remember if anyone ever calls him that in the movie. Anyway, our climax is a big showdown: Tony and Rhodes vs Vanko. FIGHT!
Well, first they have to fight a bunch of drones, which the movie promises are threatening! Never mind that both Tony and Rhodes can cut through them like tissue paper. Finally, Vanko himself shows up, and his suit means business.* Even though Vanko keeps opening his helmet to mumble dialogue, neither Tony nor Rhodes can do much damage. Pretty soon, Vanko has energy-whips wrapped around both the heroes’ necks.
Now it’s time for the turning point, and it does not go well. First, Tony has to exchange several lines of dialogue with Rhodes in order to set up the plan. Then, they actually put the plan into motion: they point their repulsors at each other and discharge them so that the blasts collide near Vanko. Oh boy.
This was technically foreshadowed ahead of time. In an earlier brawl, over Tony’s birthday party of all things, they figured out that when you fire two repulsors at each other, it causes an explosion. The explosion is big enough to knock them over, but considering it didn’t seem to do much damage to Tony’s house, I’m extremely skeptical that it would be a serious threat to Vanko’s previously indestructible suit. Granted, Vanko does have his helmet open when this happens, for no reason at all. But we also see his suit break, so I don’t think he’s supposed to have died from an explosion to the face.
Even worse, for their plan to work, Vanko has to essentially pause the fight and let them have a little conversation. Please, filmmakers and authors everywhere: if your villain has to just stand around for your heroes to win, consider revising the fight. It’s also unclear why Tony didn’t think of trying this before, or why he and Rhodes never try it again if it’s so effective. This is one of the worst clever deductions I’ve ever seen, and I covered The Phantom Menace just a few weeks ago.
As a final nail in the coffin, once Vanko is defeated, he mutters, “You lose,” and then sets off some extremely obvious self-destruct features on his drones. Not only do they have giant red lights and warning sounds, but they’re on such a delayed timer that Tony and Rhodes can fly away no problem. There’s only the slightest bit of tension because Pepper happens to have wandered over to a fallen drone by pure coincidence. Look, I understand that villains sometimes have to make unwise choices for the heroes to win, but once you reach the point of loudly warning the heroes about your plan, it’s time to rethink your approach.
Moving on from Iron Man, it’s time to look at the God of Thunder’s entry into the franchise. This was before Chris Hemsworth discovered the joys of being a goofball in Ghostbusters, so we’re dealing with Very Serious Face Thor™. He must solemnly be a badass, hate Frost Giants, and fall in love with Jane, a woman he knows for maybe three days.
This is also a Loki movie, so it’s no surprise that the villain’s plot is ridiculously complex. Here’s the short version: Loki plans to use the Bifrost Bridge to blow up Jotunheim and kill all the Frost Giants. I guess the Bifrost is also a giant laser cannon. For some reason, Loki thinks this will make his father, Odin, love him, even though this is specifically what Odin didn’t want. Thor has to stop Loki as the conclusion of a character arc where Thor becomes less of a dick and realizes genocide is bad. Sure.
First, Loki and Thor have a big fight, but fortunately that’s not where the turning point is. Loki’s not much of a fighter, other than when he remembers that he can create perfect illusions at will, so Thor defeats him without much trouble. The actual climax is Thor stopping the Bifrost before it destroys Jotunheim.
This is a sacrifice turning point: to save Jotunheim, Thor must destroy the Bifrost. Not only is this an important part of Asgard’s defense and infrastructure, it’s also Thor’s only way back to Earth. If he destroys it, he won’t be able to see Jane again. Remember, they’re deeply in love, or at least deeply into a three-day fling. Thor has to put the greater good ahead of his own desires to save the day.
That’s not a terrible turning point, but it does have two major problems. First, even while watching this movie, it’s obvious that the MCU writers will need to get Thor off Asgard for future films. I don’t think anyone other than perhaps young children bought that this sacrifice was real. But even if you ignore the meta context: surely the Asgardians will rebuild the Bifrost? It’s apparently their only way to travel and also really important for defense. Are we supposed to believe they don’t know how to repair it? That’s not impossible, but it would require some serious worldbuilding to explain.
Skipping ahead a few movies, the Bifrost is indeed rebuilt, though it apparently requires the Tesseract’s power to do that, for some reason. So it’s less “Thor will never see Jane again” and more “They’ll have to be long distance for a few months.” That doesn’t sound like nearly as big a deal, and it’s only gotten worse now that most of us are stuck in our homes thanks to a pandemic. Oh no, Thor won’t get to fly over and see his girlfriend until they get the bridge fixed! Cry my quarantined ass a river, God of Thunder.
Buy some war bonds and plant a victory garden, because we’re blasting back to World War Two with Captain America: The First Avenger. Never mind that he’s not the first avenger in any meaningful sense. Thor is much older, and Carol Danvers was the first hero to work with Nick Fury, back when Steve Rogers was still a Capsickle. Seriously, the name Avengers even comes from Carol’s call sign, apparently!
Moving on from the title, let’s get to the climactic turning point. This one is actually pretty similar to Thor’s, in that it’s preceded by a fight with the main villain, but then the real turning point is something else. Instead of Loki, Steve has to duke it out with Johann Schmidt, AKA Red Skull. They’re fighting onboard a giant bomber that’s headed toward NYC with a payload of nukes, oh no!
This is technically another mirror-mode fight, since Schmidt has superstrength from the same serum that lets Steve experience Chris Evans’s full hunkiness. However, it doesn’t really feel like a mirror-mode fight because superstrength is such a generic ability. Schmidt doesn’t have a shield like Steve does, which is enough to make this fight feel different.
Speaking of the fight, it ends in the most bizarre way possible. After exchanging blows for a bit, a stray shot damages the Tesseract’s containment system, which is also on the plane for some reason. Schmidt then picks up the Tesseract with his bare hands. I have no idea why he does this. Seconds later, the Tesseract teleports him out of the movie, not to be seen again until Infinity War. Sure, Marvel, why not?
But now it’s time for the actual turning point: the bomber is on course for NYC, and so Steve has no choice but to crash it into the arctic ice, sacrificing his life, at least until Nick Fury thaws him sixty or so years later. Unlike Thor, this sacrifice has some real stakes to it. Even though he doesn’t die, Steve does leave his entire life behind, including his girlfriend, Peggy. It’s very sad. Unfortunately, it’s also completely unnecessary.
The problem with Captain America’s turning point is that the film does a terrible job showing us why a sacrifice needed to happen in the first place. While delivering his tragic goodbye to Peggy over the radio, Steve says he has to crash the plane before it reaches a populated area, but he’s sitting at the controls when he says it. He could easily fly the plane in a big circle, just to buy some time. Without an immediate deadline, Allied techs could probably talk Steve through disarming the weapons, assuming they’re on some kind of automated control system in the first place. The film isn’t clear on that point.
If that didn’t work, Steve could just point the plane over the arctic or something while he searched around to see if there were any parachutes. If for some reason there weren’t any, he could just jump out and cannonball into the ocean. That would kill a normal person, but for Steve it’s a lot more survivable than staying inside the plane as it crashes. Worst comes to worst, why not try to land the plane on the ice sheet instead of crashing it? That’s a lot less likely to make its nukes go off.
It’s possible that with more time and consideration, these technical issues could have been ironed out. Maybe Steve is somehow trapped next to one of the plane’s engines with a handheld radio. He can’t free himself or steer the plane, but he can punch the engine until it stops working. Granted, Steve is super strong, so whatever’s trapping him would have to be really heavy, but it would still be better than a completely unnecessary sacrifice.
Here we are at the conclusion to phase one of the MCU. By this point, it was pretty clear that Marvel films were here to stay, and The Avengers made that a certainty. It took four years, but we finally got to see our favorite heroes team up and be sarcastic at each other. Also fight evil, I guess. If there’s time.
Naturally, you might expect the climax of this film to be defeating Loki, but prepare to be surprised. Defeating the Father of Lies is a rather perfunctory exercise, with the Hulk easily tossing him around like a rag doll. Likewise, Loki’s CGI alien army is mostly just target practice for not only the Avengers, but also the U.S. armed forces. Yeah, turns out impractical speeder bikes and flying whales are no match for a $676 billion military budget.*
The actual climactic turning point comes when S.H.I.E.L.D.’s World Security Council, which apparently outranks Nick Fury, decides to lob a nuke at New York City. This is meant to represent a scorched-earth approach, where the ruthless Security Council is willing to kill millions in order to close the alien’s portal and stop the invasion. Of course, we know the invasion isn’t really that big a deal, but we’ll let the filmmakers have this one.
Naturally, the Avengers can’t let this happen. Plus, they’ve already figured out another way to close the portal, so the nuke isn’t even necessary. Fortunately, Tony has a plan: grab the nuke and fly it into the portal, which will both prevent NYC’s destruction and take out the alien fleet. Very nice.* If Tony had struggled to think of the plan, it could have been a decent clever deduction, but that’s not how things go.
Instead, Tony’s idea is pitched as a sacrifice turning point. Steve tells him this is a “one-way trip,” Tony tries to call Pepper for a tearful goodbye, and the sad music plays as he grabs the missile and rockets through the portal. Oh no, is Tony Stark gonna die? You can probably guess the answer.
We run into a major problem right away: it really looks like Tony could have just let the missile go the moment it was through the portal. For some reason, he doesn’t do that. Instead, he holds on to it until, for no reason I can figure out, his suit loses power. Then he falls back through the portal, and Hulk has to catch him. That brings us to the more significant problem with this turning point where Tony sacrifices his life: Tony doesn’t die. He’s completely fine, not even requiring some magic defibrillators to bring him back.
This isn’t hugely surprising, but it is frustrating. The whole drama of that scene depended on Tony sacrificing his life. If he doesn’t die, there’s no satisfaction, just a cheap victory. If this had been framed like a battle of will, with the issue being whether Tony was willing to die, that might have worked better, but that’s not what they did. It’s obvious that any of the Avengers would lay down their lives for the cause at a moment’s notice. So all we’re left with is an empty climax where our heroes get to close their portal-cake and eat it too.
So that’s the five climactic turning points of the MCU’s first phase and… yeesh, five duds. Maybe I should have included The Incredible Hulk after all. It’s a good thing for Disney that other elements of the films are better than their climaxes; otherwise, they might have needed to find another franchise to fill up their Scrooge McDuck vault. Granted, the turning points aren’t all as bad as Iron Man 2’s “I would like to phone a friend” sequence, but they’re all pretty lackluster. Oh well, stay tuned for next time when we take a look at phase two and see if it’s any better. Oh no, that means I have to watch Age of Ultron. I’ve been avoiding it for five years, but it got me in the end!
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