Maybe it’s simply a case of vertigo projection, but for my money, Spider-Man: Homecoming features the best action set piece of the year thus far – hell, one of the best I’ve encountered in a comic book movie. Our hero and his friends are on a class trip to Washington, D.C., and like you do when you’re there, they’ve taken a trip up to the top of the Washington Monument. (Their tour guide is Martha Kelly, the inspired deadpan of FX’s Baskets, and whose casting here is reason enough to give Homecoming a pass for any and all flaws.) And then they’re placed in danger, at the top of the monument in an elevator that’s precariously close to dropping hard and killing them all, so Peter Parker does what he must: he dons his Spider-Man costume, climbs his way to the top of the landmark, and saves the day. It’s an ingenious idea (I’m sure it’s been in the comics at one time or another, don’t feel obligated to @-me with details), convincingly executed and breathlessly played, a funhouse sequence that does everything you want a Spider-Man movie to do. And then that movie goes on for another hour.
As you may have noticed, this is a bit of an epidemic. Earlier this summer, Wonder Woman gave us one of the most thrillingly rah-rah action beats in recent memory, a scene in which the superhero diverts her entire mission to storm a WWI battlefield singlehandedly, taking and deflecting gunfire, moving the frontline, and saving an entire village, all while unveiling her iconic costume for the first time. It’s a scene that delivers exactly what audiences hungering for a Wonder Woman movie were asking for: a staggeringly powerful woman not only playing with the big boys, but conquering them. And then Wonder Woman soldiers on, working its way up to an action climax that’s markedly less inspiring, in which she and a SURPRISE SUPER-VILLIAN yell and throw concrete and fire at each other for what feels like a half-hour.
Spider-Man’s conclusion is nearly as uninspired, a long and expensive-looking but singularly uninteresting battle, in the air and on the beach, between our Spidey and his nemesis the Vulture – a battle, like Wonder Woman’s, pre-vized and CG-ed within an inch of its life, in which the obvious fakery of the effects translates to a weightlessness of the characters, and thus a lowering of the stakes. And this virus has infected plenty of other superhero movies: quick, when you think of Captain America: Civil War, what big action sequence do you think of? It’s the Avenger vs. Avenger rally on the tarmac, isn’t it? Yeah, guess when that happens? Midway through the movie; the climax is so forgettable, I literally had to check the plot summary on its Wikipedia page for a reminder, and I still can’t remember a damn thing about it.
And then, for fun, keep going backwards. Iron Man 3 peaks, action-wise, at the three-quarter mark, with the clever fighting and slapstick mixture of Tony’s escape from Killian’s lair, accomplished by slowly arriving pieces of his Iron-Man getup. But the movie itself peters out with a climax that consists, literally, of empty suits fighting each other. Guardians of the Galaxy’s prison escape is far more entertaining than the intergalactic battle sequence that ends the film. Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s highlight is the breathless elevator fight, not the airborne fisticuffs. Hell, even Batman v Superman (in addition to its many, many, many other flaws) doesn’t have the good sense to end with Batman fighting Superman; they have to team up with Wonder Woman to fight another big, terrible, CG monster (can’t remember, not gonna look it up, don’t care) in a fire-and-smoke void. When you get down to it, the last superhero movie that actually ended with its best action sequence was the first Avengers – because it was the culmination of the movie’s themes and conflicts, this disparate group of heroes finally managing to mesh successfully. It felt, dare I say, organic, rather than like a genre-mandated obligation.
And that, ultimately, is what this seems to come down to. America’s primary manufacturers of cinematic superhero product will go to the trouble of hiring writers and directors with some sensibility and voice (usually a comic one), and the midpoint climax often feels – aside from the structural/narrative necessity of dramatizing our hero coming into his/her own – like the one they’ve been allowed to personalize, and to synthesize to their particular preoccupations. The endings feel, to a one, like ceding to the house style, a one-for-them-and-one-for-me inside the same damn movie, all but indistinguishable from similar sequences that have ended that brand’s previous films, and will presumably end future ones.
Is there a solution? Sure: for producers and studios to lighten up the reins a little bit, and let directors like Homecoming’s Jon Watts and Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins extend their sense of play and personality throughout the entirety of their movies, rather than tossing the keys to their second units at the two-hour mark. You would think, considering what a financial lay-up these movies are, that they’d be willing to take some chances with them; witness the hefty returns for out-of-the-box superhero flicks like Deadpool, Logan, and The LEGO Batman Movie. But those were relatively low investments; something tells me that at the end of the day, when a Marvel or DC logo at the top is about the only drop-dead guarantee in mainstream moviemaking, they’ll continue to play it safe – and to insist their directors do the same.