Holywood needs to reign in its blockbuster action finales

Man of Steel - the paradigm example of the problem

Man of Steel – the paradigm example of the problem

Ending blockbusters with ever more over the top action set pieces is spoiling perfectly good films

In an article for Den of Geek, Simon Brew implores Holywood studio to call a truce in their arms race to create the most overblown action finales for their blockbusters. He rightly observes that while blockbusters have been getting more innovative, they still almost invariably end with huge action set pieces that are worse reviewed than the rest of the film:

So: do studios really think we’ll all get up and walk out if we’re denied a few punches? When we salute everything that Captain America: The Winter Soldier got right, we talk about the early stages, the political undertones, the characterisation. How many of us go on about the eventual fisticuffs? Very few, I’d wager.

Contrast that with what’s effectively a very slowed down action sequence in Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers (a film that we saluted in more detail here), as Robert Redford has to basically inch across a room without setting an alarm off. Why can’t a big modern blockbuster do that too: raise the stakes and tension by applying the brakes a little? At the point the audience is expecting the most noise, pull the rug and slow things down?

It’s easy to conclude by saying it’s not good enough any more for a big blockbuster to build up a seemingly-unbeatable antagonist for two thirds of its running time, before watching them getting beaten in the final act. It’s like having a Bond villain who can’t feel pain, and then suddenly finding that repeatedly hitting him works. Yet the financial evidence is to the contrary of what I’m saying, and I do – sadly – recognise that.

For the problem is, of course, as far as accountants at film studios and as far as those who cut trailers are concerned, this action is a safety net, and very much perceived as what mass audiences want. Even with a nonsensical action finale, reviews of such films tend to praise at least two thirds of the running time, giving a decent enough Rotten Tomatoes score. The box office numbers are satisfying. So everyone’s happy: apart from those who genuinely crave something far more interesting than just another big CG fight/destruction procession dominating the last 20 minutes (sometimes more) of major blockbusters.

The thing is, cinema for decades has proven that there are lots and lots of interesting, often quite brilliant ways to end a movie, even an action one. And they don’t all involve fights, special effects and the dilution of what’s gone on before in the film concerned. There is another way, and there has been for a long time. I’d be willing to wager for one that Man Of Steel’s audience wouldn’t have run the other way had the Zod vs Superman showdown been a fifth of the length. I just don’t think that Warner Bros, even now, would take the bet.

A noble exception to this tendency have been the recent Bond films. Casino Royale and Skyfall had their largest action set pieces part-way through the film.* They then ended with a more restrained but emotionally interesting and unpredictable finales. They should be an inspiration for other directors wondering how to end their action blockbusters.

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