The Sense of an Ending: One Problem Ruined Almost Every Summer Blockbuster this Year

the wolverine

Sometime late Saturday evening, infamous film tweeter, internet commenter and perennial Jeff Wells irritator “LexG” tweeted this sage observation to his readers: “Someone should do a piece on how EVERY. SINGLE. MOVIE. this summer had a weak, dreary, overlong/clunky ‘climax’. Every one.” Well, not every one, as he correctly amended: “Fast & Furious 6” had the good sense to limit its climax to a jumbo jet and a single stretch of runway strip, winding down long before weariness had a chance to settle in, but that was the exception that proved the rule. That the fifth sequel to a Rock and Vin Diesel-starring blockbuster street racing franchise is an example of restraint suggests the degree to which summer movies have gone comparatively off the rails—an apt metaphor articulated in the extreme by the season’s most garish, oversized mess, “The Lone Ranger”, which features a climax so long it almost constitutes a standalone act.

Clocking in at an interminable 149 minutes, “The Lone Ranger” has exhausted its goodwill long before it reaches its literal train-wreck of a finale. When it finally arrives, it seems endless: a train hurtles forward, heaps of gold on its back, toward the precipice of a demolished bridge, while our wily heroes engage in some live-action Looney Tunes that take them hopping from one car to the next. The antics go on and on. But at least its last hurrah feels like one self-contained, overstuffed setpiece, a structural virtue lacking in nearly every other summer epic. This year’s blockbusters are defined not so much by the scope of their finales as their insistence on stacking one climax atop another, with many of the more egregious examples seeming to peak three or four times before finally fizzling into denouement.

Think, for instance, of “Star Trek Into Darkness”, a film whose last hour-plus feels like nothing more than a half-dozen major set pieces strung together without connective tissue in between: from the moment the Enterprise confronts the larger USS Vengeance, we find ourselves shuttled along from one feat of special effects wizardry to the next, including a daring space jump, some running and gunning on deck, an interstellar shootout, a capsizing crash run towards earth, the destruction of San Francisco’s downtown core, and, finally, Spock and Khan’s chase and fist fight through the city streets.

In this case the problem isn’t even the need for constant one-upmanship: the Enterprise’s spectacular freefall from orbit is in many ways more exciting and dynamic than the more relatively pared-down fisticuffs which follow, which is to say that the film does not care to save the best for last. The problem is that our capacity to be excited by action is necessarily limited; we may be an increasingly fidgety and inattentive audience, but I don’t think the solution is to simply offer more. Awe is a finite resource. And there is something to be said for brevity, even in a blockbuster.

Even “The Wolverine”, praised in some circles for its small scale and modest aspirations, could not resist the urge to overindulge in the final stretch, ramming one action sequence after another into its final act after more than an hour of keeping things fairly simple. An intense bout with swords in a hospital room leads, of course, to a bigger battle royale in the Japanese mountains, which if followed in turn by a setpiece featuring three fights simultaneously, one of which obviously involves a giant adamantium robot.

This was all very much in keeping with the multiple climaxes offered elsewhere: “Iron Man 3” whisked Tony Stark along from a secret lair shootout and escape to a mid-air plane crash (replete with passenger-catching heroics) before arriving, after an array of mini-climaxes, to the grand summit around an unused oil tanker. “Pacific Rim” bounds from one kaiju battle to the next with gleeful abandon. “Man of Steel” culminates in an hour-long fight. Even “The Conjuring”, the horror genre’s first summer blockbuster, can’t be bothered to take a minute for a breather. It is as if repose were suddenly unfashionable.

It never quite seems fair to bemoan the state of modern Hollywood filmmaking by comparing it unfavorably to classic examples of the form, but in the case of this year’s blockbusters and their climax fatigue it might be useful to look to the past. This summer marked the twentieth anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” and the twenty-fifth anniversary of John McTiernan’s “Die Hard”, both of which spared no expense on spectacle and both of which ended precisely when they should. The final setpiece of “Jurassic Park” finds our heroes outrunning three velociraptors through the visitor's center, a sequence designed to be more unnerving and tense than enormously thrilling. If it were made today there’s a good chance that the T-Rex’s last minute appearance to save the day would be followed by another chase and another setpiece, rather than swift and safe exit they made in 1993. And the climax of “Die Hard”, which in many ways set the template for the contemporary blockbuster, is nothing more than a showdown with two pistols and a highrise window. There are no major explosions, no absurd close-calls, no protracted and superfluous duels. The hero and the villain exchange final words, a gun is drawn, a shot is fired, and the movie comes to a triumphant close. We need more of that.