This post has been a long time coming.
I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the different ways Marvel has played with what a super hero movie is has kept the films fresh and engaging. Except in one area. The climax of the various films have been plagued by a sameness that is disappointing compared to all the things they have done so well. And before I can get to my issues with the endings, it is important to cover what they are doing beautifully.
There is a general adage that DC has interesting villains and Marvel has interesting heroes. I can't speak to the comics, but in terms of the films the shining point of the MCU really is the heroes. Tony Stark's struggle with the legacy of his father has evolved into his personal struggles with mortality. Steve Rogers legacy centers initially around his struggles to manifest the internal strength he possesses in a way that can physically change the world. Over the films the physical struggle has largely gone away and it his moral courage that has been tested. All the central characters have had similar growth over the course of their respective films and it is one of main reasons why 12+ films in everything still feels fairly fresh.
It hasn't been perfect though. For Age of Ultron I went down to LA to watch the Marvel Movie Marathon that Marvel and the Nerdist put on. Seeing everything film back to back for 30 hrs really gives a lot of insight into any repetitive crutches the films may be using that you wouldn't necessarily notice viewing them in theaters 6 months to a year apart. Add sleep deprivation into the mix and anything that isn't clicking really stands out.
The thing I noticed over the course of 30 hours was I was really engrossed in the first 2/3 of the film and napping through the climax. As much as I praised the character growth across the films, the character growth within the film has been limited by the what is probably the defining aspect of the superhero genre, the need to externally resolve character growth.
(To the people who claim that comic books films aren't their own genre, I strongly disagree. The genre pairs nicely with just about any other genre and frequently uses the stylistic trappings of the partner genre, but without failure the character is going to overcome his personal demons by taking them out on the villain at the end of the film.)
Since we know the film is going to end in a final battle, the role of the villain becomes very significant. A how interesting and exotic a villain is largely irrelevant still. The original Iron Man still holds up despite the fact that Jeff Bridge's Obadiah is fairly bland character. What he does represent is the perfect external counterpoint of Tony's internal struggle with his dad's legacy. Obadiah is the worst manifestations of his Dad's merchant of death characteristics. Tony represents these same ideals at the beginning of the film which makes his transformation all the more powerful. His internal struggles to change are compounded by all these external roadblocks and he has to overcome them simultaneously. Defeating Obadiah is the culmination of this struggle and results in the Tony's moment of catharsis, "I am Iron Man." In comparison most of the other films have failed to achieve this same level of connection between the villain and the hero's internal struggle.
The Red Skull is at best a revenge target for Captain America, but really his internal goals were more or less complete when he successfully rescued the POW's and proved his value in serving his country. Once the Red Skull is revealed to Captain there is a need to defeat him because he is the bad guy, but because his arc is already done there is no dramatic momentum and the ending is just a vestigial bow on top of what was an otherwise excellent drama, albeit a very explosive bow.
Thor is much better because everything standing in his path is a physical obstacle on his path towards redemption/maturation. Loki's manipulations provide a great counterpoint to Thor and directly force him to grow. Loki and Thor are both selfish and very self serving at the start of the film. For Thor this leads to his banishment and Loki's rise to power. Loki's failure to value life is ultimately what pushes Thor to start putting others before himself and directly creates the conflict that allows Thor to prove his worth.
Iron Man 2 is really weak in this aspect and I think that is one of the reasons people don't have a very favorable opinion of the film. Tony is struggling with the responsibility of being Iron Man and the fact that the suit is literally killing him. Yet Whiplash is another manifestation of his fathers legacy and the military complex again. The two don't compliment each other and it just feels like Whiplash is the nuisance that Tony has to deal with while struggling with his real problems. In comparison Iron Man 3 takes a similar theme and really nails it. Tony is struggling to overcome his PTSD from the Avengers which has made him all to aware of his own mortality. To overcome his enemies he is forced to lose the suit and realize that he really is Iron Man, not the suit.
Speaking of Avengers, it is probably the best film after the original Iron Man. The entire dramatic conflict is centered around whether these individually super beings can transform into a super team. Again the manipulative Loki is the perfect foil to test the team as he specializes in stroking the ego's of the individual members and creating discord. The final battle is perfect because as it continues to escalate it forces the members to prove they can perfectly coexist because any friction, any individualism, would lead to failure.
For the sake of not getting too repetitive I am going to skip over Phase 2 and get to the conclusion.
As the universe expands and the movies get bigger the tendency to expand the stakes through world threatening catastrophes gets ever stronger. Marvel has done a pretty good job of justifying the expansion of its universe. Still they could do a better job and as they get to the universe threatening climax that is Thanos, it will be critical. The issue is going into a movie I know the end is going to be a final battle. The best movies have made that battle essential, but I would love to see diversification of the climax. I want someone to be brave enough to give us an amazing midpoint fight and a small personal dramatic climax.
My favorite superhero film is still The Dark Knight. A large reason the film is so resonate for me is because Christopher Nolan has come the closest to making a personal ending. The big action sequence in the Dark Knight is the transporting of Harvey Dent in the middle of the film. In scope it really isn't that big, but the stakes matter. The audience is invested and the tension is super high. The ending with Batman taking out the swat team is even more low key in terms of the action. The beauty is that the stakes comes from the moral choice playing out on the ferries. Everything revolves around Batman putting his faith that the general population of the Gotham is inherently good and worth fighting for and everything the Joker does is to test that. And even though the Joker fails on the large scale of the ferries, he wins on the personal level with the creation of Two Face. By destroying the legacy of Harvey Dent, he forces Batman to sacrifice his own legacy to achieve the goal of giving Gotham the hope that he has been fighting for.
The villain altering the path of the main character shouldn't be a revolutionary thing. Drama comes from having to deal with the consequences of actions in an unpredictable world. Too often the drama is missing because the hero only acts and the world reacts to them, but they are rarely forced to change because of actions in the world.
So the thing I am hoping for as Marvel moves ahead into Phase 3 is climaxes that matter. To overcome their individual challenges I want to see the heroes forced to examine themselves and adapt. We know the heroes are going to win in the end, but let's make the fight a little more meaningful to the individual characters involved. Because the heroes are great and I just want to see them used to their full potential.