We’re still early in the rollout of this summer’s blockbusters, so it’s a bit early to say this is a trend. But I was struck by a problem that Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, both movies with very long second acts, and short, action-heavy conclusions had in common, and that marred their action sequences: bad villain design.
I’ve talked about villain design before as an advantage that movies based on DC Comics, at least in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, have had over Marvel, with the exception of Loki, so far. For the most part, it’s been a matter of ideas and motivations rather than action choreography. Ra’s al Guhl’s totalitarianism, the Joker’s anarchism, and Bane’s vision of class warfare all posed very specific challenges to Bruce Wayne’s vision of a Gotham capable of saving itself. But Iron Man’s villains have tended to be relatively poorly developed, the Red Skull, while a villain of particular vintage, never told us anything about Captain America’s basic decency we didn’t know, and Loki emerged as a good villain mainly because he challenged the logistical capacities of his opponents rather than their values.
Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness had a different problem in common, though: it wasn’t clear what would take their villains down. In Iron Man 3, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a former nerd enhanced by the chemical treatment known as Extremis, which allows injured people to regrow their limbs, seems pretty much invincible, as do his minions. They can be shot, blown up in enormous explosions, punched extremely hard, attacked by unmanned Iron Man suits, and keep on going. In the movie’s climactic action sequence, Killian survives even devastating blows from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)—only to finally be put down by a killer punch from Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who he’d dosed with Extremis at the risk of killing her. Had Killian’s strength been sapped by his previous regenerations, which had happened in close succession? Can someone with Extremis powers only be taken out by someone else with the same enhancements? I have no idea, and the movie doesn’t seem to either, unless there’s a snippet of conversation I missed somewhere along the way. But it’s relatively clear that Killian succumbs to Pepper’s punchings mostly because the action sequence needed to end at some point, and because it was a chance to see Pepper, mostly relegated to being good at business and remarkably successful at tolerating Tony as a romantic partner, do something awesome. That lack of clarity left the third act without much of an arc. It was a chance for Iron Man 3 to show off Tony’s programming abilities, but not for us to understand why he won, and should have won, and why Killian lost.
Similarly, Star Trek Into Darkness makes a great deal of Khan’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) genetically engineered strength. The man can take out the crew of a starship, survive what for anyone else would be a suicide bombing that takes out an enormous amount of San Francisco by crashed ship, shake off a Vulcan nerve pinch, and is invulnerable to a phaser set to stun when he’s shot with it repeatedly by Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana)—though apparently not that same weapon when it’s wielded by engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg). But for some reason, when it becomes clear that Khan needs to be taken alive so his blood can be used to revive Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), who previously wasn’t able to do much in the way of damage to Khan, is suddenly able to knock the man out with a solid uppercut. Once again, the fight sequence ends not because Spock and Uhura figured out Khan’s weakness, or worked together to defeat him, but because the needs of the movie required it to end, and to end that particular way.
I point this out not to be an action choreography snob—though I will cop to being that—but because this kind of sloppiness speaks to a larger problem with action moviemaking. Both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness are convinced that what audiences want is spectacle, whether it’s the timely arrival of a whole array of Iron Man suits zipping in to an oil rig right on time or characters leaping between one—well, what were those flying things hovering over San Francisco, at great speed and apparently pilotless in the midst of an emergency that should have grounded air traffic, anyway?—speedy platform thingy and another, whilst kicking each other in the face. But spectacle should serve character and story, or it risks turning the lightweight, greasy taste of a summer blockbuster into something more like cardboard.