At the end of World War Z, Brad Pitt takes a moment to remind you: “This isn’t the end.” Of course it isn’t. Every big-budget movie Hollywood releases now is not just a movie. It’s also an advertisement for a potential sequel, or spinoff, or alternate-universe prequel-reboot. This has radically altered the rules of big-screen storytelling in a number of ways. But no development is more troubling than the complete demise of the ending. Even the worst movies used to at least attempt to tell complete stories, with character journeys that reach some kind of conclusion and closure. But closure is a bad word in contemporary franchise Hollywood: “Ending” a story could mean a potential loss of millions, even billions, of dollars. (Not for nothing is Hollywood splitting books in two or three now.)
In his famous takedown of James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain wrote that a central rule of the art of storytelling was “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” But if you look at the list of the highest-grossing movies of the year so far, you see a whole host of stories where a lot of stuff happens, but the films ultimately arrive in ellipses. Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Oz the Great and Powerful all “end” right where their stories began. Superman becomes Superman. Captain Kirk sets off on a 5-year mission. Oz becomes Oz. (If you consider these spoilers, then you haven’t read a comic, watched a TV show, or seen a movie in the last century.) But these aren’t really endings: They’re just teases for future adventures. (Just compare Star Trek Into Darkness to the film that it’s basically remade from. In The Wrath of Khan, the villain has a complete story arc and a fantastic exit line; in Into Darkness, he winds up frozen, ready to return for Star Trek Beyond Thunderdome.)
Fast & Furious 6 ends with an explicit tease for Fast & Furious 7. Although The Hangover Part III was billed as a conclusion, it’s really a “conclusion” in the same way that Dark Knight Rises was a “conclusion,” where the message appears to be: “This story will keep happening, over and over again.” You might think that’s profound; to me, it just sounds repetitive. Mind you, I don’t think all of those movies are bad. (And some of the non-endings are fun: The Fast movies have practically made a game out of their sequel-teases.) But because none of them actually tell complete stories, they seem to lack weight somehow.
Franchise movies didn’t always have lame endings. Every Toy Story film feels complete unto itself; every part of the original Bourne trilogy is constructed around a straightforward plot with a beginning, middle, and end (Mystery, Vengeance, Mystery-Vengeance). Of course, those films were sagas by accident; by comparison, the franchise-rebooting Bourne Legacy assumes that ending a Bourne movie just requires throwing in that Moby song and calling it a day. Just because you’re planning a sequel doesn’t mean that you need to make that obvious. One of the best things about The Dark Knight is that it takes the typical superhero ending and flips it. Usually, the hero flies/swings into the sunset, ready to fight another day; here, Batman drives into the distance, damning himself to a life on the run. (Weirdly, there’s more closure in Dark Knight than in Dark Knight Rises, which leaves just enough room for years of “Bale in Justice League” rumors.)
The Harry Potter franchise deserves some blame for the demise of the ending: Every film ended pretty much the same way, with Harry and his friends chatting about what just happened and teasing what would happen soon. But the roots of the problem go all the way back to the source of the blockbuster era. Star Wars could be a standalone film; the ending feels triumphant, and even if we know the Empire hasn’t been defeated, we get the sense that we’ve seen the turning of the tide. (Good endings don’t need to close everything: All the President’s Men famously concludes right in the middle of the book.) The Empire Strikes Back is just the opposite: It ends in chaos, with our heroes scattered and the future uncertain. Now, in almost every way, Empire is a better movie. But you couldn’t just watch Empire.
Maybe it’s old-fashioned to ask a movie to stand on its own. And of course, Empire at least had the implicit promise of an ending on the horizon; that was back in the old days, when sagas were kind enough to stick with trilogies. By comparison, every Pirates of the Caribbean sequel is about three hours long and wraps up with a tease for another Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and every Marvel movie is a potentially branching path for two more Marvel movies. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but I worry that it’s robbing Hollywood cinema of its most potent power: That last-minute oomph, the final moment that leaves you buzzing as you leave the theater.
Fellow moviegoers, do you miss endings that were actually endings? Isn’t it weird that the season finale of Mad Men — a show that isn’t even finished yet — had a greater sense of closure than the supposedly trilogy-concluding Iron Man 3? Is it actually old-fashioned to want movies to end?