5 Reasons Big Franchises Struggle To Nail The Ending
Experts believe that 40% of internet traffic is people yelling about how some movie or TV series has ended. Hell, somebody is out there right now still arguing about The Sopranos' cut-to-black, or Battlestar Galactica's nonsense twist. It's almost as if the better the show, the harder it is to nail the ending. That's because even the most talented creators are constantly pulled between what they want, what the audience wants, and most importantly, what the people signing their checks want.
They Can't Truly "End" A Big Franchise
Let's ignore the fact that the climax of Christopher Nolan's hardboiled, down-to-earth, "realistic" Batman trilogy featured hundreds of cops charging on foot at an army of ninja terrorists, and go on to the next part, where Batman fakes his death and hides in Europe, not even bothering to grow a disguising mustache or anything. Meanwhile, John Blake, aka Robin, is shown entering the Batcave. Oh, so there might be a Dark Knight 4, but with a less-good Caped Crusader and offhanded references to whatever Bruce Wayne is doing in Belgium? Nolan said definitely not, but here's the thing that Nolan doesn't know: He's lying.
The Dark Knight Rises made over a billion dollars. If Warner Bros had wanted a white male actor in their 30s/40s to do a Christian Bale impression and have him be like "Actually, I decided to never stop being Batman after all, silly me," they totally could have. With these giant franchises, nothing ever really ends for sure. There's a reason every one of the first four Batman films either had a character staring up at the Bat-Signal to signify their possible return, or running straight into the camera to signify it even harder. If Batman & Robin had been a real success, we'd be on Batman 11 right now, and John Cena Batman would be taking on Killer Moth and Calendar Man. In other words, franchises can end, but they can't really end, not with the kind of finality you'd expect from an epic. Economics demands they leave just a little crack in the door.
Take Dark Phoenix, the "final" movie in Fox's X-Men series. Before it lost Fox/Disney hundreds of millions of dollars, and even before Disney bought Fox, plenty of people figured that this would likely be it for the franchise. They even had to sign up most of the main cast for one-movie deals because their contracts had run out. But despite this, it still finished with a hilariously optimistic hint that the Phoenix was around and ready for a sequel. Even funnier, this hint occurs while Xavier has openly retired and nonchalantly playing chess with Magneto. That's about as much of a metaphor for the dying franchise as you need.
Even though the last ten years have been the subject of copious " This is when people will finally get tired of superhero movies" thinkpieces, they still make more money than some entire countries. And because of this, rather than truly give these characters closure,they have to wrap it up with "And then the heroes overcame their personal demons and brought peace to the land! Maybe. We'll see."
In Fact, Creators Often Have No Idea When The Ending Is Coming
Unless a series is funded and shot entirely by one very exhausted person, no creator has total control over exactly how and when their story is going to end. The show could get canceled after a cliffhanger that will now never be resolved (like The OA), but it's just as likely that the network will come in and say, "We're making more of these, whether you like it or not."
Take The Sopranos, one of most lauded TV shows in history. Apparently, during the last season, creator David Chase figured that he had about ten episodes' worth of story to tell, but he was "reinvigorated by the reception," and decided to add some more. Of course, this is a nice way of saying that HBO executives sat Chase down and threw dollar bills into his lap until he became "inspired" enough to give them more Tony.
This uncertainty means writers may have to A) come up with a new ending that's better than the initial planned one, B) quickly write an ending when they learn that their story is gonna get cut down substantially, or C) say "Welp, I guess that's just the ending now." None of those are going to be much fun for fans.
One of the most famous examples of the last one happened with the mid-2000s HBO mindf*ck Carnivale, which the creator planned to run for six seasons. However, it was suddenly cut short at two, with the HBO president of entertainment releasing a statement saying that actually, those two seasons " told the story very well," which only indicates that this person was not watching Carnivale. It wasn't much better for Rome, where a last-minute cancellation notice meant they had to roughly cram the third and fourth seasons' planned stories into the back half of the second season.
Luckily, with things like Netflix's new algorithm that demands shows be cancelled after two seasons, soon writers will never have to worry about this again. So that's a big win for streaming services afraid of making hard decisions. Slight loss for literally everyone else, though.
There Is Pressure To Bring Back Fan-Favorite Characters, Whether It Makes Sense Or Not
For the two seasons after Steve Carell left The Office, the show struggled for every episode to find a reason to exist. It was like the sun had left the center of the Solar System, and now the Solar System was like, "OK, I guess Uranus can be regional manager now. That would be funny, right?" But then, in the finale, boom, Michael Scott is back! And what does he do? Says almost 2 1/2 sentences and then doesn't even get invited to the "Lets reflect on how important the office was to us" montage.
So what was the point? Well, I imagine that reruns of the finale will probably get better ratings now, and critics may write that the final episode was a return to the "classic" Office, but it's just jarring and interrupts the story the final season was trying to tell (whether you thought that story was good or not). After he peeks his head in to say "Hey, remember when you liked the show more when I was around?" and dips out, the audience's capacity to say a meaningful goodbye to any of these other great characters is diminished. What could've been a retrospective on a series that did its best to thrive even when its main star left becomes a sudden reunion special.
This need to give the fans a quick feeling of "Oh, it's that guy I liked! From earlier!" also turned up in the finale of That '70s Show. After seven seasons of whining about Star Wars and his dad, Topher Grace's Eric left to go "teach in Africa." Ashton Kutcher's Kelso absconded too, and so the show spent a whole season funeral-marching itself to the '80s. But surprise! Ashton is back for the last episode, and Topher is back for the last few minutes of the last episode so he can hurriedly apologize to his ex-girlfriend and then make out with her. Nothing rounds out a female character like sending her into the arms of the awful boyfriend who was missing for a year.
The miniseries finale to America's most beloved fantasy epic, Gilmore Girls, treated us to a parade of side characters who showed up for one or two scenes to remind us of the glory days of the deceased WB channel. And don't get me wrong, I'm always down for a discussion over whether Dean, Jess, or Logan was the best boyfriend for Rory, and I hope that they one day settle that argument in the only way that's truly fitting: a steel cage match. But it became less of a miniseries at points and more of an attempt to win the world record for longest "guest starring" list.
They Think Every Single Character Has To Get Their Moment
Remember the final season of Game Of Thrones? We were all really mad about that for a week, huh? And while I'm not super into it (though get back to me about my opinions on Bachelor In Paradise, because I GOT SOME THOUGHTS), I understand why there was a ton of rage. It felt like a group of fanfiction writers had come together, each with their own preferred character, and battled for supremacy. The result? Sensible arcs be damned, as here comes a parade of forced hero moments.
Like, the Hound and the Mountain suddenly having a cool fight for a few minutes is a neat idea, but after eight seasons of buildup, all it turns into is a "Oh, they died together, instead of just having the bad guy get killed in the building that's about to collapse regardless, NEXT." Jaime and Euron have an inconsequential sword fight. NEXT. Bronn is still in the story for some reason and wrangles an absurd amount of power. NEXT. Melisandre turns up, has no real impact on a battle, then dies. NEXT. Instead of exploring the core character arcs we've been following for a decade, it's just this rapid-fire checklist, as if HBO was scared of a fan email telling them that they forgot to turn in part of their homework.
If there was weakness to the Deadwood movie (which, for the most part, was fantastic), it was this. The Deadwood series had 12 hours per season to show off its cast of dozens, while the movie had less than two hours, and at times came off like a "The gang's all here!" montage. Had no one moved away in the intervening years? This led to scenes like the auction, which was run by ... the newspaper editor? Is that a thing? I mean, I get that early Deadwood was marked by outlaws performing roles that they were new to, in a "You run the local brothel, so you're basically mayor" fashion. But it often felt like they got the cast together, then had to quickly figure out something for all of them to do.
Every Finale Has To Be, Above All Else, Big
The ending to Star Wars is great. Luke Skywalker, having lost his mentor, finally uses the Force and destroys the Death Star. And the ending of The Empire Strikes Back is great too. It's a smaller, more personal conflict, as Luke faces down Vader and learns that he's (SPOILER) kind of a dick. And the ending to Return Of The Jedi is ... decent. Luke refuses to turn evil, saves his father's soul, and then sees the Emperor defeated. But surrounding this sequence of an elderly space man being thrown into a hole are two other loud setpieces, as the Rebels team up with Ewoks to destroy a building and also there's a big space battle, all going on at once.
This seems to have set the tone for blockbuster franchises: The finale has to, above all else, be a huge spectacle (see the ridiculous "cops vs. ninjas" Batman battle I mentioned earlier). Wouldn't ROTJ be better if we had just two of those battles, instead of constantly jumping back and forth between "Your friends are walking into a trap," "It's a trap!" and vague Chewbacca noises? But no, every single side character has to get their moment, even if major characters are left without an arc. (How does Han Solo impact the plot, exactly?)
Likewise, despite the fact that the only real emotional beats belonged to Iron Man and Captain America, every single one of the good guys in the MCU had to get into a big messy dogpile with Thanos' forces in the finale of Avengers:Endgame. This is despite the fact that the best part of Endgame was thinking "Oh, there are like 2 1/2 Avengers left after the Snap. How are they gonna pull this one off?" Nope, the audience expects a giant CGI battle, and they'd apparently feel cheated by anything less than upending the entire proverbial Marvel toy box onto their floor.
It's clear that creators think this is what the fans want. But is it? Endings are emotionally satisfying based on how core character arcs are resolved, not on how many extras and effects shots it takes to get there. This was, in fact, part of what doomed those final episodes of Game Of Thrones. A show that was entirely about incredibly tense character moments and complex gamesmanship decided the brief final season should be devoted entirely to a few giant battle scenes and effects sequences.
That's how you wind up with episodes that cost more than most feature films, but still feel strangely hollow. When it came to the showdown with the supernatural threat that had loomed over the entire series (the Night King),Arya stabs him once and he just sorta shatters. It seems like the backlash to that scene was interpreted as "That should have been Jon Snow!" but the real problem was that the scene didn't serve as a resolution to any character's arc. Arya had no connection to the Night King whatsoever; she'd never even seen him before. Jon, meanwhile, was resurrected from the dead so he could ... yell at a dragon?
It was just a Big Cool Moment in a season built around Big Cool Moments that actually had nothing at all to do with the personal journey these characters had taken for the last decade. With all of the logistical limitations I've talked about on this list, it's weird to think about how many finales would have been improved if they'd been forced to just work with a lower budget.
Daniel Dockery is a writer and editor for Cracked. You should follow him on Twitter.
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