Blockbusters, Television, and the Perfect Ending

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Expanding upon last year’s discussion of movie endings, today we will be looking at the difference between movies and television as a starting point for evaluating blockbuster endings. Then we’ll sift through some specific film examples.

The reason we watch movies is fundamentally different from the reason we watch television. The world of the small screen is often smaller in scope, but vastly more detailed. Usually spread out across multiple seasons, these sprawling multi-year narratives require the talent of numerous writers and showrunners to flesh out the hours of storytelling needed each week. Movies on the other hand are usually a one-time production, helmed by a single director, at most a handful of writers, and a single cast and crew. While television stays busy juggling multiple interweaving storylines, film cuts out the inessential and focuses on creating narrative momentum that all leads up to a final and definitive conclusion.

Dan Harmon, creator of the show Community, writes this:

A feature film’s job is to send you out of the theater on a high in 90 minutes. Television’s job is to keep you glued to the television for your entire life. 

In an acclaimed golden age of television, movies seem to attract a smaller audience in the face of ever increasing competition from on demand streaming services and home theaters. While still commercially successful, many big budgeted movies are seen as formulaic spectacle made at the expense of artistic sensibility. While indie films plug away with under the radar, most of the revenue and attention still gets swallowed up by the major studio franchises.

Is film a dying art? Will television replace the bombastic aesthetics of the endless parade of reboots and sequels? Will audiences finally make the switch from critically derided spectacles over to the smaller but more inspired stories of television?

While I can’t answer those questions with any degree of certainty, I can point to two areas in which movies still hold a tremendous advantage. As Harmon brilliantly summarized, television narratives rarely achieve any type of lasting resolution. For television characters to find any lasting sense of stability, inner peace, or finality, the show would actually have to end. Their growth is only done when there is no more conflict to throw at them.

It actually works against television’s interest to have character go through too much actual change and growth. Either they will become an altogether different character that we no longer recognize or they will have outgrown their place in this particular show. And you can only kill off or replace so many main characters in your show without completely turning off the audience.

The true reason people stick with shows is the chance to see the same familiar characters over and over again. It’s like catching up with old friends. You invest in the characters and their situations for the long haul. And it’s why it’s so hard to get into a new show and stay committed to old ones.

Blockbuster movies are less about “seeing old friends” and more about pivotal life-altering events, spectacles you’ve never seen before, and cathartic climaxes. The characters are still important but they function more as a lens through which the story is experienced. Audiences identify with movie protagonists because it is a chance to vicariously experience huge earth-shattering decisions. It’s a flight simulator for extreme circumstances rather than the smaller moments of everyday life that we see on television. Surely there are many shows that aim big and many movies that stay small, but overall a film has less time for the mundane and most scenes must be limited to things that advance the plot.

In some ways movies have it much easier. They are not telling story arcs spanning several seasons nor are they juggling a sprawling cast. They just have one story to tell, possibly in multiple threads, but still only needing to find one satisfying and permanent resolution for its characters. And since a sequel is entirely dependent on the success of the previous film, movie franchises have great incentives to leave their audiences with a feeling of closure and narrative accomplishment. Unlike the endless cliffhangers of season finales, movies necessarily must wrap everything up always keeping in mind that the audience will not revisit this storyline for a few years at best (unless it’s a Young Adult dystopia) and possibly never if a sequel never materializes.

Consider this statement from Gareth Edward, director of this year’s Godzilla reboot:

I want a story that begins and ends, and you leave on a high. That’s all we cared about when we were making this; just this film. If this film is good, the others can come, but let’s just pay attention to this and not get sidetracked by other things.

This is exactly what a big budget movie should offer: a single self-contained story.

Another advantage specific to blockbusters is money. Because television usually runs on a tight budget, shows must spend carefully and create stories that are also financially feasible. However the biggest movies are greenlit with enormous budgets allowing them to focus on creating never-before-seen set pieces to both dazzle audiences and sell the price of admission. By combining the promise of incredible set pieces with a satisfying ending, movies continue to retain a competitive edge in an era of extensive entertainment choices.

Blockbuster movies have a sheer sense of scale that dwarves even the most ambitious small screen ventures. And since TV can never keep up with these ever increasing costs, they are forced to rely more on quality writing (hopefully). Ultimately it’s a win-win situation. Movie lovers get their big set pieces, a complete story, and a satisfying ending. Meanwhile tv lovers get their meticulously plotted story arcs and long-form character development.

Yet the real tragedy is that too many movies miss this opportunity at providing narrative closure. Too many films have mindblowing special effects but fail to stick the landing. World War Z, Men in Black 3, and Edge of Tomorrow are all mega budget productions that started filming with huge script problems and no clear ending in mind. Critics assailed both Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness for needlessly concluding with urban destruction devoid of genuine character-driven moments. Instead of driving the story toward its final thematic statement, too many blockbusters opt for chaos and confusion.

Even worse are films that fall into the trap of the non-ending. Leaving a laundry list of plot threads up in the air belongs to the realm of television, not film. How many shows get canceled on a never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger? We expect this of television and yet more and more movies are heading this direction. Much of this trend is driven by the move toward cinematic universes and franchise dependence. Think about The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Divergent, Catching Fire/Mockingjay and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. They may have pulled it off this time but what will happen when lesser imitators begin emulating this cliffhanger approach? What happens when audiences get sick of waiting years to find out the next piece of the story?

I think what film audiences want is a satisfying emotional conclusion to internal and external character journeys. And it’s no accident that movies that keep this type of ending in mind usually provide a clear direction and motivation for everything else that happens beforehand. The ending is reason we go to the movies instead of staying home and watching television. We want a complete story: beginning, middle, and end. It’s not just showcasing explosions and battles, it’s also about creating layers of meaning and wrapping up the journey with proper closure.

Think about The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This film nailed the blockbuster ending almost perfectly, which is surprising in that the basic story was incredibly difficult to adapt. The Fellowship begins the film separated into three groups which are then intercut across the whole film. Having three groups of main characters slows down the plot, adds to audience confusion, and makes achieving a satisfying ending quite unlikely. However the film manages to not only build a believable and riveting fantasy battle, the likes of which had never been seen on screen before, but also dovetail it into the fall of Isengard ingeniously by tying it all together with Sam’s rousing speech to Frodo. By focusing on bringing a stirring emotional resolution to each of the main characters’ journey despite not actually finishing their journey, the film overcomes seemingly impossible limitations.

Remember The Dark Knight Rises? The film was immensely larger in scope than The Dark Knight, stuffed full of minor characters and all out urban warfare. It was too big for its own good, and yet it absolutely nailed the ending by bringing us not only an epic street chase shot in IMAX with practical effects but also a surprisingly poignant resolution for characters we had grown to love over three movies. No loose ends, just a definitive unambiguous conclusion to a potentially over-ambitious story. For better or worse, it closed off the narrative ambiguity of The Dark Knight while offering a few new possibilities for us to imagine.

In both these examples, we find not only proper resolution for the story but also some character-based spectacle never seen before on screen. This is the blockbuster’s true potential. We need good character development and interesting relationships and immersive visuals, but we also need a destination. The protagonist should arrive at place they’ve never been before. And we should arrive there right behind them.

To conclude, I will simply suggest a list of recent movies that I think do a good or bad job of accomplishing an effective resolution. This is not necessarily a judgment of the movie as whole although there is obviously much correlation.

Exemplary Endings

Monsters University
Gravity
The Dark Knight Rises
Skyfall
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Inception
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Dark Knight
Guardians of the Galaxy

Solid Endings

Into the Woods
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Edge of Tomorrow
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
X-Men Days of Future Past
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Godzilla
Interstellar
47 Ronin
The Lego Movie
Non-Stop
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Despicable Me 2
Jack Reacher
Oblivion
The Avengers
John Carter
Avatar
The Hunger Games
Source Code
The Amazing Spider-Man
X-Men: First Class
Star Trek
The Bourne Legacy
How To Train Your Dragon
Iron Man

Not Wholly Satisfying Finales:

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Maleficent
Robocop
Pompeii
Transcendence
Frozen
Man of Steel
The Wolverine
Star Trek Into Darkness
The Lone Ranger
Prometheus
Green Lantern
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Iron Man 2
The Matrix Revolutions
Superman Returns
X-Men Origins: Wolverine

NOTABLE CLIFFHANGERS

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Thor: The Dark World
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Divergent
Catching Fire
Captain America: The First Avenger
Pirates of the Caribbean 2
The Matrix Reloaded

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One thought on “Blockbusters, Television, and the Perfect Ending

  1. Very intriguing post. Absolutely loved it!

    As a die-hard ‘film over television’ guy I can appreciate so much of what you said. Personally I hope people don’t make the move from film, but movies can do a lot more to make sure that doesn’t happen or at least maintain a share of audience’s attention.

    And the ending discussion is interesting. So often a film can sink or swim based on that ending. Some filmmakers simply know how to do it (notice the many Christopher Nolan films listed under Exemplary Endings). Others not so much. As for cliffhangers, I can handle the occasional one. But I certainly don’t want that to become the norm.

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