Spoilers for many recent films below!
The ending of a movie wraps up both the final moments of the story as well as all its major thematic elements. A story’s conclusion offers a brief emotional summary of everything that been said throughout the course of the narrative. What the audience walks away with in those few minutes is a reminder of what this whole endeavor has all been about.
The ending is our final destination. It is where we’ve been headed from the start even if we were unaware of where exactly we were off to. Here we see with clear perspective the precise reason for how the story began and what its real purpose was. Like the conclusion to a college essay, most endings do not contain new information or surprising changes in opinion. Rather, they are the summation of all that has come before. Endings are a tiny moment of catharsis that wraps up that great turbulence that has just transpired in a tender moment of reflection and understanding. By tender, I don’t mean boring. I mean something meaningful, something with firm intention.
Endings are also a bold statement. Although during the narrative is it okay to play with ambiguity, wrestle over what is right and wrong, compare two opposite ways of doing something, at some point you have to take a stand. The end is a good place for that to happen. And in order to build to a satisfying conclusion, a story better achieve some kind of lasting resolution.
Some movies pull this off really well, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment and definitive proof that the central characters and the overall story have arrived at new stage of awareness and growth. Other movies really botch this up, somehow undoing and unsaying the very things they promised they would do and say.
Let’s look through some popular films from this past year and evaluate how well their endings deliver a satisfying unifying thematic message. Of course, beware of spoilers.
How it ends: Raleigh and Mako survive the first triple Kaiju attack and close the rift between worlds. They float together on the ocean, powerfully embracing but without a hint of romance.
What it means: This entire Kaiju war has been about the outmatched Pacific nations coming together against the odds to prevent the extinction of the human race. Raleigh and Mako are the prime example of this, their teamwork and mutual trust becoming the decisive factor in both the battle of Tokyo and the closure of the rift. They have been inside each other’s heads and learned how to work in harmony, an experience as intimate as the closest of human relationships. What need is there for kissing when they have so much respect, understanding, and compassion for one another. Saving the world from destruction calls for a hug.
Verdict: A little thin, but definitely classy.
Thor: The Dark World
How it ends: Thor tells his father Odin that he does not want to rule Asgard as king, preferring to return to Midgard and Jane Foster. It is revealed that Odin is actually Loki in disguise.
What it means: All of Loki’s character development was actually a ruse, a trick to escape prison and take over Asgard. His alliance with Thor and his heartfelt sacrifice were just more trickery. He has only changed his status, not his nature. The fate of Odin is unknown. This twist uproots the relationship we have just seen nurtured for two hours.
What made Thor and Loki’s fraternal struggle so moving was that here at the loss of their mother facing down a terrible evil, Thor and Loki are forced to trust each other again. Unlike Iron Man 3 or even The Avengers, the ENTIRE universe is at stake. Yet the impact on the characters and scenery is so minimal. Loki is still the trickster. Thor is still the exiled son. Asgard is still the shining city. We’re left unsure of how Malekith’s devastation affects anybody in any significant way, save for Thor’s unsurprising abandonment of the throne and Loki’s unsurprising grab for power. This ending comes across as nothing more than an advertisement for more Marvel movies.
Verdict: A comic book ending full of comic book nonsense.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
How it ends: Katniss wakes up in an aircraft, dazed and weak. Haymitch and Plutarch are there, explaining that the games were staged as part of an elaborate plan to rescue Katniss and groom her as the new leader of the revolution. Also, everyone was in on the plan except her.
What it means: Not only had Katniss been manipulated by President Snow and the Capitol, but also her friends. They neither trusted her nor sought her consent in events that deeply affect her. Their plan not only requires her to become the face of their revolution, but also has resulted in the decimation of her entire district. Essentially everything that has happened has happened outside the control of the main character. Her courageous actions in the Hunger Games are seemingly nullified as her agency as a character are stripped from her. Katniss comes across as a political pawn not a rebel leader.
Verdict: Are we watching the same movie, people?
How it ends: Princess Anna freezes over trying to save her estranged sister, Queen Elsa. Her act of true love melts the curse and thaws the permanent winter over the kingdom of Arendelle.
What it means: Sacrificial love is of higher value than romantic “love”. Separated from her sister for so long, Anna demonstrates the lengths to which she would go for Elsa by running out onto the ice, her body consumed by ice. With no thought for her personal safety, she goes to rescue the sister who has shunned her at at every turn. Sacrificial love becomes Anna’s salvation.
This runs parallel to Anna’s experiences with Hans and Kristoff. Although Anna believed she loved Hans, that superficial feeling faded away once his true intentions were revealed. On the other hand, Kristoff accompanied Anna on her search and proved himself a faithful friend, an act far greater than demonstrating attraction or romantic fancy. A proven friend who has learned sacrificial love is a far better illustration of love than a handsome charmer who dazzles the senses.
Verdict: A truly valiant effort, but one that doesn’t quite gel for some reason. The story tried too hard to avoid the true love’s kiss trope without really earning the emotional revelation needed. Perhaps if the entire main cast, Elsa, Hans, Olaf, and Sven also all sacrificed themselves it would have resonated more deeply.
How it ends: Dr. Ryan Stone makes it back to Earth, her pod crashes into a lake and the control panel catches on fire. Forced to evacuate the pod, she struggles to escape the submerged vessel. Finally she swims to the surface and pulls herself to the muddy shore and takes her first step back on earth.
What it means: Stone has finally found a reason to live. After the initial catastrophe, Stone reveals that her desire to stop living began long before she was stranded in space. Her entire journey throughout the film is about recovering her purpose, overcoming her grief over her daughter, and deciding to survive. The audience knows that Stone won’t drown in that lake because she has already made the decision to live. The lake scene simply reminds us that her decision is permanent. Stone has already been reborn.
Verdict: Extremely effective.
How it ends: After discovering he did not legitimately win the Scare Games, Mike travels to the human world and finds that children are not scared of him. Sully goes after him and together they find a way to generate the biggest scare on record. Although they still get kicked out of Monsters University, their newfound confidence allows them to work their way up the corporate ladder to finally become professional scarers.
What it means: This entire movie is rebuttal to the idea that you can accomplish your dreams simply because you are special. Most movies would have ended at the final scaring contest when Mike outscared the other team through sheer willpower. That ending was completely hollow because it felt untrue. Willpower was never going to get Mike into the scaring major. Dreams don’t always come true.
However sometimes there is another way. At the end of the movie, Mike and Sully sort through mail and mop floors as they dedicate themselves to working at Monsters Inc. They succeed not because they are somehow uniquely gifted or because they got a lucky break at the Scare Games. They succeed because 1) they have managed to become legitimately scary in their own way, 2) they don’t give up, and 3) they work really hard to earn a spot in a highly competitive field. In essence, the ending tells us that “thinking you are special” is nothing compared to “knowing your true strengths, having determination, overcoming setbacks, and working hard until one day the right opportunity opens up.” Not a simple message, but a beautifully stated and deeply resonant truth.
Verdict: Best ending of 2013.
A Special Case: The Superhero Ending
Let’s talk about a special type of ending unique to the superhero genre. Recently superhero films have made an effort to add weight to their endings by concluding with a moment that signals either the beginning or end of the hero’s career to save the world. It’s so prevalent these days that this phenomenon crops in almost every superhero film. Look at the ending of these fairly recent superhero films:
The Dark Knight: Hero quits.
The Dark Knight Rises: Hero quits again.
The Avengers: Heroes start.
Iron Man 3: Hero quits.
Man of Steel: Hero starts.
The Wolverine: Hero starts gain.
Thor: The Dark World: Hero quits.
Whether it’s Tony Stark shedding his many suits or Clark Kent joining the the Daily Planet staff, superhero films like to end with a larger statement about their hero’s development. Heroes might sacrifice themselves like Batman or take up their mantle again like Wolverine, but either way it drives home the point of the entire story. Whether the hero returns to civilian life or comes back with renewed resolve for their mission, it attempts to give the narrative a lasting impact on that hero’s goals, identity, and future.
Does it always work? Not really. But sometimes it is used to great effect. It all depends on if the big decision is backed up by the actual narrative or not. When Batman flees at the end of The Dark Knight, there is no way he is coming back without some serious consequences and a real explanation. When Wolverine decides that he can move on from Jean and overcome his fear of hurting people for the sake of stopping bad guys, it feels right. But when Tony ditches his whole superhero gig at the end of Iron Man 3, is there really any doubt that he won’t be back in the suit once Downey and Marvel sign a new contract?
As long as the decision to don or shed the cape falls in with the major themes of the movie, it can really work. But when it feels tacked on or not truly life-altering, that’s when it comes across as tired and tropey. The ending should convince us that this whole thing had a point. A solid ending is not new information or a clever plot twist or an advertisement for the next film, but rather serves as a lasting moment of closure that ties everything up with a sense of finality and progress. It should both release us from the story and yet continue to haunt us long afterward.