The Secret to Pixar’s Success: Honest Feedback

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

© Disney • Pixar

I live just a few minutes away from the Pixar headquarters. Although I’m still awaiting my official invitation to tour their offices, I imagine it a vast playground of artists and storytellers dreaming up fantastical tales filled with unforgettable characters. Supposedly they serve free cereal around the clock.

The reality is that Pixar is a workplace much like any other. Their themed offices and unique perks are probably not the reason behind their hot streak of successes. Instead Pixar’s true strength is how they have mastered the unseen creative process that drives all their award-winning films.

In Creativity Inc., a new book by co-founder Ed Catmull, we get a glimpse into how Pixar does what it does so well. They are popularly known for their Brain Trust, a rotating group of their top directors and writers who periodically review each other’s films from formation to the final product. And their recipe appears to be both simple and incredibly difficult at the same time:

What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it. – Loc. 56

Unlike most organizations, Pixar spends much of its effort recognizing its weaknesses and working to fix them. They devote themselves to uncovering problems, solving them, and then looking for new ones.

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them. – Loc. 13

It’s hard work to constantly evaluate yourself and your work to find room for improvement, but it’s become part of the Pixar ethos. Instead of viewing feedback as something to be feared, they have turned it into a significant part of the creative process that needs to be embraced. If you are working on something that requires creativity, complexity, and long term thinking, Catmull argues that you are bound to get lost.

People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing. Where once a movie’s writer/ director had perspective, he or she loses it. Where once he or she could see a forest, now there are only trees. The details converge to obscure the whole, and that makes it difficult to move forward substantially in any one direction. The experience can be overwhelming. All directors, no matter how talented, organized, or clear of vision, become lost somewhere along the way. That creates a problem for those who seek to give helpful feedback. How do you get a director to address a problem he or she cannot see? – Loc. 1439

What seems to separate Pixar from the rest of the pack, and indeed other film studios outside of animation is that they embrace a deep commitment to personal feedback. It is not simply a one time deal. Their ideas are tested, refined, discarded, and exchanged. All of their movies begin as rough drafts full of bumps and flaws and only through empowering employees to speak up and make suggestions do they get better.

Essentially Pixar pursues a policy of honesty and mutual trust for one another, and in turn that allows their people to be open about whether a project is working or not working. The fear of offending someone who has worked hard on something is replaced by the fear of not making the best possible movie they can.

This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation—you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. – Loc. 1485

It easy to forget that Pixar is not the only studio that gives notes. But whereas most studios give notes from on high, often mandatory, not even Disney executives are allowed to intervene in the Pixar process. The people who give feedback at Pixar are other creative personnel, directors, and writers with a mutual understanding of how great stories are made. They are equals, not competitors or more powerful members of a complex hierarchy. They are other storytellers.

Getting the right people in the room and encouraging them to speak up is an essential part of the feedback process. And this advice applies to many of the creative tasks we do every day. As Edmull expresses throughout the book, maintaining an environment of true candor and openess requires constantly fighting the forces of entropy and championing the need for constructive criticism. By being honest about each and every one of their films during the development process and being willing to go back and rework the elements that aren’t working, Pixar has created something altogether unique in the film industry: a studio with an unparalleled level of both creative and financial success. This ability to separate yourself from your work and repeatedly invite the feedback of smart talented people is often challenging for Pixar but for this particular company, it is the only way forward.

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Storytelling with Sentinels of the Multiverse

sentinels bw

A story can be as simple as one person recounting their day to another and it can be as involved as hundreds or thousands of people working for several years on a Hollywood production. Stories take the form of newspaper articles, YouTube videos, graphic novels, and podcasts. But there’s another medium that I would like to begin writing about in more detail that offers a fascinating new angle on what exactly storytelling can be. That medium is the world of tabletop games.

In 2011 I discovered a uniquely fun cooperative card game called Sentinels of the Multiverse. Over the past few years the game has spawned a passionate and devoted fanbase and become a larger vehicle for interactive storytelling. The gameplay is very simple. Each person chooses a deck of cards which represents their superhero and then proceed to plays cards from their hand working together as a team to defeat a self-playing villain deck. The heroes’ goal is to knock out the villain before they get knocked out. Every time you play it’s a different combination of heroes and villains, meanwhile an environment deck throws out hazards that affect both heroes and villains alike.

Although the gameplay itself is enjoyable enough, where Sentinels of the Multiverse really shines is in its ability to use its game mechanics as a backdrop for conveying more longform narrative. This slowly unfurling story contextualizes each of the different hero characters and villains with their own personalities, motives, and histories.

Importantly these larger story elements are not actually present in the game. While the general outline of each character is explained in their bio, the rest is largely inferred from the actual cards which feature tons of comic book-style artwork and flavor quotes. Essentially while you play the game you are temporarily borrowing these pre-established characters to create your own story. This is something which tabletop games already do naturally but the difference is that each character exists in the wider overarching narrative, the fictional comic book world of Sentinel Comics.

While many other board games have attempted to deepen their gameplay through the addition of backstories, a variety thematic elements, and scenario books full of text, none of them have quite managed to do it like Sentinels. Too many games focus on “telling a story” in a way that is almost impossible to follow and don’t really connect with on a deeper level. They ignore one of the most important tools of storytelling: creating and developing relatable characters. Sentinels does exactly that.

Instead of weighing down players with elaborate scenario rules and hours of setup, Sentinels presents simple but interesting characters that by virtue of their unique personalities and game mechanics can easily fit into any story that you happen to want to play that day. If you want to send in a team of female superheroes to fight a robot on an island filled with dinosaurs, you can. And you can do so with some fully fleshed out characters that also happen to grow over time as the game progresses and expands. Despite the subtle approach to storytelling present in the game, the various hero characters and villains do not remain static.

Like all good stories, the overarching story of Sentinels of the Multiverse pays close attention to character development, pacing, foreshadowing, and turning points. The primary way that the story advances is through the release of expansions and promos, all of which not only add new villains and heroes to the mix but also develop the individual stories of some of the main characters. Major events shake things up quite regularly. A formerly defeated nemesis may reappear in a new form. A mysterious character from the future may suddenly enter the fray. A hero may be change or grow in unexpected ways.

However as a game first and foremost, Sentinels does rely on some level of abstraction to stay useful. It is not a roleplaying game by any stretch of the imagination. There are no preset scenarios or mandatory battles that must take place when you play the game, but there are canonical events that do will occur and will ultimately affect the storyline. So while each game can play out with whatever combination of heroes, villains, or environment you like, the characters you are playing are never just generic superhero avatars.

The heroes of the Multiverse are storied individuals fleshed out through a dynamic mix of interpersonal relationships, unique mechanics, plentiful art illustrations, and quippy sayings. No two heroes play alike, each demonstrating a variety of strategies and powerful combinations at their disposal. Furthermore as a purely cooperative game, each hero must work together, help each other out, and come up with a plan for combating the current threat at hand. The superhero theme pervades the mechanics of the game and utilizes individual character abilities in a way that makes sense.

Let’s look at a specific example to see what I mean.

The entry point into understanding the world of Sentinel Comics is a hero team called theLegacy Freedom Five. Think of them as a mini-Justice League or mini-Avengers. They are top-level government-approved heroes in town dedicated to fighting evil and preserving justice. And standing at the head of the Freedom Five is their preeminent leader, a hero who also happens to be the single most important character in the entire game.

His name is Legacy.

At first glance Legacy appears to be a knockoff of Superman with perhaps a few kernels of Captain America thrown in for good measure. He’s super strong, nearly unkillable, able to fly, and spouts patriotic lessons in battle without a trace of irony. On the surface he seems like a harmless pastiche designed to pay homage to the better known heroes of pop culture. Yet Legacy is a much deeper character than he might seem. Our first clue is right there in his name.

Paul Parsons, aka Legacy, comes from a long line of super-powered individuals dating back topic1111944 the American Revolution. Each of his ancestors fought for justice and went by the name of Legacy. As a character, Legacy is deeply rooted in his family history and this carries through to his daughter Pauline who will one day take his place as the next Legacy. (In fact one of the first promos cards for the game is his daughter, Young Legacy, who can replace Legacy’s character card and use his deck.)

In the actual game however Legacy is no Superman. He can’t punch people through walls with nigh invulnerability. Consistent with his character bio, Legacy’s combat abilities are primarily defined by how he interacts with those around him. As both leader and founder of the Freedom Five, he plays pretty much like a support character. That can be quite a shock to new players expecting to see their hero fight like somebody out of the latest Captain America or Man of Steel film. He boosts other heroes’ damage every turn, sacrifices himself for others, heals his teammates a bit, and only occasionally gives his enemies a beatdown. Legacy is no brawler, but he sure can help his teammates.

At his core Legacy believes in justice and liberty, puts himself in harms way to thwart evildoers, and works alongside other heroes with the same goals. But how he goes about doing that differentiates himself from his better known counterparts across other mediums. He is the ultimate team player and his gameplay reflects that to a tee.

His story doesn’t end there either.

Another way that Sentinels of the Multiverse furthers its narrative is by pairing each hero with a nemesis. Every villain that you will encounter in the game has a particular grudge toward one of the heroes who has wronged them in the past. Even if many of the specific details about these individual nemesis relationships are unknown, these pairings add texture to the game’s narrative. When a hero is up against their nemesis, it feels personal every time. We don’t necessarily need to know all the reasons that the mad scientist Baron Blade hates Legacy and exactly how they first met, but it does help to know that they have a bitter rivalry every time they face off.

In perhaps the game’s finest storytelling moment to date, the conflict between Legacy and Baron Blade escalates into something strange and unpredictable, a wonderful development for players and a pretty terrible situation for the Freedom Five. As indicated by the title of the game, Sentinels of the Multiverse takes place in a multiverse comprised of a myriad of parallel timelines and futures, each of which has a possibility of existing but none of which are guaranteed to actually happen. Although it sounds more complicated than it is, really what this boils down to is that there are occasional visitors from other timelines who wander into the main timeline from time to time as well as rare rifts in time that transport characters to distant points in the past or future. These visitors tend to disrupt things and provide some of the juiciest story moments in Sentinel Comics.

One of the most significant of these involves a future version of Legacy himself. In one possible timeline, the nefarious Baron Blade comes up with the ultimate plan to finish off Legacy by planning an elaborate trap on Wagner Mars Base. In the “normal” timeline Legacy and his daughter Young Legacy arrive there and Legacy is mortally wounded leaving his daughter to become the next Legacy. However in an alternate timeline it is Young Legacy who dies and her father that survives.

photo-mainThis event in the alternate timeline puts an end to the long line of Legacies that stretches back for centuries. With no descendants left to carry on his mantle, a hardened Legacy decides that it is up to him to establish a lasting and permanent justice during his lifetime. He outright kills Baron Blade and use his great power to become a world dictator in which anyone who stands in his way is harshly punished.

The surviving members of the Freedom Five and a few new members (now the Freedom Six) turn against the newly named Iron Legacy and become fugitives. However due a rift in time, this Legacy somehow ends up back in the normal timeline. Thus in the game Legacy and the Freedom Five must fight against this alternate despotic version now known as Iron Legacy.

During this battle with his future self, Legacy and his daughter are both wounded. While they are recovering, other heroes head to Wagner Mars Base to fight Baron Blade and a result, neither Legacy or his daughter die in the trap. The original timeline has now shifted, allowing both Legacy and his daughter to survive and preventing the rise of Iron Legacy in the first place.

In Sentinel Tactics (a new tactical game in the Sentinel Comics universe that continues after the main storyline of Sentinels of the Multiverse), Legacy’s daughter ultimately decides to become her own hero under the mantle of Beacon until the day that she is called upon to take up her father’s mantle.

Woosh. That’s a lot of story to get through just to explain the character of Legacy. And all this narrative unfolds in piecemeal fashion over the course of several promos and expansions released over several years. And there are many other interesting stories present in the world of Sentinel Comics with many more on the way. This marriage of thematic gameplay with a sustained storytelling effort is nothing less than a tremendous creative achievement.

To me this explains the success of Sentinels of the Multiverse. It’s a character-driven narrative told through the guise of a fun cooperative game. Instead of trying to tell an abstract scenario-based tale, it’s always about the growth and development of relatable characters. This storytelling approach works across mediums as diverse as television, fiction, and comic books and it also can work in a tabletop game.

I’ll continue next time with a further look at the some of the other heroes and villains of Sentinel Comics.

LINKS

24, Jack Bauer, and Backstory

jack

I recently rewatched the first season of the nail-biting real-time show 24. And with the exception of a few brick cellphones and ancient computer monitors, the show really hasn’t aged a bit. It is still holds up against the heavily serialized action-oriented programming we see today. However what intrigues me the most about this early season is not just Jack’s flowing blond hair (which would soon disappear in later seasons) but rather the dedicated effort the writers put in to fleshing out Jack as a character. Specifically Jack comes into the show with a strongly defined backstory.

While 24 is pointedly about stopping terrorist threats, the show consistently lays the groundwork for creating memorable characters and establishing genuine conflict between them. Some of the most exciting elements of the show are not shootouts or car chases but instead quieter character moments between two people each with very different motivations and point-of-views. Sometimes it ends with reconciliation but other times with bitter finality and standing animosity. It could be Jack apologizing for being a distant father or it could be the President firing his top aide. Either way because we are rooted in the characters and their hours of development and set up, these conversations tend to be just as thrilling if not more so than the actual conflict with the terrorists.

Season One hinges around two main storylines: Jack’s attempt to rescue his family and Senator David Palmer’s handling of an impending news story concerning his son. Both these stories are connected by an impending assassination attempt on Palmer, one which Jack is assigned to prevent. While the narrative takes on different modes, switching between discovering moles, locating kidnapped family members, discovering startling new information, and Jack repeatedly breaking protocol, the show always stays grounded in the history of these characters.

In the opening episode we meet Jack Bauer in a state that we will rarely ever see him in: a family man managing mundane family issues at his home. We find out right away that things are not all well at home. Jack and his wife Teri have been separated and only recently Jack has decided to move back in. Caught in the cross-fire is their daughter Kim who plays the classic rebellious teenager. Right off the bat we know that Jack is not a perfect guy. He is trying to make things work but clearly his work often takes priority over his family. As we will see quite vividly throughout the rest of the season, Jack will pretty much do anything necessary to protect his family regardless of whether it jeopardizes his career or breaks the law. His motivation is simple. He wants to make up for his past mistakes. As it turns out, he is the very reason why they are in danger at all.

Only a few minutes into the first episode, Jack is called into the office, the Los Angeles branch of the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit where he just so happens to be the director. For about one and only one episode in the entire nine season run, Jack is the head of CTU. While he won’t spend much time in his glass office upstairs, the location is an important reminder that Jack is (or used to be) in charge around here. Even when he is in custody or facing serious accusations, that office always hangs overhead as a reminder that in someways Jack is more qualified and more experienced to handle the current threats than anyone else in the room.

At CTU things are also a bit complicated. We find out more very quickly about Jack. During his separation from Teri, Jack had an affair with his second-in-command, Nina Meyers. The drama at the office is compounded by the fact that Nina is now in a relationship with another high-ranking CTU agent, Tony Almeida. To add another layer to the drama, Jack is less-than-popular around CTU these days for exposing several agents who took bribes and putting them in jail. This plot point will pop up later in the season when Jack’s tactical support team is headed by the vengeful partner of one of these disgraced agents.

What do all these things have in common? They all refer to events that took place before the show’s central conflict started. Jack is not some nameless faceless expendable agent. He is a struggling family man, a romantically entangled boss, and a controversial figure within his own agency. It doesn’t hurt that in the very first episode Jack demonstrates his peculiar methods by shooting his boss George Mason with a tranquilizer gun and blackmailing him to get information.

From the outset this show had a clear vision for Jack Bauer as an intensely Machiavellian hero, one who is willing to get the results that no one else can through extreme measures. If Jack often operates in a morally gray area where ends justify the means, he generally seems reluctant to hurt people and always accepts the consequences of his actions. To keep Jack from being defined by these traits, the first season is built around his family dynamics and pays close attention to his relationships with his co-workers at CTU. Jack quickly emerges as a well-rounded character who is good at his job and relatable on a personal level.

This personal touch extends even to seemingly minor characters like CTU district manager Richard Walsh. A potentially forgettable figure, Walsh doesn’t last more than a few episodes. Yet before he dies, we find out that he saved Jack’s life once. Walsh is one of Jack’s mentors. Regardless of the many revolving doors and plot points on the show, the writers take special care to add a sense of history to the characters. It may feel more earned in some places than others, but it’s character focus like this that elevates 24 above many other spy shows in this genre.

Just as Jack begins the show in media res, so does his counterpart Senator Palmer. At the forefront of everything going on is the reality that David Palmer is first serious African American presidential candidate in American history. He has a shot at the White House. So whether it’s assassination by bullets or character assassination by the media, the success of Palmer’s campaign always carries a greater symbolic weight than just the career of one man. And as it turns out, Palmer’s greatest challenge is not so much winning an election but rather managing his family. We find out early on that there is indeed much backstory that effect this day’s events.

It begins with a seemingly baseless accusation against Palmer’s son Keith, a rumor that turns out to be true. When Palmer looks into it he discovers that his son, daughter, wife, and sleazy adviser Carl have been covering it up for seven years. Things only escalate when some of Palmer’s largest financial backers find out about it and take matters into their own hands. The inciting incident is buried long in the past but only now has emerged to exact vengeance.

Underlying all of this is story of rapidly deteriorating trust between Palmer and his ambitious wife Sherry who continuously takes matters into her own hands. She has been undermining her husband for years but always because she believes it to be in his best interest. Sherry will go to any lengths, right or wrong, to protect her husband’s political career. It’s been happening long before the day’s events but it is only now being fully revealed to Palmer.

Great backstory results in great characters and ultimately great drama. It gives texture and flavor to what might otherwise be the routine proceedings of intelligence reports, political scandals, and computer technobabble. 24 is widely praised for its inventive format, its relentless action, and its endless dramatic thrills, but I think much of its greatness comes from its willingness to develop its protagonists through events that precede much of the main narrative.

Blockbusters, Television, and the Perfect Ending

groot

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

Morning People

Scurrying skittering souls
Coffee in their veins
Rising with the dawn
Empty cereal bowls

Glowing early sun
Burning through the haze
Sleepwalking heroes
All trudging by as one

A slow breathless dance
Unfolding in the streets
Tired beating hearts
On purpose or by chance

Strutting strolling legs
Never ceasing to be straight
Delivering timely vessels
No hint of delay

Hurried sprinting urns
Not quite full of dust
Lovers in the cold
Busy waiting for their turn

Perfect ticking clocks
Grating through their heads
Driving ever onward
The ever harried flock

Buried unlived dreams
From which they once awoke
Memories and shadow
Burning air and steam

An unavoided fate
A point of misdirection
A world of affectation
Now pulled into the fray

Gasping ragged breaths
In dry sandpaper throats
If breathing is our home
Then we are all guests

The End of the Movie and Its Narrative Purpose

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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.

Pacific Rim

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?

Frozen

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.

Gravity

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.

Monsters University

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.