The Best Not Quite “To Be Continued” Endings of Franchise Films
One of my complaints about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was how much of the film was filled with shameless plugs for future DC Universe films. I am all for connectivity between superhero films, thus establishing a shared universe of story-telling. That is, in fact, one of the greatest triumphs of the Marvel cinematic universe! The problem with Batman v Superman was how obvious and awkward and often confusing those connections-to-not-yet-made-future-films were. The ending was a particular problem. The film’s ending (which I won’t spoil) was clearly designed to be a cliffhanger that would make an audience excited for the next DCU adventure. But I felt it landed with a thud. Rather than being excited for the next film, I’m already dreading the time that will need to be wasted in Justice League to undo the events of the end of Batman v Superman.
This got me thinking about great endings to films in a series. There’s something magical about a great ending to a film, particularly a film that is designed to be, not a stand-alone one-and-done entity, but rather an installment in a series. There is a delicate art to being able to satisfactorily bring a film’s story to a close, while also teasing future adventures. I adore that buzzy feeling of walking out of a movie absolutely desperate for the next installment, even if that next installment might be years away.
So what WERE some great endings to franchise films, endings that gave me that thrilled, excited feeling? Well, I’m glad you asked, as I’ve decided to list some of my very favorites.
Now, before we begin, let me clarify that I’m not talking about a movie that ends on a out-and-out “to be continued” cliffhanger. The best example of that would, of course, be:
Back to the Future Part II — This film, gloriously, actually does end with the words “to be continued.” (Well, actually the film ends with the words “to be concluded” which makes sense only when you know that the words “to be continued” were added on to the ending of the original Back to the Future for its home video release, so this ending of Part II now echoes/completes that ending of Part I. Without that “to be continued” ending of Part I, you might expect the ending of Part II to read “to be continued” rather than “to be concluded.” At least, I would! Sadly, all DVD and blu-ray releases of the original Back to the Future restore the original ending and remove that “to be continued.” But I dearly miss that “to be continued” ending, as that’s the ending I grew up with. Why no branching option, Warner brothers, on these releases so fans like me could see the preferred version of this film they grew up with??? But I digress.) Back to the Future Parts II and III were filmed together and released less than a year apart. So while both films do sort of stand on their own, Part II’s ending was designed as a cliffhanger lead-in for the already-made Part III. As such, while it’s a spectacular ending (“I’m back! Back FROM the future!” “Great Scott!!”), it doesn’t quite count on this list because I don’t want to include films like this, or the second and third Matrix films, that were shot together and then split in half. Look, these are the rules that I have just made up, so pipe down!
(One could argue that the awesome ending to the FIRST Back to the Future would be an ending that should count for this list. But I’m going to argue “no” on that, too, since I don’t believe that anyone involved with that first Back to the Future intended that ending to be a lead-in to a second film. I think they thought it was just a nutty ending to their stand-alone film. What I am going to list here are great endings to films that were DESIGNED to be parts of an extended series of films/sequels/etc.)
So, OK, without further introduction or ado, here are some terrific not quite “to be continued” endings to franchise films:
X-Men — I know this film hasn’t aged so well, but I still think it’s a very solid super-hero flick and, at the time, it was absolutely mind-blowing. (No one had EVER pulled off a super-hero TEAM film like this before Bryan Singer.) But as fun as the film is, it’s that last scene that is the killer. Terrific dialogue and magnificent performances by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan make this one of the very best scenes in the film. Its promise that this was just the beginning of a long struggle between Magneto and Professor X (and his X-Men), and the tantalizing hint at the prospect that one day bad people might come to Xavier’s school, looking for trouble, that left my mind spinning with the dream of many future adventures.
X2 — (Note my longstanding refusal to call this film X-Men United, which was a stupid, meaningless subtitle apparently added in marketing that does not appear in the actual film. Ahem. Back to the business at hand.) As much as I loved the ending to the first X-Men film, it’s the ending to X2 that floored me. I can still remember sitting in the theatre, absolutely captivated by that fleeting last shot of the Phoenix effect under-water, where Jean Grey had just died. (I can still remember how clearly one could tell who in that theatre were comic fans, as the non-fans didn’t make much of that final shot while the comic book fans went absolutely nuts.) That Bryan Singer was never able to fulfill the promise of those final seconds and give us a depiction of the Phoenix Saga on-screen remains heartbreaking to me to this day. One of the great missed opportunities of all time.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock — The one exception to the odd-numbered movie curse of the Star Trek film franchise. I love Star Trek III. Ok, it’s whole raison d’etre is to undo the ending of Star Trek II and I can see how that can be considered lame, but what’s great about Trek III is how Kirk & co. have to truly earn Spock’s resurrection through a lot of misery and suffering. (The death of David, the destruction of the Enterprise). The last scene is just about perfect, as the Enterprise crew is finally reunited. They are together again, but they have all been changed by the events of the film. It’s not a magic reset button. Star Trek III breaks things that are not easily fixed, and the film leaves many story-lines as-yet unresolved. Will Spock return to his former self? What will happen to the Enterprise crew? Will they ever get another ship? Will they be court-martialed? These questions leave one excited for the next adventure, while at the same time the ending is a completely satisfying close to this middle chapter of the Trek II, III, and IV trilogy. (Even the music is great, as James Horner quotes the Alexander Courage original Star Trek theme in an extremely satisfying way.) The human adventure continues.
Spider-Man — Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film was a revelation, but it was Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film that conquered the world and truly began this modern era of super-hero films. I feel Mr. Raimi’s Spider-Man films have been somewhat forgotten these days because of the terrible Spider-Man 3 and the lackluster Amazing Spider-Man reboot series. While it’s true that some of the effects look hopelessly primitive today, the film is still a heck of a lot of fun and a great depiction of the Spider-Man character and mythos. But it’s the ending that makes it great. In most super-hero films to that point, the hero always got the girl — even Batman! But Peter Parker shouldn’t have a happily-ever-after ending with the girl of his dreams at the end of his first movie, and Mr. Raimi and his collaborators understood that. “This is my gift, it is my curse,” Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker states in voice-over, and that is exactly right. Also, I love the suggestion at the very end, as Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane touches her lips, that perhaps she knows that Peter is Spider-Man. I don’t have much patience for secret identities in super-hero stories, as I often find it frustrating (not to mention credibility-straining) for a hero’s closest friends to be unaware of his/her true identity. So I was excited by the idea that this series wouldn’t be keeping Mary Jane in the dark forever, and that last moment left me excited to see where the story would go from there. That final line: “Who am I? I’m Spider-Man” was a perfect fist-pumping way to send the audience out of the theatre and leave them chomping for more.
Spider-Man 2 — Like the first three X-Men films, here is yet another super-hero trilogy without a satisfying concluding third chapter. Yes, Spider-Man 3 sucked, but don’t allow that to over-rule how awesome Spider-Man 2 was. The whole film was terrific, an improvement on the already-great first Spider-Man film in almost every way, with Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock one of the very best super-hero villains we’d ever gotten at that point (and a wonderful showcase for a great actor). But it’s the ending that makes Spider-Man 2 truly great, and by ending I mean that very last shot. Everything seems happy for our hero Peter Parker at the end of this film. He’s beaten the bad guy and won the love of Mary Jane. She tells him to “go get ’em, Tiger” and, as Spider-Man, he swings off into action. Most films would end there. But Mr. Raimi lingers on a close-up of Mary Jane’s face, and we see her smile slowly fade into a look of far-more ambivalence as she watches the man she loves throw himself into danger. It’s a wonderfully enigmatic, adult way to end a big-budget popcorn film. It left me drooling for the next installment which, sadly, wound up stinking.
Batman Begins — Sticking with super-hero films for a while longer (since these are the majority of long-running movie serials, these days), we come to Christopher Nolan’s wonderfully adult, serious reinvention of Batman. I love so much about this film that, for the first-time in live-action, finally got Batman right. But it’s the ending that sealed the deal for me, that last scene on the rooftop of police HQ between Gordon and Batman. The filmmakers wisely borrowed, almost word-for-word, the ending of Frank Miller & David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One, and it’s amazing. (Their only mis-step was adding in two lame lines in which Gordon says that he never thanks Batman, and Batman says he’ll never have to.) But that tease of the Joker, as Gordon hands Batman a Joker card, was tantalizing and ballsy. Although we’re soon to get our third live-action Joker (Jared Leto in this summer’s Suicide Squad), back then Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was considered untouchable and unbeatable. But the bold end of this film declared, nope, we’re going to dare to bring you a new version of the Joker. As the credits rolled, I could not wait for the next installment. (Click here for my full review of Batman Begins.)
The Dark Knight — Wow, I hadn’t realized until I was writing this list just how many super-hero trilogies wound up letting me down with their third installment. But forget about that, let’s talk about The Dark Knight, one of my very favorite super-hero films of all time. The film is perfect in every way, dazzling in its sophistication and so gutsy in the way it depicts Batman totally getting his ass kicked, physically and emotionally, from start to finish. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a wonder to behold. But it’s the ending that I’m here to talk about. Whereas the ending of Batman Begins was all about the tease of future installments, TDK’s ending is a perfectly dour, almost hopeless ending to the astounding film that just unspooled before us. Batman is able to save Jim Gordon’s son, but in every other way he loses yet again, unable to redeem Harvey Dent and forced to assume the role of pariah in the city in order not to undo all the work that he and Gordon had done together. As Gordon invokes the title (in probably the very best use of a film’s title in the film itself that I have ever seen) and Batman flees from the police, I am left speechless every time I watch this masterpiece. (Click here for my full review of The Dark Knight.)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring — Forgetting for a moment on all the challenges of adapting this seemingly unadaptable trilogy of novels, let’s consider Peter Jackson’s enormous challenge in crafting the ending of Fellowship. He had to thread the needle of giving this first installment a satisfying conclusion even though the story was nowhere near complete with two books yet to adapt. Somehow, Mr. Jackson and his team did the near-impossible. Although it raised my eyebrows at the time, I quickly understood how wise they were to borrow some elements from the start of The Two Towers book (specifically the fate of Boromir) to make the ending of the Fellowship film feel complete. It’s a wonderful action finish, thrilling and emotional. And those final glimpses of Frodo and Sam, alone, walking into Mordor, are absolutely perfect. (I still remember the surprise from the shockingly-large number of people I knew who didn’t realize that Fellowship was not going to be a complete story all to itself!!) Those final moments left me hugely satisfied by what I had just witnessed, and absolutely desperate to see the next film immediately.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — Let’s discuss another successful film adaptation of a popular book series. Because both this film and Fellowship were adapted from pre-existing book series, perhaps they shouldn’t count for this article. However, 1) while these films were able to base their endings on the endings of the already-written novels, the films still had the challenge faced by any other franchise film of crafting a satisfying ending to that particular film while also building excitement for the next one, and 2) just like any other franchise film, had the earlier book adaptations failed we wouldn’t ever have seen the subsequent films (see: the aborted Chronicles of Narnia adaptations). Order of the Phoenix is my favorite of the Harry Potter films. The terrific wizard-fight ending, and the devastating emotional wallop of the death of Sirius Black (as so wonderfully played by Gary Oldman) was the moment at which I was the most engaged with the Potter film series and the most excited to see where the story would go.
Hellboy: The Golden Army — I’m still a little ambivalent about the sort-of-jokey freeze-frame at the very end of the film, but Hellboy: The Golden Army is on this list because of the tantalizing prophecy by the Angel of Death at the end of this film, promising that Hellboy would, in time, fulfill his destiny as the destroyer of the world. Was the main character of these two films actually the series’ ultimate villain? This has been an idea teased over the last twenty years of Mike Mignola’s brilliant Hellboy comic (year after year, the expanded Hellboy comic-book universe tops my list of my favorite comic book series) and I was so happy to see this brought to life in such a big way on-screen. I would have loved to have seen that story told in a third film, but as of now such a film has never been make. (It’s interesting that a running sub-plot of this list is how often movie franchises have not been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Maybe I should write a list of film series that DID build to a satisfying ending!)
The Avengers — While not a perfect film, The Avengers is an enormously satisfying culmination of “Phase One” of the Marvel superhero universe, a movie that achieved the near impossible: an epic crossover of multiple independent super-hero film series (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.) Looking back only a few years later, it’s easy to forget what an astounding and near-miraculous achievement that is. Even more astounding and miraculous: the film is not only good, it’s great, with terrific characterizations and story-arcs given to each individual Avenger as well as a variety of great supporting characters. Joss Whedon’s mastery of group dynamics and witty dialogue once again triumphs. The final series of scenes before the closing credits are just ho-hum, with Nick Fury having a meaningless conversation with his shadowy superiors. So why is this film on this list? Because of the twin genius of the film’s two end-credits scene. The revelation of Thanos had me on the floor when I first saw it. Who’d ever imagined such a deep-cut character would ever be depicted on-screen?? But comic-book fans like me were immediately thrilled because we knew how wonderful a character Thanos was, and how exciting the prospect of an eventual adaptation of The Infinity Gauntlet would be. (Additionally, that line about “courting death” is A-plus genius, because comic-book fans all know that Thanos is in love with Death.) As if that wasn’t enough, we get the dialogue-free, and absolutely hilarious, shawarma scene at the very end. Those two scenes together represent the very best of all the great Marvel stingers that we’ve gotten over the past several years.
Iron Man — Though the other Marvel film whose ending I absolutely must highlight is the one that kicked off this whole Marvel Cinematic Universe craziness. The regular pre-credits ending of the film is spectacular, probably the strongest ending of any of the Marvel films to this day. Raised on the idea, in the comics and in the movies, of super-heroes having a secret identity, we’re were all prepared for an ending in when Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark would talk his way out of being linked with Iron Man. When instead, in a perfect moment, Tony declares “I am Iron Man,” it was not only a huge surprise but also a thrilling declaration that this was a different type of super-hero character. That would have been enough, but then we got the first — and, until Thanos and shawarma, the best — of the Marvel universe end-credits scene. Tony Stark returns to his penthouse to find Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury waiting for him, ready to discuss with him something called “the Avengers initiative.” First of all, the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was a delight to comic-book fans, who knew that the recent and popular “Ultimate Universe” version of the character had been modeled after Mr. Jackson. Actually casting Samuel L. Jackson in the role was brilliance. And to then throw down the name “Avengers” was a bold declaration of the intentions of this new Marvel cinematic universe: to create a shared universe that would eventually build to the on-screen depiction of the Avengers. No one had ever done anything like that before, and in the days leading up to the release of Iron Man I had no idea that this was secretly what the folks at Marvel had in mind. I still remember the thrilling feeling of watching that final scene and dreaming of what might be to come.
The Empire Strikes Back — Has there ever been, or will there ever be, a better ending to a franchise film? I love everything about Empire, and in particular the entire third act is incredibly bold. Our heroes are defeated at every turn. Han gets frozen in carbonite and carted away by the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Luke gets his ass kicked hard by Vader and then gets his hand chopped off. Oh, and he and we learn that Vader was in fact his father. While the original Star Wars had a happy, crowd-pleasing ending in which our scrappy underdog heroes won the day and beat the bad guys and everyone smiled and got medals, this first sequel did something very different and went to an extremely dark place. That the film ends with nothing resolved is astounding to me. I applaud the bravery of George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and Irwin Kershner. That final shot, with the Millennium Falcon soaring away off into the galaxy as John Williams’ beautiful music swells is truly one of the great endings in movie history.
And it’s a great place to end this list. I look forward to hearing about where you all think I’m crazy, and what films with great endings you feel I have mistakenly left off of this list. Have a great weekend, everyone!