Death of the Cliffhanger

Words by Alexander Thompson

The end of a film is a happy time for the protagonist. Life is good, problems have been solved, the worst is behind them, or is it? Enter the cliffhanger: life is terrible, things haven’t worked out, the villain wins, at least for now. Tons of classics haven ended with a finale that falls under the category of cliffhanger but where does this appeal come from however, don’t we want a story to have a happy ending?

The cliffhanger is a promise for the future, that’s what makes it different from an open ended or simply just an unhappy ending. It’s the set up for a sequel that directly continues the story from where something left off. Looking back to my childhood, one of my most favoured cliffhanger endings belonged to Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man’s Chest. Just an arbitrary spoiler warning going forward. The second instalment of the series sees our hero Jack Sparrow eaten alive by his foe Davy Jones’ mighty Kraken. What a shocking twist, our lead character dead, the supporting cast in disarray, the villain claiming victory. It was quite an odd turn of events considering the first film’s story didn’t have a direct link to its sequel. However bleak the ending may have seemed we did know one thing: there was a sequel coming. This opened up a whole world of possibilities, how is Jack Sparrow going to come back? Will the remaining heroes be able to stop Davy Jones? Will the next film have another cliffhanger? It was the magic of potential that really made the idea of a sequel exciting. This wasn’t an arbitrary future adventure for our characters, this was the next chapter in their lives, a conclusion to the ongoing threat of their foes. There’s an endless sea of complaints when it comes to sequels, but if you ask me, a cliffhanger is a surefire way of setting up the next chapter the correct way.

So it’s pretty clear my stance on cliffhangers so far, but what’s with the title? Death of the Cliffhanger is rather ominous. Well it seems the cliffhanger isn’t as commonly used as it once was. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s dying. These days most films that have sequels end up telling contained stories. The characters are generally the same, but the problems and scenarios of their lives rarely continue over from one film to next. Even the previously mentioned Pirates of the Caribbean has followed this trend. While the second and third films in the series have a continued plot, every one since then has been a self contained story. It’s not that this is a bad way of telling a story by any means, but when every single series follows the same format, it gets somewhat tiresome.

The cliffhanger is a risk that most aren’t willing to take. If the film doesn’t do well and ends with a cliffhanger that story simply won’t ever be told. It’s much easier to treat every film as the last, ensuring your story will have a conclusion even if it ends earlier. Most modern examples of cliffhangers that come to mind are only apart of franchises shooting sequel back to back. 2013’s The Hobbit :The Desolation of Smaug’s cliffhanger is resolved the following year since the film and its sequel were shot back to back. Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War saw another cliffhanger that will be resolved later this year in its sequel that will also be shot back to back.

I certainly hope going forward into the future, film makers will take more risks and drop those cliffhanger even if a sequel may never come. Half the fun it's that next chapter, so why not make that sequel more than just another day in the life?

Photo by Denise Jans

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