Frequent show contributor and At the Buzzer movie review Gary Sundt and I are working on a few scripts to break our way into Hollywood (admittedly, Gary is doing a better job than I). I need this to happen, because right now I feel like I’m the only person on the planet who knows how to write a good ending.
Good endings aren’t hard. All you need to do is find the right blend of the ENDING TRIFECTA (patented by me). The ending trifecta is composed of resolution, satisfaction, and artistic closure. Like the perfect recipe, you need a little of each to really have a great ending. If you resolve everything by explaining what happens to every character, but the resolution is that every character is killed in a horrible fashion, this satisfies the resolution and artistic closure of your ending, but offers no fan satisfaction (unless the fans hated your characters). Likewise, if you attempt to satisfy your fans by offering a cookie cutter happy ending, you might sacrifice true character and event resolution, as well as the final exploration of your artistic themes.
It’s a tough balance. Except it’s not. Watch me cover some universally maligned endings and demonstrate how they easily could have been made better.
Mass Effect 3
The ending: You knew it was coming. Here, you have an example of artistic closure: Bioware clearly did exactly what they wanted to do with the ending to their epic series. Why they chose this route is a mystery, but it is high in artistic closure, but offers very little resolution, and almost no fan satisfaction.
The solution: In this case, fans don’t need a happy ending. If Shepherd died at the end, this could have been acceptable if:
- The ending offered more dynamic choices that didn’t all suck. I could have bought one of the three choices if they didn’t come out of nowhere in the last five minutes with no build up or natural progression.
- If there was any sort of resolution at all. All your surviving squad mates attending your funeral would have been great, and what the climate of the galaxy was after your sacrifice.
While my personal choice would be for Bioware to implement the indoctrination theory, I would settle for more closure following the events instead of just color-swapped ending movies. In this case, resolution and fan satisfaction go hand in hand.
The ending: Most consider this novel to be the weakest in the series, and for good reason; the final act is terrible. It’s terrible for multiple reasons: the “real-life Hunger Games” concept seems contrived at this point. The buildup to get to this dreary act took forever. Great characters that we care about die quick, and sometimes even completely “off-screen,” so to speak. However, the real problem is the end, which trivializes not only the entire ending sequence (nothing Katniss’ team did meant anything because of the bombing), but also, in small part, the entire premise of the series itself with Prim’s death.
I don’t mind seeing that war is hard, but it’s important to understand that you can’t completely change your tone three books in without setting off some fans. Up to this point, The Hunger Games had the perfect blend of fan satisfaction and grit. Here, we just have grit. The resolution epilogue is nice, and the artistic closure is there, but again, no attempt at fan satisfaction.
The solution: Minor changes to the ending. If you’re going to kill characters, follow Shakespeare’s advice and make it mean something. Especially Finnick’s death. Prim’s death felt like overkill, and to me shattered any momentum the third book had built to that point. The ending here wasn’t terrible, but definitely a disappointment.
The Matrix Revolutions
The ending: Here is another film high on artistic closure. However, The Matrix Revolutions also has quite a bit of resolution. We get to see what happens in the city of Zion, where our favorite characters more or less end up, and hints as to how life will progress.
The solution: The problem is there is almost zero fan satisfaction. If you’re going to end the series with Neo, a Christ-like figure from the beginning of the series, dying, I’m fine with that. If you’re going to neuter the final battle to make commentary on how good and evil are inexorably tied to the ability to choose…fine, I guess. But you can’t forsake your entire fan base to do so by killing every character we care about. Did Trinity have to die for the film’s themes to hit home? No. In fact, I think they would have hit harder had she lived. And great, now Zion, the city filled with ravenous sex orgies, can live on. Thank. God. A little more focus on fan satisfaction would have gone a long way here.
The ending: Everyone rejoins each other in the purgatorial realm and is able to move on. I just talked about this one last month. Anyone who reads my blog knows I was fine with the ending itself, more or less. However, the one primary flaw with the final season was significant. We spend time telling stories that, until Desmond starts to deconstruct the parallel universe and begins his mission to bring everyone together, are mostly pointless. Sure, I want to see Jack’s weird “son prop” that he uses to work through his issues. I didn’t need a whole episode for it though. Resolution and artistic closure are high with this one, but some fan satisfaction was lacking.
The solution: Spend less time on meaningless storytelling, and more on wrapping up small mysteries throughout the season so that by the time you reach the end, you reveal the major questions and everyone is happy.
The ending: Master Chief achieves ultimate victory, and then—PSYCHE—survives the ending and goes into some kind of space ship slumber. Bungie hit a decent amount of resolution by depicting Earth afterwards and wrapping up their storylines, but in an attempt to achieve fan satisfaction (and increased profits), they butchered what could have been a great ending by having the Chief survive. The fact that he has failed to die a nameless, faceless hero also partially ruins some of their own artistic closure.
The solution: Take a page out of Halo: Reach, a much better told story. In short, kill the Chief off as a hero. It’s not like the series is riding on Master Chief’s iconography; Halo is recognized for the suit, but definitely not for the cardboard lead character. Halo: Reach’s sales should attest to that. A little less fan satisfaction could have gone a long way here.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
The ending: Deus Ex Machina has taken many a victim as far as endings go, and the finale of The Last Airbender is no exception. All season, Aang trained and prepared for the final fight with the Fire Lord, despite his inability to access the Avatar State. And when the battle finally arrives, fans are treated to…an ass whooping, courtesy of the Fire Lord. He beats Aang into submission until, miraculously, Aang’s back is impaled by a rock in the perfect spot to remove the scar tissue and allow for the Avatar State to return. You can argue that Deus Ex Machina (aka, acts of god) in this situation was exactly the point considering the series exploration of spiritual themes, but I would still argue that it was disappointing.
The solution: This finale wasn’t terrible; I thought Aang’s implementation of energy bending was clever and perfectly in his character, and the final resolution was amazingly sweet, giving fans exactly what they wanted and adhering to their own artistic vision. I just wish a show that enjoyed a run as high-quality as Avatar’s would have delivered a better thought out, more coherent finale. It just goes to show you that despite getting an ending mostly right, a small flub can still leave a bad taste in the audiences mouth. Let’s hope the finale of The Legend of Korra fires on all cylinders.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
The ending: Other than its slick title, this film gets almost nothing right, and is the rare example of a movie that fails all three portions of its triangle. Fan satisfaction=zero. The fight scenes are crap. The plot is crap. And the end is a disaster. So you’re telling me that instead of dying, Orlando Bloom would rather sail the seas for eternity with a crew of fish people? How is that better than letting the poor guy kick the bucket? There was no resolution on almost any of the plotlines that they had two movies to wrap up. And artistic vision? What artistic vision? Were we supposed to be impressed by the barf dialogue, or the wedding-while-fighting-pirates? This entire production team was on drugs. That’s the only explanation.
The solution: This is not hard. Do anything that’s not terrible. Give us better resolution with characters that I’m sure someone, somewhere cares about. Hell, kill them all off in epic fashion, that would have been preferable. Finish plotlines that you started, like the Davy Jones/Crab Lady drama that goes NOWHERE. Give us…anything. We should be ashamed as Americans for making this one of the highest grossing films of all time.
The ending: Speaking of “highest grossing” and “shame”…I didn’t realize how bad this movie was at first. It took a couple months for the horrific ending of this series to really hit me. Here we have an example of an ending so bad that it lasts for the entire film. The obvious issue is that in reckless pursuit of fan satisfaction, they loaded too many villains, then didn’t know what to do them. This villain overload is responsible for contrived plot devices (see: the random creation of Sand Man and Venom arbitrarily landing on earth and just HAPPENING to land right next to freaking Spider-Man).
The solution: The problems of this movie could have been avoided if they had listened to Sam Raimi, the director of the Spider-Man series, who wanted the third installment to be a more personal, heartbreaking tale. Instead, the studio insisted on eschewing artistic vision for fan support with the inclusion of Venom, and…and dancing Spider-Man happened. Let’s hope this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man reboot gets the series back on track.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
You got it right. Great action. Great resolution. Fans were satisfied. Artistic themes were seen to the end. The tone was bittersweet and yet perfectly satisfying. Good job.