It’s very easy to be cynical about film franchises, but let’s get the obvious out of the way. Films exist to make money and franchises exist to make astronomical, incomprehensible amounts of money. Big budget sequels are essentially a product for which there is a huge amount of demand, and so it makes sense that beloved properties will keep getting rebooted or continued as long as people still want them. And hey, I’m the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a sequel. We all want more of things we enjoy and the prospect of spending additional time with characters we love is never less than appealing.
Film is a relatively new medium, and as such many movies that are considered venerable classics were only made in the last forty years, meaning that most of the key creatives involved are still active and so belated sequels to beloved originals are not only possible, but becoming more and more ubiquitous. Jurassic World, Force Awakens, Fury Road, Terminator Genisys, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; it’s not even a trend that’s unique to film. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child might have come less than a decade after the last instalment of its series, but it still represents an unexpected return to a beloved story hinged upon the audience’s nostalgia for the original.
All of the above are examples of stories that got me more excited than just about anything. And yet, especially in the key examples of Cursed Child and Force Awakens, the overriding feeling I had when they came to an end was one of emptiness.
It’s a hard feeling to quantify. Force Awakens was a beautifully crafted film that brought buckets of heart, wit, fun and passion to a franchise that long since seemed to have lost all of those things. I honestly struggled to articulate what it was about that film that didn’t work for me. But now, almost a year later, in the wake of Cursed Child and in the lead up to Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts I think I’ve figured it out. The big issue with the continuation of a franchise at all costs is that it robs great stories of their endings. And stories need endings.
At film school we got bludgeoned over and over again with the concept of a ‘controlling idea’, in essence the central theme that powers your story. Basically put, it’s the point of everything we’ve watched. And no part of any film is more important than an ending, because an ending makes your point. An ending is the full stop that gives meaning to the sentence and a good ending can elevate an okay film into a classic. Conversely an otherwise great film can be let down by a weak ending. The endings of Return of the Jedi and Deathly Hallows were both predictable and maybe a little cheesy, but they were effective because they told us what story we’d been watching all along. They made it clear that these were sagas of good triumphing over evil, stories that came to an end when that central purpose was achieved. After everything they had endured Han, Luke and Leia, like Harry, Ron and Hermione, got to live happily ever after. They earned their peace and it made for endings that were satisfying even if they were easy to foresee. By the same token Breaking Bad perhaps weakened the Shakespearean tragedy of its story in an ending that seemed to imply that Walt was more or less a hero all along. See how that muddied everything that went before?
Now let’s consider The Force Awakens. Can you ever again be satisfied by the ending of Return of the Jedi knowing that our heroes failed? Knowing that in merely thirty years’ time the Empire returns more or less exactly the same as they were and not only did Luke Skywalker, the ostensible hero of the saga neglect to stop this but he actually left. After everything, Luke and Han ran away. Were these the heroes we spent three films rooting for?
An argument can be made that they are flawed humans and could not deal with the turn to evil of a family member, but that doesn’t change the fact that it ruins the ending of Jedi. It takes away the point of the original Star Wars trilogy because there no longer is one. Sure, Luke redeemed his father and defeated Palpatine, but the broader victory no longer means anything. Nothing really changed. There’s still an Empire and there’s still a Rebellion, even if the names are different.
Likewise will you ever be able to read/watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows again without wondering at what point Voldemort and Bellatrix had sex? Will the tender if cheesy epilogue have any potency knowing that Albus Severus goes off to just be a massive jerk? Is the ending of that play really the ending you want the saga to have? If not, you needn’t worry; The Cursed Child opens up the potential for a whole world of new stories. The problem is that that very potential weakens what came before. You can ignore Cursed Child all you like, but Harry Potter will forever have that unnecessary addendum and you can bet there will be more to come.
Now let me clarify something; this is not an attack on the idea of an expanded universe. Films like Rogue One or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might be symptomatic of the inability to let a certain franchise go, but crucially they are also entirely different stories that are neither essential nor strongly related to the main thrust of the franchise. As far as we know Rogue One will not include the Skywalkers (give or take a Vader cameo) and we won’t learn new damaging things about the central Harry Potter saga in Fantastic Beasts. They’re spin-offs and as such not part of the problem.
Whatever your thoughts on the film in question, it’s also less of an issue in the case of something like Indiana Jones, as those films don’t form a large ongoing saga, but instead a series of standalone adventures that don’t really have a whole lot to do with each other outside of a couple of recurring characters. You don’t need to know what happened in Temple of Doom to understand Last Crusade. No, this issue of no endings is one unique to big, sprawling sagas in which multiple instalments form chapters in a larger story. A story that, like any story, needs an ending to have any meaning.
In 2005 I remember saying to my Dad ‘I can’t believe there won’t be any more Star Wars films’. I legitimately and naively believed that Revenge of the Sith was the ending. And I’m far from the only one. All the hype around that film was to do with it being the last chapter, our last visit to that world. And sure, Clone Wars came along a few years later but that very much fell into the realm of a spinoff, an addition to the story that was enriching but not necessary to your understanding of the saga as a whole. To me though, at the time, it seemed obvious that this was the end. There were no huge dangling plot threads or unanswered questions. There was a world to be explored, certainly, but the main story was over. Now it’s not and once again we as an audience will be waiting for a conclusion that will only last until episodes 10, 11 and 12 are announced.
Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the very idea of an ending is old fashioned. Robert Kirkman famously said that his thinking behind the Walking Dead was to tell a story that would never really end. Many soap operas are built on the same central concept. And maybe in a post MCU world we’ve reached a point where franchises can continue indefinitely. Maybe all of that is okay and requires an adjustment in thinking.
Except in the case of Harry Potter and Star Wars their endings were famously intended as endings by their creators. We were led to believe they would be. But now they’re not. And as every single possible franchise continues to be dug up and resurrected (please let me make Jaws: Legacy) it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic about the simpler days when an ending was just that. An ending.