Is It Really Over, Though?
The Problem With Tag Endings
I was watching a recent NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it). release -- the "vampires on a plane" horror flick Blood Red Sky, which was actually pretty good and I'll end up reviewing it over on The Inverted Dungeon before too long -- and I was cruising along in the film when I got to the ending. The ending of the film itself, without getting too much into spoilers, is bleak. It certainly didn't feel like it needed anything more, like a sequel to elaborate on the story at all. But the way the last show was filmed, slowly pulling out (on a crane) to survey the landscape, made me think there was going to be some last scare or jump moment. When that didn't come, I was instantly primed to zoom through the credits to see if there was a tag ending. "Surely that last shot meant we should be prepared for more, right?"
The tag ending -- a post-credits sequence for a film -- has become so ubiquitous in modern cinema that just about every film coming out now has one. Sure, that's hyperbole, but only so far; if it's a blockbuster with even minor franchise aspirations you can expect some kind of setup now in a film that promises said sequel. You'll end up with some tag ending that says, "hey, here's what's going to come next. Get pumped!" Most franchises don't have true endings at this point, just tag endings that promise the next adventure even as you just finished watching the current film. They're sneaky ads tucked into the movie you're watching and it means you're never really done with a series.
It's interesting to see how much Hollywood relies on franchise sequels now since , decades ago, sequels were considered money-losing propositions. Before, audiences "knew" that sequels would suck; sequels weren't ever planned for so a series extensions generally wasn't going to be good because it was just a cheap cash grab. And cheap they were as the Hollywood business model was to take the budget of whatever previous film was in the series, slash it in half, and then make the next film on that budget. Do well enough to warrant another sequel? Slash it again, and keep slashing for each subsequent sequel until the franchise finally runs out of steam. That was the thinking that led the original Planet of the ApesAlthough originally started with the 1963 novel, La Planete des singes, it's fair to say that the Apes franchise truly began with the 1968 film that kick started the original Fox film series and has helped tto keep these intelligent primates in the public conciousness for years. films to go from pretty slick 1960s sci-fi fare to cheap parodies of themselves that couldn't even hold a candle to a TV series (as evidenced by the TV series they later made that actually looked better).
That kind of thinking, of course, changed in the late 1970s when Spielberg and Lucas came out with blockbuster films that drew audiences into seats and made them beg for more. The Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. original trilogy was a watershed moment, and plenty of other sequels followed hot on those heels. But it was also films like The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II that proved that sequels could, in theory, be just as good as the original. Franchises like Back to the Future cropped up, and quickly Hollywood was awash in sequels.
Even then, though, outside of Back to the Future with its tag-ending that was really meant more as a joke than the promise of a real sequel (until a real sequel materialized later), the tag ending wasn't a fixed part of the Hollywood DNA. When Batman fought the Joker in 1989 we didn't know if he'd come back for a new adventure or who his villains would be, whereas if those films were made now we'd have setup for Catwoman in the previous film and there would be a scene in the credits showing how Selina Kyle was going to be Catwoman, no question at all.
The sea change, of course, came from the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.. Although Marvel didn't invent the device (you can trace its origins to The Muppet Movie and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, both of which had jokey post-credits scenes for the hell of it) they certainly popularized its used in their very first MCU film: Iron Man. That film featured a scene at the end where Tony Stark found Nick Fury on his couch talking about the "Avengers Initiative". Audiences were pumped from that one scene. "An interconnected world of superheroes? Count me in!"
To their credit Marvel delivered well on that promise, creating that promised world of superheroes, putting a tag ending in (just about) every one of their films to promise "what comes next." Fans could follow along and see how the AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils. were drawn together as Marvel weaved its web. And, yes, it was cool for a time... but then it just kept going, and suddenly every franchise had to include one of these endings in their works, no matter how likely it was that there would be another film in the series. The DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe.? Sure, that will likely have a few interconnected movies. Bloodshot? That's just over promising and way under-delivering.
The problem isn't the tag endings themselves as they can be interesting when used sparingly and to add a little zest. The issue is that every film with sequel aspirations has to have one of these endings. Hollywood won't let an adventure stand on its own now without having to prepare for "what's next" even when it's plainly obvious, once you sit down to watch the film, the adventure is going nowhere. I liked the 2016 Ghostbusters, aka Answer the Call, and I was even a little intrigued when that film's tag ending promised a return of Ghostbusters villain Zuul. But that film tanked at the Box Office (or, at least, didn't make enough to warrant a sequel), and so that promised film was dropped. The ending now in the credits is left dangling, annoying me any time I go back to watch the film.
The issue is that films don't get to be complete at this point. A hero might survive the day, accomplish their goal, and go off to enjoy life basking in the glow of a job well done, but the tag ending says, "nope, you don't get to rest because there is no conclusion and you have to come back out and fight again." There's no sense of closure, no thought that, "hey, everything they did actually mattered." A tag ending says, "maybe this guy is dead or defeated or whatever but you aren't really done so, long run, you didn't accomplish anything."
I like to beat on The MatrixA speculative future story with superhero and anime influences, The Matrix not only pushed viewers to think about the nature of their own reality but also expanded what filmmakers could do with action sequences and filming. It then launched a series of movies, games, and comics, creating a franchise still talked about today. films because, well, everything after the first movie sucks, but it does serve as a great example here. I'm sure you're sitting there going The Matrix doesn't a tag ending, and that's exactly my point. When Neo makes his call to robot mainframe at the end of the film (sorry, spoilers for a 20 year old film) and then flies off into the sky after saying, "I will end this war, I will show them a world without you," it's not a promise of a sequel, it's just a firm ending that says, "he's leveled up and he's going to do what he says." If the films had ended there, without any sequels, it would feel whole and complete and we'd know Neo would have done exactly as he said. And then the sequel came along and screwed it up and now I can't think of the original film without remembering what comes after.
That's how I feel about a lot of tag endings, even the ones put into films I actually really enjoy. Yes, they promise what comes next but they also state that an ending is never an ending. If The Matrix came out today you know there would be some tag that showed the Agents getting their upgrades so they could fight off Neo while the Architect was plotting and scheming in his white room. Neo's battle wouldn't get to feel complete in his first film because the franchise has to go on. Nothing can end and a series is never allowed to put its heroes in a place where they can finally just relax. It tiring for an audience, but it's even worse: it primes us to never expect an ending for anything.
This is where I get back to talking about Blood Red Sky. That film doesn't need a sequel. I doubt it will ever get a sequel. It ends in such a way that its primary problem, vampires on a plane, is dealt with. There was no reason to expect a tag ending... and yet I did because the last tracking shot felt ambiguous. They were just being artistic but I had a niggling doubt and suddenly I had to check. I'm glad there wasn't a tag ending, don't get me wrong, but I was already primed to expect one because that's just how things are now.
I know I'm starting to sound like "old man yells at clouds" but that's not my point. I'm a fan of a tag ending when it's used effectively, and sometimes they really can get you primed for what's meant to come next when a series is planned out; in Iron Man Marvel knew they were going to make the first films of the MCU that introduced each hero and then was capped by The Avengers. That was their plan, however vague it might have been at the start, and they stuck to it. And you will note that The Avengers doesn't even have a real tag ending, it's just the heroes sitting around enjoying a meal. It's a joke and that works too simply because it's an ending. There's no promise of what's going to come next, just a subversion of expectations.
As a fan of films I wish more franchise would do this. When a film ends it's fine to put in a tag ending, but let's have some rules for it. For starters, despite how well it worked in Iron Man, lets not put a tag ending at the start of your first film. Marvel took a gamble and it paid off for them, but all the franchise that tried to come up with their own interconnected universes havs struggled because they put the cart before they horse. Hold off on your tag endings until your first film proves it has legs. And, while we're at it, stop trying to build a franchise in the first movie in general. We want to get solo adventures before we get the big team up (I'm looking at you, The Mummy 2017).
Secondly, have a plan for your series before you start advertising "what comes next". A tag ending should have a promise that can be fulfilled but it also has to point you in a specific direction for what to expect. Tony Stark is going to become an Avenger (well, eventually). The Ghostbusters are going to take on Zuul. Batman is going to cry about Martha and then try to kill Superman. These are tangible directions we can understand (except for that last one, which was a joke at the expense of the DCEU) and they actually do get us interested in what comes next. If the best you can do for the promise of your sequel is a shot of your heroes loading some guns into a car and vaguely talking about future threats (i.e., what Bloodshot did) that's not good enough to bother with a tag ending.
Finally, when we reach the end of your set plan (like the first phase of the MCU) don't put a real tag ending at the end of your film. Let the franchise have an ending (even if its only temporary) so that audiences can bask, with their heroes, in the goal of their accomplishments. It's job done so lets get at least a moment's respite before we have to pick up with the next franchise extension.