Cliffhangers are a classic storytelling trope, usually occurring when a plot-line has reached peak intensity. The heroes will be in serious trouble or a shocking twist has been revealed, only for the viewer to be told to return for the next instalment to see what happens. They’re a sneaky – and frankly annoying - way of ensuring the audience will come back for more.
The downside to a cliffhanger ending is the question of what happens when there is no next instalment?
It can be embarrassing for all involved if a movie intended to kick off a franchise (like Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes or Ryan Reynolds’s Green Lantern) falls at the first hurdle and a teased follow-up never emerges. The characters are left in a Schrodinger’s Cat situation, with their fates left permanently up in the air.
Television fans know this pain better than anybody. On the small screen there are endless examples of shows cancelled before their time or important plotlines being dropped and never resolved properly, because show leaders change and writers apparently struggle to stay focused on their own work. In some rare instances the story will continue elsewhere (in a movie spin-off or a comic book) but for the majority of fans all that’s left is frustration and poorly written fan-fic to fill in the blanks.