TO THE DEATH No. To the pain. I... dont think Im familiar with that phrase.
Are any cinema-goers really familiar with that phrase either? While Westleys bluff and stamina defeats and humiliates Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride
, the far more memorable (and much more quoted) conflict has to be Inigo Montoyas promise of You killed my father. Prepare to die. Its a fun family film, but Inigo makes Count Rugen beg for his life. Then kills him anyway. In stories of revenge, right and wrong and life and death, does someone always actually have to die in order for us to feel that the story is done? But, with more and more films belonging to franchises, are their stories ever really done? Is the bad guy allowed to die if theres a chance he or she might be needed in the sequel? Maybe certain event movies arent feeling as satisfying as they used to because the audience are being denied the catharsis of seeing the bad guy truly beaten. Someone certainly needs to send a memo to Optimus Prime asking him to double check that Megatron is really gone before he declares the battle over (thats twice youve fallen for it now, Optimus!).
In 1989, Tim Burton
managed to do what 50 years of Batman adventuring had not, he killed the Joker. But was that more satisfying than Heath Ledgers
You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever?
Sadly we know that that threat will stay empty because of real-life tragedy. But while the Jokers attempt to tarnish Harvey Dent and Batmans subsequent taking of the blame definitely worked thematically, in its execution (Pun gleefully intended. Sorry!) did it honestly provide that final kick that a big movie needs? Or are audience expectations changing and appetites growing for more long-form storytelling. Those of us who would never condone the offing of the bad guy in real life still get a thrill when Alan Rickman
goes off the roof in Die Hard
. But we know that these movies are make-believe. Archetypes of good versus evil, too evenly matched for one side to ever truly win.
There was a common opinion that the wrong guy died at the end of Michael Manns Heat
one of the movies Christopher Nolan repeatedly cited in regard to The Dark Knight. But for a story between two so evenly-matched and equally empathetic lead roles, is either Robert DeNiro
or Al Pacino
winning not going to leave a taste of what if? in the viewer. Would audiences have been satisfied with a more ambiguous ending where we know one of them walks away but we never find out which? Perhaps the far more resonant endings are those with a fate worse than death. As always, we can look to Pixar and the Toy Story
films for the best examples. Toy-bully Sid will spend the rest of his day petrified of toys (and probably most inanimate objects) after Woodys warning to Just. Play. Nice. And as for Lotso-Huggin Bear, they could have kicked the stuffing out of him, but his final fate growing tatty on the front grill of a truck almost feels like a throwback to ironic punishments in the Greek afterlife.
Perhaps irony is the key. While the final battle between Wolverine and Sabretooth on top of the Statue of Liberty in X-Men
showed Bryan Singer
was still finding his way around a special-effects action sequence, for many the power-punch money shot was that of Magneto trapped in his plastic prison. Not dead, just rendered impotent and with his best friend/arch-nemesis Charles able to leave whenever he wanted. Yes, it leaves a sequel wide open. But it was far more satisfying than a clear win for the White Hats. Audiences know that bad guys like Michael Myers, Megatron and Magneto will never truly stay dead or powerless not as long as theyre still making money at the box office. So perhaps all that matters is that our good guy thinks theyve overcome their nemesis. It is their story after all. An ending where a goodie learns the baddies weakness but still shows mercy will always somehow feel like a cop-out. Mind you, thats when our villain usually reaches for their hidden gun anyway. So surely the hero is morally in the clear for any death-dealing that happens after that anyway. Right?