Film

Does Mission: Impossible prove Hollywood has forgotten how to end a movie?

Film critic Graeme Virtue on why the cliffhanger endings of the latest Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Fast & Furious movies need to take a running jump

Mission Impossible, Fast X and Spiderman

The neverending stories? Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Fast X and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Images: Paramount Pictures / Universal Studios / Sony Pictures

The hot blockbuster trend of 2023? From Fast X to Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, it’s a new-found appetite for old-fashioned cliffhangers. The trend harkens back to the origins of action cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, when serials would stick Flash Gordon in a death trap at the end of each episode to compel audiences to come back for more.

A good cliffhanger ideally leaves the viewer in a state of heightened, frightened suspense… then swiftly releases that tension with the next rapid-fire instalment. That stressful template is great for weekly serials but when applied to movies, it can unfortunately suck.

The return of this trope to multiplex screens in the 21st century feels like it represents something other than a throwback to the two-fisted heroism of old. You could argue a cliffhanger ending is an appropriate reflection of our fractured age of anxiety, a place where things like closure, certainty and truth feel forever out of reach in the social media swirl.

Or perhaps it has just taken a few years for the industry to react to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, which pulled off an audacious cliffhanger and earned over a billion dollars in the process (Marvel also had the good grace to wrap things up just a year later with Avengers: Endgame).

The 2023 cliffhanger craze kicked off in May with Fast X, the 10th instalment of the long-running hot rod soap opera that promised the finish line was in sight while sneakily keeping things rolling. The fact that Fast X would be split into two parts had been heavily trailed but audiences still seemed unprepared for the film to end quite so abruptly, right in the middle of a climactic action scene that apparently killed off core characters in a massive fireball (a very different kind of Toretto family barbecue).

Everything should be revealed in summer 2025 – so long as the hugely expensive franchise can overcome Hollywood’s current cost-cutting efforts, the ongoing writer’s strike and the rumoured bad blood between current and returning stars. This felt uncomfortably like the cliffhanger deployed as negotiation tactic: fans cannot possibly be left hanging, so someone has to sign the massive cheque required to make Fast X2 happen.

Next was animated sequel Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. After swinging gleefully through various eye-popping comic book universes, Across the Spider-Verse ended with a hero in mortal peril, far from home, while a small band of loyal friends vowed to track them down. Empire Strikes Back fans could appreciate the callback but that was little comfort to the parents of young Spider-fans who were angry, distraught or just plain confused by the big “to be continued…” splashed on-screen.

The press had long been reporting that the Oscar-winning original Into the Spider-Verse would be expanded into a trilogy but seven-year-olds do not subscribe to the Hollywood Reporter, they just want to see their beloved Miles be safe. This avoidable mis-step alienated the target audience, souring an otherwise spectacular film.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One at least flagged up that it was a two-parter in that hefty title. Ending on a “proper” cliffhanger – with Ethan Hunt in a death trap – would arguably be in keeping with the franchise’s old-fashioned daredevil spirit. Instead, it wraps up its final action scene but leaves the main plot thread dangling.

The result is satisfying enough but still seems to warp the usually crackerjack timing of this well-oiled series. The essence of Mission: Impossible is watching Tom Cruise frantically trying to cut the right wire while a clock ticks down to armageddon; Dead Reckoning Part One essentially introduces a massive pause button, and it feels weird.

At a time when the whole movie experience – from film-making to film-going – seems so precarious, these sorts of endings also have an added edge: now that I’ve watched this cliffhanger, will it ever be resolved? This resurgence has me genuinely worried about what happens next… just not in the way the studios presumably intended.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in cinemas now.

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