In Defense of the Cliffhanger

Why it works in ‘Spider-Verse’ and flops in ‘Fast X’

We’re barely in the summer movie season and a polarizing trend has already revealed itself: the two-parter film. Cases in point, Fast X, the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse and the forthcoming Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. The jury’s still out on how the latter will play out, but the former two indicate that this is also the summer of the cliffhanger. Neither film’s title contains the words “Part One” (although they marketed both films as such). The meme-filled audience reaction to these abrupt cliffhangers has been primarily one of confusion, and at times, anger. 

Across the Spider-Verse’s cliffhanger works because there’s intent in the decision to cut off the story. It is so emotionally rewarding, that even with the cliffhanger, Across the Spider-Verse feels like a fully-realized picture. In contrast, Fast X’s cliffhanger makes no sense within the context of the film’s narrative, nor does it work as an ending. It exists for no apparent reason.

The strongest element binding these two cliffhangers is that no one is where they should be when the credits roll. At the end of Fast X, four valuable members of main character Dominic Toretto’s crew have just been killed by a rocket. Plus, the villain Dante is about to blow up the dam that Dominic and his son, Brian just drove down, which, in theory, will kill them.

At the end of Across the Spider-Verse, main character Miles Morales finds himself trapped in a remote dimension, with no way to get home and defeat the dangerous villain The Spot as he prepares to wreak havoc on Miles’ life. Meanwhile, Miles’ best friend/love interest Gwen Stacy assembles a grand team to help find him. In two films that base themselves around the idea of found family, the moments in which we leave these characters behind are the moments where they are the most separated from one another.

Solely taking the summaries into account, the stakes couldn’t be higher. This is a commonality of all cliffhangers: to cut the story off just as it gets good so that audiences come back and give up more of their money to see how the narrative concludes. 

In Across the Spider-Verse’s case, since the film’s last 20 minutes contain so many narrative threads wrapping themselves up or opening for the first time, its conclusion simultaneously feels like an ending and a beginning. Gwen’s story arc–specifically, her messy relationship with her father–completely resolves, giving the film a key source of emotional payoff. This development also allows the filmmakers to juxtapose the hopelessness of Miles’ situation with the hopefulness of Gwen’s, using intense crosscutting between different narrative threads and Daniel Pemberton’s wildly chaotic and electric score to elevate audiences’ heart rates and remind them that there are so many more things left to resolve. 

In the trilogy’s broader thematic arc of Miles finding his identity, ending the story here also makes sense. If the first film concluded with Miles discovering who he can be, it only makes sense that this film ends with Miles finally realizing who he is. From here, the next film has the necessary exposition to explore who Miles will choose to be. Cutting to black after all this doesn’t make the film’s ending feel like an insult to the audience. It just makes things that much more exciting.

Fast X’s conclusion is not thoughtful, meaningful or interesting. It exists to generate shock value. But, it’s difficult to create a truly shocking moment in a series that has become defined by its reliance on absurd and obnoxious narrative decisions. Characters have risen from the dead before, so it’s safe to assume that–despite getting hit by a rocket or eventually getting swallowed by a reservoir–everyone will be fine. Plus, when your main character drives himself and his young son down a dam and emerges with no scars to prove it even happened, it’s clear that we’ve transcended the realm of mortality.

The other possibility is that the sudden cliffhanger is cash-bait to set up the central conflict of the next Fast and Furious film (Fast X Part II? Fast and Furious 11? Who knows?). The problem is that the film doesn’t end by setting up a subsequent film’s worth of material. Instead, it leaves viewers stranded in the middle of its climactic battle. If the film’s runtime had been 20 minutes longer, every single narrative thread could have resolved itself. Cutting the story off in this fashion suggests there’s so little craft remaining, the only way the filmmaker can incite real audience reaction is through empty and unfulfilling storytelling decisions. 

Even though Across the Spider-Verse’s cliffhanger works–an unsurprising feat for a film that succeeds on practically every level, we should misconstrued its success as an invitation for other studios to divide their respective franchises into more parts. Making a cliffhanger meaningful requires having a broad perspective. Filmmakers should be able to justify why they want to include that cliffhanger, what preceding events from the film (and previous films) warrant an abrupt ending, and how things will pick up when the story continues. The sad truth is that about 99 percent of the time, films with cliffhangers have no valid creative reason to exist.


 You May Also Like

Kaveh Jalinous

Kaveh Jalinous is a New York City-based freelance journalist specializing in the world of film and television, as well as a working filmmaker and screenwriter. He is currently pursuing a degree in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University, and in his free time, he enjoys playing guitar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *