What makes the last instalment of a movie franchise special?

In a year that's seen the Dark Knight and Twilight franchises come to an end, Mark celebrates a few particularly fine final instalments...

This article contains spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises and Breaking Dawn: Part 2. If you’re still planning to see those movies for the first time, it might be best to read this afterwards.

Ending a blockbuster movie with a proper sense of finality seems to be a lost art nowadays, with studios eager to keep their books open for sequels, should their labours prove popular enough to birth a cash cow franchise in the future. It’s certainly becoming less special to have a stinger clip during or after the end credits of a film – it’s almost par for the course by this point, especially if a sequel is already in development.

Depending on the movie, a sense of closure can be crucial to the satisfaction gained from its ending. More often than not, there’s as much closure as in finishing one chapter of a book and then turning the page, except that the page will take at least a year to turn. Often, a film series can run until its box office returns begin to decline, or worse, not even get past the first hurdle, leaving their tantalising sequel hooks unfulfilled.

It’s enough of a problem that it seems particularly special when a series reaches its cast-iron conclusion. We’ve seen it twice this year, in two very different films. Christopher Nolan capped his rendition of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, and the Twilight saga drew to a close with Breaking Dawn: Part 2. Each of these films were more special than they would’ve been if they hadn’t been intended as final instalments to their respective series, as will be explored later. 

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It seems that in the last decade or so, the value of a trilogy as a unit of big-screen storytelling seems to have declined. Why have three parts when the story (such as it is) could continue until the ticket sales dry up? The Matrix and The Lord Of The Rings wrapped up within about a month of each other, at the end of 2003, and those two finales got very different responses – one had been planned from the beginning, and based on much-beloved source material, and the other followed a poorly received sequel just six months earlier, and got similarly negative reviews for failing to recapture the promise of the original.

A defence of The Matrix Revolutions, as a conclusion to an extension of the first film, would be an article for another time, but neither can we overlook the underwhelming exception that came to finish off the lumbering Saw franchise. The seventh film eschewed the numerals of the previous films to brand itself as Saw 3D: The Final Chapter.

By this point, the series was losing its Halloween supremacy to Paranormal Activity at the box office, and so its method of wrapping things up was largely based on gimmicks like the title, the introduction of 3D, and bringing back Cary Elwes’ character. The effect of watching the whole Saw franchise is like watching a particularly gory soap opera in its entirety, in which you could skip instalments and still basically follow the regular characters’ motivations and arcing storylines.

There’s nothing complete about that particular act of completion. Meanwhile, The Return Of The King is such a massive conclusion to The Lord Of The Rings, that we’ve all been lampooning its multiple endings for years. It’s an indulgence that is not atypical in this series of three-hour movies, but then part of what’s enjoyable about final instalments is the allowance for indulgence. 

You can pitch to the fans in a final film, without fear of alienating the broad audience that you might need to come back for another instalment. The Harry Potter series had long since stopped giving any quarter to newcomers by the time of The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, but that film is a great example of a series that indulges itself while also completing the story, rather than spending too much time saying farewell to the characters.

The agreement that gave Warner Bros the rights to make Harry Potter for the big screen also stipulated that the characters would only appear in films based on JK Rowling’s books, meaning that we’re not going to see those characters again unless the series is remade. Nolan had a little more freedom with Batman, knowing that The Dark Knight Rises was definitely the end of his version of the Caped Crusader, but not a complete stop for the character or his iconography.

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Without having planned the trilogy in advance, preferring to take the films one at a time, Nolan is able to bring closure to his version of Bruce Wayne, assured that he and Christian Bale won’t be replaced in order to do another sequel. Arguably, Batman Begins popularised the reboot trend so that the Dark Knight trilogy could get to an ending in which Bruce passes on the mantle of Batman. More than that, this freedom allowed the audience to properly invest in the possibility that Bruce might die. 

As much as we love The Avengers, let’s be honest: we all knew that characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor had sequels lined up in the next few years, so we knew they’d survive. And if they didn’t survive, we’d know that they’d be resurrected next time around. The jeopardy and foreboding that runs all the way through The Dark Knight Rises is a luxury that’s not afforded to films in ongoing franchises. In these final instalments, it’s a different story.

Breaking Dawn: Part 2 takes an unexpectedly enjoyable approach to this luxury, which has frustrated as many fans as it has entertained. At the point of the final battle, clairvoyant vampire Alice’s attempts to make peace with the über-camp bloodsucking king Aro segue into a shockingly violent vampire smackdown. Good guy favourites Carlisle and Jasper are beheaded in a brutal (for 12A) fashion, and Alice feeds Jane’s (Dakota Fanning’s character) noggin to a ravenous werewolf in revenge.

The fight is the best-shot sequence in any of the Twilight films, and yet, at the moment of Aro being killed, we’re told that this is a vision shown to him by Alice as part of her persuasion. Aro retreats, so the battle never really happened. In virtually any other film, it would be an unforgivable cop-out, but in a series that is based on romance and longing glances, and has been unerringly faithful to the ludicrous source material, the genuinely awesome battle scene is one of the things you can only get away with in the final instalment.

Still, the division of Breaking Dawn into two instalments shows another reason why we don’t get many films that properly finish their series off in style, particularly in those series that are based on best-selling books. If there’s enough of a tonal difference between the two parts, it’s justifiable, but it still suggests that studios are less eager to get to the end than they arguably ought to be.

The Hunger Games, as written by Suzanne Collins, is a nice neat trilogy, but it’s been announced that Mockingjay, the third instalment, will similarly be split into two movies. Having read Mockingjay, this writer can’t see anything in there that requires the extended ending, and hopes that the films will at least have some of the adaptations that made the endings for Harry Potter and Twilight so unpredictably enjoyable. 

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Furthermore, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit is now going to be a trilogy all on its own. If it keeps going at the same rate as the 165 minute length of An Unexpected Journey, it’ll take less time to read The Hobbit than it will to watch it! We’re still hoping for great things, but prequels and reboots are actually seem like the best recourse for studios who might otherwise be a bit anxious about closing down their franchises.

It does make things rather cyclical: perhaps every superhero series is destined to become like the long-running behemoth that is the James Bond series, refreshing every now and then with a new lead actor and continuity. The difference is that we never see a ‘final’ Bond film before those transitions take place. Where’s the room for new films, or even new franchises, if you can simply plonk talented upcoming filmmakers into whatever property is due an airing next?

We can only hope that Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is better received than the other big, belated prequel trilogy in cinema. Then again, Revenge Of The Sith was by far the most warmly received entry of the new Star Wars films, with many enjoying the way that it closed the gap between its predecessors and A New Hope. It might have finished in the middle of the saga, but it’s the best metaphor for what a closing chapter should provide in a film series: a complete picture.

Looking to the future, it’s hard to see that the final instalments expected in 2013 will do a lot to bolster our appreciation for this particular type of franchise film. Todd Phillips has promised that The Hangover Part III will be the last in that series, and Paul WS Anderson promised that a sixth and final Resident Evil film would follow this year’s Retribution.

Nevertheless, as far as franchise filmmaking is concerned, it’s hard to match the heightened dramatic stakes, the overall satisfaction and the palate cleansing sense of closure that’s afforded by a good climactic instalment.

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