“Virtually every page is a cliffhanger. You’ve got to force them to turn it.”
So said Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) many decades ago about the craft of writing. He’s correct, of course. Storytelling is all about keeping the audience engaged throughout a narrative.
However, if that’s true, could a genuine cliffhanger at the end of the story be construed as gilding the lily? I think that’s a fair question, given that right now in the entertainment world we seem to be going cliffhanger crazy. You can find them readily all over the tube, YouTube, the Cineplex, Spotify … name it.
Cliffhangers, the ending of a story that leaves the audience in suspense, started dazzling audiences back in the Middle Ages with 1001 Arabian Nights. Charles Dickens turned the cliffhanger into a trend with his release of his novels, chapter by chapter in the mid-1800s. And cinemas during the 1940s attracted fans week in and week out with the promise of the continuing adventures of Flash Gordon, et al.
In the last 50 years, good cliffhangers at the end of a movie or TV show often captured a cultural zeitgeist. Who shot J.R.? Who killed Laura Palmer? Could the Avengers return the world back to normal in a snap? But as of late, the cliffhanger is starting to wear out its welcome. They’re everything. Everywhere. All at once. Sure, social media has created the template of “keeping the conversation going” but how many movies, shows, podcasts, Super Bowl commercials, and magazine articles need to conclude with “to be continued” suspense?
Does any story ever just conclude these days?
Television is a serialized medium, the perfect forum for cliffhangers, but even there, the cliffhanger is burdensome. For starters, almost every commercial break ends with some sort of narrative cliffhanger to ensure viewers come back, but now far too many series seasons are ending with cliffhangers, too. The latest season of “CSI?" Cliffhanger. “Stranger Things?" Cliffhanger. “Hacks?" Yes, even sitcoms are on the cliffhanger bandwagon. And with that many cliffhangers, the trope no longer feels special. As Syndrome quipped in The Incredibles—“When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
I grew exhausted by the excesses of cliffhangers in the aftermath of the first season of “Loki” streaming on Disney Plus. It ended its first season on July 14, 2021, with a terrific one. In its cliffhanger, Loki broke a timeline which ended up unleashing a crazed multiverse with all kinds of alternate realities. Where would he fit in it all, worlds he couldn’t imagine?
That ending left exciting possibilities for Loki. It was a compelling and suspenseful set-up for his second season.
But then two things happened:
The first was that it wasn’t just the set-up for Loki’s second season, but a set-up for the entire next phase of the MCU en masse. Along with Loki’s triggering of alternate worlds, his cliffhanger also set up his show’s villainous He Who Remains (AKA Kang the Conqueror), as the “big bad” for all the films and shows coming up in the next few years.
That may be keeping in line with what the Marvel comics established many years ago, but such a scheme seemed to render the “Loki” series on TV as too much of a pawn to set up the bigger picture. Suddenly, the second series of the show felt less crucial, maybe even secondary.
It didn’t help matters either that the timing of the return of “Loki” would end up being over two years later. The second season is due to start on October 6th and that’s a long wait between chapters. I love Tom Hiddleston in the series (along with his costar Owen Wilson, pictured in my caricature) but it felt like I was waiting less for his Loki and more for some version of Godot in the MCU.
One could argue that the films in the MCU had already abused the cliffhanger conceit well before that. Almost every film ends with a cliffhanger or two shown during the end credit sequence. With 33 films so far in the MCU since Iron Man premiered in 2008, that’s a lot of end-credit cliffhangers. All the more when you add such tropes into the other entries in the MCU from their series to specials and more.
Such “To be continued” scenes used to keep audiences salivating for more, but now they’re becoming more and more obtrusive and less and less memorable.
Consider, if you will, the end-credits cliffhanger of 2022’s Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. It showcased an intergalactic sorceress Clea (Charlize Theron) visiting NYC to confront Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) about all the damage his recent actions had infiltrated on her realm. She implored him to join her to fix matters and—poof!—off he goes. (Perhaps they could work together with Loki on such reparations.)
Suspenseful and intriguing, indeed, but when exactly would that next chapter arrive? As of this writing, there’s little known about the potential premiere date in cinemas, but my guess is we won’t be seeing anything until at least 2025. And if that’s the case, is it really the textbook definition of a cliffhanger? And if not, was that end credits abruption really necessary?
Adding further time to the wait? The strikes called by the WGA and SAG/AFTRA. Their causes are just and essential, yet as their walkout continues, further seasons of shows will be delayed, as will any new features beyond those already in the can. It could be a very sparse world of entertainment come the early months of 2024. The studios truly need to meet this moment and pony up. Not only will everyone in Hollywood lose, but the audiences will exponentially. And with each passing month, will any of those cliffhangers set up at the end of series or movies even matter?
Ironically, the ongoing WGA and SAG/AFTRA strikes have created their very own tension-filled cliffhangers. Can Hollywood reach a compromise? Will production ever be the same? Suspenseful? Yeah. I just hope the good guys win.
Cliffhangers once drove entire novels like One Thousand and One Nights in the Middle Ages. Charles Dickens exploited them to keep his audience on pins and needles waiting for the next chapter in his serialized stories. The likes of “Flash Gordon” and “Jungle Queen” shorts made a trip to the bijou a weekly must in the 40s. And the MCU made great hay out of them in their post-credit sequences for the past decade.
But it’s seemingly reached a saturation point in the MCU and beyond.
*Feature image by Jeff York