My post yesterday about Mass Effect has gotten me thinking about endings in general, and the expectations we put on a grand finale capping off a series we love. I won’t delve into Mass Effect in this post since that’s already been done, though I might write a follow-up about the phenomenally bad fan response a bit later on.
For now, let’s look at endings we all know and (probably don’t) love. Take the Matrix movies; best movie of 1999, and its sequels were the most anticipated thing since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was announced. The six month wait between May and November 2003 seemed long and strung-out, but when we finally sat in our comfy theatre chairs to watch Neo play water Quidditch with Agent Smith we were treated to a shedload of Eastern philosophical…stuff, a rather anticlimactic and expensive final boss fight and little-to-no actual Matrix involvement beyond the aforesaid boss fight and some rather funky gun battles at the beginning. Most crushingly, the Merovingian – probably the most blackly comedic figure in the entire franchise – was only given fleeting screen time, like a peck on the cheek from a lover who’s just broken up with you.
To say fans were disappointed is an understatement; the expectation for Revolutions to be better in every ass-kicking way were extremely high, and I myself was hoping it’d live up to the flash and awesomeness of Reloaded (though being thirteen at the time, my standards were much lower). We wanted more Matrix, more wire-fu battles and, for me personally, more Merv. Having something different like this served to us by a pair of filmmakers we’ve known and trusted for two sensational films was at best a bit of a left-field inclusion, and at worse an absolute kick in the balls by Duke Nukem’s Mighty Boot.
Now, I liked Revolutions, even several years later when I rewatched all the films after finishing high school with a bit of a penchant for deconstructing and analysing films critically. It doesn’t match the first movie, but it’s still good in its own right. And going back to the hazy recollections I have on 2003 I’m pretty sure it strayed from what I expected the conclusion to involve (there was something about Morpheus driving one of those mechas, I think).
Another example is Harry Potter – for now let’s focus on the books. I’m willing to bet if you’re reading this you’ve at least checked out the Wikipedia synopses. Expectation was even higher than the Matrix films, and quite unprecedented for a novel. JK kept the original manuscript closely guarded, and preorders were made months in advance for Harry’s seventh outing. Theories about Dumbledore and Sirius rising from the grave, Harry being a horcrux and an epic showdown at Hogwarts between students and servants of Voldemort ran rampant on forums across the globe. We all waited with bated breath, shivering in the cold Penrith air at 6 in the morning waiting for the chance to snag a copy.
And then, we got Harry and co. not being at school the entire year, some rather unnecessary deaths (most egregiously our friendly house elf Dobby) and a final battle between Harry and the Dark Lord that…was mostly talking. And then a spell. Then death.
Admittedly, I found fan backlash to this to be mild in comparison to other examples, but it was still there. Fan fictions spread like a fungal infection about the “true” Harry Potter ending, and die-hard fans insulted JK Rowling for murdering a part of their early adulthood with this piece of feckless dross. On the other hand, a larger number praised the conclusion and found it fitting, even the schmaltzy “19 years later” bit. The Harry Potter fandom split down the middle.
But was it a bad ending?
Yes, it was different from what we wanted. Yes, a lot of what happened was outside the boundaries of the hundreds of fan theories that evolved like internet pond scum. Yes, it made for a conclusion that was equal parts heroically awesome and stupidly cringeworthy.
But did it end up being a bad ending? Personally, I say no. Rowling did some daring things that may have left Deathly Hallows as the agonised final choke of the Harry Potter corpse, but I believe a lot of them paid off. It certainly wasn’t the best book – that award still goes to Prisoner of Azkaban – but it certainly wasn’t Order of the Phoenix angst-worthy either. It was a good, decent read, and even five years later I still enjoy it.
The two examples above aren’t the only big events that have ended with, at best, unexpected grand finales. Battlestar Galactica. Halo. The Star Wars prequels. David Tennant’s Doctor Who. Pirates of the Caribbean (excluding On Stranger Tides, coz that was just rubbish). Hell, even my favourite Bat-author Grant Morrison took it out of left-field with the conclusion of Batman R.I.P.
The ugly truth is that no matter how hard we might like it to be so, there is no way an ending of anything can ever truly live up to your expectations. It’s the same principle as a film adaptation of a favourite novel – with the exception of Jackson’s Rings films – in that it’ll never be as good as you think it is in your head. Part of the problem is that fans have trouble disconnecting between what they’ve imagined and what they see on the screen or the written page, and it doesn’t often mesh well. I solidly believe that if fans could learn to like things on their own merit – maybe not to the extent as their favourite installment, but still enjoy it for what it is – and maybe take a bit of expectation away from the final result then maybe we wouldn’t have so many rabid men and women threatening to burn down BioWare’s headquarters.
To draw on the wisdom of Zero Punctuation‘s Yahtzee Croshaw, it’s better to expect shit than to hope for the best in these circumstances. That means that in the end “if it’s good, great. But if it’s bad, you’ve lost nothing.”
So does that mean I have to assume Halo 4 will be shit by default?