A few thoughts on the rise of the Ending Explained article on the internet, and a few little problems with them too.
A spoiler for the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey lies ahead.
When 2001: A Space Odyssey emerged in cinemas in 1968, with an operatic sense of occasion, it left a legion of moviegoers pondering its enigmatic conclusion. Where most sci-fi movies of the 1950s and 1960s tended to favour definitive endings, whether upbeat or gloomy, A Space Odyssey went for trippy symbolism: cool-headed explorer Dave Bowman (Kier Dullea) ventures into the unknown, sees visions of himself as an old man, and is then seemingly reborn – perhaps as a more enlightened, less warlike being than the apes he evolved from.
It was the kind of ending to ponder, dissect, and discuss with friends, as people have been doing for the decades since the film’s release.
Had A Space Odyssey been released in the far-flung year of 2021, however, it would’ve probably only been in cinemas for all of ten minutes before the Internet film writing hive mind clicked into gear with the dreaded headline: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey – ending explained’.
It’s the kind of article we see all the time in today’s online discourse: no sooner has a major (or even comparatively minor) film or TV show come out, when along comes a wave of posts that discuss the conclusion and what it all means in the grand pageant of pop culture.
Now, in many ways, these articles – and increasingly, YouTube videos – are fine: they’re the digital version of the post-screening chat down the pub, with readers gathering in the comments section to agree or disagree with the writer or throw in their own suggestions. I’ve even been known to write articles that explore the endings of films myself on several occasions, so I’m hardly going to tear down the practice entirely here.
My best guess is that these Endings Explained pieces began to proliferate as Marvel took the pre-existing idea of post-credits stingers and added them to their franchise’s house style. Once Marvel movies began to take off with the advent of Iron Man, the subject of what happened after the end credits became a hot topic of online conversation. In turn, movie websites and their writers got in on the discussion: what does the ending of The Avengers mean for the future of the MCU? What does the surprise appearance of this character at the end of the latest comic book behemoth tell us about the next six sequels?
From there, the Endings Explained template filtered out to other genres, leading us to the present day where we have everything from the season finale of a period drama to the conclusion of an action thriller dissected for us in minute detail.
At the same time, though, I have three beefs with the Endings Explained zeitgeist. The first is the tendency for some writers to offer their view of an ending as The One True Meaning when it’s merely their interpretation – let’s face it, unless you’re the filmmaker, writer or showrunner who made the piece in question, or they specifically told you what the ending meant, you can only reasonably offer your personal take on what you’ve just imbibed.
Beef two: Endings Explained articles that do nothing but summarise the plot. There’s no added insight, no attempt to connect the storytelling dots beyond the surface level ‘character A said/did X to character B,’ and offer little I couldn’t have found out by simply looking the piece of entertainment up on Wikipedia.
Here’s my third, and biggest beef by far, though: not all endings require an explanation. When a film as rich with possible meaning as, say, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things comes along, it’s worth sitting down and pondering (and writing) about what it might be trying to say. A film as fast-moving, fiddly and mumbling as Tenet probably deserves some kind of guide to the various temporal pincer movements and other Nolan-y machinations.
Rambo: Last Blood, on the other hand, does not need its ending explained to me. I have eyes. I saw what happened. There is no further cultural fibre to be extracted, and no ambiguity of meaning to be pinned down. Step away from the keyboard.
Similarly, a production like The Kissing Booth 3 is perfectly simple to unpick without the Internet giving me interpretations. I once saw an Ending Explained piece for Danny Boyle’s calculatedly undemanding jukebox romcom Yesterday, and trust me, that needs about as much explaining to me as the contents of my own fridge. Yes, I can see that’s a packet of Cheddar cheese. I bought it myself last Thursday.
In summary, then: by all means, keep the Endings Explained pieces coming, Internet. But please, choose your subjects wisely. Not everything needs its own set of CliffsNotes.
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