In the last year alone, Disney has released the semi-final chapter of two of the most profitable movie sagas of all time: Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Avengers: Infinity War. The two films have both generated controversy, though both could reasonably be considered great films in their own right. Enough time has been spent discussing the inner-fandom clash affecting the ratings of TLJ and the looming plot holes in Infinity War — but the two films share another element that sets them apart from other movies in their respective cinematic universes.
Besides being the latest product of the Disney behemoth’s IP profiteering churn, both movies end in a downturn. TLJ ends with the rebellion pushed underground, their numbers down to the tens instead of the hundreds they once were, and Luke Skywalker, their martyr, perishing in service of their mission. Even bleaker is Infinity War, in which one of the most fully realized Marvel cinematic villains yet achieves his Scroogish goal of solving overpopulation — the only cost is about half of the heroes we came to know and love evaporating into dust. The common thread: Both movies are the darkest hour in the overall story of each respective IP, leaving audiences with an unhappy ending rather than the rousing victory we’ve come to expect from franchise films.
Unhappy endings like this are uncommon for blockbusters, whose formula is a safe bet when producing movies. It’s not as if fans can’t handle bleak endings — though, imagine being a parent who has taken their kid to the latest superhero flick only to have to explain that sometimes the bad guys do really win and people do really die. This is a lesson blockbusters usually don’t teach us.
So what does it mean that Disney is giving us this lesson?
The move towards serialized movies — also sometimes called the TV-ification of movies — makes long-form storytelling paramount. The arc of the hero has a structure, no matter what story circle model you follow, and both TLJ and Infinity War leave us at the darkest part of our heroic teams’ storylines. Ray, Finn, Leia and Poe suffer greatly and regroup while Kylo Ren grows yet more unstable. Thanos watches the sun rise over a grateful universe. In most novels, this is the mini-crisis where the heroes get their asses handed to them before returning for the climax. Joseph Campbell might have called it The Abyss; Dan Harmon calls it Paying the Price.
Usually, the whole of the story circle is contained within a single movie. Campbell worked directly with George Lucas on A New Hope, which follows his Hero’s Journey beat for beat. But you can see this structure play out in plenty of movies, especially from Disney. Moana, for example, is another near-perfect Hero’s Journey, but then, so is the first Iron Man. Disney feeds us the call-conflict-resolution epic squashed into a two-hour flick and they typically do it well, even if some tertiary superhero flicks and one-off Star Wars (cough, Solo, cough) have been less than rapturous. But with TLJ and Infinity War, they’ve finally taken the next step into acknowledging their larger narrative at work. What are all these vaguely-connected Marvel movies (origin stories, post-credit scenes, and Avengers sequels alike) leading up to? Well now we have an idea of where we are in the circle, and it is the darkest moment before the dawn.
This is a trick not unfamiliar to a few movie-makers, at least. Lucas, of course, built unhappy endings and serialization into each Star Wars trilogy, in both successful and unsuccessful ways. TLJ has been compared to Empire Strikes Back and with good reason, as both occupy the same middle act of the trilogy, necessitating an end bleak enough to build towards the finale. The Star Wars movies are called “episodes” for a reason, which indicates Lucas was on to something before the rest of Hollywood, but now, with epic shows such as Game of Thrones, cinematic and twist-heavy content like Westworld, and most “Netflix-model” (that is, all episodes released all at once) seasons acting as tiny ten-hour movies, Disney’s choice to hammer the nail of the middle act hard into their biggest IPs is a bold and intentional move that takes the larger story they’re telling seriously.
It’s also the perfect time to do this, given that the continuous slog of cash-grabbing at IP and spoon-feeding audiences ham-fisted happy ending after ham-fisted happy ending of superhero narrative has become kind of exhausting. We get it, you own us, we love it and we hate it. Which is why leaving audiences with the darkest moment possible is a way of revealing that they’ve picked up what audiences are putting down.
The query now is twofold: 1) whether or not the Avengers’ and the Star Wars’ respective finales will be worthy of the expectations Disney has set for itself, and 2) whether or not they’ll go back to their old tricks after they resolve these two narratives. We have all heard that this is the final Star Wars trilogy — but we’ve heard that before. Studios don’t like to give up their IP because it guarantees viewership, so I doubt they’ll be satisfied leaving that cash flow at the door. But perhaps there’s hope that, if they do continue to create new chapters (and they most certainly will), they will continue to build structures that are appropriate for the overall story, not just the individual movie itself.