[17 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So there I was, on Monday night, sitting in the audience for Warner Bros. screening of the highly anticipated film Transcendence. The Johnny Depp sci-fi effort, the first feature to be directed by Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, Wally Pfister, has been getting a lot of buzz, and while I’ll save the critique for others on the site, I will have to say that another aspect of the movie experience bothered me to no end. After the final scene, after the final conflict was resolved and the open-ended conclusion clunked by, there was a smattering of applause followed by…nothing. No real movement, except for a few old codgers who had clearly seen enough. No, the vast majority of the audience simply remained in their seats, clearly anticipating the questions left by the film would be wrapped up in one of those by now annoying pre/post/during credits “stingers.”
While these added on short scenes have been part of the artform forever, they were recently made fashionable (and, seemingly, mandatory) by Marvel. I’ll never forget the reaction from the crowd when Samuel L. Jackson showed up at the end of Iron Man to sell Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark on the idea of something called The Avengers. The preview audience literally went nuts. You could barely hear the dialogue over the catcalls and excited shouts. Over the next few years, we glimpsed Thor’s mighty hammer, the cosmic cube known as The Tesseract, a look at Thanos as well as Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, and most recently, The Winter Soldier stumbling upon the Bucky Barnes bio in the Captain America exhibit. Used as a means of connecting each film to the others, the superhero studio has become infamous for including these moments in their movies.
And now others have caught on. Granted, the stinger is really nothing new. Many go back to the ‘60s and ‘70s and highlight examples of a film touting “James Bond will be back in…” as an example of the non-visual kind of cinematic carnival barking. In 1979, The Muppet Movie contained an added moment where the character of Animal urged the audience to “GO HOME!” (something similar would also happen at the very end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). The comedy Airplane! featured a final sequence showcasing infamous California Anti-Tax advocate Howard Jarvis still waiting in Ted Striker’s taxi, while Young Sherlock Holmes established the identity of the adolescent detective’s future nemesis, Dr. Moriarty. Over the next few decades, we got even more random examples of the concept. Then, Marvel stepped in, and now every film has to have a stinger.
Don’t believe me? Last year, everything from Iron Man 3 to Pacific Rim, the Evil Dead remake to the animation phenomenon Frozen featured added elements and scenes. Sometimes, a studio stifles the trend (before it premiered in theaters across the country, the festival version of Oculus contained a mid credits moment which established what happened to the haunted mirror, as well as our young heroine Kaylie), but for the most part, the gimmick is out of the gantry and the audience now expects it - thus, the reaction at the end of Transcendence - read: disappointment that there was none. Something similar happened during Man of Steel. Comic book movie fans, convinced that DC would definitely follow in its rival Marvel’s footsteps, spent countless minutes mindlessly watching a seemingly endless list of movie professionals, hoping that the final seconds would reveal some aspect of the MoS sequel (they didn’t).
Of course, it’s easy to blame the viewer for being lemming-like in their group think. After all, when something like Ride Along ends, no one is sitting around waiting to witness the further faux funny adventures of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart - well, some are. Similarly, Noah didn’t provide a post-ending spoiler showing God getting angry with Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, it seems many movies don’t inspire the kind of concentrated anticipation that efforts like Thor or Captain America. Granted, Marvel started the most recent trend, so waiting around for them to deliver is a given. But why the others? The reality, in fact, may have more to say about the state of filmmaking than it does the gullibility of a stinger-expecting demographic.
You see, movies have gotten messier and messier over the years. Filmmakers, well aware of their audience’s limited needs (especially abroad), use a more chaotic kitchen sink approach to their narratives. They just throw lots of stuff in and then hope for the necessary turnstile twisting impact. By the final moment, there are usually so many unanswered questions and unaddressed plot threads that a post-credits stinger is necessary, if only to lay some of these storytelling concerns to rest. That would explain the situation with Oculus (though not why the aforementioned sequence was missing from regular release prints). There’s also a kind of geek speak in-joke quality to some of these stingers. Guillermo Del Toro knew people would miss Ron Pearlman’s character, so he simply brought him back. The makers of the latest Evil Dead understood the audience’s affection for the source, so they brought Bruce Campbell back to say “Groovy.”
Perhaps it’s time for a moratorium. Since Marvel started it, it can keep it. All others, stay away. No last minute revelations. No collection of subpar gaffs and goofs. If you don’t have an extra 60 seconds to two minutes to collected up your chaotic plot strings and bind them all together, perhaps your script needs another trip or two to the ‘doctors.’ By offering up these nonsensical nuggets in films that don’t even mandate them, you’ve created a monster. Maybe a better way to put it is, you’ve trained the audience to expect them. That would explain the near packed house that sat through to the very end of Transcendence only to witness nothing. Perhaps they were hoping for some magical way to make that movie more palatable. Whatever the case, the stinger trend, once seemingly novel, has now run its course. Let the superheroes have it. All other movies should mind their narrative lapses and deal with them before the credits roll.