Ever since we were kids, almost every movie we’ve watched ended with “and they lived happily ever after, the end”, or some form of it. Disney often did this quite explicitly in our childhood, and still does. Just look at Frozen: Anna shows Elsa the meaning of love, Elsa unfreezes the kingdom, Kristoff and Anna are together, Olaf is saved from melting, and all the villains in the movie get what’s coming to them. Truly a happily ever after.
But when did this become the norm? It seems that movies now-a-days have to end with happily ever afters or risk the audience’s wrath if the ever after isn’t happy enough. There are some exceptions to this rule, simply look no further than every season of Game of Thrones, but for the most part happy endings have become a requirement.
For instance, watching Edge of Tomorrow this past week made me think about its happy ending (spoiler alert). In the movie, Tom Cruise relives a certain point in time due to being covered in an Alpha’s (an alien) blood in the first battle. Thus, he repeatedly returns to his arrival at Heathrow Airport and upon his death (no matter when), he wakes up to the same familiar Sergeant and the same familiar “on your feet, maggot!”. At the end of the movie, Cruise breaks out of the time loop and finds the “heart” of the alien, the Omega, and destroys it. To reach this point, every member of the team that came with him is dead. Upon killing the Omega, Cruise also dies after receiving a fatal injury from a nearby Alpha, and is covered in the Omega’s blood. Somehow, this blood allows him to return to a point in time even further back where all the positive results he accomplished are maintained while all the consequences are reversed.
While I am sure that if I spent half a lifetime I would be able to come up with a plausible theory as to the reasoning behind the time-loop in Edge of Tomorrow, but the answer is much simpler. Audiences need happy endings to feel closure to a movie and walk out satisfied. This is something that is ingrained in us from birth until death, with cartoons and Disney movies comforting us that happy endings do come true, and superhero movies proving that death is only temporary enough to create catharsis. I too am guilty of this! My favourite movie ending is in the Dark Knight Rises, where all loose ends are tied and there are happy endings aplenty for all characters: Bruce survives and starts the life he was meant to have, Batman-free, alongside Selina Kyle. Alfred witnesses this and is relieved that both Bruce survived and will finally have a better life. Gotham learns of Batman’s sacrifice and honours him as the hero it deserved. Robin discovers the Batcave, Gordon continues being commissioner, and Lucius learns that Bruce may survived.
Growing up with happy endings, this belief dictates our love of movies and creates a great deal of anxiety when a movie’s ending is not clearly happy. More so, this belief contrasts very strongly with our everyday lives where happy endings are not always the norm, nor can always be expected. Movies that end on an unhappy note makes one feel a sense of incompleteness, as if the ending on screen is not the true ending to the story. Had Edge of Tomorrow ended with Tom Cruise’s death and the Omega’s blood beginning to cover him, followed immediately by a cut to black, the internet would have been abuzz with fans trying to determine his “true fate”. Movies that end unhappily feel open-ended, with the possibility of a character’s survival and happiness a plausible option despite evidence against this.
Even Game of Thrones, with its multitude of unhappy endings for beloved characters (Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, The Red Viper fight, need I go on?) has fans screaming and hurling abuse at their TVs only to find a new favourite character to root for next episode. Everyone keeps hoping for happy endings for these characters, and yet the only indication has been that Westeros is a cruel world and the fate of our favourite characters is no different than that of a regular-Joe in the land.
Cinema follows familiar patterns of happily ever afters, and audiences strive to find these happy endings even if they aren’t there. It is time for a more evolved form of cinema where happy endings aren’t the norm and instead are welcome surprises rather than expectations. But then again, that form of cinema already exists, and it’s called life.