Stories are all about promises from the storyteller to the audience. If two cuties gaze soulfully into each other’s eyes, that’s a promise of romance. If the hero spends a whole montage learning kung fu, that’s a promise of later fight scenes. Skilled authors can subvert their promises for a surprising twist, but when the story simply doesn’t keep its word, that’s a cop-out. It’s obnoxious, and we’re not going to let them get away with it any longer! Okay, to be honest, we probably will, but at least talking about it can help storytellers avoid the mistake.
Spoiler Notice: A Master of Djinn, Moon Knight, and The Atlas Six
1. The Dark Knight Rises
Even though it was released over a decade ago, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy still ranks pretty high in terms of superhero movies with unsatisfying endings.* If you haven’t seen it for a while, the film’s recurring motif is that Bruce Wayne can’t be Batman anymore. First, it’s because his years of Batmanning have given him a number of chronic health problems. Later, it’s because of the acute health problem caused by Bane’s knee to his spine.
He recovers in both cases, but the story is still heading toward a conclusion where Bruce isn’t Batman anymore. That could have meant Bruce retiring and handing the torch to a successor. Instead, the movie delivers a heroic sacrifice shortly before the movie’s end. There’s a big ol’ nuclear bomb about to go off, and the Batcopter’s autopilot is borked. That means Bruce has to fly the bomb out to sea manually. Cue a solemn farewell from Commissioner Gordon and a tearful goodbye kiss with Catwoman, plus a lot of sad music, and then the explosion. Batman dead, movie over, right?
Not quite. Instead, we get a brief montage of Robin* discovering the Batcave and presumably taking up the Dark Knight’s mantle. Then, Alfred happens to spot Bruce alive and well on a date in Florence. What the heck, Nolan? If you wanted the movie to end with Bruce retiring and passing the torch to Robin, you could have just done that!
It’s pretty obvious that Bruce’s survival doesn’t make any sense. We learn that he lied about the autopilot not working, but we also see him inside the Batcopter seconds before the four-kiloton bomb goes off. Unless he has a Bat-teleporter or a Bat-undersea-bunker to jump into, he’s radioactive toast.
Beyond the practical issues, we have the question of why. Bruce has no reason to fake his own death. The only people who know he’s Batman aren’t going to say anything. If he wants to retire, he can just stop going out to fight crime every night.
It’s pretty clear that Nolan wanted the drama of a heroic sacrifice, but I’m less clear on why he’d want Batman to live afterward. He doesn’t seem like the kind of storyteller who’s afraid of a downer ending. Maybe it was a studio mandate to keep the possibility of sequels open? If that were the case, it would have been better to change the ending rather than use a cop-out like this.
2. The City We Became
The Woman in White – later shortened to just “White” – is gonna mess up New York City something awful, and the only ones opposing her are the personifications of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Staten Island misses out on account of being terrible, but the good guys are eventually joined by a lady who embodies Jersey City, so it balances out. Even so, as the final confrontation looms, it’s clear that White is too powerful for the five heroes to defeat on their own.* To win the day, they must awaken the avatar of NYC itself.
However, there’s a problem: Once NYC is awake, he’ll devour the personifications of his component parts. That’s how it happened with London, which is admittedly a sample size of one,* but the characters are all very sure. In defeating White, our heroes will have to sacrifice themselves as well.
Not only does this add some extra drama to the heroes’ choice, it opens up a whole new plot: Will they avoid being devoured, and if so, how? The rich and distinctive characters are this novel’s best feature, so this is a high-tension plotline. Will they discover some loophole in municipal magic? Will they perhaps band together and defeat NYC after defeating White? So many possibilities!
Naturally, the story goes with exactly none of them. Once NYC wakes up, everyone joins forces to defeat White, and then it cuts to a few weeks later in the epilogue. Everyone is just fine. In fact, they’ve gathered together for a cookout. Even NYC is there, considering whether or not he wants to date Manhattan. For a while, no one even brings up the fact that they were all supposed to be eaten.
Then, in what feels like a response to a beta reader’s objection, one character grudgingly says:
“The other cities of the Summit are astonished. Everyone thought you would be like the tragedy of London, but perhaps that was foolish on its face. I cannot think of two cities more different than this one and that one.”
And that’s it. We get nothing more by way of explanation for why they weren’t eaten. I have questions, and the most important is: How? How are London and New York more different than any other cities the characters can think of? They’re both Anglophone centers of global commerce, so a more obvious conclusion is that they’re quite similar. At least, that they’d be less different than, say, Thimphu and Monrovia. And whatever difference they’re talking about, how did it lead to NYC not devouring the other personifications? Maybe this would make sense if I were an expert in both London and the Big Apple, but as a humble Seattleite, I’m very confused!
My second question is if these two cities are so undeniably different, why didn’t anyone realize it before? Since five lives were on the line, it seems like they’d give at least some thought as to whether any actual devouring would occur. The obvious answer is that the author wanted the extra drama, but I honestly don’t think that was even necessary. White is hardly a threatening antagonist in the early and middle chapters, but by the end, she’s got plenty of magical power on her side. That means there’s already more than enough tension. It feels like the author added a conflict they weren’t interested in and then gave it a half-assed resolution.
3. The Last Jedi
Rian Johnson’s contribution to Disney’s sequel trilogy goes full iconoclast on the Jedi Order, and it’s not messing around. A disillusioned Luke Skywalker argues that the Jedi have to end, and he wastes no time listing their failures. He even brings up how badly they were portrayed in the prequel films, which is a low blow if ever I saw one.
When Rey finally convinces him to train her anyway, she immediately reaches for the dark side in hopes of learning her parents’ identities. Afterwards, Rey is convinced that she can turn Kylo Ren back to the side of good, and Luke warns her not to try it.*
As the movie continues, Luke seems to be right. Rey tries to turn Kylo and it backfires spectacularly, leaving Team Good in just as bad a position as before. When Luke heroically arrives to help, it’s only as a distraction so everyone else can get away, which doesn’t jive with the Jedi tradition of going in with lightsabers blazing. Yoda’s Force ghost even appears to incinerate the ancient Jedi texts.* It looks like the movie’s message is that the Jedi must end so something else can take their place, no joke.
That’s a daring move for a Star Wars movie, and it opens a lot of exciting possibilities. If the Jedi are gone, what will replace them? Perhaps a new order of Force users with a different philosophy, one that doesn’t result in so many chosen ones turning evil. Even Kylo Ren seems to be getting on board with his famous line, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
But then the film begins an awkward turnabout. As Luke distracts the bad guys, he proclaims that he is not the last Jedi after all. Presumably, he means that Rey is also a Jedi, though it’s always possible he meant someone else.
Okay, maybe the Jedi will continue but be forever changed. Nope! It’s then revealed that Rey actually took the ancient Jedi texts with her before Yoda destroyed the tree they were kept in. I have no idea why she did that, but it apparently happened. Rey also has additional Force powers now, which she could only have gotten from Luke’s extremely brief lessons. Finally, the movie ends with some downtrodden kids talking about how cool the Jedi are, immortalizing them as a symbol of hope.
So, hang on, are we tearing down the Jedi, reforming the Jedi, or saying the Jedi are very cool the way they are? Most of the film suggests one of the first two, but by the end, it’s clearly in camp number three. Maybe this is supposed to be a story about restoring lost faith in the Jedi Order. But to do that, it would have to address Luke’s many criticisms, which it never does. Instead, it shows that he’s absolutely right, and then it expects us to cheer for the Jedi anyway.
There’s no way to know for sure, but for my money, Johnson wanted to create a full-on, no-holds-barred takedown of the Jedi. Whatever you think of his other films, he’s certainly not afraid to challenge conventions. But however much Disney’s executives might have enjoyed working with Johnson, there’s no way they’d let him go that far. They still wanted to sell Jedi toys, and it would have been harder to do that if The Last Jedi actually stuck to its guns.
4. A Master of Djinn
This steampunk mystery novel opens in an alternate-history Egypt that’s thrown off the yoke of both British and Ottoman rule, thanks primarily to magic. However, not all is rosy. Even though Egypt’s situation has improved, the common people still have a lot of grievances, either from the legacy of imperialism or the country’s own rapid industrialization.
Into this minefield of inequality steps our villain, a murderer who claims to be a returned hero named al-Jahiz. In addition to committing murders, this guy is also a revolutionary, gathering big crowds whenever he gives a speech. Naturally, those speeches are filled with legitimate points about how unfair the current system is and how the mass accumulation of wealth at the top is impoverishing everyone else.
Initially, al-Jahiz’s audience is a bit skeptical, both of his political ideas and of his identity. But pretty soon they’re fully on board, and when the police come to arrest al-Jahiz for all those murders he did, it starts a riot. Later, al-Jahiz even brings his case to a summit of world leaders, though they aren’t especially sympathetic.
Now, I know it’s getting a bit cliche for the story’s revolutionary character to be a villain. Often, this is used to discredit the need for change, by painting those calling for change as unreasonable and extreme. Sure, a villain might make some good points about the need for low-cost housing, but they also punch babies while working out, so we probably shouldn’t take them too seriously.
But it really seems like Master of Djinn isn’t going that way, at least not fully. Even the protagonist recognizes that al-Jahiz makes some good points, though she doesn’t believe that’s actually who he is.
Unfortunately, this entire plotline fizzles out after about the two-thirds mark. From there, the entire story is focused on the supernatural plot, with al-Jahiz trying to build an army of djinn to take over the world. Oh, and he’s not really al-Jahiz. He’s actually an English woman named Abigail, and she was pretending to be al-Jahiz for… reasons. A lot of her actions don’t make much sense after the reveal, but that’s another article entirely.
The more relevant issue is that the political plotline disappears completely. No longer is anyone concerned by petty problems like unsafe working conditions, lack of housing, or low wages. Instead, the story focuses on really high-magic stuff like scheming angels and a ring that grants ultimate power. That’s quite a jump, and it leaves us wondering why all those political problems were brought up in the first place.
There’s exactly one mention of them after the story switches gears, and it’s a side character saying that her feminist society will now look at poverty as well. I guess the society wasn’t at all intersectional before. More importantly, this is effectively doing nothing. Black Panther sometimes gets criticized for a similar ending, but at least in that film we saw T’Challa doing something to help. In this book, we have a character talking about how she plans to talk about helping.
It’s completely reasonable if the author didn’t want to write a story about revolution or socio-economic change. Sometimes you just want a fun steampunk adventure in an industrialized Egypt. But if that’s the case, don’t have your villain spend more than half the story agitating for change!
5. Moon Knight
This next entry is also set primarily in Egypt. Our main character is a plural system made up of the posh and highly educated Steven and the badass and gritty Marc, which obviously leads to hijinks. Early in the show, Steven often blacks out to find himself in the middle of a fight that Marc got him into, which is great for tension. Later on, the two of them get the hang of sharing a body, and the story solidifies around their primary objective: stopping a rude guy named Harrow from waking up the goddess Ammit and killing a bunch of people.
Sounds simple enough, and after gathering a few MacGuffins, it’s time for the big confrontation. Steven and Marc can summon the powers of Moon Knight, giving them super strength and near-invincibility, so they’re ready to rock. But Harrow has purple lasers and a powerful hammer/staff/thing,* so it’s an even match!
Then Harrow gains the upper hand, oh no! He’s got Marc and Steven pinned with a purple laser and is slowly draining their powers away. This is it, the pivotal moment of the whole show. How will our heroes break free and defeat the villain, thus saving the world from Ammit’s wrath?*
Surprise, I don’t know! No one knows, because at that point, Steven and Marc both black out, and the show cuts to after Harrow has already been defeated. The main bad guy is defeated offscreen, which I thought was a joke at first, but in fact is what actually happens.
It’s pretty obvious what they’re doing, as the show has already hinted several times that there’s a third alter in Marc and Steven’s plural system.* We’re supposed to be intrigued and wonder who this new alter is, but it’s just frustrating. Defeating Harrow is the big dramatic payoff of the first season: it wasn’t worth giving that up just to have some extra foreshadowing about another character who won’t even be important until later.
What’s really striking about this cop-out is how unnecessary it is. Usually, an author writes themself into a corner by making promises they can’t keep, and the only way out is to deploy a high-grade contrivance. But here, Marc and Steven could have easily won the battle on their own. There was no reason to bring a new character into it! It’s also confusing since Marc is already a skilled fighter, so it’s difficult to imagine why he failed when this third alter succeeded.
Adding insult to injury, there’s even a mid-credits scene where we actually meet the third alter as he kills a few people. This is all that was necessary to introduce the new character; he didn’t also have to kill-steal the boss!
6. The Atlas Six
In this urban fantasy novel, six talented mages are recruited to work at a secret magical library. Okay, it’s not really a library since it hoards books rather than making them available, but we can let that slide. The six protagonists are told that after a year, they’ll have to eliminate one of their number, and the remaining five will be initiated as full members.
At first, the characters assume “eliminate” means getting fired, but it’s quickly revealed to mean murder. This is something they can’t avoid, at least according to the people who hired them. Without a sacrifice, the library’s magic will fail and the hoarded knowledge will be lost. The protagonists all accept this as true, even if it’s horrible, and they’re some of the most skilled mages in the world. If they say a sacrifice is needed, I believe them.
It’s good that the sacrifice point is revealed early, because for most of the book, it is the only source of tension. Only one of the protagonists has any other goal worth mentioning, and it rarely comes up. No one else has anything on the line, so the worry over which of them will die is the only thing keeping the plot moving.
The characters themselves seem to know this. When they aren’t summarizing how cool and special the library is, most of their time is spent either agonizing over the coming sacrifice or forming alliances to make sure they aren’t the one to get sacrificed. They also spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing each other and philosophizing about the meaning of life, but the only reason any of it matters is that they need support to avoid being brutally murdered.
And if you’re attached to the characters, this is a pretty effective strategy. Any of them could be the one chosen, especially those with the roughest social skills. They need to squeeze every bit of knowledge from the library that they can, both to defend themselves and to make sure they’re too useful to be picked. It’s grim, but effective.
Then, with the final chapter approaching, one of the protagonists is kidnapped as part of a side character’s secret plan. At first, the other five think it was a murder, but they soon see through the illusionary corpse left behind. After that, the sacrifice plot simply falls out of the book. It’s barely mentioned again, except for one brief exchange where the library’s caretaker confirms that since there are only five of them now, they don’t have to sacrifice anyone.
Confession time: I listened to the rest of the book convinced that this was a fakeout. I could not believe that after leaning on this thread for 98% of the story’s tension, the author would just abandon it without any resolution. I was wrong: that really is the end. The only other time it comes up is when we learn that a previous group of initiates also skipped their sacrifice and nothing happened. So… was all that talk about the library’s magic failing just a lie? And if so, why wouldn’t six of the world’s most skilled mages have been able to figure it out?
I’ve had a few weeks to mull it over, and I’m still absolutely baffled. The only explanation I can conjure is that the sacrifice plot was never that important to the author in the first place. It was just something to keep readers coming back to hear more and more about how awesome this library is. Since the book ends without any resolution whatsoever, just a teaser for the next book, that hypothesis feels increasingly likely.
In most cases, storytelling cop-outs occur because the storyteller starts something that they can’t follow through on. This is worse than simply not starting it in the first place. A boring story isn’t any fun, but if an author tries to fix the boredom by making promises they can’t deliver, that’s just going to mean a lot of pain and heartbreak down the road.
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