Well, what started off with me the possible demise of Batman as we know him has turned into a big thing about the nature of plot in general and endings in particular. I’m going to be discussing a number of endings, so it’s pretty safe to say that there will be spoilers in this post. If you don’t want to know what happens to Batman (both now and in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) or Captain America, or the endings of of The Dark Tower, The Great Gatsby, Gaiman’s The Sandman, The Shining, The Sun Also Rises or Great Expectations, don’t read on.
So, as the Guardian books site as so astutely pointed out, Bruce Wayne was killed like one of the Grubers from Die Hard–blown up in a helicopter. Now, I have to say, that’s a pretty awesome way to die. If, in my penultimate moment, I realise that I am going to die by way of exploding helicopter, I am going to spend my final seconds on this plane of existence feeling like a total badass.
I’m sure a lot of people would. But Bruce Wayne isn’t most people–he’s the goddamn Batman.
Luckily, his body was nowhere to be found after the incident, so he’s most likely going to pop up again fairly soon. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, we see the bastard put six feet under, and he’s still alive by the end of the series. Unless DC has some serious balls (and no brain) it’s pretty safe to say that Bruce Wayne is alive and kicking, and even more pissed off than before. (The fact that it’s common knowledge in certain circles that Gaiman is writing a new arc for Batman also helps.)
But this got me thinking–what is it that makes an ending unsatisfying?
When I write, I have the hardest time with endings. Even if I know how something is going to end before I ever start writing, the ending is problematic. It can make or break a book. And it’s not just what happens–it’s how you write it. Endings are precarious, and if you don’t handle them properly, you’re going to leave the reader feeling disappointed, or even cheated. And techincally, they are cheated. They have maden an investment in your story–a considerable investment, if it’s a damn long story, both emotionally and in terms of time–and if you don’t give them what they deserve at the end, you’re going to lose your audience.
There have been a number of books that left me feeling rather blah at the end. It’s probably telling that I can’t remember many of them. I had to read The Shining for a lit course this semseter (yes, really) and that ending was decidedly blah. It’s all happy-happy–so happy-happy that you’re waiting for the monster to appear again and screw things up for the survivors. But no, it ends practically dripping in syrup. Because of that, the ending was anticlimatic, confusing, and altogether unimpressive for me as a reader.
Now, you might say, that’s because Stephen King is a schlockmeister who does nothing but write shitty, sub-standard modern pulp to please simple-minded, thrill-seeking readers. Well, first of all, I don’t believe that any of that is true, and second of all, he usually does quite good endings.
In his Dark Tower series, he sends the protagonist, Roland, back to the beginning of the seven-book series to do the whole thing over. But, he’s able to take something with him, something he didn’t have at the beginning of the series the reader had seen, so everyone knows that things won’t take the exact same course.
A lot of people hated that ending, and I can understand that. It’s even worse than ‘ah, it was all a dream!’, really. But the thing that made that ending work for me, was the fact that it was foreshadowed throughout the whole series (even if King didn’t realise it himself). Yes, he had originally envisioned a different ending, with a big confrontation and both Roland and the readers finding some kind of Godhead and ultimate answer in the tower’s topmost room. He had to do a hell of a lot of retconning in order for this new ending to work.
But the thing is, it still works. It just doesn’t live up to every reader’s expectations.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell. Endings have expectations to live up to, and the expectations depend on the story.
Generally, the longer the story, the higher the expectations. When you’ve got a comic book series, and the hero has to die, you’re essentially going to want him to go out in the most over-the-top-yet-poignant-and-symbolic extravaganza ever seen. (That’s why having Captain America shot in the head in broad daylight didn’t really work, even if it was a bold political statement.)
Having Batman die in a helicopter explosion isn’t enough. You’d need the helicopter to be the most expensive ever made, possibly filled with hookers, and it explodes because the Joker and the Penguin are both on there, on seperate missions, trying to fuck Batman up. Dick Grayson would have to die beforehand (and oh, I wish he would), and Catwoman would have to be there, and there’d have to be some nuclear warheads involved, and maybe even some terrorists for good measure. See, now that would have come closer to living up to the expectations created by having a character running around for decades.
But the expectations also depend on what kind of story it was. I remember being utterly devestated by the fact that Morpheus died in Gaiman’s Sandman series, and I refused to believe it at first. I’d grown as attached as I could, seeing as Morpheus was nothing more than an exceptionally aloof anthropomorphic personifacation of a neurological quirk. But he died in a way that worked for the series, so it didn’t feel wrong. It felt horrible and sad, but right and good at the same time.
The same goes for ‘proper’ literature–horrible endings can be wonderful endings. Gatsby dies, but it feels right. By the end of The Sun Also Rises, nothing’s changed, but that feels right too.
But even great literature can have crap endings. I hated the final chapter of Great Expectations. With a title like that, I was expecting something amazing. Instead, what I got was a total cop-out, designed to please Dickens’ fanbase. Luckily, the man himself had envisioned something much bleaker, so that was something of a consolation.
So, basically, an ending needs to live up to the expectations created by the story preceding it (and in this, the length of the story plays a large part), both in form and in content. The ending is the part of the story that the reader takes away–it makes or breaks the whole reading experience.
Surely, all storytellers must be aware of this, even if it’s only subconsciously. So why on earth did Batman get blown up in a helicopter?