There’s a trend in comic book adaptations of ending the movies with cliffhangers that only some members of the audience will appreciate. With the success of the Avengers super-franchise, as well as the development of superhero films almost guaranteed to be successful enough to produce sequels, we’re probably going to see more of it in the future.
All of our tags are sort of like that. If you don’t know who Nick Fury is, that’s just Sam Jackson in an eye mask at the end and somebody is going to tell you who it is. If you don’t know what Mjolnir is, that’s a hammer in a crater, “What does that mean? What’s the big deal?” You know, the THOR tag frankly is the one that is kind of most clear to a new audience, because “What’s that?” “It’s the cosmic cube. Oh, Loki is still alive.” Most of them are… and my first experience with this was X MEN 2, which we liked the idea of hinting to the Phoenix and Bryan [Singer] did in that little flash. I could see it as we always do opening weekends, sneak into the theaters and watch it play, you could see like one out of 150 or 200 fans went “Oh my God! That’s the…” And they go “What? It’s a light underwater? What is that?” But all you need is 5% of the audience to be vocal enough that it starts to spread and Nick Fury was the same way. That really spread. So I think Thanos will be the same way. During the premiere last night there were two guys behind me, I don’t know who they were, when Thanos turned around they went “Oh my God, it’s that… What’s his name? I can’t remember his name, but he’s that… Oh my God.” So you know clearly in the way it’s presented, it’s somebody important, so “ask somebody.” But don’t spoil that.
It’s an interesting way to get buzz from people familiar with the source material. There is the risk that it will alienate members of the audience who don’t quite understand why there’s some smiling purple monster at the end of the Avengers. But it guarantees some free publicity in some point. Even casual conversation is turned into advertising for the films and the source material.
The handful of Avengers viewers who who have read Thanos’s appearance in Jim Starlin’s Marvel work can appreciate the scene on an entirely different level. We realize that Thanos is one of the toughest villains in the Marvel Universe, a guy who relishes a challenge. So the show of force from the Avengers will only bring the team to his attention, an intriguing set-up for the sequel. Hell, the viewers familiar with Thanos from various video games like college dorm room mainstay Marvel VS Capcom 2 will know that the Avengers should have an imposing opponent.
The ending of Amazing Spider-Man is a bit different, teasing the fates of a supporting character. I’m not referring to the much-discussed mid-credits sequence, as that doesn’t play very differently for fans or those less familiar with the source material. Fans might speculate about whether the guy in Connors’s lab is an existing villain, such as Norman Osborn, Electro or the Chameleon, but civilians would understand the gist of it: Scary people are interested in Peter Parker because of the mysteries surrounding his parents.
The word of mouth cliffhanger came with the conclusion of the romantic subplot, with Peter’s decision about whether he should honor Captain Stacy’s dying wish and stay away from Gwen Stacy. That tension played off knowledge some viewers held about the previous movies and the comics. The first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film ended with Peter deciding that his duties as Spider-Man meant that he couldn’t be with the girl. And the comics showed what happened to Gwen Stacy when she stayed with Peter.
Film narratives have gotten more complicated, with more sequels than ever before. This technique doesn’t work with original material, or with straightforward adaptations of novels like the Harry Potter or Hunger Games films. But it’s something we’ll likely see more of in adaptations in which some people are familiar with the source material and the filmmakers have the leeway to tell the story in a slightly different way, so that even the fans are kept guessing about what’s going to happen next.