I mean the literal cliffhanger. You know–when a character (usually female) is hanging off the side of a cliff, with certain doom below. When this idea was originally created, someone would come along and save the character by pulling her up. The 1920s and 30s serials liked to end with this image. Tune in next week to see what happens!
Then audiences got used to it. Someone ALWAYS saved the character, and there was no suspense. So Hollywood made the cliffhanger worse–the victim fell over the cliff to certain doom. The savior lunges to grab her and misses. She falls. Oh no! But the smart, savvy savior does something to catch her before she hits. This had the added suspense of watching the lady plunge toward her death, only to be improbably rescued at the last second. The first SUPERMAN movie did this very effectively with Lois Lane and the helicopter (“You’ve got me? Who’s got YOU?”) as one example out of countless hundreds.
But this wasn’t enough, either, because we got used to the character being caught or otherwise saved on the way down. When Lex Luthor shoved Lois off the building Batman v Superman, we weren’t worried in the slightest, for example.
So Hollywood invented the deliberate jump. The character–now male instead of female–in an attempt to get away from the villain, walks nervously to the edge, then willing drops over. We gasp! But wait–he landed on something, something he could see that we couldn’t. The character wasn’t trapped. He was getting away! Marty McFly does this in BACK TO THE FUTURE II when he drops over the edge of the skyscraper to get away from Biff, but we learn seconds later Marty landed safely atop Doc Brown’s flying DeLorean. Richard Kimble pulls this stunt in the movie version of THE FUGITIVE when he flings himself over the edge to escape Tommy Lee Jones’s detective character (“I don’t care!”), who realizes too late that Kimble was diving into a waterfall (which should have killed Kimble anyway, but this is Hollywood).
But this also become not enough, because, like all the other cliffhangers, the device got overused, and Hollywood had to up the ante again.
So now we have the run-and-dive. It’s the least realistic, and I have to say it’s become the most irritating. It works like this:
The character–once again a male, since this is an active move instead of a passive rescue–is running away from the villain. Ahead is a cliff. Ah ha! The villain has the character now! But the character doesn’t slow down. Instead, he runs straight to the edge and leaps off it, arms and legs spread. He vanishes from sight. The villain, thinking he’s somehow chased the character into committing suicide, cautiously proceeds to the edge of the cliff. WHAM! The character and a flying machine or creature blasts upward, startling the audience and knocking the villain on his kiester. Saved! This shows up in AVATAR, THE AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER, and just lately in PETE’S DRAGON.
This is the worst of all cliffhangers. Not only did we audiences get used to this after seeing it about twice, it’s the least realistic, even for Hollywood action films. It’s completely implausible that the main character is committing suicide, meaning we KNOW the character will live, and we always wonder:
–How does the character time things so perfectly that he can land on the machine or creature WITHOUT SEEING IT? (They hung a lantern on the problem with Captain America. Cap almost misses the helicopter he’s trying to catch and he complains to the pilot: “I said the forty-second floor!” “You think it’s easy to count like that?”)
–How does the character even KNOW the creature/machine will be there? It’s a total leap of faith that makes no sense whatsoever.
–How does the character (especially a child like Pete) survive a twenty-foot belly-flop onto the back of an unyielding surface? Even if the character survives, he’ll have at least half a dozen broken ribs and a concussion.
–How does the monster/machine know to catch the character–or where the character will be? There’s never a way for the catcher to see anything. WINTER SOLDIER makes a half-hearted attempt at explaining by having Cap shout for the helicopter to catch him as he crashes out the window of a particular floor, but how should the pilot know WHICH WINDOW? The building has windows on four sides! Cap could come out of any one of them.
There’s no suspense in this move. When we see it coming, we KNOW the character will land on something, and since we know the character couldn’t have survived the move anyway, it yanks us out of the story.
It’s time for Hollywood to retire this bit of action.
–Steven Harper Piziks