The following post contains SPOILERS for a bunch of pointless post-credits stingers including "Daredevil," "Iron Man," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Green Lantern," "X-Men: The Last Stand," "The Grey," and "Stealth." I'M GOING TO SPOIL THE END OF "STEALTH," GUYS. Don't freak out.
March 8th, Austin, Texas. The opening night of the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival. The remake of "Evil Dead" has just played the 1200-seat Paramount Theatre -- and blown the roof off the joint. As the end credits roll, most of the audience stays in their seats to wait for the Q&A with director Fede Alvarez. Just before the lights come up, from out of nowhere, an extra scene appears featuring the return of a character everyone in the audience recognizes. It is brief, unexplained, and largely context-free, and it draws a few cheers amidst a lot of confused looks. The scene can't kill all the good will in the room -- everyone's had too much fun for 90 minutes to let 30 pointless seconds ruin it -- but it certainly ends things on an odd, sour note. "What was that about?" the guy next to me wonders aloud to his buddies.
It was about Hollywood's modern obsession with what's called a "post-credits stinger." What was once an ultra-rare treat for those few brave souls who chose to wait through a movie's end credits has now become a compulsory filmmaking component -- particularly for a certain kind of blockbuster that's based on an existing property with a built-in fanbase. And since almost every blockbuster these days is that certain kind of blockbuster, stingers are everywhere now.
And almost every single one is horrible.
The stinger glut started in earnest with a single film, but its origins can be placed around the turn of the century, when Marvel and DC Comics' super-heroes started to come to the big screen with increasing regularity. Some of these adaptations began informally including post-credits stingers as treats for hardcore fans. They might provide a callback to a nugget of obscure comic book continuity, but more often than not they were an attempt on the part of producers to recreate the storytelling structure of comics on the big screen.
Comic books are ongoing monthly concerns. To ensure readers return for the next issue, most stories end with cliffhangers. "Will Superman rescue Lois Lane from the clutches of Big Sir?!? Find out in 30 days!" Stingers offered movies an opportunity to ape the flavor (if not the function) of those cliffhangers. Take, for example, this atrocious stinger from 2003's "Daredevil," which reminds viewers that Daredevil's arch-nemesis Bullseye is still alive, ready to return for a second movie.
By 2008, the time was right for a more ambitious stinger. After licensing out their characters for decades, Marvel was finally going to finance and produce its own movies. "Iron Man" was the first installment of a planned "Marvel Cinematic Universe." At the time it went into production, work had already begun on a new version of "The Incredible Hulk" along with movies based on heroes like Thor and Captain America. This ambitious vision called for all of these individual films to lead, comic book cliffhanger-style, from one to the next, and then to culminate in "The Avengers," where all the characters would unite to defeat a common foe.
The groundwork for these movies was laid in the thirty seconds after the "Iron Man" end credits. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark returns home to find Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury -- a character vital to the Marvel Comics mythos, but unseen through the rest of the film -- waiting to speak to him. "I'm here," he portentously intones, " to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative."
Cut to black; cue feverish nerd excitement. Jackson's appearance in the film was kept a secret to ensure maximum impact -- the studio even went so far as to release reports that Jackson was not in the film as rumored, and then later to deliberately remove the stinger from sneak previews to keep its existence quiet. The strategy worked: the scene was a surprise, and then a huge part of the fan discussion around the movie. And if you weren't smart enough to stay through the credits the first time, you had to go pay to see the movie again.
After that, it was all over: the informal trend towards stingers became an unspoken requirement. Now every comic book or fanboy-oriented property needed a stinger, regardless of whether the material suggested one or not. And pretty quickly the phenomenon got way out of hand -- and way, way stupid.
One year after "Iron Man," 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" came bearing multiple stingers. In one, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine sits in a bar, drinking and speaking in Japanese. In the other, a camera moves amongst the rubble of the movie's final battle to find the decapitated head of Wolverine's enemy Deadpool, who then shushes ominously:
The sift-amongst-the-rubble-until-you-find-the-bad-guy-who-you-thought-was-dead-but-who-isn't-dead-now-give-me-your-$13-for-a-sequel scene has quickly become a post-credits stinger cliche -- a few years before "Wolverine," almost the exact same scene (minus the shush) was used after the credits of the evil robot plane movie "Stealth." This Deadpool character hasn't spoken through the entire final act of the film -- it's not his fault, his mouth was sewn shut -- and he was also, y'know, brutally murdered by a guy with razor-sharp metal claws. And now he's alive, in pieces, shushing us? Why? No one in the scene is talking. Is Deadpool finally ready to abandon the life of a savage mutant assassin to follow his dreams of become a librarian? It makes no sense.
The stinger after 2011's "Green Lantern" is even less coherent. Throughout the film, Green Lantern (Ryan Reynolds -- who also played Deadpool in "Wolverine," and should clearly never appear in a film with a stinger ever again) wages intergalactic war with Parallax, an alien entity comprised of pure fear. With the battle going poorly, Green Lantern's ally Sinestro (Mark Strong) proposes the Lanterns create a ring that runs on fear; to fight fire with fire, as it were. Reynolds' Hal Jordan convinces the Lantern Corps not to give in to fear, and defeats Parallax with his green ring. Sinestro even shows up at the end of the film to help him, and to hail him as Earth's new protector. And then this happens:
Parallax is defeated. Earth is safe. Sinestro has a new ally in Hal Jordan. So why the hell would he put on this yellow ring now? Because that's what he did (years later) in the "Green Lantern" comic books, in a lengthy storyline where the formerly heroic Sinestro formed his own evil Sinestro Corps (evil and, apparently, narcissistic). This, I guess, was meant to set up a possible "Green Lantern" movie sequel, and to give comic book fans a glimpse of a popular concept in live-action form. But it's so totally unmotivated by the preceding events that all it really leaves you with is questions about the movie you just saw -- not the urge to see another movie by the same befuddled creators.
At least for me personally, "Green Lantern" was the tipping point for stingers. I'm as hardcore as hardcore comic book nerds get -- if these miniature bites of fan service don't appeal to me, they won't appeal to anybody. And, increasingly, they don't appeal to me at all.
At a certain point, you realize these stingers are, by their very nature and location in the film, automatically meaningless. Since most people still leave the theater at the final fade to black, these stingers can't really reveal anything truly important. If they had something vital to contribute to the narrative, they would have been included before the closing credits, where the rest of the crucial information goes. Even the Nick Fury "Iron Man" stinger, cool as it was, essentially established nothing. It still took all of "Iron Man 2" to establish Fury's plans for The Avengers. Plus the fact that Fury calls it "The Avengers Initiative" in the stinger was pure fan wankery, a reference to (and possibly a desperate sales pitch for) a short-lived Avengers spinoff comic called, what else, "Avengers: The Initiative."
Even worse, the rare stinger that's actually "important" is almost always important because it deliberately negates the risks that were taken in the rest of the movie. If a popular character is killed in one of these blockbusters, then that blockbuster's stinger will invariably be used to immediately walk that death back. 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand" made the shocking decision to kill X-Men leader Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). So guess who popped up alive and well in the stinger after the closing credits?
Similarly, the end of 2012's beautifully bleak survival horror film "The Grey" was marred by a stinger that suggested that Liam Neeson's Ottway, the last survivor of a plane crash decimated by wolf attacks, somehow managed to defeat a whole pack of wolves by himself with a bunch of mini bar alcohol bottles taped to his hands. Fans of the scene say that we don't see Ottway's face, and it's left deliberately vague whether he lived or died. Then why include it at all? It renders an otherwise solemn ending silly. It turns "The Grey" into a comic book movie.
Some stingers have a little charm. But most are gratuitous at best, and fatuous at worst. And on the rare occasions that a blockbuster takes some risks, stingers are there to indemnify the director. Who wants filmmaking with built-in escape clauses? Not me. Instead of tossing me a cookie that's supposed to leave me wanting more, movies can actually leave me wanting more by leaving these scenes out altogether.