Unexpected Movie Cliffhangers That Left Us Hanging

15 minute read

By Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)

Cliffhanger endings, in which a story concludes without a true resolution but with the promise (either literal or implied) of more to come, were first popularized in the serials of the 1920s and 30s, and were often accompanied by the text “To be continued.” While the cliffhanger has gone on to be widely used in serialized storytelling such as TV, comic books and even video games, the format doesn’t usually lend itself as well to movies, which typically tell more standalone stories. However, with the increased focus on franchise-building and sequels in Hollywood, many movies have essentially become serialized stories in their own right, and the use of cliffhanger endings has increased in step with this trend.

Unfortunately, any movie employing a cliffhanger ending runs the risk of upsetting viewers who may not be on board with the idea of sitting through two-plus hours, only to be greeted with an unsatisfying ending. While bad cliffhangers can ruin an otherwise great movie, they can also dramatically raise the stakes when done well and make viewers excited to find out or speculate over what will happen next. Here are 20 great cliffhangers that left audiences truly surprised and chomping at the bit to see more.

20. Iron Man (2008)

It’s easy to overlook now, but the very first movie in the now gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe ended on a pretty bold note. After defeating Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and ensuring that his arc technology hasn’t fallen into the wrong hands, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) speaks at a press conference the next day regarding the superhero known as Iron Man. Though there is speculation that Tony is Iron Man, his identity is still technically a secret and S.H.I.E.L.D. stresses that they want this to remain the case. However, Tony surprises everyone by announcing to the world that he is indeed Iron Man and this is where the film ends.

In one fell swoop, Iron Man’s ending flew in the face of established conventions, as viewers had become accustomed to the idea that superheroes never reveal their true identities. Tony’s revelation would end up having long-lasting implications for future films in the franchise but at the time of Iron Man’s release, no one knew where the MCU was going to go next, making this one of the most surprising cliffhangers we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

19. Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending dream espionage thriller concludes with one of the most delightfully infuriating cliffhangers of all time and one that has sparked numerous debates ever since the film’s original release in 2010. After finally making it back home to his children, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) places his spinning top totem on a table and walks out of frame with the top continuing to spin.

Knowing that the nature of Dom’s reality hinges on whether the top continues to spin or topples over — is he still in the dream world or not? — we end up never finding out for sure, as the scene cuts to black right as the top starts to waver just a bit. While the question of whether or not the top falls isn’t as important as the thematic subtext of the scene (Dom finally got what he wanted and has accepted his reality as is), this is still a masterfully crafted cliffhanger on Nolan’s part that doubles as a metaphorical flipping of the bird to the audience.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros

18. Gone Girl (2014)

Based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, David Fincher’s Gone Girl is arguably one of the best thrillers of the last decade, with a truly shocking second-act twist. It’s fitting then that the film ends on an excellent cliffhanger that is both deeply disturbing and rather nihilistic. After framing her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) for her murder, the diabolical Amy (Rosamund Pike) has a change of heart and returns home to clear her husband’s name (ironically, by murdering a former boyfriend and framing him as her captor/rapist).

Unable to prove his wife’s guilt and hit with the surprise revelation that Amy is pregnant with his child, Nick reluctantly decides to stay with Amy for his child’s sake. This is where the film ends, leaving us with the knowledge that Nick will continue to stay married to a woman who could be plotting his death.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

17. Lost in Translation (2003)

Sofia Coppola’s Academy Award-winning drama centers on the platonic relationship that emerges between two American tourists – aging actor Bill (Bill Murray) and recent college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) – during their stay in a Tokyo hotel. Lost in Translation concludes with both characters departing, resigned to their unhappy life situations but having been permanently changed by the connection they forged.

But then Bob sees Charlotte walking down the street as he’s in a taxi headed to the airport and catches up with her. They embrace, with Bob whispering something inaudible in Charlotte’s ear. Then they share a brief kiss and the film ends, with both characters’ futures (and what Bob said) left up in the air – a perfect melancholic cliffhanger.

Source: Screenshot via Focus Features

16. The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his role as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 sports drama The Wrestler. An aging wrestler well past his prime, it’s established early on in the film that Randy’s push for a career comeback is threatening his life, as he has a heart attack in the middle of training, forcing him to retire. However, Randy eventually decides to give wrestling another go and schedules a return match, even though he knows it could kill him.

During the match, Randy starts to have chest pains but pushes on, deciding to finish the fight by climbing the top rope and performing his signature move, the “Ram Jam”. We never learn how the fight ends, as the credits start rolling right after Randy jumps off the rope, leaving his fate in question. It’s a heart-wrenching cliffhanger that ultimately leaves little doubt as to Randy’s eventual fate, as even if he didn’t die in the ring, his actions up to that point prove that he had little regard left for his health and well-being, putting it all on the line for one last shot at glory.

Source: Screenshot via Fox Searchlight Pictures

15. The Dark Knight (2008)

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is somewhat unique in that it comes to a satisfying, conclusive ending that also qualifies as a pretty big cliffhanger. Though he defeats the Joker, Batman is unable to save Harvey Dent, who dies in the aftermath of his kidnapping of James Gordon’s family. Seeking to spare the people of Gotham City from learning the horrible truth about Dent’s crimes, Batman takes the fall for Dent and becomes a wanted fugitive, with the film’s final scene showing him on run from the police. We eventually find out in The Dark Knight Rises that Bruce Wayne went into self-imposed retirement and given up the mantle of Batman, but even if we had never discovered what happened, The Dark Knight still would have ended with one of the most powerful cliffhangers in movie history.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

14. Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Although the original Back to the Future gave us the iconic “we don’t need roads” cliffhanger, its sequel arguably had an even more impactful ending that set the stage for a decidedly different third movie. Whereas that original cliffhanger was initially intended as a gag — neither director Robert Zemeckis or writer Bob Gale had put serious thought into a sequel at the time — the ending of Back to the Future Part II was fully developed with a third film in mind. After witnessing the DeLorean time machine struck by lighting and seemingly eliminated from existence, Marty McFly can only look on helplessly and assume the worst for his friend and mentor Doc Brown, who was in the car when it was hit.

Moments later, Marty is greeted by a Western Union courier who hands him a letter sent by Doc — from the year 1885! The eccentric scientist isn’t dead after all, but rather thrown back through time to the Wild West, leaving viewers to wonder how Marty could go back in time to rescue Doc without the DeLorean in his possession. Released the following year, Back to the Future Part III is now widely considered the worst of the trilogy (though it’s still very good!) but at the time, Part II’s shocking cliffhanger made it look like Marty and Doc were due for their greatest adventure yet.

Source: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

13. TIE: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001)/The Two Towers (2002)

While anyone who read J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy story The Lord of the Rings wasn’t fooled by the cliffhangers that closed out both The Fellowship of the Ring and its sequel The Two Towers, viewers only familiar with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations anxiously awaited the year-long wait between each installment to find out what happened to Frodo, Sam, and the rest of the scattered Fellowship. As for those endings, it’s a toss-up as to whether Fellowship or The Two Towers had the better cliffhanger.

The first installment in the trilogy ends with the heroes in dire straits: Frodo and Sam have ventured off to Mount Doom alone, while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli pursue a pack of orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin hostage. Oh and to make matters worse, Gandalf is seemingly dead. Meanwhile, The Two Towers ends with Gollum plotting to lead Sam and Frodo into a trap, complete with a lingering shot of Mount Doom in the distance, making for the most haunting ending in the trilogy. Whichever ending you prefer, both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers conclude in satisfying ways that indicate the story is far from over.

Source: Screenshot via New Line Cinema

12. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The first but not last cliffhanger on this list that features an actual cliff, the conclusion of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was pretty audacious in retrospect. As the first entry in a trilogy made by Disney, there was overwhelming pressure on The Force Awakens to deliver an authentic Star Wars movie that made up for the disappointment of George Lucas’ prequels. And for the most part, the film was a rousing success in this regard, bringing back fan-favorite characters such as Han Solo, Leia, and Chewbacca while also introducing some likable new faces.

There was only one character missing: Luke Skywalker. Everyone knew he was in the film since Mark Hamill had star billing but he doesn’t show up until the very last scene. New protagonist Rey discovers the Jedi Master living in exile on a seemingly deserted planet and right as Rey hands Luke his old lightsaber, the movie rolls credits, leaving fans to ponder what happened to Skywalker to make him abandon his friends and family, and where the story would head next in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which was released two years later.

Source: Screenshot via Lucasfilm/Disney

11. Kill Bill: Volume I (2003)

The first volume of Quentin Tarantino’s revenge epic Kill Bill is action-packed, with the third act in particular comprised of a series of boss battles between the Bride and her nemesis Bill’s lieutenants. As such, it’s easy to forget that the film technically ends on a cliffhanger, with Bill revealing that the Bride’s daughter — whom the Bride and viewers had assumed was dead up to this point — is still alive.

If Tarantino had had his way and been able to release Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 as a complete, four-hour-long movie, this cliffhanger wouldn’t have been necessary (indeed, Tarantino didn’t even create the daughter reveal scene until he knew it was a two film affair). As things stand, Kill Bill: Volume 1’s cliffhanger is a great way to build dramatic tension and raise the stakes heading into the second movie.

Source: Screenshot via Miramax

10. X2: X-Men United (2003)

Except for Logan, Fox’s X-Men movies are looking increasingly out of touch with where superhero movies need to be in 2018, especially when measured up against the pitch-perfect tone and style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, in the early 2000s, this franchise was pretty much the pinnacle of superhero filmmaking, particularly 2003’s X2: X-Men United. With its large cast of characters and allegorical narrative that pit the X-Men against a genocidal colonel intent on wiping out all mutant-kind, X2’s action-packed story leads to a climactic escape that sees Jean Grey sacrificing herself to save her friends. The film then ends with an aerial shot of the lake where Jean drowned, where a phoenix-like figure can be seen reflected in the water below, indicating that the franchise would be bringing Jean Grey back as the Dark Phoenix in the next film. Unfortunately, X2 was followed by the awful X-Men: The Last Stand, which made for a terrible adaptation of the iconic Phoenix story arc but at the moment, X2 looked like it was teasing an incredible third act for the franchise.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

9. Before Sunset (2004)

Unlike the other films on this list, Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, which chronicles the romance between Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) over multiple decades, is not heavy on plot. Each film has a languid pace and focuses on the connection between its two central figures, but that doesn’t mean that there is no story to speak of. Picking up nine years after Celine and Jesse met and spent a romantic night together in Vienna Before Sunset sees the pair catching up by chance over a day in Paris. The film ends with Celine inviting Jesse back to her apartment before fading to black, with viewers unsure whether Jesse will catch his flight back home to his wife and son, or stay in Paris with Celine. We’d have to wait another nine years for Before Midnight to resolve this cliffhanger.

8. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Both Matrix sequels had their fair share of problems, it’s true, but Reloaded and Revolutions are far from the cinematic travesties many now write them off as. It’s easy to forget now that The Matrix Reloaded in particular had a great ending that was essentially a dual part cliffhanger. On the one hand, we have the machine army on its way to destroy the last human city of Zion and Neo powerless to do anything about it after he falls into a coma as a result of disabling a group of attacking machines with his thoughts.

Neo and the rest of the Nebuchadnezzar crew (the ship was destroyed, remember) are rescued by another ship, the Hammer, whose captain reveals that they have a rescued survivor on board — the Agent Smith-possessed Bane! This ending promised that Smith, who had up to that point only been able to attack our heroes while they were plugged into the Matrix, would now be a serious threat in the real world, making for one deeply unsettling cliffhanger!

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros

7. Dawn of the Dead (Both Versions)

A horror movie so good that it even managed to spawn a pretty good remake, both the original Dawn of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s 2004 version are capped off by thrilling, albeit very different, cliffhangers. In George A. Romero’s 1978 film, the two surviving protagonists — Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Peter (Ken Foree) — manage to escape to the roof of the mall they’ve been inhabiting for the past few months after a zombie horde breaks through their defenses. The pair take off in a helicopter, though with limited fuel and no destination in mind, their fate is left ambiguous.

Likewise in Snyder’s remake, a small group of survivors led by Ana (Sarah Polley) and Kenneth (Ving Rhames) board a yacht and head to an island, with a mid-credits scene revealing that the group is attacked by a zombie horde, but the camera falls and the screen fades to black before we find out what happened to them. While it’s a matter of debate as to which Dawn of the Dead has the better cliffhanger, both films succeed in leaving viewers in a state of unease and although Romero’s film eventually got a sequel, it’s never been revealed if either set of characters managed to survive.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time when the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were worth watching. While The Curse of the Black Pearl is still arguably the best one, its sequel Dead Man’s Chest delved deeper into the series’ mythology and was still a swashbuckling bash (special shout out to Bill Nighy for his creepy turn as squid-faced villain Davy Jones). Unfortunately, the one thing Dead Man’s Chest didn’t have was Geoffrey Rush, who stole the show in the original movie as the fearsome pirate Captain Barbossa.

All that changes in Dead Man Chest’s wild finale, however, as Jack Sparrow is not only swallowed alive by the Kraken, but Barbossa makes his return in the final scene, brought back from the dead to help rescue Jack. The scene itself is also wonderfully shot, with the other characters seeing Barbossa before the audience does until he finally appears on the screen and quips “So tell me, what’s become of my ship?” Talk about a great way to build anticipation for the next film!

Source: Screenshot via Buena Vista Pictures

5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

The most recent film on this list, Avengers: Infinity War ends with an absolute gut-punch of a cliffhanger. Having acquired all six Infinity Stones, Thanos uses his newfound powers to snap his fingers and wipe out half of all life in the universe, as part of his plan to prevent organic life from depleting the universe’s resources. The Avengers are then forced to watch as half of their roster turns to dust and vanishes from existence, including such fan-favorite characters as Drax, Black Panther, and Spider-Man.

Following that emotional trauma, we see Thanos quietly overlooking a lush landscape on another planet; a look of smug satisfaction on his face the last thing we see as the credits start to roll. As of this writing, Avengers 4 is still a year away, meaning that we haven’t seen any resolution to this ending yet, but even if the next movie ties a nice bow on everything and fixes all of Thanos’ actions, Infinity War will still go down as having one of the most devastating cliffhangers in movie history.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

4. The Italian Job (1969)

While there are legitimate reasons why one might prefer the 2003 remake over 1969 original, there is no debating which version of The Italian Job has a better ending. After successfully stealing 4 million dollars worth of gold from Italian mobsters, Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) and his gang escape through the Alps, only to have their bus lose control on the mountain roads and begin teetering over the edge of a cliff (yup, it’s another literal cliffhanger!).

As the gold slides to the rear doors and puts the vehicle even closer to plunging over the cliff, Croker announces that he has a “great idea” for how to retrieve it … only for the music to swell and the credits to start rolling, leaving the fate of Charlie and the gang up in the air.

Source: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures

3. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

The film that introduced the world to director Guy Ritchie, Vinnie Jones, and Jason Statham, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is now regarded as one of the best British heist films ever made and features a truly riveting cliffhanger ending. After narrowly escaping arrest for their role in a heist gone bad, Tom (Jason Flemyng) and his friends decide to dispose of any evidence connecting them to the crime, which includes a pair of antique shotguns.

After Tom departs, his friends discover that the weapons are highly valuable and attempt to call Tom to stop him from getting rid of them. We then cut to Tom balanced on a bridge over the River Thames, ringing cellphone in his mouth, about to throw the shotguns into the river below. We never find out what Tom does, as this is where Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels ends. Honestly, we’re kind of relieved not knowing!

Source: Screenshot via Gramercy Pictures

2. The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a tense, claustrophobic horror masterpiece from beginning to end, but it’s that ending that puts it over the top. With every other scientist in their Antarctic research station having been killed by an alien being capable of imitating other organisms, Kurt Russell’s RJ MacReady and Keith David’s Childs share a bottle of scotch as their base goes down in flames around them.

Even without the presence of the alien, the pair’s situation would be dire, as they would likely freeze to death before being rescued, but then there’s the added tension of the possibility of one of them being the alien. However, we never find out either way, as the film ends before answering any of these questions and since Carpenter has never made a sequel, there’s been debate over whether MacReady or Childs is the alien ever since.

Source: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Could any other movie take the top spot? The Empire Strikes Back features one of the most iconic cliffhanger endings of all time, with two different narrative threads that significantly raised the stakes heading into the next film, Return of the Jedi. While common pop culture knowledge now, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father remains one of the greatest plot twists ever conceived and the fact that the truth of it is still very much in doubt by the time the credits arrive makes it a cliffhanger of sorts.

But then there’s also the fate of Han Solo to consider, as the Rebel hero is put on ice and captured by the enemy at the end of the film, leaving his fate in question. The fact that fans had to wait an excruciating three years to see these plot threads resolved in Return of the Jedi is just mind-boggling in retrospect, but at least the questions raised by The Empire Strikes Back were eventually answered. Could you imagine if we never found out if Vader was Luke’s father or if Han were never rescued?

Source: Screenshot via Lucasfilm/Disney

Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)