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.