Rogue One, it seems, is a success. The Star Wars prequel opened to a massive $155 million opening weekend, the second-largest in December (only behind the nostalgia-fueled juggernaut that was 2015's The Force Awakens). There's going to be tons more to say about Rogue One, both as a standalone movie and as part of the overall Star Wars movie franchise going forward, but there’s one thing that makes it stand out among 2016’s biggest hits: it has an actual ending.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ROGUE ONE, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, FANTASTIC BEASTS, AND OTHER 2016 FILMS FOLLOW
Consider any major genre film from 2016, and almost all of them share the same inability to just tie up loose ends and call it a day. Films like Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad (just to name a few) all exist as installments, meant to serve an overarching saga that may never even conclude. Back in August, I wrote a piece about pop culture’s aversion to endings inspired by the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the issue has continued to plague major franchises.
Doctor Strange falls flat at the end with an unsubtle Infinity Stone reference, and post-credit teasers for future Marvel mash-ups. Fantastic Beasts’s Johnny-Depp-as-big-bad-Grindelwald reveal all but admits that the real meat of the story is yet to come in future installments. Batman v. Superman ends with the pointless cliffhanger of Superman's apparent death, even though it oftentimes seems focused on setting up up a far more interesting Justice League film.
Our stories today are so focused on setting up what comes next that they can barely reach any dramatic conclusion or catharsis unto themselves. At a certain point it’s easy to wonder if they’re even trying; after all, it’s much easier to make a sequel when every character can pick right back up where they started. In the process, pop culture has reverted back into 1960s Batman, where nearly every episode implores viewers to turn in next week — "Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel" — to resolve the previous week’s cliffhanger.
And it seemed that the newly Disney-fied Lucasfilm was falling into the same trap. The Force Awakens, as I've noted before, ends with a literal hand-off to next year's upcoming Episode VIII. And with potentially limitless material for spinoffs, prequels, and side stories in the Star Wars universe, it seemed possible that Rogue One would condemn the Star Wars franchise to an endless plot treadmill, where events progress to an ever-escalating series of stakes but never climax or conclude.
‘Rogue One’ ends
Instead, Rogue One is a refreshing blast of fresh air. In a world where every movie, book, and franchise is being mined to fuel an ever-expanding universe, Rogue One ends. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso and the rest of the leads all fall in the final battle on Scarif, dying in various sacrifices large and small to successfully transmit the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance. Director Krennic, the antagonist, is obliterated by orbital bombardment. And sure, those plans do escape on the Tantive IV, but that’s an entirely separate story. Rogue One tells us how the rebels steal the Death Star plans, and stops there. Or, to put it another way, if A New Hope never existed as a film, Rogue One would still tell a complete story. It’s a conscious choice that sets aside future franchise ambitions for the good of the tale the movie’s telling.
Throughout the film characters are introduced, a goal forms, and they accomplish that goal — all with some learning and character growth along the way. We're not left wondering where things will go next, there's no teaser for Rogue Two: This Time It's Twice The Death Stars. And while part of that is due to the fact that all the main characters sacrifice themselves in a variety of depressing ways, it's nice to at least have closure. A New Hope may be a sequel when it comes to plot, but cinematically, it’s a wholly separate entity. Rogue One isn’t reliant on A New Hope to be a successful story, and similarly, A New Hope stands alone without Rogue One.
The sacrifice of Jyn and her friends gives a weight to ‘Rogue One’
It's very easy to envision a Rogue One that ends with Jyn, Cassian, and the rest of the crew flying away for more adventures behind the scenes of the original trilogy, or one where Alden Ehrenreich pops up as the new Han Solo to start the promotional engine for the next spinoff. And those Rogue One versions could be perfectly serviceable films. But I would argue that the ending we're given, one that closes off the possibility of future sequels to tell its own self-contained chapter, is arguably much better. The sacrifice of Jyn and her friends gives a weight to Rogue One, one that movies like Captain America: Civil War — which, while extremely enjoyable, end with little change to the status quo — can’t muster.
Now it's obviously extremely early days for the fledgling Star Wars Story spinoff brand, and the only other upcoming film — 2018's Han Solo prequel — is likely to offer far more sequel opportunities. But here's hoping Disney, Lucasfilm, and other studios learn a valuable lesson from Rogue One's success and tell future stories as their own self-contained units. The underlying richness of the Star Wars universe already gives the films a connective tissue that's far stronger than what any forced tie-in or post-credits scene could offer.
Ultimately, the power of all of these films, books, and tv shows lies in the fact that they tell strong stories. And all good stories need an ending.