Dark Phoenix has finally soared into theaters, concluding the 20th Century Fox era of X-Men movies. Disney acquired the studio and will presumably reboot the mutant franchise, but Dark Phoenix still marks the official end of the cast we’ve commonly associated with these characters for more than a decade, give or take the film’s various timelines. It’s rare these days to get a genuine franchise-ender, since so many film series “conclude,” only for a new sequel to be announced a few years later. (We’re looking at you, Toy Story 4.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make it hard to get too emotionally invested in the end of something.
That’s why we wanted to create a list celebrating franchise endings. Your mileage may vary on how satisfying our picks are, or whether they even work as true endings, but these seven movies stick out us as memorable, conclusive endings for major motion picture franchises.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 & 2
Movies based on book series have a bit of an unfair advantage, we’ll admit. But it’s still possible for popular book series to fizzle out by the end (see: Divergent) and for films to follow suit, so it’s impressive that the Harry Potter series managed to end both iterations so well. Deathly Hallows is split into two films, but for the sake of this list, we’re counting two-part finales as a single ending. And particularly in this case, the choice to make the even split couldn’t have been smarter. Part 1 is an emotional character piece about our trio of heroes—Harry, Ron and Hermione—while Part 2 is an epic war film about the battle against Voldemort. It’s a perfect wrap-up of the seven-part series; even that epilogue feels well-earned.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2
Like Harry Potter, the Hunger Games series had the popular book advantage. Unlike Harry Potter, its finale was a bit more controversial, although not irrevocably so. The film version made some of the book criticisms—like Prim’s death and Katniss’ maternal life with Peeta—more tangible and appropriate for the story. Sometimes you need to visualize something for it to work, and in the case of Mockingjay, that was especially true. It’s a partially grim ending about the cost of rebellion, but it feels in keeping with everything that came before, and ended the series on the epic grace note it deserved. Overall, the Hunger Games film series remains an impressive achievement.
The Dark Knight Rises
Many would argue that this film deserves no place on a list like this, while others would vehemently agree. But the polarizing actuality of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series is part of its indelibility. There’s no denying how influential and lasting the trilogy still is, leaving a mark on the dark world of DC films, and inspiring filmmakers to go deeper in their characterization of superheroes and the world around them. Regardless of where you land on The Dark Knight Rises spectrum, you have to admire its Dickensian attention to bold storytelling. It also has a stellar final few moments, where we learn the happy fate of Bruce Wayne and see the passing of his important torch. It may not reach the heights of The Dark Knight, but Rises isn’t trying to be a follow-up so much as an ending deserving of the character we spent three movies with. In that way, it succeeds on almost every level.
This may not fit the theme of the rest of this list, which is mostly loaded with blockbuster fare, but we can’t deny the lasting power of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, one of the most beautiful and note-perfect franchises of all time. Told across three decades, this is the story of Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Deply’s Céline, an American man and a French woman who met and fell in love after a chance encounter in the first film, Before Sunrise. The films trail their love affair-turned-marriage, and the non-frills reality of making a relationship work. The final film in the trilogy is as perfect as the other two, and such a great way to say goodbye to these characters and their warts-and-all romance.
Breaking Dawn Parts 1 & 2
Yes, really. The Twilight movies get a bad rap. They’re arch and they’re camp, but they know it, and they deliver on every opportunity to have fun with the source material. The two-part finale is the Twilight series at its most ridiculous—there’s a vampire wedding, a vampire pregnancy, and a vampire baby, not mention all of the wolves—but also at its most perfectly deployed. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have gone on to be some of the most respected actors in their field, and if you watch these movies you can see why: These are actors who know exactly what they’re doing, and have fun doing it. Breaking Dawn is bonkers, and that’s the way it was always meant to be. It goes out with a bang.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Sure, there was a the mostly disastrous Hobbit prequel trilogy, and there’s an upcoming Amazon spinoff series on the docket. But when it comes to the Lord of the Rings as its own finite story, who are we to argue against this perfect trilogy? It really is a masterpiece of epic cinematic storytelling, and culminates with this breathless final act, that sees the Aragorn’s ascent to the throne, Frodo’s destruction of the ring, and multiple ending sequences that prepare us to say goodbye to these wonderful, magical characters that we love so. If you can sit through the credits without crying to Annie Lennox’s “Into the West,” you deserve an Oscar; this film has eleven, tied for the most Oscars any film has ever won.
We’re choosing to count Endgame as franchise ender because it did, ultimately, wrap up the story of the Infinity Stones and Thanos, a storyline threaded through the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s storytelling. Yes, most of these characters will continue on into new storylines—and new timelines—and many will make their way to Disney+ for specialized TV shows. But Endgame is the culmination of everything that came before it, and it was told perfectly. We’re still not over Tony’s death or Steve’s dance with Peggy, and we’re not meant to be. The recovery process will take a while, but that’s how all good endings should feel.
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Summit Entertainment