Action movies are some of the most popular and profitable genres in film. They offer a certain thrill for audience members, allowing them to live vicariously through the characters and experience sensations and locations they may never get to in real life. The traditional action movie, like many blockbuster films, tends to have a happy ending. One where the hero wins, the villain is defeated, and the story is resolved to leave the audience to end the experience on a positive note. Even in films like Aliens, which is an action horror film, the movie’s resolution sees a happy ending.
However, there are cases when a filmmaker breaks from convention. There are times when an action movie goes for the bleakest option, showcasing an ending that gives a rather dark and pessimistic feeling. What happens if a movie ends with the villain winning? Or the heroes truly broken? Sometimes a crowd-pleasing film can still manage to sneak in a tragic ending, one the audiences may not register on first viewing. These nine action movies, some installments in major franchises and beloved films, feature some of the bleakest endings.
Released in 1987, RoboCop tells the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a cop in future Detroit City who after being brutally massacred by a gang is used by Omni Consumer Products, OCP, to turn him into the titular RoboCop. Unaware of his former life, Murphy finally begins to investigate his own murder where he discovers a conspiracy that OCP is connected to. RoboCop is a cutting satire and shows the dangers of privatizing the police force, as RoboCop cannot arrest OCP employees due to his programming, meaning they can rewrite the law at their own discretion.
Yet even when Murphy finally defeats the corporate Senior President who was behind his murder, in the end, OCP has already won because they have control of the city before the film even starts and there will just be another businessman to replace him in the film’s evil (semi)fictional corporation. RoboCop defeats the film’s primary antagonist, but the bad guys have already won.
8 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1
Warner Bros.’ decision to split the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows book into two films meant that structurally, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 would need to end at the midpoint of the novel, which is the bleakest moment in the series. The entire film is filled with a sense of dread, as the bright colorful warm colors of the previous films are gone and grey clouds hang over the heroes. The safety of Hogwarts is nowhere to be found, as the heroes are on the run for the entire film.
By the time the credits roll, the Harry Potter characters are truly at their lowest point as they are still looking for multiple Horcruxes, Voldemort has gained control of the Elder Wand making him one of the most powerful wizards and the world, and the house-elf ally and friend Dobby has died. While characters in the Potter franchise have died before, Dobby’s death is particularly brutal as it is not a quick death but a slow one in Harry’s arms. This young man holds in his arms someone he has known since he was a boy, and with this moment the war for the future of the Wizarding World begins to truly feel both real and costly. While it was only an eight-month wait for the final entry, audiences who walked out of Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 likely weren’t feeling the same uplifting experience of past Harry Potter films.
The 1987 action film Predator follows an elite paramilitary rescue team on a mission to save hostages in a guerrilla-held territory in a Central American rainforest, only to be killed off one at a time by a lone alien hunter known as The Predator. By the end of the movie, the only survivor is Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who manages to kill the alien hunter. The movie’s great final shot sees Dutch, while alive, looking out the window of the helicopter at the jungle a shell of the man he was when he entered.
The tragedy is that Dutch and his men would not have been in the situation to be hunted by the Predator if they weren’t lied to by the government, who used them as pawns to stop a Soviet-backed invasion despite Dutch and his team explicitly saying they are a rescue team and not assassins. Yet the U.S. military used the men’s noble intentions to carry out a mission, one that got cost the team their lives. Dutch may have survived his encounter with the Predator, but he lost his team, his friends, and a large part of himself.
6 First Blood
Released in 1982, First Blood is a remarkably different film from the rest of the Rambo franchise. The story sees a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, John Rambo, harassed by the law enforcement of a small town and taken in. This triggers his stress and flashbacks, so Rambo breaks free and begins a one-man war with those who are pursuing him. The entire movie’s plot is kicked off by the police mistreating John Rambo and, in the end, Rambo breaks down having an emotional moment, collapsing in tears.
He reveals he’s unable to hold a job due to his PTSD, was treated cruelly by Americans after he returned home from the war, and was abandoned by his government to which he and his friends gave so much. At the end of the film, Rambo is taken to prison, a bleak ending for a veteran in need of mental help. While the later sequels show Rambo getting pardoned and being used as the ultimate weapon, the first film in the franchise ends on a bitter note with no real victory, only suffering.
5 Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Released in 2005, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith was at the time considered the last film in the Star Wars franchise. As it had to bring everything full circle to the point of the original trilogy, audiences knew this would not be the uplifting adventure of the previous entries. The first PG-13 film in the franchise, the movie truly earns its rating from Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) killing young Jedi children to becoming Darth Vader with his brutal burning on the planet Mustafar. If this movie was not Star Wars, and audiences did not think it would be the final Star Wars movie, one has to wonder if any other blockbuster film could get away with this dark ending and still earn $868.4 million worldwide.
By the end of the movie, the bad guys had won the day: the Jedi Order is no more, Padme is dead, and the Empire had taken over the galaxy while the remaining heroes went into exile. However, in traditional Star Wars fashion even the darkest entry in the series still ends with a glimmer of hope as the final shot connects the prequel and original trilogies together, with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) handing a baby Luke to his aunt Beru and uncle Owen as they look on at the twin suns. The galaxy is certainly at its lowest point, but a new hope lives on.
Released in 2018 on a budget of $3 million, Upgrade is a cyberpunk action movie about Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who after being left paralyzed after a mugging that resulted in his wife’s death is implanted with an experimental technology called STEM that gives him control of his body. However, Grey eventually realizes his wife’s death was orchestrated, and that STEM is slowly taking over his body. In the film’s climax, STEM has taken full control of Grey’s body after Grey’s mental state snapped, and believes himself in an idyllic state while his body is now under the possession of artificial intelligence who got the life it orchestrated.
Upgrade’s ending is haunting, with the main hero a prisoner of their own mind and their body now stolen by a machine whose goals following achieving a human body remain a mystery to the audience. The future is not known for STEM and that somehow is much scarier.
Director Park Chan-wook’s 2003 South Korean action revenge film Oldboy has an ending that is far from triumphant and one that leaves audiences truly in shock and horror. Oldboy is the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is imprisoned in a cell that resembles a hotel room for 15 years without knowing the identity of his captor or his captor’s motives. When he is mysteriously released he attempts to discover the conspiracy, as in the fifteen years his wife was killed and his daughter was put up for adoption. He meets and falls in love with Mi-Do (Kang Hye-jung) a woman who may have a connection.
The film’s climax sees the conspiracy unfold, as Oh Dae-su is put through humiliation, torment, and pain when he discovers how he has been manipulated this whole time, and the audience is left to watch in horror as the main villains plan to commit the most psychological pain on the protagonist has unfolded and in the end, has won. There is no heroic victory, just psychological torment taken to the most disturbing endpoint where someone is physically and emotionally broken.
2 Avengers: Infinity War
The ending of Avengers: Infinity War is likely to be remembered as one of the most shocking movies moments for many audience members. While Thanos snapping his fingers and wiping out half of life in the universe was a major part of the Infinity Gauntlet comic the film was adapting, it is safe to say nobody expected them to do that in a movie. Yet by the time Avengers: Infinity War comes to an end, despite the heroes winning in all the previous movies, the popular villain ends up winning. The heroes are left to watch those whom they love vanish into thin air, and then sit with the fact that they know their failure resulted in the death of countless lives. Traditionally even movies that are considered the darkest chapter like The Empire Strikes Back ends with a glimmer of hope, but not here. This movie ends with utter defeat.
Even if the deaths were undone in the sequel, or audiences knew that they wouldn’t be permanent, it still did not change the fact that in the summer of 2018 when sitting in a movie theater and seeing everyone fade away, the deaths felt real. It is likely that the image of seeing Spider-Man die in Tony Stark’s arms traumatized an entire generation of young kids.
1 Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine
Released 12 years after Terminator 2: Judgement Day, many were left wondering how a third film could work when the second movie seemed to offer a definitive end to the franchise with Judgement Day being prevented. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines reveals that it was only prolonged, and the hero John Conner (Nick Sthal), his future wife Catherine Brewster (Claire Daines), and a reprogrammed T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) are sent to try and stop it by destroying its core, However, when they arrive they discover no core but instead a bomb shelter and that Skynet cannot be stopped.
The movie ends with Skynet launching nuclear warheads worldwide, and John Conner accepting command as he must accept his fate. This bleak ending is the exact opposite of the ending of Terminator 2, which was about how the future is not written and can be changed. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machine ends with the notion that the future cannot be changed, it is inevitable, and that one cannot escape fate. This big-budget action movie that opened on the Fourth of July weekend ends with billions of people dying, in what might be the bleakest and for sure riskiest movie for a summer blockbuster.
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