The Long Term Impact of the Way We Misremember ‘The Dark Phoenix Saga’

Seeing as the first Dark Phoenix trailer is going to be released tonight, I thought this would be an appropriate time to talk about Jean Grey, The Dark Phoenix Saga, and how the two have been interpreted in all forms of media in the past nearly 40 years. I’ve done a few posts similar to this before – this one, where I discussed the regurgitation of storylines rather than trying anything new; this one, where I touched upon why adapting specific storylines isn’t necessarily great; and this one, when I pointed out why we remember the original Dark Phoenix story as much more sexist than it actually was. In that last post, I mentioned the fact that the original story was much less “Jean going crazy because she just wasn’t strong enough to handle all that power” and more “the Hellfire Club manipulated her and screwed with her head until she didn’t know what to believe anymore”. What most of us tend to remember though isn’t the latter, but the former. And that has consequences, even beyond adaptations acting as if that’s the only story Jean’s ever been involved in. Because it’s not just directors and screenwriters, it’s people involved in comics.

I Tweeted something a while ago. It was something about how comics Captain America gets pushed as some moral ideal and a representation of the best of America, but how the actual text depicts him more as a huge hypocrite and a fascist that’ll invade countries to arrest teenagers that haven’t committed crimes. Some stranger decided to drop in and comment, calling Scott a crazy person, calling me a Cyclops apologist, and all sorts of other nonsense (I ended up blocking him for being a pain). Now that I think about it, I realize that does a lot to demonstrate how both audiences and writers misremember stories because of their own preconceived notions and those stories’ places in our collective pop culture memory.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of the film franchise on the general audience’s understanding of the X-Men. The first movie came out in 2000. And because of it, people perceive the characters in ways I can’t fully comprehend. Like I’ve said countless times now, I’m grateful for the movies and their role in keeping the X-Men alive. Just as Smallville kept the idea of Superman in the public memory, the X-Men movies have done the same for mutants. But it’s also the movies that have propagated ideas about comics that are completely inaccurate. How many people out there think, because of the movies, that Stryker is a Wolverine villain and not a religious fanatic villain for mutantkind in general? How many people think, because of the movies, that Xavier is an unambiguous Big Good? And how many people think, because of the movies, that Jean losing control over her powers was just because of her and not outside interference? Because of the movies, it becomes way easier for the people that should know better to forget what actually happened in the source material – everyone already thinks one thing, so why bother remembering what actually happened, right?

So many stories have been unbelievably nonsensical because of this misremembering of the Dark Phoenix saga. It’s inconsistent no matter what we accept as true. It’s especially ridiculous if you try to make sense out of it. Maybe that’s part of the reason why people like me see Avengers vs X-Men as clearly putting the Avengers in the wrong, while writers and other parts of the audience think that the work is demonstrating Cyclops as some reckless, crazy person: people like me remember that if we accept the only version of the story that’s ever made any sense as true, Cyclops saying that the Phoenix is a force for rebirth isn’t just the ravings of a man desperate to save his species. It’s him actually thinking about the facts.

I don’t care how many times Marvel tries to retcon the original Dark Phoenix story in stupid ways. It never made sense that it was the Phoenix itself impersonating Jean, and Marvel has never let Jean move on and have stories totally unrelated the Phoenix, so I have always refused to accept the claim that Jean’s most famous story isn’t about her, because if she’s never going to live down the Phoenix arc, it damn well better be about her. And honestly, that’s probably a good thing. Because if I took Marvel at their word, I’d have to question why the fuck they’re being both a) so misogynistic as to suggest that it makes more sense to have a woman be impersonated by an all powerful force that nonetheless behaved exactly like her, couldn’t control itself, and sacrificed itself for that lack of control than to actually let her be the most powerful X-Men character on her own,  and b) so unbelievably tone deaf that people from a group representing a persecuted minority are supposed to face consequences for things they did while possessed, including claiming one of them is a monster for killing a man in self defence when he was being attacked while working to improve the world.

Marvel doesn’t know what they want to do with the X-Men or the Phoenix. At all. Avengers vs X-Men proves that beyond a doubt. A friend and I were discussing how much we hate stories like it a while back. As she put it – and I swear, she said it, not me, I have screenshots if you want proof – Batman v Superman is a good example of pitting characters against each other for a story, Avengers vs X-Men and Inhumans vs X-Men are not. Not if you still want either the Avengers or Inhumans to be perceived as heroes, which the writers clearly did. It wasn’t a good story, and it demonstrated a reliance on the Phoenix to create drama, rather than leaving it well enough alone.

This refusal to let the Dark Phoenix Saga stand alone – without bringing back the Phoenix, without having different characters be hosts to it, without retconning it repeatedly – isn’t good storytelling. It was a great story! But it should have gone the way of God Loves, Man Kills – remembered as awesome, but for the most part, left alone, without being rehashed over and over again. The fact that it hasn’t has helped contribute to the mess of X-Men comics and movies both. I’m over it.

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‘eMergence’: I Continue Trying To Figure Out How I Feel About ‘The Gifted’

So last night was the season two premiere of The Gifted. I thought it was pretty good…but some of the issues I had with season one are definitely still there. So what’s a girl to do but make a list?

The Good

  1. Lorna was, as always, wonderful. Emma Dumont’s performance in the first season was better than anyone else’s; Lorna was the standout character; and it’s nice to see her continuing to be great. I may not be a fan of the baby storyline – and I’m kind of annoyed she didn’t name her Sonya – but this ep as it pertained to Lorna gave me a great performance, an awesome demonstration of powers, and was just all around fun to watch.
  2. Reeva Payge! She’s got the charm, a great wardrobe, and right now, is the only thing keeping the new Inner Circle from being painfully white (Hahaha, White Queen, only one not white, sorry). I really liked watching her. I especially liked how she explicitly brought up the variety of other things she’d been hated for in her life aside from her powers – her poverty, the colour of her skin.
  3. The Struckers may have all taken turns in being annoying in season one, but Andy’s really improved. There was no whining in 2×01, just him trying to help Lorna. I cracked up at his “she just needs to keep pushing” when she was in labour after he’d said earlier that if she got preeclampsia, he’d do his best. I mean…points for effort? Negative points for lack of helpfulness.

The Bad

  1. The episode still felt kind of choppy and unbalanced. Sage was there, but not really doing anything. Pretty much everything involving Caitlin, Reed, and Lauren was clunky, awkward, and could have easily been excluded, or at least streamlined. I didn’t like how it kept cutting back to them when Lorna was in the middle of having a baby. The Cuckoos still haven’t gotten the chance to behave as individuals, rather than as a collective unit – and seeing as three in the show are Esme, Sophie, and Phoebe, who have the most similar personalities of the five Cuckoos in the comics, I’m questioning whether they’ll ever get nuanced and unique characterizations.
  2. The Inner Circle isn’t behaving much like the comics Hellfire Club. It seems more Brotherhood than anything. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s kind of disappointing.
  3. John and Clarice as a romantic thing just doesn’t do it for me. In concept, it’s fine, but they were thrown together in such a clumsy way in season one, and now skip ahead six months and they’re happily living together, no issues? No Clarice still being a little uncertain as to what’s her and what was Sonya? No John being hesitant about jumping into another relationship so soon after Sonya, who he’d been with for a substantial amount of time? I don’t know. I don’t find it interesting or well written.
  4. For fuck’s sake, why am I the only one that cares about Sonya?! A mention, please?!

The Ugly

  1. Andy’s dye job. That is so bad.
  2. I don’t know what Andy’s name suggestions were, but Lorna, I don’t think you have much room to judge when you named a kid Dawn Dane.

Overall, I quite liked the episode. It was entertaining. I didn’t love all of it – especially how the Strucker family still isn’t working for me and it was detracting a lot from Lorna and Reeva, the best parts of the episode – but it was good enough to keep me watching for now. Next week, we’re going to see the Morlocks, which really excites me. If handled well, they could really drive home the message that neither the underground nor the Inner Circle are actually helping mutants. It’s not ideal, seeing as that message was what the underground itself was supposed to be to conveying last season – the X-Men and the Brotherhood could have their ideological conflicts, but the underground had to actually do help people without those resources – but maybe it’ll actually come through this time.

…a girl can hope.

‘The Gifted’ And Righteous Anger

I have mixed feelings about The Gifted. Acting-wise, the disparity between the quality of some of the performances is jarring. Writing-wise, it’s so inconsistent my general reaction is meh. I’m still bitter about Sonya and all the ways she could have been used.  My feelings about the Struckers are best left unsaid. But when it first came out, I loved it.

The Gifted started off as smaller, more intimate look at the X-Men universe. That was why I was so excited to watch every episode. The marketing for the first season revolved entirely around the point that these people aren’t special. They’re, for the most part, mutants without any kind of extraordinary powers or ties to any of the major factions, no access to the resources those factions have. They’re people that have to get by in a world that hates them for existing. Each episode explored a different aspect of discrimination against mutants, all of them relevant to the real world. It was a nuanced take on what it means to live in a society that discriminates against you. Now it appears to be falling more into the same trap most X-Men material eventually falls into – trading substance for bombast. Because these people are special! They do have extraordinary powers! And those factions are involved in the show, and their resources, too!

Andy and Lauren are descendants of the von Struckers, who in this universe, were members of the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle and are so super duper powerful that everyone wants them. Reed is coming into mutant powers late in life. Caitlin is a nurse that can perform field surgery without breaking a sweat. The Inner Circle is going to be playing a major role in the upcoming season. And all the promotional material for said season is focusing on mutant underground vs Inner Circle, good vs bad, rather than the wide range of ideas in between. Which I think is just missing the point.

What I loved about season one was there was some element of moral ambiguity. Lorna was treated as Lorna, not Magneto 2.0.  But by the end of the season, Lorna was isolated as the “angry” member of the underground, which I find deeply unfair, because part of what I enjoyed about the show was how much it showed that none of the characters were into passively sitting around to ~show humans that they don’t mean them any harm. They weren’t “ideal victims” by any means. They were full of righteous anger and even if they weren’t “fighting back” in the sense of planning assassinations and killing the people that attacked them, they were still resisting. They were going out to rescue mutants from people that were hurting them and fighting those people in the process. They were breaking laws and protecting fugitives. Sentinel Services classified them as a terrorist group.

Marcos revealed plenty of his own aggression, to the point where Lorna was bothered by how much he’d enjoyed torching a truck for Carmen. Sonya may have been more pacifistic than the others, with no desire to physically harm anyone, but she also had no qualms against using her powers against someone if it meant keeping more mutants alive. Clarice was obviously ready to fight, because her reaction to meeting Lorna, Marcos, and John for the first time was to throw stuff at them. John physically broke things or shouted at people on multiple occasions when he was mad and he allied with the Cuckoos to go after Campbell partially because he wanted to avenge Sonya. And that’s just the core characters, not getting into characters like Fade, who also demonstrated their anger at baselines. Lorna was not even remotely the only one. She may have been angry, but her anger wasn’t treated as something that made her a bad person, because everyone else understood it and felt the same way.

Exploring Lorna’s character and darker impulses could be fantastic. Because it makes sense that her learning she’s pregnant would lead her to be more ready to fight for her baby! But the way the writers seem to be going about it is by taking it to the extreme. They’re taking a very broad, complicated topic that encompasses a lot of smaller problems and a wide range of perspectives, and looking at it as a single black and white issue. They’re ignoring how much the mutants resonate with minorities that are angry to instead focus on the simplistic idea that Lorna giving up on hiding and choosing to fight back is her crossing the moral event horizon, not her being justifiably done waiting for more mutants to be killed and bringing down a private plane where the only people on board were those that were associated with Montez and Campbell, not random civilians.

It’s been a longstanding problem in the comics where anyone that gets angry and starts to actually do something to stop mutant persecution is claimed to be acting just like Magneto. This was most obvious with Cyclops – after fighting for years for peace and coexistence only for more mutants to be experimented on or murdered, he decided enough was enough and founded Utopia. He drew his line in the sand and stuck by his principles – sure, he’d still protect humans from mutant criminals and fight for those that valued mutant lives, but he refused to sit by and let his people be slaughtered. Seems perfectly reasonable, but according to comics writers, that means he’s essentially Magneto. That’s what the writers on The Gifted are doing with Lorna – they’re so desperate to have her be in the wrong, they’re not exactly doing a good job proving she is wrong.

Lorna is by far the most interesting and well written character in the show. She’s layered, she’s consistent, and out of the characters in the show that originated in the comics, she’s probably the closest to her comics counterpart. Even though the writing that’s supposed to convince me she’s in the wrong is weak, the writing for her and her decisions is still believable. Without her? I wouldn’t bother to watch season two. As it stands, the only reason I’m still watching is that it has to do with the X-Men. Had it been an original property, I’d have probably given up a long time ago, but I love the X-Men and have to hold on hope that it can improve.

Substance and bombast don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And stories where factions are pitted against each other can be great. There could be a wonderfully layered story featuring different groups that disagree on the how but agree on the what – mutants deserve safety and freedom from persecution – coming together to get things done, where both sides realize that neither militant pacifism nor offensive violence is the solution they need. They could do all of that with bigger action sequences and dramatic uses of mutant powers than in season one. But instead, the season is being marketed as a pick a side, underground or Inner Circle. It’s veering away from the actual point and into the cliché of infighting.

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I saw the Tweets to the left a while back, and it strikes me as very relevant to this discussion. The way Lorna – and, to a lesser degree, the other members of the underground – behaved for most of the first season was like Emma, not like Xavier or Magneto. She started teaching combat so the kids would be ready for a fight because the world is a dangerous place for mutants. She wasn’t portrayed as in the wrong for that. Even when Caitlin got mad, she pushed back, rightfully pointing out that Caitlin had no right to be criticizing her for teaching mutant children to protect themselves, that Caitlin had no right to come into their home and tell them how they should be behaving. By the finale, she was veering away from that practicality.

The plane made sense to me. It felt true to Lorna’s established character, and it was easy to understand why she did it and support her. But after that? Ending up in a more subservient role to Reeva Payge, rather than as a leader in her own right, while still veering towards the Magneto side of these four options? Less so. What would be more interesting to me is a Lorna, disgusted both by the underground being so passive and the “Inner Circle” – who’s more Brotherhood than Hellfire Club here –  not helping matters. going towards the Cyclops end of the scale. Where she decides she’s going to change the world while still training kids to defend themselves. Where she has complex goals and ways of achieving them. That more than anything would prove to me that they care about Lorna and aren’t just using her because they’re not allowed to use Magneto. Her actions so far have felt authentic enough…but they’re also those that Magneto would take. They don’t feel unlike her, but they feel more like him. I want to see Lorna, see where she falls in between the poles of the “how we live our lives when people want us dead” spectrum.

My feelings towards the show are pretty much the same as my feelings towards the X-Men movies – just about every episode is good for at least a watch, and I don’t realize the problems with it until I start really thinking about it. But once I start thinking about it…it makes me seriously question whether I’ll be able to enjoy future instalments. The Gifted still has room to recover. For all my complaints, the first season still had enough that I enjoyed that I know it’s close to something great. But with all the focus on the Hellfire Club standing in opposition to the mutant underground…I’m not sure it’s going to get there.

What Happens When An Adaptation Displaces The Source Material In Public Memory?

As we get closer and closer to the debut episode of Titans, I’m getting more and more perplexed about some of the complaints I’ve seen about it. I have my own share of apprehensions about this show. I’ve been vocal about that. But what I don’t understand is the people whose complaints stem not from the show itself or how that translates from the comics, but from the knowledge of the cartoon.

While there’s nothing wrong with watching adaptations, but not reading comics, it’s not right or fair to insist that those adaptations are how the material either has been or should be. The Teen Titans cartoon – something that I genuinely enjoy, when I look at it as something other than an adaptation – has very little to do with the comics bearing the same name. The roster – Robin, Starfire, Beast Boy, Raven, and Cyborg – has become so cemented in people’s minds that when the show roster was revealed, the question didn’t become where’s Kid Flash or any of the other members of the comics roster, but where’s Cyborg. 

Even setting aside Twitter and Tumblr, sites well known for being a mess, look at the TV Tropes page for the show. While some of the people editing it clearly have knowledge of the comics, there are just as many from people whose opinions are coloured by the cartoon. Supposedly Starfire is out of character for not being an all loving hero, even though the original Star was a complete hothead that was far more violent than the version of the character that appears in the cartoon. Supposedly Dick is behaving more like Jason or Damian for being angrier than the bright spot people expected to see, even though good characters are always more complicated than can be defined by an attribute like “violent” and the Titans version of Dick is in a stage between the initial “bringing light and hope to Bruce and Gotham” stage and the later “knowing himself and what he has to do and in control of his anger” stage. It’s silly. There’s plenty to be nervous about, but that’s not the same as dismissing something altogether without seeing it because it’s not like another adaptation.

It wouldn’t bother me that much under most circumstances, but I’ve seen what people growing too attached to one adaptation can do. This backlash is painfully reminiscent of the backlash to Man of Steel. The Christopher Reeves version of the Superman – nerdy, clumsy, awkward, all country bumpkin out of place in the big city – has been so formative to the public perception of the character, people flat out forget that he’s been portrayed very differently in the comics and cartoons. The idolization of the Reeves Superman, coupled with the poor memory of what those movies were actually like, makes it impossible for creators to move on and try a different interpretation that’s still supported by the source material without “fans” jumping down their throats and saying they’re doing it wrong.

There’s no easy solution to this, because adaptations that make that much of an impact are a good thing. There’s no one out there that would deny how important Superman: The Movie was. And it’s gatekeeping nonsense to say people can’t have adaptations be their introduction to these characters, especially because at this point, as much as I’m loathe to say it, these adaptations are aimed at the so-called “general audience” because comics fans alone aren’t a big enough market. I just hope more people start to remember that superhero comics are a decades old medium in which there have been countless interpretations, none of which is inherently more valid than the others.

The Awkwardness Of ‘Titans’

I’ve talked before about my mixed feelings about Titans. I’ve talked about its interpretation of Dick Grayson and why I’m apprehensive of how my favourite comics character is going to be portrayed. I remember telling a friend a while ago – like, before the trailer – that every piece of new information we found out about the show was making me more and more conflicted about whether or not I wanted to see it. Like, they’d tell us that we were getting Donna, but then say that Dick blames Bruce for ruining his life. They’d tell us Jason is going to have an episode revolving around him, then the set photos featuring Kory’s ridiculous wig leaked. And then of course, there was the trailer, to which my reaction can been summarized as what. On the whole, this show, while something I’m definitely going to give a chance, confuses the hell out of me. I feel like I’m getting whiplash.

Maybe it’s stupid to try to analyze this before the show actually airs, but the overall vibe I get is of a show that’s unsure of what it should be. It’s using the cartoon’s roster. It’s drawing inspiration from the comics run. While it’s hard to tell from stills from before the other characters suit up, it seems like they dropped all their budget on Dick’s cape and ran out of money for everything else. It’s only thirteen episodes and supposedly has a central plot, but it’s going to have all kinds of character introductions, including an episode that’ll be the launching point for a Doom Patrol series, threatening to render the whole show overstuffed from trying to do too much at once. The age lift makes it seem like the Bruce Dick relationship may be shifting from a father son dynamic to a brotherly one. It sets off my internal alarm bells. As excited as I am to see it, it’s more because it’s happening – that a show, featuring my favourite character is actually going to exist, regardless of quality – than that it looks like something I’ll wholeheartedly love.

I’m going to watch it. I’m going to try to let go of all my preconceived notions of what it should be and figure out if I like it for what it is. How can I not? We’re talking about the Batfamily here! But I’m still going to be chewing through my lip and trying to reserve judgement until the end of the season.

The Importance of the Minutiae

I wrote this piece about why it kind of irritates me how quick we all are to refer to movies or TV shows as groundbreaking, and it made me think of something else: who says something needs to be revolutionary to be important? Hell, things don’t even have to be good to be important.

In that post, I brought up Harold and Kumar. And as I said, I don’t think that can be called revolutionary at all. But if you look at Kal Penn, one of the lead actors, you can see the clear progression of his career throughout the history of Hollywood movies with Indian leads. I remember reading an interview that he did once. It was part of the lead up to the release of The Namesake. And in it, he said that he was so happy to be working with Mira Nair because it was partially a movie she made in the 90s – Mississippi Masala – that inspired him to become an actor. The reason she chose him to play the role was that her son had seen Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and asked her to give him a shot because he was great. You would think that his image from that movie would have damaged his chances of getting the role, and in fact, it did. It made Nair think he was the wrong choice for the role. But he was only in a position where she was aware of him enough to both think he wasn’t a good fit and to have her mind be changed because of that ridiculous movie.

A movie directed by a brown woman with a brown lead inspired Penn to start acting, and a silly comedy where he played the lead launched his career and paved the way for his roles in The Namesake, Superman Returns, How I Met Your Mother, Designated Survivor, and more. From that perspective, Harold and Kumar may not have been revolutionary, but it was certainly important. But that wasn’t something immediately obvious. When it came out, it was just a dumb stoner flick with gross comedy that didn’t do well at the box office. It still helped the careers of its leads. It still mattered.

Sure, sometimes it’s clear when a work is important. Mississippi Masala was pretty clearly crossing boundaries and addressing topics few other movies did. It was a romance…but it was one that tackled the challenges of interracial relationships and intercommunity racism. It wasn’t clear what – if any – impact it would have in the long run, but it certainly was something new. Maybe you could call Harold and Kumar important at the time. I’m not sure anyone would, but you could say it. And it did have an impact. But the real impact isn’t something that could be seen until a few years later. It’s kind of like Star Trek.

Star Trek was a campy sci fi political drama that, in hindsight, looks hilariously terrible, despite the political allegories and moral questions. It was a trailblazer for representation even as declining ratings put it at risk of cancellation multiple times. But Nichelle Nichols as Uhura inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an actress. She inspired Mae Jemison to study science. And Goldberg and Jemison proceeded to inspire countless people themselves. It goes to show that it takes years for the full impact of something to be seen. We need to give things more time before we decide what their place in history is. There are ripple effects for everything. Something may matter for one person, but that one person may matter for countless more. Something minor – the most trivial seeming of roles – can turn out to be more important than we could imagine. So maybe we should just take things as they are without rushing to declare it either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. Because if something is important, we’ll find out eventually. Why insist we can tell immediately?

Earning Your Ending: Following Through On Story Themes And The Frustration Of Stories That Don’t

One of the things I admire most about Animorphs has always been the ending. It wasn’t a downer, exactly – the world was saved, after all, and if the cost is the souls of six children…well, many would call it a small price to pay. It was tragedy in the truest sense. The good guys weren’t rewarded with happily ever after. Not because they didn’t deserve a happy ending, not because it’s just, but because it’s war. And like in any real war, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, it just was. There is no such thing as a glorious war. Necessary, perhaps, like the one around which Animorphs revolves. But even a necessary war will result in a lot of dead and injured and grieving.

Everything about the ending of the series felt earned. Like this was where it was always headed. It wasn’t a triumphant victory where cutting off the head of the snake or capturing a MacGuffin resulted in the good guys winning. No, it was years of them chipping away at an unstable empire, poking at different places and seeing what worked until it eventually collapsed. And there’s something about the narration…It’s childish. It’s simplistic. It’s so, so real. Because it’s not just a question of them being books for kids, it’s about how they’re written about kids. They’re children’s books from the perspective of a child. There are bits of gorgeous prose interspersed between scenes of horrifying violence and hilarious ones of aliens discovering chocolate. There are references to poems like The Second Coming and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as well as works like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It was children’s literature pointing out the best and worst of humanity, how we don’t have the best track record of tolerating differences, how we kill each other for praying differently to the same god.

A happy ending would have felt dishonest. And the sheer boldness of book 54 still takes me aback. This was a children’s book. Not a young adult one, an unashamed children’s book. A children’s book with no happy ending. That was the gutsiest writing choices I’ve ever seen. That book is probably why I am – or used to be, at least – a bit more susceptible to writer fake outs than most people. Because where most people see a major character death or what looks like an upcoming tragic ending and think, like you would really do it, I remember Animorphs, which did do it. For that reason, book 54 is pretty much my favourite book in the series and one of my favourite books altogether. I am fully in support of happy endings. But there’s a reason it’s the bittersweet ones that stick with me.

Something I’ve found is that epilogues that skip a significant amount of time into the future are dangerous. They run the risk of being contrived happy endings, where we’re told something is happy, but they don’t really feel happy, partially because we don’t see how the characters get to that point. There are two obvious examples of this – the first is the most famous example of young adult dystopian fiction. The second is the children’s series that completely changed the course of children’s publishing.

The Hunger Games was about children being forced to fight each other to the death for entertainment and a rebellion against an oppressive government. At best, I expected it to end bittersweetly. After all, we’re talking about one of the closest equivalents there is to Animorphs. Targeted at a young audience, a huge amount of graphic violence, heavily anti-war themes, a lot of the books dedicated to the characters’ trauma…when Mockingjay came out, I thought I knew, generally, where it was going to go. I even continued thinking that through maybe half the book. It seemed poised to deliver a sad ending. Maybe not quite a tragedy, but certainly not a happy one. And at first it did. But then came the epilogue.

The last chapter of Mockingjay was much more satisfying to me than the epilogue. I didn’t love the book overall – I thought it was by far the weakest of the trilogy. But the last chapter didn’t feel like a cop out. It hinted at future happiness without being too overt and saccharine. District Twelve was in ruins and pretty much everyone decided to leave and never come back. The people that stayed were the ones that thought everywhere else was worse, that had lost everything, that were so traumatized by everything that had happened, the only thing they could think to do was go home. But despite that, Peeta, Katniss, and Haymitch were all alive and together and recovering. They found things to focus on. They lived with the only people around that understood what they’d gone through. Katniss and Peeta rediscovered their love for each other. It felt right. But instead of just leaving it at that, there was that epilogue that skipped years into the future to have Katniss watching her children play in a meadow. Maybe it’s just me, but that felt disingenuous. It felt like running away from the earned ending.

On a similar note is Harry Potter. At the time The Deathly Hallows came out, I’d spent my entire life with these characters – the first book was published the same year I was born. I started reading them when I was like four. I wanted a happy ending. I still think the epilogue was a pretty good kind of cheesy, but it was jarring when you compare it to just a few pages before.

I’m not one of those people that hates the Harry Potter epilogue or what Harry named his kids. But skipping ahead nineteen years, skipping the recovery period…it felt kind of cheap. It felt far less fitting than the last chapter. The last chapter wasn’t a downer. It was bittersweet, and much more sweet than bitter – lots of people were dead, but Voldemort was one of them. The war was over. There were still things to do and loose ends to tie up, but it was clearly pointing in a hopeful direction. It wasn’t The Hunger Games, which practically gave me whiplash with the contrast between the epilogue and the rest of the book. It was closer to a logical extension. But it still didn’t feel right.

On the other end of the scale is stories that, instead of forcing a happy ending instead of the earned sad one, are stories that pull a downer out of nowhere, out of the misguided belief that True Art Is Angsty. Like, I recently read My Sister’s Keeper. To me, that came across as such a huge Shoot The Shaggy Dog story, I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t a contrived happy ending, it was a contrived and manipulative sad one. Instead of genuinely exploring the characters’ emotions, Jodi Picoult opted for melodrama and cheap twists. I find endings like that just as – if not more – annoying than those that pull a happy one from thin air. Because when it comes to me and endings I find satisfying, it’s more than about earning a happy ending. It’s about following through to the ending you’ve earned, the one that makes sense for the story. That’s not to say a brutal, devastating story can’t have a positive ending, or a mostly positive, hopeful story can’t have a dark one, but if handled poorly, it feels like a cop out. That’s precisely why so few things have ever lived up in my eyes to the Animorphs ending.

The format of Animorphs was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, it resulted in books of wildly varying quality being pushed out at a breakneck pace. It meant the series was never going to be taken seriously by a wider audience. It meant that it would never work as a movie adaptation. But I have to love it, because if we had fewer, longer books, or if they were published at a different time or for a different audience, we never would have gotten something like the final book.

That entire book is dedicated to the “what happens now”. And that makes you expect that it’s going to turn around, that it won’t be bleak, that the book will be about them them moving on and getting better. And it does…at the same time as it doesn’t. It has everything every book in the series does – it makes you feel every emotion possible in less than two hundred pages. Even more impressively, it does that without a real driving plot.

Book 54 is more focused on character development than it is with having its own individual plot. It’s about wrapping up the character arcs and plot threads from the preceding books. It’s slow. Or maybe that’s not quite it – slow is close, but the wrong word for the feel of the book. Maybe measured? Introspective? It’s calm. Compared to the frenzied pace of pretty much all the other instalments, it’s downright placid. It gives readers time for it all to sink in. It takes all the brutality of the series and brings it to its natural conclusion, because as it made clear from the beginning, there are no happy endings in war. It’s honest about it – there are no right answers. There are no glorious wars. Some people will be able to move on, even thrive. Others won’t. Because even the most necessary of necessary wars with clear lines between good and evil, right and wrong, will end with death, grief, and horror. That’s why I always find myself coming back to Animorphs. It’s one of the greatest endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s just too bad it kind of ruined me for books that don’t follow through on what they’ve earned.

Do you have any books with endings that completely satisfied you? Let me know! I’m always looking for new things to read.