It’s time for another Weekly Geeky Question. Each week my friend Rod asks me some geeky question that I have to answer. We’re now up to Week #50, so we’ve been at this for a while. This week’s question follows on from last week, where we talked about disappointing story payoffs.
What are some of the most best story payoff’s that I have ever seen?
To repeat my definitions from last week, there are a whole range of things this could refer to. Usually, when you are talking about a story “paying off”, what you mean is that you get to see or read or listen to some particular part of a story that you’ve been expecting. The storyteller has taken you through a bunch of preparation and development, with the promise being extended, in a manner of speaking, that something cool will happen. Indeed, part of the reason we’re even paying attention is to see that cool thing, whether it be the fall of the empire, or the murderer revealed, or the lovers kiss.
Sometimes this is done really badly, but sometimes they really get it right. Here are some of the ones which I felt were awesome.
Now, since it’s coming to the end of the year, I’ve been very busy (just like everyone I know), so I think this post is going to be a bit on the hasty side.
Warning: given the nature of the subject, there are both spoilers and annoying gushing ahead.
Legion of Super-Heroes
Like any other comic that’s been around for a long time, the Legion has had ample opportunity for both good and bad payoffs. But one of the best came on the heels of the celebrated Great Darkness Saga by Paul Levitz and Keith Giffen. In this truly epic story, the Legion faces off with Darkseid (back before Darkseid was as widely known as he is today). They eke out a victory, but at the end Darkseid promises that his curse will visit them, and the weakest among them will be the victim.
This led to a lot of speculation–who is this victim? Is it Shrinking Violet? Who else could be the weakest among them? The anticipation was pretty big. A year or so later, we found out the answer.
See, two of the longest-serving Legionnaires were Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl. They had helped to found the team, eventually falling in love and getting married. In Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #2, they were having a baby. Things go a little wonky during the process, with a strange blackout, but in the end their baby, little Graym Ranzz, is fine and healthy.
Saturn Girl is confused, though. She had thought she’d sensed twins in her womb (Lightning lad coming from a world where twins were common, after all).
Well, it turns out that in the blackout, Darkseid had actually kidnapped their other baby, without them knowing about him (Darkseid being pretty powerful, after all). He sent the baby back in time and mutated him, turning him into Validus.
Who? Validus is one of the Legion’s longstanding enemies: a giant and powerful brute who shoots lightning out of his brain (visible in his dome-like head), a member of the Fatal Five, and the murderer of Invisible Kid. I guess there’d been a fan theory at some point that noticed that Validus sort of blended Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl’s powers, but few people expected this to happen.
And yet when it did, it was perfectly logical within the story context and added a new and terrible depth to all the Legion’s battles with the Fatal Five.
And the story wasn’t over, actually, because later Saturn Girl was able to get Validus back (transformed back into a human baby) primarily by giving Darkseid and his darkness the appropriate respect.
This is a funny one because it is a contender for both a great payoff and a disappointing payoff.
Babylon Five was a science fiction TV series by J. Michael Straczynski, which took place on an intergalactic crossroads of a space station called, you guessed it, Babylon Five. It was notable for being one of the first things to make major use of computer CGI special effects, and for the fact that Straczynski supposedly planned out the show’s five year arc in a very detailed manner from the get-go. He saw the series as a giant novel, with five major chapters, and even apparently had plot descriptions of the episodes on note cards in a safe somewhere. As such there were lots of ongoing storylines and plot twists that were planned from the beginning.
Anyway, the beginning of Babylon Five was interesting but frankly a bit boring. The story seemed to move at a glacially slow pace and was punctuated by a lot of awkward dialogue. (In fact, one friend of mine compared it to early DC Comics.). It really took a lot of commitment to stick around to see if this was going anywhere.
But then, you eventually got to the third season, and you found out yes, this was going somewhere. During the third and fourth season the show turned into a frankly spectacular tale of a galactic battle between ancient creatures, the rise of Babylon Five as a major power in an of itself, and the fall of earth as it came under the thumb of a despotic ruler. It was gripping stuff.
The reason why I say that there was a disappointing payoff, though, is because the fifth and final season returned to much more flat and tepid storytelling. Babylon Five now was an independent government, with the show focusing on how such a thing was maintained, which didn’t hold the same sort of interest.
So, third and fourth season = great payoff, but fifth season = disappointing payoff.
Apparently, the reason for this was because it was thought that the show was going to be cancelled after four seasons, so Straczynski rushed some of his plots to bring things to a decent ending point. When it was renewed after all, suddenly there wasn’t as much story to tell anymore.
When Doctor Who came back in 2005, the biggest change to the series’ mythology was the revelation that the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey, had been destroyed in a conflict known only as the Last Great Time War. This was a battle of epic proportions with the Daleks, the series’ most popular monster. Eventually, it was revealed that the Doctor himself had been the architect of the destruction of both his own people, the Time Lords, and the Daleks–an act he considered necessary for the sake of the universe.
In 2013, when the series’ 50th anniversary came around, it was to nobody’s surprise that the show would finally get around to dealing with the Last Great Time War–something we’d heard hinted at lots of times, but rarely seen even a glimpse of.
The 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, by writer Steven Moffat, did actually show us a bit of that war, although that ultimately wasn’t the focus. Instead, it built its plot around the moment when the Doctor was going to use a weapon (known as the Moment, actually) to destroy his own world, and how the Moment was actually sentient and did its best to talk the Doctor out of committing the act. To do this, it shows the Doctor his future incarnations (including the series’ current version) to show them the kind of person he will become if he goes through with this.
In the end, the “War” Doctor decides that in spite of all that he has seen, he must go through with it and destroy his home planet, even if that means that many innocent people will die. But his future incarnation (our “present” Doctor) comes to the realization that there is a different way. He’s changed his mind, and he leads his past selves in a daring plan that will allow the Daleks to be destroyed and allow Gallifrey to be saved.
It’s exciting to see, as the show finally moves this storyline forward in a way that sets up the character for the next chapter.
But, and this is the key thing, it does it all in a way that preserves the Doctor’s memories of what happened, and thus does not undo the show that we’d been watching for the previous seven seasons.
If it had, the payoff would have been serious sullied. As it is, it’s pretty awesome.
The Princess Bride
This is an amusing one because this film, directed by Rob Reiner and written by William Goldman after his own novel, is framed as a story being told by an old man to his ill grandson. The boy complains at first that the story has too much romance in it, but he listens anyway and is eventually swept along. As things are drawing to a close, and the main characters are about to share a true love kiss, the grandfather abruptly shuts the book and refuses to read the ending. Now, of course, the boy objects and insists that his grandfather finish the story, kiss and all. Naturally, he does, and we get a satisfying ending.
It’s capped off by a sweet moment where the grandfather affirms his love for his grandson with the same words that the hero of the book shared with his love: “As you wish.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The undisputed master of the cinematic payoff is, in my mind, director Steven Spielberg. All through his career, this is a man who has known how to create suspense with short glimpses and oblique hints. But where other filmmakers will take that conceit too far, Spielberg has always known when it was time to show his audience the spectacle, and how to show it to them in the most satisfying way.
Consider, for example, when you finally T-Rex in Jurassic Park. Or when you finally see the alien tripod in War of the Words. Or when you finally see the alien in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. And consider how each of those events doesn’t happen at the end of the movie, but really at the end of the beginning. That tells us that there is more intense or spectacular or exhilarating stuff to see before the story is over, and in each case the movies give us exactly that.
But for my money, maybe the greatest payoff in a Spielberg project comes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. All through the movie, people are talking about the lost Ark of the Covenant, and how powerful it supposedly is. The Nazi’s are even after it in the hopes of making themselves more unbeatable in their designs for Europe and the world.
Finally, the thing is opened, and though we don’t precisely see inside of it, we do get to see what’s in it. The wrath of God is personified through an angelic being that is both beautiful and horrifying. Light and energy are all over the place. And Nazi’s heads are shriveled up, melted off, or blown to pieces. Hero Indiana Jones tells his girlfriend Marion not to look in order to be spared this fury, but Spielberg doesn’t make the audience do the same; instead he puts it right in front of you.
And the icing on the cake is seeing the Ark crated up and buried in some government warehouse. A perfect ending for the film.
Like the Legion above, there are decades of Superman stories, and uncountable payoffs both good and bad. Here, I specifically talking about The Reign of the Supermen, the storyline that followed the celebrated death of Superman in the 1990’s.
The Death of Superman had come after nearly a decade of post-Crisis Superman stories, which had weaved together a tight continuity with lots of character and story development throughout. After that, when we got Reign of the Superman, Superman was replaced by four different heroes who claimed to be inspired by Superman, or to be cloned from Superman, or to actually be Superman. Which one, if any, was the real Man of Steel?
Well, of the four, only two were real contenders–one a cyborg, the other an apparently merciless arbiter or Kryptonian justice. As the story continued, we discovered that neither of them were Superman, but rather two different characters that we had seen before–paying off for all those years of stories we’d had before.
And then even more impressively, the story finally did bring Superman back, but in an almost underhanded way. He ended up featuring in an issue without it actually being obvious to the reader that it was him. Instead, we were led to believe it was simply the Kryptonian replacement again. Only later did many of us realize that the hero we’d been waiting for all along.
Finally, he revealed himself to everyone properly, and led a battle against the story’s villains. It ended up as an epic showdown between Superman and his allies (including Green Lantern) against a number of invading alien warmongers. Very satisfying stuff.