THE TOP 25 CLIFFHANGERS OF ALL TIME!
Wizard sets up great expectations by counting down our favorite nail-biting endings!
When a compelling cliffhanger hits audiences with enough shocks to send everyone from your kid brother to your geriatric Pop Pop into geek-spasms, you’ll know it right away. Even if you didn’t see it or even care about it a day before—you’ll just know.
Take the finale to “Heroes,” for instance. 14 million viewers now wanna know: Are Peter and Nathan dead? What happened to Sylar’s body? What’s Hiro doing in feudal Japan?
And as we wait for our favorite shows to return in September, it’s an ideal time to celebrate the shocking final moments, those nerve-wracking fades to black, the cueing of music at that crucial last second…the greatest cliffhangers in all of pop culture. These are the endings that captivated us for days, weeks, months and sometimes years…
25. Angel Takes a Dive (“Angel” Season 3, Episode 22)
Ah, teenagers. You gotta love ’em. Except when they’re literally from hell. Brainwashed into believing his father Angel is a soulless monster, son Connor traps him in a box and hurls him into the ocean—quite the conundrum, as the vampire’s immortality makes his potential fate all that much worse.
24. Master Chief Calls Shotgun (Halo 2, Xbox)
Guff-averse video game protagonist Master Chief sports balls the size of kettle bells: At the climax of this hit video game sequel, he stows away on an alien ship racing toward Earth. Radioed by allies and asked his plans, he grunts, “Finishing this fight.” We put a deposit down on Halo 3 the next day.
23. Cartman’s Paternity Test (“South Park” Season 1, Episode 13)
After finding out his mother had “relations” with everyone from Officer Barbrady to the Denver Broncos, blubber-butted Cartman resolves to find his true pop. After an anticlimactic April Fools’ episode consisting of two farting Canadians, it’s revealed that his mom is actually a multi-genitaled hermaphrodite—i.e., she’s the mommy and the daddy. We regret being curious.
22. Phoenix Rising (“X2: X-Men United”)
Having dispensed with the boring exposition, Bryan Singer and Co. get right to the good stuff in the sequel: Wolverine’s past, Stryker’s assault on the Xavier Mansion and the iconic death of Jean Grey. Just before the credits, a familiar phoenix shape ripples across the water. Fanboys everywhere gasped; regular people got up to pee.
21. Tony Stark Takes a Shot (Iron Man [V.1] #242)
Narrowly surviving a battle with the Mandarin on national TV for control of his assets in Asia (and to save his kidnapped employees), playboy entrepreneur Tony Stark returns home after all that, only to be shot point blank in the chest by former flame (and current psycho) Kathy Dare. As Stark slumped lifelessly to the ground, a gout of gore and blood painting the wall behind him, we didn’t know if he would survive—or if James Rhodes would need a fresh tin of Turtle Wax.
20. Metropolis Now! (“Smallville” Season 5, Episode 22)
Producers took a kitchen-sink approach to Superboy’s summer sabbatical: Metropolis suffers from riots, Kryptonian badass Zod takes possession of Lex Luthor, Brainiac threatens humanity and Clark is…trapped in the friggin’ Phantom Zone? Smooth, Kent. Real smooth.
19. Magneto Unmasked (New X-Men #146)
A member of the X-team for over a year, mysterious nomad Xorn, a psychic mutant with the power of a star in his brain, heals Professor X, allowing him to walk again. But no sooner is that good deed done than he takes off the mask to reveal himself as Magneto, their long-thought-dead archrival! Thanks for the secrets and trust, suckers. Oh, and P.S.: Xavier is really still crippled. Owned!
18. Sylar on the Brain (“Heroes” Season 1, Episode 23)
All season long, freshman hit “Heroes” built to a showdown between regular-Joe superhumans and noggin-munching villain Sylar. Realizing that brother Peter is the human bomb they all feared, Nathan flies him into the heavens to detonate. Hiro, meanwhile, is transported to feudal Japan. And Claire? Still smoking hot. No suspense there.
17. Cap Calls It Quits (Captain America [V. 1] #332)
Some things are just a given: Jessica Alba will have our babies, and Steve Rogers is Captain America. But when the government demands control over his actions, Cap tells the pencil-pushin’ bureaucrats to shove it. Then he quits, with neither he—nor shocked readers—having a clue as to what’s next for the Sentinel of Liberty.
16. Harry Potter Goes AWOL (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
At the climax of Harry Potter’s penultimate adventure, the young wizard decides to leave Hogwarts School in order to pursue the Horcruxes that empower Voldemort. Will Harry finally defeat his foe? Will his teachers flunk him? Will Ron Weasley ever stop being such a little wiener? White knuckles, that’s what we gots.
15. The Bride’s Baby Mama Drama (“Kill Bill Vol. 1”)
Left for dead at the hands of assassin Bill, Uma Thurman’s Bride awakens from a coma assuming her unborn child was a casualty of the assassination attempt against her. But at the midpoint climax of Quentin Tarantino’s two-part kung-fu opus, it’s revealed that her daughter survived! Will she dice up David Carradine anyway? Survey says yes.
14. Heroes Redefined (Thunderbolts #1)
As the latest addition to the Marvel pantheon, the Thunderbolts seemed cool enough: They kissed babies, they rescued kittens and they voted Republican while stealing some of the thunder from more established groups like the Avengers. But at the climax of issue #1, the team stands revealed to be (gasp!) a pool of disguised villains led by none other than founding Master of Evil Baron Zemo, in a mind-blowing reveal that acted as narrative rocket fuel for a seemingly run-of-the-mill series launch.
13. Chinese Takeout, Jack Bauer-Style (“24” Season 5, Episode 24)
After five years of foiling terrorist plots, ol’ Jack Bauer needed a vacation—too bad this one was unsolicited. After clearing his name from a frame job and taking down a corrupt president of the United States, Bauer is kidnapped by the Chinese government, packed in a cargo container and placed aboard a slow boat to…well, China. Did he get the kosher meal? Find out next season.
12. Spider-Man Sees Green (Amazing Spider-Man #121)
It takes a lot to torque off Peter Parker, who’s vowed never to kill as Spider-Man. But when archenemy Green Goblin provokes a chain of events that leads to the death of Peter’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy, Spidey goes swinging for his foe, fueled by murderous blind rage. You just know #122’s going to get ugly. Like, Willem Dafoe ugly.
11. Ash Gets Medieval (“Evil Dead II”)
We don’t expect much from our 1980s horror movies: some blood and a little boobage and we’re good. So when professional dumbbell Ash gets sucked into a time warp at the end of Sam Raimi’s gore classic and winds up in the Middle Ages, we nearly choked on our Doritos reaching for the boomstick.
10. The Death of Buffy (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Season 5, Episode 22)
Credit Buffy for having more sense than most high school girls: Realizing that the Apocalypse is imminent, she decides to throw herself into a portal that’s about to unleash a horde of demons that will overwhelm the entire world. The act is fatal: We even see the Scooby gang grieving at her tombstone (appropriate, considering the show went to UPN the following year, but how Buffy was going to come back was what kept us biting our nails).
9. Jason Todd Lives (Batman #617)
Psychologically tormented by Hush, Batman faces the ultimate Depends moment when his mysterious adversary removes his bandages and reveals himself to be none other than Jason Todd, the second Robin thought to be killed at the hands of the Joker. Is he a clone? A zombie? Is it Clayface in disguise? Regardless, Batman #618 flew off shelves like it had grown friggin’ wings.
8. Spidey Unmasked (Civil War #2)
For 40 years, Peter Parker sweated bullets in an effort to protect his loved ones from his alter ego. But he eventually decides to shed his mask in front of the public and national press to show his support for Tony Stark’s Superhuman Registration Act, forcing fans to fear for the lives of his supporting cast. (Except J. Jonah.)
7. Cylons Take Control (“Battlestar Galactica” Season 2, Episode 20)
We know the drill: heroes win, villains lose. Right? Wrong. “Galactica’s” sophomore season finale takes a sharp detour by fast-forwarding one year into the future, where the last remnants of humanity are abandoned on a planet as the evil Cylons close in.
6. Who Shot Mr. Burns? (“The Simpsons” Season 6, Episode 25)
As part of a summer-long publicity stunt, an unknown assailant shoots town terror Mr. Burns, leaving him at death’s door. Clues in the show pointed to everyone from sniveling sycophant Smithers to series hero Homer. While the nation waited months for the solution, Season 7 revealed that it was…baby Maggie? Sometimes it’s better to make up your own ending, kids.
5. Jack’s Gotta Go Back (“Lost” Season 3, Episode 23)
During the 2007 finale, we watched as a mopey Doctor Jack boozed it up and grew a rad beard. At the climax, we realize it wasn’t a flashback at all, but Jack’s heartache after getting off the island with Kate. His final, ominous declaration of “We gotta go back” was good for chills, multiplied to the 4,815,162,342nd degree.
4. DC Whites Out (Crisis on Infinite Earths #4)
Striving to protect the myriad timelines, the Monitor is assassinated by his own traitorous assistant; the ensuing panels turn stark white, with not a single character or word to be found. Readers knew there would be an issue #5, but had little idea what the DC Universe had morphed into…or if it even still existed!
3. Picard…of Borg! (“Star Trek: The Next Generation” Season 3, Episode 26)
Damn Borg: Emotionless and devoid of any human reason, they’ve been a bigger thorn in Starfleet’s side than Captain Kirk’s sexual harassment suits. As Commander Riker looks on, “Locutus of Borg,” aka an assimilated Captain Picard, appears via viewscreen. What else can Riker do but order his ship to “fire”—and what else can Trekkers do except set their phasers to “stunned”?
2. Who Shot J.R.? (“Dallas” Season 2, Episode 25)
TV series cliffhangers weren’t put into heavy rotation until CBS struck oil with their bombastic attempted murder of J.R. Ewing, the slimy Texan who put the screws to just about everyone in the preceding season. Relaxing in his office one evening, a mysterious shooter puts three bullets into him. In a cliffhanger that gave birth to a cultural phenomenon, the nation spent the next several months debating who had the cojones to pull the trigger.
1. Han Solo on Ice (“Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back”)
Fans may loathe George Lucas for any number of reasons: Ewoks, Jar Jar, allowing Harrison Ford to gain 20 pounds for “Return of the Jedi.”
But the Beard outdid himself in 1980, when he and director Irvin Kershner made a sequel to the most successful film of all time. By way of torment, the first two hours had everything fans had clamored for: spectacular space battles, lightsaber duels, startling revelations.
But as the film wound to a close, unease began to creep in. Darth Vader was still at large. Worse, iconic rogue Han Solo had been frozen in Carbonite and dragged off to Yoda knows where courtesy of bounty hunter Boba Fett. Lucas had made the ultimate homage to his beloved film serials, and ran credits over several unresolved issues. But unlike the reels from his youth, fans would have to wait years, not weeks, for resolution.
It was torture worthy of the Sarlaac Pit.