Post-Credits stingers have become a blockbuster staple. Where the heck did they come from?
Over the past decade, post-credits scenes have become a familiar part of the modern blockbuster landscape. Like nostalgia-baiting cameos and protagonists played by men named Chris.
I was 14 when Iron Man hit theatres. I didn’t have the first clue who Nick Fury was or why his presence meant so much to certain giddy audience members. But I recognized Samuel L. Jackson, and his talk of a “bigger universe” was exciting. Like most folks, I’ve since developed an expectation that it pays to stick around after a blockbuster fades to black, particularly when extended universes are involved. There are, as with most things, detractors who consider post-credits scenes as an “exhausting” form of “extreme hobbyism” that renders the last impression of the film “one of disappointment.” As someone who delights in trivia, I adore them.
Wherever your personal allegiances lie, the popularization of post-credits scenes is undeniable. Yet, in spite of their ubiquity, the origin of the post-credit scene is somewhat foggy. This is in part due to the fact that post-film credits as we know them are a fairly recent development. George Lucas, himself a pioneer of extended cinematic universes, is often credited with popularizing the omission of traditional opening credits with New Hope’s title crawl. While end credits certainly weren’t unheard of, until the 70s most films relegated their credits to the beginning of the film, which graced us with sequences like the haunting (and 10 minutes long!) opening credits of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), the lyrical chalkboard of La Belle Et La Bête (1946), and the archival bomber ballet of Dr. Strangelove (1964).
While not exactly post-credits scenes, there were several early attempts to incentivize audiences to stick around for more robust closing credits. Around the World in 80 Days (1956) featured an impressively stylized animation by Saul Bass that recapped the events of the film. Help! (1965), ever the psychedelic fantasy, closes to the tune of the “The Barber of Seville” as The Beatles and company take turns passing behind a gemstone.
The earliest example of something resembling a post-credits scene comes by way of the one-reel cinematic milestone The Great Train Robbery (1903). The film features a final scene where the leader of the bandits unloads his gun at the audience. While not a proper post-credits scene (the Edison Films Catalogue even notes that it can be used either to begin or end the film), The Great Train Robbery offers an relevant innovation: a scene outside the main narrative that adds a sense of what the film’s producer/cinematographer Edwin S. Porter called “realism” and what we might call “world-building.”
At the risk of being reductive, there are, broadly, two kinds of post-credits scenes. The first is the “one-off”; a standalone, usually comedic sequence that winks at fans, and/or wraps up inconsequential plot threads. The second is the “set-up”; a scene that hints that there’s more to come in a future installment. Modern post-credits scenes tend to draw from both. Just this month, both Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League featured two post-credits scenes: a comedic follow up and a gesture to a future installment.
The one-off’s rich cinematic history kicks off with 1979’s The Muppet Movie when the Muppets (literally) tore down the fourth wall and Animal yelled at us to “GO HOME!! GO HOME!! Bye bye!” Seven years later, after an in-credits sequence where Mr. Rooney is seen escaping pathetically on a school bus, Ferris Bueller echoed his Muppety predecessors (“Go home…Go!”), with Deadpool taking up the bathrobe three decades later (“What are you expecting Sam Jackson to show up with an eyepatch and a saucy little leather number? Go, go!”).
The Muppet Movie is rightfully credited with kicking off the broader post-credits craze of the 1980s. In Airplane! (1980), a long-forgotten taxicab passenger resolves to give his driver another 20 minutes (but that’s it!). In Sleepaway Camp (1983) Angela stares into the camera for an unnervingly long 10 seconds. We reunite with Neal’s boss in Trains, Planes, and Automobiles (1987), now surrounded by a turkey dinner and mountains of coffee. Trick or Treat (1986) concludes with Ozzy Osborne’s anti-metal buzzkill knowingly warning us that “this could kick you off into becoming an absolute pervert!” The Howling (1981) features a TV playing an excerpt of Maleva from The Wolf Man (1941) whispering “Go now. May God help you.” And famously, Animal House and other John Landis films featured a post-credits advertisement for Universal Studios that would suggest that you “ask for Babs,” which for a time, could grant you a discount or free entry into the theme park.
It makes sense that one-offs would arise from something as irreverent and playful as The Muppets. And it makes sense that set-ups would get their start in one of cinema’s first big franchises. The James Bond films have a longstanding tradition of ending their credits with a title card informing audiences that “James Bond Will Return,” often teasing the name of the upcoming picture. While nowhere near today’s levels of anticipatory geekery, audiences would have been expecting these title cards when they went to see a Bond film.
The James Bond model was expertly mocked by the spy spoof The Silencers (1966), an early example of a post-credits scene that integrates humor and the promotion of an upcoming film (Bustle crowned it “the first modern post-credits scene”). In Silencers, a shirtless Matt Helm (Dean Martin) lounges on a rotating bed surrounded by women. A groovy text crawl tells us that “Matt Helm Meets Lovey Kravezit in Murderer’s Row” and Martin, overwhelmed, hangs his head in his hands and closes the film on a profanity.
And ultimately, serialization is at the heart of set-up scenes; Helm enjoyed four installments while Bond continues to rocket into the sun with twenty-five. No surprise then that Sherlock Holmes, one of the great serialized heroes, was also an early post-credits scene experiment. After the credits of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), we learn that the villainous Eh-Tar is, in fact, Holmes’ future nemesis Professor Moriarty, a set up for a sequel that never came to be. Similarly, Masters of the Universe (1987) was a perfect candidate for a sequel set-up. And while the film garnered no sequel, when Skeletor emerged from the pit he got kicked into, promising his return, it was right on brand for a Jack Kirby-inspired sci-fi fantasy.
Marvel didn’t invent the wheel, but they sure as hell popularized it. Historically, post-credits sequences have been good for a laugh or a spook, but it wasn’t until Marvel’s revolutionary pre-planned film franchise that they had the opportunity to really shine; to not merely tease sequels, but entirely different films within a shared universe. That was unheard of.
In a promo tour for The Avengers, Marvel President Kevin Feige told /Film that he “[likes] that we’ve trained at least some people to stay behind and get a little reward.” Though as Vulture’s Alex Suskind eloquently notes, these scenes are more than just a Skinner Box; “they act as transitional moments for the entire franchise.” Sure enough, one of The Avenger’s post-credit scenes was a silly denouement featuring shawarma while the other allowed Marvel to “get cosmic,” and set the pace for the momentum and scale of the Marvel Universe’s larger narrative thrust.
Five years before Iron Man premiered, Feige was a co-producer on Bryan Singer’s X2: X-Men United, which he cites as his first experience leveraging specialized nerd knowledge for post-credits scene teasers; “we liked the idea of hinting to the Phoenix and Bryan [Singer] did in that little flash.” In a more recent interview with /Film, Feige cited Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Masters of the Universe as inspirations.
As a film nerd, I never wanted it to end. I didn’t want the experience…no matter how good or bad the movie was…I didn’t want [it] to end. So I would always sit through the credits. My Mom would do that, too. Would read all the names and think it’s so interesting what everybody does. So I would always sit through all the credits and you’re about two-thirds of the way through and it’s like “oh should I go?” Well maybe there’s…I mean, that one time there was something in that movie. Maybe there’ll be something on this movie. And there never was. Almost never was. So when I started making movies, I’d be like “that’d be fun to do.”
As described in Vanity Fair’s Marvel cover story, when Feige saw how general audiences responded to Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man, he knew that his dream of weaving together Marvel properties into a shared cinematic universe was possible. For better or for worse, Marvel has inspired other cinematic universes (the DCEU has, in recent years, finally jumped on the post-credits scene bandwagon). And so as long as we have cinematic universes, you can bank of post-credits scenes. Or, to bum a joke from the post-credits sequence of Airplane II: The Sequel: “Airplane 3!” That’s exactly what they’re expecting us to do!”