There are many ways in which the Hunger Games series of movies has been groundbreaking. It has given us a female world-changing heroine in the mold of the countless boys and men Hollywood has cast in such a role, and showed the caricature up by depicting her as more human than most of them: more conflicted, more unsure, more afraid yet also more brave for overcoming all that… and also simultaneously more principled and more selfish. Katniss Everdeen has never been about some romantic, idealistic notion of heroism; she has always been about protecting the people she loves. She has always been fully, plausibly human. The series has given us a look at a world in which women are presumed to be as capable and as effortlessly authoritative as men: one scene here has a rebel commander giving a rallying speech to her discouraged army about to go up against the oppressive Capitol… and it is absolutely thrilling to see a black woman (she’s played by Patina Miller) speak with unquestioned power and persuasion to masses of people of every gender and color. The films have delved deep into the potent influence of propaganda, even when you’re aware of the attempt to sway you.
With the final installment, we might even see all the previous Hunger Games films as a kind of propaganda that has primed us to expect a certain sort of wrapup to the story of Katniss and her rebellion. Spoiler (not really): we do not get that kind of ending. Mockingjay – Part 2 ends up not being a Hollywood-slick rah-rah cheering on of war as honorable and warriors as valiant. What has already been one of the smartest and most enthralling SF film series ever sees itself to a thoroughly engaging and very fitting end by questioning all of our assumptions about war, politics, and peace, particularly as blockbuster movie series tend to present them. Where things go here might feel to some as if they are anticlimactic. There is no final battle that, as bloody and brutal as it could have been, nevertheless represents a neat and tidy finale and a pat triumph of good over evil. Nothing here is that easy. Katniss even begins to wonder whether District 13 is about to overthrow one tyrant only to install another. (Did Luke Skywalker ever wonder what would happen after the Emperor was defeated?)
The thwarting of war-movie clichés starts early, when the public face of the people’s unrest, Katniss Everdeen (the amazing Jennifer Lawrence: Serena, X-Men: Days of Future Past), doesn’t lead the rebels of District 13 in what everyone hopes will be a definitive assault on the Capitol. Instead, she’s bringing up with the rear — of a battle we never see — with the propaganda filmmaking team, making videos that will hopefully sway the hearts and minds of the Capitol citizens who, naturally, aren’t on the rebels side. Why should they be? We don’t see any of Katniss’s “propos” this time, only Katniss’s disgust with being forced back into this role again even as she appreciates the need for it. But we do see some of the broadcasts Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci: Wild Card, A Little Chaos) and Panem president Snow (Donald Sutherland: The Eagle, The Mechanic) make to the citizens of the Capitol: one of them comes with the unspoken underlying suggestion that luxury such as the Capitol enjoys is its own kind of propaganda: “If we’re rich, we must be right,” basically, and “Comfort is its own justification.” That’s not what Snow says, but it’s what he means. And it’s unsettling to realize that that’s not an atypical subtext to much of what we see in our world today.
This is so-called “young adult” dystopian science fiction with an unusual resonance for us. We see it, too, in tortured and tormented Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson: Epic, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), Katniss’s former Hunger Games partner who has been rescued from the Capitol and is now along on the propo mission — the idea is to show Snow and the Capitol citizens that Peeta has recovered from the horrendous conditioning he’d been subjected to, which forced him to denounce Katniss and the rebels — and has turned back toward the forces of good. Though the team is taking a huge risk in having him along: he isn’t actually quite recovered and likely to try to kill Katniss. PTSD is a big thing here… and how war impacts those who fight it has hardly ever been something that big loud action movies have cared much about.
Oh, and another way in which Katniss’s hero story differs from the typical dude’s? She does not get a simple reward of a handsome trophy to walk off into the sunset with, like so many male heroes “get the girl.” The series has mined a lot of tension out of how Katniss is torn between Peeta — whom she only pretended to love in their first Hunger Games as a, well, propagandistic ploy, but whom she clearly now feels something real toward — and her oldest and dearest friend, now fellow soldier Gale (Liam Hemsworth: Paranoia, The Expendables 2). There is nothing simple or trophy-ing about how this triangle resolves itself.
There are real stakes here for Katniss, and very high prices she has to pay before the rebellion she accidentally started is finally finished. And it’s the impact on Katniss that lingers most here. This film features some of the most breathtaking and original action sequences we’ve seen yet: Snow has turned the Capitol into a deadly obstacle course for the invading rebels; one character sardonically deems what they’re up against as the “seventy-sixth Hunger Games.” But matters of trust intimate and personal as well as social and political that haunt Katniss make this an emotional experience as much as an explosive one. Which is perhaps the most radical thing about how this series concludes: not with a bang but with whispers of doubt, grief, regret, and soul-searching.