With the spectacular The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, the best in the series, Jennifer Lawrence closes out the franchise that made her the biggest star of her generation. Since The Hunger Games started, in 2012, she's starred in four of them and only six of everything else. Luckily, those other films took her to the Academy Awards twice, which, added on to her first Oscar trip, for the grim indie Winter's Bone, makes the 25-year-old the face of Hollywood's two career tracks: blockbuster royalty and the prestige nominee.
Katniss Everdeen, the part that put Lawrence on billboards from Tribeca to Taiwan, is the role that's most unlike her very public image. Lawrence's doofy golden child is the inverse of Katniss, a severe, unsmiling brunette. The only thing Lawrence and Katniss have in common is a sense that, despite all their handlers and even their own retrained intentions, when the cameras come on they'll both blurt whatever they want.
Impulsiveness has been Katniss's key trait. Her every great act has been unplanned: threatening to commit suicide on TV, blowing up the Games arena and, most pivotally, becoming a figurehead for the rebellion when she'd rather just be home making fun of her sister Primrose's cat. Throughout the series, Lawrence's stone face is unreadable. We never know what Katniss will do until she does it, and one suspects she doesn't, either. It's an ascension by happenstance, and one Katniss sorely regrets as the public pressures her to live up to ideals she's never claimed to embody.
I, too, tend to prefer deliberate ascensions — such as, I suspect, Lawrence's own. That triumph feels earned, not merely bestowed or, worse, predetermined from birth — all those Chosen Ones represent the worst ego-stroking trope in Millennial Generation cinema. In films like Harry Potter, Divergent, The Matrix, The Giver and the Star Wars prequels, all tension is sapped by biological anointment. Has a chosen hero ever failed? Yet it's Katniss's choices, not her chosen status, that prove to be exactly right even when, in the moment, we worry they're all wrong. In this last installment, when a Capitol loyalist puts a gun to her throat and growls, "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't shoot you," her spontaneously bad answer — "I can't" — turns out to be just the suicidal mea culpa he needs to hear.
Before the Hunger Games films launched, I bought the first book to understand why it mattered. I ended up marathoning the entire trilogy before sunrise. Suzanne Collins's vision was gutting, gory and satisfyingly cynical about the purity of heroism. The first film, however, disappointed. The book's grisly deaths proved no match for a PG-13 rating, and the kids-on-kids kill-frenzy of my imagination was just a whiffed punch. As the series continued, it got better even as the carnage remained chaste. Now, in Mockingjay 2, which I've always mentally subtitled as "The One Where Everyone Dies," people are torn apart, exploded, strung up, shot. There's not a drop of blood, but each murder still hurts, both because we've come to care about the characters and because, after so much death, more death tips over into existential futility. Hundreds die so that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) — an old man who wheezes like he's got just one day left — can, for a few more feeble hours, preserve his posh lifestyle. It's no coincidence that to play the eerily self-contained District 13's rebel leader, President Coin, Julianne Moore had to dye her hair gray. Since the Greek titans, the old have forever devoured the young.
The series is no longer primarily interested in just one girl's survival — and, thankfully, it's barely engaged with the love triangle that Collins had to flog to keep fans interested until she reached her real goal: Mockingjay's large, cynical questions about sacrifice and success. (Which, in book form, were almost too dense — the filmmakers were right to divide the last volume in two.) In the first Hunger Games film, we were simply meant to care whether Katniss won. Three movies later, as Katniss helps Coin defeat the Capitol and destroy Snow, the series has become about how horrible it can be to win. It sticks us in that brutal stretch of a war where everyone knows the imminent outcome, but half will have to die to accomplish it. In victory, Katniss's friends aren't much better than her foes. In her name, rebels cheer the Snow-ally District 2's civilian dead just as TV audiences cheered the Hunger Games arena. "Sometimes killing isn't personal," advises heartthrob Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Katniss is aghast. Isn't that even worse?
But Katniss isn't innocent. Before, she just wanted to survive. Now she wants vengeance for Snow torturing her off-again boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). And screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong are smart enough to upend that revenge beat when Johanna (Jena Malone) grimly notes that she was also tortured alongside Peeta but that, because she's not a media sweetheart, no one cares. Even among the good guys, some lives are worth more than others — especially if they make good propaganda.
The Hunger Games has always been a TV war, slyly satirized, as in a tense city invasion where a camera crew asks Katniss to hold off shooting her bow until they can get the right shot. Now Lawrence and the filmmakers use that celebrity for suspense: There's a horribly great sequence in a sewer that pays homage to Aliens, a quiet nail-biter wherein Katniss, now disguised as a Capitol resident, is recognized by a toddler.
But most astonishingly, with the franchise's powerful climax, Lawrence has managed to align her parallel Hollywood lives and reinvent the prestigious popcorn flick, a crowd-pleaser with intelligent class. Perhaps she's glad to finally retire dour, dark-haired Katniss. The Oscar race will welcome her back. But as fashionable as it is to whine about blockbusters gobbling up all the young acting talent, I like visiting a world — even a brutal teen dystopia — where our big flicks are as smart as our small ones.