No, don’t take that headline to suggest that the crash you’ve seen in all the trailers is a fatal spoiler that sees Lightning McQueen go the way of the cassette player. But the question of what happens next in the Cars franchise — and whether we’ll ever see it — is a fairly good question to ask once you’ve seen Cars 3.
STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN CARS 3! YOU’RE ONLY HURTING YOURSELF AND SPOILING YOUR SENSE OF WONDER.
Disney/Pixar’s third Cars film ends, as plenty of sequels do, with a thematic passing of the torch, accompanied by the discovery of a promising new role for our protagonist. In the case of Lightning McQueen, the ending of Cars 3 finds Owen Wilson’s aging racer taking up a sudden new position as de facto coach and crew chief for Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who comes into her own as a racer and speeds to victory under Lightning’s cool guidance in the finale.
As far as movie-making is concerned, there’s an argument to be made on both sides of the coin for where possible future Cars sequels could go from here (although presently, nothing has been announced nor should be at this point).
Here’s where things stand: On the one hand, the Cars 3 finale could be the perfect cap to Lightning’s journey, a rare second sequel achievement that strikes the right chords in sentiment and makes perfect destined sense for the character. Knowing that Lightning has found potential happiness in a new role — and inherited the mantle of his own late mentor, Doc Hudson — could give enough closure to audiences as they walk out the theater for what could be the last time.
From a storytelling standpoint, though, there’s an equally compelling argument to be made that there’s at least one more story to tell in Lightning’s future. In Cruz, we have a scrappy young racer for whom we can root from Lightning’s new vantage point, and there’s solid narrative potential in exploring the new professional experience of McQueen as mentor. The social circles of sponsors, coaches, and business owners aren’t something we’ve seen in great quantity, despite spending plenty of time on the racing circuit; the introduction of Sterling in Cars 3 teased a whole expanded idea of commercial interests in the world of Cars. Lightning’s nascent experience with Dinoco could answer some questions that loyal and skeptic viewers have always had about the greater automotive American universe outside of the racetrack. (And, cynicism warning: As far as the business of movie-making is concerned, the Cars franchise continues to be a billion-dollar merchandising behemoth, with Cars 3 introducing a brand new paint coat for Lightning that should find its way to licensed retailers and small hands in no time).
EW asked the film’s director, Cars veteran Brian Fee, and Pixar/Disney animation chief creative officer John Lasseter what they thought about where the franchise stands after Cars 3. Whether it’s with a fourth film, a follow-up short (a.k.a. the Toy Story model) or a medium yet to be determined, this race is likely far from over.
“We don’t know—we’ve just concentrated on getting this one out—but we love the world, and it was really important for me to have it end with the ability that Lightning McQueen can still race,” says Lasseter, who has often been vocal about his passion for the Cars franchise from the beginning. “He’s not quitting racing. He can still race, and it’s up to him. It’s his choice. He’s just, right at this moment, really excited to help Cruz Ramirez. But the options are wide open for future stories.” (Pixar’s release calendar, on the other hand, is already abounding with projects; based on EW’s reporting, the first open slot that could accommodate a fourth Cars movie wouldn’t be until 2021.)
Fee, meanwhile, told EW that the ending should be taken as nothing short of a new chapter for Lightning McQueen. “When I think about these characters, movies aside, where the franchise goes from here, I have no idea what may be down the road,” he told EW in January. “But I can tell you that Lightning McQueen, as a character, and as somebody going through the same stuff he’s going through, I think by the end of this movie it would be safe to say that this is only the beginning for him.”