End of an Era: Avengers: Endgame & Game of Thrones
It's time to quit worrying about your favourite piece of pop culture – whether its Game of Thrones, Avengers, or any other series – coming to an end and enjoy it while it lasts
Spring is coming, and with it comes destruction. Devastation. The end of an era. Entry into a new, mysterious passage of history.
April brings the final series of Game of Thrones and the arrival of Avengers: Endgame, each the culmination of a decade of world-building, universe-expanding episodic entries that have grown over time into the dominant forces in TV and cinema. As winter finally thaws, two titans of the pop cultural world, unrivalled in scope or influence, will fall.
Both are now able to send their millions-strong fanbase into raptures with the smallest gesture. A release date. A sub-title. The slightest, most ambiguous image or allusion and the internet almost burns itself out trying to process the ecstatic, ravenous surge which it incites. The last month has been chock full of articles that scour past entries for clues, dissect the wildest fan theories with scientific rigour and rehash all the most important moments so far. Thousands of words have also been expended on a more meta-analysis of the series themselves, trying to make sense of how they created such monocultural sensations at a time when critics had long proclaimed monoculture to be dead.
Becoming something that “everybody” watches, all at the same time, is the real magic trick of both Thrones and Avengers. Both began with source material that had its own deep, meticulously crafted lore, and a massive set of fans eager to eat up even the slightest new morsel of information about those worlds. Plenty of others have assembled these same ingredients – most obviously Marvel’s age-old comicbook rivals DC, but also the attempt to build a Dark Universe with The Mummy or an expanded Stephen King realm with The Dark Tower and Castle Rock – but none have managed to spin those elements into cultural and commercial gold like Thrones and Avengers.
It might be fruitless to try and work out the exact equation for this alchemy, but there is a notable point to be made about the opposite approaches with which Avengers and Game of Thrones keep us all looking their way, year after year. In the simplest terms, Marvel builds while Thrones destroys. Both do both, of course – Age of Ultron saw a whole country dropped from the sky while Thrones introduces new players into its game every season – but the major selling point, the special something that keeps us coming back for more, lies on one side of that yin-yang.
From season one’s Sean Bean shocker to the infamous "red wedding", a huge part of Thrones’ appeal has always been these Reaction Video-ready moments. Martin created a world where the axe can fall at any moment for any character, so we all stay stuck to screen as much out of terror as enjoyment: fearful that our favourite will be the next to go if we aren’t there to watch over them.
With Marvel, it’s all about what they’re going to give you next. The post-credits stingers, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them easter eggs, the steady drip feed of teasers and tidbits: they’re all shiny promises of the treasures in store for those who turn up for the next instalment. A new character, a new gadget, a new suit: Captain Marvel, the Iron Spider, the Hulkbuster. Time after time, Marvel reaches into the infinite toy box of its comic archives and whips out something cool to sneak fans a glimpse of and guarantee itself another billion at the box office.
Essentially, Game of Thrones plays on our jealous fears of losing what we’ve got while Marvel stokes our envy at what we haven’t had yet. Both have proved to be devastatingly effective strategies.
There's a lot of talk already about what we’ll do once these stories are done; countless think-pieces have nervously asked whether there will ever be a show as big as Thrones (there will), or if this is the death of blockbuster television (it’s not), or the end of the superhero era (also pretty unlikely). And, of course, what is dead profitable may never die: there are already Thrones spin-offs a-plenty in the works and a whole new phase of MCU to fire straight into. Even as we prepare to mourn, Disney and HBO are getting the paddles ready to jolt the beloved corpses back into life.
There will be more. More sequels and prequels and reboots and remakes because... that is the game now. Just as Harry Potter and Star Wars spin-offs have managed to dilute these series down from the seismic pop cultural events they once were, the desire to milk profitable IPs for all their worth ensures that, in a mildly twisted, almost Twilight Zone-ish way, nothing we love now ever truly leaves us.
And there will be a next thing too. The next great pop cultural obsession probably isn’t even on most people’s radar yet. It probably won’t look anything like Harry Potter or Avengers or Game of Thrones. Sooner or later, it will appear.
But this is what’s happening right now. This is the moment we are in. When films and TV shows are made 30 years from now, set in the 2010s, these will be the “period details” the camera lingers on so we can all chuckle knowingly at the reference. It feels weird to position paying more attention to properties with million dollar ad campaigns as some sort of radical act but there is a chance here in a huge, minor, globe-spanning, completely trivial and profoundly important way to participate in pop cultural history.
This is it. This is this moment’s Beatles, its Star Wars, its Harry Potter. Moments this big don’t come along all that often and, honestly, they’re just a hell of a lot more fun to be a part of than to sit apart from. So let’s enjoy the game we’re playing while we’re playing it, right to the end.
Series eight of Game of Thrones screens weekly on Sky Atlantic – read our review of episode one here
Avengers: Endgame is released 24 Apr via Disney