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How Marvel Delivered The Grand Finale That “Game Of Thrones” Couldn’t

As the two biggest pop culture franchises of the decade unveiled their highly anticipated conclusions, they exposed the joys and hazards of fan service and grand spectacle. Warning: SPOILERS.

Posted on May 28, 2019, at 6:48 p.m. ET

Glenn Harvey for BuzzFeed News

Shared pop culture events used to be commonplace. I’m not even talking about the record-setting series finales of M*A*S*H and Seinfeld, or the half year when Titanic dominated the box office, the music charts, and the Oscars. I’m talking about, like, a midseason episode of ER circa 1996, when the NBC drama regularly pulled in over 35 million viewers a week. Or those months — months! — in 2002 when it seemed like everyone was buying a ticket to My Big Fat Greek Wedding out of a sense of “well everyone else is seeing this” obligation.

We don’t do that anymore. There still are popular hits, of course — Aquaman, The Walking Dead, A Star Is Born — and we do all still slip into moments of true mass culture obsession, like J.J. Abrams resurrecting Star Wars or whenever Beyoncé shablams a new album into the world. But over the last 20 years, as the options for pop culture consumption have proliferated, those shared obsessions have become rare events rather than commonplace rituals — lone unicorns instead of herds of cattle.

That is, except for HBO’s Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In its final season this spring, GoT became the No. 1 scripted show on television — at least, among the networks and streamers that publicly share audience data — with an average of at least 44.2 million total viewers per episode across all platforms in the US for its final season. It’s by far the most popular show in HBO’s history. Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame, meanwhile, obliterated box office records when it opened last month, earning $357 million at the domestic box office — which translates to selling roughly 39.6 million tickets. To date, Endgame has grossed over $800 million domestically, and since Iron Man kicked off the MCU in 2008, the entire 22-movie franchise has grossed $8 billion in the US and Canada.

It took years for each of these franchises to build themselves up from merely popular to once-in-a-generation sensations, as their respective (and overlapping) fanbases cultivated an ongoing relationship with each property. And so it’s not surprising that, after nearly a decade of impassioned viewership, the series finale of GoT, and Endgame, the final installment of the current MCU — which happened to air and premiere within a month of each other — would be such all-consuming behemoths. I know there have been other TV shows and other movies in April and May. I can even remember watching many of them. But it really has felt like these two mega-franchises have been the only pop culture events in the world that people are talking about.

Those discussions, however, have unfolded in radically different directions.

Over Endgame’s opening weekend, the hashtag #ThankYouAvengers flooded Twitter with tears, praise, thirst, tattoos, tributes, gratitude, and love for how the three-hour movie brought the 22-film cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a close (at least for now). The film has earned a rare A+ rating from the audience polling firm CinemaScore, and was certified 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. In turn, the film’s stars have taken a warm-fuzzy victory lap, sharing behind-the-scenes photos and videos to thank the fans for their yearslong support and devotion.

Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images, Amy Sussman / Getty Images

Left: Sophie Turner (center) at the Game of Thrones fan event in Madrid on June 28, 2016; Right: Chris Hemsworth (right) at the world premiere of Avengers: Endgame in Los Angeles on April 22, 2019.

Game of Thrones fans, meanwhile, have been in open revolt over how the 73-episode series has concluded. The show’s creators and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been called sexist fucks” who made the final season a fucking disgrace.” Videos of the cast’s less than enthusiastic feelings about the final season have gone viral, as has star Emilia Clarke’s interviews about her devastated reaction to Daenerys’s heel turn to genocide. Fans even started an online petition pleading with HBO to remake the entire final season — it has over 1.5 million signatures — sparking a sharp, defensive rebuke from star Sophie Turner.

In a decade in which an inexhaustible array of entertainment options has splintered our attention into niches of niches of niches, GoT and the MCU have been our greatest sustained pop culture phenomena. Both have captured massive, takes-all-kinds audiences at an unmatched scale. That rarefied popularity has brought with it an unprecedented degree of public scrutiny, as social media has exposed the limitations — and promise — of “fan service.” In both their striking similarities and marked differences, GoT and the MCU have blurred the lines between film and television in the run-up to their conclusions, and exposed the escalating challenges of making entertainment that strives to bring everyone together.

HBO

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) just before his execution in the Game of Thrones episode “Baelor.”

The selling point for GoT’s first season was that it was a medieval soap opera rife with political intrigue, moral ambiguity, and copious sex and nudity, courtesy of its pungent source material, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series. But then Ned Stark, the show’s hero, got his head chopped off, and Daenerys emerged naked from the funeral pyre of her dead Dothraki husband cradling three newborn dragons. While fans of the books knew those twists were coming, many viewers did not. As the show progressed, even darker, more shocking twists awaited, and each new season, each new episode, of GoT became an event onto itself: You had to watch, because you didn’t want to be spoiled by everyone else the next day, or even the next hour, especially online.

And it was online where the show’s dense, unfolding, twist-laden story, fortified by thousands of pages of Martin’s labyrinthine world-building mythology, proved to be ideal kindling for the exploding online marketplace of fan theories. There was, of course, the inescapable R+L=J theory about Jon Snow’s true parentage, which the show eventually confirmed. But take but a few keystrokes into YouTube, Tumblr, or Reddit, and you will soon find yourself falling headlong into a bottomless chasm of GoT fan speculation, like Bran is really the Night King, Littlefinger faked his own death, Tyrion is really a Targaryen, Daenerys and Jon Snow made a baby, Arya is really the Waif, Meera Reed is Jon Snow’s twin sister, Missandei is really a Faceless Man, Sansa will marry Jon Snow, and, one of my personal favorites, Varys is really a merman.

For the first few seasons, these fan theories were just part of the churn of daily internet discourse. But when it became clear that GoT would progress past the last of Martin’s published novels, A Dance With Dragons — leaving no one with foreknowledge of where the show was headed — those theories began to transform from fun idle chatter into the realm of crackpot prophecy. An online cottage industry sprang up, devoted to dissecting every micro-angle imaginable about the show. Whenever GoT was on the air, coverage of it was often the single biggest traffic driver for many media outlets — including (especially!) the one you are currently reading.

As GoT’s impassioned viewership mushroomed, so did the show’s ambitions, and the money HBO was willing to spend to match them. The penultimate episode of the second season, “Blackwater,” devoted the entire hour for the first time to a single battle, capped with a spectacular explosion of wildfire. In Season 4, “The Watchers on the Wall” depicted the wildling assault on Castle Black, complete with wooly mammoths and giants, and crowning Kit Harington’s Jon Snow as GoT’s go-to action hero. He returned to that role several times over, each episode more visually astonishing than the last, punctuated by stampeding wights and fire-breathing dragons. Over the course of eight seasons, GoT’s original calling cards — narrative complexity, hot people arguing — gradually became overshadowed by its showstopping spectacle. Someone actually made a chart to prove it.

Since the 1990s, series like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, The Sopranos, and Mad Men have pushed television production to become increasingly cinematic. Logistical and financial considerations, however, had always stifled episodic series TV from matching the epic scope possible in big-budget theatrical filmmaking. But by GoT’s final four episodes, each stretching near or past 80 minutes in length — one of which boasted the longest sustained battle sequence in movie or television history — GoT had stopped resembling a TV show and felt far more like a series of intertwined feature films.

Kind of like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, actually.

Marvel Studios

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in 2012’s The Avengers.

When Iron Man debuted in 2008, no one had ever tried creating a broad network of interconnected film franchises that culminate in one giant mega-franchise, because it was a ludicrous idea, requiring an enormous outlay of filmmaking capital on the mere hope that audiences would respond with blockbuster-level enthusiasm every time. But after Iron Man grossed $318.4 million domestically, Marvel Studios pushed full steam ahead with its plans, and we all know what happened: Four years later, The Avengers destroyed box office records, fundamentally changing how Hollywood measured success. Having a blockbuster hit was no longer enough; it wasn’t even enough to have a blockbuster franchise.

Instead, practically every studio began chasing after its own cinematic universe, but none have come anywhere close to matching the MCU. Even Lucasfilm, Marvel’s corporate cousin, has struggled to expand its filmmaking galaxy beyond the rabid enthusiasm and ticket sales sparked by Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015. After the concluding film in the flagship Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, debuts this December, the movie franchise will lie fallow for a full three years before starting up again in 2022.

Marvel Studios, meanwhile, has released three movies per year since 2017. To meet a seemingly insatiable audience demand, the company’s output long ago abandoned the natural metabolism of a movie franchise — which, at its most brisk pace, generally cranks out a new movie every two years. Instead, the MCU has resembled the world’s most expensive television series that happens to play in movie theaters. There are even “next time on…” post-credit teasers meant to keep viewers eager for upcoming installments.

The entire endeavor has worked only because every film in the MCU has been a hit — granted, some (Black Panther, Captain Marvel) more than others (Ant-Man, Doctor Strange). They’ve knit together a massive narrative tapestry boasting over 100 characters of some significance, and roughly two dozen of major importance. (Kind of like GoT, actually.) And it’s these characters, more than anything else, that have set the MCU apart. Led by Robert Downey Jr.’s sui generis star turn as Tony Stark — who’s appeared in nine MCU titles — each of these superheroes have been given room to evolve to a degree that other characters in big-budget blockbusters never really have before. In turn, the movies have inspired passionate devotion to the characters and the actors playing them.

In order to keep to a TV pace, Marvel Studios also adopted the model of TV production, with studio chief Kevin Feige occupying what amounts to the role of executive producer and showrunner. And like many successful showrunners, Feige has trusted the creative details for each Marvel Studios film to a roster of collaborators, like Joss Whedon (writer-director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) and James Gunn (writer-director of the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy). In one glorious case, Feige’s decision to hire Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) to cowrite and direct Black Panther resulted in seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, a historic first for a superhero film.

By all reports, however, Feige has remained firm as the highest creative authority of the MCU. That’s led to some friction. Edgar Wright, a director with a delightfully precise filmmaking style, abruptly departed 2015’s Ant-Man over “differences in their vision of the film,” according to a joint statement from Wright and Marvel Studios. As Ant-Man star Evangeline Lilly, who signed on to the film when Wright was still director, explained to me in 2014, “If [Marvel] had created Edgar’s incredible vision — which would have been, like, classic comic book — it would have been such a riot to film and it would have been so much fun to watch. But it wouldn’t have fit in the Marvel Universe … It just would have taken you away from this cohesive universe they’re trying to create.”

We’ll never know how an Edgar Wright Ant-Man movie might have affected the overall cohesion of the MCU, but there’s no doubting the effectiveness of Feige’s methods. Feige first began discussing how to adapt Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet comic book series back after the colossal success of The Avengers in 2012. By 2013, Feige and his team began explicitly seeding the MCU’s releases with “infinity stones,” making the — let’s face it — silly concept a household term well in advance of Infinity War and Endgame’s debuts. And the context for audiences that the MCU long game provided was crucial to making both movies work. Imagine, for a moment, Infinity War having to grind to a halt while someone explained what an infinity stone is for the very first time. Now rent 2017’s Justice League, the DC Comics version of The Avengers, and behold what that looks like!

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Producer Kevin Feige and filmmaker Edgar Wright at Marvel Studios’ San Diego Comic-Con panel on July 14, 2012.

Feige’s bulletproof credibility with the larger Marvel fandom — witness any of Marvel Studios’ panels at San Diego Comic-Con, and you’ll see what I mean — has also allowed the MCU to draw from the limitless library of Marvel comic books without ever feeling obsequiously bound to them, and without unduly inflaming Marvel comic book true believers. It helps that the last 20 years have charted the ascendancy of geek culture at large, with the MCU — and GoT — leading the charge.

And while Martin’s ASOIAF mythology is merely convoluted, the Marvel comic book multiverse is spread across an impossible tangle of alternate Earths, multiple Spider-People, and all manner of Captains America — which has freed the MCU’s filmmakers to use what works, and discard the rest.

Feige’s sturdy hand has also meant that despite the MCU’s varied genres — Thor as fantasy melodrama, Captain America: The First Avenger as period WWII adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy as sci-fi action comedy — every film has still kept to a core sensibility. The humor is quippy and in perpetual supply, the violence is largely bloodless and PG-13 friendly, and the battles are carefully doled out at regular intervals with consistent if often anonymous visual competence.

Most importantly, above all other considerations, the MCU is fun — which means it’s also not particularly keen on challenging the conventions of comic book movies: Heroes remain heroic, and win; villains scheme and fight, then lose, and usually die. That uncomplicated dynamic was occasionally thrown a bit off-kilter whenever a seeming bad guy (ack, the Winter Soldier!) went good (yay, Bucky’s back!). But it always wound up confirming the MCU’s straightforward, family-friendly worldview, which established a clear, unambiguous set of fan expectations that Feige et al. were generally capable of meeting.

This isn’t to say the MCU hasn’t engaged with the real world beyond pure escapism. Captain America: The Winter Soldier grappled with the surveillance state; Thor: Ragnarok transformed Asgardians from galactic colonizers into refugees; and Black Panther tackled the moral hazard of isolationism through the prism of the African diaspora, a topic no other Hollywood studio had ever considered giving blockbuster treatment.

But none of these films burrowed deep enough into those subjects to make their audiences feel any lasting anxiety or anger or even discomfort. When Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War did confront the questionable narrative premise of the entire franchise — entrusting a tiny band of outrageously powerful people to be the arbiters of who’s good and evil, collateral damage be damned — the eventual result was that tiny band deciding, Yeah, we should still be the arbiters for who’s good and evil.

If the audience is meant to question that conviction, the films have never let on. And even in the MCU’s most subversive moment — when the heroes lost, and Thanos snapped half the universe into oblivion at the end of Infinity War — the palpable sting of watching T’Challa and Spider-Man disintegrate into ash was assuaged by the knowledge that of course they were coming back: They’ve got sequels to star in.

HBO

Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) during the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, “The Rains of Castamere.”

Death on Game of Thrones has always been — except for Jon Snow and Beric Dondarrion — far more permanent, and — aside from Thanos — way less discriminating. The seeming heroes rarely won, and frequently died. The seeming villains operated with such cynical and successful cunning that it was hard not to root for (some of) them, if only because it was less heartbreaking than investing in everyone we actually liked (Ned, Catelyn, Robb, Oberyn, Ygritte, Margaery), only to watch them bite it.

Considering that GoT is built on the premise that we’re all amoral flesh-sacks destined to become rotted worm food, it’s almost shocking that it became such an international phenomenon. Benioff and Weiss were GoT’s showrunners, but unlike Feige with his steady command of the MCU, they weren’t the chief architects of their own show’s story. Instead, for the first five seasons, Benioff and Weiss hewed closely to Martin’s five published ASOIAF novels. Killing off beloved characters is far from uncommon for a popular TV series — just ask Shonda Rhimes — but the frequency and brutality of the deaths on GoT nonetheless felt radical when transcribed from page to screen. Events like the Red Wedding or the Mountain crushing Oberyn’s skull weren’t just devastating, they were destabilizing — part of Martin’s grand design to deconstruct the fundamental assumptions baked into fantasy storytelling.

Benioff and Weiss did occasionally make significant deviations from Martin’s books to great effect, like having Brienne fight the Hound over protecting Arya, or bringing Tyrion and Daenerys together in Meereen. But they also leaned heedlessly into the cruel sexual violence of Martin’s literary world. In Season 4, Jaime raped Cersei next to their son’s dead body (an act the show’s creative team inexplicably didn’t seem to think was rape), and in Season 5, Ramsay raped Sansa on their wedding night. Neither of these acts came from Martin’s text, and the outcry after both was so immediate and severe, Benioff and Weiss appear to have learned from it: After Season 5, the show never depicted rape onscreen again. Still, rape was such an accepted part of GoT’s feudal storytelling that its viewership continued to rise unabated throughout these controversies; it’s hard to imagine the MCU’s audience being quite so generous had, say, the Hulk “accidentally” raped Black Widow.

HBO

The Night King (Richard Brake) in the Game of Thrones episode “Hardhome.”

Season 5 also marked the last time Martin’s novels could guide GoT’s story, and it turned out that the most telling indication of where Benioff and Weiss would take GoT without Martin’s text wasn’t in their rape-y missteps, but in the episode widely regarded as one of the show’s very best, “Hardhome.” The White Walkers’ surprise attack of the wildling camp in that episode is nowhere to be found in Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, so audiences were duly shocked, and delighted, with the breathless and visceral ensuing battle, from which Jon Snow barely escapes with his life.

In hindsight, “Hardhome” was the key turning point for Game of Thrones, when the show started grappling between giving us what we wanted — moar White Walkers! — and undermining our hopes to better shatter our hearts — hold the dooooooor, Hodor! The pinnacle of that tension between fan service and subversion arrived in the Season 6 finale, “The Winds of Winter”: Cersei blew up the Sept of Baelor and all her enemies with it, causing her only living child to kill himself in grief; Daenerys finally left Essos on her mission to reclaim the Iron Throne, with Tyrion at her side as her hand. At the time, these were deeply satisfying narrative turns for the characters that felt like the culmination of everything we’d watched them go through, marshaled with the peerless filmmaking craft that the show’s production team had honed over six seasons.

“The Winds of Winter,” we now know, was meant as yet another of GoT’s long con fake-outs, setting us up to root for a rousing series climax the showrunners had no plan to provide. But by that point, we had also tasted the sweet nectar of fan service and grand spectacle. It proved to be poison.

Marvel Studios

Literally all the superheroes in the climax of Avengers: Endgame.

When Benioff and Weiss finally decide to give a post-finale interview about Game of Thrones, I do hope whoever speaks with them asks what it was like to see Avengers: Endgame, and watch scene after scene of unabashed pandering to every possible audience desire: Smart Hulk! Fat Thor! A greatest-moments montage, conveniently provided by time travel! Cameos by Tilda Swinton and Robert Redford and Michael Douglas with a digital facelift! Captain America saying “Hail Hydra”! And then complimenting his own ass! And then holding Mjölnir!

And then there was the climactic battle to end all climatic battles, with the universe de-snapped and just about every single hero in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe emerging behind a battered Cap to face off against Thanos and his invading horde.

Marvel Studios could have changed the title to Avengers: All the Shit You Want, and I would have been totally fine with it — that’s what the MCU has always been about, giving the audience what they want in as appealing and thrilling a package as possible. How else could you possibly achieve payoff on the final film in a 22-film saga that reportedly cost over $400 million (before marketing) other than trying to bring as much concentrated joy as possible, by capitalizing on your audience’s deep emotional investment in characters you’ve carefully developed for a decade?

When I saw the final battle in Endgame for the second time — in IMAX, of course — it was a week after Arya Stark had stabbed the Night King in the heart in Episode 3 of GoT’s final season, instantly eradicating the White Walkers and relegating the Army of the Dead back into lifeless corpses just as it seemed like all was lost. I couldn’t help but compare that climax to when Tony Stark hurls himself at Thanos, just as the Mad Titan is about to snap the entire universe into oblivion, and manages to snap Thanos and his army out of existence instead.

Everything we’ve seen both Arya and Tony go through has led them to these moments. For Tony, we know he understands the act will kill him, and we feel how profound a culmination it is for his character, the grudge he’s carried against Thanos for years, and how he’s shifted from a self-centered major asshole to a selfless minor asshole. Crucially, we also understand how Tony gets the infinity stones from Thanos — like, physically, where he is in space and how he moves in that space in order to save the universe.

Arya’s triumph, by stark contrast, is muddled. She has no relationship with the Night King, other than knowing he needs to die. It’s unclear if Arya knows exactly how she could kill the Night King, which is just as well, since we have no idea how she gets herself past the White Walkers and the army of wights in order to do it. We just see her leap from…somewhere.

HBO

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) confronting the Night King (Vladimír Furdík) in the Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night.”

Some of this feels deliberate. If anyone was supposed to kill the Night King, it was Jon Snow. They had their iconic face-off in “Hardhome,” of course, but more importantly, Jon had been the center of a storm of fan theories about the Azor Ahai prophecy, basically predicting that Jon was born to be the savior of Westeros. And some fans were frustrated that Arya had (it seemed) stolen Jon’s moment, which is understandable given that GoT had spent its last two seasons lavishly indulging fan expectations — the Stark children reuniting, Jon and Dany fucking, Jaime knighting Brienne. Fans had waited eight years for Jon to fulfill his obvious destiny. Why are you taking it away from him, and us?!

And yet, GoT had always been a series dedicated to upending fantasy traditions, and Arya had charted her own complicated journey throughout the show, honing her skills at murder and revenge. So it’s not hard to see why the showrunners — and, likely, Martin — would set up a traditional male champion, and then hand the world-saving moment he’s meant for to his badass kid sister instead.

But you cannot promise a climax to seven seasons of dread and tension over the relentless existential threat of the Army of the Dead, conclude that with a gargantuan battle sequence that lasts nearly an hour, and then skip the details of how that climax is reached. That isn’t subversion, it’s a lazy shortcut. And so much of Game of Thrones’ final two seasons felt like shortcuts, starting with their truncated episode counts (seven and six respectively, instead of the usual 10), which in turn undermined the show’s ability to unfurl with its characteristic moral intricacy. Instead, the showrunners chose to race to the moments they felt confident would delight fans — like Jon Snow hastily assembling Gendry, Tormund, Ser Jorah, Ser Beric, Thoros, and the Hound for a supergroup-style mission over the Wall in Season 7 — without really worrying about whether it kept to the show’s long-established sensibility. Because who wouldn’t want to see that?

Even The Avengers took some time to honor the thorny challenges of throwing together a ragtag team of ill-matched warriors. On GoT, a show that practically made a fetish out of taking its time — and dashing our hopes for its characters — getting what we wanted without having to work for it just ended up feeling hollow.

Marvel Studios; HBO

The women superheroes of Avengers: Endgame; Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) in Game of Thrones.

There is one scene in Endgame that has had the opposite of the intended effect for many fans: The moment when Captain Marvel’s attack across the battlefield is backed up by the nine other women superheroes in the MCU. It’s clearly meant to be a rousing moment of feminist solidarity, proving that the MCU’s women are as formidable as its men. And reader, when I tell you I screamed the first time I saw it, please know that I mean that I scared the colleague — and friend! — sitting next to me. But in the light of day, the all-too-brief sequence was so shamelessly pandering, it ended up just serving as a reminder that of the 22 movie titles in the MCU, only Captain Marvel is headlined solely by a woman, and that Endgame’s writers had just killed off the original female Avenger, Black Widow, so that we could watch all the remaining men get really sad and emo about it.

To which Game of Thrones said, hold my beer, because, whoa nelly, did that show fuck over Daenerys Targaryen. There have been an endless procession of thinkpieces and counter-thinkpieces dissecting whether Dany’s final story arc made sense: “How dare you make the mother of dragons and breaker of chains into a genocidal maniac out of nowhere!” squared off against “Um, hello, she’s always been a ruthless authoritarian with a scary penchant for burninating her enemies!” On some level, both camps were mad they didn’t get justice for the version of Daenerys they’d cultivated in their heads, over years of obsession and theorizing, and instead had to live with the (in many ways) compromised version of Daenerys provided by GoT’s showrunners.

So it feels obvious that Game of Thrones’ final season failed to deliver on the promises the show had made over 66 previous episodes, whereas Endgame very much did deliver the ending we’d hoped for ever since Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury sauntered in from the shadows after the end credits for Iron Man to tell Tony Stark he’d “become part of a bigger universe.” It’s also maybe a little depressing to think that an intricate, boundlessly ambitious TV series that paints exclusively in the morally gray likely never had a chance to stick the landing; that you have to work in the (bold, delightful) primary colors of the MCU to have any hope of arriving at a coda that satisfies most of the people most of the time. And yet the irony is that even in our current era of instant reaction and constant discourse, we cannot actually know what the eventual legacies of these franchises will be. As Tyrion told Jon so wearily in Game of Thrones’ finale, “Ask me again in 10 years.”

It certainly seems worth something that GoT went out with everyone still clamoring over What It All Meant. If our biggest works of pop culture only live as long as people continue to talk about them (hi Avatar, I’m thinking — or, rather, not thinking — about you), then GoT’s many complicated faults tell us just as much about ourselves — how we feel about power, fate, and storytelling — as its many strengths. I’m not sure if the same is quite true about the MCU. If everyone’s happy, what is there to discuss? (Beyond a few time travel plot holes, anyway.)

As for the doubts that we’ll ever see the scarce, overwhelming success and ubiquity enjoyed by GoT and the MCU again? Of course we will. Marvel Studios will release the first film in its next cycle, Spider-Man: Far From Home, in July, and sequels to Black Panther and Doctor Strange, as well as a reported Black Widow movie, are all expected in the next few years. HBO, meanwhile, has been developing three Game of Thrones spinoffs, one of which, starring Naomi Watts, is set to shoot its pilot this summer.

It seems equally possible that at some point — perhaps soon! — we’ll all become obsessed with something else. Maybe Watchmen, HBO’s upcoming adaptation of the beloved deconstruction of comic book heroes, will consume our imaginations. Maybe the live-action adaptation of Akira from Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi will ignite a global obsession with anime. Maybe the BBC will make the inevitable Harry Potter TV series — at least audiences can’t possibly be disappointed by the facts of the ending, merely the execution.

More likely, it won’t be any of these. Whatever it is, though, we can hope that it will provide us with that wonderfully dizzy feeling that we’re all sharing the same irrational, sublime obsession, while absolutely certain that no one else quite gets it the way we do. That’s the ultimate pull, and promise, of mass culture — that the most powerful thing isn’t an infinity stone or a dragon, but our mad, marvelous love for the creative universes they let us share, for a little while. ●

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