An Era Ends: GAME OF THRONES and The MCU As The Last Giants

Entertainment history is going to look back at this time period as an era defined by longform serialized storytelling, with instalment-based stories conquering just about every narrative medium. Eventually this will end, not because serialized longform storytelling is bad but because all things fade away and change. Charles Dickens was telling stories in an environment like this one, just before the novel conquered all. And yet now the chapter has conquered the novel.

And yet when we look back at this period it’s going to be clear that there were two true standouts, two works that loom over all the others. Entertainment historians will argue about whether or not this period began with The Sopranos or with the interconnected nature of comic books, or with the endless storylines of soap operas, but I believe there will be a moment where it all peaked and that will be obvious. The two longform stories that dominate all others, and that define this very era, are Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and neither will be replicable. Enjoy this moment while it lasts, because we’re at the summit.

Game of Thrones stands unique in a narrative landscape that is fractured and broken; it’s perhaps the only TV show that centers the conversation, rather than being at the whim of an online audience’s momentary interest (hello, every single Netflix binge-watched show. Haunting of Hill Housewas one of the best TV shows I HAVE EVER SEEN and it was digested and forgotten within a week). This is how TV used to feel, Millennials and Gen Z, and it’s glorious. The sense that everybody else is watching, and that everybody else is watching along is a feeling of mighty connection that we don’t get anymore. And it’s a sense that’s been diminishing for decades; once upon a time, the story goes, crime rates in major cities dropped when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Is there a national mass media moment equivalent to that anymore?

The closest we get is Game of Thrones. What’s special aboutGame of Thrones is that it’s a show that is one hundred percent committed to its serialized, longform storytelling and gives no quarter to those who don’t follow along. The soap opera model is to move the story so incrementally day by day, and to fill it with so much exposition, that you can drop in and out and not really miss anything. Comics will catch you up (although less than in their heyday, something that the people trying to bring the books back to their heyday should consider). Few, if any, other serialized TV shows or movies have casts and storylines as complex as Game of Thrones has, with as much constant change and churn.

Game of Thrones stands alone in its sheer dizzing density, and it makes no effort to bring people along. I’m not sure that there has ever been a mainstream story as nerdily intense as this; what the show does is what high fantasy has done for decades, but that has only ever appealed to a small subset of the truly fanatically faithful. Game of Thrones does the revolutionary in this media environment: it trusts the intelligence of its audience.

The internet helps with this – you can look things up. But one of the privileges of working minimum wage jobs these days is that I get to meet people who are NOT of the Extremely Online variety. They don’t follow their favorite shows, they don’t have arguments on Twitter, they just use the internet to share their photos and to look at the photos of others and maybe for Yelp. These folks are not deep into GOT threads, they’re not hitting wikis. They’re just watching it and they’re relying on that most old-fashioned social network: living, real people.

Game of Thrones is a communal experience. We watch it in parties. Because it airs weekly, and isn’t all dumped on our lawns once a year, we get to talk about it in increments. For the not Extremely Online this talk happens with friends, family and co-workers. I work with some folks who get together every weekend to catch up on GOT before season 8 premieres. It’s wonderful.

It’ll also never happen again in this media landscape. GOT got in right as the door was closing and the world was changing; it’s hard to imagine another show being able to find the space in this crowded environment to make a splash this big for this long. What’s more, it’s hard to imagine a show taking the chances this one has taken, and trusting its audience the way this one has. I think that is part of what makes it special – people, even those not Extremely Online, treat this show as something to WATCH, not something to have on in the background. Netflix shows are designed as shit to play in the background while you fuck around on your phone; GOT is designed to be watched.

What’s more, GOT managed a neat trick of transitioning into a brave new world. It started at a time when having dragons and magic on TV was sort of niche, way back in 2011. The show’s groundedness allowed it the space to flourish and bring the audience on a journey of magic, one that mirrored the culture’s opening to genre in general (the MCU did the same thing). In 2019 everybody wants wights fighting dragons, but in 2011 you probably couldn’t get people to even consider something as geeky as that.

The show has also miraculously rolled with the political times. It’s opened its cast to more diverse actors, elevating characters who were more minor in the books. More than that, it’s turned away from it’s sexploitation beginnings; rapes are way down on the show, and not every episode has gratuitous nudity (I feel like the endless nudity of season one will be what dates that season most, even more than the cheaper effects and smaller crowd scenes). There were stumbles and controversies along the way, but the showrunners were dynamic and listened, and they made changes.

I don’t think this set of circumstances will come again. Game of Thrones is probably the last of the great mass media TV phenomenons, and it’s on HBO, so it isn’t even an eighth of the mass media of previous phenoms.

Also standing alone is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The recent light death of the DC Extended Universe only highlights the specialness of the MCU. Just as Game of Thrones is the result of a few different unreplicable origins, there are things about the MCU that cannot be copied.

Watching the Oscars this year I saw this in action. Chris Evans was presenting one of the awards, and it went to Black Panther. Quietly, without making a show of it – clearly doing it because he felt it – Evans pumped his fist. This small moment represented to me the kind of investment the creators of the MCU have in the enterprise; this isn’t to say that what they’re making is superior to anything else, but the MCU has successfully created a positive foxhole environment. All of these people feel like they’re in it together.

After all, Chris Evans has nothing to gain from Black Panther winning. He’s probably out of the MCU after this year. But he really cares about his friends, and about the work they’re all doing. You don’t see this in the DCEU, or even the Fast and Furious films (for all the talk of those movies being about family I don’t ever get the sense that the cast is also family). Maybe it’s because these Marvel actors are CONSTANTLY working together, but they’ve created a bond that comes through in the films.

It’s really educational to see the DCEU fail and Warner Bros walk back from the shared universe thing. A few years ago EVERYBODY was gearing up shared universes. Now they barely exist. Even the Harry Potter movies haven’t quite been able to spin off the way they should have. So why the problem?

Every franchise is different, but the DC problem has been multifold: there’s a lack of respect for the source material, which is a huge problem. The DC movies have all been deconstructive or revisionist, which is wrong for the time period we’re in. But more than that, the DC movies have no central point of vision; Warner Bros never understood that you need a strong center. Zach Snyder, a filmmaker I appreciate, was the wrong choice for this, and once he stumbled the whole enterprise fell around him. The smarts for Marvel was to not put the whole thing on one filmmaker’s back; their best choice was to have Jon Favreau NOT direct The Avengers. The central point for the MCU is in the back office, just as Stan Lee eventually became the publisher at Marvel Comics.

And not every franchise is built for this stuff. I love the Star Wars expanded universe, and I want more Star Wars Stories, but it looks like maybe the public isn’t quite as much on the same wavelength as I am. They seem to want the Saga, and Solo’s showing proves there’s less appetite for the stuff on the margins.

Casting is another boon for the MCU. It’s why the Fantastic Beasts films don’t work; they’re cast poorly. This isn’t to cast aspersions on the actors, who are individually fine, but rather to note that they don’t quite gel together in meaningful ways. The MCU has learned how to cast actors who will create new chemical compounds when paired up, which is why Avengers: Infinity War was exciting even after ten years of cross-overs and cameos.

But casting is an art, not a science, and the odds of someone else getting it right for as long as Marvel has gotten it right is low. Hell, it’s likely that Marvel is going to stumble on this front, and stumble soon. I already wonder if the Phase Four superstars are quite ready to take over, and if the fact that the Phase One guys found fame or redemption in their roles while the Phase Four folks are walking into a juggernaut makes a difference. Chris Evans is thankful for what the MCU did for him, while maybe Brie Larson has expectations of what it can do for her. Will we feel differently as more actors come onboard who see the films as stepping stones, as opposed to the way we feel about the actors who see the MCU as a miracle for them?

The MCU also has the advantage of defining the playing field; nobody had ever tried what they tried. And they walked into it slowly, building towards The Avengers, as opposed to walking in and saying they were going to do this big, interconnected thing. There’s only one guy who was first on the Moon, and everybody else is just stepping in his footprints.

The MCU is like GOT in that it’s a unifying factor for the culture. Everybody sees these movies, or at least hears about them. Everybody has a favorite Marvel superhero. In the ten years of the MCU some of the more obscure, workman-like characters have become superstars, and that’s an achievement that probably also can’t be replicated, if only because few existing properties have benches as deep as Marvel’s.

But the space that Marvel occupies might also be diminishing. The culture keeps fragmenting; right now it’s only huge blockbusters that unite us, but that will end. Did anybody look at the finale of M*A*S*H, which broke all viewing records, and think “This is the high water mark. It’s all downhill from here”? Most likely it was seen as a benchmark to achieve in the bright future, but no one has touched it since. Nobody saw the coming disunifcation.

Eventually the same will happen at the cinema. We’re seeing the first twitches of it in the Spielberg vs Netflix fight and the way Netflix supporters seem to be reflexively shit-talking the theatrical experience. There’s a generation who doesn’t want to go out to the movies, and eventually they’ll win, and that last communal thing – everybody going to the same movie within the space of a few weeks – will fade away as movies turn into streaming programming.

It’s easy to dismiss the MCU as junk, four quadrant garbage (it’s hilarious that Captain Marvel, a movie that desperately wants every living human to buy a ticket, is becoming central to today’s bizarre culture wars), but it’s actually the last stand of shared entertainment moments. For all the fighting about the Oscars this year, the only Oscar movie the people I work with saw was Bohemian Rhapsody. Nobody had an opinion on Roma or Green Book. And the younger people I work with watch weird shit streaming on YouTube, not mainstream TV shows.

Maybe this is where my age is showing. Maybe there’s a new consensus that is gathering around Twitch Streams and Let’s Plays and YouTube prank shows. Maybe that’s the new lingua franca for a generation of entertainment obsessives. Dickens couldn’t have foreseen TV, even as his serialized stories are reflected in the way serialized TV works. But even if the new M*A*S*H finale is some epic Twitch stream of a Super Mario game, it’s just not quite the same. That’s closer to sports, which while central doesn’t quite get as four quadrant as entertainment does.

All I can say for sure is that this year Game of Thrones ends, leaving a hole on TV that may never again be filled. And this year the MCU transitions to another phase, one that may or may not equal the cultural heights of its first three, a phase that will likely see a number of key actors walking away. This moment in time feels like a transition, the last days of must-see entertainment. Maybe it’s for the best, as a landscape with more options give more space for representation and inclusion, but at the same time it’s hard to not look at the waning shadow of these cultural giants and feel nostalgic for the events and entertainments that bound us all together.