Grain of Salt - The Midnight Ride of the Monoculture: Excavating the Confluence of Avengers: EndGame of Thrones Weekend

 
 

Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything, take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

You are the one who can make us all laugh
But doing that you break out in tears
Please don't be sad if it was a straight mind you had
We wouldn't have known you all these years 

Something remarkable happened last weekend. Something that is unprecedented in the history of popular culture. Something that may never happen again. Something that quite likely signposts the end of an epoch or [more likely] signals the beginning of another. The confluence of events occurring between Wednesday, April 24th, 2019 when Avengers: Endgame opened in most countries around the world (the United States was one of the last countries to open the film, perhaps inadvertently acting as reminder that the states are no longer the dominant box office proving ground) and Sunday, April 28th, 2019 when HBO aired the 70th Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” (in which the much-heralded Battle of Winterfell finally played out over the course of 82 minutes), may someday be remembered by historians as the last time that a true “monocultural” media event took place. One in which the two dominant forms of mass entertainment–cinema and television–reached the maximum number of viewers and achieved the apex of their own cultural relevance in the same watershed weekend. Movies and TV may never again be this individually impactful–co-existing simultaneously and autonomously–as they were over the five day stretch in question.

The lyrics referenced above are from the song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” by the British rock ensemble Traffic- a bit of a supergroup or “musical Avengers” in their own right. “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is the fifth track from the band’s debut album, is still their most frequently spun tune, and has been covered dozens of times over the last 52 years. A quick iTunes store search reveals at least 30 different covers of the song, ranging from “faithful” versions by Eric Clapton or The Grateful Dead all the way to remarkable incarnations such as the one by Japanese bassist Koki Ito, who transitions quite impressively between English and Japanese lyrics. Like a comic book character who has been passed around to various writers or transitioned to different mediums while maintaining the integrity of their original iteration, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” has stood the test of time as an anthemic rock staple. But the song’s usage as the sonic accompaniment to the Marvel Studios bumper at the beginning of Endgame is much more significant than its low-key, crack-a-beer-and-don’t-harsh-my-mel casualness would initially suggest.

 

The films of the MCU have a complicated and somewhat fraught relationship with pop music. Needle drops range from the obvious yet endearing (bookending Iron Man with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and the titular Black Sabbath song) to the inspired and iconic (opening Guardians of the Galaxy with the one-two punch of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”) to the frustratingly cloying and insipid (pretty much every other song on the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack and Thor: Ragnarok’s DOUBLE-DROP of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”) to the aggressively ironic (pairing the Marvel bumpers in Iron Man 3 and Ant-Man with Eiffel 65’s “Blue” and Camilo Azuquita’s “Borombon” respectively) to the nakedly Oscar-baiting (Kendrick Lamar’s original composition “All the Stars” from Black Panther) to the downright disgraceful (No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in Captain Marvel). But for the opening of Endgame, Marvel has made an unexpected and sublime choice with which to roll out the majesty of their eye-popping studio bumper. They could have easily used the rousing Michael Giacchino fanfare that often accompanies the logo, reverted back to AC/DC to properly bring the series full circle, or even used a somber piece from composer Alan Silvestri which would have tonally complimented the film’s dark and sobering prologue. Instead they went with Traffic, and this is important for a number of reasons. It seems to me that the song is a lyrical meditation and self-aware justification for this particular film specifically and the 11 year / 22 film MCU experiment more broadly:

Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune
Something to make us all happy

Without getting too op-ed-ifying or patronizingly highfalutin, I would suggest that it’s clear to anyone who went to see Endgame last weekend that we live in extremely complicated times. Our world is in social, spiritual, and political turmoil and it’s often quite necessary for us to look to art to either instructively reflect the significance of our reality or to privilege us with an escape from it (even if it’s only for a few hours). To say that escapism is healthy or even crucial for a society struggling to make sense of the world around it is not a radical idea in the least. But to write off superhero films or a series like Game of Thrones as merely “escapist” fantasy for the sake of escapism is to misinterpret their appeal as mass entertainment. Traffic continues:

Do anything, take us out of this gloom
Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

I’m confident that Kevin Feige and the Russo Brothers—the producer and directors of Endgame, respectively—must have been tickled by the use of the word “snappy” here considering how iconic the villain Thanos’ galaxy-shattering, finger-friction has become over the course of the last two films in the “Infinity Saga.” But the more instructive part of the above lyric is obviously the plea to “take us out of this gloom.” Last weekend I sat in a movie theater surrounded by an audience experiencing a legitimate, collective emotional response in front of film in which a teenager in a spider costume is hoisted onto a Pegasus by a Norse goddess while attempting to deliver a nano-glove filled with magical space rocks to a billionaire-genius-playboy-philanthropist in an automated robot suit. Now it’s tempting for those who dismiss the films of the MCU on principle, sight unseen, to declare them as the death knell of mainstream cinema and the ultimate emblem of audience infantilization on a global scale. It’s not insignificant that 60% of the audience who flocked to the opening weekend of a three-hour long fantasy about time-traveling superheroes were over the age of 25. Cultural Chicken Littles loudly question the future of an art form which has, in many respects, pivoted to cater (pander?) to paying customers who demand comic book titans, stampeding dinosaurs, and wand-wielding wizards. But if audiences for these kinds of films are made to feel so completely, if the return on their emotional investment is so wildly lucrative, then how can any of us question the legitimacy of the enthusiasm experienced in front of these “children’s” fantasies? Critics have already christened Endgame with a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score and audiences have been voting with more than their pocketbooks, singing the film’s praises to the tune of an A+ Cinemascore. Now these kinds of aggregates can often be complex and misleading. But in this case it’s hard to deny the fact that Marvel has legitimately speared the cinematic white whale- a critically acclaimed film so universally embraced by audiences that it may likely take the all time box office crown before the end of the summer. Somewhere James Cameron is biting his nails as the film has already bested Titanic and now has Avatar in its sights…

 
 

Every year on Super Bowl Sunday, those who are not inclined to sports spectatorship giddily flock to social media to loudly feign ignorance to popular “sportsball” contests taking place and mock anyone who would deign to enjoy football as bloodthirsty, concussion-denying knuckle-draggers. Similarly, this past weekend, anyone annoyed or disinterested with the cultural-shift towards celebrating events occurring at the multiplex or on HBO took to Twitter and Facebook to bait fans and the spoiler-adverse by insisting that they didn’t care about these pointless properties but badly wanted someone to just “spoil who dies!” As a person who has a casual relationship with professional sports and has often consumed Marvel movies and Game of Thrones episodes more out of a sense of curiosity and professional obligation than legitimate excitement, I can say, unequivocally, that passion and fandom are not mutually exclusive. I have found myself swept up in the excitement of a football game despite having no allegiance to either team on the field and I have been emotionally-engaged (invested even!) in the trials of a man in a cowl who carries a magic shield and once spent seven decades trapped in an iceberg before being defrosted. Within the last week I’ve rolled legitimate tears in front of a superhero extravaganza filled with 400 million dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art visual effects. But those tears came during a scene in which two characters shared a slow dance scored to the delightfully antiquated big band brass of Harry James “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” (Endgame’s second most inspired needle drop). Within the same week my eyes welled up during an episode of a television series that makes liberal use of dragons, zombies, and decapitations. But the tears came during a scene in which two acquaintances who share a complicated personal history meet in front of a fireplace and a small ceremonial ovation acts as a metaphor for their unspoken love and respect. The cumulative effect of these populist artworks, based on years of experience and relationships between characters and our investment in them, bloom into moments of legitimate emotional catharsis- the preferred endgame for any self-respecting artist. Long-form storytelling such as that explored over eleven years in the MCU or eight years of Game of Thrones are financial windfalls for Disney and HBO, natch. But they’re also sprawling, fertile canvases for their ambitious creators and artistic boons for devoted audiences. Can something be crassly commercial yet culturally and artistically profound? Culturally necessary, even? I would argue that this is the tension that has come to define the entertainment industry since the advent of the studio system.

 
 

The educated, critical, properly-paranoid, bird’s-eye-view toward film and television franchises like the MCU or Game of Thrones is that they are carefully-constructed, workshopped, and algorithmically-synthesized soylent for the masses. A kind of transmedial Soma that manipulates and conditions us into dutifully showing-up and shilling-out for the next MCU installment or somnambulantly clicking the “auto-renew” button on our HBO Now accounts lest we be caught unsubscribed and unawares when a zeitgeisty show starts a new season. Perhaps we’ve been had and perhaps it’s necessary to carry a certain amount of anxiety about that as we march towards an inevitable future in which Disney, Apple, Netflix, AT&T (recent purchaser of Warner Bros. and HBO) and Amazon shift the monopoly bucks around the industry game board. Before the end of the fiscal year Apple and Disney will each roll out their own proprietary streaming services and Netflix will spend billions of dollars on its own slate of original episodic and feature content which includes Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating Oscar bid The Irishman. Disney, as expected, has already positioned itself as the “hulkbuster” to Netflix’s big red monster by undercutting the streaming giant’s monthly price point by two dollars. This is a masterstroke of loss-leader marketing underwritten in no small part by the fact that Endgame has already passed two billion dollars in box office receipts in less than a week, Captain Marvel joined the billion dollar club last month, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will bow (and crush) in June, July and December respectively, and “Galaxy’s Edge” will open at Disney’s Land and World this summer, all but guaranteeing record-shattering theme park attendance. So perhaps there is cause to be terrified of Disney’s landscape dominance in spite of the fact that they’re guilty of little more than continuing to give the people what they want and do so with a brand that has become synonymous with polished, satisfying content. But are Disney, HBO, or even Netflix really the “enemy?” It’s convenient and comfortable for us to demonize them. Particularly when hand-wringing about monopolies, corporate hegemony, and the death of mid-budget, “original content” has become de rigeur in the annuls of industry analysis. But can we completely dismiss a company if their culturally-relevant content makes global audiences legitimately elated on such a consistent basis? They have our financial investment to be sure and I’m not so naive as to deny that as their endgame. But our emotional investment in these media properties are paying off for us, the audience, in wildly satisfying ways of late.

 
 

Last weekend we saw an unprecedented pop culture confluence as the biggest brand in cinema and the biggest brand in television both “peaked” simultaneously. Endgame became the first film to top a billion dollars in its opening weekend and “The Long Night”–the most anticipated episode in Game of Thrones history–was watched by more than twelve million viewers. Marvel’s cinematic “Infinity Saga” is now officially concluded and Game of Thrones will finish its eight-season run before the end of the month. Star Wars—debatably the third most “important” brand in popular culture—will conclude the narrative arc of its “Skywalker Saga” in December. All of these media silos will endure, of course. How could they not? The MCU will continue with a newly-christened (and contracted) team of Avengers, they will spin off “B team” characters into episodic mini-series on the Disney streaming platform (Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, Winter Soldier, and Hawkeye all have content in the pipeline), and they’ll explore hybrid and prequel properties going forward (the Black Widow origin story is forthcoming and “Asgardians of the Galaxy” feels inevitable). Game of Thrones already has a prequel series in production and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been conscripted by Disney to develop a new slate of original films set in the Star Wars universe. The flagship series for Disney’s streaming platform, “Star Wars: The Mandalorian” (created by Marvel stalwart Jon Favreau and starring Game of Thrones alum Pedro Pascal), is already in the can and will likely premiere in November. So as franchise filmmaking becomes more and more like television (embracing episodic storytelling and championing “showrunners” like Kevin Feige who shepherd continuity and long-con serialization across dozens of films) and “television” becomes more cinematic (bigger budgets, more production value, greater star power, co-opting elements “established” in a cinematic environment) the homogenization of mediums is finally complete.

Someday we may look back on 2019 generally and the last weekend in April specifically as perhaps the last gasp (“snap” is probably more accurate) of a legitimate monoculture. As I sit in a coffee shop in Brooklyn writing this I’ve overheard at least two conversations that referenced Endgame, “The Long Night,” Black Panther, and “The Red Wedding” in between talk of politics and the weather. As the upcoming media schism looms, our tastes, interests, and entertainment obsessions will become more specialized with the advent of streaming services from two of the largest corporations in the world. Whether or not you care about who survived Endgame or the Battle of Winterfell, the true nature of Rey’s connection to the Skywalker lineage, if Disney’s purchase of Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Fox represents the first steps towards a media monopoly, or if multiplexes will soon dedicate all of their screens to franchise and remake content save for the one used for week-long, ceremonial, Oscar-qualifying runs for Netflix films… You must admit to feeling a shift in the ground beneath our feet over the last few months. Last weekend we saw the Starks take over movies and television simultaneously. Tony Stark finally reconciled with his father Howard Stark thanks to the magic of time travel and Arya Stark came flying out of the shadows like a knife-wielding banshee with the intention of vanquishing the army of the dead. It was a Stark-raving-mad weekend, the likes of which we may never see again. I don’t know if the “death” of a true monoculture is something to mourn or if it’s merely the amorphous by-product of overwrought, over-thought culture criticism. But Disney’s MCU and HBO’s Game of Thrones–both of which seemed like misguided risks when they first presented themselves to us, 11 years ago and 8 years ago respectively­–have matured to become the two most resonant, beloved, and ubiquitous brands in popular culture. They make people happy, they offer a distraction from the turmoil of the modern world, and they have inspired an unprecedented global conversation that will likely never exist on this level of cultural penetration again. They will live on for decades (perhaps indefinitely) in a host of spinoffs, tangentials, and re-appropriations. But, for all intents and purposes, their watch is ended. And I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky enough to have been here to see it all happen in real time.  

Please don't be sad if it was a straight mind you had
We wouldn't have known you all these years