Death was slain twice last weekend. On Friday, Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd and culminating instalment of Marvel’s superhero franchise opened in cinemas across the globe, attracting more viewers in its first days than any film in history.
On Sunday night, (Monday morning in India), the third episode of the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones was streamed, and set a few marks of its own, among them records for the longest battle scene ever filmed, and the scripted television episode to have inspired the most tweets.
The arch villain of Endgame is Thanos, a Malthusian who believes killing half the sentient beings in the universe would create a world of peace and prosperity for the half left alive. The baddest guy in Game of Thrones, the Night King, has no such philosophical inspiration. He merely wants to incorporate every living human, giant, animal and dragon into his army of the undead, and promote those in their graves to the same status.
In both stories, as in every comparable narrative that preceded them, the good guys eventually win, although a few of them die in the process. Viewers knew that long before they booked tickets or subscribed to Hotstar. What mattered was discovering for ourselves who lived, who died, and how. We had to find out before headlines and social media sadists spoiled it for us. This caused an unprecedented rush for early bird seats.
I consulted a ticketing site regularly in the days leading up to Endgame’s release, with growing incredulity. Multiplexes, adjusting to unprecedented demand, kept adding shows, and found takers for them all: 8 am, 7 am, 6 am, and, finally, 3 am. I had booked for Friday evening, by which time (SPOILERS AHEAD) I inadvertently discovered that two major characters were not going to make it.
GoT body count
In contrast, Game of Thrones, a show notorious for killing off fan favourites, kept far more of them alive and breathing than I expected at the end of the Battle of Winterfell.
Many scenes had heroes surrounded by hordes of wights and seemingly moments from being overwhelmed and yet they were still standing as the credits rolled.
Equally inexplicable was the battle plan executed by the forces of Life. Why attack your enemy frontally when you know that each death not only subtracts a fighter from your side but adds one to the antagonistic forces?
The fearsome Dothraki, who had followed their queen to the frozen far north of an alien island, were reduced to zombie fodder at the outset of The Long Night. It reminded me of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, which sailed all the way around the world to bolster its Pacific Ocean ports in 1904-1905, a total of 33,000 km, only to be annihilated in a single engagement by Japan’s navy.
Endgame had its own lapses, though I took them better. I had no expectation of coming out satisfied, because I could tell the plot would include time travel, which always feels arbitrary. Sure enough, a bunch of time travel protocols got enunciated only to be disregarded later in the film.
These problems with the respective plots were relatively minor. The real stumbling block in each case was the defeat of a villain built up to be supremely powerful. In both film and series, a little sleight of hand performed by one protagonist changed the trajectory of proceedings from imminent catastrophe to immediate triumph.
Game of Thrones showed us Arya’s deft manoeuvre in slow motion, while Endgame kept us in the dark about how Tony Stark shifted the power-conferring infinity stones from Thanos’s glove to his own. I was left asking, as were millions of others, “Really, after hundreds of years of planning, Thanos/Night King falls for this trick?”
Going cold turkey
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Endgame and The Long Night, both of which displayed astonishing technical expertise and effort. It’s just that I feel I’ve been hooked on such series for too long.
It’s over 10 years since Robert Downey Jr raised a middle-rung hero to the stature of franchise leader in the first Iron Man. Disney has steered the larger narrative astutely since then, getting the schedule of new releases spot on, and shifting quickly with the mood of the times. I’ve watched more of the succeeding Marvel Cinematic Universe movies on the big screen than I care to admit, but part of me has exited the hall after each screening heartily sick of the bloated, effects-driven genre.
It’s time I got over the fear of missing out and concentrated on subjects that satisfy me most deeply: complex human dramas. There’s three more episodes of GoT to watch before that, of course. Not to mention the final instalment of the Star Wars saga. Can’t miss the Rise of Skywalker, however pathetic Kylo Ren is as a villain. After that, the plan is to go cold turkey: No more superheroes or superheroines, witches or wizards, zombies or mutants, robots or monsters, space or time travellers, dinosaurs or avatars, no more sequels or franchises.