Two pop culture behemoths took victory laps over the weekend, complete with crowds of cheering fans and hyperbolic math.
In a single week, “Avengers: Endgame” saved the summer box office before summer even began with goal-post-moving billion-dollar-plus earnings at home and abroad, quashing any hope that Hollywood would back off, just a little, on all those big franchises. Meanwhile, the third episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” broke just as many records, becoming the most viewed episode in HBO history (take that, “Sopranos”), the most viewed episode in all of television this year and the most tweeted episode of scripted television in the history of television.
Big numbers are always reassuring in an industry struggling with an increasingly splintered audience, but as we applaud the power of great storytelling, it would be nice if we paid attention to what those great stories were trying to tell us.
Think about what all those numbers really mean. In one weekend, millions of Americans from red states and blue, of every gender, race, class and cultural background, came together to spend millions of dollars and many hours anticipating, watching and then sharing their feelings as the Avengers franchise and/or “Game of Thrones” moved toward their glorious, heartbreaking, anxiety-provoking conclusion.
That’s right, conclusion, singular. While wildly different in time, tone, universe and lighting technique, “Endgame” and “Game of Thrones” share a single theme:
Unite or perish.
Who among us remained unmoved when Tony Stark set aside old grudges and personal concerns to return to the Avengers fold? Or when Jaime Lannister stood shoulder to shoulder with his previous foes? Who didn’t thrill to the sight of all the various, and previously antagonistic, armies assembled on the snow to save the world in front of Winterfell? Or failed to cheer when every Marvel hero and the entire population of Wakanda appeared through magic portals to face down Thanos together?
Gone was the rancor of the past, the injuries, betrayals, the differing worldviews and ancient prejudices that had pitted one superhero, one family against the other. All the sniping over who should be called “your grace” or what the mandate of the Avengers should be was silenced. We wept as Black Widow and Theon made sacrificial final payments for old sins, tingled as Tony gave Captain America his shield back and held our breath as Arya saved the Hound, whom she had once sworn to kill.
Unite or perish. It brought us to tears and cheers and breathless praise of each installment being the best one ever.
Then we returned to our red/blue, us/them, deplorable/snowflake state of mind, as if neither story had really mattered in the least.
It’s a lot to ask that two highly fantastic franchises save us from ourselves, and “Game of Thrones” may well return to all that infighting next week. But for a minute or two their shared themes of unity should at least give us pause. We do still call ourselves the United States of America after all.
It’s become popular to say that we are more divided than we’ve ever been, which is, of course, absurd. Just a little more than a century ago, we fought a civil war, for heaven’s sake, and the Constitution has had to be amended several times simply to ensure that all Americans were included at least in the language of its revolutionary protections.
Modern history is a timeline of movements — civil rights, women’s rights, gay (now LGBTQ) rights — in which institutionally oppressed people fought for equality and the oppressive institutions fought back.
None of those battles is over, and now those considered by many to be the ruling class, i.e. white men, have adopted the language of the disenfranchised: Why am I being dismissed because of my race/gender/class/political stance?
There’s also no getting around that the United States is, in fact, made up of a lot of people — and people are soooo difficult, with their needs and fears and opinions, many of which are just plain wrong (i.e. not mine). Not to mention all those religions, languages, weird hats and crazy customs, like putting mayonnaise on hoagies or actually observing Lent.
Like “Game of Thrones’” citizens of Westeros, we have divided into tribes, many of which are defined by past acts of brutality and shared prejudice. Like the general population of the Marvel universe, we can seem dangerously mercurial — superheroes are good, then they’re bad; they’re fighting to save us, their battles will destroy us.
It doesn’t help that we have a 24-hour news cycle that provides two hours of news and 22 hours of predictable, partisan opinionating or that our lives are hugely impacted by unregulated social media platforms that thrive on incendiary conflict and have monetized tribalism — #neverwhatever — or that our president, no matter what you think about his political aims, publicly leverages our divisions.
It also doesn’t help that we are all working so hard that we’re tired all the time and eating so poorly that we just keep getting fatter no matter how many exercise apps we download. Frankly, considering the state we’re in — distracted, exhausted, angry, besieged by talking heads — it’s no wonder that when faced with big issues like climate change, increasing economic disparity, population shifts or new iPhones that require yet another type of charger, we find it hard to cope.
How much easier to ignore, deny or simply throw in our lot with whichever loud voice seems to be speaking most directly to us personally. How much easier to fight with one another over stupid things like who’s allowed to use which public restroom or whether women should stop wearing leggings so often.
It’s not surprising, but as so many of the stories we purport to love so much repeatedly tell us, it is destructive to remain apart, especially when there are so many dangers that threaten us all.
So deeply divided are we that we can’t even muster a united response to the fact that the Russian government definitely interfered with our presidential election or that hate crimes are rising or that the polar ice caps are melting. And that we need to do something about it.
Even the conversation about “The Long Night” quickly devolved into a shouting match over whether Arya is an unrealistically skilled “Mary Sue.”
And yet it is heartbreakingly obvious that we want to be united. No one was happy when Thanos killed off half the world’s population in “Avengers: Infinity War”; no one truly rooted for the Night King to win. We want leaders who lead together, not fight among themselves. We want the Starks and the Lannisters and the Targaryens to put aside their grievances, real and imagined, and listen to one another before it’s too late.
By no stretch of the imagination does “Endgame” or “Game of Thrones” offer a template for navigating the intricacies of the modern world, but when certain stories resonate with so many different people, by all means celebrate numbers that indicate an increasingly rare shared experience.
But it really won’t amount to anything more than numbers unless we look at what those stories mean.