How ‘Avengers: Endgame’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ conquered their universes

Posted at 12:48 PM, Apr 29, 2019

NEW YORK — Two pop-culture juggernauts, “Avengers: Endgame” and “Game of Thrones,” nearly collided this weekend — the first with a record-shattering box-office performance, the latter with a much-anticipated episode of its final season likely to turn many viewers into an emotional wreck.

These franchises have more in common, however, than just their sci-fi/fantasy/comic-book origins. Each has bridged the movie-TV nexus — the gap between serializing TV storytelling and blockbuster movie-making — in conquering their respective media.

Marvel brought the episodic nature of TV to the multiplex, across a Marvel Cinematic Universe consisting of 22 movies spanning nearly 60 hours. The HBO drama, meanwhile, with its epic scope and scale, is essentially a theatrical blockbuster being spread, when it’s all finished, over 73 made-for-TV installments. (HBO and CNN share parent company WarnerMedia.)

The weekend results for “Endgame” surpassed all expectations, no matter how rosy. That’s because the movie represented an event beyond even its status as a sequel to the gargantuan hit “Avengers: Infinity War,” which ended — like a TV show — on a cliffhanger.

It was, rather, the culmination of everything Marvel has put on screen since “Iron Man” launched its then-audacious plans in 2008. Without giving anything away, the movie capitalized on that entire history, overflowing with callbacks and references to practically every character populating its universe.

Marvel has also assiduously provided its audience with a sense of ownership. Those “Easter egg” during the credit sequences serve to lure people from one movie to the next, an interlocking approach that turns each film into a promotional ambassador for the larger Marvel brand, while enlisting fans as marketing foot soldiers.

Not surprisingly, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige emphasized the communal aspects of the milestone in a press release celebrating “Endgame’s” historic results. For his part, Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn spoke of the movie’s astronomical box office in holistic terms, saying “these first 22 films constitute a sprawling achievement.”

Obviously, there have been plenty of movie franchises that told extended stories across sequels. But nothing has rivaled the Marvel approach of building an entire superhero-filled world that its characters inhabit, with one fostering connections to the other.

Similarly, while TV has indulged in more ambitious storytelling over the past decade, “Game of Thrones” wedded those attributes and engrossing characters with an organic world into which the audience can escape, while marshaling blockbuster filmmaking techniques in a manner that traditionally wasn’t feasible in TV in terms of time or money.

Gaping at the records “Avengers” has obliterated, and the ratings highs “Thrones” has reached, the question is what’s left for an encore. The perfect storm of elements — from impeccable casting to maturation of social media, playing into the must-watch-immediacy of both — won’t easily be replicated. Even if these genres aren’t your cup of tea, it’s also rare to see them executed with such precision, no matter how generous the budget.

Disney’s Horn stressed that “Endgame” is “far from an end for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” But it might reasonably be a sort of cleansing breath.

What Marvel, “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones” have demonstrated is the value in creating universes that are bigger than a single character or story, stoking the level of excitement required to survive a streaming, pay-to-view world, where “free TV” sounds like a quaint notion.

This weekend’s success, bordering on mass hysteria, will whet the entertainment industry’s appetite for more; still, given the entertainment industry’s failure rate, executives should also consider the lesson that these massive franchises share.

Ultimately, an “Endgame” or “Game of Thrones” can’t be conjured simply by snapping one’s fingers. They rather have to be built, block by block, knowing that victories of this magnitude won’t be achieved without casualties along the way.