Going Off Book: Avengers and Game of Thrones

Okay, I’m going to go off book, literally, to discuss the two biggest pieces of mass media that came out this weekend: Avengers: Endgame and episode three of the final Game of Thrones season, “The Long Night.” It may be a little rough but I’m putting it out there anyway.

Both the wrap-up of phase one of The Avengers series and Game of Thrones have a villain that functions as an existential threat. Both of these threats—embodied in the purple giant Thanos (paging Dr. Freud) and the Night King with his army of snow zombies—can be seen as not-very-subtle metaphors for catastrophic, human-caused, global warming, a.k.a. climate change. Like Westeros, the current world is facing an existential threat that we have been ignoring for decades in pursuit of other goals, many of which worsen that threat.

The Night King and his horde are particularly obvious. We’ve been told throughout the series that “winter is coming” and when winter is finally here—bringing with it monsters hell-bent on the destruction of human life itself—the citizens of Westeros are largely ill-prepared for it, wrapped up as they were with games of thrones and what-not.

Despite being told that the Children of the Forest created the Night King to their peril (ahem, #climatechange), the Night King himself appears to be, in the end, nothing but a voiceless, essentially motiveless baddie. Rather that build any complication into this figure, the show settled on him representing “death” and a general desire to kill all human life for unknown, unimportant reasons, shut-up, stop asking stupid questions like “But why?” or “Whither Ghost?” and just watch the ice zombies.

For his part, Marvel’s Thanos has looked at the suffering caused by inadequate resources across the universe and determined that wiping out half of all living beings will be the best way to create utopia. Thanos presents a sticky-wicket since, while most of us sentient beings are morally repulsed by mass murder on such a scale, there’s no denying that the sheer amount of people, on our planet at least, are straining earth’s capacity to sustain life. This ambivalence shows up in The Ringer’s Villains podcast, which includes the category “Maybe he had a point?” inspired by Thanos. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

*Here there be spoilers*

In Endgame’s predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos wins and the Avengers lose. After much battling Thanos erases half of all life with a snap of his fingers, including many of our heroes. Endgame does a good job showing those who remain dealing with the after-effects, what NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour described as the nexus of grief and guilt.

But then they hatch a scheme (because of course they do) to change nothing happy from the present, such as Tony Stark’s kid (because of course they do) to get everyone back from an arbitrary point in Thanos’ reign of destruction (because….reasons?) in a plot that rejects the traditional rules of time travel as a means to apparently have no rules at all (#Don’tDoTimeTravelUnlessYou’rePreparedToDoItForRealsies) and they win (because of course they do).

Similarly, last Sunday’s episode of GoT showed the combined, caring forces of Westeros suffering heavy losses in an epic battle against the Night King and his army of white walkers. But in the end, just as things seem most dire, Arya ends him with a single knife blow to the gut, thus destroying all the zombies he created and killing, seemingly forever, the existential threat embodied by the white walkers.

Now, we don’t know how GoT will handle the after-effects of this battle yet. The episode ends as the battle does, leaving piles of bodies and some number of exhausted, flabbergasted survivors. But despite the emotions and tension felt during the episode, the current feeling is a bit, “Huh, is that all there is?” Now assuming that the Night King, Inc.™ does represent catastrophic global warming, there’s something to be said for the representation of humans setting aside their differences and individual aspirations and coming together to fight the thing that threatens them all, regardless of House or creed or status or claim to the throne. (Leaving aside for now problems with violent metaphors to describe how we should respond to climate change.) But that this symbol is ultimately dispatched so handily, presumably so that our characters can now get back to the business of sneering-while-swigging-wine and giving epic side-eye feels like a bit of let-down.

With Avengers, things are more and less complicated. Of course reversing mass genocide is a good thing to be rooted for. But I expected (hoped?) that the wrap-up would conclude with some nod to the fact that we need to do better, and soon, at making this planet a place that can sustain the billions of individuals living on it currently and in the future. That the ending had no such nod feels both like a missed opportunity and a narrative failing.

All that said, I’m ultimately fascinated by the juxtaposition of these two works and their seeming inability to flesh out, as it were, the metaphor that threatens both worlds. Perhaps we’re not far away from series, whether film or television, that can capture the imaginations of so many millions and represent the challenges and productive responses to the climate catastrophe we’re facing in the “real world.”