Many of us will be watching Avengers: Endgame tonight, or over the weekend. And I almost wish we weren’t, because I’m not quite ready to let go.
This year marks the end of a particular pop culture era, as we reach the finish (for a relative definition of the word) of several major storytelling arcs: Game of Thrones, the Star Wars “Skywalker Saga”, and the first major conclusion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These stories have been going for years—the MCU clocks in at 11 years (with comic influences reaching back over half a century), Game of Thrones came to HBO 8 years ago (but the first book was published in 1996), and Star Wars has been thrilling fans for 42 years. And sure, it can feel silly being so invested in the lives of space rebels, or fantasy kingdoms, or costumed superheroes, but I don’t think it’s just the characters and stories we’re mourning when the finales hit—it’s ourselves.
To put it in perspective with an anecdote, here’s a knockout: I had just graduated from college when Iron Man was released.
There I was, newly minted adult (or so they told me), released on the world in the midst of a sudden recession. Prospects seemed grim. My job at the local Italian joint was stressful and exhausting. But that summer, Iron Man happened, and something about it felt different. I didn’t stay for that first post credits sequence—I didn’t know they’d have them—but later on that summer, I caught a double feature with my parents: Hellboy II and The Incredible Hulk. We stuck around through the credits this time and, without warning, Tony Stark appeared next to General Ross at a bar. “We’re putting together a team,” he announced in an immaculate suit.
I shrieked What?!! at the top of my lungs to the dwindling theater crowd.
The air was buzzing all around me like a sudden pressure change had occurred, but my parents were just plain puzzled. Wait, was that Robert Downey Jr. there at the end? Were we supposed to know what he was talking about? Did we miss something? They’re doing it, I whispered, barely daring to confirm it out loud for fear that I’d imagined it. They’re going to make an Avengers movie. They’re going to make a bunch of them. What if this actually works? I went home and dove straight into the internet to have it all confirmed. Multiple movies, multiple arcs, all leading to an assembled team of heroes. The fandom was already rising and comic book newbies went looking for gurus. We’d have to wait two whole years for our next installment, but that didn’t stop the speculations from running wild.
The recession still dragged me for a while, but two and a half years (and two cross-country moves) later, I landed here. Talking about these things became my job, something that baffles my mother to this day. Now this sort of thing is commonplace; shared universes, constant adaptations, the search for the next big genre “thing”. But when Marvel started the MCU, this was new. Before these films, continuity and tone seemed to go off the rails by movie three, as both X3 and Spider-Man 3 taught us. It was all a grand experiment, seeing if this could be done, and it defined an entire generation of filmmaking.
Despite the dips and valleys of the MCU, pulling it off seems to be what they do best. The Avengers worked. (We have the post-lunch shawarma photo to prove it—being extremely tiny, I called Thor in that setup. Justice for the shorts!) The continued narrative was collected enough to roll through nearly two dozen films and several television shows. But that’s not what made it special—we did. With every group cosplay, novel-length hurt/comfort fic, fan video and charity drive, fandom is an engine of incredible power. Because if we don’t want to live between these frames and pages, then none of it counts. And that’s what we’ve done, for over a decade. We’ve lived here. This is a piece of our home.
Is it over-the-top to get sentimental about it? Perhaps. But sentimentality is where I live, so there’s not much I can do about it.
This will all continue, of course, as they promised. No matter the plot twists or how many protagonists die, the MCU will trudge onward. Half comfort, half irritation, but steady and unrelenting like the turn of the Earth. So will Star Wars and Game of Thrones, for that matter, in spinoffs and prequels and cartoons galore. They aren’t going away, the IP is too valuable. We will have more, and we will probably love some of it and hate some of it. The constant product push will feel like background noise more and more frequently. It’s strange watching something novel become mundane, but my generation in particular has ample experience with that, as technology bounded ahead in our youth. We are always expecting that turn, the moment where something phenomenal becomes our day-to-day. It’s not a surprise anymore.
But my entire adulthood has been defined by this era. It’s different than being a kid who grows up alongside it, more clarifying and sharper at the edges. This was a moment in time, and it will come to a close, one way or another. Part of how you reach an endgame is by walking willingly to it, aware that you’ll find catharsis and inflict pain on yourself at the same time. Endings are often great and terrible simultaneously, and that’s what makes them so difficult to stomach. We seldom want them, but certainly need them—even if just to remind ourselves that it’s okay to let go.
2019 brings to a close many of the beloved stories that we’ve cleaved to for years. Because we’re human, and stories define us, and we like to share them with one another. Hopefully you’ll finish this particular story (or any story that ends for you this year) with people who’ve been on this journey with you. And hopefully you’ll remember that while so many things seem to be ending, there are more beginnings surrounding you than ever before. You’ll find those beginnings this year, too, I’ll bet.
I don’t think I’m ready to see Avengers: Endgame. But I was never going to be ready, and I’ve accepted that at least.
Being ready would ruin all the fun anyhow.