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A 31-hour Marvel marathon became a lesson in temporary beauty

Or, ‘How I learned to love what must end’

Marvel Studios

Sleep is a precious commodity during events like AMC’s recent 31-hour Marvel Cinematic Universe marathon.

It’s all about planning: Fall asleep too early into the marathon, and there would be a good chance you’d conk out again during the main event, Avengers: Infinity War. Sleep too late, and you’d run the risk of feeling like garbage by the end. The human machines who can power through all 31 hours with no sleep are rare — almost as rare as the available outlets people flocked to when they entered the theater.

The 31-hour Marvel marathon, which was composed of the most important films leading up to Infinity War was my first. That meant relying on both the tips and newfound friendship of others to make it through.

These included people like Courtney, a Barnes & Noble employee who, five minutes into meeting her, showed me a picture of a massive gash on her head she received the night before marathoning.

“People are talking about which movies they’re going to sleep through,” Courtney told me while charging her phone, gash still visible. “I think everyone’s aiming for Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Courtney is a seasoned pro. She does movie marathons all the time for fun, she said. We became friends while hovering around an outlet at the top of the theater, talking to other people who came by looking for a free plug. Limited charging options and a room full of heavy cellphone users meant there were ample opportunities to meet the people we were sharing a theater with for 31 hours.

Our first screening started at 1:30 p.m, but most people arrived by 12:15, shaking hands with friends and setting up their makeshift homes. My decision to head straight for an outlet turned out to be the best — it’s how I met Greg.

Avengers marathon
Courtney (left) and Greg charging their phones.
Julia Alexander/Polygon

If Courtney was a pro, Greg was a diehard. Greg said he’d left at three in the morning to board a train from D.C. to New York just for the marathon, a decision he made on the fly, purchasing the last available ticket. It was an easy decision, he said, saying there’s no better way to usher in Infinity War.

“It’s a whole bunch of people who have a like idea, they have a fanbase that they’re dedicated to, all coming together to experience it together from all walks of life,” Greg said. “It’s 10 years! You have to go big.”

Party Time

The first half of the marathon felt like a birthday party.

People were hollering and hooting every time anything happened. Tony Stark walked on screen in Iron Man and people stood to applaud; Stan Lee delivered a cameo in The Incredible Hulk and ear piercing screams erupted; Thor kisses Jane in Thor, and the chorus of “oohs” reverberated around the wall; vibranium is mentioned in Captain America: The First Avenger, and the sounds of a Wakandan battle chant made the floors rumble.

Watching the movies was far less entertaining than the community of fans who cheered, lit up toy versions of Thanos’ glove and bursted with joy over the characters on screen. This went on for hours, and I never got annoyed. Their euphoria and enthusiasm were contagious.

Still, unlike some of the superheroes on screen, we in the audience were human. As The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron played (beginning at midnight and ending at 6:30 a.m.), the theater erupted into people coming up with impressive ways to get comfortable, while the rest of us warred over real estate. Those who took part in past marathons turned their tiny theater seats into elaborate beds, resting their head on rumpled clothing.

Avengers marathon
A page from my notebook declaring, “lol, welp I fell asleep.”
Julia Alexander/Polygon

The rest of us, armed with nothing but a depleting sense of pride in staying seated and growing wearier with each corny joke, were forced to contend with what we had left: the floor. I found an alcove at the back of the theater where I could charge my phone and stretch out with a blanket during The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. People began to fade fast between Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron.

I grew uncomfortable on the floor, moving to my seat and trying to curl up around my chair’s armrest. I listened as people snored loudly a couple of rows below, lying flat face-down across vacant chairs. The cheering settled to a lower decibel, and the applauding became more sporadic. Fatigue plagued us.

Luckily, Courtney was still there. I asked her after every movie if she was feeling tired, or what movie she planned to sleep through, and each time she laughed at my question. Courtney proudly declared she was going to stay up all 31 hours, offering to get me food from the concession stand whenever she walked by my seat. I remember talking to her by the charging station our phones were plugged into as the night wore on and more people began to pass out. Courtney, like Greg, also purchased her ticket on a whim. I asked if she regretted her decision, trying to keep my own eyes open, and she looked at me with a giant cheshire grin, pointing to her Captain America shirt.

“I’ve been waiting for this since I bought the ticket in my hotel room in New Orleans,” she said. “I’m so happy right now.”

We were all mostly strangers, but no one I spoke to, or slept next to, was concerned for their safety. These temporary friends, placed together in a room for one event, became instantly trustworthy. I thought about what Greg said, about the dedication to a community and finding a sense of belonging. Even in New York, a city where you distrust even your most loyal of friends, a group of strangers settled into their sleeping positions and believed they wouldn’t be harmed.

It was like living within a fictional world, an alternate universe; while the world continued to operate outside our theater and bad things continued to unfold, we found a collective of people that we could simply plop down and sleep beside.

We found a short-term family.

Some people did it better than others. Jaylin and Karina are two 20-year-old New Jersey college students who skipped class to be part of the marathon. Unlike the rest of us, Jaylin and Karina didn’t have seats. They parked themselves in front of the screen down by the first row, laying back on a picnic blanket to watch the movies, choosing from the assortment of candies lying around them. Jaylin and Karina were beyond prepared for sleeping and comfort, joking about the “new dynamic” watching the films in this position provided.

Avengers marathon
Jaylin (left) and Karina sitting on their blanked.
Julia Alexander/Polygon

Karina, like Greg and Courtney, said she didn’t care about the seating arrangements. She just wanted to experience Avengers: Infinity War with people who were just as obsessed.

“It’s been a unifying force with my family,” said Karina. “My brother has a different taste in movies, and my mom and then I do, but these are the types of movies that we can all sit down and enjoy together. It’s been really nice [sic] to have this unity and family-building, and meet new friends because of it.”

Those new friends would become extremely important to me as we entered the transition period from one day to the next.

“I don’t feel like clapping anymore”

The closer we got to Infinity War, the more excited people got. But getting over the midnight-to-6:30 a.m. hill took quite a bit of effort. Greg joined us at the charging station at one point, joking he was too tired to clap anymore, but did so anyway every time Stan Lee appeared. He got his burst of energy from seeing Marvel’s most iconic creator; I got mine from walks around the theater block, Japanese food and the rare moments I had enough of a cell signal to tweet and check Instagram.

Everything became a haze as the hours went on. Time was told by movies beginning and ending. I began to feel like Batman’s Bane, talking to anyone who would listen about the movie theater I was born in, raised by and would eventually die from. I became delirious around the end of Age of Ultron, and walked out into the lobby just to remind myself there was life beyond the pitch-black theater and Tony Stark’s bad jokes.

Avengers marathon
I’m holding up the Avengers-inspired badge they gave us with the list of movies on the back.
Julia Alexander/Polygon

That’s when I ran into Joseph, another longtime Marvel fan who’d participated in past movie marathons. His proudest accomplishment was sitting through a Star Wars marathon before Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released, but Marvel’s 31-hour drudgery would beat that record. Joseph was standing in the hallway, pulling on his legs and stretching his arms. I remarked how admirable it was that he found the energy to stretch so late into the night, and he shook his head, adding it was the only way to keep going.

“Stretch, make sure you use the bathroom every break, and having something to eat is important,” Joseph said. “Manage your time, too! They give you time here, and you pick what movie you’re going to sleep through, what movie you’re coming to come out to eat through. I’m going to sleep through Guardians because I’ve seen it so much.”

Stretching got Joseph and a few other people through the roughest patch of the marathon, but I only had one thing keeping me alert: bagels. My reward for getting through half of the marathon was picking up a bagel just before Captan America: Civil War began at 7:15 a.m. I’m not sure if it was the promise of bagels or finally seeing sunlight, but come Thursday morning, our energy felt restored as we watched Civil War. The cheering was back in full force, as were the Wakandan chanting and enthusiastic applause. I was amazed by the transformation. When I told Courtney how interesting the ambient change was — almost like it happened with a snap of Thanos’ fingers — she smiled and pointed to her schedule.

“It’s Infinity War day.”

10 years in the making

I felt like a new woman, post-bagel run and after a quick brushing of my teeth in the theater bathroom.

I had managed to survive the night with little issue — minus the loss of a special pen, a pen that I told everyone around me about. It’s not like it was a particularly nice pen, but it was important to me. I searched all over the theater, but gave up hope after not seeing it anywhere. I accepted it was just a life lost to the marathon. Still, I could feel the excitement wafting off friends seated around me, mixing with the overwhelming smell of body odor that overtook the theater. The feeling was electric. Everything sparked.

I found a group of passionate Captain America fans talking about the first MCU movie they watched. Some people, like Courtney, remembered sitting in the theater for Iron Man when they were kids. Other people, like Jailene, Korina and Joseph, were too young to have done that, citing other films like Captain America: The First Avenger as their first big-screen foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With a replica of Thanos’ glove on his hand, Trovor, one of the most dedicated Marvel fans, boasted about sitting through Iron Man’s end-credits to watch Nick Fury announce the Avengers initiative. The moment would come to define the MCU.

Avengers marathon
Trovor, with Thanos’ Infinity War glove.
Julia Alexander/Polygon

“I remember seeing Iron Man as a kid and being blown away. I’ve seen every movie in theaters, and I didn’t know it was going to lead to this,” Trovor said, gesturing around. “Now that it’s here, it’s like, Wow, I just hope that it can continue to exist in some shape or form. Hopefully not everyone dies.”

After more than two dozen hours of sitting in the theater, the birthday party atmosphere I walked into before the marathon began no longer existed. It became a wake, a celebration of the end of an era. People were hugging one another as they talked about their favorite scenes. They joked around about needing comfort if this or that superhero died in Infinity War. Even I told Ross, Polygon’s director of programming and my marathon buddy alongside The Verge’s Megan Farokhmanesh, that I couldn’t remember a period when the MCU wasn’t a part of my life.

I looked around the theater and saw a couple of families with eager, if sleepy, kids waiting for Infinity War, and realized there was an entire generation of people who’ve only known a time when the MCU existed.

It’s hard to express exactly what 10 years of the MCU means. It was the number-one question I asked everyone at the marathon. The MCU is so immensely personal and important to fans that it can be hard to nail down how it feels knowing this phase of it’s all coming to an end. We’ve celebrated these characters’ lives, their friendships, their potential relationships, their ups and downs and everything in between — and in a year, most of them will be gone.

There’s a great sadness that comes with realizing that everything, even superheroes, must die.

The closer we got to Infinity War, the more emotional I got. It may have been the sleep deprivation or the rancid smell hovering over the theater. But it could also have been that, after watching so many movies back-to-back, I’d realized just how much the MCU meant to millions of people. I’d even made friends because of it in this dark theater, even if we had nothing in common but our love for a franchise built around silly superheroes.

“It doesn’t feel like a decade has passed; it feels like it just happened,” Sigourney, one of the last people I spoke to ahead of Infinity War, said. “It’s so weird to hear people say, ‘10 years of Marvel movies.’ It’s been 10 years. It’s a fun way to celebrate a kind of moment that we’ll talk about for the rest of our lives.”

A few minutes before Infinity War started, people counted down until the movie started. The cheering was back in full swing; people were congratulating one another and giving last-minute hugs. I was talking to Greg, Courtney and a row mate named Cliff, three friends I made during the marathon, celebrating the adventure we were about to complete. I laughed as people to my right began chanting “Avengers assemble” until it felt like the walls would collapse from the noise.

As the lights dimmed and clapping filled the theater, I put on my 3D glasses and sunk back into my seat. I thought about whether I’d ever see Greg or Courtney again after this, or if they’d be temporary friends born from a temporary period in my life that felt like it existed in its own temporary world — much like how Avengers: Infinity War would one day mark the climax of a temporary era in film history.

This all might be true, but I don’t care. I survived my first movie marathon at a theater, and came out with some pretty great memories, too.

And my pen. Everyone helped me find my pen.

Not all superheroes are dead just yet.