Fandom is rarely smooth terrain. If you’ve been involved in publicly being a fan of something — a movie, a TV show, a book series, an artist — you are probably intimately familiar with the downsides of the pastime. There is always something to argue about, or someone to be disappointed in.
In 2019, though, I’m more interested in a different side of what it means to watch things communally. Interfandom drama is still there, and it always will be. But this is the year that Game of Thrones ends; that Star Wars rounds out another trilogy; that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wraps up its first major era and says goodbye to a number of its defining heroes.
Favorite characters will die. Plotlines will absolutely be dissected — and even hated — by the public. But, as these franchises complete their arcs, there is something powerful in the simple fact of how far these stories reach. There is a strong connective tissue that comes with these massive shared myths.
It’s just as important to acknowledge the wonder of that as it is to honor what happens when the experience gets messy.
The second episode of the final season of Game of Thrones was focused on character moments, the calm before the storm of deaths that would come in episode three. After it aired, my Twitter trends were just a list of names from the show; Arya, Brienne, Dany, Bran, Sansa, Jaime, Gendry, Tormund — the result of a collective tenderness for those characters. It’s an affection most often expressed through the loud declaration of opinions, alongside the impressively curated employment of gifs and memes to illustrate those feelings. And it crops up every Sunday, like clockwork, as a new episode airs and social media — for once — gives the impression of a united front.
The takes on the episodes differ, but it all stands on common ground: Most of everyone tweeting about Game of Thrones cares about what’s about to happen. They’re invested. What’s more, they know that they’re not alone in that.
A similar commotion occurred in mid-April, when the trailer for Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker dropped at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. People were at work, or going about their weekdays, but for a few short hours it felt as if everything became about Star Wars. There was a palpable rush of energy as people remembered what it felt like to see their favorite characters again.
Look at Poe, posing like a space-bound Indiana Jones! Look at Rey, literally walking on the sky! Is that what “Rise of Skywalker” means? Is it a last name, a religion, a title, or what? There were a lot of questions, and a lot of feelings, and a metric shitton of anticipation. But most of all, the trailer release stood as a reminder of what it feels like to love Star Wars — and to love it alongside millions of other people. The emotional reaction was visceral, almost as if loving Star Wars exists somewhere deep in our bodies, hard-wired from childhood and ready to be reactivated at any moment.
When Avengers: Infinity War hit theaters last April, it became the highest grossing film of the MCU, the highest-grossing superhero film, and the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time. A year later, Endgame beat Infinity War for the biggest opening weekend box office of all time, hitting a billion dollars and the top ten of all time in under a week in theaters. This should surprise no one: these two movies were essentially parts one and two of one of the most epic finales of all time. There will be more Marvel movies to come, but audiences knew that the double-whammy of Infinity War and Endgame was promising narrative payoff — not just for several of the most recognizable characters in pop culture history, but for the MCU as it’s existed since 2008.
It’s entirely possible for movies to make buttloads of money and not leave much of a cultural mark in the daily lives of audiences — just look at Avatar — but the MCU is not one of those franchises. Walking down the street before sitting down to write this piece I saw a young child scootering up the sidewalk in a Spider-Man onesie, an Iron Man backpack slung over their shoulders. Scrolling through my Twitter feed I saw several people lamenting what they’re sure will be the imminent death of Captain America. Just this week, my sister-in-law posted a photo of my 10-year-old nephew asleep in his bed, his Iron Man mask on his head, Tony Stark with him even in slumber.
These characters are everywhere, and that means something beyond the fact that Disney is very good at selling merch. There have been ups and downs, but the MCU brought the powerful myths of its source material to the big screen, and they did not fail to make an impact. They’ve embedded those myths into more hearts than ever, expanding our communal investment to epic proportions. Even if you are literally going to the movies by yourself, you are not walking into the theater to see Endgame alone. The experience of watching Game of Thrones, or an Avengers or Star Wars movie, is bigger than any one person. It’s cultural participation by default.
This is, in a way, the nature of any moviegoing experience. Theaters are communal. You will never watch a TV show that literally only you have watched. Every story that’s published or aired belongs somewhat to the public. But pop culture has also fragmented over the years.
Once, roughly 30 million people used to watch Seinfeld per week; the “watercooler conversation” about TV and film reigned supreme. But we’re not all watching the same things anymore, which makes it an even bigger deal when we are all obsessed with the same thing at the same time: It’s rare now. And while there’s always been a thrill in the collective experience — just ask anyone in their 50s about seeing Star Wars for the first time — that rarity adds a special sheen. Who knows when the next one will come along, or what it will look like.
Speaking in broad strokes, there is nothing particularly unique about Game of Thrones, Star Wars, or Avengers to make them quite the huge deals that they are in our modern era. All three deal in well-trodden archetypes and mythologies that hundreds of other sci-fi and fantasy series have tried at. Some of those less-popular series have even done better jobs at it.
As many frustrated Hollywood executives and book publishers have realized, there is no special formula for the creation of a popular myth that will blow up to the point of captivating entire populaces. A lot of people right now are scrambling to find the “next Game of Thrones.” They won’t. Look at how many studios tried to set up “cinematic universes” to mirror Marvel’s, and how many dropped those plans after the first few movies just didn’t click. Horrendous amounts of money are funneled into marketing these franchises, but they can’t succeed without enrapturing an audience — and that part can’t be forced.
There is no “next Harry Potter,” no “next Star Wars.” The franchises that succeeded did so by sparking instinct and connection — as well as the innate sense in viewers that their investment of hard-earned time and money might pay off. There is a little bit of magic in the air when all of these elements come together. Trend forecasts can’t predict what the next story to grip a whole world is going to be. But there will be another. There always is.
In the meantime, we have a few more episodes of Game of Thrones. Endgame has left us with a lot to talk about, a lot of fanfiction to write, and a whole oncoming era of new MCU films and series to wrap our heads and hearts around. We have more Star Wars, on screens big and small, and whatever else is getting you hype these days. And these types of stories don’t end when their episodes stop airing, or when the big hero dies. That’s the point. These stories loom so big in our cultures that they lose their borders and their ability to ever truly be over. They leak into our daily lives and inform the environment and thoughts not just of ourselves but of the people around us.
If you walk outside on a Monday morning after Game of Thrones and loudly declare an opinion about Arya Stark, chances are someone nearby will be able — even eager — to meet your opinion with their own. That person will probably have some thoughts about Arya’s sex scene or her defeat of the Night King, Tormund’s giant crush on Brienne, or about what a weirdo Bran Stark is. Even the people who don’t watch Game of Thrones will probably have an opinion about something to do with it. When stories reach a certain level of power they permeate even the lives of the people who will never press play on an episode.
The downsides are still there, of course. Miniature culture wars can crop up over different reactions to the same line of dialogue. And there are gatekeepers in each of these fandoms, harassing cast members and fans from marginalized groups and trying to limit entry into what is essentially cultural public property. The communal viewing experience can bring out the worst in some people, because some people do not like to share.
What’s striking, though, is that communal viewing also brings out the purest, most optimistic sides of a culture. It reminds us of our connective tissue. Good storytelling is intoxicating, and sharing it with people is one of our most steadfast pastimes for a reason. It’s a reminder that at heart we are all easily activated by a classic character arc, won over by the opportunity to get lost in a rich alternative to our world.
These stories don’t solve our world’s problems. They don’t fix the ongoing rifts caused by racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and a thousand other things. They don’t erase our current political situations. But we have always needed stories, and there remains something special about being able to share them with such large swaths of the population.
Knowing that someone else on the bus or subway or line at the grocery store with you is probably also pretty nervous thinking about who Game of Thrones might kill before it ends. About overhearing two people in a cafe argue passionately about Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, or The Last Jedi. It’s entirely possible to have an engaging conversation with a stranger over who was in the right in Captain America: Civil War, whether that stranger is ten years old or sixty. It’s like having a book club on the most massive scale.
Mass shared stories help define generations, but they also bridge them. Shared myths remind us of our own humanity, while also serving as necessary distraction from the stuff that tears us apart. And there is literally nothing quite like the feeling of sitting down in a theater with a bunch of people just as invested in a story as you are. As the lights go down and the first shot lights up the screen, there is a collective intake of breath — often followed by a collective scream — because you are all relinquishing control over what happens next, but all on that ride together.
Alanna Bennett is a reporter, cultural critic, and screenwriter whose work has appeared on BuzzFeed News, Teen Vogue, Vulture, TV Guide, and more.