I bought a ticket to Avengers: Endgame more than a week before this latest mammoth cinematic superhero experience actually arrived in theaters, which seemed mildly ridiculous. Not ridiculous enough for me to not see it, of course, only enough to merit an inward grumble about our collective infatuation with movie franchises.
The pre-purchase of the ticket is only one piece of the necessary preparation, though; I also needed to brush up on what exactly has happened in the — and this is not an exaggeration — 2,686 minutes we’ve already spent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This led me to YouTube, where I found all of the relevant details crammed into just under 40 minutes. This, in turn, led me to do some real soul-searching about my life choices.
Scrolling through social media, especially this month, reveals a culture inundated with franchises. We’re in a perfect storm when three colossal story worlds are all reaching finality in harmony: the 22-movie Avengers series converged in Endgame, Game of Thrones is finishing its genre-bending journey, and we got our first glimpse into the completion of a 40-year Star Wars saga.
What is the deal with our fascination with these deep-dives into fantasy worlds? What does our interest in these stories say about us?
Whether we are interested in stories of heroes in galaxies far far away, or of those who wear masks and fight bad guys, or of secret magical worlds hidden between train station platforms, or of vaguely medieval feudal kingdoms that also feature dragons and ice zombies — these disparate tales are all woven together into (mostly) coherent narratives that span decades and planets and species and genres and media platforms. We are so desperate for all these seemingly unconnected stories to fit together that an entire cottage industry has sprung up just to help everyone keep the stories and characters and subplots and conspiracy theories straight.
As much as I’d like to stand apart from this phenomenon, point my finger, and scoff, I can do no such thing. I listen to a weekly Game of Thrones deep-dive podcast. I once read a nearly 5000-word blog post about the Pixar Theory. Yesterday I watched a video of other people, whom I do not know, reacting to the second trailer for Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw. I am, quite to my own delight, part of the problem.
It’s easy to swing at the low-hanging fruit, bemoaning the cultural situation in which we’ve found ourselves and speaking in hushed wistful tones of the good old days when art was about storytelling instead of dollars and all was right in the world. And yet, I wonder if all of this could possibly be evidence of something good.
Perhaps we are drawn to broad film franchises precisely because there is something in the very fabric of our humanity that yearns for good stories that run deeper than 90 minutes. Not that we actually get good stories in these franchises all that frequently — but the franchise offers the hope of a good story, one in which everyone has a role and a backstory and explainable motives, where people act in character and actions have consequences, where foreshadowing pays off and conflict builds and finds resolution in linear fashion.
We want things to make sense. In our own world, they often don’t. Bad guys get away. Main characters disappear without explanation. There is no score wafting through our living room, telling us how to emotionally prepare ourselves for what is about to happen. Most days don’t have a three-act structure — most days just kind of happen: the sun rises, some time passes, the sun sets, and then we do it all over again the next day.
I’m tempted to go so far as to say that we can decide to change this, that we can inject our lives with order and meaning by simply deciding to do so. I don’t think this is quite right. It’s also tempting to declare God as a sort of super Kevin Feige, laying our whole lives out in storyboards, but I think this is wrong, too — I can’t exactly say how providence works, but it’s not a room full of writers arguing about whether those two characters are finally going to get together or about how audiences will react if so-and-so gets diagnosed with cancer. It’s more subtle than that.
Each of us is a story, written by the Cosmic Storyteller. Improbably, the Storyteller has given us the opportunity to collaborate in the telling of our own story. It is our humble privilege and sacred duty to give and receive these stories, to treat them delicately and — when granted privileged access — perhaps participate with one another in their crafting.