It was in 1899 when German poet Ludwig Jacobowski scribbled, “Do not cry because [things] are past! Smile because they once were.” It’s safe to say that Jacobowski never knew a 21st century entertainment executive or the vigilant fanbases they must placate. After all, we are living in an era where even the concept of sequels and trilogies has been supplanted in mass media pop culture by the prospect of “shared universes.” In modern geek culture, the best ending to a story is none at all. Nonetheless, all good things, no matter how beloved or lucrative, must end. And 2019 is nothing if not stuffed with highly anticipated endings to many of fandom’s darlings, all of which have dominated the pop culture landscape for the past decade or more.
In 2019, we will be saying goodbye in some form to Game of Thrones, the original Avengers movies/Marvel Studios lineup, the original X-Men franchise, and allegedly even the idea of Star Wars as we know it, for the “Skywalker Saga” is reaching its final bookend (again), concluding an epic yarn that started in 1977. All told, 2019 stands as a literal pivot between one decade to the next, and likely one vision of pop culture to something that could be incredibly different going forward.
It’s a curious thing when most of the franchises that dominated geekdom and the larger entertainment industry beyond must go away. Game of Thrones, for one, has enjoyed a nine-year meteoric rise that very well could signal the last of traditional water cooler television. Beginning in the early spring of 2011, Game of Thrones was launched as a gamble by HBO who took the unorthodox step to reshoot most of the show’s pilot with a substantially different cast after the first version—which still has never seen the light of day outside of Home Box Office’s screening rooms—was deemed even by its creators to be unwatchable. Still, with a fixed and genuinely amazing series running out of the gate, those same creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, warned their premium cable employers that Game of Thrones will never be the kind of show that wins awards. Peter Dinklage picked up his first of three Emmys just five months after the series’ 2011 debut.
Today, it has seen its viewership steadily rise year by year, even after it became the most pirated television series in history, and even after as much as 40 percent of season 5 was leaked online by someone who wanted to make TV reviewers’ lives hell (thanks for that). Nevertheless, Game of Thrones has thrice won Best Drama and its most recent season broke records again when its finale was viewed by 12.1 million viewers live, and a total of more than 30 million people tuned in when repeat viewings and DVR recordings were added—numbers that make broadcast networks salivate. But while Game of Thrones’ popularity has allowed unique indulgences—such as a budget for a shortened final season now the size of major blockbuster films, plus almost two years to work on it—those numbers are also a blast from the past. In the age of “peak TV” where tastes are increasingly fractionalized by streaming culture and cable cord cutters, the idea of 30-plus million people waiting week to week for Game of Thrones’ last six episodes seems antiquated in 2019.
The series has lasted so long, it has survived to an entire different era where fans binge, and backlash builds online the longer you survive. As the series rockets toward its conclusion, a seemingly limitless universe that appeals to geek culture’s passion for deeply realized worlds or “universes” has suddenly revealed the contours of its ultimate narrative. While assumed major protagonists turned out to be collateral damage in early and mid-seasons, the actual protagonists of the series have proven more blessed with the ability to survive to the bloody end. Even before the final season begins, the think-pieces and video essays are already deconstructing why fans are “falling out of love with Game of Thrones.” They’re arguing why, in the face of an ending, there can be nothing short of disappointment.
It is a trend that extends beyond television or even this decade, which is why 2019 is so intriguing for fan communities. Traditionally, fandom hates endings to their stories. After Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, I wrote about the1 unusual tic of fandom coming to hate endings of any kind to their favorite things. This is in large part because many endings, once usually the third part of trilogies (at least in Hollywood franchises), are the weakest chapters of a series. But beyond mere disappointment, there is an outright resentment and loathing for stories that end—often not as how the fan community speculated it would. Return of the Jedi, The Dark Knight Rises, The Sopranos, and Lost all had endings that were no one’s favorite stories with these characters, and yet one might argue the greatest sin of all of them is that the fact they ended at all. Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner already prepared some fans for the fact the final season won’t satisfy everyone.
This is because fan culture has increasingly, most especially in this decade, become built around the thrill of anticipation. The commercial brilliance of the Marvel Studios method is that each film acts as an advertisement for the next two or three movies, often with glorified ads as post-credit “scenes” that may have nothing to do with the film audiences just watched, but immediately set audiences’ attention to begin speculating on the next shiny possibility. This effect is only magnified among fan communities. Some of the most contentious endings to popular stories, like Return of the Jedi, occurred generations before the internet democratized resentment, allowing initial disappointment to fade as decades of children grew up loving much of what early critics disliked about that film, such as a teddy bear army. Other more recent examples still predated fandom’s ability to mobilize. The Dark Knight Rises was widely well-received by critics and audiences (rave reviews and a billion dollar-box office attest to both), yet with no new Batman movie in Christopher Nolan’s sandbox on the horizon, fans were forced to scrutinize what was left behind instead of move on to what was to come–especially with a film that dared to defy traditional fan orthodoxy by having… Batman choose to retire.
We may have a preview of the pitfalls of 2019’s endings with the reception of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Fresh off the heels of Disney’s exceedingly successful The Force Awakens that writer-director J.J. Abrams presented in his typical storytelling fashion—he “mystery boxed” its plot threads—The Last Jedi’s writer-director, Rian Johnson, made the bold choice of beginning to close off those threads early in the second chapter, as well as offer endings to Star Wars characters like Luke Skywalker. He killed a character whose adventures never concluded in the decades of fan fiction since Return of the Jedi. Despite that Star Wars movie offering Luke a touching sendoff (that was hinted at given he went into hiding before The Force Awakens), Johnson still had the audacity to kill him. Luke may have stayed true to his Jedi teachings by protecting life without taking any, and did what fans seemed to want which was face down the whole First Order with a laser sword, but in doing so, he also finished his journey. And fandom’s division on this destination appears to be less the debate among a community than cannon fire exploding above the skies of Fort Sumter.
Whatever you think of The Last Jedi and its other virtues or sins, it is fair to say the movie divided fans in large part because everyone had their own idea of Luke Skywalker, and to close off that image with a denouement as final as Last Jedi could never satisfy large portions of fans. This in turn puts J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode IX in an interesting predicament, because fans have signaled they don’t want anything new, but they do want new stories to continue. But for Star Wars to continue beyond the “episode” titles, it absolutely must broaden its horizon from an ever dimming “Skywalker Saga” that’s been its heart since ‘77. Like Return of the Jedi before it, Episode IX must offer an ending to story threads that go back to the original movie, and as recently as The Force Awakens. But as reactions to Johnson’s conclusion to even the most recent developments indicate—like the fate and importance of Supreme Leader Snoke—any finality will be treated as suspect.
Perhaps for this reason, no franchise has more riding on it than Marvel Studios’ Avengers films. As the multi-tiered franchise that has come to define how pop culture sausage is made in its 11-year existence, the sprawling pseudo-story that began with 2008’s Iron Man must have a pseudo-ending with April’s Avengers: Endgame (it’s in the title!). It’s unavoidable if for no other reason than Iron Man himself, Mr. Robert Downey Jr., as well as several other key players’ contracts are up and they show little sign of re-upping for the next 10 years. This might be the most curious challenge of the 2019 finales too, considering that the success of Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe is that, by design, there are never any true endings. It is always on to the next one before the lights come up on opening night, and there is always more to speculate on. Suddenly, and after 11 years, there needs to be a true finale that satisfies everyone.
Whether fans are possible to fully satisfy is open to debate, but it is a good thing for the culture that we put our favorite toys away. As a genre or not, the Marvel Studios formula has on its own proven elusive for other studios to replicate, as seen in the struggles of the “DC Extended Universe” or the infamously short-lived “Dark Universe,” which was born and died in the darkness cast by Marvel’s decade-long shadow. Meanwhile, as good as Game of Thrones is, the fact remains it appears to be a product from a different era, one where titillation and exploitation could be indulged without necessarily being examined, and inclusion was a luxury instead of a priority. Even Star Wars appears in need of a rethink after Disney discovered in 2018 that just returning to the same stories again and again leads to diminished returns, creatively and financially, as seen with Solo: A Star Wars Story. Endings are also a fresh start to create something new and find genuine beginnings. Going away creates anxiety, but it is also a chance for perspective—and maybe even new stories that we haven’t spent years obsessing over.
But in today’s marketplace, nothing you love is ever really allowed a final bow. Three major geek properties might be going away… but not forever. Marvel Studios could theoretically stumble a little while outliving Downey’s version of Tony Stark, but the studio president Kevin Feige has already promised he has stories prepared until at least 2028—and that was before he knew he was getting the X-Men to play with and likely reboot and repackage in comfortingly familiar trappings–which in itself means a bittersweet end to Fox’s eccentric but overall well-loved superhero franchise. Game of Thrones is getting a firmer fond farewell, but HBO is already hard at work on a prequel series that will be vastly different. For starters, it is likely going to reflect the values of the end of this decade’s television culture in an era of The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies, as opposed to The Sopranos and Mad Men predating the original series’ start. And yet, it will be in Westeros and offer a home away from home for those nostalgic for Winterfell. And even Star Wars will continue, although in a new form where Luke Skywalker and his family are not at the center of all things.
It is so very hard for fans to say goodbye, but in 2019 they must, even if for only a little while. What comes in the time between though could help define a new era of pop culture and a fresh, heroic journey.