— Kameron Hurley, The Light Brigade
IN KAMERON HURLEY’S recent science fiction novel The Light Brigade (2019), soldiers are recruited by the military divisions of massive corporations to fight wars that take place across space and time. Cannily updating the state fascism of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), Hurley’s dystopian future is eerily recognizable for a historical period in which corporate power has clearly eclipsed the political clout of nation-states, and where we are obsessively revisiting our own recent past. We already inhabit a world where brands are more meaningful to us than political programs or grand ideologies, and where corporate-owned mega-franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) increasingly fill up the entirety of our collective cultural imagination.
Avengers: Endgame and the extent to which it occupies the cultural conversation is a fascinating but terrifying high-water mark (for now) of cultural life under ascendant corporate hegemony. Much more than “just another Marvel movie,” it’s a reality-bending cultural phenomenon that proudly wallows in its own mind-numbing hugeness. It’s the biggest possible participatory advertisement for two of the most powerful brands in the entertainment industry. It’s an irresistible pop-culture overload, produced and marketed by people with an almost preternatural understanding of what we find enjoyable about these things, and how they are intricately connected to social media, meme and GIF culture, fandom, and social debates about culture and identity. And like the political and material world that produced it, Endgame itself is positively bursting with maddening contradictions.
To start with the most obvious one, Endgame presents itself to us as a climax, an ending, a culmination of a 22-film series spanning 11 years — but if it is an ending at all, it is only an ending in the way that the momentary break between rounds on the merry-go-round constitutes a brief pause in the machinery of constant distraction. What appears to be the definite retirement of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans from the franchise gives the endeavor whatever dramatic weight it has. But Endgame mostly serves to mark the inevitable continuation of business as usual. Evans’s graceful farewell predictably takes the shape of a quite literal passing of the baton, while we know for a fact that the Iron Man suit will be donned by Tony Stark’s successor before too long — for branded comic book characters are too valuable to remain permanently dead. Meanwhile, so much of Endgame’s denouement is preoccupied with maneuvering characters into position for upcoming sequels that the deeply earnest cast sign-off over the end credits feels somewhat disingenuous.
Indeed, more than an attempt to bring the MCU’s dangling narrative threads to a point of closure, Endgame is organized around an appropriately nonsensical “time heist” that has us revisit several moments from earlier Marvel movies — from the understandably reviled Thor: The Dark World to the unjustifiably beloved first Avengers movie. This time-travel hoax is as childishly clever as it is shameless: past events can’t really be altered, as that would infringe upon now-sacred MCU canon. Familiar scenes are thrown at us, but only to celebrate and enjoy, never to revise or reconsider. It functions above all to provide a self-satisfied victory lap that gives some of the departing Avengers a moment of emotional closure with sadly departed parents, while throwing in a few more cameos to add to the growing list of obnoxiously de-aged movie stars cashing an easy check.
The growing prominence of these uncanny digital avatars meanwhile gives us a dire warning about the future of these franchises: Tony Stark’s uncharacteristically noble sacrifice may have given fans something to weep about for now, and his version of Iron Man will clearly (and thankfully) no longer be the pivotal figure loosely holding the MCU together. But post–Captain Marvel and its even-younger-than-necessary Samuel L. Jackson CG ghoul, it’s easier than ever to imagine a 1980s-set prequel in which a credibly de-aged RDJ is teamed up with some other previously overlooked superhero from the inexhaustible Marvel canon. It brings to mind one of the most resonant lines from another Disney-owned mega-franchise: when Luke Skywalker gently told Leia that “no one’s ever really gone,” that line hit home because an iconic character who’s about to die is addressing an actress who had already died when Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) was released.
That moment, like so many others in this deeply layered legacy film, expressed a deep tension about living in an age where people are mortal, but IP lives forever. And while Endgame has moments that reach for a similar emotional payload, this film’s more celebratory attitude foregrounds the dark side of this same phrase. With CGI tech at a point where we can plausibly reproduce entire performances by long-deceased actors, the content these franchises offer is in risk of growing increasingly dehumanized. The very thing that makes serialized live-action movies different from comic books is surely the idea that we see these actors aging and developing over many years. But the irreversibility of this process, and thereby its emotional payload, is lost once digitization transforms these human beings into endlessly adaptable avatars.
This is what it means to live in a media age where mega-franchises have quite literally become Too Big To Fail. When I wrote a book about the superhero movie genre nearly 10 years ago, I was honestly convinced that the superhero movie — like all similar subgenres before it — was past its prime and already overdue to drop off our cultural radar. By now, it seems clear that not only are superhero movies here to stay, but that franchises like the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the MCU are poised to outlive us all.
Endgame, which made more money in its opening weekend than most others do in their entire existence, definitively cements Disney’s rule over our media landscape. Or even, more or less separate from The Walt Disney Co.’s position of hegemony, it shows that long-running serialized content is truly king. Where previous record-breaking blockbusters of the post-classical Hollywood era were high-concept, high-tech, and high-profile juggernauts followed by sets of sequels with diminishing returns — Jaws, Star Wars, Batman, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Avatar — the digital age’s long-tail model combines all the spectacle of the cinematic blockbuster with the long-running character dynamics of the TV series. In an almost uncanny coincidence, the entire cultural conversation has recently been dominated by two simultaneous grand finales to decade-spanning pop-culture phenomena whose audience has developed incrementally, each of which sees someone named Stark facing off with the embodiment of evil. As Matt Zoller Seitz has recently pointed out, both Endgame and Game of Thrones are “two more pieces in the content stream, bigger and shinier than all others, but ultimately things to discuss on social media, bond over, and quickly move beyond.”
This helps clarify one of the biggest points about narrative media in the digital age: while we still crave traditional components like complexity, spectacle, and closure, we experience those things only as part of a literally endless flow of branded content with occasional moments of intensification. Those moments are welcomed, in part at least because they provide a kind of collective enjoyment that has become rare in the streaming age, where each person’s media consumption patterns are increasingly defined by their data profiles and algorithmic feeds. For digital natives, old-school mass media’s reliance on broadcasts reaching large groups of “mainstream” audiences at the same time has already lost its meaning. What media scholar Chuck Tryon so aptly described as “on-demand culture” means that our popular culture has become hugely individualized, with far fewer shared cultural moments.
As the ongoing convergence of film and television has reached a real tipping point, only mega-franchises like Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Marvel now have the clout to cut across algorithms and offer that invaluable combination of narrative catharsis and widely shared cultural conversations. Only the biggest corporations can afford to finance these complexly serialized world-building franchises, weaponizing social media dynamics to draw in our attention and engagement in brief bursts of collective energy. But as exciting and moving as such a momentary climax can be, the film itself is already preoccupied with setting up the inevitable continuation of the franchise — just as fans and entertainment reporters waste little time in turning to the question “What’s next for the MCU?,” we are already speculating what the future of Star Wars will be beyond the upcoming end to the official saga.
Of course, we all know what our future of corporate entertainment will bring: more, and more, and more, and even more, and still more of the same. And by “the same,” I mean of course a bombardment of content that feels varied and diverse in terms of tweaks in style and sensibility, but which will always remain fatally constrained by the commercial imperatives of the Disney brand as well as Marvel’s own stifling world-building and the “great clomping foot of nerdism” that defines it. For we know deep down that the only real endgame is Disney’s own Thanos-like drive to collect media properties like so many Infinity Stones, selling our culture back to us in theme parks, licensed merchandise, and streaming platforms — all the while expecting our brand loyalty, our disposable income, and our enduring love. And as Disney has transformed itself successfully into a cradle-to-the-grave entertainment brand, we continue to act out our Stockholm syndrome, bowing before a corporation as the pre-rehabilitated Nebula bowed before Thanos. Perhaps it’s time to end this complicity in our own oppression, and find a way to snap our culture back out of the Disney corporation’s stranglehold.
Dan Hassler-Forest teaches media studies at Utrecht University. His most recent book is Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling.
Banner image from BagoGames.