[Warning: This essay contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” and “Avengers: Endgame.”]
“Lord, who to call when no one obeys the law/And there ain’t no Iron Man that can come and save us all?” – Method Man, Bulletproof Love
Safe As Houses
Somewhere along the way, we began to live inside our fictions. We sorted ourselves into Gryffyndor or Ravenclaw, chose sides between Team Edward and Team Jacob; Team Iron Man and Team Captain America. We adorned ourselves as our favorite characters and gathered at conventions. We binged Game of Thrones and shared the experience on Twitter, in real-time, with the rest of the world. Our fictions have become so large, how could they not spill out into the real world? Avengers: Endgame was the culmination of 22 films, drawn from 80 years of comic book history. The recently concluded Game of Thrones comprised eight seasons, and is based on a not-yet finished series of very long books by George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. The Emmy-winning Big Bang theory, which also just ended its run, clocked in at a record-breaking 279 episodes, making it the longest-running multi-camera sitcom, not counting its spinoff, Young Sheldon. Our fictions have grown so large they dwarf us, and we have crawled inside them for refuge from the storms outside.
They’ve grown so big it’s no surprise they sometimes fail us. It was almost inevitable.
To be clear, we’re not talking here the lingering disappointment which comes with, say, the series finale of a TV show. As horror novelist Stephen King said of fan discontent on the final series of Game of Thrones, “There’s been a lot of negativity about the windup, but I think it’s just because people don’t want ANY ending.” There’s some wisdom in that. Certainly, the last season of Game of Thrones had some pacing issues, and some unexplained narrative leaps toward the end – why didn’t the Unsullied just kill Tyrion and Jon Snow? It feels like we missed a chapter there – but there’s also some truth to the idea that the real issue is that so many people have spent so long nestled within that story, that the idea of leaving it is jarring. What else can happen when you invest so much time and attention to a thing that’s not real: It becomes real, and in that process, it becomes a thing you can lose. Which is, in its way, a little scary, especially if that story is a thing in which you’ve taken shelter from the “real” world’s tumult.
In a lot of ways, it didn’t matter if it had a “good” ending. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories had a good ending, and the author’s own inability to let go of the story has sometimes proven maddening to fans, who wish to keep the story crystallized in memory. Some of the tidbits are interesting – for example, I had actually wondered if Dumbledore and Grindelwald had a romantic relationship, which seemed implied in the books – but others were just ridiculous. (Did anyone need to know that Hogwarts didn’t have toilets until relatively recently? I mean, really?) We don’t want to let the story go, and we don’t want the story to change, when the most obvious fact is that it will. Of course it will. Stories are, in some ways, living things. They survive and evolve or they die, leaving behind only a fossil record. Our libraries are literally packed with extinct stories. Other stories we tell over and over again, changing them to suit modern tastes, to fit our current understanding of the times. King Arthur, Robin Hood, Superman … we tell and re-tell their stories, and we change the details a bit, here and there, we reinterpret, but they remain fundamentally the same: A king rises up to protect the kingdom in its hour of need; an outlaw defends the poor from a tyrannical ruler; a strange visitor from another planet with superhuman abilities fights for truth and justice. Sometimes the words “the American Way” follow the words “truth” and “justice” there, but not always. Not much recently, to tell the truth.
Because America itself is a story we tell ourselves, simultaneously true and untrue, one which has changed and evolved over time.
“We Hold These Truths …”
“Surely,” you say, “America is more than just a story,” and I would agree, although all great stories are also more than what they say on the surface. We tell ourselves the narrative of discovery and rebellion against oppression, usually downplaying the parts about genocide and slavery, although those things have defined America as much or more than any high-minded principle. We tell ourselves our ideals are who we are: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Jefferson was, of course, a walking mass of contradictions, not the least of which was that he was a slave owner. A goodly number of the country’s Founding Fathers were, although they also counted among their number many fierce abolitionists. The internal conflict between the two groups threatened to tear asunder the young country before it even began, which lead to political compromises which effectively kicked the can down the road. Contemporary Americans often think that the Civil War erupted swiftly, but the fact is, a polarizing moral disagreement over race – one so heated it erupted into violence early and often, culminating in the Civil War – was baked into the national identity from the get-go. Like any untreated wound, it became infected and festered. We’re still feeling its repercussions today.
But that’s the reality. We’re talking about the story. Is it possible to love the story with all your heart and still not be blind to history’s bloody, violent truths? I want to say “yes,” but we live in a world where the series finale of Game of Thrones caused almost as much public outcry as the plight of immigrants at the border or gun violence. Some people wanted Jon Snow – born Aegon Targaryen – to be king because of the facts of his parentage. Others took Daenerys Targaryen’s rhetoric of liberation as more relevant than the consequences of her military actions. Fair opinions, but as an American, a part of me will always object to the idea that someone is worthy of a position because of their parentage. That’s the part of the American story I have, evidently, bought into wholeheartedly. Also as an American, I have an immense distrust of anyone who uses the language of liberation and conquest in conjunction with one another. That part comes from being completely aware of the American reality, and what the country’s foreign policy has done around the world.
In the Game of Thrones finale, Tyrion Lannister has an odd monologue about how stories lend legitimacy to kings, adding that Bran Stark had the best story. The scene doesn’t really work, but there’s definitely a kernel of truth there. We look to the mythological aspects of American history to define our national identity, but it doesn’t take much scratching under the surface to find the cracks in the story. In Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, author David W. Blight spends a good deal of time detailing how one of America’s most beloved and mythologized presidents, the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln, was until well into the Civil War a fervent supporter of both abolition and forced migration of African-Americans to places such as Africa or South America. This was a position that brought him into sharp conflict with Douglass, who argued that black people shouldn’t be forced to move from the only home they’ve ever known to soothe the discomfort of white people, a position that was sharpened by the knowledge of the toll forced migration took on the Native population not long beforehand. It’s not an unfamiliar argument, these days, echoing as it does the plight of the DACA kids who are in danger of being deported to country’s they’ve never known, to appease a story frightened people have told themselves about immigrants, a story that’s recurred throughout our history, the details changing with the times.
Not all stories speak to the best of us. Maybe that’s why we cling so tightly to the ones that do.
One of the interesting things about Avengers: Endgame is that it allows its entire first act to be devoted to grief, to feelings of depression and failure. Seeing as the superhero genre is often rife with toxic masculinity, it’s interesting to see these exemplar of the heroic ideal have to wrestle with their emotions and their own mental health. After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, which lead to the deaths of literally half the universe, including several Avengers, they are broken,in ways that we don’t often allow our heroes to be seen. Black Widow wrestles with denial, trying to right every wrong she possibly can, even when it’s not possible or even necessary. Anger drives Hawkeye (or Ronin) into a cycle of violence. Thor wrestles with depression, the mighty warrior numbing his pain with alcohol and video games.
There’s a familiarity to that, for anyone who has struggled with the effects of grief or depression. Certainly, heroes in pop culture have to overcome adversity, certainly, but it’s often somewhat more operatic, more melodrama than anything we see in ourselves. Not always, of course – there are a lot of good storytellers in pop culture, after all – but infrequently enough that it’s noteworthy. Nor are they instantly able to put their damage behind them. Even as the mood lightens for the second act’s “time heist,” and the the third act’s battle against Thanos, it’s clear recovery only comes slowly, and through mutual support. Even when Thor is able to reclaim his lost hammer, Mjölnir, symbolizing that he is, indeed, still “worthy,” the ravages that come from years of being trapped in depression aren’t instantly relieved. There is still work to do.
This is important, because what we tell a culture about its heroes is, in a very real way, a translation of what we say about ourselves. There are very real reasons why so many women found themselves in tears when they first watched Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, having never seen themselves represented in quite that way on the big screen. Likewise the reaction in African-American communities to Black Panther, including donations to make sure poor children were able see the film. These things are important. Vitally so. It’s important that everyone can see the best of themselves in such a powerful forum, when the real world seems intent on tearing everyone down to their personal worst. So, too, is it important to understand that the best of us can break, and that they can work their way back from being broken. That they are, like Thor, still worthy, whatever that means to them.
Superheroes aren’t real, of course, except in the sense that any good story is real, that it has weight and a sort of palpable presence in our hearts and culture. The Avengers are real in the way that Robin Hood is real, or King Arthur, or America. That doesn’t mean that everything about those stories are good. Indeed, the way the deaths of Gamorra and Black Widow were handled (coincidentally, they died at the exact same location, which is weird and probably relevant) was problematic, to say the least, and gave great female characters reductive arcs. Some flaws are to be expected. Honestly? Some flaw are to be expected in just about everything.
Oh, but we’re a
little merciless on each other, aren’t we? A waiter has a bad day?
They should be fired! A newspaper has an error? Someone should be
fired! We are so quick to declare moral superiority on each other
over minor inconveniences and imperfections that you’d think it was
some sort of card game. We shout,“Fire them!”as if it were “Uno!”
There’s something about that ridiculous, unearned power that makes
us feel a little better about our own shortcomings.
Certainly, that instinct plays into the fears and insecurities stirred up by the more malicious stories, the one stirred up by Fox News and others dedicated to spreading fear and division wherever possible. They tell horrific stories about African—Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ+ persons and more, all skewed toward leveraging terror toward political gain. They take that commonplace bit of entitlement, the one that asks to speak to the manager because a fast food worker has gotten an order wrong, and we demand inordinately swift punishment for, say, persons presenting themselves for asylum at the border, or women who seek an abortion almost anywhere in the U.S., not just in the South where inhumanly draconian laws are currently being enacted. They claim some moral high ground, but they’re mostly only looking for someone weaker than them to kick, as if that will alleviate their own problems.
It won’t, and there’s even a level where I’m being unfair, because these people’s problems are just as real as anyone’s. They deserve to be listened to, to be taken seriously. Sometimes we forget that in our own righteous indignation. I’m a pacifist, but by choice, not nature. I still have enough urge to hit someone often enough that I’ve learned to question when anybody asks me to hit someone, either literally or metaphorically. I even think we should ask that when someone asks you to hit themselves. Especially then. Whenever someone asks you to throw a punch, you should ask them why.
Traditionally, superheroes solve most of their problems by punching things. They beat up the bad guys, put the flag on top of the White House, and fly away, rarely ever digging deeper into the real issues actually cause crime and violence. Thankfully, they’ve gotten a bit more sophisticated, in all mediums, but they’re still not terribly complicated stories. Not really. Avengers: Endgame is about reaching for one another when everything seems lost, about moving past grief and failure to triumph. To save the world, whatever that means. The fictions have gotten exponetially larger, but their reverberations, for good or ill, are still deeply personal.
In a lot of ways, heroic stories have often been about a desire for rescue, about believing there was someone or something out there that could save us from poverty, terror, middle school, whatever. Personally, I prefer the stories where I can see myself in the hero somewhere, that I have it in myself to overcome adversity and help others, because I too have wrestled with depression and failure, and sometimes I’m not sure I’ve ever risen out of them. Sometimes. Still, if Thor can fall apart and still be worthy, then maybe I can, too. Maybe we all can.