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Geek culture may never again be as all-consuming as it is right now

Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones make this moment feel like a series finale for geek pop culture too.

Avengers: Endgame, Game of Thrones
What if the Avengers crew could recruit Jon Snow to fight Thanos? Actually, that might not be a very good idea. Ignore that I said that!
Marvel Studios/HBO
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The next few days are perhaps the apotheosis of mainstream geek culture.

Avengers: Endgame will bring the current iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a close on Thursday, April 25, and Game of Thrones will reach the midpoint of its final season with an episode rumored to be its biggest ever on Sunday, April 28. It’s gonna be a big weekend if you love this kind of thing. And in 2019, a lot of people love this kind of thing.

Since geek properties based on comic books and fantasy novels started to take over TV screens and movie theaters in the early 2000s (with the one-two punch of the Lord of the Rings movies and Spider-Man), more and more of our mainstream popular culture has just become out-and-out geek culture.

Like, think about this: You probably know who Iron Man is. You can probably tell me that his name is Tony Stark, and that he’s played by Robert Downey Jr. You can probably even picture him in your head, or tell someone a few things about his superpowers, or summarize the plot of one of his movies. He is about as mainstream a pop culture character as you can get.

Yet when the first Iron Man movie launched in 2008, it was considered a huge gamble for Marvel, a company that had largely sold the rights to its most profitable comics characters, like Spider-Man (Sony) and the X-Men (Fox), to more established studios.

Iron Man was such a massive risk because Marvel essentially staked its entire future as a comics publisher on the movie, based on a relatively unknown hero in its stable, working. It did, and the rest is history. But the point remains — before that movie came out, you were much less likely to know Iron Man as a character.

But if this moment in pop culture started around 10 years ago, it’s coming to some sort of peak now, as two massively beloved pop culture properties reach endpoints. And there’s a definite finality to it. Here’s the curious thing about this moment: So much of this geek culture apotheosis revolves around the question of which of our favorite fictional characters are going to die. Call it geekpocalypse now.

Both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones set the dramatic stakes as high as possible. That was key to their success.

Avengers: Endgame
It could all be over for Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame.
Marvel Studios

In both Avengers: Endgame and the final season of Game of Thrones, everything in existence is at stake.

Sure, on Game of Thrones, “everything” pretty much equals one continent on one world (though maybe the White Walkers could hitch a ride across the Narrow Sea to Essos), while in Endgame, “everything” really does mean “everything” (including multiple dimensions and the like). But the point is that the stakes are as high as they could possibly be for every single character.

That, in some ways, is why I’m thinking of this moment, this weekend, as the apotheosis of geek culture. Even though I don’t expect us to abruptly move on from our current obsession with geek culture, it’s hard to imagine another week that will have this much conclusive weight to it. It feels like this whole pop culture moment has nowhere to go but down from here, like we’ll overdose on all of these big finales and need to start casting about for something else entirely.

That combination of huge dramatic stakes, two major properties approaching their endings, and the sense of something having reached its height might be why we’re so focused on who’s going to die. Reaching a peak like this requires a kind of catharsis or climax, and what’s more cathartic or climactic than death?

But this fascination with death has other parallels. The existential angst of the characters in the Marvel films (at least post-Thanos snap) and Game of Thrones mirrors our own existential angst on some levels. We might not be facing down ice zombies or a purple-faced alien who wants to obliterate half of everybody. But we are facing down any number of threats that could ruin our existence on this planet, from climate change to the ever-looming specter of nuclear war.

I mentioned above that I’d pinpoint the beginning of geek culture’s ascent into the mainstream to back in the early 2000s. It’s significant that both Lord of the Rings — a story about a very unambiguous fight between absolute good and absolute evil — and the free-and-easy-heroism-with-a-cost of Spider-Man hit theaters and made massive box office in the handful of months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In 2015, I posited that the rise of American superhero cinema in particular was, in some sense, a psychological coping mechanism with 9/11. But even as the attacks slip further back into our memories, these stories of humans contending with world-ending threats continue to dominate the box office and on television, because we live in a time when world-ending threats seem less laughable than plausible, even inevitable.

Watch the first couple of episodes of Game of Thrones’ final season and Avengers: Endgame in rapid succession (as I did) and you’ll find yourself steeped in stories about characters who can see death coming — or have even seen death — and long not for glory or honor, but simply survival. These stories resonate with us in an era when saving the world increasingly feels like it might really require larger-than-life heroes.

This is of a piece with something present in more and more of the past decade’s biggest media, including the Marvel films: stories about what it means to have massive amounts of power but a lot of ambivalence about how to use that power. These are also stories about people who wonder how best to behave when confronting death itself.

The Marvel films and Game of Thrones have vastly different answers to these questions, but that they’re both broadly centered on these sorts of themes — and attract such massive audiences at the same time — suggests they scratch an itch for viewers that isn’t being scratched elsewhere.

There will inevitably come a time when this sort of geek-friendly pop culture slips out of the mainstream. And even if that’s years and years from now, it’s hard to see another release period quite topping this one for massive mainstream geeky success.

Geek culture’s mainstream takeover has had plenty of downsides, but as someone who read the first A Song of Ice and Fire book, A Game of Thrones, shortly after it was released, I never imagined a significant percentage of the world’s population would know the name “Tyrion Lannister.”

This week is one of significant endings, but it is also a week to be a little astonished at just how entrenched these weird modern myths have become in culture at large.