Ian Harris: Is 2019 the end?
When I started this column in the fall of 2017, I pitched it to the then-managing arts editors as “The Neverending Column on the Neverending Story”: an entertainment and media column centered around the complete sequelfication of mass media and the idea that in the current marketplace, any story that is profitable will never see its end. Over the past year and a half I’ve branched out a bit into other topics as well, but this notion of stories without end has continued to fascinate me, for if a story doesn’t have an ending, can it even really be called a story? Since the days of first-grade writing, we are taught that everything we write must have a beginning, middle and an end. Take one away and you lose that structure. Lose that structure and you risk losing the story. I have the spent many words in this column bemoaning this phenomenon, decrying Hollywood’s increased to desire to squeeze every last drop it can out of an idea, until the idea has become little more than a bad parody of itself. And yet in 2019, as the decade draws to a close, it appears that three of the biggest entertainment products of the last decade may end as well: Marvel’s “Avengers”, Disney’s new “Star Wars” trilogy and of course HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Each of these properties will spend most of the year marketing their next installment as the final chapter of their respective series. In all three cases, this will be misleading at best and an outright lie at worst. Let’s take each one individually, starting with “Avengers: Endgame.”
Last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War” was marketed as though it was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II” when really it was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I.” “Endgames”’s marketing looks to be a little less misleading since the film (due to be released on April 26) will presumably wrap up the cliffhanger from the last movie and is ostensibly a capstone to the overall Thanos arc that began with 2012’s “The Avengers”. But the claim that the film will be an “ending” in any sense is somewhat debatable. Part of it definitely depends on what the actual storyline of the film consists of, which may or may not be the deaths of a handful of beloved characters (such as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man or Chris Evans’ Captain America). But because the “half-the-universe-disappears” gimmick that concluded “Infinity War” has already been somewhat undercut by the trailer for “Spider Man: Far From Home” — showing Spidey back in action (you can't keep a good spider down for long) — it’s hard to see how much impact “Endgame” will have on the wider MCU. Will there really be no more “Avengers” movies? We know there’s going to be more Black Panther, more Doctor Strange and more Spider-Man. Even Loki, who was last seen being impaled by Thanos with a sharp tool, will return for a streaming series on Disney+ next fall.
On the face of it, “Star Wars” may be coming to a more conclusive ending than the MCU. Unlike the sprawling Marvel saga, Lucasfilm has not announced any more films after the release of “Episode IX” next Christmas. But if anyone out there actually believes that there won’t be, then they clearly haven’t been paying attention. Back in 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm to the tune of 4 billion dollars, so they’re not about to pack up and call it a day after one trilogy. How successful “Star Wars” will continue to be, though, beyond the sequel trilogy remains to be seen. Last year’s Han Solo prequel did not fare well at the box office, and it’s an open question whether or not audiences will continue to flock to “Star Wars” movies that don’t feature legacy characters like Luke, Han and Leia. “Solo” seemingly proved that recasting such characters may not be advisable either, and it’s anyone’s guess what direction the franchise will go in. At one point in time, Lucasfilm had announced a trilogy from “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson as well as a new trilogy with the “Game of Thrones” showrunners at the helm, but since those announcements over a year ago, nothing more has been said about those plans. Regardless, it seems improbable that “Episode IX” will be the last “Star Wars” movie, and depending on how well it does, don’t be surprised if episodes X, XI and XII aren’t closer than we think.
As for “Game of Thrones” — the last water cooler show, king of television, heir to Tolkein and protector of the HBO realm — the final set of six episodes premieres in April and then the world of Westeros will be left behind. That is, until the release of one of the five different spin-off series that HBO has been developing. The first of these, tentatively titled “The Long Night,” already has a cast and crew lined up, and could be ready as soon as summer 2020. Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin still claims to be working on the next book in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series upon which the show is based. Like Star Wars, I’m skeptical of the prospects of a “Thrones” spin-off. Will audiences really care about a very similar story with a bunch of characters they don’t know anything about? Is the ancient history of Westeros really that interesting? If Martin’s recent tome “Fire and Blood” is anything to go by, the answer may be no.
No matter how it all shakes out, it seems perfectly plausible that come 2020, all three of these blockbuster franchises will be past their glory days. If the 2010s have been defined by superheroes and dragons, by legacy sequels and the return of decades-old series, what will the entertainment landscape of the next decade look like? It’s hard to say. Always in motion, the future is. When Walt Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, the same year “The Avengers” came out, they couldn’t have known how strong brands like Netflix and Hulu would become, or how important streaming would be to the overall entertainment landscape. “Game of Thrones” has been HBO’s biggest show almost since it premiered in 2011 and it’s hard to imagine what the network will be like without its flagship program going forward. In a way all three of these brands will face the same problem when the dust settles and “the end” has come and gone. What is “Star Wars” without a Skywalker? Can the Marvel universe still soar without Robert Downey Jr. at the helm? And will there ever be a show like “Game of Thrones” again? There’s no way to know. For now, though, fans and executives can just sit back over the next year and enjoy the final lap.