GAME OF THRONES Season 8 and AVENGERS: ENDGAME marked a conclusion to two of the decade’s biggest entertainment narratives. They were serialized popcorn spectacles in the purest sense, uniting various story threads and characters across vast geographical distances for an epic conclusion. For fantasy and comic book fans alike, these franchises signified the rise of nerd culture as a mainstream juggernaut, rather than a niche market.

Reception to their finales, however, could not have been further apart. AVENGERS: ENDGAME has been a glowing success, ending the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interconnected 11-year saga with one last mission for the original Avengers. Working alongside survivors of Thanos’ snap, they sought to reclaim the Infinity Stones and revive everyone whom Thanos had turned to dust. Despite the occasional timey-wimey moment, the result was a satisfying conclusion to heroes whom we’ve followed over the course of 20+ films.

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First Time in Space? Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

GAME OF THRONES, on the other hand, went the way of LOST and MASS EFFECT 3. Criticism of its final season culminated in a series finale botched by shoddy character development and rushed storytelling. Whether or not an extra two to four episodes could have redeemed it is debatable, but, as it stands, the season has proved incredibly polarizing. The backlash has been… interesting to say the least. So the question remains: WHAT made one story successful and the other disappointing? ENDGAME had 3 hours to nail its story, while THRONES had at least ten, but only one feels more complete. So it’s not just the amount of time given to these stories that made all the difference. It’s how the narratives utilize their characters to make the stories work.

We Are In the ENDGAME Now

What made the Marvel Cinematic Universe special wasn’t flashy action scenes or CGI suits of armor. It was how each individual storyline gradually developed into a series of characters who, up until 2008, no one really cared for. The intimate conversations, the polarizing political views, the clashing of egos — all of these dialogue moments made Marvel heroes feel like fleshed out people. Hence why everyone’s favorite moment in AGE OF ULTRON wasn’t any battle against robotic drones, but rather a house party where everyone jokingly tries to lift Thor’s hammer.

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Party Time with the Avengers: Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Even with the first IRON MAN’s success, it wasn’t until THE AVENGERS that this franchise became a pop culture phenomenon. ENDGAME was the phenomenon’s logical conclusion, following the Avengers in the wake of their greatest defeat and asking “How will we get ourselves out of this?” The answer is to use time travel to collect the Stones during the franchise’s earliest moments. But, like most of their inclusion in the MCU, the stones are little more than cosmic MacGuffins to drive the plot forward.

ENDGAME’s emotional weight comes after seeing the primary team adapt to decimation’s fallout. Some characters abandoned the fight altogether, like Tony Stark leaving to raise his daughter with Pepper. Some overcame their inner flaws, like Bruce Banner and Hulk merging into one consciousness, while others, like Hawkeye and Thor, sunk into depression and rage. The fallout and character drama drove the spectacle, rather than the other way around.

Who Gets the Iron Throne?

Controversial opinion: I thought GAME OF THRONE’s eighth season was alright. The first three episodes were good, four and five were problematic, and the series finale was just fine. But even I can admit its character development felt either lacking or confusing. A lot of this has to do with the shift from political drama to fantasy spectacle.

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Wildfireworks: Spectacle with Payoff, Courtesy of HBO

Don’t get me wrong, GAME OF THRONES has done spectacle moments before, usually in the penultimate episodes of each season. But those moments usually followed extensive socio-political decisions with unintended consequences. Ned Stark’s death, the Red Wedding, the Battle of Blackwater — the shock and spectacle that worked because the season built up their fallout. They were the ironically bloody levity of a narrative driven by intersecting characters all vying for the same political power. The Iron Throne was little more than a symbol of this power.

But as the show overtook George R.R. Martin’s books, show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss found themselves in a tough situation. All they had to go on was a series of big plot points that would eventually become part of his (still unpublished) future books. So the plot points became the focus of Season 6 onward, prioritizing action and shock over political decisions. Characters did things because the story needed to get them to a certain place. Not necessarily because it was in-character for them to do so.

Mother of Dragons Did WHAT?

Due to the shift in focus, personal drama in GAME OF THRONES Season 8 never made sense. In theory, it should have. Daenerys brings in an army to help Jon Snow fight the White Walkers. They defeated the Army of the Dead. Dany moves on to King’s Landing to defeat Cersei, only to prove herself no different as an authoritarian ruler. Jon Snow, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, kills her to ensure more destruction doesn’t come to pass. Sounds almost Shakespearean.

Courtesy of HBO

But everything after episode 2 fails to make us understand why things play out as they did. Was defeating the White Walkers really as easy as stabbing the Night King? Why would Jamie rush back to Cersei immediately after his redemption arc and share a knighting moment with Brienne? Why didn’t Cersei just crossbow Dany and Tyrion when they were right outside the gates of King’s Landing? And of course, why would Daenerys go full Mad Queen after King’s Landing’s forces surrendered to her army? The logic feels contrived, rather than natural.

There’s a reason one of my favorite moments from Season 8 was when Tyrion, Brienne, Jamie, Sir Davos, and other characters were sitting by the fire. It’s a quiet moment of reflection accumulated from their decisions across seven epic seasons. Whatever their differences, they’re united by a common goal to protect Westeros from an icy force of nature. It’s a moment that builds upon the franchise’s past narratives and feels earned, rather than forced.

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Knighting Brienne of Tarth, Courtesy of HBO

Foreshadowing consequential behavior is not the same as good character development. If you can’t understand why a character does something, then you’ve unwittingly missed part of the story. Without that missing chapter, what we see on screen feels rushed or convoluted.

ENDGAME: A Time Heist

By comparison, ENDGAME’s “time heist” decisions have a certain logic. Even if you don’t like how a scene plays out, you can at least understand why a hero goes that route. It’s a testament to how far the franchise has grown in scope and ambition since the first IRON MAN. Thor’s emotional breakdown after discovering his mother in 2013? It gave the character closure after countless in-universe sacrifices sent him down the path of dad-bod alcoholism and grief.

Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’ pitstop to a 1970s military base? It’s a chance for Steve to reminisce on his lost future with Peggy Carter while Tony makes peace with his father. Even something as silly as Professor Hulk’s struggle to smash shows that Banner’s insecurities no longer define his actions.

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Professor Hulk, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

There is a payoff for these character moments. Black Widow’s death concludes her transition from espionage loner to hero willing to sacrifice everything for her newfound family. When Peter Parker comes back from his dusting, Tony’s first instinct is to hug him, finally accepting their father/son bond. Captain America, the hero out of time, finally gets his closure by remaining in the past after completing his Infinity Stone return mission.

It’s tragic to see Steve as an old man, but heartwarming when you realize he finally got that date with Peggy. We don’t see these moments when Jon tragically kills Daenerys, or when Brann shockingly becomes the new King of Westeros. More emphasis was spent on having characters do things rather than explaining why they happened in the first place. Nowhere was this more forceful than Daenerys’ moment of madness, which came at the fandom like wildfire whiplash.

How GAME OF THRONES Comparisons…. Assemble

I’d like to compare two big scenes from ENDGAME and GAME OF THRONES to emphasize my point. Captain America’s long-awaited “Avengers Assemble” vs. Daenerys unleashing her dragon on King’s Landing’s citizens in ‘The Bells.’ Both moments stem from the hyping of expectations, speculating about an outcome that has been hinted at for years.

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Give me an “A,” Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

We WANT Cap to say “Avengers Assemble” because 1. It’s the team’s trademark battle cry and 2. They cut him off in AGE OF ULTRON’s final scene. We’ve heard GAME OF THRONES discuss the Targaryen madness as something that every Westeros citizen should fear. However heroic Dany’s actions were, the show always framed them with darker undertones that hinted at a self-centered claim of divine right.

So when Captain America, surrounded by legions of revived heroes, finally says those two words, it feels cathartic. Writers have gathered the ultimate comic book brawl ever assembled for the film, an image that feels like a two-page spread coming to life. The heroes have hope again, a hope that they can use to defeat past Thanos for good. THAT makes the line feel like a true call to arms.

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Hail the Mad Queen?, Courtesy of HBO

But Dany’s madness provokes the opposite reaction because we don’t see the transition. Yes, she lost loyal allies and a dragon throughout this season, as well as suffering betrayal from loyal advisors. But to jump from that logic to murdering innocent civilians completely ignores her underlying moral theme — to free Westeros from tyranny? The show never built anything up to suggest she would go down this path in the first place.

ENDGAME and GAME OF THRONES’ Legacies

What is the essence of a strong finale? It’s seeing characters you’ve become attached to for years conclude their arcs in a manner true to the overarching journey. No matter how many story threads there are, a viewer will feel closure if they cohesively tie together. While I didn’t hate GAME OF THRONES’ finale, the show-runners clearly prioritized getting their characters to the finish line over how they got there at all.

This likely was a struggle for Benioff and Weiss. They had already deviated far from the books by the time Season 8 was in production, giving THRONES a little leeway compared to the MCU’s expansive narrative. The Russo Brothers could go in whatever direction they wanted simply by borrowing from decades of comic books. The GAME OF THRONES guys had an unfinished transcript and had to write in everything between the last book and Martin’s destined conclusion.

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State of the GoT Fandom, Courtesy of HBO

But the audience notices when a writer cuts character development to get from Scene A to Scene B. Fans could tell that AVENGERS: ENDGAME stayed true to its enormous character roster without sacrificing their past development for the sake of spectacle. GAME OF THRONES once had those intimate moments — they are, after all, what made 90% of the show so damn compelling. But by raising the stakes at the expense of mishandling the story arcs, the result was an ending that many deemed unsatisfying. That’s the tragic juxtaposition of AVENGERS: ENDGAME and GAME OF THRONES Season 8. One franchise stuck its landing to thunderous applause. Another went in with so much potential and resulted in mass divisiveness. Onto the next epic cultural phenomenon.

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