A decade of fantasy and superheroes

Game of Thrones and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe are 2010s icons

Every decade is defined by certain cultural elements.

There was the British Invasion of the 1960s, then disco and Blaxploitation cinema in the early ’70s. These are tied to the political and social landscapes of their day as well as the structures and trends in their various industries.

In 30 years, when people throw 2010s nostalgia parties, they would be woefully incomplete without reference to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Both of these properties reach their respective climaxes this April with Avengers: Endgame premiering April 26 and the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones on April 14.

A decade has been defined by these franchises and the world has certainly been affected by them.

The MCU and the corresponding wave of superhero films began in 2008 with Iron Man and, arguably, The Dark Knight.

Since 2008, the MCU has had 21 films which have been immensely popular worldwide with a global box office of US$18.4 billion.

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, is an HBO medieval fantasy series depicting the conflicts between various families over the iron throne, dragons and ice zombies included, and premiered April 17, 2011.

Adapted from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books which have has become the second best-selling epic fantasy series after The Lord of the Rings with over 90 million copies sold worldwide.

The Game of Thrones final season approaches with season seven regularly drawing in over 10 million viewers and garnering 38 Emmy Awards, second only to Saturday Night Live’s Emmy wins. Episode budgets have grown from US$6 million to US$15 million.

What is the point of this?

It is important to understand what our culture is valuing, consider the effects it has had on us and how we got here.

The MCU’s influence on the industry was immediate once 2012’s The Avengers proved the validity of a cinematic shared universe. The rival DC Extended Universe has had mixed results and several other ongoing franchises, such as Godzilla/King Kong or The Conjuring, have attempted to bring together various independent movies into an ongoing universe.

The 2008 financial crisis, the U.S.’s war on terror and American presidencies all hang over the cultural zeitgeist. Given the content of films like Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, MCU’s films are not mere escapism.

What does the popularity of Game of Thrones imply? It continues the success of period political dramas such as HBO’s Rome or The Tudors. Does it simply offer the high fantasy fix we’ve missed since The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King?

Game of Thrones has often been cited as an only slightly exaggerated reflection of European history and Machiavellian power politics. Concepts such as Realpolitik, hard and soft power and political legitimacy have all been reflected from various perspectives throughout the series.

The books’ and show’s excessive use of nudity, sexual violence and female objectification has often come into conflict with feminist themes of empowered warrior women and politically shrewd queens, a debate that will likely remain ongoing. Regardless, men and woman watch the show in roughly equal numbers.

Game of Thrones’ labyrinthine power politics has always been an intentional parallel. The original inspiration for the books was a high fantasy retelling of the 15th century Wars of the Roses and a deconstruction of fantasy tropes where heroes win and evil is defeated.

The main arc of the series where immediate political conflicts over status and wealth distract from larger and more devastating threats seems all too real for our current political and ecological landscape. Author George R. R. Martin has confirmed it as an allegory for climate change, even when writing the books in the 1990s.

The Cato Institute held a panel after Game of Thrones’ seventh season in which panelists discussed the series’ allegories and themes of intellectual monopolization, economic stagnation and even nuclear strategy. Multiple real-world politicians have been compared to Game of Thrones characters on numerous occasions.

April will bring a watershed moment in the entertainment industry. Both the MCU and Game of Thrones have had an immense impact on our wider culture and reach a long-awaited finale, however, this will not be the end.

Phase four of the MCU films continue in production. A Game of Thrones spinoff series has been in the works under the tentative title The Long Night.  

Game of Thrones and the MCU have had a marked effect on our entertainment industry.

Blockbusters are bigger and more spectacular and our television dramas are more labyrinthine and violent.

These are big, sweeping stories populated with characters that we care about, providing entertainment while holding up a mirror to our current reality.