Significant spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night,” and for Avengers: Endgame.
Heading into last weekend, we were expecting a lot of big, meaningful pop-culture deaths. Avengers: Endgame threatened to kill off some major Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, as the franchise opened up to new sequels and spinoffs. A lot of Game of Thrones characters we’ve seen grow up over eight years were also on the line, as they faced a seemingly endless army of the undead, with the battlefield clearing for one final ruler of Westeros. Only one of these stories actually delivered on those expectations, though, while the other served up just half of the promise.
While Marvel fans must say goodbye for the moment to Black Widow, Iron Man, Captain America, Loki, and a host of villains, Game of Thrones fans are bidding adieu to a much longer list of minor characters. The biggest deal is Theon Greyjoy, but he received enough closure that it feels like the right time to let him go.
But most of Game of Thrones’ main characters survived an impossible situation. Several people did die in “The Long Night,” but most of the leads survived near-death experiences. Arya, Brienne, and Samwell all go down under a wave of wights, but survive. Daenerys is mobbed by the undead and falls off her dragon, surrounded by zombies, armed only with a dagger. For once, she looks vulnerable, yet Jorah swoops in and sacrifices his life for her. Then there’s Jon Snow, who survives a face-off with the Night King and a lot of fiery blue-breath close calls from undead Viserion. Jon was just about to attempt to kill Viserion, armed with nothing more than his vocal cords, when Arya saved the day.
So we were left with an interesting role-reversal last weekend. Normally, comic books and comic book movies are famous for their wish-fulfillment fantasy, where the heroes always win, no one dies except the occasional sidekick or girlfriend, and even death is usually temporary. But Endgame went a different direction, with the deaths of some major characters, and the seemingly permanent retirement of another. This was a weekend where a comic book movie got dark and introspective, while the supposedly super-grim, super-adult Game of Thrones left its characters looking awestruck at their newfound dumb luck, as all their undead foes shattered into harmless ice cubes or collapsed into stinky heaps.
That’s all a little ironic, given that Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin was heavily influenced by Marvel’s early work, and it had a significant influence on him forming the aesthetic that made Game of Thrones so serious about death in the first place. Martin has regularly spoken about how meaningful Marvel was for him, especially after Stan Lee took the helm. One of Martin’s biggest non-Game of Thrones projects was even a long-running superhero franchise, including a character he loosely based off Spider-Man.
Days after Lee died last year, Martin wrote a blog post describing Lee as a pioneer of a new state of comics, who added more dimension to tropes that audiences were already familiar with: “The heroes were not all good, the villains were not all bad. The stories had twists and turns, I could not tell where they were going. Sometimes good guys fought other good guys. The characters grew and changed.” (All of which sounds exactly like the dynamic Martin has always labored to bring to Game of Thrones.) Peter Parker had multiple girlfriends like a real teenager; by contrast, DC’s Superman was always dating Lois Lane.
With Martin’s fandom in mind, it’s no wonder that his shared superhero-like world of Wild Cards, conceived and written with a group of cohorts, included many callbacks to Marvel comics. At the same time, those books have been much darker than Marvel comics, with heavy narrative use of rape, torture, maiming, systemic oppression and abuse, and above all, death. The story kicks off when an alien virus spreads across the world, killing 90 percent of those who contract it, while granting superhuman abilities to 1 percent, and disfiguring the other 9 percent. This was a direct hit at comic-book origin stories, where as Martin described it: “X was hit by a lightning bolt, Y stumbled on a crashed alien spaceship… any one of these would be a wondrous occurrence all by itself, and when you pile wonder upon wonder upon wonder you strain the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.”
Just like Martin made the superhero themes deeper and darker in his reimagining of a world where superpowers exist, Lee made the Marvel comics better with his depth and breadth of characterization — and his willingness to let characters die, even if death always seemed temporary.
As Martin told the podcast The Sound of Young America in 2011, one of his favorite Marvel Comics issues involved the introduction and subsequent death of the hero Wonder Man, and it stayed with him for years. “I loved the fact that he died. And although I liked the character in later years, I wasn’t so thrilled when he came back, because that sort of undid the power of it.” While Martin probably would have taken issue with the easy undoing of Infinity War’s major deaths with a snap of the Infinity Gauntlet, the fact that the snap had a heavy cost evens out the score.
Reading Lee’s comics in high school paved the way for Martin to write the Song of Ice and Fire series in 1996, and it was the desire to keep character deaths permanent, or at least consequential, that made Martin willing to kill even the most beloved characters. Seeming series protagonist Ned Stark was executed in the first book, and then Martin wrote the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords, orphaning the Stark children and leaving them to fend for themselves. Even though Catelyn Stark is later resurrected in the books, and Beric Dondarrion comes back repeatedly, these zombified versions of the characters have lost significant parts of their humanity, and have been mutilated by death. In the same 2011 interview, Martin explains: “My characters who come back from death are worse for wear. In some ways, they’re not even the same characters anymore. The body may be moving, but some aspect of the spirit is changed or transformed, and they’ve lost something.”
That authorial stance is what makes the show’s divergence from the books even more striking, now that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have taken over writing. In season 6, when Jon Snow is resurrected from the undead, he comes back relatively unchanged. He has scars where he was stabbed and he’s now relieved from the Night’s Watch, but his personality and demeanor are the same. And now in “The Long Night,” the primary characters somehow escape an unending wave of the dead, and the foregrounded deaths are almost entirely from comparatively minor characters, including Melisandre, Lyanna Mormont, and Edd Tollett. By contrast, Avengers: Endgame is built on dozens of Marvel films where we’ve come to know and love the characters, so all deaths of these pivotal leads feel extremely significant.
Game of Thrones is clearly saving many of those characters for a final confrontation — Endgame could afford to kill major characters because it represented a major ending, while Game of Thrones still has a few episodes and a major war ahead of it. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Night King’s attack has been foreshadowed for seven seasons and billed as the biggest battle in TV history, and in the end, it wasn’t all that devastating in terms of the characters the audience loves. The emotional significance of Martin’s work — the things he learned in part from Marvel, the impact reflected in Endgame’s boldest choices — is missing from the showrunners’ original material, and so are the shocking reveals. When Edd fell in “The Long Night,” it wasn’t so much a powerful death as a sense of “Well, okay, who’s next?” With the bulk of the fallen characters being unnamed Dothraki and Unsullied, Arya killing the Night King felt a little less satisfying and significant. The stakes seemed high going into the battle, but in the end, they weren’t — not for the characters who matter most.
Perhaps this is masochism, but Game of Thrones has thrived on emotional send-offs, and deaths can give an epic battle a purpose and a greater meaning. That’s why Iron Man’s sacrificial Gauntlet snap in Endgame doesn’t feel as easy as Arya’s Night King kill, and why it could have more staying power in the cultural moment. It feels like an ending that means something, that caps a significant life with a meaningful death. Death in a hero narrative can have an incredible emotional impact, and ignoring it makes a story feel less real. As Melisandre tells Grey Worm in “The Long Night,” “All men must die.”