Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame.
Is it fair to compare Avengers: Endgame, the three-hour culmination of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe as we’ve so far known it, and this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, an 82-minute installment that tracked the Battle of Winterfell and the final showdown with the Night King, which fans of the show have awaited with giddy dread for more than seven seasons?
I don’t know if it’s fair or not; my sense of fairness has been degraded by what happened to the Dothraki at the beginning of “The Long Night.” But after experiencing and then marinating on the specific epicness of Endgame, it was hard to watch Game of Thrones and not consider the two side by side, especially since both feature a significant, large-scale, fate-determining battle (and at least one major character with the last name Stark). Considering how many people saw the Avengers movie over the weekend — based on the box-office returns, that would be everyone in the whole world, and possibly a few that haven’t been born yet — I probably wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines.
As most reviews and audience responses attest, Endgame is a satisfying experience, one that’s cathartic, extremely mindful of the history that has preceded it, and that wraps up this era of Marvel cinematic storytelling with a sense of pleasing closure. Endgame has a responsibility to bring the franchise’s narrative to a final resting place, whereas “The Long Night,” the third out of the six concluding episodes of Game of Thrones, does not. Its endgame is still a few episodes away.
What both share are major fight sequences with incredibly high stakes and formidable villains. In Endgame, that’s Thanos and his army, who are determined to reclaim the Infinity Stones that the Avengers managed to acquire through time travel — which, for the 80th time, doesn’t work like it does in Back to the Future, and don’t ask any further questions about how it does work at this time! In Game of Thrones, that villain is the Night King and his endless sea of White Walkers, who have eyes as blue as Cillian Murphy’s but the brains and bods of zombie extras.
There are plenty of common denominators between both of these battles. First of all, they are enormous: Every hero from every MCU film and just about every major character who’s still alive on Game of Thrones show up for these throwdowns. The Winterfell one wins out on running time since it took 55 days to shoot and the entire episode is devoted to it, making it the longest battle sequence ever captured on film. Each also contains the death of a significant male figure, whose lifeless body is wept upon by a blond woman (Jorah Mormont and Daenerys Targaryen in “The Long Night”; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in Endgame). They also both involve so much movement, so many cuts, and so much action unfolding in different places that it can be challenging to keep track of what’s happening.
This is frequently the case in major war-style scenes in CGI-heavy films and television. The combination of the sweep and the swift edits in these kinds of sequences often makes them hard to track. Large portions of the battle of Winterfell were made doubly difficult to follow because they happened in the dead of night, which meant the lighting was especially dark. My colleague Kathryn VanArendonk weighed in two years ago on the general darkening of contemporary television, and it’s gotten to be more of a problem since then. My eyesight is not what it used to be, but still: If I’m watching a show on a 50-inch television, I should be able to at least have a basic feel for who’s stabbing whom. At one point, I felt the urge to activate the flashlight app on my phone, reach into my TV screen, and hand the damn thing to Jon Snow.
I was less disoriented during the mega Endgame sequence. They kept the lights on, plus it was edited with more clarity. But I still found myself tuning out at certain moments during what should have been an edge-of-the-seat portion of the movie. That’s because, even in the best-case scenarios, these kinds of expensive, visual effects–y big ol’ battles tend to all feel the same. Apart from the emotional moments embedded in them, they feel blurry instead of clear, narratively mushy instead of tight, and in the case of Game of Thrones, cast in heavy shadow instead of enlightening. Honestly, if you’re considering action sequences that aired on HBO last night, the hand-to-hand martial-arts stuff in this week’s stellar episode of Barry is much more engaging. Obviously its scope is infinitely smaller, but that’s why those Barry scenes work. I can tell who is kicking, punching, or nunchuck-ing, and I’m much more invested in the outcome because of it.
That being said, the Game of Thrones and Endgame battles lean in pretty hard to their saddest moments, and that helps them land with more oomph. Even when all the dueling gets confusing, these conflicts never seem meaningless because the lead-up to their endings, and the losses along the way, are given real weight.
Game of Thrones does achieve something that Endgame does not, though: It delivers a truly thrilling “hell yeah!” surprise when, just as the Night King seems poised to kill Bran, the recently devirginized Arya Stark leaps out of nowhere, tries to knife him unsuccessfully, then manages to recover her special dagger and take him out, along with all of his other icy zombie toadies. I wasn’t watching the episode in a theater, but if I had been, I am certain every single person in every single overpriced, reserved, reclining stadium seat would have applauded.
While it’s great when another Stark — Tony — gets his hand on the Infinity Stones and does his conflict-ending snap in Avengers: Endgame, it isn’t nearly as surprising as that Arya act of courage. Arya has been training her whole life to be able to slice into a bad guy and save everyone in Winterfell, so one could argue that her part in ending that war isn’t such a shock either. But honestly — and maybe this is an item in the pro column for how disorienting the battle was — I wasn’t exactly sure where she was when the Night King approached Bran, so I really wasn’t expecting her to save the day. It also was admittedly satisfying to see a young woman put a decisive fork in a struggle that appeared unwinnable. (All that dragon fire didn’t kill that mofo? He’s an Ice King. He’s supposed to freaking melt.) The closest Endgame comes to that kind of galvanizing sense of girl power is when all of its female heroes assemble for a nice wide shot that celebrates these women without actually having them do much. The charge I got from seeing Arya slay made me realize that sort of electrifying, “I did not see that coming” moment is what’s missing from the otherwise enjoyable Endgame.
Am I saying Game of Thrones is better than Avengers: Endgame? No, not exactly. But I am saying that all blockbuster-level pop culture should take notes from these supersized battle sequences and remember two important things: (1) Keep things somewhat simple, not to mention visible, and (2) all the CGI in the world isn’t nearly as thrilling as a young woman leaping to the rescue with a dagger she knows exactly how to handle.