As afternoon blended into evening this past Saturday, hours after the networks called the presidential election for Joe Biden, I first saw “America: Endgame” and finally lost my mind. The concept was simple: a video remix of the big fight from the end of the last Marvel Studios movie, Avengers: Endgame, in which the Avengers are prominent Democrats, the baddies are prominent Republicans, and Thanos is Trump. But it was so intricate. There were dozens upon dozens of characters to account for, and the choices of which fictional figure to associate with each real-life person were either shocking or shockingly appropriate. I’ll fully admit that my first response was to assume it was a turducken parody of the sorts of memes that equate politicians with superheroes, so I was stunned to learn, an hour or two later, that it had been made in earnest.
In the days after it appeared online, the video was subsequently posted approvingly by the likes of LeBron James, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Aniston, Kathy Griffin, and Mark Hamill, among many others. It has tens of millions of views across Facebook and Twitter and is etched in the memories of all who watch it, whether they liked it or not. But who could make such a fascinating cultural artifact — a relic of our quar-brained isolation amid a never-ending election cycle? His name is John H. Piette, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and editor, and I caught up with him to find out how and why the thing was made.
Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of who you are?
I grew up sort of all over the world. I was born in Sweden, I grew up in Paris and London, and moved to the D.C. area when I was 7. Long story short, we ended up in Texas, and I went to film school at the University of Texas. I’ve always been a storyteller. I’ve always been attracted to film and theater. So it was a pretty straightforward path for me from film school to then working as a creative director and editor and videographer and writer in Austin for a couple of years. And then I moved to Los Angeles and lived there for almost a decade, from 2009 to 2017. I can’t go through all the stories, but I worked as a freelance editor and director. Then over the past two years, I moved to New York. I worked at the Dodo for a couple of years. I don’t know if you know what the Dodo is.
I don’t, really. Is it about endangered animals?
Not necessarily endangered animals. It’s actually more people’s pets and uplifting stories about rescue animals. I feel like the Dodo kind of primed me for understanding the magic concoction that you have to put together to make something viral.
What is that concoction?
Well, there are all kinds of analytics and techniques that go into it. But some of it is sort of antithetical to what I learned as a storyteller and a filmmaker. You kind of always have to grab them right at the beginning. You have to have something right at the top that’s just, Okay, I’m in. Y’know? You have to have a hook. And once you get past the hook, you need a kernel: What’s the idea that’s driving this whole thing? What’s keeping me here? I had a lot of viral videos working [at the Dodo]. Most recently, I made a video about my dog … that has almost 2 million views on YouTube and 10 million views on Facebook.
I used to be tasked with making viral videos for New York Magazine and Vulture a number of years ago, and there was nothing more frustrating for me than the fact that you really couldn’t predict what would take off.
Yeah, I relate to that. It’s an imperfect science. I don’t think it’s a good business model to try and chase viral videos. I don’t know that there’s an exact science to it. I think timing is very important. With “America: Endgame,” I wanted to spend much more time on it, but I knew time was kinda of the essence. So I was up all night. I mean, I started working on it about 4 p.m. Friday, and I stayed up all night and I finished it at, I think, around 7:30 a.m. I was getting delirious and just said, Stop. I wanted to put more heads in the background, cameos, but I got to the point where I was like, Okay, point of diminishing returns. Let’s get this thing out.
I’ll confess that I initially thought the video was a cynical joke, a parody of political memes. Was there a specific moment that led you to think about putting it together?
I think the moment was when it started to look like Georgia had some outstanding votes. It looked like Pennsylvania was gonna flip, but there would be a bunch of lawsuits there. But once it looked like Georgia was gonna flip, I was like, This is it. I mean, Stacey Abrams really delivered this state. I’m a big Marvel nerd, so I just kinda started looking at videos online, and I looked at that Avengers: Endgame scene, because I’ve probably watched that scene 100 times, y’know?
And the idea was earnest. Because it was happiness. It was just a raw happiness. I hate to admit it, but I think I was in a state of mild depression for four years about the state of the country, and I feel like I was sort of awakening from that. It is tongue in cheek, to an extent; I think it’s important not to take ourselves so seriously. But the main thing I was feeling was unity. Unity, unity, unity. It’s been such a bitter period in our politics, so I did kinda wanna be like, “Look, we won and we’re happy and this is a beautiful moment for America. But at the same time, let’s laugh, let’s heal, and let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we can’t listen to each other or think that we’re 100 percent right all the time.” So I think it was a mixture of both. But it was definitely earnest.
You say “we,” but it’s clear that the “we” here is people who voted for Biden. The forces of Trump are portrayed as the forces of evil. Do you think Republicans are evil?
I don’t see them as forces of evil. Trump, I think, unwittingly, is maybe a force for evil. But there’s obviously some truth to what he’s putting out there or channeling, because there’s a lot of people who support him, and, going forward, I want to understand what that is. But if I’m being honest, I think probably the biggest misrepresentation in the video is Trump being Thanos. I mean, they both have narcissism; they have the incessant need for power; they want a loyal following. But I think that’s where the comparison ends. I think Thanos is a much more enlightened, thoughtful individual than Trump. I don’t necessarily even think Thanos was coming from a place of evil. He didn’t think he was. I think it’s the same thing with Trump: It’s misguided narcissism and a thirst for power.
And no, I don’t think of the other side as evil. I spent a lot of time in Texas. I’m friends with people who voted for Trump.
What did your Trump-voting friends think of the video?
[Laughs.] Umm … y’know, I haven’t gotten into those conversations yet.
Have you always been very politics-conscious?
My family is very political. My mom’s actually been running for a local state representative seat for the past two cycles in a very red part of New Hampshire, so she never gets elected. But she always runs. Actually, that’s another part of the story: The only reason I really had the time to do this was because my mom just had a knee-replacement surgery. I’d been up in New Hampshire just being a nurse, and I just happened to bring my laptop. It’s an old 2014 laptop that had enough juice to crank out that video.
You did it on a laptop? They don’t have the computing power for a video this complicated.
I know. The whole time, I kept thinking, This would go faster if I had my iMac. But, yeah, I did it on my laptop with Photoshop and Adobe Premiere. I could’ve pulled in After Effects, but that would’ve been another daylong affair.
What was the hardest component to pull off?
It’s probably not what you think. The thing that really slowed me down was trying to find the right audio clips, especially … So there’s the moment in the movie where Falcon says, “On your left,” and Captain America turns around. And I wanted to put it together so Kamala Harris is saying the word “left.” And, for the life of me, I couldn’t find her saying that word. I spent hours looking at interviews of her. She’s supposedly the furthest-left senator in the Senate, so I thought, Surely, she’s said the word “left” sometime. And I found it in a Wolf Blitzer interview. That was the single hardest part of the whole video.
What was the context of her saying the word in the interview?
Okay, so, Wolf asks her about the impeachment process, and her literal words were, “We know it was a quid pro quo. What he did hasn’t left much to the imagination” — something like that. And I pulled the word “left” out of that.
What’s Sean Connery doing in the video?
Rocket Raccoon, that character, he was the only one I couldn’t figure out who I wanted to put there. And I’d left that to last. I did all the animation and thought I’d do that later. So by that time, I had to figure out who the hell Rocket Raccoon was gonna be. And I was delirious. But I am a big Sean Connery fan. I’m a big Bond fan. And I thought, Okay, he just passed away. Because those were the deceased kinda coming out of the grave, so to speak, I thought, He’s recently deceased. How funny would it be if the great RBG tamed him and he’s her pet, like on her shoulder? And he’s holding that gun kinda like his PT-7 in the same pose he does as Bond. So it kinda clicked: It’s gotta be Sean Connery, I’m sorry. And I know there’s a story about Donald Trump saying he was buddies with Sean Connery, but I think that’s a lot of hogwash.
There were some components people side-eyed on racial grounds, such as Andrew Yang playing Wong and Barack Obama playing Black Panther. Is that something you worried about while you were making it?
Umm … Yeah. I mean, like I said before, I knew there was a cheekiness to it. I didn’t wanna overthink it, you know what I mean? Wong is awesome, and Yang is awesome. I think Yang is 20 years ahead of his time.
What’s Obama doing in the Georgia portion? I don’t associate him with Georgia, specifically.
Yeah, so for that part, just the way that scene plays out, because you see Stacey Abrams and Keisha Lance Bottoms first. Like, they delivered the state. And Obama did go there one time. I believe he gave a speech in Atlanta. So he was kinda like that final, let’s-get-us-over-the-hump guiding force. And who else could Obama be but Black Panther? And, obviously, RIP Chadwick Boseman. That was a horrible tragedy. And so I thought it was a fitting tribute for Chadwick.
Why did you match up Bernie Sanders with Doctor Strange?
I think mostly because of the placement of Doctor Strange in the video. He’s the first one after the Wakandans that you see. And I really feel like, Bernie, we don’t talk about him as much because we’re afraid of the socialist label. But, I mean, he’s been such a powerhouse on the left. And because Doctor Strange is a doctor, I thought, Let me have him say his quote about, “I wrote the damn bill! Medicare for All!” Y’know? So it’s Doctor Medicare for All.
And you have Pete Buttigieg as Spider-Man. Was that the most obvious pick?
Yeah. That took no time at all. He’s the baby, so yeah.
Did you feel weird about having the dead people, like RBG, pop in at the end? Was it weird to be playing with the images of recently deceased people?
I don’t think I was worried about it. My prevailing thought, I think, was, People will be happy to see them here — that they’re still fighting the good fight.
Another moment that came up a lot, I think because people were confused — and even Mark Hamill tweeted about it — is the Hunter Biden part, where he’s Thor.
Of course. Tell me about that.
That part comes up a lot. And, honestly, I hate to say this, but that’s my favorite part of all the casting choices. The cigarette — that picture was what the right was using to peddle that laptop-controversy story. So that Thor character, in Endgame, he’s at a point where he’s suffering from addiction. He’s at his low point, y’know? And he’s struggling with his worthiness to be able to wield his weapons. And I think Hunter Biden — he’s been beaten up this whole campaign.
Perhaps my favorite part of the video is when you have the legions of Wakandans running through the portals and there’s text on top of them that just says “Mail-In Ballots.” I presume that was because you didn’t want to have to animate a bunch of little ballots, right?
Yes, yeah. Absolutely. The text was me saying, “This is a meme.”
Why did you feel the need to label the Supreme Court? I feel like people would know who those new justices are by now.
I don’t know. I felt like I had to. I was thinking, I’d better label this or it might look weird. Because they’re a three-headed monster and they’re on frame for just a couple of seconds. What I really wanted to do was have Don Jr. and all the minions charging, but I was way too tired to do that at that point, so I thought, Let me just have the Supreme Court and then Rudy Giuliani running out and then that’s it.
What’s the breakdown in the comments you’ve seen between people who earnestly love it and people who either hate it or only like it ironically?
I’ve probably just cracked the surface of the comments. There’s so many. But the overwhelming sentiment is: “This is so silly and crazy and emotional.” I think people start off laughing and end up crying. And then, once in a while, there’s a troll. “Just wait until Trump wins. You’re gonna eat your words.” Stuff like that. But I think one of my favorite comments, and I’d like to think it was a Trump supporter, was a comment to the effect of, “This makes me want to give up all hope.” I can imagine there are a ton of Trump supporters who are Marvel fans.
What’s been your favorite celebrity endorsement of the video?
What takes the cake for me, as a huge Star Wars fan, was Mark Hamill. When Mark Hamill was tweeting it, he had one tweet where he said, “The public has made me aware that this was done by John H. Piette. Well done, John.” And that brought me to tears because he’s Luke Skywalker.
Will you make more video remixes like this?
Yeah. The thought of that is really scary and daunting, because I don’t know how the heck I could possibly follow that. But I do feel like there’s something brewing. I’ve got a part two in mind that I’m kind of letting develop. But in the immediate future, I have some scripts that I’m developing. I have a documentary I’m working on. People have reached out to me for interesting editing work for nonprofit organizations and things I care about. We’ve got a Georgia Senate runoff coming up, so I’ll probably make another video for Jon Ossoff in the runoff. We’ll see. There might be an “America: Endgame Part II” coming. People wanna see Trump snap. We gotta dust him. He’s still there. He’s still fighting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.