“I don’t know about you, but I cried like six times.” That was Chris Evans at the Avengers: Endgame premiere describing his reaction to the movie. The man who plays Captain America isn’t alone. Audiences everywhere are getting emotional watching the epic ending to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity Saga. One woman in China even had to be hospitalized after the film for uncontrollable sobbing. After 11 years and 22 movies, it’s hard not to get choked up, especially since, even as the MCU continues, there are certain characters who have seemingly left for good.
And this mass pop culture mourning isn’t limited to Endgame. On Sunday, Game of Thrones fans will bid farewell to the series after eight seasons and years of anticipation. Just like the MCU, the world of Westeros will live on -- at least one spinoff is shooting this year. One way or another, we’ll be saying goodbye to the series as we’ve known it. If the show sticks the landing, the Game of Thrones finale is bound to be an emotional affair.
Making a Connection
While many fans debate the details of these pop culture behemoths' plots, for many of us, it’s our attachment to the characters that leads to our investment in their stories. After all, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Daenerys Targaryen and Arya Stark have graced our screens for years. After all that time, we feel a connection to them. These connections are what social scientists call parasocial relationships. Psychologists have found that, although parasocial relationships aren’t reciprocated, in a lot of ways they’re just like our real-life relationships.
It’s taken time for us to build parasocial relationships with the MCU and GoT characters. Some we liked right away, others we had to take time to get to know before we really appreciated them and some we just never clicked with. When we were really partial to a character though, each time we saw them on screen we cultivated our parasocial bonds with them more and more.
This may seem like an odd thing to do with a fictional character, but human beings are social animals. We’re hardwired to develop relationships when we’re presented with another individual, and that wiring kicks in whether the individual is real or not. After all, when we see Iron Man flying around in a suit of armor and saving the world, we know it’s an illusion but we perceive it as real. The same forces are at work when we cultivate a one-sided relationship with the character. We know the relationship is an illusion, but we experience it much like we do the real thing.
Part of the reason we perceive the MCU and Game of Thrones characters this way is because we see them in some of their most vulnerable, unguarded moments. As a result, there are things we know about them that we don’t know about many of the people in our real lives, even our best friends. That knowledge gives us an intimate familiarity with the characters that makes us feel close to them. It’s one reason we invest in their stories, but it also causes us to genuinely care about them. It makes them matter to us. So, our long history witnessing Sansa Stark’s journey helps us understand and appreciate her actions, and it also makes us care about what happens to her next.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
What happens when there is no next? That’s what fans are grappling with right now. We’ve already learned who the MCU lost in Endgame. Meanwhile, the bodies keep piling up on Game of Thrones. No matter who meets their fate next though, when the last episode unspools, we’ll have to deal with the loss of all the show’s characters. And the thing is, we’ll miss them. Fans won’t just move on and forget about them.
This has a basis in social science, too. Studies have shown that when we experience a parasocial breakup it actually feels a lot like a real-life loss. The emotional trajectory of the distress we feel is the same, although overall our emotions aren’t quite as intense. So, whether a character leaves because they were killed off or the series came to an end, we still grieve for them.
The funny thing is that, despite the sense of dread we may experience at the impending loss of our favorite characters, we also want them to have a good ending. This is something we hope for ourselves and the people we love in real life, too. As Tony Stark observes, “Part of the journey is the end.” That’s true for ourselves and it’s also true for our favorite characters.
So, at the same time that we mourn the loss of some of our favorite MCU characters after Endgame, we’re also exhilarated by the fact that their arcs came to a close in meaningful ways. Whether they died heroes or decided to grow old while enjoying the life they were previously denied, the conclusions of their stories were bittersweet. Their endings made us cry and we‘ll miss them, but we can also make peace with their losses because, for most of us, they felt right for the characters we’ve come to know and love.
Whether Game of Thrones can pull of a similar feat has yet to be seen. Regardless, it’s safe to say the show’s end will have an emotional impact. Luckily, even after the end comes, physical media and streaming video will let us revisit our favorite characters whenever we want, so we can always be reminded of the reason we loved them so much in the first place.
Game of Thrones stars Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister, Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister, Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark, Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Kit Harington as Jon Snow.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Avengers: Endgame stars Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Karen Gillan as Nebula, Danai Gurira as Okoye and Bradley Cooper as Rocket, with Gwyneth Paltrow Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, Benedict Wong as Wong, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Josh Brolin as Thanos.