Spoiler warning: If you’re not caught up on Game of Thrones and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you should avoid this article for now.
It’s the end of an era — but can our favorite franchises stick the landing?
After seven seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones and 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, the two unprecedentedly successful franchises are coming to a close this spring. Game of Thrones: Season 8 and Avengers: Endgame are all but guaranteed to draw millions of viewers and their studios are already reaping the benefits.
Unfortunately, the satisfying finales their loyal fans deserve could be be bungled, as both Thrones and Endgame appear primed to rely on time travel to drive home their conclusions.
Since mid-way through Season 6, Thrones has slowly rolled out the soothsaying abilities of Bran Stark The Three-Eyed Raven, using his “warging” to explain past events from the franchise and occasionally hinting that he might hold the key to ending The Long Night. In other terms, time is fungible in Bran Land.
But time travel is a slippery and often problematic storytelling device, with a sordid history of irreparably destabilizing otherwise great movies and series. And in these two franchises, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The realities of taking on non-linear storytelling, particularly when that story is already in motion, are intimidating — and infinite.
Breaking your own story’s time travel logic
When writers create a time travel mechanism for use in their stories, there’s way more to consider than who is going back, to when, and in what 1980s two-door.
As nearly any sci-fi fan can tell you, one wrong move in the world of time travel and an otherwise compelling story can become rife with confusing, frustrating, and world-breaking paradoxes.
For starters, time travel can vary substantially universe to universe, fundamentally altering what does and does not “make sense” in any given world. As Vox detailed in this truly killer Bran Stark explainer, not all time travel is the same. Blur the lines between different types and a blizzard of bizarre contradictions and metaphysical puzzles can follow, leaving viewers puzzled and sometimes furious.
For example: When a timeline structure has been selected, writers need to decide if past versions of characters can interact with their time-traveling doubles, and the repercussions they will face for breaking the rules. (Vague warnings like “You’ll cease to exist!” are often used as catch-all consequences with little explanation.)
Additional impediments, such as “You can only time travel if you use this magical telephone booth” or “You can only decade jump on your birthday,” are often layered atop that structure to make the story unique.
Logical inconsistencies can become so irritating, even the most dedicated audiences will abandon cherished characters.
After all that creative legwork is complete, storytellers must then steadfastly ensure that they don’t allow their characters to shrug off the guidelines and create plot holes as the story develops. But that can be so tricky. (Looking at you, Looper, The Lake House, Doctor Who, and so many more.)
Creators face enormous narrative pressure to reward fans: In Endgame, we want the Avengers alive and well. In Game of Thrones, we want Bran to do something (read: anything) useful in the fight for the Iron Throne. Unfortunately, the desire of creators to fulfill those wishes — to satisfy fans — often encourages them to upend the necessary constraints on their time travel narrative.
When time travel rules go by the wayside, logical inconsistencies can become so irritating, even the most dedicated audiences will abandon cherished characters. Beloved genre staples Back To The Future and The Terminator felt that consequence all too intensely, as franchise sequels left their original storylines in disrepair and longtime fans with serious headaches.
So while time travel can solve some narrative troubles, it can also unleash a whole new pack of problems.
Not going back to fix things that deserve fixing
In addition to losing track of timeline logistics, creators often struggle to maintain the emotional consistency and realism of their characters within time travel frameworks.
It’s probably safe to assume that Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the dozen other A-list heroes lost to Infinity War aren’t going to stay dead for all of Endgame. After all, they are Marvel’s most valuable kind of intellectual property.
But if our heroes are revived via time travel, as many fans are theorizing, then why wouldn’t they double back to fix other heartbreaking events from the MCU’s history?
King T’Chaka could be saved from the Vienna bombing. Cap and Peggy could reunite. Star-Lord’s mom could get the life-saving treatment she deserved. What’s keeping the Avengers from slowly undoing every single part of this 22-film rigmarole to resolve the personal tragedies of their past?
For Thrones fans, similar issues exist. It’s clear that Bran has at least some influence on the past’s manifestation in present reality. Case in point: Hodor’s metaphysical origin story that left fans weeping “Hold the door!” for the latter half of Season 6.
It’s much more likely that we will get hollowed-out versions of characters we love.
And while the realities of warging seem to preclude Bran from consciously and purposefully altering the past — there’s no indication he’ll be undoing the Red Wedding anytime soon — it raises the question: If Bran was even the accidental cause of some of the horrors we’ve seen, why did he cause those things? And more importantly, why isn’t he making any effort to reverse them?
While real narrative obstacles, such as the limitations of Bran’s warging and something like the Infinity Stones being destroyed, could (and likely will) exist to prevent characters from fulfilling these impulses and consequently unraveling every past event in their franchise’s history, creators would still need to dedicate screen time to their failed pursuits in order to maintain a certain level of character depth.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem likely. As a character, Bran makes less and less sense as the story goes on — an unfortunate flaw that (at present) doesn’t seem to be getting fixed before the series’ end. For Endgame, with just three hours to wrap-up Marvel’s massive Avengers storyline, creators might not have the real-estate to flesh out the tortured inner narratives of each of their many heroes.
Sadly, it seems more probable that we will get hollowed-out versions of characters who won’t resonate particularly well emotionally, but whose actions won’t interfere with the integrity of the films’ overarching story either.
Leaving too many dangling details
In terms of aggressive fanbases who pick apart details, Thrones and MCU fans are some of the most impressive. As such, the creators of each project ought to proceed with extreme caution when it comes to time travel.
Time travel stories are a breeding ground for wild fan theories, and that can certainly be plenty of fun. (For example: Fan theories surrounding the 2010 movie Hot Tub Time Machine are surprisingly accessible today.)
What’s not so fun? Creators carelessly leaving a few tiny, yet contentious details within their narratives that fans will bicker about forever. Petty and bitter do not a happy fanbase make.
Can Thrones and Endgame pull this off?
It’s tricky to do time travel right, but that’s not to say it’s impossible.
Plenty of films, series, and video games have managed to crush the time travel premise. With proper planning, adequate budget, and creative support — resources both Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame have without question — our favorite franchises can nail their finales, and maybe even use the tricky structure to their advantage, filling in existing plot holes along the way.
It just won’t be easy — and without a Time Turner or DeLorean handy, there’s no second chance at the perfect ending.