A recent phenomenon in media criticism has been the idea of designating certain TV shows as extended movies, as seen with the claiming of “Twin Peaks: The Return” and “O.J.: Made In America” as not the episodic TV shows they were, but as “[blank]-hour movies.” So consider this a call for rebellion. “Avengers: Endgame” may have already made a billion dollars at the global box office this weekend, and it’s done so as a six-episode television show.
“Endgame,” the 22nd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is also its ultimate culmination to date, bringing together characters from every other preceding film for an epic-length effort to reverse the tragic ending of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It’s not just a season of television — it’s the final season of a TV show, a concept that doesn’t require any explanation because any pop-culture-savvy reader is also in the middle of another final season of a TV show. The final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is reaching the halfway point of its run, and the showrunners’ commitment to wrapping up character storylines led to an entire hour-long episode devoted to nothing but characters coming to a reckoning with each other (a choice that many loved but did prove polarizing).
“Endgame” has plenty of those character moments, but it also manages to structure its storytelling so that those moments are interspersed with plenty of action and plot twists. Episodic storytelling has always been a common approach to writing for film, but so rarely has there been such a clear case of a movie breaking down cleanly as a series of storytelling installments, with cliffhanger endings that would prove to be delightful torture for audiences watching week-to-week.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for “Avengers: Endgame.”]
Let’s play the game of “What if ‘Endgame’ had been episodes of a TV show,” because honestly, it works to the film’s benefit. First off, the events of “Endgame” split down with some relative amount of cleanliness into episodic blocks: The first segment focuses on the immediate aftermath of Thanos’ snap, ending with Thor losing his Thanos’ head, which leads perfectly to the “Five…Years…. Later…” reveal, which a figurative Episode 2 would end with Tony Stark’s reluctant discovery of how he could make time travel work.
Follow that up with another episode devoted to bringing the gang back together for, as Scott Lang puts it, a “time heist,” and then two episodes spotlighting individual Avengers as they try to fix the timeline…all of which definitely contribute to an ongoing narrative, but at the same time represent how vast this universe has become.
Beyond the manner in which the plot breaks down, “Endgame’s” relies on the audience having a level of pre-established familiarity with the characters and story is another way it emulates television. Much like “Star Trek” doesn’t feel the need to explain that the show takes in space, or “Friends” doesn’t feel it necessary to explain why these six attractive young people are hanging out together, “Endgame” reflects the idea of a lived-in universe, one that is bigger than just one installment.
Yet that’s why episodic storytelling is key: The idea of bringing together disparate worlds and continuities isn’t just an idle hobby for the folks at Marvel, but a core underpinning of how it’s built up individual brands as well as the overall franchise into such a juggernaut.
Key to that has been the characters, from icons like Captain America and Iron Man to initially obscure but now beloved folks like Rocket Raccoon and Gamora. Which is another way the franchise draws upon television’s best qualities to enrapture the audience: TV shows have always lived or died based on their characters. The most confusing narrative can be forgiven with the right level of affection for those onscreen (remember, “Lost” ran for six seasons); when you welcome someone into your home every week, it’s hard not to get attached.
Of course, that brings up the biggest reason why it might be argued that “Endgame” isn’t a season of television — it is, after all, a film playing in theaters. However, leaving aside the fact that it is a very long film, the fact is that the way in which binge culture has trained viewers to consume multiple episodes at a time makes the only big difference the fact that the viewer can’t pause a movie theater screening to go to the bathroom.
For media consumers, the past few years have been tumultuous as the rules about how we define the content we watch keep shifting. But I say embrace the chaos. Embrace the fact that both film and television are learning from each other and blurring the line between them. Embrace the fact that “Endgame” is a season of television — and is better for it.