From Game of Thrones to the MCU, why do we grieve when our favourite franchises end?

Anger, bargaining, acceptance.

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The scene: me, sobbing in my car, unable to drive because I can’t see through my tears. “It’s just...over?” I yell to no one in particular. Somebody watching might think that someone I loved had literally died, but this particular breakdown took place after I went to see Avengers Assemble in 2012.

If that seems dramatic: it was. My tears were in part because what I had just seen on-screen genuinely seemed unbelievable; there had never been a film like it. But I was also grieving for the loss of a franchise I had been so committed to, one that, as far as I knew, was over forever.

That turned out to be untrue – but with the release of Avengers: Endgame last week, the “Infinity Saga”, as it’s come to be known, is well and truly finished. Naturally, I sobbed so hard I gave myself a migraine – tears that started before the opening credits. Partly because of the events of the film itself, but mostly due to the anticipation of loss.

This is a very nerdy confession, but it isn’t entirely unusual. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, is an incredible feat. A sprawling, multi-film franchise that brought together even the most microscopic of events and characters to form one super superhero group over the course of 22 films and 11 years.

Most of the characters and stories in the films serve to build towards the four Avengers films, but it started modestly, with Iron Man in 2008. After that film's major success Marvel started to adapt the stories of other characters for their own standalone films, and the events of the first handful culminated in 2012 with Avengers Assemble. It’s now a pretty quaint film by the MCU’s standards, but at the time it felt like the culmination of our years of commitment. It was, in reality, only the beginning of a multi-billion dollar, sprawling story that had 16 (!) more films left in it. Marvel phase 4 will take some form – but it’s likely that we’ll never see some of these characters on our screens ever again. That, really, is it.

I, like many, have spent the last decade invested in these films. From the outside, they seem at best silly, or at worst a money-wringing scheme by Disney. Fair enough, the amount of time and energy I have devoted to these characters is real. Those making the films have made them real, too. They are superheroes, but their struggles are human; they battle with PTSD, with one another, with romantic issues, with grief, with familial abuse. At its heart The Avengers is about a rag-tag group of losers with traumatic pasts who found one another, and the narratives centre on their personal dramas.

I am not alone in my tears. If you aren’t afraid of spoilers and have trawled the Endgame tag on Twitter at any point over the last week, you’ll have found tons of people talking about their devastation. One fan was even hospitalised for “uncontrollable crying”. Diane, 21, told me she had “sobbing on the underground” and felt “devastated and empty” after the movie was over. She has never felt this way before, but was heavily invested over the last decade, and now feels that “a page has turned, my beloved characters are gone and I'll never live this again”.
Alma, 20, who said that for her it’s because “this has been such a journey to be on for the past 11 years”, especially for those like her who have have grown up with it. She says that she cried because, over the years that Marvel have been building up to this film, it’s been “a constant” in her life.

This kind of upset isn’t unique to the MCU: it’s likely that Game of Thrones fans will feel that similar sense of emptiness when their “thing” ends, too. When our weeks or years revolve around knowing that we’re going to watch a certain show or film, when we so look forward to trailers and cast news and titbits, it’s not so unusual that we’d feel an empty space when it’s over. The feeling isn’t unlike grief.

Psychotherapist Lisa Bahar told me that this reaction often comes because “when the characters are experiencing something that is relatable to the viewer, it can serve as a strong connection, whether it be unresolved trauma or fulfillment of fantasy”. The characters are designed to create a relationship with us – so “the deeper the relationship, the more intense the grief”. She goes as far as to say that when characters die (part of the grief with The Avengers) or a franchise ends, we may even go through the stages of grief – “including anger, bargaining, acceptance.” The “found family” aspect of the Marvel films, which can be reassuring to LGBT people, may intensify that.

Laurel Steinberg, a fandom expert, adds that “what also dies with that character is all of their potential unrealised future adventures”. People are left with “a potential space to fill with something that may or may not be as satisfying as what they had” she adds. “Without the possibility of engaging in their favourite activity, they may feel lost for what to do or even for what defines them.”

Psychiatrist Sue Varma believes that the reason we get so upset is because the heroes represent hope to us. “These characters have journeys not unlike our own. It’s a form of empathic mirroring”. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, a cultural historian and fandom expert, agrees, but places an emphasis on the escapism that becoming invested in these fictional worlds offers: “We are swept into another world for the time we are engaging with the media. Knowing that the hatch to that world is permanently shut because the show or movie has ended can feel like a loss –not necessarily because of the actual vehicle, but because that part of our life has ended.”

After the initial mourning period, the shock has worn off – but was it really healthy to be that upset in the first place? How far is too far? Sue tells me that our sense of self should never rely on one thing, while Lisa says that “if it is disrupting atypical day to day living, then there may be more to explore. The key is to find balance”. Jennifer adds that, “We all need escapism of some sort, and there are worse things to spend your time doing.”

It’s understandable that the ending of a franchise and the death of so many – too many – beloved characters would feel like real-life trauma, especially when none of us will ever be truly happy with how it ends. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you’ve dedicated nearly so far off 100 hours to it over the past eight years. If you loved Harry Potter, the final instalment came after 14 years of books and films. If the MCU is more your thing, then you’ve consumed 22 entire feature films over 11 years, which is pretty high commitment.

All this has been something to look forward to, to distract you from the drudgery; when it’s over, it’s just you and your actual life. You can re-watch the films as much as you want – but very little is ever likely to replicate the sheer joy of sitting in the cinema, watching it all come together, emotions swelling as you wonder exactly how everything will pan out.

Despite being extremely nerdy, it turns out that feeling of grief is actually quite normal. Not only that, but isn’t being so affected half of the fun of getting so invested in the first place?

Marianne Eloise is a freelance culture writer.