Game of Thrones' current series and Avengers: Endgame are the unavoidable blockbusters of the moment. They're already iconic artefacts of pop culture and our zeitgeist. Neither of them have Jewish characters, and neither, you might be forgiven for thinking, have consciously Jewish messages either. But that just means you haven't dug deep enough.
The evil supervillain of Marvel's Avengers: Endgame, the climax of 20 loosely related films, is named Thanos, which sounds like Thanatos, the ancient Greek god of death (and in his comic book genealogy, his brother is called Eros, the Greek personification of love). In the real world, "Thanos" is used as an abbreviation for the name Athanasios, which means its opposite - immortality.
At the end of the last movie, Infinity Wars, Thanos snapped his fingers, and one half of all living beings disappear. The disappeared seem to have been randomly selected, but it’s not as if they never existed; those left behind remember them.
In Episode 3 of this concluding season of Game of Thrones, The Long Night, which featured the 80-minute Battle of Winterfell, a fight to the death which had been brewing since the opening scene of Season One eight years ago.
It’s a war between the living and the dead, literally, the dead; it’s humanity vs. a zombie army commanded by popsicle-men on horseback, who have come to kill everyone in the Game of Thrones universe, recruiting them instantly to their legions.
Both Avengers: Endgame and The Battle of Winterfell are about good vs. evil, the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness, the stuff of adventure stories and romance since time immemorial. But the adversary in both of these epics is actually death; pitting life vs. death, the living vs. the dead, those who worship life vs. those who glorify death.
This is a quintessential Jewish dichotomy. Judaism celebrates life, not death: Jews don't believe that dying or suffering are forms of imitating God. Although Jews honor those who sacrificed themselves to save others, and martyrs who refused to renounce their beliefs, Jews don't make them the subject of devotion, nor aspire to become one of them. Being about the here and now, even our fantasies of the afterlife are sketchy, contested and underdeveloped.
- Jews, Survival and the Zombie Apocalypse
- Why 'Game of Thrones' Is the Perfect Gateway Drug to CNN (But Not Fox News)
- Not Only a Raging, Spitting, Fanatic: Depicting the Real Hitler on Screen Is Key to Identifying the Next One
- ‘Captain Marvel’: Too Small a Film for Its Feminist Super-heroine
Thanos, Marvel’s evil overlord, tells everyone in advance what his bizarre and arbitrary plan is; to murder half the people in the world. He believes it's a Malthusian imperative - to to save the other half from conflict brought on by scarce resources and overpopulation
My family walked out of Infinity Wars dazed by the loss of half of the beloved superheroes peopling the Marvel universe, but I could think only that we Jews know what that’s like to lose a huge percentage of our people. A half, a third – it was uncomfortable to think of an analogous annihilation used for entertainment fodder.
We also know what it’s like when an evil mastermind announces his bizarre and murderous intentions, spends years getting the firepower needed, and then implements his program.
As Endgame begins, the loss of loved ones is individualized when a superhero’s wife and children suddenly vanish, and by tracking shots which scan the endless memorials to those who are gone.
As Jews, we know both that the world goes on after shocking, massive disappearances, and are well practiced in creating memorials to those who are gone. My kids and I found ourselves tallying up who had been killed off and who had lived to fight another day; in other words, we counted the dead and the survivors.
The villain in The Battle of Winterfell is the Night King, the embodiment of death, who wants to replace life with death, who prefers unpeopled nature to human beings. He plans to prevent any future by transforming all living beings into walking dead with glowing blue eyes.
The Night King goes even further than Thanos. He also seeks to eradicate the source of communal memory – that is to say, to erase history, to wipe out the past as well as the preventing any future. The turning point that saves the living from being overwhelmed by the dead, allowing for the future, comes in protecting memory in the form of a the three-eyed Raven who can see the present everywhere, but has unique access to the past, to history.
Today's legions of Holocaust deniers and fascism apologists know the value of erasing history only too well.
Even as Game of Thrones wound into a dragon-induced Hiroshima in The Bells, its penultimate episode, the graphic landscape of burnt bodies and charred survivors is meant - like similar closing tableaus of horror in Branagh’s Henry V and Kurosawa’s Ran - as a protest against war and killing, but evoke also terrible and familiar images from the Holocaust, or of pogroms.
The escape of the very heroine who defeated death two episodes earlier, riding through the destruction on a white horse, means at least one challenger to the tyrannical abuse of power remains.
The dream of course is that evil will be defeated. Eventually it was - in Endgame, in the Winterfell battle - and in real life.
But there's a chasm between the Avengers film finale and Game of Thrones in terms of how their respective genocidal leaders are defeated – and the ultimate fate of their victims.
Endgame offers the more seductive and enticing fantasy; that the murdered might come back. The massive multi-generational Israeli audience I was part of cheered and clapped with gusto when Thanos was killed, and again when the missing superheroes and everyday people rematerialized.
That doesn’t happen in our world, or for the most part, in Game of Thrones.
Film and TV are our forms of collective storytelling. The need of screenwriters to raise the stakes sufficiently to justify astronomically budgeted extravaganzas helps explain why these works tend toward the apocalyptic.
But Jews know the apocalypse is real. Our narrative of rebirth has taken form as a nation-state; the dead we lost are not returning. And it's the real-life challenge of our age as Jews to oppose those ideologies and their champions who glorify power and death over life.
Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, and the Executive Director of the Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI). He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast