Human Agency and The End

The idea of the apocalypse is often defined by a sense of finality; from the early apocalypticism of the monstrous floods in the Bible to more recent events like the 2012 Mayan end-of-the-world conspiracy. Such catastrophes have always been associated with the ending of an era or way of life. Apocalyptic fiction has thus depicted this accordingly, such as the 2021 movie Don’t Look Up where the film ends with the demise of humanity.

At the same time, there has also been an emergence of apocalyptic fiction where apocalypticism is the premise rather than the resolution. Sometimes, as per traditional popular media, the protagonists of these texts successfully remedy apocalyptic conditions and thus emerge as triumphant heroes. In more subversive texts, the protagonists learn to live with the apocalypse rather than defeat it, thus ending the narrative on a considerably more ambiguous note.

The best endings resonate because they echo a word, phrase, or image from earlier in the story, and the reader is prompted to think back to that reference and speculate on a deeper meaning.

– James Plath (2008)

The various tragic and triumphant endings of apocalyptic texts are ultimately indicative of different messages regarding humanity and its place in the world. Some, like Avengers: Endgame, emphasise the power of heroic sacrifice during the apocalypse. Others, like Train to Busan, examine how gender roles are affected by disruptive apocalyptic conditions. Since these messages are often conveyed through the actions, decisions and feelings of the texts’ human protagonists throughout the narrative, crystallising at the denouement of the film, we thus see how human agency shapes the resolutions to the apocalypse in apocalyptic fiction. 

Agency in itself is a complex topic. Therefore, in this issue, we seek to examine the resolutions of various apocalyptic texts, gaining insights into different forms and expressions of human agency in response to the apocalypse, culminating at the films’ end. Apocalyptic films with endings as distinct in overall message as Train to Busan, A Quiet Place, Bird Box, Don’t Look Up and Avengers: Endgame thus come together to contribute nuanced, diversified perspectives on how human agency shapes ‘the end of the end’. 

Firstly, we begin with an article analysing a film that uses the apocalypse as the end, following how most traditional fiction depicts the apocalypse. In Carrie Tan’s Capitalism and Science Denialism – Parallels between Climate Crisis and Don’t Look Up, the parallels between the Netflix film Don’t Look Up (2021) and the Climate Crisis are analysed. By analysing this widely popular film and the issues explored, she will provide greater insight into the Climate Crisis. In doing so, we can better understand society’s failure to address Climate Change thus far, along with how it can be better addressed. The film draws attention to capitalism and science denialism as core causes behind dividing and diluting human agency, eventually resulting in society’s failure to tackle the comet crisis in the resolution of the film. Because of this, the end of humanity is realised as the comet hurtles towards Earth. This alarming apocalyptic event is mirrored to the Climate Crisis we face today with society being largely divided due to the pursuit of self-interest and the rejection of scientific consensus. Because of this, collective action is largely inhibited, hindering the progress of concrete actions taken towards addressing Climate Change. As such, she posits that the film highlights capitalism and science denialism as root causes that needs to be addressed in order to prevent the division of human agency and effectively tackle Climate Change.

Other than exploring the apocalypse as a resolution, modern day media popularises post-apocalyptic films where apocalyptic situations are used as a premise. In Grace Lim’s Male and Female Agency in Train to Busan (2016) and its Applications to the Real World, the vastly different roles and importance of male and female agency in Train To Busan are analysed, as well as how they interact with each other to ensure the characters’ survival in the zombie apocalypse. This article investigates the underlying theme of gendered agency in Train to Busan, with the main focus on the ending of the film where only certain characters survive and enter the new post-apocalyptic world. This article first highlights the importance of both female and male agency in Train To Busan, examining the different ways in which they play a part in ensuring the characters’ survival. These ideas are then linked to the wider society by challenging the traditional concept of patriarchy, and how it can be improved through accommodative patriarchy to embrace and leverage female agency to ensure a resilient yet humanitarian society. Hence, this brings readers into deeper thought on what truly matters and is crucial to one’s survival in the apocalypse, as well as in the real world. 

Thereafter, in Aeron Toh’s How agency relates to the different resolutions of John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box, the difference in the endings of the two films are examined. Despite the films’ similar premise, the ways the characters found survival in this post-apocalyptic setting differ, one finding solace in escapism, the other in fighting back. Thus, the underlying question would be: why? We see that the primary difference between the two films is the sense that the characters in each film are deprived of, loss of hearing as opposed to loss of sight. In that sense, Bird Box and A Quiet Place’s narratives suggest to us the difference in agency between the creatures and humans due to the powers the creatures have and the sense deprivation they inflict upon humanity. By comparing the entanglement of agencies between the humans and nonhumans, it explains the incongruence in the film’s denouements, the end naturally follows from the agencies ascribed in the narrative. Thus, the two films show the difference between the agencies of those who are deaf as compared to those who are blind, possibly even as a reflection on reality.

Lastly, in superhero movies, the focus on heroes and their extraordinary abilities leads us to assume these heroes have a separate, more active agency than non-heroes. But as the title of Quek Rui Chin’s Subverting the Superhero-Non-Superhero Divide in Avengers: Endgame suggests, these divisions are ultimately arbitrary. In particular, the ending of the 2019 movie Avengers: Endgame subverts the traditionally exceptionalist view of most superhero movies, where agency is dependent on physical abilities. The apocalypticism of the movie also forces us to re-define a superhero’s agency, since agency is arguably weakened when under constant threat from the apocalypse. In light of this, Endgame proposes that superhero agency is strongest when paradoxically, the heroes let go of physical power and let their emotional, human side take over. This is especially true of the movie’s ending, where the end of the apocalypse hinges entirely on a superhero’s act of sacrifice. Thus, the ending of Endgame subverts expectations and ultimately humanises its superhero protagonists by presenting them as embodiments of both superhero and non-superhero agency.