I love Hickman’s Avengers. I’ve written about that fact before, and especially one of the things I love about his Marvel work – and his other comics – is how he works with both science and mythology. In Avengers, especially, he works on larger, over-arching mythology for the whole Marvel Universe. Its origins… and its ending.
That ending was last summer’s big crossover event, Secret Wars. I reviewed that recently. But it was a lot of time and comics leading into it, not just one crossover and everything is over. The apocalypse did not happen suddenly, although it may have felt that way if you were reading other titles… or just reading about the whole thing in the press about it.
No, in reading the whole thing, the buildup and then the collapse, I got to thinking of two things. One is the obvious, I suppose: other apocalyptic literature. Religious especially, the sort that seeps out into shows like Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We were reading a lot of the book of Daniel recently at church, and it’s also just chock full of apocalyptic dreams and visions. So the end of the world: symbolism, signs, and things that are either super literal or completely metaphorical…
The second thing I was thinking of, however, was the Final Fantasy XIII series, wherein the world ends between Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. In particular, at the end of XIII-2, time itself ends, and the power of death along with it… but as Mr. Fantastic might say, everything dies, and ever so slowly that world does too.
Taken all together, you get what I considered as the alternate title to this blog post: how to end the universe.
One of the things you see a lot when there’s an apocalypse in a TV show or movie is a quick breakdown. You see the tribulation, the fight and the fall – or the heroes triumphant, the Hellmouth at bay. Because conflict is at the heart of storytelling, this is the story part.
So some common examples of the apocalyptic moment would be like the outbreak in a zombie apocalypse. There’s a before-hand that matters for this, often the development of some drug or something that gets out of hand. But for much of the world, it’s business as usual. Then there’s the conflict, the troubles, and it spreads and involves people. Generally spreading out from some place, some event – so in many stories, that’s where it stops.
When the apocalypse isn’t averted – like in the stories I’m focusing on – the tribulation, the great conflict and battle, is really only the beginning of the apocalypse. In the Final Fantasy XIII series, XIII-2 really gets you to that last battle at the end of history. The great battle is on multiple fronts, but centers around whether the floating continent of Cocoon will fall and devastate the planet. Though your actions stop this from happening, in doing so you commit a far worse crime: you destroy the Heart of Chaos, the soul of the goddess, and with it destroy the powers of death, change, and time.
In Hickman’s Avengers stories, it’s really built into the entire run of New Avengers that the end is nigh. They do what they can to avert it, delay it, prepare for it. They decide eventually that rather than winning, they are in a situation where the best they can hope for is to not lose. In the pages of Time Runs Out, the multiverse comes collapsing in on them – finally centered in an epic battle of the main Marvel Universe versus the Ultimate Universe over Manhattan – and they save a few people from that multiversal collapse. And even longer and further back than them, others were planning on how to save some people as well, and thus Battleworld is born and Secret Wars…
Many stories, especially those that deal in apocalypses plural (again, Buffy comes the most to mind), tend to revolve around averting apocalypses. Stopping the end of the world. Stand-alone movies – say, Armageddon – focus around stopping that world-ending event. It can be natural causes like that, or zombies like I’ve said, or alien invasion, or demonic hordes… and when we don’t stop it at the outset, it’s time to live in the world that the tribulation has wrought.
A Breakdown in Society
So if many stories stop the apocalypse, still others focus on what it is to live after it: to live in the post-apocalypse. In apocalyptic literature, it’s rare for everything to truly end, for everyone to end up dead. It doesn’t all end with us singing “We’ll Meet Again” as the world blows up…
Again to reference the zombie apocalypse, many stories move past that initial outbreak and show us life longer-term in the zombie wastes. Groups of survivors, who have the right skills, materials, defenses, and experience spring up, and it’s here we find the stories now – or else, with the lone survivors out there who have not yet found such a community. And here the conflicts change. Now it is about that community, about the new order of things, the power dynamics and about might making right, about hard decisions about who lives and dies, and about scarcity of resources or talents.
In the third Final Fantasy XIII game, Lightning Returns, you find yourself in the society 500 years after the end of XIII-2. In that time, people have not aged and no longer die naturally. However, the monsters that were always just out there (kind of like the zombies still out there in a zombie post-apocalypse) still kill people. With no one new being born, the population slowly dwindles. Society is down to four last regions, a few little camps and two major cities. One city has turned over to revelry and indulgence, with a carnival every night. The other has turned over to religion and militarism, an ordered society trying not to be overcome by the sheer pessimism of the situation. When you walk by the guards in that city, they give you a count of how many people died that day. Grizzly.
In Secret Wars, the jump ahead is 8 years. The breakdown has similarly led to sectioned-off and limited world, though more of it. Necessities even had to be seen to such as a sun… and hey, they even have a zombie problem, and had to build a wall to keep them out. Because it’s a villain in charge, he has surrounded himself with other villains as rulers – and society has become one great survival-of-the-fittest situation. With some moments of order perhaps. There are monsters banging on the wall, dangers and wilds and evils abound. And have been allowed to rule. They pulled in some of Marvel’s greatest villains, such as Maestro, the future Hulk, and the Age-of-Apocalypse Apocalypse, as rulers of domains. Their awful, dystopian domains. One of which is called Dystopia.
Because dystopia is the word here. But to the extreme. Society is in a bad state in the post-apocalypse, and life has boiled back down to the necessities of survival. Or else, the blatant ignoring of these problems and an expectation of imminent death – a devil-may-care attitude which might even draw said devil’s attention. Evil walks the land, either as mindless beasts or as the ruling forces, or generally worse, as both. There’s no room here for heroes.
Which means that often, the characters we focus on in these situations are the heroes, or the former heroes. Who have to remain hidden, or avoid being heroic. Who internally deal with the understanding and realization of the fact that they are way past too late, that they can’t stop what has already happened, and that there’s not a whole lot they can save. And still, they do what they can, and like in most dystopias, do what they can to tear it all down around them.
A Breakdown of the Laws of Physics
In some few stories – like in the Biblical apocalyptic literature – the post-apocalypse itself ends. The dystopia at the end of time comes crashing down. Is it rebirth at that point? Or just apocalypse? Ex Nihilo in the comic I opened with asks the right question…
The tribulation is generally short-lived. The post-apocalypse feels like it stretches out forever, but it is not forever. No, eventually, everything dies. At the heat death at the end of everything, it all comes crashing down. That’s generally where the story ends, perhaps because that’s where the Bible ends… It also seems to be ruled by a seemingly all-powerful being who is holding things together, who is the new science, the new religion.
Part of the reason I chose the two examples I did – besides the fact that in reading Secret Wars I kept thinking of Lightning Returns – was because they move fully through this. Through not only a tribulation, not only a breakdown in society, but in the full breakdown of the structure of the world, of life, of time, of space. And then, rebirth.
I’ve already kind of talked about it with these two, because it’s integral to how the world ended. The normal rules of science, the normal construction and balance of the universe, comes to an end.
In Lightning Returns, we’re at the end of time, with everyone knowing it’s the end of time. With people unchanging, undying. Uninteresting, at that point. Lightning’s appearance – her return, if you will – completely shakes things up, but is also that final sign of the end times. And built into the game is the fact that you can actually fail: that you don’t end up with enough time to make it to the end times, not enough time for the final plan. Because apparently, the god of the pantheon, with the goddess gone, finally has to act and intervene (something that the antagonists in XIII were trying to force him to do) to re-start the world. Without his counterpoint, he can try to build a world of perfection with this do-over. No annoying chaos to contend with. No free will. Permanence and perfection. The people still alive are the primordial stuff that the rebirth will begin with, and Lightning the final catalyst to bring the change. And as the hero’s role in this situation, she can’t stop them from getting to this point… but she can bring it all crashing down. And maybe work against god’s plan…
In Secret Wars, there is similarly a villainous god holding it all together. For spoiler’s sake, I’ll avoid saying who, though I do spoil it in other posts… the universe already ended, so all that still is exists only because he wills it, because he saved it. Even the life rafts that the heroes built required external stimuli to wake them from stasis (thus the 8 year gap). There had to be something to be awoken to for them to awaken! As I mentioned, there were no stars – the last stars that went out were each forged into a new Mjolnir – and thus not even a sun. There seems to be death and birth still, and perhaps time. But reality is, more than anything, just a thought in the mind of god. And thus, god requires worship and it is the point of continued existence. Seeing all the different beings brought to heel under this power is pretty cool. Some of them, however, are brought into the fold by having their memories and understanding of reality changed. The past forgotten. And indeed, most everyone over time completely forgets what life was before the apocalypse. There is only Battleworld. So our heroes (and their villainous foils) are the catalyst of change as well, bring the world crashing down and to an end because while they can’t solve the problem, they can at least stop the one in charge. And in doing so, they get to chart the course of the rebirth.
Both stories, with their deity figure, deal with some thoughts about a creator. Detached from reality and not interfering? Meddling and seeking perfection? Callous and vain? Feeling like all of this is a mistake and did not turn out as planned? Demanding of worship? I would also contend, however, that these are flawed deities ruling over flawed creations. They are the rulers of the post-apocalypse, not the original creative forces themselves. They are flawed, and intentionally so. They rule over the blasted landscapes of the end times, and then even the end times end.
While there’s plenty of stories about big destructive events that could end the world, there are few that go past that point. And when there are those stories of the post-apocalypse, they still rarely lead us up to the very end. And when you get one of those few stories that truly tear it all down, the whole universe, and end it – well, when you get one of those stories, working through all those steps, you get that sense. Of how to end a universe.
As Hickman’s comics kept alluding to, the Big Bang. At first nothing, then everything. And in the end, the reverse: everything, and then nothing. The great collapse.
The big collapse, that mirrors the Big Bang. The apocalypse, that mirrors the creation. Nothing, followed by everything. Everything, followed by nothing. Science Fiction can have us look at just about every point in this spectrum, but looking at the end – really looking at the end – is rare. There are some fun ones, like the Restaurant at the End of the Universe or a few times in Doctor Who, like Listen. But those are time traveling quick trips. Seeing that collapse throughout, from tribulation through collapse through the last days, as we cower in the night… It’s a little guide on how to end the universe.