Every year the apocalypse gets a little more real and a little more frightening. The world is still recovering from the promise of nuclear devastation offered by the Second World War, so in our films and TV shows and video games, the skies crackle and the ground weeps with radiation. The planet, in these series, is an extension of our bodies: poisoned and doomed by our need for more. Headlines roll in like electrical storms describing declining populations of bees – harbingers of our inevitable global deaths – yet people turn out in box office-breaking numbers to revel in the spectacle.
Before 2015 was half over, moviegoers were proclaiming Mad Max: Fury Road the greatest film of the year. By year's end, it'd swept the AACTAs and broken records for Australian cinema; last week it picked up 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture and best director. Even as it depicted the epitome of all that's wrong with modern living – overconsumption of fossil fuels, zealous hoarding of precious resources, severe class warfare – George Miller's epic was proclaimed a victory for Western civilisation. Its depiction of women – and in the case of its heroine, Imperator Furiosa, people with disabilities – as simultaneously oppressed but undefeated; strong but compassionate – felt just as futuristic as its post-apocalyptic setting given the Hollywood standard.
On one hand, characters such as Charlize Theron's Furiosa and the Five Wives signified that mainstream attitudes were improving, and the film's end was uplifting, suggesting that liberation was possible. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. No matter how well things turned out for the core group of characters, after the credits rolled they still had to contend with their scorched earth.
The apocalypse loomed large in lounge rooms as 12 million gamers were drawn to Bethesda's Fallout 4 in its first 24 hours of release. Its alternate universe, where the 1950s American idyll persevered for another century, crumbled with nuclear war brought on by overconsumption. In Fallout 4, the ability to play as a woman was praised after competing game company Ubisoft's earlier denial of playable female characters in Assassin's Creed and, like Fury Road, suggested the world we inhabit is at least improving in some way.
But in the world it depicted, most survivors had banded together in violent raider groups. If a player was careful, they could hear raiders talking to each other about how they never wanted to hurt anyone at all. Knowing this, the player would then have to understand that every time they had to pull the trigger to rescue a kidnapped farmer, or help some other ostensibly innocent soul, they were killing someone who wasn't evil – someone only attempting to survive their horrific circumstances.
In response, some players criticised the game for not giving them the option to not kill, but that lack of choice only reflected your character's own circumstances. By the end of the game, you've killed thousands of people. Hopefully it's for the greater good of all who remain, but it also means that after the bombs, you are the greatest source of murder and destruction on Earth.
Meanwhile the final entry of the Hunger Games saga felt like wish fulfillment for anyone fearing for the state of leadership in the Western world. Australians had watched one terrifying, backwards prime minister usurped by one smarter but with greater capacity for deception, and later joined the rest of the world in staring down the barrel of a presidential race dominated by the aggressively xenophobic Donald Trump. Democracy has never felt so impotent.
What a relief it was, then, to see Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen take matters into her own hands, overthrowing one despotic leader only to then assassinate his equally duplicitous replacement. She then goes on to live out her adult life among the sunshine and daffodils with her beautiful children and redeemed husband, but the audience sees nothing of whether the wider world was saved.
The Hunger Games story is about the screaming thrust from youth into adulthood: at first believing one can free the world from the shadows of its past, but by the end, realising one can only help themselves and theirs. Removing herself from the burden of leadership faced by the protagonists of the other series, Katniss finds her corner of utopia, and only then. When the ability to elect a compassionate leader seems virtually impossible, retreat becomes blissfully alluring.
The closer we get to the dates of these bleak, futuristic visions, the less heroic our heroes become. Less than ever are these franchises going out of their way to depict their protagonists as entirely virtuous, but audiences sympathise with them all the same, because there are no solutions.
What sets the causes of Katniss, Max, Furiosa, or Fallout's Sole Survivor apart from anyone else in their universes? Nothing except the camera's gaze. They're all motivated by a desire to survive and protect what they care about, same as everyone else. Furiosa is an Imperator in Immortan Joe's ultraviolent army – presumably not a rank given for compassion towards the people of Joe's Citadel. Katniss is forced to lead a revolution via propaganda, but so is Caesar Flickerman, who seems far more sinister but who never killed anyone himself. Fallout 4's Sole Survivor wants to find his son, just like thousands of displaced survivors among the wasteland with missing family.
But perhaps this is why audiences keep turning out in the tens of millions: without the need for some intrinsic nobility, the viewer sees themselves and their own compromised decisions writ large. These are all exhibitions designed to test the fragility of the audience's conscience. When the only difference between good and evil is who's left standing as the violins swell, it's hard to believe there are any heroes left at all.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed Assassin's Creed to Bethesda instead of Ubisoft.