The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. This book introduced the hero’s journey and popularized the theory of comparative mythology — the theory that humans have the impulse to create stories that stem from universal themes.
Campbell’s work focused on religious and historical mythology, but it didn’t take long to see this applied to fiction.
George Lucas is the first to credit Campbell with inspiring the mythological structure of Star Wars. For that reason, many look to Star Wars as a way to teach the hero’s journey, and hopefully use that formula to make more blockbusters.
The steps of the hero’s journey:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to Inmost Cave
- The Road Back
- Return with Elixir
The (Super)hero’s Journey
We’ve seen the classic superhero origin story a hundred times. They all have the basic formula to get our average Joe or Jane into hero-mode.
This is actually a parallel of the classic hero’s journey, retold for modern audiences and nerdy sensibilities.
The examples I use are from solo superhero movies. Ensemble films won’t be considered.
- Smallville, Kansas.
- Gotham before Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered.
- A day in the life of a bullied NYC teenager.
These are the humble beginnings of our heroes. This is what is supposed to make the protagonist relatable and have us invested in what happens to them.
Call to Adventure
- Tony Stark’s caravan is attacked and and creates his first Iron Man suit.
- When things seem to be going well for Wade Wilson, he is diagnosed with cancer.
- Steve Rogers signs up for the service and is picked for the super soldier serum.
Closely related to the inciting incident, this is when it’s clear that our hero’s world is about to change.
Some of our heroes, especially those in the Chosen One subcategory, will refuse the job they are meant to do. Superman in Man of Steel spends much of his adult life hiding who he is until events force him to intervene.
This refusal is then reversed, sometimes by a traumatic event or some conflict that only our hero can resolve. It’s every villain origin and early death scene.
Meeting with the Mentor
- Alfred Pennyworth for Batman.
- Pa Kent and Jor-El for Superman.
- Dr. Strange being trained by The Ancient One.
- Uncle Ben, whose famous words are so pivotal they could only be uttered in one trilogy.
These are the people who shape our protagonists into the heroes they will become. It is their words that are repeated in our hero’s darkest hour. Remember, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Crossing the Threshold
Our hero can willingly start their adventure, or they can be pushed with tragedy or conflict. Oftentimes in superhero stories, the parents or a loved one is killed off or taken, pushing them to seek justice.
Uncle Ben dies to push Peter into becoming a hero and not just some punk goofing off in a costume. This can sometimes be the direct result of The Refusal — good guilt-causing material for an angsty teen hero.
Learning from — and losing — the mentor is a key part on this journey. It is when they lose that person (Pa Kent and Uncle Ben like to die all the time for a reason) that the hero comes of age.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Spider-man taking down a number of unnamed and easy foes.
- Iron Man bombing the enemy as a one-man army.
- Montages, montages, montages.
I’ve also heard this called the “fun and games” section of the story. This is when our hero is testing their limits, saving people and enjoying their power. Can be done in montage mode. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt…
Approach to Inmost Cave
- Scott Lang sneaking in and being caught on his last heist.
- Clark Kent meeting with a priest before going to face Zod, who could destroy him.
- Bruce Wayne, thrown into a pit and climbing the worst rock wall ever.
- Logan, taking a shot of serum, knowing it’s his last fight.
Ordeal, Reward, The Road Back
The finale. Big explosions, toppling buildings, mayhem and property damage.
The hero after the big battle, scarred but triumphant (maybe). Cheering crowds optional.
The opposite of the Call to Adventure.
- Bruce healing after his back is broken.
- Hancock shot.
- Superman poisoned by kryptonite.
A couple of my examples are a little too on-the-nose, but hospital and near death scenes are part and parcel with our superheroes.
This is the lowest point, the near-death moment from which the hero must rise.
Return with Elixir
This is the moment of triumph when our hero has prevailed and we look forward to fighting another day.
At the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, we see Batman hanging up the cape and cowl for a more ordinary life. In Deadpool, our hero is reunited with his love and they jam to Careless Whisper. As one should.
Flying off into the sunset
In the Richard Donner Superman films, Christopher Reeve’s Superman flew around the world and smiled at the camera. That motif was even carried into Superman Returns, which was a loose sequel. The end of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films we see Spidey swinging into action.
We like the idea that our hero keeps going, adventure never ends and everything will be alright.
It’s also a good way to end if you want a bushel of sequels.
For more insight into the Hero’s Journey, check out:
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.