The (Super) Hero’s Journey

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.

heros journey graphThe steps of the hero’s journey:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to Inmost Cave
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • 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.

Ordinary World

  • 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.

Refusal

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.

Resurrection

  • 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.

Sources:

The Hero’s Journey – Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

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.

 

Teaching through example: Zootopia

Plot/synopsis:

Zootopia is about go-getter bunny Judy Hopps, who defies her family’s wishes and fulfills her dream of becoming a police officer in the city of Zootopia. Only problem is: nobody takes this tiny bunny seriously, and she’s delegated to meter maid duties. She gets interested in the case of missing animals across the city and is determined to find an answer, even if at the expense of her job.

Even from the trailer, it was obvious that this would be a metaphor for females breaking the glass ceiling and working extra hard to prove themselves. The writers chose to make Judy a bunny: an innocent, small, traditionally-helpless creature that represents the stereotypes associated with the feminine. The rest of her fellow police officers are typical predators, or at least large formidable prey like her bison chief. Nobody expects this bunny to succeed.

That makes her all the more eager to prove herself. “Anybody can be anything” is this bunny’s attitude, and she lives it to the fullest. She is truly a positive role model for the children going to see this film.

What’s most important–besides the delightful humor, artful design, and excellent voice acting–are the overriding themes of racism and sexism leading to a frightening world. We see the sexism through Judy’s eyes, in her pursuit of her dreams. We see the racism between predators and prey, and especially when stereotyping a species (or ethnicity.) Our other main character is Nick Wilde, a fox, who is labeled as shifty and untrustworthy because of his species.

Judy proves herself better than most by not assuming the worst of Nick the fox. In fact, she rolls her eyes at her parents offering her “fox repellant” and sticks up for Nick in an ice cream shop that tries to deny him service.

There will be somebody, somewhere out there, that thinks this movie is preachy, and that it didn’t need to be made. I would disagree with that hypothetical person. This movie is important, and it shows themes that are integral to helping kids understand at an early age that just because someone is different from them, doesn’t mean they are bad.

Every generation has its teaching models like this.

Examples:

Ferngully (1992): A boy named Zak is brought down to fairy size to see the plight of the fairies when a logging company destroys their home. It’s been like, 20 years since I’ve seen this, but I figure it was as good an early example as any.

Doug (1991–1994): Hey 90’s kids, remember this Nick cartoon series? The characters were varying shades, from beige to purple to blue. These colors were never mentioned, and the stories were average woes befalling the preteen and teenager.

Cats Don’t Dance (1997): A movie that played heavily on themes of disclusion and racism, set in ’30s Hollywood. The animals were the minority figure. They were show people, but never the star. Just look at Miss Dimple’s infuriating golden locks and psycho stare and tell me she doesn’t represent institutionalized racism.

Milestone Comics and Static Shock (2000–2004): Milestone Comics was a company founded in 1993 whose titles were published by DC, and notably was more conscious of promoting minority superheroes. This eventually led to the creation of a cartoon series, Static Shock. The cartoon centered around a teenager named Virgil Hawkins who witnesses a gang war and through an accident ends up with superpowers. This show was an excellent balance between different races, and the traditional “love interest” girls were as smart and capable as the guys.

Judy-Hopps-in-Zootopia

Judy Hopps. Go get ’em, Tiger. Or um…bunny.

Why bother?

Why bother showing race issues through children’s media? I am so glad you asked, hypothetical reader.

I think we need this gentle reminder here and there that there are all different kinds of people out there,  and the world is simply a better place with inclusion and variety. Films, TV shows, and even printed media is so full of white and male representation as to think of it as the baseline for normal. That’s a problem.

Unfortunately, children absorb a lot of what they see and experience. If they keep seeing action movies with buff, white male protagonists, they can’t imagine women or minorities being the hero. If they see one “token” minority character who is present to take the brunt of the jokes, they might start thinking it’s fine to make fun of the different kid at school. Kids learn by example. Where parents leave gaps, the world fills it in. We just want to be sure they’re filling it in with the right stuff.

If we need to teach such lessons through cartoon animals, then so be it.

Spoilery Section:

This is the review section. Here there be spoilers. You have been warned.

This film plays on expectations, as much for the kids’ sake as for adults. Predators vs. prey is not always clear cut. In fact, SUPER DUPER SPOILER ALERT……. it’s the prey that is the villain (no doubt a fear response against a perceived threat from predators). There’s a lot of smart political, socioeconomics at play here. I’d liken it to how some countries feud with others in anticipation of an attack, thereby creating the problem to begin with, but I don’t want to get political here.

There are a few minor missteps with the racism theme that I think go a bit too far. One is where Clawhauser calls Judy a cute bunny, and she gets all uncomfortable and says how only bunnies can call each other cute. Then later, when Nick is playing with the Assistant Mayor’s hair/wool, Judy freaks out and tells him, “You can’t touch a sheep’s wool!” These are both real-world examples of complicated race-tensions that felt a little awkward in this movie. It could have been accomplished otherwise. Maybe someone else wouldn’t think so. I’d need a second opinion.

What might seem like a misstep (but is actually an integral plot point and teaching tool) is after Officer Hopps has solved the case, she says things that are taken out of context in a press conference. She infers that predators are naturally prone to becoming “savage” (aka dangerous), and although she is just repeating information another character told her about how the animals were going crazy, she says the wrong thing to a crowd of fearful reporters who all happen to be prey animals. Good intentions but poor execution lead to Judy accidentally starting an extreme racist reaction to predators in general. One of her buddies even loses his position on the police force because “nobody wants to see a predator when they walk into the ZPD.”

These moments echo so powerfully the irrational fears against minorities that are the root of the problem. Judy only realizes belatedly how her words were taken to the extreme, and resigns in protest.

Zootopia was such a fantastic movie that doesn’t have to talk down to kids to be enjoyable. If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, I suggest you go see it yourself.