In a world saturated with superheroes you’d think we’d have a pretty good idea of what constitutes the heroic. But defining a hero isn’t as straightforward as you think.
Donald Trump once dismissed Senator John McCain by saying, “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
And conservative columnist Miranda Devine recently declared the president’s return to White House duties after treatment for Covid-19 showed him to be an “invincible hero” who “will show America we no longer have to be afraid.”
Not that being an invincible hero is all it’s cracked up to be. As the Die Hard hero, John McClane (not to be confused with the aforementioned senator) once groused, “Do you know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’. You get shot at. Pat on the back, blah blah blah. ‘Attaboy.’ Trust me kid, nobody wants to be that guy.”
And yet despite our confusion we seem to have an insatiable hunger for the heroic. From Batman and Superman to the Marvel Universe, from the Fast and Furious crew to The Incredibles, from LOTR to Narnia, we can’t get enough of them. And we can thank an unknown script assessor at Disney Studios named Christopher Vogler for that!
In the mid 80s, Vogler discovered an old book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. He’d vaguely heard somewhere that Campbell’s book had had a big impact on George Lucas and had inspired him to create Star Wars. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell built on Carl Jung’s theories of heroic archetypes and his observation that humans not only respond to symbols and language, but also to particular narratives involving quests, heroic journeys, and acts of sacrificial service. Campbell posited that virtually every successful or popular story, myth or legend runs along the same plot line. He argued that all human societies, around the world and throughout history, seem to hunger for a certain type of story.
Campbell then developed the central elements of this core narrative arc. There are twelve of them:
1. The Hero is living in the Ordinary World
2. He/she receives a Call to Adventure
3. He/she initially Refuses the Call
4. The Hero Meets the Mentor
5. The Hero Crosses the First Threshold
6. He/she faces various Tests, Allies, and Enemies
7. The Hero must make an Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. In the cave, the Hero must face The Supreme Ordeal
9. The Hero must overcome his/her deepest fear (Shadow) and Seize the Reward
10. He/she start on the Road Back
11. Chased by the Shadow, the Hero ultimately triumphs in Resurrection
12. The Hero returns home with the Elixir (freedom)
The twelve ‘chapters’ take the Hero from the Ordinary World through the Special World, and back again:
Upon discovering Campbell’s outline for the ‘perfect story’, Christopher Vogler wrote a memo to the heads of Disney outlining the essential ingredients for a popular film. That memo became the stuff of Hollywood legend. Vogler was promoted to story consultant at Disney where he went on to shepherd The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to the screen. His memo eventually became a book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters.
Once you know Campbell’s/Vogler’s outline it can be quite fun looking at films and books to see the degree to which they follow the formula. The grand narratives like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings obviously follow the arc, but it’s surprising how many smaller pictures also conform to it. The Matrix trilogy is another obvious example. Vogler himself identified the popular comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral as a perfect case, with Hugh Grant’s awkward character as the hero and marrying Andy McDowell’s character as the reward for his quest.
Note how the 2008 Marvel film, Iron Man fits the storyline:
- Tony Stark is living in the Ordinary World as head of the defense contractor Stark Industries;
- He ends up being captured and held in a cave in Afghanistan where he receives a Call to Adventure;
- He initially Refuses the Call because he’s a self-centered billionaire, not a hero;
- Stark Meets the Mentor, Yinsen, a fellow captive with whom he builds a prototype armored suit to aid their escape;
- Stark Crosses the First Threshold when he escapes his captors and returns to Stark Industries to cease manufacturing weapons;
- Stark faces various Tests, Allies, and Enemies, including his father’s old partner and the company’s manager, Obadiah Stane ;
- The Hero must make an Approach to the Inmost Cave when Stane replicates the armored suit;
- Stark must face The Supreme Ordeal when Stane steals the reactor from Stark’s chest;
- Stark overcomes the Shadow by replacing his reactor with the original one, and Seizes the Reward by sending S.H.I.E.L.D. agents after Stane;
- Stark looks like he can start on the Road Back, but Stane defeats the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent;
- Chased by the Shadow to the top of the Stark Industries building, Stark ultimately defeats Stane and triumphs in Resurrection;
- Stark the Hero returns home with the Elixir (technology), announces he is Iron Man, and concludes his journey (until the multiple sequels after that).
Wonder Woman (2017) comports to the narrative perfectly, except her journey takes her from the Special World (the hidden island of Themyscira) to the Ordinary World. And though a little more complicated, Black Panther (2018) also takes its hero from the Special World (Wakanda) to the Ordinary, but the steps and stages are basically similar.
Other films that serve as examples of the hero’s journey are animated classics like The Lion King and Finding Nemo, fantasies like The Hobbit and Harry Potter, and sports films like Remember the Titans and Hoosiers.
But, while Christopher Vogler monetized Campbell’s hero’s journey for Hollywood, The Hero with a Thousand Faces isn’t just about popular entertainment. Campbell’s thesis is that all defining myths and culturally important stories are basically telling the same narrative, from the Japanese samurai to the Nordic viking, from the Zulu warrior to the American cowboy.
These stories satisfy our hero hunger.
We so deeply need to encounter the truly heroic that we latch onto it in whatever form it comes, whether in historical stories, myths and legends, novels, films, or news stories. They are irresistible to us.
As filmmaker George Miller, of Mad Max fame, once said, “Somewhere in our neurophysiology, we’ve been hardwired for story. There is a kind of narrative imperative – we can’t be without stories and we find them where we can.”
But this causes me to ask, where does this hero hunger come from?
Joseph Campbell answered that himself. He wrote,
“Indeed the first and most essential service of mythology is to open the mind and heart to the utter wonder of all being. The second service then is cosmological; of representing the universe and the whole spectacle of nature….as an epiphany of such a kind that when lightning flashes, or the setting sun ignites the sky, or a deer is seen standing alerted, the exclamation “Ah!” may be uttered as a recognition of divinity.”
In other words, the hero’s journey, when told well, represents all we yearn to know about the universe — that there are forces at work beyond our control; that our valiant choices do count; that companions on the journey are essential; that self sacrifice and commitment to the common good are noble things; that good ultimately triumphs over evil, etc.
I know some people simply throw the Jesus story in with Ulysses, Hercules, King Arthur, Kaveh the Blacksmith, and the Lone Ranger, as a mythic culture hero. But I’m inclined to think that the Christ story is the best explanation of cosmological realities and that all other culture heroes comport to the narrative of the gospels precisely because God has placed this story in our hearts, whether we’re conscious of it or not. The passing satisfaction we derive from seeing Frodo Baggins ascending Mt Mordor or Luke Skywalker defeat the dark side is but a foretaste of the story we really desire to be a part of.
In other words, Jesus is the ultimate hero, the true one who comes from another world, endures many ordeals, defeats the shadow, wins our freedom, and takes us home. Of course, there are various ways that Jesus doesn’t neatly fit Campbell’s hero’s journey narrative. You can read more about that here. But one of the central differences is the way Campbell describes the hero achieving eternal life. When asked whether it’s problematic that the hero becomes immortal, he once replied, “On the contrary, the basic problem is: to enlarge the pupil of the eye, so that the body with its attendant personality will no longer obstruct the view. Immortality is then experienced as a present fact.”
Christians believe Christ faced The Supreme Ordeal in his death on the cross and that in offering his life as an atoning sacrifice he defeats the Shadow (sin) and Seizes the Reward (life), ultimately triumphing in his bodily Resurrection. He then returns home with the Elixir (freedom) with the promise to come back for his followers.
All other similar stories simply tap into our desire for the Christ story to be true.
Until we meet Jesus as our hero we continue to gobble up all the other heroic tales we can find. As St Augustine once opined, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” Similarly, we are restless for a hero until we find him in the heroic story of Christ’s birth, life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection.