“In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out.” -Tom Hiddleston
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” -Joseph Campbell
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” -Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell is one of my heroes. He’s one of my heroes, because of his extensive work about myth. I’ve not read all of his work, but I loved the series of interviews he did with Bill Moyers back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, “The Power of Myth”. That series helped me understand why I love fairy tales, myths and stories about people with extraordinary abilities.
Which brings me to this week’s post. I’m going to examine the genre of superhero movies and why they’re so popular. I lump into that category, fantasy films like Harry Potter, and SciFi, like Star Trek and Star Wars as well. All of those movies revolve around characters who have a specific purpose, which is to be a hero. I think it’s safe to say, that these movies are so popular, because, as Joseph Campbell said, we’re all on a heroes journey.
My husband, Barry, and I’ve been watching a lot of the newest superhero movies lately, because our six year old nephew loves them. Of course being a good aunt and uncle, we want to keep up with what he likes.
I was getting tired of the plethora of this type of movie, so when my sister suggested we watch The Avengers, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the story. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. I’m not into stories about blowing things up. But, I am a Joss Whedon fan, so Barry and I decided to give it a try. In the movie, each of the Avengers has to learn to put aside their egos, and work together to save the world. That one movie started us on a Superhero movie watching spree.
In each movie, the hero or heroine must go through a journey of self-discovery. Most of them have some kind of character flaw, or inner demon to overcome before they’re ready to take their place as a superhero. None of them have an easy time of it. I think that’s why these genres of movies are so popular. The heroes, like us, have to figure out who they are, and what it is they are meant to be. We each must learn to accept our faults and talents and use them for the good of others. Since that’s the case, It wasn’t surprising that Barry said, “I’m getting into these superhero movies.” I feel the same way. Their message is clear. Don’t give up figuring out who you are, because the world needs your talents.
There are so many other movies with this theme. Harry Potter is one of my favorites. So, it was interesting the other day when Harry Potter came up in an episode of Super Soul Sunday, with Panache Desai. Oprah asked him what his favorite book was, and without taking a breath he said, “Harry Potter, because we all have the lightening bolt on our foreheads.” And that’s true. We all feel like we don’t fit in, or like there is something wrong with us, or we feel the pressure of how other people see us. We almost all feel like we have a demon to overcome, so we can live the life we were meant to live.
The thing about these fantasy and superhero films, is that watching them helps make it easier for us to cope with our more ordinary lives. Looking back at recent history, we’ve suffered a great deal of trauma, from assassinations, to civil unrest, to terrorist attacks. Many people are fearful, wary and suffering from the constant barrage of bad news we see everyday from all around the world. This distress shows up in our public debate about every societal issue, and it shows in our relationships, and work lives. Before the advent of mass media, people were unaware of what was going on in far away places. They weren’t subjected to so much distressing news day after day.
Maybe that’s why movies, video games and other forms of escape are so popular at present. Something about being just a little removed from, but also connected to the story, helps our subconscious mind work out the issues we’re faced with in our every day lives. When Earth is saved again, even though poor New York City is trashed over and over, I feel relieved. My problems are so much smaller than the ones the characters face in the movie. Mine are easier to cope with. After the movies is over, I say to myself, thank heavens I’m not the crew of the Enterprise, and have only minutes to save the ship, or stop the bad guys from destroying a planet. Thank heavens the characters were brilliant enough to solve the problems in the movie. At the end of the movie, I feel like things will work out for me too. Hope is a powerful tool.
I’m glad that one of the ways our modern myths are told is in these types of movies. They help us examine our private fears. They give us clues about how to build courage. I believe they’re important for that reason. We need a way to remove ourselves just a bit from our own problems and get a new perspective. We need the reassurance that humanity does have people smart enough to solve our problems, and as we watch we think, “maybe that smart person is me”.
Lucinda Sage-MIdgorden © 2014
2 thoughts on “Movies As Art – The Heroes Journey”
Hi. I too love the superhero genre; the journey, self-discovery and yes, even the explosions, but I fear you have a more optimistic spin on these movies than most of us. Some may even say that these movies (and video games) are desensitizing and the reason for todays woes. Just playing “devil’s advocate” here and creating a dialog, but wouldn’t we be better off with a good old “Blind Side” or “Grapes of Wrath” hero’s journey.
Personally, I am able to separate fact from fiction and imagine myself on a fantastical hero’s quest, but I doubt most people watching today’s superhero movies can see beyond the explosions and gadgetry to see the true message of the story. I am certainly glad there are people like you who can.
Alan, Thanks so much for your comment, because it gives me a chance to say something that I’ve implied in many of my movie posts.
I don’t subscribe to the-devil-made-me-do-it mantra that many people who want to spread fear about the media harp upon. I don’t deny that violent images affect us. But, so do loving images. The thing is that the shows we watch enhance what’s already inside us. I choose not to watch a lot of violent news, TV shows or movies, unless the violence is part of the character’s inner journey of self-discovery. I choose not to, because I’m a baby boomer and when I was growing up, I witnessed much more violence from everyday life on the news than is shown now days. My dad was a news hound and I saw the violent images from the Vietnam War, Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrations than I care to remember. Those where real life images. We were watching live coverage when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. That’s an image I wish I could get out of my head.
The point I’m trying to make is, that my brother and I didn’t grow up to be violent people. Yes, we saw those images every single night on the news, they affected us. But, we had parents who talked to us about what was going on in the world. They tried to help us make sense of events, and to see how we could make the world a better place in which to live.
I think that many of those who blame the violence in our world on TV and movies, should look to the shows they host. You can see more shouting, violent language, and disrespect on almost any 24 hour news network today than you can in the fictional shows that are broadcast. (I have no opinion about reality shows, because I don’t watch those.) I think the people who espouse that violence in TV shows and movies makes us more violent are just using it as a “Red Herring” argument to steer us away from seeing what’s going on someplace else.
I wrote all that to make this final point, Superhero movies are multi-layered stories. They aren’t any more violent than the plays of Ancient Greece. And they certainly aren’t as violent as the Roman gladiatorial games. Our entertainment reflects and defines our society. If it’s good it can lead us to examine our society, and our humanity. But, only those people who are already violent, or mentally ill will use what they’ve seen on the TV or movie screen as an excuse to commit heinous acts of violence.
Thanks again for your thoughts. I think this is a debate that needs to continue. Parents need to watch what their children watch and talk with them about the stories and how they feel about them. We shouldn’t just assume they get the deeper meanings of the stories. Public and private discourse is a very important component of making the world a better place to live.