Friday, December 25, 2015

The Hero's Journey Redefined

(say hello to my 200th post in one year. I will be going over that number, so my OCD is gonna kick into overdrive and force me to round up to 250 or something...)

There is apparently still a need for SPOILERS: so if anyone doesn't want to find out how much of the movie turns out, please stop here and go SEE THE MOVIE RIGHT NOW IN 3D. (points in the direction of the nearest IMAX theater) GO NOW.

Okay, for the rest of you... no excuses.

I could spend this post geeking out over how GOOD (not great, I will grant you that) the latest Star Wars movie The Force Awakens is.
An orphaned Heroine with her Herald

Or I can go all academic and offer a half-baked analysis of one of the key reasons I love the movie. I love the movie because it takes the core element of what made the original - New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi - Star Wars trilogy great - the Hero's Journey - and tweaks it in a way that makes it recognizable yet still fresh.

The Hero's Journey - proposed by Joseph Campbell using Jungian psychology emphasis on Archetype - is a description of a near-universal narrative throughout human mythology that evolved into modern story-telling. It details the origins of a heroic figure (the isolated childhood in an ordinary, hidden place), the Call To Adventure (a herald arrives, or a mission needs undertaking), then the Crossing of Thresholds (barriers to the Adventure, sometimes in the form of adversaries), the gathering of allies and friends (Avengers Assemble, or Seven Samurai style recruiting), more Trials (fights, betrayals, tests of character) leading up to a symbolic death (Belly of the Whale) and rebirth (Resurrection), a final confrontation (Apotheosis), the granting of a Boon (not always a gift but usually some Insight or Wisdom Achieved), and a Return (usually back to the boring corner of the world the Hero left, but returning with the Boon as a gift to the community that they may prosper afterward). Closing with a Celebration of sorts (either a memorial to Absent Friends or a life-affirming activity such as a wedding or child-birth) in which the Hero achieves emotional closure (and sets up the cycle for the next Hero).

As noted, it's a near-universal narrative: it covers the rise (and fall) of various mythical heroes from Perseus to Beowulf, it covers the religious awakenings of Moses and Jesus and Buddha, it covers even the histories of real-world documented kings and Presidents and political figures.

It's a common theme in fantasy literature, which is why Star Wars does so well with it. And yes, for all the trappings of Science Fiction - other worlds, spaceships, aliens, Faster-Than-Light travel - this series is actually Fantasy: switch out planets for magic kingdoms, spaceships for flying pirate ships, aliens for monsters, FTL for mirror teleporters.

I mean, come on, there's a lot of overlap between the two genres. Here, take Tolkien's Elves, put them in space with phasers and tricorders instead of arrows and scrolls, and you get Vulcans (aka SPACE ELVES). Jedi are merely MAGIC SPACE WIZARDS.

Even as Sci-Fi, the Hero's Journey has a place in that genre, but it so often follows the tropes and rules for Fantasy story-telling that it invariably gets labeled as Fantasy.

With that, Luke Skywalker - farmboy turned war hero turned Jedi turned Redeemer - of the original trilogy became one of the recognizable Heroes of our modern myths. And one of the reasons why George Lucas' prequel trilogy - Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith - remain flawed yet under-appreciated classics is how the prequels deconstructed the Hero's Journey by showing how that Journey could turn dark and create the Villain.

But one of the things - one of the problems - about the Hero's Journey - no matter the genre it's being used - is how gender-specific the narrative cycle has been.

It's almost always applied to young men: Boys growing up from obscure origins to become celebrated heroes and even kings ruling over all.

Part of the problem is the source: Campbell developed his monomyth and Hero's Journey templates based on earlier existing myths. As previous earlier cultures were all patriarchal and male-dominated, his theories ignored the role women could play in the narrative either as support, ally, or even the Hero(ine) herself. Women in these tales tended to be princesses or girlfriends waiting at home, not destined for action but designed to be rescued or redeemed. It gets a little demeaning, and the wrong kind of cliche.

But the past is not our present, and should not trap or define our future. We don't HAVE to be stuck with the Hero always being a man. Sure, it works for Harry Potter, it works for Frodo Baggins, it works for Kal-El and Steve Rogers... why can't it work for Katniss, or Buffy, or Hermione, or Ripley, or Furiosa?

Which is why The Force Awakens is so powerful a film. Because it takes the story most closely associated to the Hero's Journey - Star Wars and the legend of Luke Skywalker - and proves the narrative can work with a young girl as The Hero.

Into the new trilogy - thirty years after Luke claims his destiny as a Jedi and ends the rule of the Sith - the audience discovers that the sixth movie did not really end well. Luke's attempt to rebuild a Jedi academy for Force-sensitive students ended in betrayal and destruction, driving him to flee the known galaxy and denying the stabilizing presence of Jedi as a means of justice and peace. The New Republic that tried to rise in victory after the Battle of Endor has to contend with the First Order, the remnant of that dreaded Empire still looking to impose a dark rule. Unwilling to continue the war, the Republic instead allows a Resistance to impede the First Order's efforts in a kind of Galactic Cold War.

What starts the story proper is the quest for Luke, as the Resistance wants him back as a symbol of good and as the First Order's Dark Side agents want the Jedi wiped out forever. A map has been found on a desolate desert world - not Tatooine but Jakku, a scavenger planet littered with the debris of the galactic conflict - and the possibility of finding the last Jedi sparks the birth of a new war.

We're actually presented with two possible Hero candidates at the start of the movie. Poe Dameron is a hotshot pilot sent to retrieve the map for the Resistance. While he's certainly brave, and more than a little cocky... Poe doesn't fit the Journey's cycle as Hero. He's already fulfilled his destiny as the best pilot of the Resistance, and is more of a Mentor/Ally as the episode progresses. Indeed, he disappears with little explanation between the First and Second Acts - having played his part lining up the second candidate - and doesn't re-appear until he's needed for the Big Damn Heroes moment closing the Second Act and completing the Third.

The second candidate is Finn. While some critics note he's a new variant on the Hero's narrative, he's actually fulfilling established checkpoints for the Hero to follow. Introduced as one of the many faceless soldiers that make up the Stormtrooper forces for the First Order, Finn begins as a novice in the war engaged in his first battle that turns into a massacre of innocents. The only one of the troops to show an individual's response to the atrocities - indeed he's the first Stormtrooper we meet who voluntarily removes his helmet to show his face - he's someone we're meeting halfway down the Hero's path: already forced into the Call to Adventure having been abducted by the fledgling First Order as a baby and conscripted to serve as a soldier. However, his personal instincts of right over wrong compel him to reject that imposition: he rescues Poe in order to rescue himself and attempts a rather blunt Refusal of the (false) Call. Yet every other step during that Refusal - he wants to flee the war altogether, knowing full well what the First Order is capable of - keeps Finn on the Journey's path - it's known as The Call Knows Where You Live - and his instincts to protect others make him answer the True Call to Adventure.

He doesn't qualify as The Hero, however, because he lacks the true key, the otherworldly gift / actual skill The Hero secretly possesses. Every time Finn rises up to face the challenges on the Journey, he gets his butt kicked. Not out of any ineptitude on his part: Finn still is a heroic character for genuinely caring and trying. But any battles he survives are due to the aid of other Allies and Mentor figures, as well as the Hero herself. Finn is more an Ally archetype. Actually in this post-modern narrative reality Finn is our Audience Surrogate.

The Hero is Rey, and we should be aware of that the moment we meet her (it helps that John Williams gives her an identifiable leitmotif). Introduced third of the new Power Trio characters, without any spoken exposition we discover she's living by herself, abandoned as a young child and forced to survive as a scavenger. Essentially she's an orphan (major identifier for the Hero) still convinced there's a family for her that will come back... someday... and take her from this desolation.

Even as someone hardened by a harsh existence, Rey still has Faith and dreams of a better life: she believes in the stories of heroes and Jedi and the mystic Force - to her they are legends - and because of that she lives by a moral code that makes her all-loving (a key element of the Hero figure is empathy and willingness to help others). She rescues and befriends Poe's lost droid BB-8 (the Herald and her first Ally), she quickly accepts the trust of Finn (her second Ally and fellow Journey taker), and joins in the fight against the First Order troops (one of her first challenges, although the Threshold Guardian she needs to confront comes later) as the Journey propels her to Mentor figures (Han, Chewie, Leia... the heroes of the previous trilogy), revelations (that she is a Force User with a powerful connection to Luke via a family heirloom: the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker), confrontations with a Shadow figure (Dark Force User Kylo Ren), passing of tests (discovering her own power with the Force), and confrontation (defeating Kylo with Anakin's saber as she wills herself to feel the Force).

Some of the buzz/complaints that came in the wake of the movie's release is how Rey appears as a Mary Sue figure - too competent, too nice, too quick an access to powers that would take other characters entire movies to learn - which angers up a lot of the film's defenders and for good reason. A Mary Sue - not the website, mind you, even though they love the movie and especially Rey - is a flight of fantasy character even in a fantasy work: an author's egotistical attempt to insert herself/himself into an existing narrative as a flawless character. Rey isn't that: she does make mistakes and she does Refuse the Call at a key moment, something a Mary Sue would never do.

Rey's virtues and powers in the narrative are from her being the Hero of the story. What's happening is that the critics aren't used to seeing the Campbellian Hero be female, even with the likes of Buffy and Katniss sitting there in the cultural pantheon of hero figures since the 1990s (when Girl Power and the rise of feminine heroes like Scully opened up the Grand Narrative to diversity). They never really saw female heroes as such, not until this situation where Star Wars - the touchstone of Archetype - made it clear that a woman CAN fit the Hero mold and make it work.

To quote that article from the Mary Sue website by Teresa Jusino:

...And to those who are skeptical about her abilities and think that they came “too easy,” I want to remind you that it’s because of this hardscrabble existence that she’s been forced to be good at so many  things... She’s had to learn how to fight and carries a staff wherever she goes, because she is a lone female in a seemingly male-dominated trade, and has to protect not only herself, but the goods she intends to sell. It’s likely that, in the course of her scavenging career, she’s had to learn to drive and/or fly any number of vehicles to transport them, or goods, to be bought or sold. So, it didn’t seem to come “out of nowhere” that she’d be a decent pilot. She’s no Poe, but she’s good... 
As for the Force, I love how subtly her increasing ease with it evolved over the course of the film. After meeting Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon, she expresses a fangirlish glee when he says that he knew Luke Skywalker. What’s more, when they talk about the Force, she is such a Mulder—she WANTS TO BELIEVE. So, clearly the Force is something that’s already been on her mind and in her head. This is not new information for her, merely a confirmation.
When Kylo Ren first tries to get into her head to find the location of the map to Luke, Rey looks afraid, and she obviously doesn’t want Kylo Ren to have this information. In a brilliant, wordless moment, we see that Rey’s strength in the Force happens pretty much by accident. At first, she doesn’t seem to realize she’s doing it, and it’s the look on Kylo Ren’s face that leads her and us to believe that he’s having trouble...

The moment Rey uses the Force to make Anakin/Luke's blue lightsaber fly into her hands - after her gaining the knowledge that she CAN use The Force - so she can battle Kylo is a powerful and transformative moment in cinema. It takes the power of being the Hero out of the grasp of male characters - even the ones who can fit the role - Finn - but really can't - Kylo, who's the Shadow and potential Dragon/Big Bad - and presents us with a new Narrative reality that both genders can fit the role.

This is a very big reason why The Force Awakens deserves a lot of repeat business in the theaters and massive love by fans when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming.

Well, that and the fact that the movie is genuinely funny and FUN (things sorely lacking from the prequels and haven't been seen out of a Lucas-based production since, well, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

(Edit: for the two of you who viewed this article while I added more updates to tweak my thoughts and add more links and quotes, please refresh the page and re-read the new stuff, thanks).

1 comment:

J Harper said...

There is no movie called New Hope, I think you are referring to Star Wars, the original and only title.
Star Wars is the first movie of the canonical series, followed by The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, and now The Force Awakens.

There were some non-canonical, apocryphal fan-fic like prequels but these have no relevance to a serious discussion.

Otherwise I well written and well considered piece