I have been meaning to write this post for several months, but have put it off due to my hectic schedule and knowing that I would need a good block of time to compose my thoughts. However when I saw this tweet from Jon Spaihts two days ago…
In an era of superhero movies, storytellers have a moral obligation to affirm that “ordinary” people make a difference.
— Jon Spaihts (@jonspaihts) June 28, 2016
…it was like the universe was saying, “Scott, get it done.”
So here’s the thing: I suspect the plethora of superhero movies over the last 5-10 years, while entertaining to fans and profitable to studios, is having a deleterious effect on our collective cultural mindset. And honestly, I think it is at least one reason why a certain orange-faced, swirl-haired blowhard has managed to become the apparent presidential nominee of a major political party here in the United States.
Let me begin with some reflections on The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell said the entire point of such stories is transformation. The protagonist receives a Call To Adventure compelling them to leave their ordinary world, enters a new world, and through a series of challenges attains their goal, thus in the process…
…gets in touch with their own inner hero.
That’s the essence of their transformation, discovering their True Nature, Authentic Self, Core Of Being, whatever you want to call it, and becoming empowered through that growth process.
Typically the hero is an ordinary individual. These stories have their roots historically in helping prepare youths for various initiation rites and rituals. Hence the three movements of the Hero’s Journey:
Separation. Initiation. Return.
An ordinary individual embarks on an extraordinary adventure and as a result experiences an empowering transformation by getting in touch with Who They Are, in effect an initiation into adulthood.
Compare to superhero stories. Superheroes, by logic, are not ordinary individuals. They are imbued with superpowers or are as rich as hell like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark so they can afford to be adorned in super-gear.
The entire dynamic of superhero stories is an inversion of the Hero’s Journey: Instead of an ordinary individual going on to become a self-actualized and empowered person, in superhero stories, it’s the superhero who has the power to save the masses.
There is nothing wrong with that narrative framework… except over time and amplified by amazing visual spectacle only Hollywood can produce, it makes me wonder if at least on a subliminal level the message that gets transmitted to moviegoers is this: “You cannot save yourself, you cannot solve your life problems, you need someone much bigger and more powerful than you to do that for you.”
Enter Donald Trump. He is a self-professed billionaire. He claims to be excellent at virtually everything. His name is emblazoned on dozens of artifices and companies. In his speeches, he proclaims he will keep U.S citizens safe, he will make America great again. He displays – in many respects – the qualities of a superhero with his superpower being his presumed business expertise and oversized persona.
Moreover he has simplistic, even dualistic view of the world: good guys and bad guys, and how he describes those he opposes makes them out to be villains who could easily inhabit a comic book universe.
The way Trump conducts himself in public, he could have been cast as Tony Stark’s rich uncle in the first Iron Man, both characters cut from the same brash, cocksure, profiteering cloth.
In the Republican primaries, Donald Trump trounced 16 other candidates who among them had over 200 years of political service while he himself has zero governmental experience. Bottom line what he has achieved with his candidacy is almost inconceivable.
My question is how much of the passionate support he has aroused among his supporters is based on the appeal that he can ‘save’ the day… just like a superhero?
I don’t presume to put words into Jon Spaihts’ mouth, one of the most talented screenwriters working in Hollywood today, but his tweet cited above conveys to me something both simple and profound: If superhero movies are fundamentally about Them saving Us, we need to balance out that narrative with stories about ordinary people who in going on their own hero’s journey are capable of doing extraordinary things themselves.
Carl Jung said, “The gods have become our diseases.” What are superheroes but our ‘gods’? Does the underlying message, repeated over and over and over again in these movie franchises — we are in peril, superheroes protect us — steer our cultural conversations away from what both Jung and Campbell suggested is the fundamental task of human existence?
Jung: “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
Campbell: “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.”
The Hero’s Journey delivers that life lesson to all people, even ordinary ones. It says, as Jon Spaihts writes, that each one of us “can make a difference”.
That’s not the collective message from the unending onslaught of superhero movies, where the masses in those stories are turned into helpless souls desperate for the sole protection available to them provided by extraordinary individuals.
That theme may have some play in movies – and in the political arena – but we also need stories which inspire regular people to find the courage to embrace what Jung suggests:
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”