What is a hero? Is it someone who overcomes adversity, or is moral? Are all heroes the same? There is no definitive answer to these questions. As a result, we see a plethora of heroes on our screens. From the superheroes of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, to the all-action heroes of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to the otherworldly heroes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, they come in all shapes and sizes. Until, that is, we take a closer look at how these heroes are presented to us. Thus, we come to the monomyth.
Also called The Hero’s Journey, the monomyth is a structural archetype of the hero’s story. Both broad and specific, it has been foundational to many of the cinematic touch-points of mainstream culture. Originating in Joseph Campbell’s seminal work “The Hero of a Thousand Faces“, it has been used to define the journey of key religious and mythic figures, before finding contemporary footing in film. It is here we can start to question the relationship between the monomyth, religious deities, and modern screen heroes. If the monomyth is found in the stories of Moses, Buddha and Jesus, as well as the stories of Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker and John MacLaine, are these on-screen heroes contemporary deities? In exploring this premise, we can better understand the entrenched religiosity of our beloved cinematic characters, and how we as filmgoers and fans are engaging in a worship of cinematic Gods.
The monomyth itself contains several stages, the first of which is the “call to adventure”. Whether it’s Frodo deciding to be responsible for the one ring of power in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, or Luke Skywalker being asked by Obi-Wan Kenobi to learn the ways of the force and rescue Princess Leia, it is what propels the hero to begin their journey. Once the hero understands – and ultimately accepts – their new-found responsibility, a supernatural or magical entity emerges to help guide our hero. It is at this point that a separation occurs, whereby our hero “crosses the first threshold”.
“If we take the relationship of the hero to their narrative world to its logical conclusion, we can surmise that heroes are gods within their own story.”
Once the threshold is crossed, our hero begins ‘initiation’ and reaches the “belly of the whale”, which is the hero moving from the safety of their ‘known’ world and into the ‘unknown’ realm. Once the ‘unknown’ realm has been breached, the hero is faced with the “road of trials”. These trials aren’t always successfully passed, but they are presented as obstacles the hero must overcome. Following their trials, a “meeting with the Goddess” ensues, which is the hero’s brush with a powerful, unconditional love. Our hero is then met with temptation, which serves to derail their journey.
Once overcome, the hero is faced with the ‘ultimate power’ in their life– usually in the form of a father figure. This is followed by apotheosis, which is when the hero dies – either spiritually or physically – to emerge again in a state of divinity. “The ultimate boon” follows, which is the achievement of the goal the hero initially set out to achieve. The hero, having completed their task and found divinity and enlightenment in the ‘other world’, can refuse to return to their old world, and can also undergo a “magic flight”, which is another journey during which the hero must escape with the boon. Now, having been through initial ‘separation’, and the tumultuous but ultimately rewarding ‘initiation’, the hero makes their return.
This may require a “rescue from without”, which is an ushering back into the home world to acclimatize to everyday life. From here, the hero “crosses the return threshold”, sharing the wisdom and knowledge gained from the journey so far with the material, known home world. Now, the hero is a “master of two worlds” – being able to balance and master the material, liveable world and the ethereal, spiritual world – and has a “freedom to live”, which is a state of nirvana without fear or regret.
Having outlined the Hero’s Journey, it is important to reiterate the instability of this model. Not all stories about heroes adhere completely to these steps. Variation is common, and at times, the hero’s journey can disclude or repeat one or more of these story elements. Nonetheless, the basic steps of the journey are a common thread throughout stories of religious figures and cinematic heroes. In being faced with trials, temptation and enlightenment in similar ways, heroes and deities are assuming the same path to self-hood and self-realization. In broaching these parallels, the question of cinematic gods emerges.
If we take the relationship of the hero to their narrative world to its logical conclusion, we can surmise that heroes are gods within their own story. Maximus is revered by the Romans when he dies at the conclusion of Gladiator, and Harry Potter is long considered ‘the one’ in his world of witchcraft and wizardry. Tellingly, in the real world the heroes of these films have been deified. Fandom ensures that heroes are replicated and re-purposed in our own image – Halloween costumes, fan expos, fan fiction, and video games are just a few means of bringing the hero from the screen to the world in a tangible, controllable way. This is no longer the viewing and consumption of cinematic gods, but a mediation of the aura and feeling they emit for the audience, which is distinct with the religious world’s relationship with God. Our heroes are malleable, whereas conceptions of God are absolute.
We can go back to Joseph Campbell, who proposes in “The Hero of a Thousand Faces” that “the two—the hero and his ultimate god, the seeker and the found—are thus understood as the outside and inside of a single, self-mirrored mystery, which is identical with the mystery of the manifest world”. In our own search for a manifestation of grounded morals and endless empathy, we collapse the real and the unreal, the material and the imaginable. Our place of realization is the multiplex, where collective engagement brings these gods into our world. Repeated and redrawn, they provide the imagistic possibility of a God without the explicit indoctrination of religious practices. Instead, we get capes, wands and lightsabers, deified within and without the screen.