Fiction is a pep-talk a culture gives itself. We can learn a lot about a people by the tales they tell. We gravitate to stories that reinforce what we believe and hold dear. From our earliest days we’ve created myths, legends and fairy tales to teach moral lessons and boundaries. The fiction we create tells us how to be ‘Us’.
Joseph Cambell kind of messed up how we think about fiction when he showed us the trick- almost every story told revolved around the monomyth, or archetype of the hero’s journey. You’ve heard this one before- a young person (usually a man because history is kind of sexist) discovers a calling, embarks on a journey, overcomes a great obstacle or other task and returns a better man for the experience to share the rewards with the world. Of course there’s a lot more to it than that, but this is an article and not a college class. Anyway, Star Wars, Superman, Lord of the Rings and the Lion King are all based on the hero’s journey. So is the epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Moses and The Count of Monte Cristo. This basic plot device is at the core of our fiction and therefor a mirror into the collective psyche. How we reflect the hero’s journey says a lot about us.
In modern times, the most obvious representation of the hero’s journey is our fascination with comic book superheros. I mean, it’s right there in the name. Superheroes. While the conflicts or great tasks our hero encounters could be spiritual or intellectual or any number of less violent endeavors, our interpretation is that of the fight between good and evil. In the comic book world the superhero always has a nemesis- a master crook or supervillain- to provide the hero’s challenge and dramatic tension.
The superhero lives in a world gripped between two polar states- good or bad; hero vs. villain. The hero usually works alone or with a sidekick. His main job is to fight crime- foiling bank heists and museum robberies on a regular basis. Of course the hero can’t possibly stop every crime in town. His job is never done. He’s effective enough to keep the city happy but inefficient enough to stay in business.
So what about the other guy? He stays busy. The super villain has his fingers in a lot of action. Lex Luthor has Luthor Industries, a huge company dedicated to crime and mayhem. That’s building up a huge surplus of ‘bad’. Most superheroes have multiple foes, also. Batman has the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman and the Riddler. Each of them had an army of minions (or at least a decent sized gang) to do their bidding and insure a steady supply of ‘bad’. In the economy of the comic book world, the production of ‘bad’ is an order of magnitude larger than the effort to stop it.
How does the Superhero fight this huge industry of crime? Superman goes about his day as a reporter, writing public interest pieces and sports results until someone screams for help or he stumbles across a plot. Batman hangs out by the fire in his manor with a young protege and a manservant until the mayor decides to let him know he’s needed. Basically, the superhero goes about his business until there’s a crime to stop. All he does is react- he takes no active role to make ‘good’, he just partially hinders the supply of ‘bad’. As long as some ‘bad’ actually happens and no ‘good’ is ever produced, it doesn’t take long for the ‘bad’ to build up like fish poo in an aquarium, until all of Metropolis is floating belly up. The cards are stacked against our hero from the very start.
Hold on because it gets worse. We call it a ‘story arc’ for a reason- in the traditional hero’s journey the hero starts at one level, the action/danger/challenge increases and then returns to the original level. There is a building of tension and then a release. The hero’s reward is returning to his family and friends, winning the girl/saving the world/learning the Truth and living happily ever after. The superhero never gets this reward. The episodic nature of comic books sees him enter the conflict each week, over and over again like Sisyphus, Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, except that those are stories, so eventually even those heroes find some relief. Our superhero faces the same parade of foes over and over again. If insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results, then the Justice League is a mad house. To paraphrase Orwell “If you want a vision of the future, imagine the Joker lowering Batman into a vat of acid over and over – forever.”
So what does this interpretation of the hero’s journey monomyth say about our culture? Maybe we’re convinced that trying to beat the bad guys is a waste of time. Maybe it says that we see the world as an unrelenting slog of futility. Maybe it means we’re a morbid and cynical people who can’t stand a happy ending. I don’t know… maybe, but I think it’s something more hopeful. Maybe, deep down inside, we all still realize that we can’t do it by ourselves. One man can’t stand against the bad things and hope to make them better and we’re foolish to think so. We create these stories of broken, wasted heroes to try to remind ourselves that our hope doesn’t lie in superheroes- it lies in anti-supervillains. We need people willing to be good as fervently as the Joker wants to be bad. We need leaders who can direct their own armies of minions to wreak hope on the world. We need people to create corporations as dedicated to making the world better as Luthor Industries is to exploiting it. We need people willing to respond to the root cause of problems rather than just react to the symptoms.
Maybe our modern interpretation of the hero’s journey is our way of reminding ourselves that it is, after all, just a myth. There are no heroes and no special journeys. There are no villains. No one is ‘chosen’ to save us. In the real world we are all heroes. We are all on a journey. We are all capable of good or evil. Most importantly- we all have to work together to save ourselves.