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Myth and the hero's journey: Big screen blockbusters

Star Wars, Spider-Man - Tell Timeless Tales

by Chris Bergeron

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After leaving his ruined home in a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker began a journey taken by countless other heroes from Odysseus to Huckleberry Finn.

Along the way, the young adventurer encountered a wise knight, a charming princess and the husk of his father in a tale that began a long time ago but has come to seem as familiar as our own dreams.

Whether sending their creations across the wine dark seas or the deserts of Tatooine, storytellers from blind Homer to director George Lucas have used myths to reveal truths as old as time.

From every age and place, seekers like Odysseus and Huck Finn have set out as wanderers yet ended on profound quests to discover what it means to be human.

With the fifth installment of Lucas' intergalactic saga, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, primed for release on May 16, some are hailing it as the desperately needed, contemporary equivalent of the kind of myths that once inspired civilizations.

They point to Lucas' friendship with the late Joseph Campbell, the preeminent 20th-century expounder of mythology, as evidence his films were exploring far more than hyper-space.

Some, like television journalist Bill Moyers, believe Lucas has used his art to revitalize mankind's oldest story, the hero's journey, dressing it up in sci-fi duds to remind viewers if they forget it they'll be like Darth Vader - a hollow shell behind a mask.

And psychologist and author Jonathan Young describes Lucas' series as

    epic films that help us grasp the enormity of recent changes and point to what we might be called upon to bring to the historical moment.

He believes the Star Wars saga has propitiously arrived at a time when advanced technology has rendered old Gods obsolete in a secular age when individuals are estranged from nature, society and themselves.

Appearing at Harvard, Young described the film's episodes as wisdom tales that point the way to spiritual renewal and the path of right conduct in a trashy age.

He cited Lucas' treatment of the mysterious Force which Jedi knights regard as the unifying power of the universe and a potent power to be pursued and understood.

We have the Force within us just like theologians say we have the Holy Spirit, Young said. The Force is the most noble qualities a culture has to offer. It is whatever divine inspirations the religions pointed to.

He compared the experience of viewing a Lucas film in a darkened theater to the ritual very much like going to church on Sunday morning. It's kind of like religion of the psyche.

Young, who serves as Campbell's archivist, stated,

    We are living in a time between the myths. The compelling narratives of times past are not holding our energies the way they once did. So, there is some hope a new mythic vision will emerge.

From the ashes

But how?

Does Lucas expect moviegoers to learn swordplay with light sabers or pilot the Millennium Falcon through asteroid belts?

Of course not. Like Campbell, he asks for something far simpler, yet infinitely more difficult.

They ask people to cultivate their own inner resources with discipline, restraint and faith, the lesson Skywalker learns from all his various mentors.

    It is exciting what George Lucas is doing because he is such a serious student of myth and has taken the most compelling aspects of the patterns Campbell described and is presenting them back to us in the most marvelously dramatic fashion,

Young said.

Asked whether it was possible Lucas was merely imitating or echoing Campbell's mythological theories without understanding them, Young said it was very unlikely. Young said:

    From what I know of the 'Star Wars' scripts, Lucas had a very strong idea of what he wanted before bringing Campbell into it. So I do think there's a spontaneous, creative element to what Lucas has done.

Starting with his classic study, The Hero With 1,000 Faces, Campbell isolated certain mythic elements common to the legends, folklore and fairy tales of all cultures that constitute the hero's journey, a sort of psychic road trip through the major stages of life itself.

In that book, he described a Mono-myth common to all cultures in which the hero triumphs over a series of obstacles with the help of a mentor who bestows a boon, or gift, to assist him through his darkest moments.

Whether in Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz, Campbell felt the hero's adventures recapitulated the individual's progress from innocence, or psychic wholeness, to knowledge or sin - and, finally, back to a renewed wisdom.

For Young, the power of myth can also be found in comic books, like Spider-Man, which employ the standard theme of an awkward adolescent discovering he's blessed with extra-human powers.

'Spider-Man' is a classic in its own way. It's a compelling metaphor that indicates there's more to us than we might originally imagine, he said.

When comic character Peter Parker discovered his newfound talents, Young compared it to the common adolescent fantasy of wielding power. He said,

    To a young person, the discovery of power is quite miraculous. But Spider-Man's message is to wisely use the powers he's been given. His new powers aren't for his own glorification or enrichment but to make some contribution to others


Tarnished heroes

To the owners of two local comic book stores, it's no surprise readers find instructive moral lessons in the adventures of Superman and Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Captain Marvel.

Readers have always found comics to be morality plays, said Frank Urbano, owner of Paper Heroes in Holliston. I'd be lying if I said people don't want good to triumph over evil.

A former Boston housing police officer, Urbano pointed out comics are evolving in ways to match a changing world.

While DC Comics traditionally employed flawlessly good superheroes, rival Marvel relied on conflicted adolescent characters with ambiguous motives.

Decades later, new comics like Dark Horse and Image created characters, like Wolverine or the X-Men, often described as mutants who represented uneasy amalgams of good and evil.

The most extreme example of comics reflecting a malevolent world, Urbano said, might be Slave Labor Graphics which publishes Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

Richard Roach, owner of Hudmar Paper in Marlborough, believes superhero tales appeal to the adolescent fantasy of power, which he attributed to escapism - but not mythology.

The first days

As a film scholar who founded Boston College's cinema studies department, Professor John Michalczyk believes many popular films fall short of real mythic status.

While a movie like The Scorpion King has mythic pretensions, it merely parades lifeless mythic cliches that lack the timeless gravity of moral tales.

He questioned whether Hollywood treatments of timeless mythic themes could compare in depth and universality to the original ancient models that inspired them.

The author of 10 books on film, Michalczyk dismissed wrestler-turned-actor, The Rock, as a plastic hero, a flash in the pan, that won't have the longevity of a mythic heroes like Skywalker or Huck Finn.

For him, the cinematic Spider-Man also represented a secondhand myth rather than the genuine article.

Michalczyk suggested many contemporary artists are too secularized and distracted by popular culture to make art or films with a genuine mythic resonance.

    Myth is a sacred story. But these days I feel there's less of a touching of the human heart than imitating the outlines of myth itself.

As a writer and producer of contemporary comics, graduate student David Lewis, of Framingham, believes they can be appropriately sophisticated vehicles to explore complex subjects.

He characterized Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker as the typically conflicted hero who uses his newfound gifts to rise above his limitations to achieve self-knowledge, an echo of similar themes in Star Wars.

And while Lewis believes Spider-Man's story line fits Campbell's Mono-myth to a T, he pointed out the hero of an ongoing comic series can never come to the end of his travels, like Odysseus or Huck Finn, to share their wisdom without ending the comic line itself.

Earning a master's degree in literature at Georgetown University, Lewis speculated that comics' fixation on mutant characters reflected global nuclear fears at the height of very real Superpowers conflicts between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands, he believes story lines are again reflecting a national hunger for squeaky clean heroes like Superman of what fans call the golden age of comics.

Since the attacks, he pointed out the comic industry re-booted dormant heroes like GI Joe and Captain America as exemplars of national virtue. Lewis said:

    We're seeing a return to the spirit of heroism. We need heroes again. We want to believe in heroes. We'll see a return to the spirit of heroism but not the actual military expression of it. Right now, we see enough of that in the news.

Published: Sunday, May 5, 2002 Daily News, Framingham, MA (Suburb of Boston). Section: Arts & Culture