The Hero’s Journey was formulated by the mythologist Joseph Campbell back in 1949 as a novel attempt to draw together the legends of innumerable cultures around a single narrative structure. The thoroughness with which the idea has permeated our culture since then is staggering: not only does it form the foundation for analysis of antiquarian epics like The Odyssey and Gilgamesh, but its rhythms have become integral to the big budget franchises that plague our contemporary cinemas.
As you may remember from high school, the formula begins with a call to action, an intrusion of a sinister actor into the would-be hero’s normal life that leads him to venture out into the unknown world. Guided by a supernatural force (usually in the guise of a mentor), the hero must surmount a number of challenges that culminate in a decisive confrontation with whatever nemesis is revealed to have been the source of that initial intrusion. Only once that nemesis is defeated is he able to return home, now equipped with power and wisdom that can be shared.
Famously, the movie that brought The Hero’s Journey to Hollywood was Star Wars. But the credit is misapplied. See, at a banquet honoring Campbell, George Lucas himself admitted that if he hadn’t stumbled upon Campbell’s work, “I’d still be writing Star Wars today.” Indeed, the exactness with which Star Wars conforms to Campbell’s schema can only be explained by the fact that it was written to follow it. Briefly: Luke Skywalker is called to action by the killing of his aunt and uncle by storm troopers, he is mentored in the ways of the Force first by Obi Wan Kenobi and then by Yoda, and finally defeats Darth Vader once his command of the Force has grown strong enough. The new Star Wars trilogy, whose second installment The Last Jedi has already made $1.3 billion worldwide, fills in the concluding gap in Luke’s arc left by the original movies. After the fall of the Empire, we learn, Luke began a Jedi academy in order to share what he had learned in his adventures with a new generation. But unfortunately for him, the Hero’s Journey was always meant to be a cycle: the once-banished threat reemerged, destroyed Luke’s new academy, and now the time has come for a new Jedi to rise and do it all over again.
Typologies of narrative are useful in that they allow the affective experience of fiction to be eluded in order for the structure propping it up to be compartmentalized, defined, and studied. The Hero’s Journey is a framework through which undergrads are able to put Star Wars up against The Odyssey, leading to otherwise unthinkable comparisons between the island of the Cyclops and the trash compactor room on the Death Star. Such analysis may be fodder for academics, but for writers, relying too much on the pro forma plot the Hero’s Journey outlines can be deadly. With The Last Jedi, Lucas’ turn to typology to construct his epic is revealed as the original sin it was. He got away with it for one cycle of movies, but this is the third go around and the mold is starting to show signs of wear.
In the new film, Rey seeks Luke out to convince him to teach her the ways of the Jedi (just as Luke did with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back). Meanwhile, in an echo of Han Solo and Leia’s trip to Cloud City to appeal to Lando Calrissian for help, Rey’s non-force wielding friends jet off to a fabulous casino to find a scoundrel who will help them circumvent the Empire-lite First Order’s shields. The most striking reverberation of Empire comes at the conclusion of The Last Jedi, when the First Order sieges the Resistance’s final redoubt on the salt-flats of Crait. The visuals of hulking gray war machines striding across white earth is a dead ringer for the siege of the Rebel base on the ice world of Hoth that opened that earlier movie. Yes, the plot specifics differ, as does the placement of each battle in the run-time of the film. Still, there’s little arguing that the material that gives The Last Jedi its backbone has not been reinvented here so much as reshuffled.
Some might point out that all these callbacks represent is innocent fan service. The filmmakers simply wanted to give the obsessives what they fell in love with i the first place while also varying the specifics just enough so they would have something to argue about once the lights come up. If that’s all one’s hoping for from this new trilogy, I suppose The Last Jedi is a success. But please don’t begrudge me my disappointment that formula has taken hold of a franchise that is perhaps the finest at world-building in Hollywood history. The scale of the Star Wars project is so capacious that it has led to the emergence of everything from Ewoks to four-armed lightsaber-wielding droids. Far be it from me to argue that the prequels that came out between 1999 and 2005 are a more enjoyable collection of films than this current batch— if I never see Hayden Christensen’s lip quiver again it will be too soon— but at least they took chances. The grand arc of that trilogy mirrored the hero’s journey, too, but it twinned it with a tragic love story and set it against the fall of a once-noble Republic. Their fatal flaw was the execution (which is to say: the performances, and the dialogue, and Jar Jar, and thinking “Attack of the Clones” sounded cool, and…), not the conception.
These films, instead, feel cynical. Disney took the revulsion that those prequels were greeted with as license to play it safe, and so their new trilogy became a contemporary remix of the thing that worked 40 years ago. The First Order would replace the Empire, The Resistance would replace The Rebel Alliance, Rey would replace Luke, Po would replace Han, and BB-8 would replace R2-D2. Collectively, these substitutions represent the final stultification of the Hero’s Journey from a loose analytical framework into a rigorous form. It’s a shame, but it’s not a surprise. Now that every franchise from Batman to Jurassic Park to Planet of the Apes follows the Hero’s Journey script, how could a franchise whose DNA is so irrevocably bound-up with it not fall victim to its worst iteration?
I have two super exciting projects from my nearest and dearest for you to check out this month. The first is my fiancée Theresa Sullivan’s newsletter, Lunch [Break] Poems, a monthly digest of poetry geared to the ever-so-many of us who enjoy poetry, but are too intimidated by journals and readings to make much of an attempt to discover it for ourselves. The other is a new year-long project my brother Nathan is doing called zine2018. Nathan is an independent tabletop game designer, but the 12 monthly installments of the zine are intended to quite a bit wider than his profession might suggest. There will be “personal and introspective essays, thematic writing, visual and graphic art, collage and mashups, old work re-interpreted, reviews and analysis of other things out in the world, bitter regrets, hot takes, and interactive fiction activities (dare I say: games) for you and your friends.” Subscribe to Theresa’s newsletter here to be sure you don’t miss the first installment of Lunch [Break] Poems (out this week!), and get zine2018 by becoming one of Nathan’s patrons.
Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on twitter @KPaoletta, or staring glumly out the window at the Zakim Bridge and the gray winter sky.