From Hamlet and Cinderella to Luke Skywalker and Batman, the greatest characters embark on a journey that takes them from a humble or unfortunate beginning to a heroic or affluent end – or from a successful and happy life at the top, all the way down to the bottom (and, possibly, back up).
This character progression is often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey,” and it’s what makes these classic stories so compelling.
This format is simple, but effective. The gist of it is that a character starts out either lacking something or needing something, and he/she gains it at the end.
This can be anything from an abused orphan who becomes a king to a greedy CEO who loses his company but becomes a better person – and this format has been effective at driving a story since time immemorial.
And it’s no coincidence. This kind of character development is synonymous with good storytelling and proper filmmaking.
For example, Luke Skywalker starts out as an angsty farm boy who dreams of leaving his desert planet to see the galaxy – and the Catalyst that makes it possible (the murder of his family) is what sends him on his Hero’s Journey, which transforms him into a hero of the rebellion, and, later, into a Jedi Master.
Another example is Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. He starts out as an angry young man, hell-bent on avenging the deaths of his parents – and then, right before he’s about to shoot his parents’ killer, the man is assassinated by a mafioso right in front of him, which destroys his only shot at revenge.
Afterwards, he sets out to travel the world and train in various martial arts – later deciding to become a crime-fighter and contribute to the betterment of mankind.
Point being, the Hero’s Journey speaks to us – we’re drawn into the story because of it, and, when it’s done right, it’s relatable and teaches us a lesson that will benefit us just as much as it guides the protagonist.
To reference the wisdom of my screenwriting idol, the late Blake Snyder – a successful screenwriter and author of the Save the Cat! Book series – to create an emotionally fulfilling and financially successful film, you need to understand what audiences and executives alike demand, which can be summarized by his quote: “Give me the same thing, only different!”
And this prevails throughout filmmaking. Star Wars is just The Wizard of Oz and Flash Gordon put together; Harry Potter is just Star Wars in high school; most romantic comedies follow the same formula (i.e., two seemingly incompatible people get stuck together, fall in love, have an argument, then get together); and every quasi-medieval fantasy story is just a spiritual successor to The Lord of The Rings (looking at you, Skyrim).
Seems harmless enough, right? So, what could go wrong? A lot, since what’s happened is that the vast majority of films these days have simply abandoned the concept, and I’ll explain how.
There are countless examples of this mistake that I could go into (e.g., Terminator: Dark Fate, Captain Marvel, Hobbs and Shaw, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets).
But I’ll just talk about the most famous offender of all time – the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy – which was a complete and utter
train wreck of inconceivable proportions. To simply focus on my point, a huge reason why it failed was because the hero had no journey.
The protagonist, a young woman named Rey, yet another young adult with wanderlust living a mundane life on a desert planet, starts out with everything she needs right off the get-go.
Rewind 20-or-so years, and we have Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy. He begins his journey as a whiny kid (and, later, brooding young man) who slowly changes into the evil Darth Vader, completing his (anti-)Hero’s Journey.
Rewind all the way back to 1977, and we have Luke Skywalker – the son of whiny Anakin – who starts out just as whiny as his dad. He begins his journey as an immature farm boy with wanderlust and ends up becoming a selfless hero and wise master.
Whereas, in stark contrast, we have Rey, who’s already a skilled fighter – humiliating a soldier with her wooden staff and defeating a highly trained Jedi in lightsaber combat despite never having held one before.
She can speak Wookie; she can swim perfectly despite living on a desert planet for her entire life; she can learn force powers out of nowhere that no one else ever learned in thousands of years of force training; and she never makes any bad decisions.
I look at this protagonist, and I think, “Where’s the character development?” She stays the same throughout the trilogy, and all that her “journey” really comes down to is just her steamrolling her way through every obstacle in her path with zero effort as we sit back and observe, utterly bored and unsatisfied.
This isn’t a character that I can root for, since she’s just not relatable – she doesn’t have a weakness that she has to overcome, and she has no real goal beyond the superficiality of “I must defeat the bad guys.”
So, Hollywood’s abandonment of the Hero’s Journey in favor of prioritizing the “eye candy” aspect of a film is ultimately killing filmmaking, and it’s a tragedy.
However, there still remains a glimmer of hope.
A recent example of a successful Hero’s Journey is that of Dr. Stephen Strange in Doctor Strange (2016).
Strange starts out as a smug, egotistical surgeon who’s so self-absorbed that he seriously won’t operate on a patient simply because he doesn’t want to risk the possibility of ruining his perfect record.
And what happens next? The Catalyst, in the form of a car accident, takes away his ability to perform surgery. Obviously, given that his entire life and ego revolve around his medical skills, he desperately seeks out anything or anyone he can to fix his hands.
However, he instead finds a new purpose – to train as a Sorcerer and hone his newfound powers to protect the world. To summarize, he goes from a self-absorbed jerk to the savior of the planet in under two hours, and the solid pacing makes it fall
perfectly into place.
What this means is that there’s still hope – some mainstream filmmakers are still fighting the good fight to deliver us the Hero’s Journey that we crave as moviegoers.
And how can we do our part to help usher in a new golden age of character-driven filmmaking, you might ask?
We can raise our expectations and hold executives accountable to provide us with solid, engaging, and inspiring movies that tell stories that change our lives (or at least thrill us for an hour or two).
As audience members, that is our Hero’s Journey.
Have a little hope, and it will be done.