The Modern Hero Through the Lens of Joseph Campbell
Updated: Nov 27, 2019
The original publication of this post can be found here, on ComicsVerse.com.
The introduction of Superman in 1938 presented comic book readers with an ideal exemplification of the archetypal hero. However, in a world where Superman snaps General Zod’s neck, and The Punisher does not hesitate to kill his foes, it is safe to say that one definition of a hero, or superhero, does not exist.
In 1949 though, The Hero With a Thousand Faces shattered the perceptions of what it meant to be a hero. Joseph Campbell, an American author, known for his innovative works of comparative mythology, demonstrated the varying definitions of the archetypal hero throughout a variety of generations and cultures.
He provided a multi-dimensional representation of the individual in regard to their journey into a different, albeit greater, identity. No, there is no correct definition of a hero, but to become one, the individual must embark on an intricate journey to get to the point of transcendence.
Throughout The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell asserts the need for one to undergo a long and challenging journey to affirm their identity as a hero. The origins of many of our favorite superheroes undergo similar quests.
HUMAN BEINGS ARE BORN TOO SOON; THEY ARE UNFINISHED, UNREADY AS YET TO MEET THE WORLD.
In the 2017 hit Wonder Woman, the titular hero, also known as Diana, showcases a naïveté, unlike many other superheroes. It is a naïveté that augments her belief in the good of humanity.
However, her wide-eyed nature also inhibits her preparation in regard to confronting the evil humanity is capable of performing. Thus, one must wonder, how can Wonder Woman take on a challenge she does not fully understand?
THE STANDARD PATH OF THE MYTHOLOGICAL ADVENTURE OF THE HERO IS A MAGNIFICATION OF THE FORMULA REPRESENTED IN THE RITES OF PASSAGE: SEPARATION — INITIATION — RETURN.
Joseph Campbell defines a hero’s journey into greater understanding through three stages, as depicted in the quote above. Films such as Wonder Woman, Batman Begins, and Iron Man parallel this quest. The journey thus exemplifies the origins of a superhero. As the hero abandons what is familiar to them, they are forced to adapt to a new world.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne relocates from Gotham City to a remote location on the other side of the world. He abandons his identity in hope of becoming someone he has yet to know. This rebirth results in a call of duty for Bruce, which of course leads to his vigilantism.
Regarding the 2008 film Iron Man, Tony Stark did not intend on embarking on a spiritual journey that contributed to his change in identity like Bruce Wayne. He was forced to adapt to a perilous situation in which the capacity of his own power as Tony Stark confronted him. This confrontation translated into an exposure of Stark’s vulnerabilities as a man afraid of his own power.
This ultimately parallels the journey of Bruce Wayne in which he had to confront the capabilities of evil as well but through a different form. Bruce had to confront the murder of his parents, exemplified through his fear of bats, during his journey to heroism. Fear is human and vulnerable, yet it is necessary to enhance one’s self. To overcome evil, one must encompass an anchor to feeling.
Thus, as these individuals engage in strange new worlds, they find themselves adapting. They engage in…
…A WORLD OF UNFAMILIAR YET STRANGELY INTIMATE FORCES.
How can a world be both unfamiliar and familiar to an individual? Well, perhaps their entry into that world was inscribed in their destiny.
A variety of events may catalyze one’s journey to the threshold. Joseph Campbell defines the hero’s threshold as the pivotal moment in which an individual is challenged. In regard to the superhero, the push towards the threshold may have a multitude of causes. One can be the shattering of faith. Perhaps an individual has lost hope of salvation as they have witnessed too much tragedy by the hand of evil.
This perception is exemplified by the nature of Frank Castle, also known as The Punisher. After witnessing the murder of his wife and children, Castle engages in a transformation. He abandons his faith in conventional justice in favor of his own. Castle’s old world no longer exists.
THE FAMILIAR LIFE HORIZON HAS BEEN OUTGROWN; THE OLD CONCEPTS, IDEALS, AND EMOTIONAL PATTERNS NO LONGER FIT; THE TIME FOR THE PASSING OF A THRESHOLD IS AT HAND.
Interestingly, Bruce Wayne’s journey towards the threshold parallels Castle’s in various aspects. Of course, their journeys result in different embodiments of the hero. Upon losing his parents at the tender age of 8, Bruce Wayne’s childhood reaches an abrupt end.
He must abandon all the comforts and securities of his former life since they no longer exist in his new reality. He must pass the threshold into the new phase of his life. The question Bruce had to confront though was, how?
Thus begins the origin of Batman! As the identity of Batman begins to form, Bruce realizes that his own destiny is not solely his own possession. His journey into heroism is one that will affect those he vows to protect.
NOT HIS PERSONAL FATE, BUT THE FATE OF MANKIND, OF LIFE AS A WHOLE, THE ATOM AND ALL THE SOLAR SYSTEMS, HAS BEEN OPENED TO HIM.
Because of his engagement in his personal journey, Bruce has attained knowledge that is not readily available to the common individual. His destiny, as well as his personal desire to seek the unfamiliar, has provided him with the capacity to become a hero.
Joseph Campbell discusses that the journey of a hero is one that encompasses a multitude of challenges, exemplified through the threshold. Though many forces may be at play in regard to bringing the individual to that threshold, one in particular plays a major role.
…DESTINY HAS SUMMONED THE HERO AND TRANSFERRED HIS SPIRITUAL CENTER OF GRAVITY FROM WITHIN THE PALE OF HIS SOCIETY TO A ZONE UNKNOWN.
Destiny is what distinguishes the hero, or superhero, from the individual. In Wonder Woman, Diana’s defeat of the God Ares was inevitable since she was created to be the god-killer.
She was meant to be the one to save humanity and The Amazons from the wrath of Ares. Of course, this predestination of various superheroes is not always so explicit. For the most part, it is not explicit at all.
Rather, the hero often expresses trepidation in regard to taking up their selfless role. It is a role that often results in isolation, a removal from the common world. As a result, one can define the role of a hero by its sacrificial nature.
THE HERO IS THE CHAMPION OF THINGS BECOMING, NOT OF THINGS BECOME.
Of course, the motivation for the hero is often that they are aware that their efforts in making the world a better place, one void of evil, is for a greater future. Even if the difference cannot be visible during their time as a hero, they maintain the hope that one day their efforts will leave a legacy, one of change and inspiration.
Joseph Campbell often discusses the juxtaposition of two opposing forces that the universe must maintain for the individual forces to exist. With this, one must address the possibility of good standing alone without the existence of evil. How does one measure good if they cannot assess it by the capacity of evil?
UNIVERSAL TOO IS THE CASTING OF THE ANTAGONIST, THE REPRESENTATIVE OF EVIL.
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Sound familiar? The Dark Knight addresses the downfall of a hero by the simple corruption of their faith. Of course, this event can take place before they cross the threshold. However, it is worth noting that a superhero is just as susceptible to succumbing to evil as the individual.
One can argue that The Punisher himself is a villain, as he tends to break the conventional mold of the superhero.
THE HERO OF YESTERDAY BECOMES THE TYRANT OF TOMORROW, UNLESS HE CRUCIFIES HIMSELF TODAY… THIS IS THE WISDOM OF THE END (AND REBEGINNING OF THE WORLD).
To Campbell, the universe exists in a cycle. The individual will become the hero, defeat evil, and then proceed to become the very evil he had defeated. He will rise from the depths and assume the power they had fought to defeat. During this though, another will assume the position of the hero and defeat the fallen hero.
Thus, the cycle persists, unless the hero sacrifices themselves. The sacrifice of oneself for a greater cause is an event that is certainly not unfamiliar to the tales of superheroes. Films such as The Dark Knight and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice exemplify this sacrifice in different capacities.
Batman sacrifices his own reputation so that the faith of Gotham City’s citizens will not break. Superman sacrifices his life to save the world from the wrath of Doomsday. Despite these differences in action, the manner in which these superheroes overcome the intricate forces of evil is one worthy of admiration. Their acts thus break the cycle, allowing their legacy to remain good.
The Return of the Hero
In films such as Batman Begins and Iron Man, the individual returns to the world that was once familiar to them. Perhaps it still is, but the person they were before leaving their home does not exist anymore. Joseph Campbell perceives this return to be the final stage in the journey of a hero. To Campbell, the return of the hero begins a new journey in which they reveal what they have acquired through their quest.
THE WHOLE HERO-LIFE IS SHOWN TO HAVE BEEN A PAGEANT OF MARVELS WITH THE GREAT CENTRAL ADVENTURE AS ITS CULMINATION.
In the context of the superhero, this results in the engagement with the world, mostly depicted through battles against evil. What is a hero without their grand tales of adventure that others will tell for generations? There is certainly a pride that encompasses a hero. However, this pride is not one that consumes, but rather, one that empowers them with confidence to go into war head-on.
Of course, each individual who engages with their destiny to become something more than what they have been, finds themselves developing a unique quest. The journey of each hero is distinct. Despite this, though each individual may choose their own path to take, the results of their respective journeys will parallel each other since they decided to let their destiny take over and become the hero they were always meant to be.
NOT EVERYONE HAS A DESTINY: ONLY THE HERO WHO HAS PLUNGED TO TOUCH IT.