The Hero’s Journey and Useful Frameworks

So let me talk a little bit about Campbell’s “heroes journey”.  Thanks to Mr. Lucas and a number of other well-known storytellers over the past decades, Campbell’s “heroes journey” has become an easy reference for the uninitiated, a touchstone for critics, for commentary.

The idea of Campbell’s “Monomyth”, the idea that there is one single structure that appears over and over throughout all cultures and narratives is hugely compelling, isn’t it?  That ALL humans have this in common, that any story written to fit this heroic structure is going to instantly connect with every member of the human race.  Like it’s some kind of built-in genetic proclivity.

But look, storytelling is a *profession*.  Whether you’re penning narratives for Telltale’s latest IP-driven opus, orating in a Hellenic-era amphitheater, or trying to convince the innkeeper that you can keep his rowdy customers entertained long enough to be worth the price of a beer and a corner by the fire, it is a craft.  And like all crafts, elements of it become standardized.

Many high-producing authors, writers who crank out multiple books in the year, or journalists who pen ten to twenty pieces per day, have to develop their own process, their own standardized format that they can hang their story on. I would suggest that this is, the fact that storytelling is a business, is the reason the “Hero’s Journey” format still exists.

It serves as a useful tool, a way to frame a narrative in such a fashion that the author knows that the readers will be able to understand it. Most readers have been exposed to it or something very much like it. They may not recognize it as such (much like nobody ever seems to notice that one episode of Colombo that was essentially Macbeth but with early-80’s hair), but they are unconsciously familiar enough to be able to follow the beats. It reduces the workload on a storyteller, they can focus on character building, they can focus on world building, and they can focus on their luscious purple prose without having to worry that the reader will be able to follow the plot.

BUT, as with all such tools, it can become as much of a hindrance as it is a help. Many stories (even different episodes of the same longer storyline) will do better with a different sub-structure, this kind of repetition is an easy way to get Franchise Fatigue. BUT because the “Hero’s Journey” format is such a convenient shortcut  when you’re writing to a deadline (or coming up with a story on the fly to keep the innkeeper from making you sleep in the barn) it has been the default setting for a thousand years or more.

But you know, as creatives, (writers, filmmakers, sequential artists and more) part of our job is pushing the envelope. Stories that once were too experimental (the lunatic structure in Inception comes to mind, as does the “everything’s connected” wrap-ups in Dirk Gently) are cropping up more and more.  Audiences that are getting tired of sequel-itis (oh look, it’s the same as the first movie, with a different bad-guy and more kissing) are starting to look for more surprises in their storytelling, and anyone still relying too heavily on old, unmodified story structures is going to find themselves in a niche market.

 

All the things not said in Thor Ragnarok

OK so let me wax a little bit poetic about the costuming in Thor Ragnarok, and a little more specifically how they may be telegraphing a new arc for Loki post-Ragnarok.  I am, as anyone who’s taking one of my classes will tell you, a huge fan of the use of color subtext in film and other visual media.  It’s subtle, it’s often clever and it can be as big an emotional driver as sound and story in the right hands.

Colors are chosen for a reason. You get that right?  Much has been made of Superman’s “red/white/blue” color scheme or Batman’s transitions between blue or black capes and cowls during different periods of his run.  In any society, even in contemporary society, colors mean things. In the United States red is used for love, white or silver is used for purity, you get the kind of thing I mean.  This subtext is going to change depending on where you live, but with the globalization of media, those lines are getting blurred all the time.  Right now, however, there is a color language that everyone innately understands because of their cultural context, even if they can’t call out the meanings case by case.

In Thor Ragnarok, Loki, who up until now has been our favorite mischievous evil-doer, has his look and his top black-sheep status swiped by Hela.  His older, adoptive sister storms into the film in her own iconic green and black threads and her own stunningly horned headgear. 

Hela in full vamp.Hela in full “Battle-dress”

And then she promptly kicks everybody’s ass, essentially making Loki look like he’s been playing dress-up in his big sister’s vampy heels, rather than embracing evil on a serious and visceral level.  As far as “evil” is concerned, Loki is and has been a poser.

Loki in his green Asgardian “super suit”at the start of the film.

When we next see Loki his color palette has changed.  He hasn’t gone with the primary-colored stylings of his brother (who undergoes his own costume-transformation) but rather than the green and black and gold-tones we have become accustomed to seeing as Loki’s “Asgardian super-suit”, everything is cast much more blue

Thor and Loki, post ass-kicking

He’s ceded the black and green of the “bad-guy” for shades of blue and brown. He’s aligned himself, color palette wise, with his brother (look at how the blue on Thor’s left shoulder brace matches the blue on Loki’s everything). With the good guys.  Someone else has taken up the mantle of Big Bad, and Loki has begun to reinvent himself…  Or has he?

When we get to the final fight sequence, the green comes back, it’s a lot more subtle, a lot more subdued than Loki was sporting at the outset.  BUT, let me draw your attention to those knives Loki’s sporting.  See those handles?  See that blue there?  Whatever change Loki started after Hela took his look is still there and is helping to drive his actions.

The focus of this film is Thor, lets be clear about that, but in the background (playing younger-brother second fiddle as always, I suppose) we’re being shown the start of a change in Loki’s character, possibly with an eye towards an “Agent of Asgard” spin for our favorite almost-villain.  I mean, in the mythologies, Ragnarok was the end of all things, followed by a reboot, the world starting over.  You wouldn’t have to stretch very far to suggest that, now that Loki’s arc as the “bad guy” is over, that character might evolve into something new.

This is the way the world….

I had the privilege today to hear a 90 year old newspaper man catch himself using an insensitive term in a pitch and correct himself with grace.  The world did not end.  The ground did not shake.  Everyone in the room took one, very small, step closer to being better than we were before.