I am sitting by my computer, waiting for this movie to come out:
But I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen it.
It’s because there is a new trend in popular culture. Everything is uniform, and critical insight has been supplanted by an analysis of form and structure. In essence, people audit the story for conformance to established norms.
This, in itself, is not bad. Some structures are emotionally effective than others. If you want to tell a story about “Rebirth”, then the “Hero’s Journey” structure is always ineffective. As rebirth is a renewal, and hero’s journies require a precedent innocence for the hero to lose throughout the story.
For clarity, the Hero’s Journey is this is:
- 1. A person ventures forth,
- 2. From a common world,
- 3. To a supernatural world, and
- 4. Is threatened by fabulous forces, then
- 5. Scores a decisive victory, and
- 6. Returns to the common world,
- 7. Now changed.
You may recognize this literary structure. It serves as the plot of most major motion pictures. This as movies have a star (ex. Brie Larson, Tom Cruise), and the movie follows the star.
Here’s it in Lord of the Rings:
- 1. Frodo decides to go on a journey,
- 2. Leaving the shire,
- 3. To the land of Mordor,
- 4. Chased by Sauron, until
- 5. He destroys the ring, and
- 6. Returns to the Shire, and
- 7. Decides to leave.
Here is it in Casablanca:
- 1. Rick takes possession of letters of transit,
- 2. Abandoning his neutral position in the war,
- 3. Leading to his involvement with Ilsa,
- 4. Antagonizing the military
- 5. Causing him to smuggle Lazlo out of the country, and
- 6. Making him cut a deal with Renault,
- 7. Causing the two to join the resistance.
Here is it in Star Wars:
- 1. Jar Jar Binks sticks his tongue in the pod racer,
- 2. Causing his electrocution,
- 3. Leading to people leaving the theatre, and
- 4. Antoganizing any Star Wars fan,
- 5. Causing them to protest the prequel trilogy,
- 6. Pressuring George Lucas to sell to Disney,
- 7. Who make Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
So, it’s a common trope. Stories are formulaic, and differ more in symbol than structure. We can credit whomever for its propagation. A popular influence in modernity for this structure is a piece-of-shit book called Beowulf. This is the book that elderly University Professors read when they want to masturbate in front of a mirror, sultrily licking their lips and muttering “Mmm… Quite.”
This is the structure of most movies. Again, movies have a star, and the film must follow the star. It’s also the structure that has wrecked movies, and relegated them to things playing on Netflix while I chill with women I met on Tinder.
That’s because, as a society, we are trying to be less racist. This is a noble and admirable goal, and we should all keep trying to be better.
But that creates tension in narratives involving the Hero’s Journey. The structure requires a dichotomic duality between the “common” and the “supernatural”. This is because the hero needs somewhere to leave, so she may now be somewhere else. This makes it work better for certain types of stories. It works best when there is a supernatural element – fantasy societies (ex. goblins), the paranormal (ex. ghosts), the undiscovered (ex. space) – and works worse with others – family dramas, comedies.
The simple fact is that the hero needs somewhere to go, and stories require places to go. This is because sentences require multiple words. It is not more complicated than this.
The hero must move somewhere. And, in popular media, it is fairly common to have the hero journey through matters of social construction. These are stories where:
- 1. A person leaves a small town or sheltered community,
- 2. Leaving behind their social circle,
- 3. To make it big in the city, and
- 4. Struggles against an immoral authority, then
- 5. Defeats their opponent through virtue, and
- 6. Returns to their social circle,
- 7. With an expanded worldview.
You may recognize this as the plot of such movies as Legally Blonde, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Jerry Maguire, Every Single Marvel Movie, Notting Hill, 10 Things I hate About You, When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Clueless, Say Anyting, 13 Going on 30, 16 Again, How To Lose a Guy in 10 Dates, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Princess Bride, Hitch, Big, Sixteen Candles, Never Been Kissed, There’s Something About Mary, The Forty Year Old Virgin, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 50 First Dates, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Silver Linings Playbook, Saw 1, 500 Days of Summer, He’s Just Not That Into You, A Serbian Film, Bridesmaids, Titanic, The Shining, The Godfather Part III, Batman: The Dark Knight, Good Will Hunting, Friday The Thirteenth 9: Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Friday the Thirteenth 10: Jason X, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Gladiator, Blade Runner, The Matrix 1, Ghostbusters (Original), Ghostbusters (Reboot), The Big Lebowski, Top Gun, Caddyshack, Every Rocky movie, Slumdog Millionaire, Inception, Die Hard, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Die Hard 3, Live Free or Die Hard, Brokeback Mountain, Blazing Saddles, Almost Famous, The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, Fargo, The Silence of the Lambs, Annie Hall, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Dumb and Dumber, Step Brothers, 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, 23 Jump Street, The Hangover, and, of course, The Wizard of Oz.
However, times have changed. We live in an intersectional society, and films are now aware of the consequences of creating a cultural other. Applying and paraphrasing the works of Edward Said, it has been historically conducted in a shitty, racist way. That may be the most reductive summary anyone has ever provided of the book “Orientalism”.
This is because the hero must overcome a fabulous force. This fabulous force must be immoral, and have support. This means that, in social construction, the force must be despotic. A real-life example of a “Despotic Force” can be seen in DJ Trump.
But this also means that a film like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” will likely not be made anymore. That movie, while fun, depended on problematic, diminutive, necessarily-cannibalistic representations of Indigenous Peoples. Instantaneous modes of communications allow citizens in one area to become immediately aware that there is nothing mysterious and elusive about another area, and vice versa. Stories that portray these cultures as fundamentally undeveloped and tribal are provably wrong. Asserting otherwise is contrary to the facts, and an irrational diminutive assertion regarding another culture is almost-always hateful.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It’s Bollywood hit and greatest hatewatch of all time, Dostana.
- The movie is the archetypal hero’s journey, except the hero’s journey follows these beats:
- 1. Two men have immigrated from India,
- 2. Leaving behind their families,
- 3. To pretend to be a homosexual couple so that they can live in an attractive woman’s apartment, while
- 4. Trying to date the woman, until
- 5. The men kiss each other, so that
- 6. They may return to their previous lives, with
- 7. The knowledge of their kiss.
Needless to say, it is the most homophobic movie ever created. But, it doesn’t stop there. The only obstacle to their acquisition of this woman is their supposed homosexuality. This leads to the dramatic tension of the movie: whether a woman is worth getting evicted from their apartment.
The men decide that she is not, and propose to her on another man’s behalf. Compounding the feminist problem is that, throughout, there are naked American Women constantly enticing the two men to break their vow of ostensible homosexuality. In other words, for this Hero’s Journey to function, women have to be sex objects, luring the men away from their homosexuality. Finally, the Hero must go from common to supernatural. Here, it is India to America. America is portrayed as a land of moral degradation, wherein people choose to be gay, and, after the decision is made, the now-gay behave with Spacey-levels of sexual misconduct.
In short, the movie manages to be hateful to every single identifiable group, in its search for dramatic tension.
Needless to say, it was based on an Adam Sandler film.
Dostana is hateful because it propagates irrational hatred. Not every acknowledgement of cultural others is hateful, and the tension between common/supernatural has been used in great stories throughout history. Like Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, or Hulk Hogan in “Santa With Muscles”.
Unfortunately, we are easy to brand any item involving cultured minorities as hateful. This is because there are significant monetary incentives to be offended, as it creates a dynamic wherein someone must respond to your offense. This is as people are, generally, becoming more aware of the tyrannical behaviors cultural majorities have exerted on cultured minorities. So, they treat a “Majority-Minority” narrative with considerable caution, and are easy to condemn.
This is why rich white people no longer talk about anything at all, Clooney excluded. Everyone wants to condemn public figures like Eminem or James Gunn because they are uneasy with the moral majority’s past actions (ex. the cultural genocide of Indigenous Persons in Canada). This creates a strange dynamic, wherein unrelated persons are attacked by unrelated groups for perceived slights, motivated by historical forces. This means that, in essence, the desire is to burn the rich in effigy for the sins of the government.
That is problematic, as rapper Eminem was not involved in the creation or administration of Residential Schools in Canada. The Liberal Party of Canada sure-as-fuck was, though. But, regardless, us Canadians seem more mad at Eminem than our elected officials.
So, social factors limit what someone like Eminem can now say. And, for storytellers, this limits the stories that may be told. When there is a presumption of bias, no majority-member will tell a story involving racial/cultural/gendered minorities, due to the catastrophic effect it could have on their careers.
The recent example of this may be seen with Director James Gunn. He became quite famous for directing Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel. Then, he antagonized the American-Right. So they started digging in Gunn’s past, and they then found distasteful jokes Gunn had made, and published memoranda regarding their offense at Gunn’s hateful conduct. Gunn was then fired from Disney.
While he was eventually rehired, the right-wring trolls got the message across. Gunn doesn’t talk politics anymore, and it is a virtual certainty that Gunn will refrain from ever making another joke. Which is a shame, because his PG-Porn web series was delightful:
Returning to the Hero’s Journey. This dynamic removes several categories of “Supernatural”, as it is alternatively unprofitable or risky for the Common Hero to classify certain subject matter as supernatural. It removes all elements of social construction, as social construction necessarily creates a minority who opposes the construct. It removes satire. It removes discovery. Unfortunately, it does not remove Beowulf. I’ll say it again: fuck Beowulf.
It ultimately creates a dynamic that all stories, for mass appeal, must rely on either objective or fantasy constructs. This as “existence” does not create a cultural minority, and, in fantasy settings, the author-god can create anything she chooses.
This sounds nice, until you realize that this massively privileges stories that allow the Hero to move from “Common” to “Supernatural” without engaging with a social. It privileges stories where, for example, a man is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes The Hulk. And film studios are corporations, so they will make safe choices, and the safe choice is the privileged choice. And so, The Hulk is in every movie.
It usually works, unless you’re Ben-Hur.
So, essentially, the only “Hero’s Journey” stories that will be made are economically-safe journies. And these are:
- 1. Stories about fantasy races (ex. Orcs),
- 2. Stories about superheroes,
- 3. Stories about dystopic futures,
- 4. Biographies of popular figures,
- 5. Reboots of existing properties,
- 6. Stories about space, and
- 7. Parodies
And all of those genres can produce good movies. Like how the Superhero Genre gave us “Shaq in Steel” or how the fantasy genre gave us “Shaq in Shazam”. But eventually it runs out, and we start making this:
The problem is it gets boring. Eventually, unless a person is attached to a specific property (ex. Star Wars fans), they begin to realize that the same seven structures are repeating. The structures offer some visual differentiation, but are substantively the same. And, at some level, we all know that the only difference between “Captain Marvel” and “Captain America” is the person playing the part.
Ultimately, it rests on a simple question of what we, as a society, want films to be. For simple, reliable entertainment, seven or so forms may suffice; there will always be a new Spider-Man reboot in theaters.
But it’s a question, and it is an open question: what do we want? Do we want sufficient stories, or do we want new narratives?
Editor’s Note: I just want to see Vin Diesel race an alternate-history Jesus during lent on the Moon in “The Fast of the Furious”. So, the current situation works for me.