Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Hero's Journey: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy stands as one of the best set of superhero films ever made. I remember when Batman Begins came out; I didn't go see it at the theaters, as I figured the story wouldn't be anything new or great. I was wrong.

The film was excellent, offering a deeper look at Bruce Wayne's origin story and the issues he faced on a personal level. In that film, he underwent the Hero's Journey of self-discovery and overcoming his fears. But what makes the Nolan Batman films different from other superhero movies is that they are more complex. In fact, each movie warrants repeated viewings to soak in the nuances of the plots. The Dark Knight Rises does not disappoint in this area. Skillfully weaving together the plots of all three movies into one cohesive, three-act story, the movie does what few other sequels manage to do: offer a satisfying story experience.

And while we know that Bruce Wayne undergoes the Hero's Journey in the first film, he also undergoes a different journey in the subsequent stories. Nolan has said that the theme of the first movie was about fear. The second was about chaos, and the third is about pain, both physical and emotional. The same can be said of Bruce's journeys. In Batman Begins, he undergoes a journey of self-realization and overcoming his fear. In the second film, his journey is a bit different, and focuses on how far he is willing to go to stop evil. As Harvey Dent said, "You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." His journey was one of discovering how he can be the hero Gotham needed without becoming the villain.

The Dark Knight Rises also contains a Hero's Journey. This time, I believe it is one of overcoming pain and struggling with his destiny as Batman. The second film masterfully ends on a depressing note, one which carries over into the start of this film. So if you'd like to explore his journey in this final chapter, read on, but only if you've seen the third movie. Be warned: there are SPOILERS AHEAD.

One final note: this film is very complex in its plot and the amount of characters, but for the sake of brevity, my analysis is only focusing on the immediate circumstances of Bruce Wayne's life and how the events and characters help shape his journey.

1. Ordinary World: It has been eight years since Bruce Wayne gave up being Batman. Taking the blame for Harvey Dent's death, he himself struggles with the guilt of what it has cost Gotham, and he has become a recluse, not even bothering to come out from Wayne Manor. Whereas in the past, he lived the life of a billionaire, now he does not even take part in Wayne Enterprises, a fact that unbeknownst to him has affected the company financially.

2. Call To Adventure: When the mercenary Bane escapes a CIA transport, he and his minions create an underground army in Gotham City's sewer system. Commissioner Gordon and other police officers attempt to investigate, and Gordon is injured while escaping. Police officer John Blake pays a visit to Bruce Wayne at his house, indicating that he knows Wayne is The Batman, and that Gordon needs his help again.

3. Refusal of the Call: Bruce Wayne listens to Blake's story, but he does not want to be The Batman again. He has given up that life, and Gotham is a better place now. Batman is a wanted criminal, and he cannot fight as Batman anymore. Bruce trusts that the police will take care of everything, but Blake protests.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Bruce eventually meets with Gordon at the hospital with a mask on, and Gordon says that the city needs Batman again. Bruce is still reluctant to get involved, but Gordon's words push him toward investigating. Alfred also serves as a mentor figure to him, as he always has; even John Blake is somewhat of a mentor figure, prompting him to action. Having spoken with Commissioner Gordon, he decides to try and investigate the situation a bit more closely. He meets with Lucius Fox, who not only shows him the newest gadgets he has been working on in the off-the-books Applied Sciences division, but Fox also informs him of Wayne Enterprises's ailing financial situation.

5. Crossing the Threshold: When Bane and his fellow mercenaries take over the Stock Exchange, stealing key financial records and information, Batman re-emerges on the scene after eight years of absence. The police pursue him instead of Bane's men, hoping to catch him and hold him responsible for his role in the death of Harvey Dent. But one thing is clear: The Batman is back. Bruce Wayne has "re-entered" the Special World of fighting crime as a masked vigilante.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: Bruce Wayne undergoes many tests of his strength and commitment, such as when Wayne Enterprises goes broke due to possible investment fraud. His friend and caretaker Alfred argues with him about his desire to face his new enemy, Bane. Alfred does not feel that Bruce is ready to fight him, and leaves Wayne Manor rather than watch him die. Even so, Bruce has allies in Lucius Fox and Commissioner Gordon, as well as John Blake. Fox suggests that Bruce speak to Miranda Tate, a friend of the company, and show her the fusion reactor they were developing. Later, Bruce is double-crossed by Selina Kyle, who leads him to Bane in a trap to save herself. Batman fights Bane and is brought to near-death, with Bane breaking his back.

7. Approach: As Bane executes his plan of holding Gotham hostage while exiling Bruce to a prison that resembles a well, and from which there is only one nearly-impossible escape, Bruce tries to learn more about Bane from the prisoners. Because this journey is about facing pain, Bruce must overcome his physical pain as well as emotional pain if he is going to save Gotham from destruction. If he cannot do this, Gotham will be destroyed in five months by the device. Bruce speaks to the prisoners about escaping, and the former prison doctor helps to heal his back in a painful process.

8. Ordeal: Bruce tries to escape the prison, but fails until he learns to fear death. Once he has done this, he "rises" and escapes. He faces death and his greatest fears in the Inmost Cave.

9. Reward: Bruce is free and can now complete his Journey.

10. The Road Back:Bruce returns to Gotham. Having now trained himself and prepared to face Bane again, Bruce must face his greatest challenge. Along with an army of police officers, he faces Bane and his minions. He faces death as he confronts Bane, fully aware that Bane is a worthy adversary. Bruce is able to defeat Bane, and he is able to stop the bomb from going off immediately. However, the bomb can still detonate, and he must find it. He needs to return to the streets of Gotham once again. With the help of Commissioner Gordon and other allies, Bruce finds the device, but they are unable to deactivate it.

11. Resurrection: Bruce must show, once again, that this journey has truly changed him. Gotham will never be the same, but to preserve it, Bruce must make the most difficult decision yet. He has faced fear and death, and now he must embrace it. He must make a sacrifice. He faces death one final time, sacrificing himself and the symbol of The Batman.

12. Return with the Elixir: But we learn that it is not truly the end for Bruce. He is literally "resurrected" when we learn the true consequences of his choice and what it means for him. Bruce Wayne is also symbolically resurrected after his sacrifice when he leaves behind everything from his diminished fortune. His home becomes a new center for orphaned boys, and he passes on the crime-fighting responsibility to Blake. The symbol of The Batman is powerful and unites Gotham. Whereas the old Bruce Wayne felt the need to continue being The Batman until Gotham was free of crime and corruption, this "new" Bruce Wayne understands that after what has happened on this journey, he can entrust Gotham to the citizens and law enforcement officials. While Bruce himself does not physically return, he has given Gotham an elixir in the form of a symbol. It is a symbol of courage and of hope. It is the symbol that is projected from the searchlight. The legacy of The Batman.

Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Hero's Journey: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

I was reluctant to see the new Spider-Man film, but a friend of mine told me that it had a clear path of the Hero's Journey, so I gave it a chance. Because I teach my students about the Hero's Journey story structure, I wanted to be able to discuss the film with those who have seen it, relating the Journey. And the Journey definitely comes through in this story. If you haven't seen it, know that there are spoilers ahead. But if you've seen the film, read on and discover the depth of the Journey in it.

1. Ordinary World: Peter Parker is a student at Midtown Science High School, and he lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. His parents left him suddenly when he was young, offering no explanation, and never came back for him. As a result, Peter is frustrated internally and longs to find out more about his father and why he left. Peter is awkward around his peers and is even picked on, but he still sticks up for the underdog.

2. Call To Adventure: When Peter is cleaning up the basement to save some belongings from water damage, he finds a briefcase with his father's initials on it. Opening it, he finds some of his father's belongings, as well a file that leads him to research his father's lab partner who works at Oscorp Tower, Dr. Connors. Peter goes to Oscorp and meets Dr. Connors, and while sneaking around, looking for answers, he is bitten by a spider that is being used to create biocable. He starts to develop strange abilities as a result. By finding his father's briefcase, Peter has been introduced to the Special World that is the opposite of what he knows.

3. Refusal of the Call:  Peter is unsure what is happening to him, and he begins to question things. He begins to test out his powers, and is even a bit irresponsible with them, using them to upstage the bully who picked on him, Flash Thompson. He also becomes argumentative with Uncle Ben when accused of not following through on what he promised to do. He storms off, and Uncle Ben follows him. At a convenience store, he lets a thief go when the store clerk treats him rudely, and the thief ultimately shoots Uncle Ben.

4. Meeting with the Mentor: Throughout the story, Peter has already had several mentors working in his life. Dr. Connors is a mentor to him when it comes to science, helping Peter feel comfortable with his genius. The briefcase with his father's work has also been a mentor of sorts, pushing him into this Special World. And of course, Uncle Ben has been one of the biggest mentor influences on Peter, and when he dies, Peter is pushed to his limits.

5. Crossing the Threshold: The death of Peter's Uncle Ben is ultimately what pushes Peter to cross over into the Special World fully. Peter uses the police sketch of the thief who murdered Uncle Ben to begin his work as a vigilante, trying to hunt the man down. His world has changed, and there is no going back to things as they used to be.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: As Peter fights crime, he confronts criminals and makes enemies. Because one thug threatens him after an encounter, saying that he knows what Peter looks like, Peter decides to use a mask. He eventually creates a suit to help with mobility, and his identity as Spider-Man begins to cement. At school, he develops a friendship with Gwen and even Flash shows a sense of friendliness toward him. But this double-life is taking its toll. Aunt May is worried when he comes home late, and his emotions rise with regret when he comes home to her not with the eggs he had promised to buy, but with bruises and blood all over his face. His tests are increasing in difficulty: Dr. Connors displayed a semblance of friendship toward him, but as his identity shifts into The Lizard, this will change. Gwen's father, Police Captain Stacy, shows an antagonistic attitude toward Peter and his alter-ego.

7. Approach: Peter witnesses The Lizard's rampage on the bridge, and he tries to stop the creature. He sets a trap in the sewers, barely escaping with his life, and still badly injured. After verifying some suspicions, Peter tries to convince Captain Stacy that Dr. Connors is the man they are looking for, but his ideas are met with harsh ridicule. The Lizard learns Spider-Man's identity, and he shows up at Midtown Science High School to destroy Peter Parker.After fighting Peter at school, Dr. Connors retreats to carry out his master-plan, and Peter tries to stop him with Gwen's help.

8. Ordeal: Spider-Man faces the Inmost Cave when he is shot by a police bullet that stuns him electrically. He is surrounded and faces his greatest fear: his identity will be known. If this happens, Gwen will die, and the city of New York will be lost. Unable to fight his way out, reveals his identity to Captain Stacy.

9. Reward: Captain Stacy lets him go, showing his new-found trust in Peter.

10. The Road Back: Peter is recommitted to the Journey. He makes his way to Oscorp Tower to stop the Lizard. Along the way, he learns that the citizens of New York trust him as well.He confronts his nemesis and begins fighting him.

11. Resurrection: The Lizard is strong and powerful, crushing Spider-Man's web shooters and taking away his advantage. Peter digs down deep, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and when Captain Stacy arrives, they work together to stop The Lizard.

12. Return with the Elixir: Dr. Connors has been returned back to normal and his plans as The Lizard have been stopped. He has saved Gwen, but at a cost: Captain Stacy was killed. As he dies, he asks Peter to keep Gwen out of his life to protect her. Peter makes a promise even though it kills him deep down. He would love to have Gwen at his side, and would give anything to see Captain Stacy and his Uncle Ben alive again. But he has changed... ...and in a final, small moment, we see this change. It's not just in the promise he made to Captain Stacy, but also in a carton of eggs. As he walks through the door to his waiting Aunt May, he holds out a carton of eggs, signifying that he is different from the start of the journey. He is a different person, and even though he may not have all of the answers he wanted, he has learned to put others ahead of himself during the search. The Elixir Peter Parker has brought back from his journey is that of a new hero. He is no longer just Peter Parker, fatherless teenager. He's Spider-Man.

Note: this post was revised and updated on 8/28/12.