Heroes and Necessity

‘Throughout the history of human civilization, it has become evident that society was always in need of heroes.’

(De)constructing the Heroic Archetype: Heroes and Superheroes in Classical Mythology and Contemporary American Graphic Novel (2018)

Nikola Radosevic


When Tina Turnerobserved ‘we don’t need another hero’ in 1985’s Thunderdome, this African-American woman comments wryly on the contemporary preoccupation with the use of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as the foundation of cinematic narratives. Since 1977 and the success of Star Wars, which explicitly drew on Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces to structure the adventures of Luke Skywalker, writers adapted Campbell’s cataegorisation of the ‘heroic journey’, embedding his belief in an overarching structure within mythological narratives and emphasising the importance of the hero as protagonist. Radosevic follows Campbell’s assumption that the hero is a universal presence. Turner, however, observing the post-apocalyptic of the Mad Max trilogy, ponders on an alternative society, in which the notion of ‘home’ is discounted, for ‘something better out there’, a way of life based not on the presence of a mythical leader but ‘love and compassion’. For Turner, the hero is part of the same problem that has left her ‘last generation… living under the fear’.

To be fair to Campbell, his theory is based on exhaustive research of world mythologies: his series, The Masks of God takes a tour of primitive, occidental, oriental and creative mythologies. It is systematic and inclusive, and it could be argued that the limitations of his theory are the fault of the narratives themselves: if every story seems to feature a larger than life male hero, blame the culture that produced it. However, like any dogmatic literary analysis, it can be grafted onto any story with a bit of imagination and once it exists and can be used as a template for ‘new’ stories, it becomes a trope-heavy authority that encourages screenwriters to follow a formulaic plot and rely on the ‘designated hero’ to provide moral guidance.

This leads to Fast and Furious sequels and articles about how the villains were actually in the right all along.

Perhaps the problem is not the theory, but lazy artists. But Campbell’s heroes are generally aristocrats, gods and men, emphasising that some of these lovely myths that are read to children have a few issues with class, gender and (given the way that the heroes behave towards groups outside of their tribe) xenophobia. Contemporary comic book superheroes like Ms Marvel, Batgirl and Moon Girl are attempts to usurp the conservative and patriarchal bias of the hero, a recognition that, these days, the heroes haven’t managed to touch all the bases and many stories have been left untold, and voices have been silenced.


As for Radosevic’s comment: it does appear that there is a need for heroes, because they have been ubiquitous throughout recorded history: even complex narratives of protest, like environmental concerns or BLM have been reduced to key characters – after they threw that statue in the Bristol harbour, someone knocked up a fresh statue of an activist as an elegant symbol of how British culture is changing. But Tina Tuner offers an alternative: instead of getting a new actor to play Captain America (which is totally for the good, both in terms of representation and keeping the franchise going), why not abandon the hero and replace him (it is usually him, thanks to patriarchy) with collective action?

As a late thought, the hero in Mad Max is Mel Gibson. I think that is enough to explain the problem of heroism, and Hollywood in the 1980s…




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