The Wages of the Anti-Hero and the Almost-Hero Part 2

This is the continuation of a post that began here. I highly suggest reading that first.

The next plot point is “meeting the mentor,” and here is where things truly become fascinating. In the Hero’s Journey, the mentor is supposed to be the one who pushes the hero and gives him the resolve to finally do the right thing. In both Hamlet and Macbeth, this is turned on its head. The mentor in Macbeth appears to be Lady Macbeth. But Lady Macbeth doesn’t push Macbeth to do the right thing, though she does give him resolve. She pushed him to do the wrong thing, and therein we see Macbeth inverting the plot structure. Macbeth’s call to action is finally being fulfilled at the urging of his mentor–and the fulfillment of it is dark and evil.

Hamlet is an interesting case, since there doesn’t appear to be a mentor figure, per say. There is an event, however, that fulfills the same purpose as the mentor would, and that is the play that Hamlet puts on. In this play that Hamlet ensures Claudius is watching, someone is murdered in a way similar to how Hamlet imagines Claudius would have killed his father, if he did at all. Claudius reacts with guilt to the play, and Hamlet’s resolve is given to him. The play seems to act the part of the mentor, providing the push necessary for the rest of the plot, and the rest of the Hero’s Journey. For both Hamlet and Macbeth, they have crossed the threshold, which is the next part of the Hero’s Journey, according to Bronzite. They have both committed to their actions, and are now seeking to fulfill their calls. There is no turning back.

At this point the heroes have crossed the threshold, and are now in the thick of the plot. The next part in the archetype is what Bronzite calls “tests, allies, and enemies.” This is what most of us think of when we think of the middle of a story. Hamlet and Macbeth face many obstacles–Macbeth must find a way around the King’s guards, and must throw off any suspicion that he was the murderer. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius and is sent away to England, making it difficult for him to fulfill his call.

The Hero’s Journey archetype now calls for “the approach to the inmost cave,” in which the hero must finally confront the enemy he has been trying to defeat. For Macbeth, the inmost cave appears to be the final battle, when his castle comes under siege. His perceived call to fulfill the prophecy is reaching its climax–will he remain King? For Hamlet, the inmost cave is slightly easier to pin down. Hamlet returns from England–literally “approaching” the inmost cave–and agrees to fight Laertes. He knows that King Claudius will be there and he has not forgotten his call. It doesn’t appear, based on a first reading of the play, that Hamlet necessarily believes that he will kill Claudius here, but from a bird’s eye view, this scene represents the inmost cave.

Next, the Supreme Ordeal takes place. This is the actual final battle, and it is easily found in both plays. For Hamlet, this is the fight with Laertes, his mother’s death, and his killing of Claudius. For Macbeth, this is the battle for his castle, in which he kills many characters, and survives up until the very end. It’s a brutal ordeal for them both, but they are both fulfilling–or seeking to fulfill–their accepted calls. Hamlet kills his enemies and avenges his father by killing Claudius, but not before he is poisoned himself. Macbeth survives till the end and it appears that the prophecy might come true. But then the structure is truly turned on its head.

Directly after the Supreme Ordeal, the reward, or what Bronzite calls the “seizing of the sword” is supposed to occur. The hero triumphs, his call fulfilled, and obtains his reward. The reward is meant to be triumphant–truly rewarding.

But where the reward should be, what do we find for both our “hero’s?” We find death. Hamlet survives the Supreme Ordeal, taking his revenge and thus fulfilling the call–and his reward is death. Macbeth’s fulfillment of his perceived call ends in his beheading. The reward is death.

There are actually three other parts to the Hero’s Journey, according to Bronzite. “The road back,” the “resurrection,” and the “return with the elixir.” It doesn’t appear that any of these happen in either Hamlet or Macbeth. The Supreme Ordeal leads to the Reward, and the story ends. Why? Because taking the place of the reward is death.

These are, without doubt, chilling endings. It’s fascinating that both of these stories follow the Hero’s Journey, albeit in their own twisted ways, up until this point where everything goes wrong. The hero is supposed to be triumphant, but the anti-hero of Macbeth and the almost-hero of Hamlet are not. What does this tell us? That is almost another paper in itself, but several questions are certainly raised. What happens when one is not the hero? What happens when the call to action is a call to evil? When the Supreme Ordeal is a bloody and brutal moment? Is the reward always death to these types of people?

Hamlet and Macbeth show us two version of the Hero’s Journey, it seems. And I cannot help but ask one question that, to me, overshadows all the others. Especially considering the Bronzite-named “Reward,” one must realize something. Viewed strictly through the lens of the Hero’s Journey, the reward of Hamlet and Macbeth is death. What am I getting at? Both Hamlet and Macbeth do evil in their stories. This leads me to one final question: do the anti-and-almost-Hero’s Journeys of Macbeth and Hamlet reaffirm the Apostle Paul’s words? Are the wages of the almost-hero and the anti-hero death?

Do You Want to See a Magic Trick? A Review (and Defense) of Interstellar

Random fact time: a few months ago I was really into illusions. My interest and abilities have tapered off, but as a magician I learned one thing very quickly. More important to a good trick than executing the moves is how you sell the trick. If you sell the trick as “the laws of science are being disproven,” it’ll usually fall flat. People won’t buy that. If you sell the trick as a question, though, people will usually accept it.

The question is simple: do you want to see a magic trick? Contained within that are layers and layers of questions. Do you want to see a mystery? Will you come with me on a journey? Will you suspend your disbelief so that I can show you something extraordinary? A really good magician, and a really great trick, capitalizes on those questions perfectly.

Christopher Nolan is a really good magician. Interstellar, his latest film, is a really great trick.

Interstellar hinges on the audience accepting one thing. I highly encourage you to accept it, because the journey is so very worth it.

I say that because of one thing: Interstellar is fundamentally different from many of Nolan’s previous films. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to scrutinize its plot half to death. Interstellar doesn’t invite you to rigorously apply the laws of logic to it. Unlike Inception, for example, Interstellar is something entirely different–and it knows it.

In Interstellar, Nolan tells a tale that hinges on the audience’s accepting one rule. That rule is stated up front, within the first ten minutes, and is hammered home throughout the film: within the world of Interstellar, anything that can happen, will happen. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you wonders. If you accept the rule, Nolan gives you a breathtakingly expansive and thrilling plot. He gives you a beautifully developed relationship, fantastic performances, and a heart wrenching drama.

But first, you have to accept the rule.

If you do the film is phenomenal. Like I said, the plot hits all its beats perfectly, gliding smoothly along. Even when the science gets wonky and the exposition is unclear, the relationship at the heart of the film carries the audience through. And what a relationship it is.

Interstellar, simply and without spoilers, is about a man named Cooper, and his quest to find a new world for the dying human race to inhabit. He has a family and a life back on earth, but he leaves it all behind with a promise to his daughter: I’m coming back.

Interstellar hinges on the relationship between Cooper and his daughter. In fact, the film’s heart isn’t what it’s been billed as. Nolan seems to be less interested in humanity finding a habitable world, and more interested in Cooper trying to get home. And the way that desire for home is developed, is beautiful. Even as the team tries to find a new home for humanity, Cooper knows he’ll never be home unless his daughter, Murphy, is there.

The audience feels that ache, and that longing, viscerally, and Nolan takes that to new levels. For example, because of relativity, time passes far more slowly for Cooper than for Murphy and the rest of the people back on earth. Those people are, somehow, able to send Cooper messages, though Cooper can’t reply.

Every time Cooper watches those, the emotions rage–both for him, and for the audience. And like I said before, those emotions form the heart of the film. By the end, the audience, like Nolan, almost cares more about Cooper getting home than him saving the human race.

That takes skill to pull off, but Nolan rises to the task with considerable aplomb. Except for, of course, one thing.

The film, if nothing ielse, is most certainly visually stunning.

All of the drama, all the emotion, everything in the film past the ten minute mark necessitates the audience accept the rule–that anything that can happen, will happen. And so, at the end of the day, the feeling I have about the film hinges on what I said at the very beginning.

Interstellar is a magic trick, and Nolan is a magician. Like any magic trick, the magician can sell it as best he can, but the magician can only sell it. Nolan sells the rule the film is based on as best he can, but he can only sell it–he can’t make the audience buy the rule. So Interstellar ends up throwing itself on the mercy of its audience, and Nolan asks very similar questions to those asked by a magician.

Nolan asks you, the audience, right at the beginning of the film, do you want to see something extraordinary? Do you want to see emotions and relationships stretched across years and years, forcing a visceral reaction? Do you want to see a thrilling plot? And just like the magician, Nolan’s questions can be summarized into one. The magician asks, “Do you want to see a magic trick?

Nolan asks, “Do you want me to tell you a story?” I answered yes, and I encourage you to the do same.

The Wages of the Anti-Hero and the Almost-Hero Part 1

Like Hamlet, the writer is often faced with a simple dilemma: rules or no rules, that is the question. Sometimes, however, that dilemma is rephrased: outline or no outline, that is the question. In other words, should one write an outline of a story before writing the story itself, or should one simply sit down and let what comes come? The battle between the two camps rages on. Some writers, though, have taken a different route. Instead of talking about whether or not one should have a preconceived outline or structure going into a story, they look back on already created stories and search for the common structures in all of them. People like Joseph Campbell, famous for his book A Hero With A Thousand Faces, have discovered an outline that emerges from myths and stories in all sorts of cultures. People call this outline, or structure, the “hero’s journey.”

Hamlet and Macbeth, two plays by William Shakespeare, have many things in common with this “hero’s journey,” and thus with each other. Yet at the same time, while they in many respects follow this narrative structure, they both represent interesting twists on it. Macbeth represents a sort of anti-hero’s journey, while Hamlet seems to portray a hero’s journey gone wrong. Or, if you will, Hamlet portrays the almost-hero’s journey. In order to explain these concepts and highlight the similarities and differences between these two plays, a point-by-point examination of the hero’s journey and Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s relationship to it is in order.

The hero’s journey starts out with what screenwriter Dan Bronzite calls the “ordinary world.” This is simply the world before the action–what happens before the plot kicks in. Here we are introduced to our characters and their hopes, dreams, and fears. Here is our first point of divergence between Hamlet and Macbeth.

Macbeth presents a rather normal “ordinary world.” A victory has been won, Macbeth is returning home to his castle–all is well. With Hamlet, on the other hand, the “ordinary world” is anything but. While Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, and his stepfather, King Claudius, see the world as ordinary, Hamlet sees a world filled with sadness. He himself is sad over the death of his father, and he sees no end to his grief. Immediately, then, Hamlet appears to deviate from this story structure. It may seem that Hamlet has nothing in common with the Hero’s Journey. Or at least, it may seem that way until the second plot point of the Hero’s Journey narrative structure.

The second part of the Hero’s Journey is what Bronzite names the “call to adventure.” This is precisely what it sounds like–a call to action, to do something. The hero is told that he or she must act, for whatever reason. Whether that call be to defeat the Empire, as in Star Wars, or to take the ring to Mount Doom, in Lord of the Rings, the call is there. Here, Hamlet and Macbeth fall perfectly into the archetype.

Macbeth receives a proto-call to action. His encounter with the Weird Sisters, and their prophecy that he would take the throne, calls him to action. Of course he wants to take the throne! And of course, Macbeth is a little taken aback by this call. This leads directly to point number three in the Hero’s Journey, the “refusal of the call.” Macbeth reacts against the Sister’s prophecy:

“By Sinel’s death I know I am thane of Glamis/but how of Cawdor? The thane of Cawdor lives/a prosperous gentleman, and to be king/stands not within the prospect of belief.”

This is a clear refusal–the declaration that Macbeth being king does not even stand “within the prospect of belief.”

In Hamlet the same happens. Hamlet receives a call to action by a ghost who appears to be his father. The ghost tells him that he was murdered by King Claudius, and calls Hamlet to avenge his death. But Hamlet immediately second guesses himself. Is this ghost telling the truth? Is the ghost really his father? Was his father really murdered by Claudius? Bronzite says this about the “refusal of the call:”

“Although the Hero may be eager to accept the quest, at this stage he will have fears that need overcoming. Second thoughts or even deep personal doubts as to whether or not he is up to the challenge.”

This personifies precisely what Hamlet and Macbeth go through, but here we already see the twists coming on. The “call to action” is almost always a call to defeat evil. Both Hamlet and Macbeth are called to do dark things–Macbeth to do an outright wicked thing. Both seem to be stunned by the violence, perhaps physical violence and perhaps simply emotional violence, required by their calls. And so they hold back, thus falling into the structure perfectly.

Why Do the Mighty Fall?

I’m always fascinated by how films are sold. The way that studios set up the story–the ideas that they convey, the things they foreshadow, everything. It’s fascinating. Recently, The Avengers 2 trailer came out and slipped into a familiar marketing trope: the heroes are falling.

And this time it struck me in quite a different way. Why is this the way movies are sold? The original Avengers didn’t get painted as that sort of story, and yet did phenomenally in terms of monetary gain. It’s obviously not necessary to pull audiences in. So why is this where studios decide to go? It’s happened before, too. Think of Iron Man 3, and all the marketing for that. Every single trailer was about Iron Man meeting his match, apparently, and falling. Of course the film was nothing like that, and I’m sure Avengers 2 won’t be anything like a “heroes falling” story. But yet why sell it that way?

The Dark Knight Rises was sold this way explicitly, especially with the tagline for the film: The Legend Ends.

The Legend Ends...Or Does It?

In a sense, the marketing of movies seems to me to be a story before the story. The studios tell a story about the story. The story before the story of Iron Man 3 was, “Iron Man is meeting his match and will fall.” The story The Dark Knight Rises marketing told was, “Batman will have to give up his life to save Gotham.” Avengers 2 seems to be, though we’ll have to wait for the rest of the trailers, “the heroic team has created their own demise.”

So why? Why do audiences come and see this type of story?

Of course, there’s the obvious answer: audiences love these characters and want to see if they’ll defeat evil. Honestly, though, this seems to fall short for me. How many of us actually think that Captain America, or Thor, or Iron Man are going to die in Avengers 2? How many people really bought that Iron Man 3 would have a tragic ending for the hero? I’d be willing to wager that very few actually thought that.

But yet studios tell that story. Why? “The mighty are falling” stories can be quite good, but why must the mighty fall?

Aren’t superheroes supposed to be the saviors? Aren’t they supposed to rise above evil and triumph? A lot of people in writing about the superhero movie trend, have observed that these films are almost an extension of our desire for a hero–for someone to save us. The superheroes seem to be able to save us, ergo we go to see these films.

So then, if we love superheroes stories because they seem to display our saviors, why sell the superhero films as “the mighty are falling?”

In my thinking about this over the days since The Avengers 2 trailer came out, I haven’t firmly come to a conclusion. I’m glad I haven’t, because I don’t think a few days can really answer the question. But a possible answer did arise, and that is that the mighty fall, or at least we go to see films sold as that, because we want to make sure the superheroes can triumph.

Or, to put it a different way, we’re afraid that perhaps our heroes won’t be the saviors we need. We don’t want to think that Iron Man can’t defeat evil, we don’t want to think that Batman will ultimately fall. That threatens our hope, our longing, for a savior that these superheroes might be. This type of marketing threatens our faith in these saviors, and so we go to these films hoping that our faith won’t really be destroyed.

To propose another answer that follows from the same basic idea, perhaps we go to these films because we know our heroes won’t die. We know Batman, and Iron Man, and the Avengers won’t fail, and so we go to see them triumph over the “death of the hero” story that’s been sold to us before the film. We go to see our faith in the superheroes reaffirmed. I’m really going out on a limb here, but I’ll throw this out: maybe we go to see the heroes triumph, not just over the story of death, but over death itself.

Why do we tell stories of the mighty falling, like Avengers 2 or Iron Man 3?

That’s what happened in The Dark Knight Rises–both in the marketing and the actual film–metaphorically speaking. Batman “dies” and rises again. Quite literally, he descends into the pit of death and defeats it by escaping. As his father tells him in flashbacks over the trilogy, he falls into the pit for the explicit purpose of defeating it. “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up,” his father says. Of course, the villain defeats the pit of death by rising from it as well, which throws a wrench in that theory.

So why do the mighty fall? The obvious answer is, “well, they don’t actually” and that’s true in the actual story. But in the story before the story–the story the marketers tell us–the mighty do fall. And so the question remains. And to put it in a slightly cheesy, but hopefully illuminating way: why do we go see movies where the heroes seem to be falling? Is it because we are scared the heroes will fall? Or is it so we can see them pick themselves back up?

The Echoes of Our Stories

“We live in a world that was meant for glory, but now is tragically broken. We hunger for redemption, and we seek it in a myriad of ways. And so we tell stories that reveal the deep longing of the human heart for redemption from sin, for a life that’s meaningful, for love that lasts. We tell stories about warriors overcoming impossible odds to save the world. Stories about how true love can make the soul feel complete. Stories about horrific, prowling villains carrying out a reign of terror, only to be vanquished by an unexpected hero. Stories about friendships that don’t fall apart. Stories about marriages that last. Stories about life, death, and resurrection.”—Mike Cosper