Heroes in the Movies: Five Myths That Need Busting

By Scott T. Allison

For the past several months, I’ve been reviewing movies with my good friend Greg Smith at our Reel Heroes website.  Our reviews focus not only on the quality of a movie but also on the quality of the hero and the hero story within the movie.  It’s been great fun, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it, particularly a love for those cookie-dough bites that our local theater sells.

We’ve reviewed about 35 movies and I’m noticing some interesting trends.  Yes, I’ve been going to movies my whole life and have always enjoyed good movies and good hero stories.  But writing these reviews has sensitized me to story details and character analysis.  Whereas I used to sit in the theater, mindlessly munching on popcorn, now I’m sitting there with my cookie-dough bites actually thinking about the various characters, the functions they serve, and whether their actions are consistent with current theory and research on heroes.

So are movie heroes good heroes?

The conclusions I’m reaching are not terribly encouraging.  Granted, it’s the summer blockbuster season and Greg assures me that the movie studios are saving their best films for the fall and winter seasons.  Still, as we watch each movie, I’m asking myself, “Well, that was fun, but didn’t we just see this same movie last week?”  It’s true that the names of the characters are different, and the costumes they’re wearing are different.  But these summer movies are becoming almost interchangeable.

I have no doubt that the makers of Hollywood films are smart people.  The problem isn’t with their intelligence, or with the effort put into film-making.  In fact, the effort is astounding.  There is no shortage of breathtaking scenes and scenery in today’s movies.  The CGI effects are simply jaw-dropping.  And at the end, during the film credits, hundreds and hundreds of people’s names scroll down.  Each film is an amazing collective effort.

The problem, I suspect, is that filmmakers’ goals are somewhat askew.  Instead of aiming to produce great movies with great hero stories, they aim to make movies that make money. Armed with tried-and-true formulae and professional script doctors, movie studios will only invest vast sums of money into films that aim low and then invariably hit that mark.

Movie-makers appear to worship at the altar of five myths about heroes:

1) The bigger the muscles, the better the hero.  Maybe I’m just envious, especially in light of my cookie-dough bite obsession, but Hugh Jackman is now “Huge” Jackman.  Dwayne Johnson isn’t a rock, he’s a continent.  Apparently, heroism doesn’t involve selflessness and self-sacrifice.  It’s more about being able to lift enormous amounts of weight in the gym.  Look how superheroes have evolved into muscle-bound freaks.  Christopher Reeve’s Superman is downright anorexic compared to Henry Cavill’s rendition.

2) The more times a hero fights the villain, the better the hero.  The great comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, identified a pattern in the structure of the classic hero story from his observation of thousands of ancient hero myths.  Yes, in a good hero story there is a fateful encounter with a villain.  No, these encounters do not need to continue ad infinitum.

3) Heroes’ bones are unbreakable.  In almost every movie, we see heroes surviving several hundred-foot falls, impossibly violent collisions, and fiery bomb blasts.  Movie heroes get clobbered by steel beams, leap off speeding trains, and are punched senseless by bad guys.  Yet they suffer nary a scratch.

4) The longer the story, the better the hero.  Hollywood filmmakers are epic-philes who fail to realize that after two hours, most audiences are done.  Finished.  We don’t need two and a half or three hour-long marathons.  My cookie-dough bites just don’t last that long.

5) Heroes are only male.  Over 90% of the movies we’ve reviewed feature a male hero. The Heat, The Call, and Epic were exceptions to the rule.  Apparently, when the emphasis is on muscles and fighting, women don’t fit the bill.  How sad that the movies industry has virtually blacklisted women from heroic roles.

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Earlier this year, Greg and I watched a delightful movie called Mud that runs only two hours and garnered a meager $20 million at the box office –- chump change compared to the hundreds of millions earned by Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Fast & Furious 6.

None of the characters in Mud has huge muscles. There aren’t endless fight scenes or constant explosions or dramatic falls from great distances.  Instead, we meet a young boy who tries to help a mysterious stranger, and who falls in love with a young girl.  Both of these relationships cause him pain and he is forced to grow emotionally.

This is hardly exciting stuff if you worship at the altar of the five myths above.  But as of mid-July, Mud is the best movie of the year.  The hero of the story does the right thing and discovers his missing inner qualities that help him rise above adversity.

In the movies, we need more Muds and fewer duds.

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