Superman 1.23: The Myth of the Monomyth

Around dawn, Clark wakes from a restless slumber and there’s a hum somewhere — some high, electric, pulsing hum coming from the general barn area, and it gets louder, the longer he thinks about it. Something’s out there, something that was buried a long time ago.

People should always dig up mystery boxes, it’s just good protocol. If somebody went to all the trouble to bury their secrets deep in the earth, then obviously it’s supposed to be dug up and exposed to the open air again. Nine times out of ten, something terrible happens, but you never know, you might be the lucky one.

It’s December 15th — just before Christmas, 1978 — and Clark is unwrapping his gift ten days early. Inside, he finds a little green lightsaber, which is literally the thing that every kid in America is hoping for this year.

This is the Call to Adventure, and if you’ve got your Joseph Campbell Hero with a Thousand Faces bingo card handy, you can cross that one off the list. This is the hero venturing forth from the world of common day, aka this wheat field, into a region of supernatural wonder, aka the North Pole, where he’ll get Supernatural Aid and/or Cross the First Threshold, and then go into the Belly of the Whale and set out on the Road of Trials, which I think is the Daily Planet typing test. Unless the Belly of the Whale was the space capsule, of course, in which case the Road of Trials was probably running faster than the train, and now it’s time to meet Woman as the Temptress. Which is probably Lois, but at the moment she’s only nine years old, so it might be somebody else.

Well, today’s the day that we get all this figured out. It’s time for us to ask whether Superman: The Movie follows Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, as an example of the universal monomyth. The answer, obviously, is of course it fucking doesn’t.

So, yeah, let’s get started. The Hero’s Journey comes from a 1949 book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by the comparative mythology rock star Joseph Campbell. Campbell compared more mythology than anybody else, and the thing that struck him — surveying the combined wisdom of thousands of years of human civilizations, in every corner of the globe — was how monotonous and dull it all was.

It’s all just one story, Campbell griped. It’s the same thing, over and over again. I’m sick of it. So he wrote a tell-all exposé of the entire mythology racket, alleging that everyone who ever lived has just been copying off each other this whole time.

It’s called the monomyth, and you don’t need to write that down, because according to Campbell, everybody’s already got one. When you strip away all of the extra stuff like details and context, you find that everyone is really telling the same story, which must be wired into our very nature as a symbol of universal cross-cultural truth. And it’s lucky that Campbell came along, because otherwise we would have gone on thinking that learning about other cultures offered new perspectives that enriched the collective human experience.

There are a lot of steps to this and I know you have other things to get to today, so I’ll just give you the basics. The story is called the Hero’s Journey, in which a dude living in the everyday world is called to go on a quest into a scary, magical world beyond. He’s guided by a wise mentor — let’s face it, probably also a dude — who guides the hero to discover his true abilities, and pass through the threshold into a land of discovery. There, he makes new friends and learns new skills, and undergoes a series of challenges and temptations — basically fistfights, monsters, women, and a confrontation with his dad. At the end of these trials, he descends to the underworld, where he sheds his original identity and is reborn anew. Then he returns triumphantly across the threshold to the regular world, and brings everybody presents and hope.

If that story sounds familiar to you, then you might be thinking of Star Wars, like everybody else was in 1978. George Lucas has said that he couldn’t figure out how to crack the story that he really wanted to tell, and then he read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and everything fell into place. He used the Hero’s Journey model as a blueprint, so the story is about Tatooine moisture farmer Luke Skywalker receiving the call to adventure (Leia’s message) and meeting a wise mentor (Ben Kenobi), who teaches him how to use the Force, and initiates him into a mysterious new world (the Mos Eisley Cantina, and points north). He gains allies, he fights battles, he rescues the princess, and he deals with his dad issues. He becomes a legendary Jedi Warrior, and the Ewoks cheer and everything’s okay, until the next movie when everything suddenly sucks again.

The thing that’s really aggravating about the Hero’s Journey is that people say, “It’s the foundation of every great myth — for example, Star Wars!” And it’s, like, no, it’s the other way around. Lucas wrote Star Wars in accordance with the H.J., so you’re not allowed to use that as evidence that the monomyth is a pre-existing structure that’s foundational to human thought. But people do it anyway.

The problem with the Hero’s Journey is that there are lots of stories in this world that follow all kinds of different patterns, and anybody who says there isn’t is trying to sell you something. As a rule, anyone who tries to sum up a very complex set of data into a single, simple formula is almost certainly wrong, unless it’s me in which case I’m probably on to something.

You should always be suspicious when a white dude says that he’s figured out a rule that applies to all civilizations throughout time, especially if he thinks that his culture produces “literature”, and every other culture produces “mythology”. When white people look over the horizon at not-white people, they tend to see what they want to see. [citation: see World, The History of.]

According to this way of thinking, white people’s fiction comes from individual artists making artistic choices, and everybody else’s fiction is an unconscious expression of primeval Jungian pre-thought, which they believe is literal truth because every other culture besides ours is too stupid to tell the difference between fiction and reality. Apparently we were the ones who figured out that there’s such a thing as fiction, and then we had to go around and tell everybody else about it, often at gunpoint.

The idea that there are rules inherent in the human experience that restrict creativity, curiosity and imagination is just patently false. Saying that you’ve discovered one of those rules is just announcing to the world that you have learned everything that you plan on ever learning in life, and you assume that everyone else will stop here as well, once they catch up to you.

Superman turns out to be a particularly bad example for the model, because the entire premise is backwards. The Hero’s Journey is about a normal person in an ordinary world who is called to participate in a journey of discovery, across the threshold of hyperspace / the rabbit hole / Platform 9¾. The hero discovers his special abilities during his training with his mentors, and develops those skills during his adventures.

What the Hero’s Journey is not about is an entirely magical person who arrives from Wonderland and shows up in the ordinary world with no trouble at all, complete with all of his powers and abilities as of the orphanage. You can try to claim that Krypton is his “normal” world and Earth is “magical” to him, but that’s not what the story is about. From the start, Krypton is presented as a special place that’s much farther advanced than Earth, where everyone is brilliant and strong. Clark doesn’t spend any time trying to adjust to this crazy new planet Earth; the big problem in the Kents’ life is trying to keep normal people from discovering how special the kid is, before he’s ready to go out and get a newspaper job.

So people who try to explain Superman in terms of the Hero’s Journey end up looking confused and silly. For example, in 2006, Mark D. Stucky wrote a paper called “The Superhero’s Mythic Journey: Death and the Heroic Cycle in Superman” in The Journal of Religion and Film, which says:

In the film, Superman has a complex call to his role as superhero (when viewed through the lens of Campbell’s work on mythology). The overall “call” consists of three distinct calls and journeys. Each journey is a stage of a longer overarching journey, with the later stages building on the earlier ones over a span of about 30 years. For Superman, each of the three stages has:

    • The death of someone close to him.
    • Different symbols of his own death and resurrection.
    • Different experiences of atonement with a father figure.

Atonement here is reconciliation in a relationship, a symbolic life rising from death. Where there has been separation and disconnection (death of a relationship), there is a rejoining, rekindling, and rebirth (resurrection of that relationship).

Which is all very well, but Campbell didn’t say that you could do the journey three times in a row, no matter how many father figures you happen to have.

Stucky goes on to assign stages in the Hero’s Journey to moments in Superman: The Movie, essentially at random.

One of the stages in the Hero’s Journey is called the Belly of the Whale, which Campbell describes as a way of passing through the magical threshold “in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died.”

Stucky identifies the baby’s journey in the spacecraft as the Belly of the Whale — “He is symbolically dead since no living soul knows of his existence” — but he also describes Clark’s time in the Fortress as being the whale’s belly, as well as his time underground, fixing the San Andreas Fault. You can’t just say that people are in the Belly of the Whale every time they go indoors; it doesn’t get us anywhere.

He also says that flying out of the Fortress is a resurrection, and that Eve helping him out of the pool is another resurrection, and then he talks about Lois’ death and resurrection, when she isn’t even the Hero. The whole thing is a mess, and everybody else who tries the same exercise ends up in the same place.

Ultimately, the test of all of these kinds of “Superman is really X” theories is whether the idea helps you understand something about the story or the production that you didn’t know before. If George Lucas says that he was influenced by Hero with a Thousand Faces, then that illuminates some of the story choices that he made, which is worth discussing.

But if the discussion tells you more about the model than the movie, then it’s not really helpful. It’s the same thing as the “Superman is a Christ figure” comparisons, or the question of whether Superman is Jewish because Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were Jewish. It’s just a thing that people say.

This is especially true if you happen to be Zack Snyder, and you’re making Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016. Snyder was really into Joseph Campbell too, and you could argue that part of the 2013 Man of Steel is about Clark doing the “Refusal of the Call to Adventure” step, if you have nothing else to do.

Or if you really have a lot of time on your hands, you could do what the costume designer did in Batman v Superman, which is to take a lengthy Joseph Campbell quote, translate it into fake Kryptonian and stitch it into the texture of Superman’s costume.

The quote is four sentences long, scattered around Superman’s body. On his chest, it says, “And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god,” followed by “Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves” on his wrist, “Where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our own existence” around his bicep, and “Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world” around his belt.

It’s a nice touch, if you spend a lot of time looking at Henry Cavill’s belt area, which I do, and that’s how I noticed it. I knew studying fake Kryptonian on Duolingo would pay off, eventually.

We look at product placement,
ancient and modern in
1.24: A Balanced Breakfast


If you enjoyed this post, one of these days I’m going to find the time to do my epic takedown of Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Boy, is that going to be a ball of fire, just wait and see.

We look at product placement,
ancient and modern in
1.24: A Balanced Breakfast

Movie list

— Danny Horn

15 thoughts on “Superman 1.23: The Myth of the Monomyth

  1. I’m always game for a takedown of Joseph Campbell.

    Also, to me as a kid, Superman’s glowing green crystal wasn’t a lightsabre stand-in because I didn’t grow up with Star Wars. The movies were in theatres when I was a kid (I saw Superman III at the drive-in paired with a screening of Arthur 2 wrapped up in a sleeping bag in the back of my dad’s 1978 Chevy van), but Luke Skywalker and The Force just never dominated my radar beyond catching the first movie on TV a couple times with commercials.

    So, when Halloween rolled around every year, and those snap glow sticks came out again, while every other kid was whizzing them around like a laser sword, to me, it was a beacon from my home planet calling out to me.

    Ah, I loved those glow sticks. They were probably toxic, right?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Oops! That may have been more to postWW2 indignation to conservatism and sexual repression rather than Joseph Campbell, according to Crow T Robot. My mistake.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I teach in a university Classics department. We don’t have a graduate program of our own, but occasionally they let us give an assistantship to a graduate student from some other program who has studied ancient Greek or Latin. These graduate students usually wind up spending a lot of time with me.

    A couple of years ago, one such student astounded me. She was helping my colleague who teaches the World Myth class, and he had given her an article explaining that Joseph Campbell is full of baloney. What astounded me was that someone so bright and so young was shocked by this revelation.

    When I was a student, thirty years ago, myth professors would explain Campbell’s theory, would explain why it was wrong, and would try to get their classes interested in more fruitful models. In those days, the vast majority of the students fell for Campbell’s theory so hard so fast that even the most pointed critiques of it would barely register. Only the handful who listened to every word the professor said would come out of the class otherwise than fervently convinced that Campbell had delivered The Truth. When I would ask the mythologists about that, that would just laugh and say that it gave then something to do in the upper-division class where they went through the theorists systematically. Evidently it still works that way now.

    Anyway, thirty years ago you could cheerfully resign yourself to that state of affairs. But to find that people are still taking Joseph Campbell seriously in this day and age, really, it’s as if NASA had a unit dedicating to casting horoscopes.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Nothing – nothing! – drives me crazier than “refusing the call.” It’s just a waste of time, everybody knows it’s a waste of time, and it’s never been dramatically interesting even once.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Opening a box (well, turning on a tv), I found “The Power of Myth” with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. I thought it was very interesting. Maybe PBS needs to update that subject, though I think it may be an uphill battle at this point.
    Did my comment bring about this post or had you planned it already? If it did, I’m seriously impressed that you wrote this so quickly!
    Looking forward to your “Women Who Run With the Wolves” post during “Wonder Woman”.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I would LOVE to see you tackle Polti’s list. Being unfamiliar with it, I just scanned through the summary of it on Wikipedia. It’s as though it’s just been sitting there for over a century, waiting for you to create a blog about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. People like Campbell remind me of writing teachers who think wheezing “there are only five stories in human history” is everything they need to tell their students.

    Of course, the underpinnings of human societies’ collective stories certainly have uniting themes–if they didn’t people wouldn’t understand or appreciate stories at all once they got past Dick and Jane go to the Zoo. There’s a reason people still read, say, the Greek Tragedies.

    But there’s also a reason we didn’t stop at one translation of said tragedies. People keep finding new stuff in them, new interpretations, depending on the translator’s personal history, when and how they grew up, and what stories they tell themselves to get through their lives. Superman changed and evolved through the years in response to fads, economics, the effort to appeal to young readers and hook new ones, new media like radio and TV, and on and on. We keep Superman as a cultural shorthand for our own story, that’s always changing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think a lot of Superman adaptations have struggled because they try to adapt the character to the heroic journey. As you say, Superman is inherently a magical being from a magical world, and audiences usually don’t respond well to a hero who’s like “I want to be normal.” (That bugged me about SMALLVILLE, where Clark was often, “Man, I wish I didn’t have these cool powers and had cool adventures. I just want to be a jock and date a boring girl.”)

    I prefer characters who from the jump want to be extraordinary. (That seems logical, right, considering most people watch movies, especially fantasy films, to “escape”)

    Now, John Byrne introduced the idea that it took time for Clark to develop his powers on Earth. This served as a way to treat Clark, well, like a mutant — an otherwise normal person whose body starts to change in amazing ways around puberty. What does Clark do with these gifts then becomes the key character driver.


  8. My favourite reductionist idea about literature is the one– I forget who thought this one up, but, like Campbell’s argument, it’s cool at first glance– about there being two kinds of stories:

    1. A hero goes on a journey.

    2. A stranger comes to town.

    This doubles the insight into stories you get if you only read Campbell. Obviously, the Superman mythos is an example of the second kind, “A stranger comes to town.”

    But there actually aren’t just two overarching story types. There’s another one. Which is– wait for it–

    3. *There’s another one.*

    I get really excited at stories where they discover that there’s a tenth planet, or a fifth cell hidden behind the other four, or a second Kryptonian who came to earth, or a fifth element, or a sixth sense. Of course you have to use it sparingly, or we’ll get jaded. The Superman comics probably failed at this.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m surprised this chapter doesn’t allude to your theory of natural narrative selection. When a story evolves over time to add new mutant elements and drop old vestigial ones, it can’t follow a rigid pattern. Well, it can, but only once.

    I looked into Polti’s catalog while writing my first book, desperate for inspiration. I think your time could be better spent, but I believe you could find points of interest in someone watching a not-yet-boiling pot.


  10. A recent (very meta!) ep of Rick and Morty featured an appearance by Joseph Campbell who assured them that every story contained an old man with soup, immediately followed by Rick and Morty spouting counterexamples! 😀


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