How The Hero’s Journey Is Totalitarian

Good guy Sauron, from Lord Of The Rings

Years of movies have primed people to think that you can save the world by finding the right button and just pushing it. Or finding the bad guy and murdering him. Batman, James Bond, the Avengers, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, every blockbuster really.

But the world doesn’t work that way. To ‘save’ the world the world has to change, it’s not a voyage of personal discovery. Power relations have to change, usually violently. Basically, you have to root for the bad guys, the ones trying to make a change.

This is fundamentally not what heroes do. Heroes can go anywhere and do anything—they can even have superpowers—but they must fly in a loop. They must return to where they start. This is literally the hero’s journey, and it dominates imperial art. So let us look through the fever dreams of late capitalism (movies) to see what they say about its heart.

The Hero’s Journey

Almost every adventure film is oriented around what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey. This narrative form is so common that we think it’s the only one.

Lord Of The Rings

Take Lord Of The Rings, for example, dude is chilling in the Shire, things get all fucked up, he goes on a hero’s journey, then he throws the Ring in the bin and is back to chilling in the Shire again. It’s the classic narrative arc.

In LOTR only the ‘Dark’ Lord Sauron is trying to change the world. Meanwhile a cartel of the most powerful people in Middle Earth gather to resist him, using a weaponized Hobbit to protect their privileges. A lot happens in LOTR, but nothing changes. Frodo walks a lot but the place stays the same, with the same people in charge.

Star Wars

A weirder example is Star Wars. Star Wars seems like it’s about rebellion against Empire, and sorta was, but now it has become a part of the Disney empire in real life. Disney doesn’t want the (Galactic) Empire to die because that would stop the show. So now the Empire is basically eternal, at least until the copyright runs out.

So today my younger cousins have pictures of Stormtroopers on their wall. Families dress up as the neo-Nazi ‘First Order’ on Disney’s Galactic Starcruiser.Whatever commentary George Lucas was trying to make about Nazis 50 years ago has morphed into ‘Nazis are cool’.

Within this empire within an empire, heroes go on journeys but the Empire is always, always preserved. On the Galactic Cruiser you can cosplay as either the Empire or Rebellion, it’s irrelevant really. You can be the hero in the hero’s journey yourself, to see how pointless it all is. Both the Galactic Empire and Disney Empire stay the same no matter what.