Mythological and Modern-Day Heroes

Modern day writers use monomyths to create superheroes.  Leeming cited Malinowski as saying, “myths justify and validate economic, political, social, and religious realities” (Powell, B., 2002).  Monomyths include three elements; a departure from his or her society, an initiation where the superhero gains a power to be used for good, and the return where he or she has usually faced death and been resurrected.  These steps are very similar to stories of the gods, demigods, and heroes of ancient times.  Analyzing literature and their structure, as well as following the monomyth guidelines, will provide an excellent roadmap to create a successful modern day hero or heroine.

The Modern Day Hero

Heroes have been an essential part of society since the beginning of time.  Indick writes, “As the central figure in the film experience, the hero is the integral archetype in the collective unconscious of American culture” (2004).  In modern culture, heroes can be found everywhere, whether in the movie, books, comics, cartoons and even in society itself.   Modern heroes are regular men and women who turn into superheroes with powers.  While the ordinary man or women display features of normal society, the superhero usually has abilities that we can associate with the gods of ancient times.  Just like the gods, it is also vital to study modern-day heroes for more than just the storyline.  There is usually a moral theme involved in their journey.  The influence of ancient gods can be found with every storyline of a hero or heroine; be it super-human strength, the ability to fly, or the ability to escape death even in the most dangerous situations.

Indick also explains that most screenplay writers use monomyth formulas to create the storyline.  Research shows that monomyths have three stages, consisting of, “departure, initiation, and return” (ThinkQuest.orgaxer, 2005, monomyths).  Departure is the call to adventure in which the hero finds him or herself traveling to a distant and foreign place.  The hero meets a guide that is often a god or goddess where he or she receives a supernatural power to help in the journey.  Then, the hero enters the new world and often finds, “… his purpose to go on the journey and can emerge from the “belly of the whale” as a new person” (ThinkQuest, 2005).  The second part of the journey allows the hero to face the villain’s challenges to improve his skills.   He will also have a greater understanding of his role as a hero.  The hero always emerges as the victor over all that is bad in society.  He or she often feels it his or her duty to share the knowledge of the journey with others.  The third and final part of the journey often finds the hero on a return journey home.  He or she may, “defeat another gatekeeper, and in the process become “reborn” with his humanity after his “death” from crossing the threshold the first time” (thinkquest.org, 2005, Monomyths).  Because most screenwriters tend to follow the steps of the monomyth, heroes and heroines often follow the paths of many ancient gods and goddesses.  The story also uses issues within society to add to the plot so that the audience can relate.  Leeming wrote, “… a traditional story is not conveyed by the content, he maintains, but by the structural relationships that one can discover behind the content” (Powell, B., 2002). Using heroes to convey that meaning is essential to developing the story, the characteristics of the hero, and the success of the movie overall.

Monomyth stages (thingquest.org, 2005, Monomyths) are:

Act One: Departure (Kal-el leaves Krypton as an infant to go to Earth.  He is then adopted.  He discovers his powers and decides he wants to use them to protect the world.  He then becomes a reporter in Metropolis as the story takes shape.)
1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale
Act Two: Initiation (Superman takes on Lex Luger, a businessman who is dishonest, to save humanity.  Lois Lane is his love interest and plays a big part in the Superman series as his love interest.  It is Lois Lane that Superman will resurrect.  )
6. The Road of Trials
7. The Meeting with the Goddess
8. Woman as the Temptress
9. Atonement with the Father
10. Apotheosis
11. The Ultimate Boon
Act III: Return (Superman defeats the villain and continues to protect the world through new adventures)
12. Refusal of the Return
13. The Magic Flight
14. Rescue from Without
15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
16. Master of the Two Worlds
17. Freedom to Live                                               (ThinkQuest, 2005)


The Modern Day Hero

Modern day heroes often display characteristics of someone who does something beyond their ability, usually with the use of a unique power.  Heroes also take dangerous journeys to the unknown to save the world from a villain.  Many of the modern-day heroes have the same characteristics of the classical hero, the medieval hero, and the romantic hero.  Sometimes, a modern day hero embodies traits of all three.  The contemporary hero has powers like the gods, can sleigh a dragon from medieval times, and fight a new age villain using the latest technology which is trying to destroy the world.  One such hero was Clark Kent whose alter ego was more popularly known as Superman.  In 1978, director Richard Donner released Superman.  Superman, famously played by Christopher Reeve, travels to Metropolis from his home in Krypton to fulfill his destiny.  His nemesis, Lex Luger, “…the world’s greatest criminal mind, is plotting the greatest real estate swindle of all time” (imbd, 2014).  He faces many trials, dominates his enemies, faces death, and resurrection.  Superman compared to Zeus because they both had superhuman strength and were known as the king of all superheroes.  They were also responsible for keeping the peace.

The character Clark Kent compared to Sherlock Holmes because he can stay calm and solve problems.  John Hopkins University described Clark Kent with words such as, “astuteness, swiftness, extreme fighting ability, or even the logical faculties and the pure observation found in Sherlock Holmes” (Diacritics, 1972).  The regular features of Clark Kent and his superhuman features make him a lovable character at all.  His mission was to save the world from villains like Lex Luger.  This scenario carefully followed the monomyth structure that many writers have used in entertainment from the 1940’s until today.  Audiences related to Clark Kent because he was weak, shy, and a regular guy that did not portray any resemblance to Superman.  It was easy for the audience to relate and live vicariously through the many adventures he had.  This made Superman one of the most popular modern-day heroes of our century.   Superman and Hercules share many of the same qualities because of their superhuman strength.  His love affair with Lois Lane and subsequent saving of her could also label Superman as a romantic hero.  Superman’s famous suit compares to the armor of medieval times, providing a medieval element to the story.  These elements used by the writers have easily made Superman one of the most popular and recognized superheroes of all time.  He embodies every element of the modern day hero of our time.


In closing, the monomyth has been an essential element in building the stories of modern-day heroes.  It is the link to the ancient mythology that enhances their features.  The writers used the perfect recipe for ancient, medieval, and romance to make Superman one of the most influential superheroes in history.  In doing so, it has provided the world with a legacy that only a character like Superman could give.  Skillfully, Superman took his audience on a journey beginning with his departure, continuing with his initiation, and finally, his return where his quest provided the audience with an unforgettable story.


Diacritics. (c. 1972). The Myth of Superman. The John Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from website:  http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/464920?uid= 3738664 &uid =2& uid= 4&sid=2110369073214
Indick, W. (2004). Classical heroes in modern movies: Mythological Patterns of the superhero. Journal of Media Psychology, 9(3), 1-9.
Leeming, D. A. (1990). The world of myth. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Monomyths.  (2005). Webweavers.  Retrieved from website: http://library.thinkquest.org/05aug/00212/monomyth.html
Powell, B. B. (2002). A short introduction to classical myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Superman.  (c. 2014).  Imbd.com.  Retrieved from website: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078346/




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