The original Star Wars films – and A New Hope in particular – is just about one of the most Hero’s Journey of Hero’s Journey stories told in the last 50 years. It actualized a lot of the groundwork in establishing and modernizing the concepts (following in the footsteps of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) while also catering to many of the original ideas. Indeed, many an interview with George Lucas confirms how much of this was willfully and conscientiously done.
There’s a healthy amount of criticism and praise that can be lobbed at a film like The Force Awakens. In its own way, it’s not so much about modernizing the Hero’s Journey for our time (as A New Hope did) as it is modernizing the Star Wars story for our time. Suggesting that Star Wars itself has become – if not quite perhaps the Ultimate Hero’s Journey – an offshoot of the concept that’s now such a powerful entity that it almost entirely stands on its own.
And this is greatly reflected in the way the film behaves. Not just in the obvious details – like the parroting of the entire storyline from A New Hope. (Heroes from a desert plan discover McGuffin, go on the run from Evil-British-Empire stand-in, meet up with underdog Resistance to the Empire stand-in, superweapon from Empire-Stand-In destroys worlds, weakness in superweapon is exploited and underdog Resistance wins out the day.) More interestingly, it’s in the usage of characters themselves. Because they’re based on Star Wars archetypes, but not necessarily on classical Hero’s Journey archetypes.
The first and foremost is the character of Rey. And there’s a great deal of interest to be discussed with her character. The film doesn’t posit her as an obvious lead so much as a co-lead. While A New Hope undoubtedly belonged to Luke from the moment he appeared on-screen, The Force Awakens is more interested in sharing the space. Rey and Finn are each introduced within a span of time, and the film is equally invested in each of their respective journeys.
Rey is the new Luke, and the new Anakin, and yet she doesn’t fulfill many of the qualifiers for the classic protagonist in the Hero’s Journey. We identify her as the new Luke because of the very Star Wars specific qualifiers. She lives on a desert planet, she’s adept with technology, she’s a natural pilot, and she comes to learn that she has an innate gift with the Force.
At the same time, we don’t know if she’s an orphan – because even she doesn’t know if she’s an orphan. The state of one’s parentage has often been a pivotal part of this character identifier, as the person who fills out the role is almost always raised by an uncle. She grew up and has been on her own for so long she no longer even remembers. Maybe that in the end it won’t come to matter, since she didn’t grow up with any parents anyway. Or maybe it will come to mean everything, as that isolation and self-reliance during her formative years will separate her from other classical Heroes.
For another thing, she doesn’t dream of adventure. She doesn’t desire to leave her safe space, go off into the universe, and prove herself in a familiar coming-of-age tale. Instead, she wants to stay where she is. From what little she remembers, and in the fierce beliefs she holds onto, staying put is what she thinks she needs.
The character of Han is also one of the most important figures in this discussion – because he’s intentionally reframed within the context of the story from where he stood in the past. In the Hero’s Journey tale, there is quite often a wizard figure. An older reliable man (very occasionally woman) who usually has access to (or knowledge) of ancient wisdom and powers. He is the guiding force for our archetypal Hero out of their safe space and into the universe. And at some point in the journey, he will have to die so that the Hero can soldier on and learn to depend on her/himself to succeed.
In A New Hope, this character was Obi-Wan Kenobi. In The Force Awakens, it’s Han Solo. And again, the Star Wars distinguishers here are important. Han doesn’t have the Force, but he’s able to confirm its existence. He’s not a wizard, but he bears ties to the stories and world that now only exist in the past. He’s the guiding force for our characters into the larger world. And he also dies for his trouble, forcing Rey and Finn to soldier on without him. (There’s also something of an amusing irony to giving what used to be the galaxy’s greatest skeptic on All Things Mystical the wizard role.)
Han Solo is the new Obi-Wan, but he’s not necessarily the new wizard character. He’s a Star Wars archetype without being a Hero’s Journey archetype. Because he bears similarities to his inheritor that aren’t necessary to fill the wizard archetype. Most notably his connection to the film’s central villain. He’s killed in his confrontation with Kylo Ren in a scenario that is willfully similar to the final showdown between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. The father/father figure to the lost Jedi apprentice who has now allied himself to the dark. And that Sith apprentice in turn sees that death as a necessary step forward in his own progression.
(As side not, it’s also worth noting that the film translates more literally what the original trilogy only brushed up against – that a boy must kill his own father to advance in the world – which Joseph Campbell has cited as being an element of the Hero’s Journey. It’s likely why Vader – i.e. “father” – was given that name. Yet the original trilogy chose redemption, which was the wiser path for the story of Luke and Anakin to take.)
The other character of most importance to be discussed here then is Kylo Ren. He’s our new Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. The friend/family member that fell to the Dark Side, and is now wreaking havoc across the galaxy in his quest for power.
Of course, Kylo Ren (or Ben) also works something in antithesis to how Anakin did. And in how many other similar characters in other tales are treated. Anakin of the prequels struggled to find the good within him, to hold onto it long enough to let be his guidepost. That it failed is why he failed, and it’s only through the good of another (his son) that he ever gains redemption.
Put simply, Anakin couldn’t be as good as he wanted to be. Where Kylo Ren struggles to be as evil as he wishes to be. Where Anakin is good seduced by evil, Kylo Ren has turned evil, and yet is still seduced by good. He’s not the masterful villain, the Sith Lord and leader, he dreams of becoming. Where Anakin’s ties to friends and family weren’t able to influence him enough away from his Dark Side tendencies, Kylo Ren sees them as a constant, and consistent, burden.
It’s also worth noting that another way in which the film flips the Star Wars script is in its trio of protagonists. In the original trilogy, it was a trio of heroes in Luke, Leia, and Han. In the prequels, it was our trio of Obi-Wan, Padme, and Anakin – with the latter serving as hero up until the backhalf of Revenge of the Sith.
But in The Force Awakens, the main trio of lead characters aren’t all heroes. As it’s Kylo Ren himself who fills out the third branch of that entity to serve alongside Finn and Rey. No doubt there’s much more to come in how that entire dynamic evolves. Perhaps Kylo Ren is destined to work the exact opposite direction Anakin did: starting a villainous Sith, and ending a heroic Jedi.
The last character worthy of discussion is of course then Finn. He’s the least archetypal character of them all. He’s not flipping the script, he’s not clinging or catering to previous Star Wars (or even Hero’s Journey) figures that have preceded him. Finn is something all his own. He speaks to the increased discussion of complex morality in this universe – and in his own way, provides the template for (or perhaps even contrast?) to that of Kylo Ren. That even someone who is raised from birth to be totally subservient to an evil entity can have such powerful good in him that it will ultimately triumph over everything else he’s been taught. Finn is the one character in the movie that the most all his own, and where exactly his story goes is the hardest to predict.
We have many months more to go before the release of The Last Jedi to see exactly where Rian Johnson takes the series next. But there are some fascinating foundational elements in play. To see Star Wars, in essence, become its own archetype is a fundamentally interesting concept to play with. To see how it evolves all the more could yield us something even greater.