The heroes of 2018: Marvel’s Black Panther and DC’s Aquaman
The past year saw two great releases from the comic book universe, and as always comparisons and battles were due. Through the years, Marvel Comics and DC Comics have always been in a ‘battle’ of who does ‘the superhero’ better, from paper to film format, and this is not a matter of who is winning, but it gets the discussion going. It could be said that everybody wins and benefits from the great content being released.
And the great content of this year is composed of two films, different but very alike, in what the superhero genre presupposes. There will always be similarities, but no one minds that nowadays because the hero journey will always be the hero journey. He is rooted for, watchers want to relate to him, want him to win and so on. Therefore, you have to give them what they want, every time if possible, because that is the reason they go to the cinema to watch it. It is a successful pattern that everyone loves, and if it works, it stays, even after decades of superhero films.
‘The hero journey’ that I keep mentioning is a monomyth in Joseph Campbell’s words. He coined the term to describe basic patterns in stories from around the world and in his view the monomyth is equivalent to the hero journey. He mapped the archetypal heroic journey in three major phases: departure, initiation and return. Within these three phases there are several sub-stages and he says that not every story will include all of them, or that they will be found in the exact same order, because archetypes are not literary science to be followed closely.
In this paper the two major blockbusters of 2018 will be analysed following the pattern set by Campbell’s monomyth with the purpose of showcasing that it could be applied to the ‘basic’ superhero films belonging to two of the major comic books and related media publishers. Campbell’s ‘hero journey’ better applies to these films instead of the newly coined ‘American myth’ introduced in their books by the Americans John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The “American Monomyth” storyline is: A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity (Jewett and Lawrence, 1977). In the 2018 films the main theme is more of a Bildungsroman or initiation story because it is the presented the process of becoming the hero, rather than already being the hero, which the American myth presupposes.
The beginning of the year saw the first cinematic release and it all came full circle with the second release in December, making 2018 the year of the hero. The first one to be released was Black Panther in January 2018 (USA premiere), directed by Ryan Coogler, with a budget of 200 million dollars and a run-time of 134 minutes. It is the eighteenth film released by Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and follows Prince T’Challa returning home to the reclusive and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda, after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), to serve as his country’s new king. The film stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa / Black Panther, alongside Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis.
It is a critically acclaimed film earning three nominations for the Golden Globes and seven for the Oscars, including Best Motion Picture of the Year. Being considered an innovation in the industry it is loved by many for the inclusivity that it presents, a major one being the full African-American main cast with only one exception, which was and still is rare in the Hollywood industry. Therefore, much of the praise is due to that. Besides it also tackles very diverse themes story-wise such as black discrimination or the role and appearance of women for example.
At the end of the year, DC released its long awaited sixth installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) Aquaman directed by James Wan. With a budget of 160 million dollars and a consistent run-time of 143 minutes, the film has grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing DCEU film as well as the highest-grossing film based on a DC Comics character, surpassing The Dark Knight Rises (2012). It stars Jason Momoa as the title character, with Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Nicole Kidman in supporting roles. The main plotline follows Momoa’s Arthur Curry as a half human and half Atlantean and heir to the throne of Atlantis, who has to go to the underwater kingdom to stop his brother from starting a war between land and sea.
The cinematography especially is one major thing for which both films have received high praise. The images, the scenes present stunning visual and high-definition, high-quality CGI and animations. These are definitely films to be seen on the big screen in 3D if possible to get the full experience out of the visual part. The soundtrack is also a plus for both, and in terms of acting and directing everyone receives praise from critics and viewers alike.
Story-wise, the monomyth is obvious from the beginning. Each sub-stage will be taken through both films in turn starting with Black Panther and followed by Aquaman, the same as their chronological releases.
Before the first phase, that of the Departure, starts, we find the hero in his ordinary environment, which for T’Challa is mostly outside Wakanda for now, as he is guarding his father in his external affairs. The Call to Adventure is the death of his father T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, thus making T’Challa the next king. The Refusal of the Call presents itself through unspoken fears of the prince, manifested in the end through M’Baku (the leader of another tribe from Wakanda)’s challenge for the throne. Fortunately, he wins the combat and becomes the King of Wakanda, thus having to go through a ritual of spiritual death which transports him into the spirit realm where he meets his father, his mentor in his journey. Crossing the Threshold for T’Challa means taking the decision to leave Wakanda to take care of his father’s unfinished business with Ulysses Klaue, who steal Vibranium from around the world. The Belly of the Whale could be the preparation to go to battle with the help of the technology provided, in a funny manner, by his own sister.
The second phase, that of Initiation begins with the substage called The Road of Trials which are in turn: the battle in an underground casino in Busan, Korea where they take Klaue prisoner, helped by an unlikely ally in Everett K. Ross a CIA agent on a mission to buy Vibranium from Klaue. In the process of interrogation, Klaue escapes and agent Ross is shot so they have to take him back to Wakanda to save his life, decision which is very questioned by Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje regiment, the king’s guard. T’Challa witnesses the one who rescued Ulysses having a Wakandian ring which belonged to his grandfather and confronts Zuri, one of the elder statesmen in Wakanda and the keeper of the heart-shaped herb that gives the Black Panther its powers, about the past and what happened with his uncle. This could represent the Atonement with the Father stage because T’Challa is really conflicted in regard with the decision his father took at that time as king. And in his confusion, the first person he goes to is Nakia, his ex-girlfriend, making this the Meeting with the Goddess. His uncle is revealed to have a son, Erik Stevens/Killmonger, that grew up outside of Wakanda all his life and is the one working with Klaue. He kills him and takes his body to Wakanda to claim the throne as a rightful heir. T’Challa gives in to the temptation and accepts the challenge thus moving to the next stage, Apotheosis, where T’Challa dies in the combat and thus Erick becomes king. The final stage of this phase is composed of the resurrection of T’Challa by Nakia with the last heart-shaped flower, and him going to take the throne back in an epic final battle of the film.
The third and last phase, the Return, is a bit flipped between T’Challa and his cousin Erik. During the battle we see the two of them fighting in combat both with their own Black Panther suits. The two stages of the Refusal of the Return and the Magic Flight could be only applied to Killmonger, as he is the one that steals a costume and refuses to leave Wakanda. The Rescue from Without comes from M’Baku’s people that come to help finish that battle with T’Challa as winner. The Crossing of the Return Threshold combines with the next stages of the Master of the two Worlds and Freedom to Live, as King T’Challa agrees to share the technology and the information that Wakanda disposes of, through founding an institution of sharing information and finally, after the ending credits of the film, giving a speech at a UN conference in Europe, advocating to unity and sharing, the same as in a tribe.
Moving to Aquaman, for Arthur, the ordinary world is the surface world where he is happy with being the light-house keeper’s son that also does some superhero deeds on the side like saving ships from underwater pirates. The Call to Adventure comes from Mera, the Atlantean princess that comes to Arthur to ask him to come to Atlantis to claim his rightful throne and stop his little brother, King Orm, from starting a war with the land. Their mother is queen Atlanna, who was not supposed to have a child with an Earthman, Arthur’s father, so she hid him as best as she could. When she was forced back into the underwater realm, she was found out and executed by her own people. From this comes Arthur’s Refusal of the Call as he does not want anything to do with the people that murdered his mother, their own queen. Nevertheless, as he watches his father have a near death experience saved only by Mera, he agrees to go on to the adventure, but only to save the world, not to become a king. Flashbacks show his mentor is Vulko, even from when he was a teenager, who now acts as an advisor to Orm in Atlantis, but he is the one that found the ancient artefact which will guide them to the Lost Trident of Atlantis of King Atlan, trident that controls all the creatures of the sea, thus making the one who has it, the true King of the sea. Crossing the Threshold is literally going into Atlantis, through an epic magical underwater bridge that is very well guarded. In the Belly of the Whale, Arthur is caught by his brother and their meeting results in Arthur challenging him for the throne, somehow accepting his calling but failing to see he stands no chance.
Thus, the Road of Trials begins with him loosing the combat and fleeing Atlantis with the help of Mera, which is his Goddess, followed by the landing in the desert where they find a map to help them in their searching for the trident, map that gets them to Sicily, Italy. Here they are ambushed by Orm’s guards, but they manage to win. The stage of the Tempter could be interpreted by his doubts throughout the journey, as he still does not believe he is the rightful king. The map leads them to the Trench, one realm that is full of beasts and traitors are sent here to be executed. They succeed in escaping them and are saved by a mysterious figure who turn out to be queen Atlanna herself, thus the stage of Atonement with the Father (in this case mother). His mother encourages him to go claim the trident, not as a king but as a hero who fights for everyone. The Apotheosis stage comes with him prevailing as he gets the Trident and becomes King of the Sea and Aquaman. The Ultimate Boon consists of the last battle where Arthur controls all the creatures of the sea and the Atlanteans see that and acknowledge him as their king.
The stages of the last phase of the hero journey are compiled and mixed in this film as Arthur becomes the master of the two worlds, land and sea, that become one through him. His mother calls him the son of the land and the king of the seas. He keeps the trident and stays in Atlantis to be King, therefore no return is needed. Atlanna is the one who returns to land to see her love, Arthur’s father. And like this, the hero journey is completed.
With slight differences, as it was expected, both films follow the monomyth of the hero journey showing each stage in its own individual interpretation and as it was best fitted for their own cinematic universe. Sometimes switching and sometimes omitting, the main idea stays the same, the hero is on his journey to become a hero. And with this type of myth following, the superhero genre will always stay relevant with the viewers even after decades and especially in 2018 as the numbers have shown.
Jewett, Robert and John Shelton Lawrence (1977) The American Monomyth. New York: Doubleday.
www.imdb.com/ – Black Panther / Aquaman
‘How Black Panther Follows ‘The Hero’s Journey’ [online] available from https://www.eightstep.me/2018/03/01/black-panther-follows-heros-journey/ [10/02/2019]