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How one film can fix the superhero genre

With so many superhero films dominating the box office, the so-called “superhero fatigue” has begun setting in. Is this simply because there are so many of them or is there a problem in how these stories are told? Surprisingly, there is one film that could possibly solve most of the problems in the modern superhero genre, the 1999 sci-fi masterpiece “The Matrix” by the Wachowskis. Using a narrative theory known as “The Hero’s Journey”, let’s take a look at what made “The Matrix” such a success and has let it stand the test of time. Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: What makes a great superhero movie? It’s the million dollar question in Hollywood right now, or more accurately six billion, with Marvel creating what is now the most successful film franchise in film history based solely on superheroes. And after decades of this superhero craze, we’ve essentially seen every possible iterations or versions of the genre.

Some are excellent, pushing boundaries, and attempting to redefine the genre. While others, well… Marvel and DC movies can be fun and enjoyable, but there’s one film that really exemplifies a great superhero movie. Let’s go all the way back to 1999, the year Wachowskis released their cyberpunk masterpiece – The Matrix.

Despite its heavy sci-fi undertones, The Matrix, at its core, is a superhero movie. I mean look at it. An unlikely hero develops unique powers to protect the world from evil. Now add an iconic look, a few memorable set pieces, and this. That’s right, Marvel and DC have The Matrix to thank for this iconic three-point hero landing that has become the staple of the genre. Put all of this together and you’ve got the classic formula for a superhero film.

But what makes The Matrix shine is in its narrative structure, specifically the journey the Keanu Reaves’ character Thomas Anderson goes through to become Neo, the chosen one. To better understand this, let’s take a look at a narrative structure called the hero’s journey, by Joseph Campbell. Campbell believed that every piece of fiction regarding a hero goes through a very specific set of stages, 17, to be precise. Later screenwriter Christopher Vogler would simplify these 17 stages down to 12. These stages then can be broken into three distinct acts, departure, initiation, and return. Every film about a hero follows this distinct pattern. The hero sets on a journey, faces a series of challenges, and then returns home after a triumphant victory. Most superhero blockbusters focus on this second act, the initiation, often characterised by these big final boss battles. It’s what also makes these films so entertaining to watch, as everything builds up to one final, climactic battle, that Vogler names The Ordeal, where our hero faces the most difficult challenge yet.

But what happens afterwards? Is this part of the movie as memorable to you? Probably not. Which is a shame, because this final act, the return, is perhaps the most important part of any hero’s journey. And this is where The Matrix truly shines. Let’s step back and look at The Ordeal. It occurs in The Matrix when Neo and Trinity set out on an impossible mission to rescue Morpheus from the clutches of the evil agents. Our heroes are successful and for a second it seems as though things are starting to wrap up. But that’s not quite what happens here. As they return to the real world one by one, they are compromised and Neo is left to face the agents alone for the first time.

This stage is referred to as the road back by Vogler where the hero “begins to deal with the consequences “of confronting the dark forces of The Ordeal “and is pursued by the vengeful forces he has disturbed.” That’s exactly what happens, a chase between Neo and the agents as he searches for a way back. Neo is eventually cornered, and then something truly unique happens. This scene came as a shock to a lot of the people watching The Matrix for the first time and it’s a shock that is well deserved by the Wachowskis. The film is riddled with uncertainties about whether Thomas is truly Neo, the prophesized chosen one. At one point we even hear that he isn’t, from the prophet herself. Ironically, and symbolically, the person who has the most trouble believing is none other than Thomas himself. This is beautifully visualized when Neo fails to make a seemingly impossible jump, a metaphorical leap of faith. And that’s why perhaps the best cinematic moment in The Matrix happens in this scene.

How do you visualise faith? To the Wachowskis, that answer is choice. Upon further viewing, it’s surprising to see just how many times choices are visualized throughout the film. But it asks the same question every time. Do you choose to escape and avoid the harsh reality of truth, or do you choose to confront and believe it. When all odds are against Thomas, he chooses to believe in himself. That’s when we witness a transformation, a moment in which a simple man becomes a hero. And when our faith for the hero is finally proven right, it feels well deserved. This stage, by the way, is actually called resurrection, where the hero is “purified and transformed “through the most dangerous meeting with death.”

And perhaps this is where a lot of superhero films today fall short. Most of them choose to follow a safe, proven formula that neither raises the stakes, nor truly tests our hero. We’re supposed to simply accept them as heroes without knowing why it is that they deserve it. It makes for an easy viewing, but also a highly predictable one. There are of course a few exceptions, most notably in films like The Dark Knight, or recently, Black Panther. But it seems that many still fail to understand why it is that we love superheroes so much. As much as we love watching our heroes fight and win, it’s the side of them that makes them human, their vulnerability, but still the willingness to fight against all odds, that keeps us coming back. Because it’s only after moments like these, after a truly harrowing journey, that a real hero is born.

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