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EXPLORING ARCHETYPES IN CINEMA

EXPLORING ARCHETYPES IN CINEMA

“All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes.” CARL JUNG

I have recently explored character names and character personas on this blog. These articles can be found here:

  1. WHAT’S IN A NAME
  2. A TEST OF CHARACTER

Now I would like to broaden the subject and have a go at defining some basic film character archetypes. My definition of this has some crossover with personas, but archetypes are not necessarily the component which make up the character – they ARE the character!

Archetypes are a common or typical shorthand; a tool writers, directors and actors can use to define character during the creative process. They are not stereotyping though. They are standardized models and structures that can be built upon to fully flesh out a character.

The archetypes I would like to consider are: Everyman/Woman, Hero, Super-Hero, Anti-Hero, Nemesis, Mentor, Sidekick and Lover/Romantic Interest. Obviously, many of these archetypes can combine, especially in more complex films, plus I’m sure there are loads of others. However, I will limit myself to these for now.



EVERYMAN / WOMAN

The staple for many, many movies is an everyman or woman or boy or girl (or gender fluid) character who is easy to relate to for the audience. It could be Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000), or Tom Hanks in Sully (2016), or Tom Hanks in basically everything – even Toy Story (1995). They tend toward the working or ordinary class with regular jobs and family units. Their stories will be everyday, or they will find themselves facing incredible situations. Alfred Hitchcock favoured everyman and woman characters who would be thrown into dangerous situations. Actors who excel in such roles include: Hanks, James Stewart, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Francis McDormand, Jack Lemmon and many more.


HERO

Many characters can begin ordinary or everyday, but over the course of a film become heroes. Luke Skywalker for instance is an bright farm kid with dreams of joining the academy. A series of contrasting events then cause his rise to discovery and heroism. On the other hand, some heroes are fully formed such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. The everyman character and hero are often combined, like with John McCLane or underdog characters such as Rocky Balboa. My favourite hero arcs are stories where the character starts in lower status such as The Terminator (1984), Django Unchained (2012) and Harriet (2019).



SUPER-HERO

So what’s the difference between a hero and a super-hero? For me the hero may be capable of incredible feats of action and endeavour, yet he or she is ultimately mortal. Thus, while they may be a super-hero on the surface, Batman and Iron Man are heroes to me; albeit mechanically improved ones. Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor, for example, have god-like powers, thus defining them as SUPER! Obviously, there are crossovers as illustrated by Peter Parker, Captain America and Captain Marvel. All of them begin as everyboy/man/woman characters and become super-heroes due to military experimentation or being impacted by incredible events which cause physical transformation.


ANTI-HERO

I love a good anti-hero. I think they are my favourite character archetype. They can be charismatic and just on the side of the righteous, but misanthropic and sarcastic like say, Wolverine or Blade. They can be on the wrong side of the law, but redeem themselves at the end of a film like Danny Archer and Han Solo. They can be outsiders or loners like Travis Bickle. They can be hard on the outside and soft on the inner like Juno. Moreover, certain actors have cornered the market on anti-heroes such as Jack Nicholson, Ellen Page, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood. My favourite anti-heroes are often cursed with supernatural forces causing them to be trapped by certain powers. The ‘Wolfman’, Lawrence Talbot, and Carrie White are fine instances of this.



NEMESIS

Given it is pantomime season there’s no harm is looking at villains! For me the greatest villains are the ones which actually have a valid cause or point. Of course, I don’t agree with their actions as they will generally involve killing people or destroying the Earth or Universe. However, villains such as Robert DeNiro’s heinous Max Cady had valid motivation. Likewise, Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of everyone was founded on sound environmental ideology. This doesn’t make it right though. Sympathetic nemeses are also interesting like Marvel’s Erik Killmonger. Moreover, King Kong for example, begins life as a threatening monster, but ultimately ends up being sympathetic compared to man. Nonetheless, you cannot beat a good old fashioned baddie like Hannibal Lecter, The Terminator, Hans Gruber, Nurse Ratched and one of my favourites, The Wicked Witch of the West.


MENTOR

The Mentor character can take many forms. They are very valuable in supporting a hero or heroine on their adventures, plus providing vital exposition or the rules of the world information. The archetypal mentor archetype is a wise, older character like Morpheus, Alfred Pennyworth, Gandalf, Mr Miyagi, or Obi Wan Kenobi. Moreover, they will often have powers and magically assist those around them. The wonderfully helpful Mary Poppins is a great example of this. Every so often mentoring is rejected by the younger partner. A case in point being Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills eschewing Morgan Freeman’s Somerset’s sage advice with deadly results. Then again, mentoring can take a more twisted and controlling turn as seen with The Devil Wears Prada’s (2006), Miranda Priestly, and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent arthouse classic, The Phantom Thread (2017).



SIDEKICK

The sidekick is a lower status character that can be an ally, helper, friend or even enemy that also provides comic relief or dramatic tension. Different from the bromance or traditional buddy character, because that double-act dynamic is on an equal level of status. Great sidekicks include: Hermione Granger, Short Round, Robin, Chewbacca, Dr Watson and many more. Often, the sidekick actually becomes more interesting, funny and memorable than the lead protagonist. Examples of this include the brilliant Hit Girl, Igor, Donkey and the aforementioned Hermione. Sometimes the sidekick takes a darker route such as Loki and Lady Macbeth, who use their influence for evil rather than good.


THE LOVER / ROMANTIC INTEREST

So, the love interest can be a romantic extension of the sidekick but can also be a mentor and even a villain. I would differentiate the love interest character from traditional romantic comedies or dramas. For instance, in When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sally and Harry are of equal status and classed as everyman and woman archetypes. However, in James Bond films the love interest is traditionally a female conquest. More in depth love interest characters are those that are not just trophies; they become equal in the story. Princess Leia is a heroine and love interest, likewise Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most recently, and a reflection of our progressive times, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman found a fine love interest in Chris Pine’s heroic Steve Trevor. Thankfully, the outdated “damsel in distress” stereotype is being consigned to the past and now we have characters of all backgrounds and gender represented on an equal basis.


CONCLUSION

As I said earlier this list is just an exploration of archetypes. There are a number I could have included. That stock character the wife or husband is one which always appears regularly in films. Often, they are waiting by the phone or television screen as some disaster befalls their partner. Lastly, I could have included the double-act, the team or the ensemble archetype; where one or more characters combine to create a whole. But, I think I’ll save that for another essay.



HARRIET (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

HARRIET (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Kasi Lemmons

Produced by: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard

Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons, Gregory Allen Howard

Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae, Clarke Peters, Zackary Momoh, Vondie Curtis-Hall etc.

**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**



With $100 million being spent on the film Midway (2019), which I haven’t seen, and $160 million being spent on The Irishman (2019), which I have, it’s kind of shame that a way bigger story like that of Harriet Tubman is only afforded a mid-budget tribute adaptation. Because, even if this story is only 10% true, Harriet Tubman’s character deserves so much more. In fact, I am shocked that it has taken this long for her achievements to reach the cinema screen. Especially because we had to endure another rendition of Lincoln (2012), in Spielberg’s recent ponderous epic.

That isn’t to say that old Abraham isn’t deserving of praise. I’m just an ignorant Englander, but Harriet Tubman, as represented by Cynthia Erivo’s sterling performance and Kasi Lemmon’s and Gregory Allen Howard’s fizzing screenplay, is a tour-de-force encapsulation of empowerment. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t without flaws. Indeed, this is an amazing story which is professionally told. However, it seems to have been short-changed on budget and marketing possibilities here in the U.K. I mean Frozen 2 (2019) is on about a million screens, whereas I struggled to find one for this film.



Araminta “Minty” Ross was born in 1820 and into the slavery that blighted the “United” States. Eventually this humanitarian stain would lead to civil war in the U.S.A and the film charts Minty’s legacy from slavery to escape to freedom fighter, during the build up to this fierce conflict. Her character is one of guts, determination, fight and she also has the gift for second sight. Indeed, if the period setting wasn’t so well evoked, you could be mistaken for feeling like the film was using the beats of a superhero origins film.

But that is what Harriet Tubman becomes; a superhero and saviour to her family, friends, slaves and the abolitionist movement as a whole. A superhero needs a nemesis though and white slavers have now become the new Nazis. They are the bad guys and villains we boo and hiss and hate. Here they are represented by Joe Alwyn’s Gideon Brodess. While not as charismatically dastardly as Tarantino’s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), he remains a benign, matter-of-fact vision of evil. Perhaps, the brutality could have been heightened, but this is more of an inspirational and empowering tale, rather than one that wallows in the misery and genius of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave (2013).

Overall, the film is a fine tribute to an incredible human being. There are some issues in the telling of the story. It feels rushed like a “greatest hits” package. I mean I just wish they could have developed a longer television series for this character or given it the running time Harriet’s plaudits deserved. Plus, some of the direction is a little flat in places. Where suspense and fear could have been ratcheted up a bit, in certain scenes Lemmons rushes through them. Nevertheless, I was thoroughly absorbed by the subject matter, themes and character throughout. Special praise goes to star-in-the-making Cynthia Erivo too. Via Harriet Tubman’s incredible actions Erivo has broken out in more ways than one.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11