Avatar: Classic Hero’s Journey
Analysis of Avatar as told through Joseph Campbell’s mythic hero’s journey.
There’s nothing more satisfying than a perfectly executed hero’s journey, and James Cameron’s Avatar completely satisfies. Lets take a look at Cameron’s use of Campbell’s mythic structure.
We meet our hero, Jake Sully, as his eyes pop open. We’re introduced to his ‘Ordinary World‘. Wheelchair bound. Unable to soar. Broke (physically, mentally, financially).
In fact, even his name, Sully, means dirty. Poor Sully, he’s worse off than we are, but he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He sucks it up and soldiers-on because that’s his character. He’s from the Jarhead clan. All physical. He’s missing his soul — a connection with life.
We empathize with him because we understand how hard life is. He is definitely not he hero yet. He has to earn it, or there can be no satisfaction for us or for him.
Sully’s adventure begins when he receives a Call to Action. In some circles it’s also called ‘inciting incident’ or ‘catalyst’, and it’s the thing that puts our protagonist out of whack. It threatens his ordinary world. Whether dramatic or simple, it ultimately disrupts the comfort of the Hero’s Ordinary World and presents a challenge or quest.
You’ll find a lot of folks determine the CTA as the point when he’s asked to take his brother’s place, but that’s not it. There are several reasons for this; first, look at the ultimate goal — this has nothing to do with his brother or taking his brother’s place, it has everything to do with “becoming the man he wants to be. Replacing his brother is a tactic to get him to where he needs to go.
On page 3 Sully says, “All I ever wanted in my sorry-ass life was a single thing worth fighting for.” This is his character core objective and his moral compass. We also see a tattoo on him — ‘born loser’. That’s his starting point.
We also know this is not the CTA because it doesn’t demand or request anything of him. And finally, other than taking him off planet Earth, he remains in the same world — a world of hostility and ugliness.
The majority of act 1 is about establishing context. Cameron sets the stage. We learn more about Sully’s ordinary world and without all the contextual information set, we wouldn’t be able to follow the story, let alone lose ourselves in it.
About page 25, Sully finally does get his call to action and it comes from the antagonist, Colonel Quaritch. The Col. promises new legs in exchange for intel–“learn everything you can”. This is a wonderful dilemma for Sully. The one thing he wants more than anything else — his legs = his freedom, but there’s only one problem; he likes his new friend, Neytiri.
This is where Refusal of The Call would come in — however, Sully doesn’t really resist, there’s too much at stake for him. But we’ll see how this twist causes major problems down the road. For now, he has no loyalty to anybody. It’s him against the world.
In the meantime, he Meets his Mentor, Neytiri, as he crosses over into the special world. Some may say Grace is his mentor, but she isn’t tasked with teaching him all he needs to learn to become a man. Neytiri will. In fact, on page 26, Grace says, you’re in my world now,” which is the beginning of his descent into the special world. He’s separated from Grace, and faces potential death in this new world. But he’s a true fighter. Special. But there’s now way he’s going to survive a bunch of killer wolf creatures ready too pounce.
At this point in Campbell’s structure, the hero desperately needs guidance. The Mentor could come in the form of a person, like Yoda or Neytiri, or as something less straightforward, but regardless, he needs help to Cross The Threshold.
And she helps him. But she’s not happy about it. She tells him he’s a stupid baby. And on page 41 he says,”why don’t you teach me.” She tells him, “no one can teach you to see.” Lets get esoteric for a moment. She’s probably referring to that thing called spirit. We can’t see it, but we can feel it.
Neytiri brings Sully back to her camp where she gets instructions to teach him.
Sully has crossed a serious threshold to get here and he’s ready to act upon his call to adventure and learn everything he can about these people. It doesn’t hurt that he is more powerful than he ever was as a human. He will learn to connect his physical with the spiritual.
In general, a hero may go willingly or she may be pushed, but either way she finally crosses the threshold between the world she knows and the one she doesn’t.
This period includes all sorts of Tests, Allies, and Enemies. In his ‘broken’ world, the threats get stronger and his Avatar world is in danger. He doesn’t know how to stop the danger, and to compound the troubles, he’s falling in love with Neytiri, and this world.
In Campbell’s description, our hero is no longer in her comfort zone. During this period, the Hero is confronted with an ever more difficult series of challenges that test her in a variety of ways. Obstacles are thrown across her path; whether they be physical hurdles or people bent on thwarting her progress, our Hero must overcome each challenge she is presented with.
Campbell identified the next step as the Approach to the Inmost Cave, but I think the two are linked together. During the approach to the inmost cave, the hero encounters allies and enemies and must test herself. That is part of the approach.
The inmost cave may represent many things — an actual location or an inner conflict which up until now the Hero has not had to face. For Sully, the inmost cave is his total immersion and connection to spirit. He becomes one of the Na’Vi. This is the final step in his transformation. And for Jake Sully, the final steps include passing the ultimate Na’Vi test of connecting with his flying creature, a Na’Vi ceremony, and finally, proclaiming his love for Neytiri.
The road thus far has been in preparation for the Supreme Ordeal that awaits our Hero and escalates the tension in anticipation of his ultimate test — can Jake Sully save his home, Pandora.
The Supreme Ordeal may be a dangerous physical ordeal or a deep inner crisis that the Hero must face in order to survive or for the world in which the Hero lives to continue to exist. Whether it be facing his greatest fear or most deadly foe, the Hero must draw upon all of his skills and his experiences gathered upon the path to the inmost cave in order to overcome this ultimate challenge.
According to Campbell, “Only through some form of “death” can the Hero be reborn, experiencing a metaphorical resurrection that somehow grants him greater power or insight necessary in order to fulfill his destiny or reach his journey’s end. (The rebirth happens during resurrection.)
This is the high-point of the Hero’s story and where everything he holds dear is put on the line. If he fails, he will either die or life as he knows it will never be the same again.”
I believe the Reward (Seizing the Sword) happens during the Supreme Ordeal.
During battle, as Na’Vi, Sully seizes the sword and becomes a great leader when he connects to the mind of Toruk, the great dragon-like creature feared and honored by the Na’Vi. He unites the clans, his prayers to Tree of Souls are answered and he saves Pandora.
Campbell says, “surviving death and finally overcoming his greatest personal challenge, the Hero is ultimately transformed into a new state, emerging from battle as a stronger person and often with a prize. The Reward may come in many forms: an object of great importance or power, a secret, greater knowledge or insight, or even reconciliation with a loved one or ally. Whatever the treasure, which may well facilitate his return to the Ordinary World, the Hero must quickly put celebrations aside and prepare for the last leg of his journey.”
For Jake, the ultimate reward was finding something worth fighting for, as he states in the beginning of the film.
The Road Back in the Hero’s journey represents a “reverse echo of the Call to Adventure in which the Hero had to cross the first threshold. Now he must return home with his reward but this time the anticipation of danger is replaced with that of acclaim and perhaps vindication, absolution or even exoneration.”
For Sully, the road back is short — he faces the antagonist. And with Neytiri’s help, Quaritch is destroyed.
And finally, Resurrection.
The last step in Sully’s transformation is death. His human body will die, but his spirit will survive and he is reborn as Na’Vi. The ultimate gift.
“This is the climax in which the Hero must have his final and most dangerous encounter with death. The final battle also represents something far greater than the Hero’s own existence with its outcome having far-reaching consequences to his Ordinary World and the lives of those he left behind.”
Ultimately the Hero will succeed, destroy his enemy and emerge from battle cleansed and reborn.
The hero Returns Home with the Elixir a changed person. Transformed. The elixir may be physical, or something deeper and intangible, but he is changed. He has grown as a person, faced many terrible dangers and even conquered death. His return may bring hope to those he left behind, a direct solution to their problems or perhaps a new perspective for everyone to consider.
For Sully, the ordinary world is his new home.
The return also signals the need for resolution for the story’s other key players. Ultimately the Hero returns home, but things will never be the same again.
One thing to bear in mind when applying the Hero’s Journey, or any type of structure to a story — there is no right or wrong. There is no one way. For every example that demonstrates how the structure works, there are examples that defy the structure with great success.
This analysis should help you see how even Avatar bent the structure slightly and still created an amazing story.