What do Jon Snow, Rambo and Woody from Toy Story have in common? For years, nay decades, they have been the go-to heroes of Hollywood. And now they’re retiring. And not just in the business sense.
Yes, diversity is Hollywood’s new golden goose. Aladdin, which by all means wasn’t a great script nor Guy Ritchie’s best movie, is topping $900 million worldwide this weekend with very little else to go on than “Disney remake with a diverse cast”. And that’s just the latest in the trend of Ridley’s, T’Challa’s and Carols who are dominating the box-office. But that leaves a considerable question: what of the white guys we know and love?
Spoilers abound for pretty much everything from House of Cards to Toy Story 4.
For decades the most popular stories followed a trend: the hero’s journey. Guy goes on adventure, overcomes obstacles and saves the day. It’s Superman, Indiana Jones, Tarzan and yes, even The Dark Knight, just with less lighting. But 2019 doubles down on a new trend. Whether it’s forcibly because we keep making sequels of stories that are very much done, or because the world is asking for change, the classic hero is no longer just saving the world, he’s retiring.
Jon Snow kills his female lover turned mass-murderer and rides off with his two best friends into the vast wilderness, never having wanted the throne once meant for him. It’s a retirement of sorts, as much as Westeros allows, but it’s also a similar ending to how Frodo sails off into retirement at the end of The Return of the King. These heroes, having found the magic elixer to cure all problems, don’t actually return to the world they improved. They can’t. Their hero’s journey changed them too much.
A similar ending is given to Woody in Toy Story 4, the cowboy who spends 24 years saving other toys from being lost. In a sequel no one asked for but proves its worth all the same, Woody sees how his child, Bonnie, prefers girl-cowboy Jessie and a self-made spork, over him. After returning a lost toy one final time, he chooses for his own happiness and leaves Bonnie. What the plot of Rambo V is, is anyone’s guess, but with the title Last Blood it’s clear it’s the end of the line for our veteran turned rogue. Whether it’s through death of an actor (Furious 7), a scandal (House of Cards) or just good old fashioned story synthesis (How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World) the Hero’s Journey is increasingly more about letting go than it is about becoming the hero/king/top street racer. Guess Elsa is to blame for that.
Of course, it’s a bit more nuanced. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood wasn’t a classic hero like Jon or Woody. He was actually one of the last of the anti-hero’s, a wave that started with Tony Soprano in the 90s. People have preferred people we’re not meant to root for, for quite some time. If the astounding success of John Wick proves anything, it’s that we like our heroes to be selfish and amoral but still empathetic. That trend reached a particular interesting turning point in Avengers: Endgame.
Here, Tony Stark refuses to reverse the massacre of half the universe in Infinity War solely for his own daughter’s life. An empathetic motive, for sure, but one deeply selfish. Even his heroic “I am Iron Man” turn with which he defeats Thanos for good by sacrificing himself, is a stark – pun intended – contrast to being a true selfless hero. If one were to reason Tony sacrificed himself more for his family and friends than for the sake of the universe, they wouldn’t be far off. The exact same goes for Tyrion in Game of Thrones. That other witty character we all love doesn’t convince hero Jon Snow to kill anti-hero Daenerys out of some deep-rooted desire to save the world. His head is on the chopping block and, as he has stated time and again, he likes living too much, so Daenerys must go. Both of these franchises, arguably the most definitive of our time, enjoy enough characters to combine the anti-hero stories with genuine heroes, but the torch is definitely passed.
The exact same ending given to these anti-heroes, is given to the classic heroes. Steve Rogers has made every sacrifice humanly imaginable for the sake of people he’ll never meet. Especially in a decade when drug dealers ruled TV and Nazi’s marched real-world streets, Steve was almost annoyingly, classically good. Yet, in Endgame, he too he passes off his destined place in the world to a minority while he himself goes on to live the life he wants, and by all means deserves.
Billionair Tony Stark might be dead, but friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man isn’t. Jon Snow might be your ruler of choice, but his sister and baby bro in a wheelchair are the remaining monarchs. Disney might be rebooting there old stories but their Ariel will definitively be Black, just like their new Simba. And while universally loved white dude Brian is gone (too soon), latino Dom, Letty and even Mia are back probably more fast and furious than ever in 2020.
If anything unites these new type of heroes, aside from their undeniable diversity, it’s that they get to learn from the journeys their flawed predecessors took. Perhaps humanity can’t be solely altruistic and the ultimate reward for doing good is being good for one’s self. And what’s more heroic than giving others the opportunities you were given?
The heroes we know and love, anti- or classic, be it by choosing for themselves or dying for their own cause, are retiring. Their stories, however successful and sweeping and inspiring and motiving, definitively coming to an end. The Hero’s Journey is dead. Long live the Hero’s Journey! Because now there are new kinds of heroes who rise up to tell the kind of stories we have never seen before.