Wonder Woman: Another Hero’s Journey Hollywood Success

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance Nancer Ballard.


Leading up to, and since its release, the DC superhero(ine) movie Wonder Woman (2017) has garnered approval for partaking in the new wave of “feminist” movies due to its female director (Patty Jenkins) and protagonist. The movie follows Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who, having grown up in a mythic land surrounded only by powerful women, struggles to achieve success in a man’s “real” world (both on and off the battlefield) and make sense of her identity. Placing a confident woman hero on the big screen is a success for female representation in the film industry, but the movie does little to alter the typical male heroic plot. Some have argued that Diana’s completion of the Hero’s Journey is long-needed proof that the monomyth applies to both men and women, but this ignores countless women who’ve already gone through the Hero’s Journey, and men who’ve completed the Heroine’s Journey. We believe that, while this movie shows young girls and women that they can take the main stage, it fails to present them with any alternative to the masculine narrative society usually demands they fit themselves into if they want to succeed.

In the recent movie, Diana’s story begins on the secluded, paradisiacal island of Themyscira, and it is all Diana has ever known. This is her ordinary world where she feels safe and comfortable, and yet, there is tension between her and her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who forbids her from learning to fight, knowing that Diana’s growing strength makes it easier for Ares (David Thewlis), the god of war, to discover and destroy her. Diana looks up to her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who goes behind Hippolyta’s back to teach Diana to fight and is a strong role model (mentor) for the young superheroine-to-be. Diana refuses her personal call to leave the island out of respect for her mother’s wishes—to a certain point. However, the death of her mentor and her second call to adventure coincide when World War II pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes from the sky and convinces Diana that the world beyond her island cannot be ignored.

While many Hero Journey characters metaphorically cross the threshold, Diana literally crosses the veil that separates and protects Themyscira from the time-bound outside world currently engaged in WWII. Diana encounters her tests, allies, and enemies as she befriends those fighting with Steve (Samir, Charlie, and Chief) in the war, struggles to comprehend the suffering around her, and combats the villainous Nazi doctors (Ludendorff and Dr. Maru). As the team goes through their approach and prepares to confront and defeat the doctors creating weapons of pain and destruction, Diana reaches her ordeal when she decides to cross through No Man’s Land.

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Diana successfully crosses through No Man’s Land.

Through this scene, Diana recognizes her potential and secures her position as a leader. There is reward in the trust she has gained and the brief moment of peace experienced by the small town she liberates. For a moment Diana imagines a less chaotic life with Steve, but she’s not deterred from continuing with their plan to kill the Nazi doctors and thus end the production of their weapons. The group finally confronts Ludendorff but is unable to prevent the death of the people of the small town Diana liberated only moments ago. Diana eventually kills Ludendorff, but this does nothing to end the war, and she grapples with the reality of this. Diana loses faith in the possible goodness of man but when Steve tells Diana she is the best equipped to save mankind, she accepts all her superhuman powers and fights Ares (e.g. Resurrection). Having accepted and fully achieved her role as a superhuman weapon, Diana turns Ares’ power against him and defeats him, thus reaching the climax of the movie. Having been recognized as a leader and savior by Steve—the ones who counts in Diana’s mind—the movie jumps to Diana in the modern day where she continues her commitment to fight for justice, keeping the picture of her times with Steve close at hand.

Wonder Woman’s message that a Hero’s Journey can be completed by both women and men is not revolutionary, although it is a positive development that Diana, as a female hero, isn’t immediately killed upon completing the journey’s arc. At its core, the movie reinforces the masculine Hero’s Journey paradigm rather than moving toward a larger vision of wholeness. Throughout her journey, Diana seems to only come closer to the preordained role she already desired. She questions the efficacy of violence when she succeeds in killing Ludendorff and nothing changes, but instead of altering her worldview and coming to terms with this, she doubles down and confronts Ares to destroy him and end the war.

There is ironic beauty in Diana defeating Ares by harnessing his own power and turning it against him, but this is not a new, un-masculine tactic (for example, in the conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang strips Ozai of his power to end his tyrannical rule instead of killing him). Diana kills the god of war, and in the flash forward to the future, she seems to still be content with this. She accepts her duty to protect mankind even if they do not deserve it but falls short of healing a mother/daughter split. Diana does not have to reconcile her view with her mother’s admonition that “fighting does not make you a hero.” In the present “real” world, Diana Prince—Wonder Woman—still fights in the name of justice, and ultimately is stuck within the constraints of the Hero’s Journey.

The Journey of Christopher Vogler

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Sage Calder.


While researching hero and heroine journey arcs, I came across a piece by Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood Development Executive, who claims to have played a central role in ensuring that the hero’s journey narrative has dominated American movies over the last thirty years.

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero's Journey

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero’s Journey

According to Vogler, while studying cinema at the University of Southern California, he came across Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s with a Thousand Faces.  Having seen Star Wars, he recognized the similarity between the plot of that movie and  Hero’s Journey arc described by Campbell and wrote a paper for a class theorizing that a key to the Star Wars’ success was its tracking of  the hero’s journey.  Later, when Vogler began working  as a story analyst at Fox and other Hollywood studios, he applied his theory to the scripts that came across his desk.  He also talked with several of his colleagues who apparently found his ideas interesting, but not earth shattering.

However, before long Vogler got a job at Disney which had a strong corporate culture under Michael Eisner’s and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s leadership. Vogler reports that memos were a big part of Disney’s corporate identity, and everyone who worked at Disney at that time had to learn the memo art form, following the example of Katzenberg, an absolute master.

Yoda-in-Star-Wars-Episode-1According to Vogler, the discipline of writing succinct development notes and story coverage and research memos kindled within him a desire to “once and for all” get all of Campbell’s ideas down as creative principles and to use them as building blocks for constructing stories and tools for troubleshooting story problems.  He took time off from his job as a story analyst and spent a week in New York with his friend, David McKenna, watching movie clips, then came back and wrote a seven page memo which he refers to as “The Memo that Started it All” and sent it to Disney executives.

At first not much happened but Vogler had faith, picturing his memo flying off fax machines all over town.  And sure enough some people began to take notice.  Before long a junior executive at Disney saw the memo and tried to pass it off as his own.  Vogler, alerted to the usurpation by a colleague, immediately sent a memo to Katzenberg  asserting his status as true owner and asked to be elevated to story development.  Katzenberg immediately called Vogler and put him  to work  doing research and development for The Lion King.  When Vogler arrived he found “the Memo that Started it All” had preceded him, and the animators were already outlining their story boards using the Hero’s Journey stages. Thereafter Vogler’s  memo served as a springboard for numerous other hit movies,  his own book, and a teaching gig at UCLA.  According to Vogler,  people continue to attribute special powers to the  original seven-pager, and at one point, a museum dedicated to screenwriting requested a copy for a display of milestone documents and books in the history of screenwriting.

The-Lion-King-the-lion-king-33799433-1920-1080If Vogler’s description of his success and  formative role in  American movies sounds a little contrived, perhaps its because Vogler’s story of his own success so neatly tracks  the steps of the  tale on which he has made his fortune– complete with entry into new world (Disney) absolute master mentor (Katzenberg), enemies and allies (the usurping junior exec. and Vogler’s loyal colleague), success that nearly goes off the rails twice (first when the memo goes unnoticed and a second time when the junior exec. tries to appropriate Vogler’s memo), and his kinsmen’s final affirmation  of  special powers and his place as an enduring leader of the screenwriting tribe.  Of course, it’s possible that some people experience life in exactly this fashion.

To be sure, the hero’s journey is the narrative pattern for Disney children’s movies and many American coming-of-age films and weekly television dramas. (However, many American films made prior to 1970 also follow the hero’s journey pattern, and many critically acclaimed films made in and out of the United States have more causally complex  or ambiguous patterns and themes.  To see an analysis of Academy Award winning films that follow and don’t follow the hero’s journey pattern, click here.

And, you  might also ask yourself,  what if a woman had written the memo?  And then, written another memo about what  happened to her when that young junior executive  passed off the ideas of a lowly female story analyst as his own?  Might her  second memo have plotted a  different, heroine’s tale?

We will never know.  Instead, we have this website.   We may have some catching up to do, but we are not starting from scratch– as future blogs and other pages of the site illustrate,  women such as Maureen Murdock, Victoria Schmidt, Carol Pearson, and Jean Shinoda Bolen have covered much ground that we hope to expand upon.  We  invite you to  join the conversation and contribute your stories as well.