The Roots of the Archetype: Heroes and Villains in “Megamind”

The word “archetype” these days is often used as a synonym for “trope”—a stock character or plot device—with the often-added inference that it’s unoriginal or overused. Definitions I found on the web include “an ideal or perfect example of a type” or “the original model after which other things are patterned.” You can find lists of “common archetypes” all over the Internet.

The above definitions are too reductionist for my liking. If you can equate “archetype” with another thing, like “character,” then the word loses most of its meaning. Carl Jung used the word in a broader sense, to mean an inherent or instinctive pattern of human behavior. Such patterns can be represented by an image—like a character—but a single archetypal image, as Jung called it, can never capture the whole of the pattern. The archetype itself is elusive, vague, and mysterious; the concrete images we make to refer to it are as representative of it as the trunk of an elephant is to the whole elephant. Yes, it’s accurate as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.

I’ve been giving talks lately on how the archetypal image of the Hero that reflects the archetypal energy of heroism (which you can define and represent in many ways) may be limiting our approach to social problems. The last time I gave this talk, I left my notes at home and had to wing it. And as often happens, while I was talking an entirely new idea popped into my brain, one that had to do with the inherent or instinctual (i.e., archetypal) roots of the Hero and the Villain.

At the instinctive, animal level of our brains, we’re pretty basic creatures, responding in predictable ways to typical stimuli. Once our big forebrains get in on the game (always a beat behind the animal brain—except, apparently, in the case of some Buddhist monks who have meditated for years and learned to control these reactions), we can reason through and modify our responses, but the initial response is usually the same. We encounter something scary, we want to run away. We encounter a creature of our species that obviously has desirable genes, we want to copulate with it. We encounter something we know will nourish us, we want to eat it.

It occurred to me as I was saying this that the instinctual roots of heroism, of our archetypal images of the Hero, might lie in our unthinking defensive response when something threatens our babies or family unit or pack or whatever. I have found myself leaping into a situation where a child or animal was being threatened before I could even form a thought about it, like the time I saw a neighbor I’d never liked start to beat his dog and in the next moment was between him and the dog without any awareness of how I had actually covered the 100 or so feet between us. That’s an instinctive reaction. I was being heroic against someone I normally would have run away from if it was only myself that was threatened. So heroism, it seems to me, is characterized not so much by the willingness to fight another but by the quality of fighting FOR another, to protect and guard.

Protect against what? Guard against what? For heroism to exist, for heroism to be called out of us, there must be a particular kind of threat. Not a personal threat to our own existence, but a threat to someone or something else that we value so much we will put ourselves in danger to protect. That sense of danger-to-a-valued-thing must be, I think, the archetypal basis for our ideas about the Villain.

I don’t believe that a sane, normal person has an instinctive desire to be villainous; for most of us, I suspect, the Villain personifies our own sense of danger to what matters to us, not our own villainous instincts. But then I believe that  evil is caused, not inherent. Your mileage may vary on this point.

One thing is clear: villainy begets heroism. In a nice example of what Jung called synchronicity, I happened upon “Megamind” last night while flipping channels, a movie that explores this precise point. When the superhero Metro Man, the sworn opponent of the mad scientist supervillain Megamind, decides abruptly to retire, no one is left to stop Megamind from villainy. Megamind immediately takes over the city. But he soon becomes bored. Without a Hero to fight, the Villain’s life is pointless. So he creates a new superhero, Titan (who spells his name Tighten), to fight. When Tighten decides it’s more fun being a villain, a power vacuum is created. Megamind is forced to fill the void by turning into the new hero for the city. He does this when Tighten provokes his protective instinct by kidnapping and threatening Roxanne, the intrepid reporter who will risk anything to get the story (see Lois Lane) and whom Megamind secretly loves.

The actual character, therefore, is not synonymous with the trope. “Megamind” tells us that anyone can be the Hero or the Villain, depending on the circumstances.

Another thing the movie gets right is that Megamind makes a rational decision to switch from Villain to Hero. He is named for his oversized forebrain, the rational, reasoning part of the brain, the part that can override the animal brain. Megamind steps out of his ordained role when he realizes that it’s just that, a role, not him. Like a Buddhist monk, he has learned how to control his own impulses.

Who is the Hero and who is the Villain in any conflict is a fluid thing, a matter of perspective. The Hero is the person or entity or organization or social movement you feel protected by, while the Villain is the person or entity or organization or social movement you feel threatened by. The problem is, usually the Hero for one side is the other side’s Villain—leading to a self-perpetuating battle as each act by one side engenders an even stronger response from the other.

I suggested, as I wound up my talk, that instead of going with these instinctive feelings, perhaps it’s time in our current social discourse to make use of our big forebrains to stop reacting in a knee-jerk way. That it’s time to stop polarizing situations and see each other as complex beings who, sure, react instinctively sometimes, who doesn’t (well, besides a Buddhist monk), but who are so much more than those basic reactions. Like archetypes, who we really are can never be reduced to a single image, a single meme, a single label.