The monomyth, or hero’s journey, is an accepted archetype of storytelling in which a character responds to the call of adventure and transforms as a result of overcoming adversity. Most of the films released last year centered around this. Several films stood out, for better or worse, as having a central hero transform in order to defy his/her weaknesses and overcome hardships.
But you should know that the word "hero" goes beyond guys in masks and capes. Even if 2012 looked like it was the year of the superheroes (thanks to releases such as Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance andThe Dark Knight Rises), this list is all about the films that told the story of their heroes in a unique and entertaining fashion.
I should also admit that I've missed a few of the year's "big films" like Life of Pi, The Master, Cloud Atlas, or Argo, so you won't be seeing them here (although Life of Pi seems like it would have been perfect for this list). Let's just call this list a friendly catalog of last's year great hero stories and is not finalized in the slightest.
With that said, please read on for what I thought were the nine best hero films of 2012.
Honorable Mention: G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Oh...it didn't come out last year...sorry.
9. 21 Jump Street
While 21 Jump Street is technically a reboot, it feels completely original. It's hilarious, gave Channing Tatum something to do other than dance, and has a nice balance between absurdity and grounded character. Schmidt and Jenko start off as officers who mean well, but lack the proper follow through to arrest someone, and eventually become white tuxedo wearin', box of dove havin', thousand gun wearin' badasses by the end of the film. It's hero's journey is told so wonderfully, I had forgotten the two were supposed to be heroes until a few weeks back. Plus, it's got loads of great one liners such as "Korean Jesus ain't got time for your problems!"
Technically, Katniss's journey isn't over until Mockingjay but I don't know if everyone's going to stick around long enough to see when that happens. Overall Hunger Games had a few glaring problems, but the central hero story was tight and emotional. It's a different take on the journey when Katniss has to force herself to change in order to cope with the new harsh environment around her, rather than the story guiding her choices. Katniss's feeling of control in her world (despite the overwhelming feeling of an outside force) is what helps make her story work. Even if I never once thought Katniss was in danger inside the Games' arena, I truly felt for her outside of it.
Man With the Iron Fists is RZA's love letter to kung-fu films. And like those old films, Fists's story is simplistic but the distinct characters make it work. Well, I can't really say they're characters either since they each have a singular personality. Look, I'll just sum up the story here. Silver Lion kills Gold Lion and tries to steal the emperor's gold while he sends Brass Body to kill the X-Blade who is later saved by the Blacksmith (RZA). The Brass Body then chops the Blacksmith's arms off and then the Blacksmith makes iron arms out of a molding of Jack Knife's. Yup, Fists gets credit for allowing me to write those couple of nonsensical sentences. The characters may not be traditional, but the hero's journey sure is. Plus, it's got one of the greatest songs ever in its OST.
6. Django Unchained
Now I can't go too much into detail why Django Unchained is on this list because of spoilers, but I can say that it was damn fun to watch. From the contrasting opening credits, to the first explosive gunshot, to Django's final transformation (represented by Burgundy gear), Django's journey across the old United States was simply marvelous. It would be higher on the list, however, if Django Unchained was really Django's story. Go see the film, and we'll talk later.
Hey, did you know that The Avengers was awesome? It successfully fulfilled years worth of advertising promises, and it made superhero movies popular again (they've been on a downslope since Dark Knight). There's no hero's journey in The Avengers, but damn it all it has the Hulk in it. Then Hulk fights Thor. How is that not the coolest thing ever?
Jenika said it better in her Princess Review, so I'll just say this: Brave is amazing. It features one of the few female character standouts, and Merida is a fine addition to the Disney Princesses. Merida doesn't go through a traditional journey either as her journey is more of the mental and metaphysical. In order to repair the relationship she has with her mother, Merida had to right her own wrong deed. Interestingly enough, Merida was her own villain. Sure Brave had that giant bear at the end, but Merida was the true villain of the film. She curses her mother, and is the one who causes her family anguish. All of this inner turmoil is juxtaposed with Merida's positive goal of wanting to become an individual rather than just a princess. For transforming Merida from a villain to a hero, yet still manages to justify each of Merida's decisions, Brave is this high on the list.
There was a time I absolutely despised the idea of found footage. I get motion sickness easily, so I didn't like that found footage films required shaky cam simply due to "realism" and "artistic merit." Shaky cam is terrible. What I failed to realize, however, is that when found footage techniques are used correctly, it can greatly enhance a film's content. Chronicle doesn't start out as a hero film, but eventually goes through one of the most emotionally topsy turvy journeys I've seen last year. It somehow rides a fine line between intimate (thanks to the found footage genre's time skip ability) and grandiose (thanks to Andrew's ability to levitate his camera and angling it where he pleases) without veering too much into exploitative territory. Chronicle is a story of when the hero fails in his journey. I saw Andrew struggle, I wanted him to change and be happy, and I saw him fail. I still get goosebumps from the sight.
The Grey has the most emotionally crippling, yet beautiful story of 2012. It was also the most surprising. I walked in expecting standard Neeson badassitude, and walked out almost crying like the big baby I am. The hero's journey in Grey is literal since Ottway and his small group end crash landing and have to travel through some terrible woods in order to escape being eaten by wolves. As his friends slowly succumb to the world one by one, Ottway becomes a new man. He becomes the hero, straps his bottles to his fists like a badass, and proceeds to end his journey on his own terms. The Grey is on Netflix right now, and you're doing yourself a disservice if you haven't seen it yet.
I'm a big guy (in height and size), and I've been big all of my life as much as I've tried to fight it. That meant I literally and figuratively did not fit in anywhere. I couldn't get on a lot of amusement park rides, I had to be the "funny guy" rather than the "hot guy who gets like all the chicks," and I didn't have a lot of friends. I had a few close people, and knew a lot of folks at school, but had very few others who I could confide in. I'm drawn to ParaNorman because Norman is so much like how I used to be. He's socially awkward, the joke of the town because of his "difference," and is someone who genuinely cares about the welfare of others without expecting anything in return.
Norman goes through a journey and transforms much like I thought I did. I may not have saved a town from somethings as fantastical as a witch's curse, but the fact that ParaNorman's heart and story are rooted in personal relationships help keep it grounded and relatable to me. It alos helped me to realize that I still have much more growing to do. For forcing me to look inside myself, its wonderful animation, and overall cute-itude, ParaNorman is my pick for Best Hero Film of 2012. And if that's not a category, it damn well better be soon.