And all of them are the same.
So argued Joseph Campbell, a profoundly influential 20th century writer who penned the now-famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he compares hundreds of myths (stories, legends, tales, epics, dramas, folklore) from across all times and places and argues (very convincingly) that those stories have an internal structure that is more or less the same across the board. Every story has its hero, and every hero follows the same basic pattern, encounters the same basic trials, receives the same basic help, faces the same basic obstacles, completes the same basic end.
Joseph Campbell calls it The Hero's Journey.
Troll 2 was cited as a notable exception.
The Hero's Journey is composed of 17 stages. The stages are variable in order, but the hero - whether it's Luke Skywalker or Marty McFly or Frodo Baggins - always begins in an ordinary world, in which he receives an initiation. It's a call to adventure: Luke was smitten with the lore of the Jedi when he met old Ben Kenobi, Marty rushed to the scene of Doc Brown's time experiment and was interrupted by Libyan terrorists, and Frodo bounded joyfully out of the Shire, shouting it to anyone who would listen. I'm going on an adventure!
Out of the ordinary world our heroes inevitably journey, their departure leading them into the world of the extraordinary, the other, a place of trial and temptation and initiation. They fight and they fall and they grow and they triumph, and every hero's journey ends in a return, a heart-swelling finish: Jesus to the Heavens, Nemo to the reef, Simba to the pride.
And, goddammit, the Super Bowl Champion Carolina Panthers to Charlotte, North Carolina.
That's right, the Carolina Panthers are our hero, and they're on a journey that follows the same structure seen in timeless epics the world over. Take a look at Campbell's mythic structure, broken down into 17 different stages:
Sweet hot damn, if this isn't a a mirror of the journey of the 2015 Carolina Panthers I don't know what is. Let's break it down, step by step.
1) Call to Adventure! It's Week one, and the Panthers take on the Jacksonville Jaguars. It's the beginning of the season, where everyone's undefeated. Much maligned all preseason as marginal at best, Carolina grabs a hard-fought victory and advances to 1-0. The journey has begun.
2) Refusal of the Call. Every hero faces trepidation, the terror of the unknown and the possibility of failure. With Luke Keuchly lost the week before, a sense of inadequacy filled the hearts of our heroes, a weakening of confidence as the JJ Watt-led Texans marched into town. But the refusal in the head is always overcome by a stirring in the heart, and the Panthers stepped up and produced a win.
3) The Magic Helper. When the hero commits fully to the journey, his aid becomes known. It's usually magic, and it usually comes from an unexpected place. For Luke Skywalker it was Ben Kenobi and the Force. For the Panthers it was ...Mike Shula? Suddenly the Panthers were making good use of personnel, scheming around talent deficiencies, and scoring points, with Shula pulling the strings behind the scenes. The Saints went down hard.
4) Crossing First Threshold. Here the hero enters into the realm of the unknown for the first time. And the Panthers, utterly destroying the Buccaneers for four quarters, found themselves stepping onto the path of a 4-0 undefeated team. Suddenly people were using words like "elite" (if only skeptically) to describe them, and our heroes found themselves on the cusp of true initiation. The Bucs were one thing, but the Seahawks were quite another.
5) Belly of the Whale. The hero lives his world behind for good, finally separated from his old self. When Greg Olsen caught a game-winning touchdown pass against a foe that had sent them seething to the locker room for nearly half a decade, the Panthers entered this stage of the journey. They underwent a metamorphosis that day, and suddenly the world noticed something new about the Carolina Panthers. They were... dangerous.
6) Road of Trials. With the emotion of the Seahawks game passed, our heroes settled in for the long haul. Sixteen games takes a lot of focus. After several weeks of emotional highs and blown-up scoreboards and jaw-dropping highlight plays, the contest against the Philadelphia Eagles brought them down to earth in what was more or less a war of attrition, and probably the most boring game of the season. Cam threw some ugly interceptions. Ted Ginn dropped balls. Greg Olsen was marginal. The Panthers won, but they carried a lot of questions to the locker room. They had problems to fix.
7) Meeting with the Goddess. At this point in the journey, the hero has faced serious hardships and is in need of morale boosters and an infusion of courage. In this case it was none other than Mother Rain. The field was a maelstrom that night, and the second play from scrimmage was an Andrew Luck fumble, and from there the ass-kicking was on. The Colts would come back to force overtime, but the goddess of precipitation had other plans, letting a soaked football slip out of the outstretched arms of TY Hilton and into Luke Keuchly's outstretched arms. A gift from the heavens. Panthers win.
8) Temptation. Oh, here was temptation. The Panthers were 7-0, one of the best teams in the league, and the temptation to buy into their own hype was enormous. But Ron Rivera, man of discipline, father of stalwart focus, would not let them. They shithoused the Packers, embarrassing them in the first half and making several clutch plays in the second to seal off a comeback attempt. With the lackluster Tennessee Titans up next, the temptation was stronger still.
9) Atonement with the Father. But Ron Rivera wouldn't let them. Ron Rivera, the strongest influence in their football lives, here infused them with power through a special encounter. Against the Titans, Cam infamously danced in the end zone after a hard-fought score, bringing the wrath of loser defensive ends and the pearl-clutching mother of the new Antebellum. The team dabbed on 'em, took group photos. They laughed and they rioted and they partied. And Ron Rivera - coach, father, mentor - sanctified it. Our heroes were validated by the man they loved the most. Our heroes were ready for a run.
10) Apostasis. Dying to the self. Rebirth, a new identity. This happened twice in two consecutive weeks. Cam Newton died to his former self, throwing a record five touchdown passes en route to a four-quarter thrashing of the Redskins, the first time in his career he'd done it. And four days later, Luke Keuchly destroyed Tony Romo's fragile confidence, taking one to the house and punching Tony Romo in the face, the first time in his career he'd done either. Clark Kent had become Superman and Steve Rogers had become Captain America. They wouldn't look back.
11) The Ultimate Boon. In the hero's journey, the boon is usually the hero's ultimate goal. No boon but a Lombardi would suffice, but sweeping the hated Saints was arguably the regular season's most valuable plunder. And plunder they did. Superman took them for five touchdowns, leading a clutch last-minute drive for victory and advancing the team to 12-0.
12) Refusal of Return. Heroes often find themselves at a crossroads, a refusal of return, having found bliss and enlightenment in the world they've occupied. But E.T. had to phone home. And the Panthers, now the NFL's last undefeated, found themselves vulnerable, with the entire league aiming to shoot them down. But they suited up and they came home and they trounced the Falcons, 38-0.
13) Magic Flight. The hero has gained something of value in his journey and must bring it home to the people: a victory, or a rescue, a healing potion, the culmination of the journey. In Rescuers Down Under, it was Bernard the Mouse, milquetoast though he was, on Orville the Albatross, a high-stakes gambit to save Cody from McLeach and that lizard thing. In the 2015 Carolina Panthers, it was a high-flying shootout with the New York Giants in the hardest test our heroes had faced all season. Do or die, they were told, and they did. The Giants died.
14) Rescue from Without. Here, on the brink of return, our hero is wounded. Injured, weakened from the fight. The Panthers lost to the Falcons in a dismal end to the greatest winning streak the franchise had ever seen. The needed one last shot of power, one last infusion of confidence to catapult them over the edge. And they got it from none other than Cam Newton, who took them into the Buccaneers without his running game and leading wide receiver and led his team to victory.
15) Crossing the Return Threshold. Our heroes completed the season at 15-1, but the journey wasn't over yet. Our heroes still had a treasure to bring home. To do it they'd have to start by defending their home against the final onslaughts of the enemy. That threshold was Bank of America Stadium, and there they displayed the prowess they'd gained on their journey, brutally dumping 31 first-half points on the Seahawks for the entire world to see. They made a statement, and the city of Charlotte, its heroes at their gates, sang with hope. Victory was at their doorstep.
16) Master of Two Worlds. In the classical hero's myth, the journey up until this point has been a strengthening: the hero, once week and feeble, has, through his trials and tribulations, gained a series of strengths along the way. At this stage of the journey, preparing for his final battle, he must put both of his strengths on display. And the Panthers, having struggled at times defensively all year, at times offensively when needing to close out a game, demolished the media-touted Arizona Cardinals in a victory so staggeringly complete that Ron Rivera had to decline field goals and touchdowns just to save his enemy from allowing 50+ points.
The stage has been set for the final component of the hero's journey:
17) The Freedom to Live. Mastery leads to the freedom of fear from death. Our heroes are whole. Our heroes are strong, courageous, mighty, and full of lust for final victory. They are masters of themselves, masters of their fate, masters of destiny.
Forward they charge on Sunday, against the Denver Broncos, masters of football, masters of offense, masters of defense, masters of point-scoring and masters of pain. On Sunday the journey ends.
On Sunday Charlotte's heroes bring home its boon.