As the old saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. For fans of movies and TV, that means that every story that can be told already has been. But sometimes, the movies that seem to be retelling a well-known story TOO closely are singled out, accused of being a ripoff, copycat, or unoriginal. There's no more famous (or successful) example than James Cameron’s Avatar: a story of a human being welcomed into a native tribe, who betrays their trust, but eventually saves the day by fighting on the good side in the end.
As soon as the movie hit theaters, people dismissed the billion-dollar blockbuster as a ripoff of Fern Gully, or even Pocahontas before it. The truth is... it’s telling the same story told by dozens, even hundreds of famous films. But that’s not a reason to attack it, or any other re-skinned movie myth – it’s just an opportunity for our latest Docu Series, The Hidden Truth Behind ALL Movies.
The Unlikely/Unknowing/Unwitting Hero
There’s been plenty of research into the shared structure of a successful screenplay, from three-act structures to a “save the cat” moment for a movie’s hero – a term coined by Blake Snyder, referring to the unnecessary good deed that lets audiences know a hero is good at heart. But keeping things simple, there’s one kind of hero every movie fan loves: an unlikely one. In movies like Avatar, The LEGO Movie, even Star Wars, and Guardians of the Galaxy, it isn’t some wealthy, powerful, or royal figure who gets a chance at greatness, but an everyday schmo.
It’s a clear case of wish fulfillment for the just-as-normal audience, but it also sets the bigger story in motion. After all, a character can’t realize their greatness unless they’re oblivious to it at the start. So even though their circumstances might be different – Jake Sully is a paraplegic, Star-Lord is an everyday kid, Emmet is just a face in the crowd... even Superman is a humble farmboy – they have more in common with the viewer than a prince or princess, powerful leader, or deadly warrior ever would.
Whether it’s a trip into space, or just a massive secret revealed, everyday people are pulled into a story far bigger than them. Or as Ben Kenobi once said, taking "their first steps into a larger world" – but being useful usually comes at a price.
The Honest(?) Deceit
Nobody becomes a hero overnight, and in blockbuster movies, writers don’t change the format up more than they have to. So no matter how a protagonist’s mission might seem different, or how good their reasons for following the formula may be, a little dishonesty or lingering doubts are guaranteed along the way.
It’s here where the charges are made that Avatar is just a re-skinning of other stories. Jake Sully is sent to infiltrate the enemy ranks, quietly learning their ways, and eventually coming to respect them, even joining their community as a valued member, not to mention falling in love with Neytiri, the chief’s daughter. That’s the same thing that happened with Zack in Fern Gully, and John Smith in Pocahontas, so the comparisons are fair.
But there’s one problem. It’s also the exact same thing that happened to Brian O’Connor in The Fast & The Furious, Johnny Utah in Point Break, Ash in Army of Darkness, Han Solo in Star Wars, Ralph in Wreck-it Ralph, Vallon in Gangs of New York, Emmet in The LEGO Movie… you get the idea. By getting close to the enemy, our hero becomes one of them, and begins to wonder if they’re on the wrong side after all. But if this new family was to ever find out they weren’t telling the truth, things would get ugly fast…
The Betrayal Exposed
It’s almost a certainty that the hero’s secret will be spilled prematurely, before they’ve gotten a chance to explain themselves (including the lesson learned in their transition from the opposite side to this one). The result is the loss of their new family, whether it’s deserved or not.
Brian O'Connor and Johnny Utah lose their lovers when their lies are exposed, Emmet fears disappointing his friends by revealing he only hopes he's a Master Builder, Star-Lord is revealed to still want to sell the Infinity Stone in his possession, not protect it, accused of only caring about the Infinity Stone’s value, Leia and Luke accuse Han of only being in it for the money, and Jake, Zack, and John Smith are all branded traitors without getting to explain that they never shared their army’s beliefs to begin with.
The tried-and-true formula typically stars a male hero, but it doesn't have to: Disney's Mulan is exposed as a woman fighting in a man’s army, having her bonds and trust disappear, similarly leaving her with no side to join, and shame for hurting the people they came to truly care for. That would all be a problem, if it wasn’t for one other thing all unlikely movie heroes have in common…
The Chosen One
These are still our heroes, so of course they’re going to get to save the day. But it isn’t enough for them to just be hailed as worthy members of the community, tribe, gang, or family – these unlikely heroes are the chosen ones, born leaders who only realize their true greatness when they have to prove they weren’t traitors after all. Any movie fan can instantly remember the same scene played out in hundreds of films (all those mentioned here, as well as The Last Samurai, John Carter and Atlantis: The Lost Empire). They may be forced to prove themselves, but in the process, prove much, much more. When the outsider hero is finally welcomed, wearing the armor, colors, or clothing of his new tribe, they've established themselves as greater than anyone actually accepting them.
Again, it’s clearly wish fulfillment to see so many everyday people try something new, and realize they’re secretly born to do it. But it’s truly shocking when you realize how many movies stick to this exact path. Even the Star Wars series seems to fit, since the novels explained that Anakin was a child born of Dark Side meddling. Raised and trained by the Jedi, only to come home to the Sith who created him to become the greatest Dark Force user yet.
The same goes for Superman, who chose humanity over his own people, becoming a greater warrior than either civilization had ever known. So yes, Avatar, The Fast & The Furious, and Guardians of the Galaxy might just be John Smith, Johnny Utah, and Han Solo all over again, but their stories are told in more movies, and ways, than are immediately clear. Especially when Captain America is as unlikely a hero as Luke Skywalker or even Green Lantern Hal Jordan, or Tony Stark’s path to true heroism has so much in common with Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai.
They’re all different, sure. But when their eyes are opened, their secrets are spilled, and their destinies are achieved, they’re still just telling the same great story we all wish could be our own.
That’s our case for the shared path of most unlikely movie heroes and heroines, and why it isn’t anything new, or unoriginal. What do you think? Are movies just looking to tell old stories in new ways, just like novels, TV shows and comic books? Or do you have your doubts? Let us know in the comments, and remember to subscribe to our channel for more YouTube videos like this one.