The 10th stage of the hero’s journey is called The road back (or the return). After fighting off the bad guy and grabbing his McGuffin, the hero has to go back to his Ordinary world, but can he do it?
The road back can be a literal journey back to the place where everything started or a metaphorical one. This stage makes the hero cross another threshold like the one at the beginning of the story (Crossing the threshold), only in this one the hero is going back home, rather than leaving. Still, this action can be extremely hard for the hero.
A reason to take the road back
The hero’s journey is a pretty fixated story format, a writer can come up with a protagonist, a cast of characters, a story world, and a goal, but at the end of the day, he has to follow those rigid steps instead of coming up with something new and original.
But the thing is that while The hero’s journey gives the writer a blueprint, it’s up to him to build the house. A great example of this is the Sam Raimi Spider-man trilogy (and by trilogy I mean just the first two because it’s better to not talk about the third one).
In the first Spider-man, the Ordinary world was peter’s life as a normal teenager and the Special world was his adventures as a superhero. In the second movie (Spider-man II) though, it’s the opposite: his Spidey persona is Ordinary while the brief time he spends as a broke millennial is Special.
The road back is particularly interesting in Spider-man II because it gives a character so well known for his origin story (the whole Uncle Ben thing) a different reason to be a hero.
Peter starts the movie struggling to keep up with both his duties as a working student and as a wall-crawling vigilante. He’s always late, he’s always lying, he’s always falling down because his powers don’t work. Spider-man has become a burden to him now, so he decides to give up the costume. That’s when he enters the Special world.
Things start to turn around for Peter: no more running after police sirens, no more being late, no more slacking off at school. Everything seems well even though his conscience kicks in whenever he sees someone in danger.
What’s going to convince him to go back?
Well, part of it is Aunt May’s speech about how heroes inspire people, another part is Peter’s own resolve, but a big factor in his decision is the fact that the girl he’s been pining over gets kidnapped.
Even though the hero’s journey has a number of fixated steps, it’s up to the writer to find a reason for the protagonist to go through those steps.
Peter doesn’t go back to being Spider-man because he’s tired of being a good student, he does it because he realizes that being a hero is worth the sacrifice.
Just like Christopher Vogler says in his book The writer’s journey:
“In psychological terms, this stage represents the resolve of the hero to return to the Ordinary World and implement the lessons learned in the Special Wolrd.”– The writer’s journey
If the enemy is alive and well, he’ll take this as a last chance at revenge and use all the power he has left to crush the protagonist while he’s still in sight.
Campbell in The hero’s journey talks about a “magic flight”, which sees the protagonist running away from a powerful villain and managing to escape through the use of magic.
Peter doesn’t have a comb that turns into a forest, like Campbell’s fairy tale protagonists, but he does have superpowers.
His version of the magic flight is the train scene in which Octavious fights him on top of a train and forces Spider-man to rescue the passengers from danger in order to wear him out.
Rescue from without
Another common scene that Campbell talks about is the “rescue from without”: the hero is in trouble and someone has to rescue him.
In the second part of the famous train scene, we see that the Doctor’s plan worked, Peter may have rescued the passengers but he has stretched his powers to the limit and can barely stand up.
That’s when the people he has saved step on and help out: they carry him to safety, thank him and reassure him.
According to Campbell, the rescue from without is a metaphor for being born again (in some of his examples the hero actually dies and is basically “rescued back to life”).
In Spiderman II, this scene has a particular significance because the kind gesture of the passengers shows Peter that all his efforts are not in vain. The Bugle might attack him and spread lies, but people he rescues are truly grateful to him and this gives him the motivation to go on.
Crossing the return threshold
“The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world”The hero with a thousand faces
The road back has taken the hero to the other side, he’s back in the Ordinary world, but is it as he remembers or did something change?
In most stories that follow The hero’s journey, there are 2 variants:
- the hero has changed, but the world is the same
- the world is the same but the hero has changed
Campbell provides the stories of Rip Van Winkle and Oisin as examples.
Rip has fallen asleep and accidentally slept for over 20 years, now he’s an old man wandering around his hometown, which has completely changed.
On the other hand, Oisin is a noble hero who goes to the land of Tir na nog (a place where fairies and men don’t age). Years later, Oisin (who’s still young) decides to come back to his homeland, but he is told that if he takes one step on the land he’ll age 300 years and die instantly (You can guess what happens…).
So what happens to Peter and his Ordinary world?
“The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real […] the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.”The hero with a thousand faces
The world itself hasn’t changed from the beginning of the movie, but our hero has. He is honest with MJ for the first time, he has resolved to continue being Spider-man, and his powers are back for good.
This highlights the fact that the problem wasn’t coming from the outside world, but from the protagonist himself. Now that he has solved his internal struggle, he can go back to be everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-man.
The road back doesn’t just show how much the hero has changed during his adventure, but also why he needed to change. It’s the first step in the hero’s journey where he can show off with confidence his cool new powers/wisdom/gadgets and demonstrate to others and himself his growth.