The Unstoppable Rise Of The Archetype
Think of a consulting detective. Sherlock Holmes? A footballer. David Beckham? A playwright. William Shakespeare? A Greek philosopher. Aristotle? A schoolboy wizard. Harry Potter?
They’re the most obvious archetypes in their fields, but choosing a single figurehead to represent an entire field of endeavour goes way deeper. Almost every group or sub-group you can think of has an archetype which becomes a brand which is bigger than any story you can tell.
I have several friends who write stories to commission; they’ll come up with new ideas that publishers are only prepared to take on board if these adventures happen to Dracula or Dr Who. The archetypes are initially chosen by the public, of course, but after the first flush of public success they become calcified by their financial controllers. What writers then do is take the story they want to write and insert the popular brand into the story to shift sales.
Mr Grey will now stand in as a sexual archetype, just as Harry Potter will always be a magical schoolboy, and although I feel sorry for all the better writers who were working in those two territories for decades, they did not have the luck to be lifted out and given the archetype treatment.
The archetypes now include superheroes, although the most obvious – Superman – has failed to catch alight due to mismanagement on the DC film side, and has been replaced by minor characters like Iron Man and Thor from Marvel.
For me the classic superhero archetype was Spiderman, although like everyone else I’m tired of his clock being reset every five years. The Fantastic Four, a group archetype far bigger than the Avengers when they first appeared (all of these characters have had half a century in which to mature) are about to reappear for their fourth stab at being branded correctly.
The Marvel/DC war for brands has been fascinating to watch. DC had the perfect opportunity with everyone’s favourite shrinking superhero The Atom, but even with eight years of development and production problems Marvel still managed to get there first with their clunky Grade C-level superhero Ant-Man. Advance word on the film is mixed, so maybe DC still has a chance.
But why do we always need one figurehead to represent an entire species?
I suppose it’s easier in our time-poor world to grasp what they’re all about – the SF genre has been stolen away from literature so that the Star Wars film universe represents all of science fiction. But the public are quite adept at avoiding blatantly branded archetypes – remember “Mac and Me’, the film that MacDonald’s manufactured to capture the SF market?
In the crime novel field we still rely on Miss Marple and Poirot for our archetypes. And where once Hitchcock was the byword for all suspense there’s now no-one…
If we could choose new archetypes, I wonder who they would be.