Films can be much more than entertainment – they also provide mirrors to understand ourselves and the society in which we live. For this reason, “Jungian” film analysis is popular because it provides deep insights into our individual and cultural maturity. In theory, this should help us to develop. However, there is a problem with much allegedly-Jungian film analysis because it has the opposite effect – it holds us back.
Jung said there are two ways in which one can use creative works to help our development. The first, which he called ‘psychological’, contributes very little to our understanding; the second, which he called ‘visionary’, is of significant value (Jung 1930, pp. 103-6).
Much film analysis done in the name of Jung falls into the former camp. It not only offers very little that is new or relevant, but it is misleading. It hides the real meaning of a film beneath a “cloak” of archetypes or mythological motifs (Jung 1930, p. 107). The approach it uses is to spot the archetypes in a film and present them as the centrepiece of the film’s meaning.
The reason Jung was so disparaging about this type of analysis is that it assumes that people and society are always the same. By referring back to this universal story – or monomyth – it tells us what we already know and repeatedly tell ourselves. Although the mythologist Joseph Campbell used a monomyth approach, a genuinely valuable work of art (for Jung) tell us something new and unique (Segal 1990).
Jung’s approach, first of all, involved stripping away any cloaks of mythological and archetypal motifs. He pursued the ‘numinous’ content of a film to discover what it was saying about the contemporary state of the individual, cultural, or collective unconscious. Myth evolves along with our soul (Jung 1940, p. 160) and what is of value for our development is understanding our current evolutionary state.
To use an architectural analogy, if Campbell pointed out that from the earliest hut onwards all houses have a front door, Jung pointed to the unique and contemporary nature of architecture that has evolved over time. To continue to develop, one has to understand contemporary architecture rather than keep returning to the ‘original house’.
There is an example of Jung’s second type of analysis in the review by James Alan Anslow of the film Avengers Assemble (also known as The Avengers outside the UK) The title of Anslow’s review – How Superhero Teams Save the World… – might initially conjure up images of Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, and no doubt a psychological analysis could force-fit the film into that monomyth.
However, Anslow has carefully avoided the trap that so many others fall into – i.e. spotting the archetypes in the film and presenting these as the real meaning of the film. Rather, he uses archetypes and existing Jungian theory as the starting point from which to explore new meaning. In the first 6 and a half pages, Anslow outlines the film’s plot, and how it relates to Jung’s theory of the integration of the unconscious and the Other. For some film analysts this is significant, and they might have stopped there. But for Anslow this was only the groundwork.
Half way down the sixth page (p. 237) Anslow then takes a turn into a more visionary analysis. He describes what he sees as the central theme, which is the fragmentation of the individual: “the real story in the movie is the psychological one of the six-in-one entity”. Although he continues to refer to aspects of Jung’s theory, and other film analysis such as that of Christopher Hauke, the real indicator of this being a visionary piece of work comes on page 8:
Avengers #1 (the comic book) was published by Marvel in September 1963, and I bought it shortly afterward, tired of the formulaic superhero plots and characters of the dominant publisher in the genre then, DC Comics, which were utterly lacking the energy and attraction I would later understand as numinosity. On the edition’s cover, the back of a shadowy Loki faced the team as it was then comprised (it was slightly different from the movie lineup, although it included the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor). A lurid tagline splashed in red on the page asked: “Can the combined power of the Avengers defeat the sinister spells of Loki, god of evil?” I was hooked.
What makes this a visionary analysis – or more specifically a visionary mode of reading (Rowland 2010, p. 56) – is being ‘hooked’ by the numinosity of the characters. The message this leads to is a world away from that of the Campbellian heroic monomyth. Anslow’s review reveals a struggle to cope with the fragmentation of the individual (an aspect of postmodernism) and the need to cohere.
One practical application of Anslow’s film analysis is it illustrates that being ‘hooked’ by a film (or TV programme) is an opportunity for self-insight and development. Anslow used the technique of ‘interpreting on the subjective level’. That is, he did not see the characters in the film as being individuals as external to himself. Rather, he saw them as representing different aspects of himself and/or the society of which he is a part.
Put more simply, when hooked by a film and the characters within it, whether good or evil, the question to ask is “what do those characters reflect of me and my culture?”. A psychological analysis will always revert to the same old answers – e.g. “it’s XYZ archetype”. But a visionary analysis will search underneath the numinous image, to find a more contemporary meaning that is evolving along with the human psyche and soul.
Anslow, J,A. (2012), Archetypes Assemble: How Superhero Teams Save the World from the Apocalypse and Lead the Way to Individuation, in Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, Vol. 88, pp. 233-246 (New Orleans: Spring Journal)
Jung, C.G., (1930), Psychology and Literature in The Spirit in Art, Man and Literature (Collected Works 15), (London: Routledge Classics, 2003)
Jung, C.G., (1940), The Psychology of the Child Archetype in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9i), pp. 151-181, (London: Routledge, 1991)
Rowland, S. (2010), C.G. Jung in the Humanities: Taking the Soul’s Path, New Orleans: Spring Journal Books
Segal, R. (1990), The Romantic Appeal of Joseph Campbell in Christian Century, April 4, 1990, pp. 332-335, (Chicago: The Christian Century)