A character archetype in movies is a universal role that endures and resonates with successive generations of moviegoers. The audience instinctively understands who the villain is in a film. They know that Lex Luther, villain of the "Superman" series, is basically filling the same role as the sexist boss in "9 to 5" or Mojo Jojo of the "Powerpuff Girls." Character archetypes help moviegoers quickly understand characters without interfering with the plot line or action.
Every movie has one. The hero is easy to spot: he's usually the star of the film. He's the character the audience can cheer for without guilt because he's always trying to do the right thing. Heroes come in subtypes, like "Hero Husbands" and "Action Heroes." Action heroes might be trying to save their families, like Harrison Ford in "Air Force One" and Bruce Willis in "Die Hard," or they might be trying to save the world, like Bruce Willis in "Armageddon." Husband Heros make sacrifices for the greater good, like Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life."
The Supportive Wife stands by the Hero Husband. She gives him the support and the permission he needs to keep going in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds. Amy Madigan played Supportive Wife Annie Kinsella in "Field of Dreams." In the film, Annie urges to remain on his soul-seeking road trip even while foreclosure threatens the family farm. Suppressive wives withhold the worst of the news from Hero Husbands, leaving the husband's heroism intact in the eyes of viewers who know he would cut his own dreams short if only he knew what she knows. The Supportive Wife is no doormat. She shows her spunk behind her husband's back, usually by defending his behaviour to sceptical townfolk.
Hero's Best Friend
The Hero needs a Best Friend, someone who will ask her questions that develop her character and give her news that moves the plot along. The Best Friend is never as smart or attractive as the Hero, and the Hero's loyalty to the Best Friend is part of what makes her heroic. Rosie O'Donnell played Meg Ryan's Best Friend in "Sleepless in Seattle."
The Dumb Blonde is beautiful and well-intentioned, but she isn't very smart. Marilyn Monroe defined the archetype as a clueless showgirl in 1953's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Despite her shortcomings, the Dumb Blonde redeems herself as the plot develops, often remembering some detail from a fashion magazine or beauty pageant that helps the hero save the day. In "Legally Blonde," Dumb Blonde Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, catches a witness in a lie because Elle knows you can't wash your hair the same day you get a perm.
Fish out of Water
The Fish out of Water archetype is a character who, removed from his native culture and surroundings, thrives in the foreign environment and either learns or teaches others something of value. The Fish out of Water can be literal, like Daryl Hannah's mermaid in "Splash," or slightly more subtle. The title character in "Crocodile Dundee" is a Fish out of Water who taught New Yorkers not to take themselves so seriously. The mother and daughter who trade places for a day in "Freaky Friday" are a variation on the theme, where each Fish comes to appreciate the other's experience because of a day spent "out of water."
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