NB: The following contains mild spoilers for Batman Begins, Training Day and The Karate Kid, Part III.
In The Karate Kid, it’s Mr Miyagi. In Back To The Future, it’s Doc Brown. In X-Men, it’s Professor Xavier. The mentor is a familiar archetype in the movies, and it’s a device which is as old as storytelling itself.
The mentor is commonly characterised as a wise, usually much older being who provides wisdom and useful objects to a story’s hero or heroine. The Star Wars movies have introduced numerous mentor figures in the entries released so far: dignified old Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, the benevolent Yoda and Qui-Gon Jinn, the mentor for a young Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace.
In each instance, we see the mentor provide their students with teaching and gifts before sending them off on their grand quest. Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke Skywalker a lightsaber in A New Hope. Yoda helps Luke continue his Jedi training in The Empire Strikes Back.
Away from the Star Wars franchise, it’s Morpheus who gives Neo the choice between the red and the blue pill – the blue one returning him to his humdrum ordinary world, the blue one taking him deep into the “rabbit hole” of The Matrix.
The mentor archetype comes directly from a character called Mentor in Greek mythology. In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor is an old man who advises Telemachus to discover what happened to his father, Odysseus, thus sending the young hero on his own grand adventure overseas. (To be more precise, Telemachus was sent on his journey by the goddess Athena, who’d disguised herself as Mentor, but the mentor archetype – and its name – has remained in place since the 18th century.)
The hero’s journey
It was author Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, who first laid out what he called the monomyth – the common archetypes which unite disparate stories from all over the world. The book famously inspired George Lucas to write Star Wars, with its call to adventure, allies and enemies and, of course, its mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Other writers have continued to develop the theory of the Hero’s Journey laid out by Joseph Campbell. One of the best-known books to follow in Campbell’s wake is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which explains how Campbell’s archetypes can be applied to modern stories of every kind – dramas, romances, comedies and war films as well as fantastical space operas.
In it, Vogler describes the mentor in fiction as a “higher self” – a part of our psyche that acts like a parent or teacher to the more rebellious, instinctual bits of our personality. He uses Jiminy Cricket from Disney’s Pinocchio as an illustration – he’s “a conscience to guide us on the road of life when no Blue Fairy or kindly Gepetto is there to protect us and tell us right from wrong.”
But while the mentor is commonly a guiding force, providing wisdom, setting the story in motion and occasionally doling out a useful device or two – like Q in the Bond movies – not all mentors are necessarily a force for good.
Here are three very different films that introduce a dark version of the mentor archetype.
The Karate Kid, Part III (1990)
In the third Karate Kid movie, Daniel LaRusso sees his title as All-Valley Karate champion challenged by an aggressive new contender, Mike “Bad Boy” Barnes. Daniel initially refuses to fight in the tournament, but after repeated threats from Barnes, he eventually relents.
Unaccountably, old mentor Mr. Miyagi refuses to train Daniel for the big fight (“Miyagi always train you, but for tournament, cannot”), so Daniel looks for tutelage elsewhere – and finds it in the younger, cocksure karate expert Terry Silver. Unlike Mr Miyagi’s more spiritual form of martial arts, Silver’s training involves lots of board-breaking and bleeding knuckles.
What Daniel doesn’t realise is that Silver’s training is all part of an elaborate revenge plot. Silver’s an associate of Kreese, the villain of the first movie, whose Cobra Kai dojo closed down after Daniel beat his star student at the previous All-Valley Tournament. Silver’s plan is to twist Daniel away from Miyagi’s training, thus leaving him bruised and ill-equipped to fight Barnes at the tournament (Barnes is also in on Silver and Kreese’s plot).
Just in time, Daniel realises that Silver’s version of karate is having a negative physical and mental effect, and he returns to the side of his good mentor, Miyagi, who finally agrees to help Daniel prepare for his showdown with Barnes.
Training Day (2001)
Antoine Fuqua’s pressure cooker-intense thriller sees its hero offered a similar path between the dark and the light. Rookie LAPD cop Jake Hoyt embarks on his first day on the force, and finds himself under the wing of narcotics officer Alonso Harris. Together, they embark on a seemingly routine patrol of South Central Los Angeles’ crime-ridden streets.
From the outset, Alonzo offers Jake two choices: the life of a detective with a desk job or the more dangerous yet seductively powerful life of a narcotics cop. (“You got today, and today only to show me what you’re made of. You don’t like narcotics? Get the fuck out of my car, go back to the office and get a desk job chasing bad cheques or something.”)
What Jake’s slow to realise is that he’s not just being prepared for the job as a detective – he’s also being manipulated into sharing Alonzo’s violent and amoral worldview. Like Silver in The Karate Kid Part III, Alonzo tries to divert Jake away from his training: “Unlearn that bullshit they teach you at the academy. Don’t bring none of that shit in here. That shit’ll get you killed.”
Throughout the film, Jake has his moral boundaries tested until, like Daniel, he finds himself at a moral crossroads. As Vogler writes in The Writer’s Journey, “In thrillers, the mask of a mentor is sometimes a decoy used to lure the hero into danger. This is psychologically true to life, for often we must overcome or outgrow the energy of our best teachers in order to move to the next stage of development.”
Batman Begins (2005)
In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne follows a not dissimilar path to Daniel LaRusso on his journey to becoming the Dark Knight. Here, Bruce leaves behind the mentor of his youth, his kindly butler Alfred Pennyworth, and goes on a voyage of self-discovery around the world.
In Bhutan, Bruce meets Henri Ducard, an adept fighter who trains Bruce and wants him to join an organisation called the League of Shadows. At first, Henri seems like the perfect mentor: wise, understanding of Bruce’s pent-up anger, and possessed with his own tragic past (“My great love… she was taken from me”).
But Bruce ultimately realises that the path offered by the League of Shadows is the wrong one: its leader, Ra’s al Ghul, had planned to use Bruce to destroy Gotham City, believing it to be “a breeding ground of criminality and injustice.”
Like Jake in Training Day and Daniel in The Karate Kid Part III, Bruce ultimately rejects the extreme path offered by his new mentor, and by refusing to kill, takes another step closer to becoming the Batman.
The role of the Dark Mentor
Different though they are in terms of characters, tone and genre, the three films listed above all contain examples of what Vogler calls the Dark Mentor. If the mentor’s common role in fiction is to act as a guide or paternal figure for the hero, the dark mentor offers the more shadowy alternative.
The dark mentor provides a distorted or corrupted version of the hero’s own beliefs. Daniel LaRusso wants to become stronger to beat Barnes, but Silver tries to teach him that outright aggression is the key to victory. Jake Hoyt wants to serve his community and become a detective, but Alonzo tries to turn him to his own notion of what being a cop means – namely, shooting drug dealers and taking their money. Bruce Wayne wants to rid Gotham of its crime, but Ducard and Ra’s al Ghul try to convince him that the only way to cleanse the city is to destroy it.
A hero’s success or failure is defined by their response to the mirror held up by these dark mentors. The relationship between Palpatine and Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels is a reminder that choosing the wrong path can have tragic consequences.
The mentor can, therefore, take on many forms, as Vogler points out in his book:
“…the mentor or donor is not a rigid character type, but rather a function, a job which several different characters might perform in the course of a story. A character primarily manifesting one archetype – the hero, the shapeshifter, the trickster, even the villain – may temporarily slip on the mask of mentor in order to teach or give something to the hero.”
Terry Silver, Alonzo Harris and Henri Ducard all wear the mask of the mentor, allowing them to drive the story along and testing the hero’s moral fortitude. But eventually, the mask must fall, and dark mentor’s true function as the story’s villain is revealed.