There’s the arrogant old sailor, a salted relic struggling to right the wrongs done to his comrades decades before. There’s the terrified new chief, a green aquaphobe trying to defend the island he’s only just started to call home. And then there’s Matt Hooper, the young, raw oceanographer, a shark-loving underdog who proves himself to have the least expected hero’s journey in the film. In a story full of tension, emotion, and well-delivered tales of torpedoed ships, Hooper rolls in with the full and unanticipated monomyth.
Hooper’s ordinary world starts existing even before the audience knows about his existence. The entire setup of Jaws witnesses Brody trying — and, so far, failing — to save Amity from itself. Hooper’s name is tossed out as a suggestion after the shark attacks have already begun, and he arrives in the middle of the action, ready to provide assistance in any way he’s needed. His first appearance is fun; he has a charming back-and-forth with Brody, and a sniping one-liner watching the fishermen pile dangerously into their boat.
The audience connects with him, the outsider, instantly, for his comforting familiarity and good humor amidst the chaos. His call to adventure, as these heroes must have, is his introduction. He’s been brought to Amity to save the community, to provide valuable insight and step up when nobody else believes Brody. Amity is threatened, and Hooper’s meant to be their savior — but he’s not exactly there for them. He’s there for the shark. He is an oceanographer and a shark-lover first and foremost; the audience can tell as much, when he can barely make it through Chrissie Watkins’ autopsy without gagging. He barrels through, though, because he can tell what Brody already knows:
“this is not a boat accident, it wasn't any propeller, it wasn't any coral reef, and it wasn't Jack the Ripper. It was a shark.”
Hooper pushes for Amity to listen. He knows instantly that the first shark they catch isn’t the right one, and he argues for further examination, and he shows up at Brody’s home to encourage him to keep fighting the good fight, because Hooper’s not sticking around. He’s refusing the call. He wants to help, but he’s got plans — he’s got the Aurora waiting for him, eighteen months of shark research that he’s always wanted. It doesn’t take much for Brody to convince him to go cut the shark open, though.
From there, it’s just a matter of moments before the two of them are out on the water, searching for any sign that the shark’s still out there. Once they get their evidence, Hooper’s done refusing the call. His journey’s on. Quint as Hooper’s mentor figure is not quite what either of them wants, but it is what both of them need. Quint tells Hooper he’s got “city hands,” Hooper calls him out on his “working-class hero crap,” and it’s a match made in Hell. Hooper’s not just out there for the shark, or for Amity, or even for Brody, not anymore — now, Hooper’s got something to prove to Quint.
His doubts and his obligations matter so much less in the face of finally being able to prove to someone that he’s worthy. Quint is emblematic of everything that Hooper fights against, everything he has commented on throughout the film already: a world that doesn’t take him seriously. Brody asked earlier why “they pay a guy like [him] to watch sharks,” and why do they? Quint shoves the same question his way, albeit more aggressively. Hooper’s got the drive to begin his quest, now.
Crossing the threshold isn’t quite so difficult for Hooper as it is for an ordinary hero. He doesn’t have to be coerced, nobody is pushing him, he’s not struggling with the decision. He’s at home on the water; it’s a place he knows well, and because he knows it so well, he knows the dangers inherent in the decision he’s made. Getting on the Orca sees Hooper beginning his quest and ultimately starting to answer that call to adventure he had been chasing in the first place, when he first arrived in Amity. He goes even though he’s due to be on the Aurora; he goes knowing that their options are limited; he goes despite that fact that Quint has been antagonizing him the entire time. He goes because he’s committed to his journey, and he won’t back down until he’s seen it through.
Hooper is out of his comfort zone once he’s on the boat. Here, it doesn’t matter how smart he is, or whether or not he knows the scientific names of sharks. Here, he is faced with Brody’s desperation to put the pieces together and just get home, and with Quint’s budding wildness as he starts spiraling in his need to catch and kill the shark. He stands up to both of them, asserts himself as his skills are tested. Quint starts showing his true hubris, and Hooper reminds him that his conclusions “don’t prove a damn thing.” Even when Quint continues to insult him, Hooper does his job and does it well, albeit with the comment that he doesn’t “have to take this abuse much longer.” He’s not going to have to; just the fact that Quint trusts him to do his job is starting to show that Hooper has been underestimated and is proving his strengths with each passing moment. He’s leaping hurdles and overcoming obstacles, learning how to fit in with this strange triumvirate, and settling in for the journey ahead.
The inmost cave is the step in the monomyth where the hero has to face their inner conflict, where they have to take a brief respite to reflect on what has fallen behind them and look forward to what lies ahead. This comes from Hooper during the famous scene with the three men swapping stories. Finally, Hooper has found comradery with these three men, a common ground where they are ultimately equals. Until now, this has all been scientific. Now, in the face of their many scars, both physical and mental, Hooper realizes just how far they’re all going to have to go — and how far some of them have already gone.
Quint’s monologue about the Indianapolis doesn’t just provide insight on why Quint is on the water, it gives Hooper the realization that they are on a treacherous road and that this is genuinely dangerous. He knew before, logically, that they were on a perilous journey, but it’s Quint’s story that drives it home. In the silence after the speech, listening to the whales bellowing and the waves slapping against the boat, Hooper reflects on what’s to come, steels himself and finds comfort in his allies. Hooper’s ordeal comes just the next day. Their night on the boat is the last moment of pure comradery, of everyone being on the same wavelength. In the sunlight, though,
Quint has a different goal than anybody else, and he puts the rest of them in horrible danger in search of his violent ends. Hooper’s keeping them afloat, even while Quint smashes their communication devices and Brody finally snaps; Hooper’s the one keeping them on an even keel — or, at least, as even a keel as he can manage, with Quint’s intentions sending them off the rails. He keeps them sailing, he tells Quint and Brody they’ve got to cut the shark loose, even though it’s against everything they’ve been fighting towards to this point. He knows what they have to do to survive, and he’ll do it, even though it means they’re not going to kill the shark, not now. He knows now what capsizing would mean, and he’s not willing to risk it until they’re better equipped. He knows failure means death. He also knows, now, that the next time the shark returns, they’re going to have to do everything in their power to stop it, because they’re not going to get another chance.
This next phase of the monomyth is often affectionately referred to as “seizing the sword,” the moment where the hero emerges from their troubles and battles as a strong champion, ready to prepare for the last leg of the journey. These moments are flying by in this particular sequence, but they are there. Having sent the shark off for the time being, Hooper is rewarded with what he originally sought: knowledge, and acknowledgment. He is witnessing the great white and learning from it in the same moments that he’s receiving his approval from Quint, even though Quint’s gone off the deep end by this point. Quint has finally recognized Hooper’s usefulness and the effectiveness of his presence on the boat and his actions throughout the film already. They can’t spend any time celebrating their triumphs, though; the greatest test is still to come.
There comes a moment in the hero’s journey in which they realize their journey is far from over. They realize that, though they have been through their ordeal and received their reward, there is still one last push before the journey can end. For Hooper, this moment comes when Quint asks about Hooper’s supplies, asks what exactly he can do with those “things” of his, finally recognizing that Hooper is the one who has brought the sword they have to drive into the shark. Hooper tells him he can “pump twenty cc's of strychnine nitrate into him” — if he can get close enough. Hooper realizes his journey isn’t over; he realizes he has to get in the cage and get the shark to come to him. It can’t be Quint, and it can’t be Brody; Hooper is the only one who can fully realize this. As Hooper points out to Brody, there are no better suggestions. Even if the shark is going to rip the cage to pieces, this is Hooper’s decision, and his final, most dangerous encounter with the shark.
The climax. Resurrection. Hooper must face the shark and, in doing so, reach the apex of his evolution with this apex predator. He knows he probably won’t come out alive. He knows what the great white shark is capable of. Hell, he knows better than anyone else exactly what that shark can, and likely will, do to him — he’s been studying it for years. Still, he climbs into the cage anyways, hands up his glasses in exchange for goggles before, weapon in hands, he looks death in the eyes. Failure is not an option; it is death, or nothing. Hooper has come a long way from the scientist antagonizing fishermen on the pier, laughing to himself as he comments that “they’re all gonna die.” Now, he has become the one who knows he’s going to die, and goes into the water anyways. It’s worth it, to take down the shark. The ends justify the means.
The shark does rip the cage to pieces. There are no better suggestions. For Hooper, there is only survival, adapting, struggling to survive. The audience watches him fight with every last breath to stop the shark, to kill the thing he loves most in this world, and then— nothing. Hooper disappears. He has finally proven himself worthy, to Brody and to Quint, and he’s not even there to see it. His “city hands” hold the weapon to destroy the shark, and he goes down with the ship, same as those men on the Indianapolis, same as Quint mere minutes later. Brody takes everything the two men gave him — their weapons, their knowledge, their strength — and he kills the shark. Hooper then sees his resurrection. He has succeeded; because of him, the shark has been destroyed. Brody’s enemy is the shark. Hooper’s enemy is his environment, and it has been the whole time.
Why do they pay a guy like him to watch sharks? Why do they let “wealthy college boys who don’t got the education enough to admit when they’re wrong” on adventures to kill sharks? Because Hooper is capable. He is capable, beyond a shadow of a doubt. He doesn’t just study sharks, he overcomes them. He doesn’t just take samples, he steers the boat and keeps it going. He isn’t just an oceanographer. He placed himself between the world and the shark, and, even looking into the shark’s eyes, even knowing he might die, he fought back. Why do they pay him? Why do they bring him along? Because he is the hero.
Resurrected, resurfacing, Hooper returns a changed man. He has grown, and changed, and learned more than his studies could have ever taught him. Hooper will never return to the man he was, but that man has no place in this world. Quint and Brody have changed him; the shark has changed him; most of all, he has changed himself. He has fought back death and succeeded. He came to Amity to offer insight, and he returns to Amity having saved their lives and avenged those they’ve lost. He returns a changed man, but he returns with hope: no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what others tell you, you are capable. You are capable of great things, of great change, of great achievements. You can look death in the eyes, knowing exactly how he wants to kill you, and you can still fight back.
Hooper’s journey from the young, raw oceanographer to the hero of Jaws is often ignored in favor of Robert Shaw’s mind-blowing performance as Quint, or of Brody’s transformation into the sort of man who can shoot a shark in the mouth while saying, “Smile, you son of a bitch,” or even of the unrelenting fear and tension that come from the shark as he hunts the community of Amity. In the end, though, Hooper is this story’s hero. From his call to adventure to his final battle with death, he evolves into the hero nobody ever thought he could be.
Ultimately, he exemplifies his own final words: “Keep kicking.”