Do superhero movies always have to start with origins?

Feature Mark Harrison 10 Jul 2014 - 06:50

We know how superhero stories start: normal person gets powers, gets reluctant, becomes heroic. But why does it have to be like that?

An alien baby is evacuated from a dying home planet and grows up to discover that he can use his immense power on Earth and the values instilled by his adoptive parents to protect the world. A young boy’s parents are gunned down in front of him and he dedicates his whole life to making sure if never happens to anyone in his city again. A teenager gains exhilarating powers and is then taught the responsibility that comes with that power by the tragic death of his uncle.

These are all great examples of iconic and interesting origin stories, which shape the respective superheroes to which they relate. But in a world of reboots and endless franchise mileage, do they necessarily have to be the starting point in the movies featuring those characters?

You can certainly see the conventional wisdom behind starting there. We get to start out seeing someone who is usually normal (if not “just like us”) to begin with, gaining fantastical powers and developing into a heroic figure and triumphing over the bigger, meaner forces in their normal world, whatever they may be. As an audience, it appeals to our aspirations, particularly with Marvel characters.

There are tonnes of examples of great superhero origin story movies. Richard Donner’s Superman led the way for all that followed, especially Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which riffed on the same formula to finally bring the web-head to life. More recently, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins explored the character from a personal angle rather than allowing the villains to overshadow the hero and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man went from a production that started without a script, to the most tightly scripted and impeccably structured superhero introduction ever committed to film.

Iron Man

So what’s the problem with starting with a good, sturdy origin story? Well, if you read that last paragraph and felt impatient that something you already know was being explained to you all over again, then that may be your answer.

We suppose that the argument for rebooting a character by going back to the origin stories is that the fans will see them anyway and the filmmakers are more focused on introducing the character to new viewers and putting their own spin on the material. Sure, that’s a necessary step in some cases, but the origin story has also too often become a shortcut to using exposition to advance the action.

For example, let’s compare and contrast two versions of the same hero’s origin story- Raimi’s Spider-Man and Marc Webb’s reboot The Amazing Spider-Man. The first act of Raimi’s film plays pretty close to the comics, wherein Peter’s actions get Uncle Ben killed in a tragic succession of events that commences not with a radioactive spider bite, but with Peter deciding he needs a car to impress Mary Jane. The character led the action.

The Amazing Spider-Man has the added baggage of being a “once more with feeling” version of the same story, but the subtle differences in tone and delivery still fail to distract from the fact that the film takes twice as long as Raimi’s to get through the same series of events. This time, it’s Peter’s interest in the mystery behind his absent father that incites the story, but only dangles tauntingly in the background of the rest of the film after other events distract him. The action, this time more literally fight-y and SFX-y, led the character.

In fact, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 outright slammed the brakes for a good portion of its second act just to spray web over a certain hole in the backstory, retroactively making this version of Peter destined to be spider-powered. By over-complicating the origin story, they also extended it. Uncle Ben’s killer is still at large in this version too, but let’s not forget how Spider-Man 3 also fell afoul of revisiting a hitherto-“overlooked” aspect of the origin by awkwardly inserting Sandman into the previously airtight story.

Without that element of his story, Flint Marko would otherwise be the only villain in the live action Spidey movies to date who doesn’t have some personal or professional association with Peter Parker, however tenuous. It’s as if Raimi et al reached back to the surety of the origin story to try and beef him up into something he wasn’t.

But even superhero movies which don’t start with the hero’s origin story invariably wind up going through the same story motions with the villain. Often the hero and the villain come into existence or acquire power simultaneously to simply construct an idea of binary opposition between the two adversaries.

This manner of introducing new adversaries is used in every Spider-Man movie to date and every Batman film from 1989’s Batman (a Joker origin story which secondarily explores Bruce Wayne’s beginnings) to 1997’s Batman & Robin (which has three villain origin stories as well as turning into Batgirl Begins in the third act.)

Even The Incredibles, a superhero film which doesn’t explore Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl’s origins as heroes and safely puts the rest of the titular family’s abilities down to genetics, is an origin story for Syndrome, who goes from fanboy to lunatic in exactly the kind of finessed way that The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s Electro didn’t.

In terms of villains, it’s appealing to explore their psychology and to some extent that’s true of the hero too. As in Raimi’s Spider-Man, the appealing part of origin stories is watching the hero learn how to be heroic, whether they already have the means or not.

However, this too has been taken to ludicrous extremes in the stage of the hero’s journey commonly known as “refusing the call”. Having been invited into a world of fantastical powers and opportunities, some false tension is generated by having our protagonist hesitate over whether to accept.

It’s forgivable in instances where there’s an interesting personal conflict that compels the character to stall, (Wolverine isn’t exactly a team player in X-Men, and neither is Magneto in First Class) but one year on, it’s still tough to believe we saw a whole Superman movie in which the hero was brought up to keep his head down and not use his abilities to help anyone, to the extent where we need to see a contrived formative event which helped him realise killing was bad and saving people was good, purely for the sake of mythologizing every aspect.

Man Of Steel had its upside as well as its mis-steps, but this approach was exactly the kind of thing that made 2011’s Green Lantern such a universally deplored film. The movie’s Hal Jordan needs a pep talk before any imminent threat even makes itself apparent and outright quits before he’s even done with his training montage. It’s Refusing The Call: The Movie.

Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern

On a side note, with animated series and comics having preceded the live-action film, doesn’t any kid who gives a damn about Green Lantern these days think of John Stewart rather than Hal Jordan? There are many reasons why that film bombed at the box office, (principally because it got some deservedly toxic word of mouth) but perhaps if they hadn’t gone so far back to the literal origin of the character, they might have picked up some more interest.

Elsewhere, Marvel Studios has hit these beats more confidently - the aforementioned Iron Man is a near-masterpiece, The Incredible Hulk relegates the irradiation of Bruce Banner to a recap in the opening credits, and Thor is actually about taking a powerful and arrogant character down a peg or two by exploring a long-existing family dynamic.

Counter to the Refusing The Call trope, Captain America instantly overtakes his fellow Avengers in The First Avenger, by continuing to persevere in trying to enlist in the army. This is despite being so skinny that he’s actually refused BY the call for the whole of the first act. Steve Rogers might be unique as a capital-G Good guy, but dedicating whole films to an origin story too often lead to films in which the hero shirks off helping people until we can all accept that they’ve grown by the third act.

Arguably the only film in recent memory that has revamped a comic book character for the screen by telling “a day in the life” is the much praised Dredd. We don’t get a trumped up story of Dredd going through fascist police academy and the criminal culture is already entrenched in Mega City One. Hero and villain are fully realised when the movie begins, entering the story when Dredd puts on his helmet in the morning and exiting when this unusually eventful working day is done.

We’re not saying that what worked for Dredd works for superheroes too, but it proves that you can take an active, character-led approach to adapting comic books, rather than reverting to the literal start point.

But whether it’s the hero’s origin story or the villain’s origin story, most superhero movies seem wedded to the concept of introducing every character right from the beginning. When we’ve already introduced most of the heroes at least once, the act of re-telling often borders on un-cinematic, especially when filmmakers re-tread information we already know from a previous screen version in a marginally different manner.

The message seems to be filtering through, with plans for Batfleck to arrive fully formed as the next incarnation of the Dark Knight, but you can bet that Wonder Woman, Aquaman and perhaps even Green Lantern again, will be taken all the way back to their beginnings after presumably being introduced in action in the Justice League movie.

We’ve previously written about the advantages and disadvantages of adapting directly from comics in the past- there’s an aspirational appeal to these origin stories, but in some cases, they feel as if they’re being played out of necessity. As superhero films saturate the blockbuster marketplace, perhaps dispensing with the more familiar backstories and simply leading with character and action could be one way to keep the genre and its characters fresh in the future.

Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.

Check out Den of Geek T-Shirts HERE

Sponsored Links