In Defense of Superhero Origin Movies

Whether they're radioactive spiders or extraterrestrial parents, aren't superhero origin stories actually important?

Where do we come from? Why are we the way we are? What makes us… us? What drives our behavior? What motivates us? Is it nurture or nature? Are we governed by our hopes or our fears? Whether considerations of the species or the self, these are weighty and fascinating questions to ponder…

Unless, of course, you’ve recently become a superhero, in which case just learn how to use your powers, put on your bloody tights, and get out there and save the world; we have no interest in watching a detailed recount of how you came to be.

While such an opinion may not be universal, it is certainly the basis of an oft-repeated criticism levelled at this current Golden Age of comic book-inspired cinema: that the humble origin story is a narrative slog that shackles the opening chapter of a franchise and restricts it from becoming truly great.

Advocates of this notion point to the ample evidence on display once that troublesome origin story is out the way: Spider-Man 2, Superman IIX2Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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To which I say: Iron Man 2.

But let’s forget about specific examples for now, and park the notion that a sequel inevitably benefits from the production experience accumulated during that first foray. Regardless of the respective failings or merits of an origin movie compared to its sequel, I don’t think it’s fair to lay the blame for the former’s shortcomings solely on the decision to chronicle how our hero became a hero.

It’s not just that I like origin stories; although it’s true I always have; as a fan of the genre there’s something eminently satisfying in seeing how a superhero came to be. It’s not just that there are clearly great examples of origin movies that are thrilling and engaging, folding the circumstances of a hero’s raison d’être seamlessly into a wider narrative.

No, it’s that when done correctly I believe a detailed origin story is entirely necessary. Allow me to try and convince you…

Then, an accidental overdose of gamma radiation…

“…And it takes a full hour before we even see our hero in costume!” says the slightly disparaging review in which the author can’t fathom why the title character isn’t suited, booted and beating up bad guys within the first 15 minutes.

Why this rush to get to the fully formed hero capable of kicking unholy amounts of bottom? The best stories are, after all, journeys. Journeys where our heroes go through momentous changes, learn things about themselves, make life-altering decisions, and change their dynamic with friends, family and loved-ones.

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All these facets are inherent to an origin story and gold dust in terms of character development. Unless we spend some time with our pre-powered hero, we can’t fully grasp the significance of the life-change they are about to experience. So why the chorus, often from critics (of all people), for this journey to be truncated?

Superhero movies are often singled out in this respect. No one thought Return Of The Jedi was the best of the original trilogy because Luke had got all his training out of the way and learned his Jedi powers. No one complained that it took almost the entire film for Jeff Goldblum to mutate into The Fly. And no one, to the best of my knowledge, felt that Michael Corleone’s ascent to the top of the Mafia would have benefited from being streamlined in The Godfather.

An element of snobbery, perhaps; the feeling that a superhero movie shouldn’t be wasting time delving into a character’s psyche at the expense of more CGI slugfests? If this were the case, such dissatisfaction would be confined to the critics, yet it’s a gripe I’ve heard repeated among the paying public. Maybe it’s an issue of misleading advertising? When the eponymous superhero is in his or her fully costumed glory on the poster and in the trailer, perhaps there’s a sense of disappointment that the audience isn’t getting what they bought a ticket for within the first five minutes.

Funnily enough, similar criticism was levelled at non-superhero fare such as Godzilla and Better Call Saul, so holding back on revealing your title character might be the common thread here. Maybe if Star Wars had been called Luke Skywalker: Jedi Master, it would have received more of a backlash.

Whatever the reason, the argument that all an origin story ever does is slow a film down is nonsense. It suggests that the only thing that makes superhero films enjoyable is the sight of our hero in their outfit showing off their abilities, and yet the very best superhero movies have so much more to offer than pure spectacle. Being ‘super’ and being a ‘hero’ doesn’t always require a demonstration of physical strength or supernatural ability – a decision, conversation, or course of action can have just as much meaning and punch-the-air significance as throwing another CGI character into yet another building.

Don’t get me wrong, an amazing, special-effects-filled action sequence can be enjoyable and exhilarating, but this kind of excess works best in short intermittent bursts; it can get really dull really quickly – especially if your opening set piece has set the bar so high that there aren’t too many ways to top it.

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This, of course, isn’t an issue with origin stories. Most have a template that demands exponential returns on the action sequences as our hero experiments with their powers, learns how to harness and master them, before being called upon to push themselves to the limit to extinguish the ultimate threat. Each action sequence naturally tops the one that came before, increasing the spectacle and the awe at each turn until the show-stopping climax. Conversely, how many sequels can you think of that suffer from final fight fatigue? More than a few, I’d wager…

And there came a day, a day unlike any other…

But here’s the main reason we should all embrace the origin story: it fundamentally informs the character. How a hero becomes empowered and why they ultimately decide to fight the good fight are vital elements that the audience needs to fathom if the character is going to be anything more than a cypher for their power fantasies.

Captain America: The First Avenger is crucial in setting up why Cap is the man he is – both physically and morally. Without witnessing the plight of skinny Steve and seeing first-hand his desire to do the right thing and fight for freedom despite his physical frailties, we wouldn’t feel half as much empathy for him, we wouldn’t have warmed to him as much, and we wouldn’t have understood his subsequent decisions across three further movies as well as we do.

But origin tales are far from necessary chores; the best stuff is often held within their confines. For me, Steve’s protracted transformation into the Sentinel of Liberty was when the first film was at its most engaging. People who use the superior sequel as evidence of how an origin story restricts a film are missing the point: the first half of The First Avenger, the part that deals almost entirely with Captain America’s creation, is arguably the strongest; everything that follows the action montage of our now fully formed hero is mediocre at best. And while knowing Steve’s story from the 1940s isn’t vital in order to enjoy Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it certainly enriches it for people that do.

While one Marvel stalwart benefited from a lengthy and thoughtful exploration of his origins, another – the mighty God of Thunder – was short-changed by an insistence on keeping things moving.

It seems that the creative minds behind Thor – and Kenneth Branagh’s director’s commentary essentially confirms this – were in a hurry to restore Thor’s powers and get him back to Asgard for his showdown with Loki as quickly as possible. But by rushing arguably the two most important elements of Thor’s origin – his love for a mortal woman and his newfound humility – his bridge-busting sacrifice at the end of the film is a little less meaningful.

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These are essential, character-defining moments in Thor’s history that completely change who he is as an individual and how he perceives his place in the nine realms. Going from a petulant god who would gladly rekindle a galactic war for kicks to a humble guardian of the mortal realm should have taken more than a few pints with Stellan Skarsgard and a night on Natalie Portman’s roof. Some may cite economy of story telling, but there’s a reason Thor feels like the least fleshed-out of Marvel’s main heroes. He is. And that’s in part because they rushed his origin.

With great power comes great responsibility…

One criticism that I’m more than happy to indulge concerns the re-telling of an origin story that’s already either universally well-known or has already been established in recent cinematic history.

The forthcoming Fantastic Four reboot is at least taking inspiration from the Ultimate line of comics, which presented a very different take on Marvel’s First Family and thus deserves another origin tale. These are, after all, completely different characters to the versions we met on-screen several years ago.

The same could not be said of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker was very much the Peter Parker we had come to expect – same age, same family, same awkwardness, same intelligence – which made the decision to start from scratch all the more baffling.

But in all honesty, the decision to re-tread old ground with another take on the origin story wasn’t the primary mistake – it was the choice to tweak it in small but significant ways in an attempt to distance the film from the previous trilogy. But it didn’t come across as fresh and exciting; it came across as just plain wrong, and prevented many in the audience from warming to this iteration of the character in a way that Garfield’s performance deserved.

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More than most, Spider-Man’s tragic origin story utterly defines who he is and why we relate to him: he’s just an awkward geeky teenager, giddy with his randomly bestowed power until his selfishness leads to tragedy – and he can never forgive himself for it. It’s one of the harshest lessons ever dished out to a newbie superhero, but it’s what defines him: the burden of responsibility, and the guilt he feels from learning the lesson too late.

In the reboot we got a slightly too cool ‘chosen-one’ who was fated to become Spider-Man, didn’t have a whole lot to do with his Uncle’s death, and seemed to forget about the killer halfway through the film anyway. His motivation and character development shifted constantly to service this new take on the origin, and in doing so we lost the essence of what makes Peter Parker such a hero, culminating in him ending the movie by stating his intention to break a promise he made to a dying man. And Ben’s famous speech is iconic for a reason – don’t fluff it because you’re shy about repeating yourself.

Incidentally, I’m not a comic book purist who insists that origin stories remain unchanged, but they need to result in essentially the same hero being born. The Amazing Spider-Man might as well have been called the The Awesome Arachno-Chap.

Regardless, the film didn’t suffer because they chose to retell the origin – it suffered because they didn’t retell it very well.

As a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting…

The retelling of an origin story, or a new take on a familiar genesis, isn’t necessarily a recipe for disaster. When done thoughtfully and with due care it can usher in a whole new way of interpreting a hero and his or her world.

If superhero origins was a round on Pointless, I’m sure Batman would be a high scorer, but that didn’t stop Christopher Nolan exploring it in forensic detail in Batman Begins. Indeed, that whole movie is an origin tale, with the familiar status quo only established minutes before the final credits roll.

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That film highlights another benefit of the origin movie that people often overlook – the opportunity to ground the fantastic. Many superhero films take place in a ‘real world’ setting; the world we are watching is our own – just with superheroes in it. A film with the aesthetic of, say Dick Tracy or Batman Returns can get away with introducing a ludicrous conceit or an outlandish character without much in the way of explanation because we accept that this world is not our own.

However, once you’ve made the creative decision to set your story in modern day New York, you need to be able to explain and justify some of the more fantastical notions in the film or risk losing some of the audience. An origin story allows the filmmaker to do this, giving him or her time to introduce and contextualise the more improbable elements.

The sequence in Iron Man where Tony spends a great deal of screen time perfecting his hover boots is funny and entertaining in its own right, but it also performs a useful role in presenting the concept of a man building a suit that allows him to fly in an semi-believable way.

Superhero films tread a fine line – especially with audiences who aren’t au fait with the comic book characters – between exhilarating and just plain silly. Tell a viewer like my wife, for example, that a film is set in the real world and then show her something outlandish without enough context or explanation, and she will roll her eyes, tut and switch off. Origin stories can help steady the ship in this respect.

I have sent them you… my only son…

Many origin films follow a familiar pattern: establish a character’s pre-powered life; show the accident/sequence of events that empowers them; follow them learning and honing their abilities, possibly with a bit of reluctance; then use a tragedy or threat to focus their abilities and save the day. Familiarity breeds contempt, of course, and antipathy towards the origin story may be due in part to the lack of surprises such a structure offers. But there are other ways of doing it that inject the much-needed history and character motivation into a story without slavishly sticking to an established formula.

Flashbacks can help with pacing, sprinkling the more expositional requirements across a film’s running time rather than a huge dump at the beginning. Embracing the origin and making it interesting enough that it takes up the majority of the running time is another approach. But the best way of ensuring an origin story holds the attention is to make the civilian identity of our hero as interesting as their alter ego. Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Steve Rogers… these are characters I’d happily spend time with as much as Iron Man, Batman and Captain America. Watching them figure out who they are and what they want to be is as exhilarating for me as when they blast, punch or chuck a shield at their enemies.

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So perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I want to see how Doctor Strange becomes the Sorcerer Supreme, I want to see how Carol Danvers assumes the mantle of Captain Marvel – I want every new character introduced in both Marvel’s and DC’s cinematic universes to make it clear not just who they are, but why they are.