I learned a valuable lesson while watching Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Fearing another retread of the story of Batman’s genesis, what I actually got was something that made the revisiting of the origin story make sense. A new filmmaker, who had a collection of stories to tell, wanted to define Batman correctly for his stories, and so went back to the very beginning. Batman Begins proves that, when narrative genuinely demands it, revisiting the genesis of a character is not always a bad thing.
The problem, though, is it usually is a bad thing. And that, more often than not, the genesis approach is taken for business, rather than creative, reasons.
It’s understandable when a character has been off screen for a period of time that you might want to take the opportunity to go back to the start. Or, in the case of Batman Begins, when you’ve followed something that it’s best to concrete over (yup, that’d be Batman & Robin).
But I suspect I’m not alone in wondering why, for instance, The Amazing Spider-Man feels the need to go right back to the beginning again. After all, the first Spider-Man movie is only 9 years old, and the last one arrived in 2007: do we need to go back to the very beginning when the franchise has been away for less than a decade? Isn’t it a waste of an opportunity to spend another couple of hours telling us a slightly different version of a story we’ve already been told?
It’s entirely possible, of course, that The Amazing Spider-Man will turn out to be something quite special. Director Marc Webb is the man who spun us the terrific (500) Days Of Summer, and Andrew Garfield’s acting chops were stamped all over The Social Network (it remains scandalous that he didn’t get a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination). But I’d still far rather they’d told a different story.
Likewise, Superman. Christoper Nolan and David S Goyer reckoned they’d cracked a thus-far untold story on the big screen for Superman, and found a way to bring the character back. But in doing so, we’re back, it seems, to the very start.
Again, Nolan has pedigree here (and there’s an argument that Superman’s genesis tale hasn’t been told on the big screen since the 70s), but one of the things I most admired about Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is that it took a chance. It didn’t go back and see Krypton blowing up, and Superman arriving on Earth for the first time. But the Zack Snyder-directed reboot? All signs are pointing to that being the way forward.
It’s frustrating, because it seems that studios are looking to start re-telling their stories from the beginning when they want to take a fresh direction with their franchises, as if it’s the only logical path out there. Yet it isn’t. Look at comic books. Look how different writers and artists can take different approaches with the same characters.
Look how they don’t rely on Bruce Wayne seeing the death of his parents, or a spider biting Peter Parker. They assume that we’re not totally alien to the characters, and even if we are, they figure that it’s really not too hard to catch up.
So why can’t movie makers go the same way? Because the frustration is that, in most cases, the origin film becomes an extended trailer for the one that follows.
Bryan Singer’s original X-Men film I didn’t particularly warm to, as it had to spend quite a lot of time setting up all the pieces for the sequel. The sequel, conversely, I loved. Really loved. Because there was an assumption of some foreknowledge of the characters, and more effort was putting in doing something with them, rather than covering their individual journeys (a pity, then, that Fox spun Wolverine out into his own franchise, and chose to tell his story right from the start).
I don’t have a pathological hatred of the origin story. It’s an appropriate story tool, and inevitably it deepens the characters concerned when we know more about their past, and what made them who they are. It’s just the feeling that it’s the only way to go for studios in particular, when it blatantly isn’t. Heck, last year’s Robin Hood would have stood a far better chance of working had it allowed Russell Crowe to properly become the title character for more than a short period of time.
There are different paths out there. I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll bore you with it again, but the story I’d love a superhero movie to tackle properly, and I don’t think this will happen anytime soon, is what happens at the end of a hero’s life. Or at least at the other end of it,
It might be predictable to cite Frank Miller’s astonishing The Dark Knight Returns, but it’s a fascinating, brilliant piece of work, that explores a comic book hero long after their power has waned. That’s the story I’d love to see, but it involves casting an actor as a superhero who isn’t under 35. That, I fear, will not happen, when a PG-13 rating and an $80m opening weekend is the current benchmark that studios are aiming for.
On the upside, there are pockets of resistance. Kick-Ass was independently funded, and proved that you can do a quality superhero movie on a more limited budget than you might expect (helping director Matthew Vaughn land the X-Men: First Class gig which is, yep, an origin story of sorts. Although one I’ve got high hopes for). Kick-Ass was an origin story, certainly, but it showed that you don’t have to play by studio rules to make a movie of its ilk. Hopefully, more filmmakers will pick up the mantle.
Furthermore, while the takings of Watchmen are often sneered at, that was a distinctly adult comic book movie that still managed to bring in $185m at the global box office, and still have a DVD and Blu-ray shelf life. Studios, therefore, shouldn’t necessarily balk at doing something that goes off the strict flow chart they seem to be following.
Still, where major films are concerned, the thinking remains simplistic. Cut the risks. Broaden the audience by making sure everyone knows the characters. Bring people in right from the start and assume they know nothing.
Thus, when Marvel had a second chance of telling the story of Hulk, it blew it on another origin story. The next Tomb Raider film is reported to be going the same way (although if it follows the path trodden by Casino Royale, it may get away with it). And there are questions being asked of the plans to reboot Fantastic Four and Daredevil, too.
I can’t be the only one suffering from origin story fatigue right now, though, and I do hope that someone with sufficient power musters up a modicum of courage to hunt down a different way of doing things. After all, there are so many different approaches to every character out there. It just seems a shame to be so keen to tell the opening chapters of a character’s story time and time again, without allowing us to peek forward at what else might be out there…