We’re living in a golden age of comic book movies and television. At least, a younger Djason would think so. Have we reached peak comic book/superhero saturation yet? I don’t know. While it’s true these movies still draw large audiences, I see plenty of stagnant elements. The origin plot is one such element.
Origins Ad Nauseam: There are, as of yet, undiscovered tribes in the heart of the Amazon who know that Bruce Wayne decided to become Batman after Thomas and Martha were murdered in an alley. (citation: I paraphrased this joke from an episode of the British comedy The Young Ones.) I’m sure these same tribes also know Peter Parker and the tragedy of all those Uncle Bens. So I think we can stop with most origin stories, at least for the well-known heroes. And even though I enjoyed Doctor Strange and Wonder Woman, I don’t think origins are required for less familiar characters. Both Watchmen and the Ed Norton The Incredible Hulk movie told a lot of back story in opening credits sequences. This works well. If people pay money to watch a movie about a dude who turns into an anthropomorphic shark, they probably don’t need his life story. And don’t make it oedipal; I’m looking at you Ang Lee.
Why origin stories suck:
- Because they’re boring. We watch superhero movies to see people in ridiculous outfits punch each other, throw batarangs at each other, and shoot laserish beams at each other. We don’t want to see the average schlub living an average schlub life. It’s supposed to be escapism, remember?
- Because they’re usually pretty dumb. Most of these superheroes origins come from the pulp comics of the thirties, forties, or fifties. They’re not exactly the best examples of storytelling; often, they’re just a flimsy justification for the character to put on a costume and start kicking some ass. In real life, chemical spills or radiation don’t cause superpowers; they cause horrific deaths. Or maybe just cancer, which causes horrific deaths.
- Because origin stories often include the obligatory training montage. You know, the ones where the hero sucks at first, but through determination and booming soundtrack the hero masters his/her skills. While it’s true that these montages sometimes produce humorous “WTF?” moments with heroes discovering they can fart lasers and stuff, I would rather see more of the heroes punching evil in the face.
- Because they’re lazy writing. Wanna reboot Batman? You only need to write half a story and then figure out how you’re gonna gun down the Waynes. Again. And since the canon is sacred, at least when it comes to origins, the stories are stale. Imagine if baby Kal El’s rocket crashed in Colorado instead of Kansas. In Pueblo, even: the Steel City Superman! How many ways can Peter Parker encounter a glowing spider? What if Pete was bitten by a radioactive lightning bug? Or a mildly annoyed mutant assassin bug?
Opening credits montages, as mentioned above, are good ideas. With well-known heroes, why bother with origins? Reveal the hero’s origin as part of the inevitable advertising blitz for the film. Or in a flyer included with the action figure. The point is the people who say, “I want to see this movie about a pilot who gets a magic ring from an alien that makes him a space cop who can make whatever he wants with green energy,” don’t also say, “but only if I have a clear understanding of the character’s origin.” If the movie is pretty enough and has enough action, audiences will forgive all manner of stupidity. That’s why James Cameron has been so successful. Seriously.
Are there other problems with the current crop of superhero movies? Yes. The constant heroes fighting heroes plots are dumb and weakly justified. Butchering the imagery from classic stories and removing the context of those stories isn’t very successful, either, even if Marvel movies have gotten away with it (see my Cameron comment in the previous paragraph). Having the protagonist lose her/his powers, suit, hammer, etc is also pretty stale at this point, and another example of lazy writing: “Super Doge will lose his powers, but recover them just in time to thwart Bad Luck Bryan.” Yawn. Stan Lee cameos. Ugh.
The latest Spider-Man reboot gives us hope that Hollywood can change. Of course, that reboot worked because Spider-Man was introduced as part of the Avengers or Captain America or Civil War or whatever. And shared universes and franchises are another problem for some future post.