Let’s discuss my Origin Story.
Okay, I start off as a mild-mannered kid. I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is a small city outside of Manhattan, pretty urban. I spend my days running around in the street playing games and dodging traffic (yes, this was before folks considered kids too delicate to leave unattended on busy streets). Then one year there was an odd confluence: Every summer the Fire Department would give out special wrenches to various community leaders which would allow them to open up the hydrants and create a fountain of cool water for kids to play in, and I was running around out there in my bathing suit when this absolutely HUGE kid smacked into me, knocking me down, and I hit my head on the curb, causing a concussion.
Around the same time, I saw on television the animated version of “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis and really, really enjoyed it. At school a little while later we were herded into the library for a forced-reading excursion, and I saw the Narnia books, and had this sudden epiphany that there were these things called books which were often the basis for the things on TV and in the movies. So I read all 7 books over and over again, taking them out of the library repeatedly, and then moved on to other books in the same general category, and not long after that I wrote my first story: A 90 page fantasy book based on (and largely plagiarized from) Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Now, wasn’t that stirring? Fascinating? Don’t you know my one, singular motivation behind everything I do?
Damn it: Origin stories suck.
Yet the Origin Story continues to plague us. Every damn superhero movie made has to start off with the Origin Story – often, the Origin Story is the plot of a film. Hours spent on explaining exactly how the hero became the hero, usually with a simple, easy-to-understand motivation behind their subsequent superheroish behavior: Batman has his murdered parents, Spider Man has his murdered uncle, Iron Man has his life spent populating the world with weapons of mass destruction. Unlike actual people, whose motivations for doing things are usually layered and complex – and sometimes contradictory, these single events usually serve for the character’s motivations forever.
Origin Stories suck.
This is a generalization, of course. I would actually admit that they are sometimes handled well: Iron Man, for example, managed to make the titular hero’s OS fun and interesting, mainly through Robert Downey Jr’s charm and by treating it as part of the whole story, instead of an extended explanatory flashback. Overall, though, Origin Stories suck the Big Suck for a variety of reasons, and I’d beg Hollywood to stop forcing us to sit through them if only anyone ever listened to me.
First of all, Origin Stories are dull. In today’s day and age we’re all more or less familiar with comic book heroes and villains. I mean, do I really need to see Batman’s parents murdered again? Batman’s character has been around for 70 years. I think we’ve all heard about it by now. You can argue, of course, that movies are each their own individual piece of art and you shouldn’t just assume that audiences know all about it – except that movies do this all the time, throwing in pop culture jokes, nods to previous versions or obvious tropes. Why not just assume we’re familiar with the OS and move on? Or at the very least wave your hand at the OS and just give us the one-line summary.
Origin Stories are dull because they require a lot of set up and exploration to be effective at all. There will be characters you never see again, the main character as a child, and a whole storyline that has little to do with the main plot, thus crowding the rest of the film simply to dramatize something most of us have already seen or read or at the very least heard about. This is because the producers want their movies to be as General Audience as possible. If there’s some mope out there who hasn’t heard Batman’s Origin Story, then dammit the Producers do not want to make that person confused when they watch the movie.
Second of all, Origin Stories have been done. We’re entering in the Golden Age of the Reboot, where filmmakers are starting franchises fresh before they’re even in the grave. The first Fantastic Four movie came out in 2005 (I’m purposefully ignoring Roger Corman’s version) and its sequel in 2007, but they’re already contemplating a reboot. Sweet jebus, it’s been less than five years, and already they want to subject me to Yet Another Depiction of the Fantastic Four’s Origin.
Even if it’s the first film version, there’s the actual source material. Now, I know that the majority of people who might see a movie have never read the source material, and they might need to know exactly how the superhero came to be, except. . .
Third of all, Origin Stories are unnecessary. Seriously – you’re asking me to suspend my disbelief to accept, say, a fey rich kid growing up to become an asskicking machine in a bat costume, single-handedly ridding a large city of crime through expensive, advanced technology and his ripped abs, but assume I can only accomplish this by explaining in excruciating detail how he came to this decision and how he trained himself? I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to accept Batman as Batshit Crazy Asskicker and if his backstory stays a bit murky, I’m fine with that. I actually prefer it that way, because. . .
Finally, Origin Stories detract from the glorious mystery. There’s far too much explaining in most stories. Details are like the Monster: When they’re in the shadows, making menacing noises and leaving only a bloody trail behind their passing, they can seem huge, terrifying, epic. Then the light gets turned on and it’s a guy in a rubber suit, and you are never, ever, impressed by it again. Sometimes details should be left vague, because a mysterious hero or villain is always better than one whose psychiatrist’s notes are available for inspection.
Of course, your mileage may vary, and I’ve already admitted there are exceptions to this rule. But I’d rather sacrifice the first half of Iron Man if it meant I don’t have to watch Bruce Banner evolving into The Hulk again. Ever.