RIP superhero origin stories (1978 - 2015)

With the recent breaking news that Sony and Disney have struck a deal to allow Spider-Man to officially appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in exchange for Marvel helping Sony make Spider-Man films that don’t suck, there was much rejoicing from Marvel fans.

There’s still plenty to be revealed about the exact terms of the deal and what it means for Spider-Man and the MCU, but it’s generally assumed that Sony/Marvel will be tossing out the Amazing Spider-Man continuity and bringing on a new, younger actor to replace Andrew Garfield (who would’ve been a 35-year-old college student by the time Amazing Spider-Man 3 came out). There are also strong indications that the new Spider-Man will make his debut in next year’s Captain America: Civil War, to be followed by a standalone film in 2017.

Not everyone is thrilled by the news. There was the expected sniping on social media about this being the second Spider-Man reboot in less than five years. Also, some are disgruntled that Marvel has delayed other films on their slate to make room for the Sony/MCU Spider-Man, most notably Black Panther and Captain Marvel, the studio’s first black- and female-led superhero films. Because clearly, fans haven’t been waiting long enough for either of those.

But in the wake of this news, there’s one thing Marvel fans, movie fans, and pretty much all of civilized society are in unanimous agreement upon: Please, not another Spider-Man origin story.

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There’s probably little to worry about. The last Spider-Man origin story happened less than three years ago, and if you’re old enough to read this, you’re old enough to remember the first go-round in 2002. I’m sure even the bumbling execs at Sony are acutely aware that this is not a tale that needs to be retold any time soon. Plus, if Spider-Man’s first appearance ends up being as a side character in the third Captain America film, that makes a full-fledged origin story even more unlikely.

But even deeper than that, the very concept of “origin stories” has become increasingly viewed with contempt by the moviegoing public. This has reportedly led Marvel to not only decree that the upcoming Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch won’t be an origin story, but also that going forward, Marvel won’t be making any more origin stories, period. This year’s Ant-Man, produced before the decree, might be the last Marvel movie to feature an origin story.

RIP superhero origin stories (1978 - 2015)

On the DC side, it appears likely that next year’s Batman V. Superman won’t feature a Batman origin story, but instead a pre-seasoned Batman who’s been operating in the shadows for years. And since that film is also set to be the first movie appearances of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg, there’s a chance we may not get straightforward origin stories for any of those characters, either.

Fox has solo movies for Deadpool and Gambit lined up for next year, but whether either of those movies will be origin stories remains to be seen. Deadpool will reportedly be a total reboot, but considering the character appeared in a previous film played by the same actor, sort of, I can see the specifics of his origin being somewhat glossed over (on a related note, how crazy is it that only five years ago, the studio was planning a whole series of X-Men movies with “Origins” in the title? Surely, this would be the kiss of death today).

In short, it’s looking like Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot might be the last superhero origin story we get for a long, long time. Especially if it flops.

RIP superhero origin stories (1978 - 2015)

It’s rather remarkable that public sentiment has turned on origin stories so quickly. After all, some of the most acclaimed superhero movies of all time were origin stories: Superman: The Movie, Iron Man, Batman Begins, Captain America: The First Avenger, and of course, 2002’s Spider-Man are all films that depicted the classic superhero origin story, and yet all of them are still held in high regard.

One could argue that the genre has matured to the point where audiences don’t need an entire film to grasp the concept of an ordinary schlub getting powers and learning to use them for the greater good. And while that’s certainly part of it, I believe what truly brought about the downfall of the origin story were the many sequels that would introduce multiple villains, which meant providing lazy, formulaic origin stories for each one of them, while effectively reducing the hero to a supporting player in his own movie (Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 are case studies in this).

On the other hand, here are some films that mostly skipped over the origin story: Daredevil. The 1989 Punisher. Elektra. Constantine. Those movies may or may not have their cult fanbases, but no one will ever claim them as high points of the genre. What if the reason those movies didn’t connect with audiences is precisely because they left out the hero’s origin?

After all, a good origin story does more than simply explain how the hero got his powers; it also allows us to get to know the character as a relatable, everyday person, and witness how this relatable/everyday person finds meaning in terrible events and comes to grips with being bestowed with great power and great responsibility. I’ll be the first to admit this stuff gets predictable after the tenth time you’ve seen it—the screwed-up childhood, the tragic death (be it Uncle Ben, Jonathan Kent, the Waynes, or Dr. Yinsen), the hero’s reluctance to use his newfound powers, the sudden crisis that finally makes them to decide to answer the call; essentially, the much-abused and overused Hero’s Journey, with superpowers—but it might be a necessary evil.

Without getting any time to understand their personalities or motivations, the superheroes we meet in the coming years may end up feeling a lot less fleshed-out and grounded. How much would we care about Peter Parker without knowing the guilt he carries inside over his uncle’s death?

Of course, in his case, we can just assume the new MCU Spider-Man’s origin is some variation on the two origin stories we already got. The same goes for Ben Affleck’s Batman; even if we never see it happen, I think we can all safely assume his parents were gunned down by a mugger in an alleyway. Likewise, I doubt the moviegoing public would ever need a refresher on how superheroes like the Superman or the Hulk acquired their powers, either.

But it’s odd that Marvel’s “no origins” decree is going to apply first and foremost to, of all characters, Stephen Strange, a pretty obscure hero to people who don’t read Marvel comics (not Guardians of the Galaxy obscure, but still a mostly unknown quantity). Isn’t he precisely the sort of character who would benefit greatly from an origin story?

RIP superhero origin stories (1978 - 2015)

What about Captain Marvel? In the comics, Carol Danvers has an incredibly convoluted history, starting out as the love interest of Kree warrior Mar-Vell (another character with a pretty dense backstory), then being involved in an accident that transforms her into a Kree-human hybrid, and then becoming a victim of incestuous date rape. I’m sure they’ll streamline her character arc in the movie, but a Captain Marvel without an origin story would frankly be a bit bewildering.

And what if other studios make the “no origin stories” pledge? Does anyone truly want a Shazam movie that starts with Shazam as a fully formed superhero, without revealing how Billy Batson wanders into a cave and meets that wizard?

The point is, origin stories shouldn’t be totally dismissed out of hand. They’re still necessary sometimes, and they still have potential. It’s not the concept itself that’s played out, but rather halfhearted, cliché-ridden executions of the concept. And in the major studios’ rush to keep up with the fickle public and their sudden distaste for origin stories, there’s a chance we may end up with a dramatically unsatisfying batch of superhero movies with poorly developed leads.

But as of now, it’s hard to say what a world without origin stories would look like; you’d have to go all the way back to 2001 to find a year without a major feature film depicting a superhero origin story. After the Fantastic Four reboot, we may be in uncharted territory.

Tag: Marvel Cinematic Universe

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  • Sooper

    I think they need to certainly ditch the “origin story” movies for characters like Batman and Spider-Man, whose origin is so well know at this point that there are children in third world countries with no running water who know why Batman is Batman. For characters like Doctor Strange, it’s pretty necessary to give at least a *little* background. Just, please, no more movies where they expect that the audience doesn’t know Batman’s parents are dead, Superman is an alien from Krypton, etc.

    • Gallen_Dugall

      I’ll specifically disagree with Doctor Strange. In both films they’ve done of the character watching the protagonist deny the existence of something the audience is clued into from the start is f*ing painful drudgery to sit through. Both films had a lot going for them; the cheesy ’70s made for TV one had a lot of impressive effects for its day and the animated one was… animated.

      • Sooper

        Yeah, but they do need to do at least a small amount of groundwork to establish the magical elements of the MCU, since so far everything has been at least nominally grounded in science to some degree. A whole movie of Stephen Strange rejecting magic and then finally being like “Ok, it’s real” would be lame. I will say, they already namechecked him in Winter Soldier as a person of interest to Hydra, which would indicate that he already is a known entity of some power, so maybe they’ll do a few flashbacks to how he became the sorceror supreme and then move on to the plot. One can only hope.

        • Gallen_Dugall

          fair enough

  • GreenLuthor

    In all fairness, the movies you listed as not really covering the hero’s origin are also all regarded as being pretty awful on their own merits, regardless of the lack of an origin. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie wasn’t an origin story (it’s covered in a brief flashback), and that seems to be fairly well liked. Ryan Reynold’s Green Lantern *was* an origin story, and almost everyone disliked that one. Halle Berry’s Catwoman was an origin story, and it’s considered one of the absolute worst movie ever made. So I don’t know for sure if the presence or absence of an origin would have that much of an effect on the perceived quality of the film, as long as the audience is given enough to understand the basics of the character.

    As for Dr. Strange, it’s actually kind of appropriate that his movie isn’t focused on being an origin story, to be honest. Strange was already an active character in his first appearance; his origin wouldn’t be told for a few issues after that. I think they can definitely get away with just giving us the basics (probably via flashback) while concentrating on a different storyline.

  • I think for Spider-Man it’s at least partly that Peter Parker’s adventures have a rather samey quality to them, kind of like James Bond films where it’s basically the same plot told differently. Add in that his own origin has been done twice now, and five films in twelve years feels like too much. Personally, I’d suggest Marvel ditch Spider-Man entirely, relegate him to a secondary character, or just get rid of Peter Parker (I know Miles Moralis is a pipe dream here but a man can hope).

  • The concept is so common place now that you could do it in a montage, like they did in “The Incredible Hulk”. Arguably “Thor” was not an origin story because Thor, the Warriors three, Sif, and Loki are all established as having been fighting monsters and evil on other worlds for centuries (it might be a credit to Tony Stark that he was able to fight Thor at all in “The Avengers” let alone last as long as he did, and dumb luck that lighting enhances his power system rather than frying it).

  • FEnM

    One place we’re still seeing origin stories in on TV. “Arrow”, “Flash”, and “Gotham” all cover the origins of not only their heroes, but the sidekicks, villains, etc… They have the time to devleop and explore these things without feeling rushed. They can devote a whole hour–about 40 mins sans commercials–to the background of a villain. Hell, forget ONE hour, Arrow has villains like Merlyn and Slade, whose storyline have spanned seasons. Gotham can go whole episodes without much of Bruce Wayne, and instead focus on Penguin or Jim Gordon.

  • JD

    Good riddance to the origin stories.

    5 -10 minutes of a 2 1/2- 3 hour movie is more then enough.

    • Nasty In The Pasty

      Hell, you could do an efficient origin story in the TITLE SEQUENCE…see the 2008 Incredible Hulk.

      • Gabriel Ratchet

        Or, for that matter, Watchmen (although you could argue that that was the best part of the whole film).

  • JustMe

    I don’t think it is origin stories in particular that are the problem… It’s which characters get them.

    Do we really need to be told Superman or Batman or Spidermans origin tales? Everyone knows the basics of those characters and therefore doesn’t need to be retold them. I’d argue that there are characters that do kinda need some origin story related (Dr Strange would be one – I have to think that the general public not only doesn’t know his origin but also much of it has never even heard of the character. Probably the same for Ant-Man). Characters that are being introduced as the focus of major films that might not have very high recognition rates probably do need some stuff filled in for them…

    “Guardians of the Galaxy” did it just about right… There was a basically sketched out origin story there, just enough to get the character relationships going and then it moved on. We probably don’t need 2 hours of origin but there is some need for some of these characters to have a little of that. Just not the ones everyone knows about…

    • Greenhornet

      Ditto, brother.
      It really doesn’t take much to establish a character if done right. Take for example, the Green Hornet serial (1940); in the fist five minutes of the first chapter, they introduced Brit Reed, Kato and Mike Axford and gave a little background information on them. BOOM! There you have it. Anything else we need to know about them was taken care of later on with a sentence or two.

      • Greenhornet

        (Posted by accident)
        Take another example: Bison. I don’t think they ever gave him an origin, the only thing I’ve ever seen is the famous scene with the female prisoner. with that scene, in just a few minutes, we learn that Bison was a bandit that attacked a village, got his ass kicked and returned later with a better trained and equipped army to take the village. Oh, and also that it was “Tuesday”.
        Do we need any more than that? Is there anyone who is shouting “But what was the weather like? Did Bison ride a horse or a jeep?”. NO!

  • Doc Skippy

    In addition to saying good riddance to superhero origin stories, can we also please say good riddance to superhero movies, period?

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      Nope – plus: just say good riddance to those origin stories, that’ve been done to death.

    • Poo-Doo

      Why superhero movies? Superhero movies are cool. They also SELL.

      • Doc Skippy

        Unless you happen to be involved in marketing ancillary products for sale off the back of one of these execrable superhero movies, I can see no earthly reason why a filmgoer should give even a second’s thought as to whether these movies sell.

    • JD

      They are starting to run together for me.there always seems to be at least 3 of them then they reboot again.

  • I am glad to hear no more origin stories. This is a large part of why Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are nowhere near my list of favored superhero movies, and The Phantom Menace, A New Hope, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are nowhere near my favorite movies featuring their stars. We don’t need a whole movie dedicated to backstory before the actual movies start. Give us Highlander; give us Blade. Hell, give us Tim Burton’s Batman. Just don’t give us the same damned formula that every film watcher has seen a dozen times and every comic reader can recite in their sleep.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    “younger actor to replace Andrew Garfield (who would’ve been a 35-year-old college student by the time Amazing Spider-Man 3 came out)”

    and looks ridiculously old in the first one pretending to be a high school student, kinda like the middle aged teenagers that populate ’50s youth films

    • Gallen_Dugall

      and speaking of lazy formulas that need to change
      1) villains that exist without a motivation beyond being the antagonist
      2) shoehorned in romantic interest where none previously existed
      3) action scenes that don’t make any sense but are called for by pacing
      4) montages. you may have one per movie, preferably of the characters suiting up for the final battle, and anything else is excessive

      • Gallen_Dugall

        then I click the link… OH! This is from latino-review whose stories are 50% click bait, 49% wild speculation, 1% lucky guesses and yet all anyone ever remembers or focuses on is that one percent

  • Citizen Emperor

    Best “Origin Story” in a superhero film? THE PHANTOM (1996). Yeah, it’s not a great movie, but the entire origin of the character is handled in less than 4 minutes flat. Then, on with the show!

  • MichaelANovelli

    I think the best solution would be to do like the Ninja Turtles always do: wait until there’s a lull in the second act, and then give a very brief overview. :)

  • Ridd

    “the upcoming Doctor Strange starring Benedict Cumberbatch won’t be an origin story”
    LAAAAAAME! Doctor Strange has a great origin story and I would have loved to see it in a live action film.

  • AndyK

    I think some characters’ origin stories, mainly the better known ones, are better exposited with a short flashback, of 5-10 minutes, 15 tops (even though I also think no one seems to make flashbacks anymore). I suppose that’s a good way to explain the character’s motivation while already having given the spectator a piece of the action.
    Either way, it’s that or a plodding bore like Ang Lee’s Hulk.