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.
We're <10 years away from a Spider-Man movie that reboots itself during the movie.
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) February 10, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.