For the last decade or so, origin stories have been all the rage in the film industry. Especially in the superhero genre we have seen a seemingly endless stream of origin stories and reboots over the last few years, and lately audiences have even begun to tire of the formula.
But something has been happening as these franchises develop, something which may never have been planned but which is becoming a well-established pattern: these origin stories eventually become trilogies, and these trilogies have begun to conform to a set structure. In almost every case, each of the three films addresses a specific question confronting the hero, and by the end of the trilogy the hero has answered all three and completely established themselves as a force within their world.
I have presented these three phases, a structural analysis of my own design, below, complete with in-depth examples from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, as well as supporting examples from the Iron Man Trilogy, the Matrix Trilogy, and the original Star Wars Trilogy. Check them out, and share your thoughts, comments, and questions in the comments below!
Phase 1 – Can You Do It?
Batman Begins, Iron Man, The Matrix, Star Wars Episode IV
The first installment is, as one might expect from an origin story, about how the hero first begins their journey. After a tragedy the sends them off on their quest, the story rapidly becomes focused on whether the protagonist is capable of becoming a hero at all. Oftentimes the villain has a significantly smaller role in the first film of a trilogy: their plans are usually underway before they hero arrives, but they may not even appear onscreen until relatively late in the film. Unlike the second and third installments, the first phase of the Origin Trilogy is about establishing the hero, not defeating a villain. The protagonist gathers their resources, trains under a mentor, organizes their operation, and does anything else necessary to become a newly-established hero.
In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne begins the process of becoming Batman. Much of the story is dedicated to accomplishing the prerequisites involved, such as making his suit, building the Batcave, turning the Tumbler in the Batmobile, making contact with Commissioner Gordon, etc. There is a villain to defeat, but he is largely incidental: had Scarecrow been replaced by the Riddler or the Penguin or Killer Croc, the story wouldn’t change too much. The main thrust of the story is Bruce Wayne trying, and eventually succeeding, in becoming Batman.
Similarly, Iron Man is almost entirely the story of Tony Stark becoming Iron Man: after defeating the terrorists in the first act, Tony is without a villain of any kind for much of the film. Long swaths of the film are simply about designing the Iron Man suit, refining different aspects of the design, dealing with the newly-invented arc reactor, and wrestling with whether he is a good enough person to be Iron Man. The Matrix follows the story of Neo becoming the One so exclusively that we never even encounter a single human ship beyond the Nebuchadnezzar, and while Star Wars: A New Hope does feature a major blow against the Empire (i.e. the destruction of the Death Star), there is notably little progress in the war at large. The climax of the story is centered around Luke learning to use the Force: Death Star or no, by the end of the film the Empire is still winning the war. In every instance the focus of the story is on whether the hero is worthy of their chosen title.
By the end of the first phase, the protagonist has embarked upon their journey and established their new heroic identity: they have proven that they are capable of being a hero.
Phase 2 – Do You Want To Do It?
The Dark Knight, Iron Man 2, The Matrix Reloaded, Star Wars Episode V
During the second installment of the Origin Trilogy, the hero is confronted with a crisis of faith. Having proven that they are capable of achieving their goals, they must then face the question of whether they are committed to doing so. Oftentimes this involves the hero meeting their doppelgänger, the person most diametrically opposed to what they are trying to achieve, and this meeting makes the hero question whether their mission is even possible. Whereas the first adventure featured the hero venturing into unknown territory, involving themselves in an unfamiliar conflict and often with little connection to their previous life, here they are forced to defend against an attack on the most precious or vulnerable part of themselves. This causes the hero to consider whether they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve their goals at all, or whether they might have been wrong to make the attempt in the first place.
In The Dark Knight Bruce Wayne has established himself as a successful crime-fighter after the events of the first film, but begins to question his entire mission after meeting the Joker (the personification of chaos) and Two-Face (the personification of random chance). The love of his life is killed, his comrade-in-arms is transformed from savior to monster, and maintaining his secret identity leads the Joker to go on a killing spree: Bruce begins to fear that Batman’s very existence is doing more harm than good, and he seriously considers giving up entirely. “I see now what I would have to become,” the hero says, “to stop men like him.” Having proven that he can be Batman, Bruce must now decide whether he truly wants to be Batman.
Similarly, in Iron Man 2 Tony Stark is confronted by a sickness arising from his own invention, an old enemy from his family’s past, and a rival who wants to use Stark’s own technology against him: each of these obstacles begs the question, “is being Iron Man really worth it?” In The Matrix Reloaded Neo wrestles with the responsibility of being a messiah in the eyes of his people, as well as with the very real possibility that the mission of the One will endanger Trinity’s life: again, the main obstacles are the downsides of being the One. In the final sequence of the film Neo is literally confronted with a choice: continue the fight against the machines and risk everything, or give up and save humanity at the cost of free will. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Luke faces the difficulties of committing to his study of the Force, the capture of his friends, and the horrifying truth of Darth Vader’s identity. In every instance the central question is whether the hero is personally willing to continue their fight, regardless of whatever may try to stop them along the way.
By the end of this phase the hero has re-committed themselves to their cause, banishing any doubt in their own mind or ours that they will see it through to the end. The hero has demonstrated that they are ready and proven that they are willing, all that remains to be seen is whether they will be successful.
Phase 3 – Will They Let You Do It?
The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3, The Matrix Revolutions, Star Wars Episode VI
The third and final installment of the Origin Trilogy pits our hero, who has been proven both capable and determined, against an enemy who is significantly stronger than they are in a final, brutal confrontation. By this point the hero has drawn the attention of the most powerful enemies in the world, and the greatest has come to stop the hero once and for all. Thus the final phase becomes about facing an external threat, with the hero risking defeat even at the height of their abilities.
In The Dark Knight Rises Batman is confronted by the unstoppable Bane, who proceeds to defeat him in combat, in business, and in the eyes of the people. Bruce Wayne is broken in every way possible, and yet he must continue to fight. Unlike the first two films, in which external villains represented internal debates within the hero, in this case the villain represents pure resistance, an overwhelming external force that the hero must overcome.
In Iron Man 3 Tony Stark is confronted by the Mandarin, a globally-powerful terrorist, and Killian’s army of EXTREMIS soldiers, each of whom is more than a match for Iron Man in a fight. In The Matrix Revolutions Neo faces an army of Agent Smiths while Zion stands against an endless swarm of sentinels. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Luke faces both Darth Vader and the Emperor himself, while the Rebellion must commit to a final battle against the Empire and the newly-rebuilt Death Star. In every instance the final battle is against a villain of uncommon intensity, and the hero must use everything they have learned in their journey to overcome the raw power of this villainous juggernaut.
By the end of this third and final installment, the hero is fully and completely established. Sometimes this represents the end of their journey (e.g. The Dark Knight Rises or The Matrix Revolutions) and sometimes it is just the beginning of a long career of heroics (e.g. Iron Man 3 and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi), but in either case there is no doubt about the heroic abilities, nature, and achievements of the protagonist. Even more than at the end of the first adventure, the hero has completed their origin story.
The Origin Trilogy is a powerful tool for writers and storytellers looking to structure their story. Of course no two trilogies are ever exactly the same, but these three questions provide a pattern through which a hero can be developed, and they have proven to be very effective. By following this pattern, Hollywood has begun to establish a super-structure for franchise development, a long-term roadmap for the creation of lasting and powerful heroes. And by analyzing it and understanding it ourselves, we can become better writers and more complex storytellers, as well as more sophisticated viewers.
What do you think? Do these three questions, these three phases, seem like a valuable storytelling framework to you? Or do you think that a trilogy is too large a structure to describe with a single pattern?