In honor of the Superbowl and the obligatory movie trailers that come with it each year, I’m taking a moment to discuss something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: origin stories. I’m getting really sick of origin stories in superhero movies. I know this is an increasingly common opinion these days, ever since Bryan Singer ushered in the Age of the Superhero with his live-action X-Men movie in 2000, but I’m actually talking about something slightly different.
I’m getting sick of supervillain origin stories.
Superhero movies are getting better and better every year, using their financial power to draw in more and more talent, and ultimately tell deeper and deeper stories. And it’s been happening for a long time now: you can draw a straight line from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Christian Bale to (hopefully) Ben Affleck, and you’ll get a progressively more mature and richly-developed Batman. Sure, you’ll get your George Clooneys along the way, but that’s the cost of doing business. For the most part, superhero stories are becoming increasingly more artful and significant with each new generation.
And lately, there has been a lot of innovation and creative exploration within the genre. This is perhaps most apparent in the DC/Marvel style dichotomy: Christopher Nolan made huge waves with his Dark Knight trilogy, and for a while it seemed like “realistic” superheroes were the only way to go. Even today, a lot of fans use words like “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic” as if they are prerequisites for making a good superhero film. But then Marvel came along and said, “Dark gritty realism? How about a star-spangled supersoldier frozen in a glacier, a Norse god with a magic hammer, and an aircraft carrier that can fly?” And now they’re doubling down with the superhero answer to Honey I Shrunk the Kids and a talking raccoon in space. Joss Whedon even ditched the “realistic” Captain America outfit from the first movie, losing the adjustable red straps and brown leather boots, in favor of what can only be described as a straight-up superhero costume for The Avengers.
Superhero movies vary wildly in tone, style, aesthetic and setting. But one thing has been true ever since Michael Keaton rubbed another man’s rhubarb: a superhero movie is, by definition, the rise and fall of a new villain.
Origin stories or not, superhero movies always follow the same formula: the hero begins hearing whispers of a new enemy, often encounters them in their “non-hero” capacity, has a troubling first encounter with the new villain where they fully recognize the potential threat, then becomes the primary target of the villain’s wrath, growing weaker as the new villain grows stronger, but then ultimately finds the strength to defeat them. Every single Batman movie, X-Men movie, Superman movie, Spider-Man movie, and Marvel movie follows this pattern. Some have more than one villain, some focus more on one aspect of the arc than another, but it’s always the same story: good guy encounters new bad guy, good guy fights bad guy, good guy defeats bad guy.
Every. Single. Time.
It’s a good formula, and it works. I’m not knocking it: the Captain America 2 trailer has been out for an hour and I’ve already watched it a dozen times. But you don’t have to look too long in other mediums to find interesting alternatives, alternatives which the film industry could really benefit from exploring. Read More →