this space intentionally left blank

July 27, 2011

Filed under: culture»pop»comics

Original Recipe

It's a big year for superhero movies. I wouldn't say it's a good year, but it's certainly been very big, and for better or worse there's more on the way. And you know what that means: origin stories for everybody!

The origin story seemingly defines the comic book flick, for reasons I simply can't understand. The assumption seems to be that the most interesting thing about the title character is "how they got superpowers." This despite the fact that most superhero backstories are either silly or tedious, falling into two main categories: it's either Dude Invents Gadgets or Dude Is Given Power Through Unlikely Means (only men get origin stories in the movies, possibly because women superheros are relegated to supporting members of ensemble casts in the X-Men series). And then comes the training montage! Whee.

Here's the mindboggling part: the second movie in every superhero franchise is almost always the best one, precisely because it doesn't have the baggage of the origin story dragging it down. The sequel can ask the interesting questions raised by the premise (both general--what do I do with this power?--and specific--what do I do with this power?). Meanwhile, viewers who skip the first movie in a franchise aren't going to miss anything important that can't be recapped in a few lines of dialog anyway.

Spiderman 2 had a chance to engage with Peter Parker's double life because it didn't have to waste time on spider-bites and pro wrestling. The Dark Knight could explore the implications of vigilantism because it skipped an hour and a half of inserting bat-tab A into bat-slot B. The second X-Men movie is generally considered the best of the three--maybe because it could jump straight to a team dynamic instead of being Wolverine Tours The X-Mansion.

The exception that proves the rule, of course, is the Iron Man franchise, mainly because watching Robert Downey Jr. goof around for a couple of hours (the first film) is infinitely more fun than watching computer-animated Iron Man suits beat each other up (the second).

But the origin story is so entrenched at this point that it's become part of the money-making strategy: the Marvel movies are all origin stories for themselves, but they're also extended prequels to the inevitable Avengers team movie (which, let's be honest here, is going to be terrible). Spiderman is being rebooted, not because there was anything wrong with Raimi's version, but because it has to be integrated into the marketing plan (Peter Parker's parents are now SHIELD agents, a twist which adds absolutely nothing to the character). We'll get to watch the same movie for 80% of its running time, but with the kid from The Social Network in the starring role, and in over-priced 3D.

No-one will ever let me make a comic book movie, since I'd probably turn the whole thing into a sprawling experiment in genre deconstruction, ending with the heroes buried under criminal charges. But if I somehow found myself at the helm of, say, the Authority movie, I'd start in media res and take the first left turn I could find, because origin stories are boring and they're lazy. They presume that the audience A) needs the premise and character relationships explained slowly to them, and B) cares more about comic continuity than any sane person actually could. Why show, these movies ask, when you can tell in excruciating detail?

Yet there's a reason that the best parts of X-Men: First Class are the scenes where Magneto systematically chases down the Nazis that killed his family, so much so that everyone leaves the theater wishing that the movie had actually been two hours of Magneto: Suave Nazi Hunter. Nobody cares where a superhero comes from. We care what the character does with that power. That's the misunderstood genius of Spiderman's mission statement: the drama isn't in the "great power," it's in the "great responsibility." If only superhero flicks tried to live up to that, every once in a while. They'd still mostly be horrible, probably, but they'd fail in more interesting ways.

Future - Present - Past