So now that Christopher Nolan’s operatic Batman saga has wrapped up with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES… it only makes me wonder, “How soon will it be before Warner Brothers decides to reboot the franchise (again) with a new creative team?”
I was just musing about how to restart the Batman franchise with my brothers the other day; why not start the film off with Batman already operating in Gotham (like in THE DARK KNIGHT) and then get real clever and have The Riddler – yes, the Riddler – be the villain in the proposed new Batman film; only play Edward Nigma like Jigsaw from the SAW franchise… ah, ah — that’s a way to make the pseudo-serious villain compelling, dynamic, not to mention fear-inducing… you heard in here first!
My main thing though is — I would NOT under any circumstances retell Batman’s origin.
It didn’t take Sony long to reboot Spiderman with the new “THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN”, and I’ve heard that 20th Century Fox is rebooting Fantastic Four and Daredevil after about 8 years and Warners is in the middle of rebooting Superman (with Nolan producing and providing creative caretaking over a storytelling-deprived director)… as a life-long comic fan, I’m cringing at these new versions of the modern myths from my childhood and teenage formative years, why? Because under no circumstances will any of the new films avoid the boring, clichéd and yawn-inducing origin story of the character.
As much as I liked the latest Spiderman film, I was exhausted by the end because the filmmakers had wasted my time (and yours too) by retelling Spiderman’s origin. Spiderman, like Batman & Superman, is a 40+ year old pop culture icon, and I wager that you’d be hard pressed to find people who did not know Spiderman’s origin (the radioactive spider bite and the death of Uncle Ben as the story catalysts), that Superman is the last son of Krypton (and that Kryptonite is his primary weakness) or that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered when he was boy – comic fans or not – so why the need for the retread?
We don’t learn much new and exciting in any of these retellings; it’s like dutifully showing us in 10 to 15 minute preamble in every WWII film that Hitler started the war in 1939 by invading Poland after building up his armies for the previous four years and that the other European powers just sat on their hands while he did so. Or we have to see that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor to suck the USA into the conflict. We KNOW these facts… it doesn’t add anything to a WWII’s films story (unless that IS the story). I didn’t see the rehash in RED TAILS (the most recent WWII film), did you?
Let me ask you this question (cribbed from Image Comics), dear reader, what was your comics gateway drug? What comic book was mainlined into your system, so that you were quickly transformed into a sequential art addict?
For me, it was Fantastic Four #259 – which was the penultimate issue in a massive, cosmic storyline (didn’t know this at the time) that John Byrne (didn’t know who he was at the time) was writing and illustrating in which Doctor Doom had stolen the Silver Surfer’s power and was battling Terrax The Tamer who was a fallen Herald of Galactus. Mind you, I had no FUCKING idea who any of these people were – Doctor Doom, he was just a bad ass ‘cause of the way he talked and his armor, the Surfer and Terrax? They looked cool, but I didn’t know anything about them – they both were powered by the “Power Cosmic”, and guess what? That was dope enough for me! Also, who or what was Galactus? To top it off, I was kind of confused by the Fantastic Four too, because their uniforms where Navy blue and white (not the traditional Blue and black that I remembered from some cartoons), so I didn’t know if it was really them.
When I read the last few pages where Terrax and the Surfer – burning white hot with the Power Cosmic – smashed into an immobile Doctor Doom (his armor was short-circuited) and the result was a panel-busting explosion that (seemingly) spelled the end of Doom, I was stunned. I wanted to more! I remember Doom from after school repeats of 1960s Marvel cartoons, and now he was dead? And the cover of the next issue had Sue Storm, flanked by Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm, reaching for a demolished Doctor Doom mask!?!?!
Shit, I was hooked… for life.
But notice… no origin for ANYBODY to get me hooked. Nothing about how and why Doctor Doom was the Fantastic Four’s main nemesis (especially his rivalry with Reed Richards); nothing about how Norin Radd sacrificed himself to become the Silver Surfer so his planet wouldn’t get consumed by Galactus, and nothing on how Terrax (nee Tyros) made the same sacrifice (or that there were a series of Heralds of Galactus all-powered by the Power Cosmic and who eventually rebelled). No explanation about the odd coloring of the FF’s uniforms (a result of an regulated forced trip back from the Negative Zone, which I found out after getting back issues going back at least a year). And Byrne didn’t let up, the next couple of issues quickly rolled into a story where Sue Storm was corrupted in an S&M-themed villain named Malice by …
Over the course of a year of reading a title, the basics of the FF’s origin was explained and then there was PART of an issue that went into greater detail. However, the gripping thing about comic book heroes is WHAT THEY ARE DOING NOW AS THE HERO, not how they became the hero.
As a kid, the only origin stories that were of any true interest to me were the ones that played with mystery and embraced obfuscating flashes of details (like this moment in an X-Men comic when Mystique/Raven made a passing comment to Nightcrawler about his mother, my imagination ran wild… and I never did find out what that was) – that was part of the fun of readings comics and their inherent serialized nature.
Origin stories of heroes, at their best, are glossed over and told over only a few pages (maybe 10 – 12 panels of story). The first origin story that I remember that took entirely too fucking long to tell was Wolverine’s partial origin in Marvel Comics Presents: Weapon X. It was ultimately a disappointment because after like 15 years or so of drips and drabs of Wolverine’s origin, this multi-part story asked more questions than it answered. Adding to the disappointment was that Chris Claremont (the preeminent X-Men scribe during the books heyday) wasn’t involved in that origin or any of the subsequent so-called origins of Wolverine, and I kinda sorta felt Claremont had the best grip on what the origin was and perhaps even had story notes on it that he was slowly slipping out as he wrote X-Men for over 10 years.
Over mimosas the other day, my friend was telling me that audiences love origin stories in superhero movies, because they can thoroughly identify with the plight of “what would it be like to gain ‘powers’” – I think this is a crock of shit, because we seek to identify with the character regardless… during a time of crisis.
Let’s take a look at how “super” heroes are introduced in ANY movie outside of the superhero/comic book movie. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, for example, the opening of that crackerjack film introduces us to a new “superhero” – Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, and it categorically DID NOT bog us down with an unwieldy first act that was his origin. Interestingly enough and extraordinarily savvy Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman gave us just enough origin material in the opening mini-movie that kept us satisfied, yet hungry for the adventure. In fact, we don’t even learn Indiana’s real first name until the THIRD FILM!
What about John McClane from the DIE HARD movies? We don’t learn why he became a cop or why his marriage really fell apart or why Hans Gruber decided to become a terrorist or how he gathered his team of international criminals? And lacking this knowledge doesn’t hamper our ability to enjoy the juicy part of the film or the character’s journey.
And James Bond is perhaps the greatest of all cinematic superheroes, and we know practically NOTHING about his origin! Or the villains!
Yet, I predict that every major costumed superhero film is obligated to tell the origin… Look, it wasn’t bad in Iron Man (in fact, quite good), because Iron Man isn’t a pop icon (at least he wasn’t at the time!), so yeah, tell us about Tony Stark and his world, his dad and Stark Enterprises… but I’m not so sure we need Captain America’s origin. We didn’t get Thor’s origin, did we?
Screenwriting instructors beg their students not to use flashbacks, because they’re just telling exposition and the story is going sideways not forward (not in all cases, like in SUNSET BLVD, for example), but origin stories are flashbacks that happen to begin the film. We can get invested in the hero without the origin… it’s done all the time.
It’s called characterization.
But perhaps it is a risky proposition to ask the audience to have to imagine things that they’re not show… and that’s a risk that no media company is willing to take when a franchise is at stake. Gotta sell the toys, the Happy Meals and the 7-Eleven Slurpee tie-ins cups.