If you don’t read Texts From Superheroes, you should – they’re hilarious. Nothing quite like reading Thor trying to text Tony Stark about Halloween. Anyway, their most recent gem is this one:
With the advent of yet another Spider-Man reboot, it seems likely we are going to watch dorky Peter Parker get bitten by yet another radioactive/genetically engineered/alien super-spider and become our friendly neighborhood web-slinger. We’ll probably watch Uncle Ben get gunned down again, too, and hear that lecture about power and responsibility, and everything else. The thing is this: Iron Man is right, nobody cares.
Why does every single superhero movie need to waste a half-hour of our time on an origin story? I mean, sure, if this were the first time we’d ever laid eyes on Superman, we might want to know this guy’s deal, but Supes has been around since 1938 – 1938! We’ve been shown his origin story over and over and over again. If you don’t know he is an orphan of Krypton by now, where have you been?
And even beyond that, do we really need the origin story? Haven’t we come to accept the trope of the superpowered hero enough that, if a guy shows up and starts flying around shooting laser beams from his eyes, we are pretty much okay with it? Surely the origin story isn’t the only dramatic moment of the character’s life and, if it is, what does that really say about this character?
This is one of the reasons, among others, that I love, love, love Pixar’s The Incredibles. We meet Mr. Incredible and Wonder Girl in their prime. We never learn why or how they have powers (it’s implied they were just born with them) and the action of the story is not focused on why or whether they are heroes but, instead, the problems inherent in being heroic and dealing with all the problems related to it. It still ranks, for me, as one of the best superhero films of all time.
Also on that list? The Dark Knight, which also doesn’t waste time with origin stories. In fact, it deliberately thwarts us in our desire to know the Joker’s origin by having him make up stories about it every time he gets a chance. The weakest part of the film, in fact, is the whole Two-Face origin, which seems rushed and poorly explored. We don’t really care that much about that, frankly – we want to see Batman and the Joker, the embodiments of Order and Chaos, fight over the soul of Gotham. What don’t we want to see? Mrs. Wayne’s pearls hitting the sidewalk for the umpteenth time. WE GET IT – BATMAN IS CRAY-CRAY BECAUSE HIS PARENTS DIED! CAN WE MOVE ON NOW?
Now, this doesn’t mean origin stories can’t be done well (they very often have) or that they are bad stories (they very often aren’t), but simply that it seems to be the only thing these movies do. It’s formulaic, predictable, and unnecessary. At the very least they could shake up the formula, you know? Maybe have the origin not be revealed until the very end. Maybe spend the whole movie getting us to think the origin was A when, all along, it was secretly B. Maybe not reveal the origin story until the second movie. I don’t know – just spitballing here.
Why do we focus so much on origins? Well, I think that’s a fairly simple question to answer. Tales of urban fantasy, such as superhero stories, are as much wish-fulfillment as anything. We, the audience, secretly wish for powers we do not possess. The hero, therefore, fulfills some basic need we crave. As teenagers, didn’t we all wish we could go anywhere we wanted, have the power to defeat bullies, know how to avoid danger, and get perfect physiques without the need to exercise constantly? Hell yes! Hence, Spider-man’s origin story strikes a note with the viewer – his transformation is our own. You can apply this to pretty much any superhero ever. Iron Man? Well, we want to be rich and cool and famous but we don’t want to be jerks, too, so we have a guy who is a rich jerk and learns how to help people. Hulk? Who hasn’t wanted to be able to vent their wrath on the world without repercussions and without anybody knowing it was us? Superman? Hell, do I need to explain that one for you? The man can see through walls and fly at hypersonic speeds!
All that said, though, can’t we get away from that little corner of the superhero world for a while? Can’t we get to the middle or end-phases of our hero’s lives more often? There is more to life than just the beginning, and I feel that we often forget that, thanks in large part to the youth-centric aspects of our culture. We are always being told about the new kid at school, the first day on the job, the wedding day, the rookie on the force, and so on and so forth. Let’s grow up a bit, folks. Let’s explore the “after” part of “happily ever after.” As we all know, it isn’t all that happy, after all.