Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Starting from Scratch

I had the chance to go see The Avengers this weekend as it came back into theaters. I haven't, yet, for no real reason other than my annual quota of one summer movie was taken up with Pixar's Brave. I ended up not going to see The Avengers, still, in part because of where it was showing in my home town, and in part because today was really the only convenient day I had to go see it.

And instead I went to the library. Which is not quite as geeky as it sounds, given that I had books that were due, and where the library is versus where the theater is in relation to where I work. Also, the books were the ones I read to my eight-year-old, so this was much less of a contest than it may sound at first.

All of the superhero films coming out this summer got me thinking: is it really necessary to revisit the origin story of a superhero every time the franchise gets rebooted? I realize it's not a novel idea, yet as I am a bit of a comics geek I figure I ought to be able to throw my two cents in.

For starters, I can think of at least two .... okay, one and a half superhero movies that did not feel the need to spend the bulk of two hours telling the story of how the hero came to be. One of those was a decidedly non-superhero film that only tangentially could be put into that genre, so it's probably out. The other featured a brief backstory flashback that lasted about fifteen minutes. And having typed this, I thought of one more that fits that description. So two and a half. Out of a lot over the past few years.

For the most part, these origin stories seem completely unnecessary. Batman Begins is perhaps the exception because it trod over mostly newish ground, in a way that hadn't been done before on film. but Spider-Man? I question not only the more recent version, but the former version from several years ago. Is there anyone out there, anyone at all, who would see this movie and not know Spider-man's basic backstory?

Or Superman's? Or, yes, Batman's? Does anyone out there at all not know the basic origin story?

Let's face it, these origin films are mainly about establishing character for "new" fans. But if you aren't into comics, what's the draw then? Star power? Possibly. But if that's the case, do you still need to retread familiar ground? Women are often cited as the demographic that is brought in by focusing on "character aspects" - i.e. the hero's tortured beginning and what not. I'm not a woman, but I have to say, if I wasn't a Green Lantern fan, then I'm probably going for Ryan Reynolds, and anything beyond that is just extra padding.

Green Lantern was an especially egregious example of an unnecessary origin story. It wasn't all that important, and slowed the film down. That is a cardinal sin, because amid all the tights and capes and powers, superheroes are supposed to be escapist fantasy and above all fun. Fail in that, and no one wants to read/watch them. (Look at all the failed titles from the "Dark Age" of comics in the 1990's.)

There is a long literary tradition of starting things in media res. (That's your Latin for the day.) Superhero movies could learn from this. Just jump in, in the middle of the car chase or some other action bit. Hook the audience, and then how he got the powers or what deep dark angst he's harboring inside won't really matter.

These are already established characters anyway, for the most part, so there really isn't a need to build the backstory. Look at James Bond. James Bond does not get an origin story; James Bond does not need an origin story. (Casino Royale does not count, and if you think it does, answer me this: what do we know about his personal life? Yeah, that's right: zilch. He just is Bond. After shooting that guy behind the desk, of course.)

Neither do established superheroes.

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