I have to get something off my chest. It’s been bothering me for several years now, and it’s only gotten worse as I focus more and more on writing. As a lifelong reader of comic books and an avid watcher of comic book movies, it’s a problem that I encounter often, and one that I generally overlook in favor of just trying to enjoy a story. However, I’m done; I can’t hold back anymore. Here goes:
I hate origin stories.
There, I said it.
I understand that, particularly in comics and comic-related media, an origin story is usually a necessary component. People generally want to know how a particular superhero gained their superpowers. Most readers and viewers prefer the stories they engage in to have a beginning; it’s not exactly out of the ordinary. And don’t get me wrong—I’m all for beginnings. I’m just not a fan of every single detail being explained to death, laid out neatly in tight little rows so that everyone understands exactly what the character’s motivation is. You know, since life is exactly like that. I know that every personality quirk I possess stems from some kind of external trauma I endured at some point in my past—more than likely in washed-out color tones and set to at least semi-ominous music.
Let’s go to a recent example. Back in September, writer David Goyer stated during the BAFTA and BFI Screenwriter’s Lecture that he felt it was necessary in the latest Superman film, Man of Steel, to include some kind of traumatic event thatwould influence Superman’s decision to never take a life. Mr. Goyer stated that the fan’s idea of a non-killing Superman existed “outside the narrative” of the story, and he refused to accept that. He refused to accept that a hero would make the decision to abstain from murder on his own; there had to be a reason why he chose not to kill—and it had to be a reason presented in the narrative of the movie.
Let me repeat that:
Goyer had to create a reason. For the good guy. To *not* kill people.
Really? Was that really necessary?
I mean, *I* don’t want to kill people. And it’s not because of some crazy, out-of-control situation where I was ***SPOILER ALERT*** indirectly responsible for thousands of people dying and directly responsible for the death of one of the last members of my race. ***END SPOILER*** It’s simply because I’m not a sociopath, and because I was raised by decent people who taught me the value of human (and other) life. You know, kind of like Clark Kent. Did Goyer really think that in all those heart-to-hearts with Ma and Pa Kent that the sanctity of life wasn’t covered? The man grew up on a farm, for the love of Krypton—he wasn’t raised by assassins or terrorists or psychopaths. He was a country boy, through and through. That’s one particular life lesson that probably wasn’t all that necessary to explain on screen—especially in such spectacularly outrageous fashion.
Then again, if it wasn’t for all the destruction, Laurence Fishburne would have had absolutely nothing to do in that movie. But I digress.
Aside from Superman, the two most famous origin stories in comics are Batman and Spider-Man. Ask anyone on the street, and they can probably give you at least a semi-accurate background for both characters. Batman became Batman because his affluent parents were murdered in front of his eyes in an alley by a mugger. Spider-Man became Spider-Man because he was bitten by a radioactive spider; he later became a hero because his uncle was killed by a car-jacking thief—one whom he had failed to stop earlier that day. “With great power comes great responsibility” . . . you know the drill. Everyone knows these stories. Yet, for some reason, Hollywood feels the need to tell them over and over again.
Take The Amazing Spider-Man, for instance. Though it came out just five years after Sam Raimi unexpectedly wrapped up his Spider-Man trilogy, the filmmakers felt the need to retell how Spider-Man got his powers. A few things changed here and there, but it was basically the same story. Just switch organic web shooters for mechanical ones, Tobey Maguire for Andrew Garfield, and the Green Goblin for the Lizard. Add in some bits about Peter’s parents and, voila, you have a reboot.
Speaking of reboots, you can’t talk about them without mentioning Batman Begins. Arguably the most successful movie reboot, well, pretty much ever, this one took over two hours to tell the origin of Batman. It showed the seeds being sown in Crime Alley with his parents’ murder. It showed him training in a foreign land where his stature and status were unknown. It showed him assembling the Batsuit and the beginnings of the Batcave. And it showed that comic book movies could be taken more seriously. But I have to admit, Batman Begins is my least favorite of the Dark Knight Trilogy, and I feel that a large part of that is due to its emphasis on the origin story. Don’t get me wrong; I love the movie. But it’s definitely the one I’ve rewatched the least. My favorite part? The ending on the rooftop. It felt like that was when the story really started going. Bruce was finally Batman, and everything was about to change.
Which takes us to The Dark Knight, and its perfect treatment of the Joker. It would have been easy to give the Joker some kind of traumatic past, something to connect him to the audience and maybe even put us in his mind for a few fleeting seconds. But the filmmakers chose not to. Instead, they treated the Joker as an absolute—as something that just is. He was a natural disaster, an act of God, an external event that could only be reacted to and never fully understood. Maybe he was beaten and traumatized by his father. Maybe the mob cut up his wife’s face and he did a little self-mutilation out of pity. Maybe it doesn’t matter what made him the monster he became, because the monster is what in front of you, and knowing what created it isn’t going to do you a damn bit of good.
In my own writing, I tend to avoid origin stories. For One Less Hero, none of the supervillains are going to have their backstories sufficiently explored. Sure, there are definitely references here and there—puzzle pieces for the reader to put together—but I’m avoiding an outright origin story chapter for any of them. They’re just not fun to write, and I don’t feel like they’re super fun to read, either. Most of the time, I feel like the reader is usually saying, Just get on with it—get to the good stuff. And that’s what I’m trying to do. Continuing the Batman thread, it’s more like Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989; that film told a modern story while weaving elements of Batman’s origin throughout. In my opinion, that part of it was perfectly done. Of course, I have plenty of other issues with the movie, but that’s another story.
Aside from One Less Hero, I generally don’t like to dive too deep into a character’s background in the narrative of a story. Of course, every character I create has a background—one that I become intimately familiar with before I ever set a word to page. After that, the details end up being sprinkled throughout the story rather than dragging it down with a massive info dump at the beginning. I simply write as if anyone reading already knows what I know about the character. And, in that way, they will.
I realize that origin stories will always be around. But that doesn’t mean I have to find them interesting. Because, you know, some things just are; there isn’t always a reason for every little thing. And I wish the storytellers could handle that.
One more thing—Superman doesn’t kill. And it’s not because he was forced to kill and he didn’t like how it made him feel. It’s because he was raised by parents who didn’t suck and taught him that murder isn’t cool. It’s because, despite his alien origin, he’s a decent human being (or close enough, anyway) who understands right from wrong. And it’s because, yes, he understands that with great power comes great responsibility.
You know, I’m surprised we haven’t learned where Uncle Ben got that gem, come to think of it. Oh well—there’s always The Amazing Spider-Man 2.