Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thinking: Bored of Origin Stories?

I've not seen a superhero movie this summer. How is that even possible? I mean, there is so many of them, it must be some sort of compulsary act to keep my “geek license” in good order. But I haven’t, and more strangely, I don’t really want to. In fact, when I last got the opportunity to go to the movies I went to see Bridesmaids over Green Lantern or X-men: First Class. It’s been something I've not been too sure how to process, but here goes anyway….
Bitten by a Radioactive Glowfly
So, I've watched the trailers, eaten up the pre-release titbits from Comic-Con panels, internet “leaks” and widely distributed interviews across all sorts of media. I've seen re-tweeted hints, grainy set photos, read casting debates, costuming changes, the whole works. And at the heart of it, I think what gets me down is that it’s all the same. It’s the origin story; the franchise launch. After all these years we’re still making bloody Superman. What’s worse is that many of the sequels are still Superman II

That sounds harsh but let’s look at it in a bit more detail. This year we have franchise starters The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America and backdoor reboot X-Men: First Class. All origin stories. Next year we have The Avengers, which isn’t, but I bet spends a lot of time “getting the band together”, and Chris Nolan’s returning BatFranchise, which is a ray of hope tempered by the fear that it’ll be rebooted again once  the current creative team leaves. Also in the works a Spiderman Reboot and a Superman Reboot, and even a Daredevil reboot, god help us. All appear to be starting with, you guessed it, origin stories. No wonder I can’t muster any excitement at seeing some pretty-boy actor gasp in wonderment at whatever new power he has just discovered from being bitten by a radioactive-mutant-krytonian-power-ring again, before facing off with the villain in order to learn the true meaning of what it is to be a hero. 

I understand the desire to start franchises and the desire to make those franchises accessible to a wider audience. It’s a sad fact that comic book sales are declining across the board and many of those that queue up to be overcharged for their 3d glasses may never have owned a single comic issue, never mind be equipped to engage in long arguments about the twisty continuity of any given superhero. But really, it’s not that complex. Most superheroes have fairly straightforward powers and fairly straightforward personalities. The basics of superheroes are pretty ingrained into pop culture these days even if the specifics elude people. It doesn’t take two hours to explain it, to be honest, you can just cut to the chase and your audience will catch up.
Gained Powers from watching 'Red Dawn'

Unless…unless there is a fear that the origin story is the only superhero story worth telling.  That wish-fulfilment is at the heart of the genre and acting that out is such a fundamental part of it that anything else is too hard. The Dark Knight may want to prove you wrong but part of the reason behind the huge glut of supermovies is that the Hollywood of today is a hugely risk-adverse enterprise when it’s spending a couple of hundred million dollars on a blockbuster and there is a proven audience for seeing SuperAntics on the big screen and a story formula is proven to work. Chris Nolan’s dark and complex BatMovies are a trailblazer for re-launching a franchise – reboot, origin story, etc, but where Batman Begins takes care to be thematically and structurally interesting in its own right, the more traditionally 4-colour Spiderman seems the more influential on the how of the current crop, and you see its narrative beats repeated again and again. 

Of course, Origin stories can be great. I loved Iron Man to bits, for example. I've heard good things about many of the films I already listed from people I trust and I have no reason to doubt. But what I haven’t heard is “original” or “different”. I guess this is partly compounded by the fact that diminishing returns seem to kick in very quickly once you get away from the origins; I mentioned Superman II as a clear sequel template and it’s “keep the old villain, add a new one, give hero crisis of confidence” arc can be seen in sequels across the board and whilst often you end up with better films like Spiderman II, X-Men II or yes, The Dark Knight, you also start to get the clutter that usually comes with the third films starting early. Yes, I am looking at you, Iron Man II. And y’know, the less said about third films in these series the better. I think we’d all be happier pretending most of them didn’t exist. And the curious case of Superman Returns, (which I actually quite enjoyed, for all it became fashionable to take a pop at it) highlights the problems with resurrecting a franchise with a sort-of-is, sort-of-isn’t continuation. 

Childhood Spent Mastering the Skills of the Rodeo
But to move on, what’s the solution? After all, pick up a comic off the shelves and you are likely to find yourself in the midst of some ultra-complex continuity, which is the sort of thing that makes DC reboot itself back to “comfort zone” set-ups every few years and is of course at the heart of every geeky pub argument ever. I talked recently about Fantasy putting up barriers for entry but pick up a comic in the midst of FlashPoint, or Civil War and I you’d be lost pretty quickly. Of course these stories can be fun in their own way but I suspect that putting them up on the screen in a two-hour blockbuster would be … a challenge. At least it would be different, mind, so I’d probably go to see it. 

I find myself drawn to successful reboots that don’t use the origin story as perhaps a way forward. James Bond springs to mind – sure, Casino Royale eventually got around to it but each new Bond has essentially been a reboot, albeit some more successful than others. General expectation of what is in a Bond film isn’t that different from a supers movie and I’d point to Goldeneye as my example of choice; totally recognisable as to what it is with a minimum of explaining or setup. Hell the “end of previous mission” opening that is traditional to Bond flicks seems purpose built for a compressed introduction to a superhero and his powers, to the degree that both the Jokers and Batman’s introduction to The Dark Knight seem to follow that broad format (and you only have to watch the end of Inception to know Chris Nolan is a fan of Bond flicks)

Everyone who’s ever loved a comic book wants to see these stories on screen, and much of what you love about these characters is who they are, deep down. And perhaps the easiest way to show this is that journey from “Normal” to “Super” – but ultimately it is rarely that journey that defines them. More often it’s the conflicts, both internal and external, that come from those powers, and the situations they find themselves in that are more interesting vehicles for storytelling. Seeing the same beats of that rise to power over and over on the big screen is getting less and less interesting, especially as commercial success isn’t especially related to the actual quality of the film, so many of these will heroes get just one shot at their moment up on the billboards, and it’s a shame – a failure of creativity at a crucial moment – that they are stuck following the same script.