Super-hero movies are the golden boys of Hollywood these days, but success breeds contempt as fans struggle with just what it is that makes a “good super-hero movie.” Again and again we hear, “origin movies are cliché,” “don’t make origin films,” “long drawn-out origins are boring.”
The evidence, however, does not bear this out. What’s more, the origin of the hero is an essential part of just what makes a hero epic. Without an origin a story is just a day-in-the-life, but with an origin it becomes mythic.
From a purely commercial point of view, the most successful super-hero movies have been those with clear origin arcs (Batman Begins, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Superman) or sequels to those movies. From an academic point of view, there’s really no other way to tell a hero’s story.
Otto Rank said the hero is born of distinguished parents who had some previous difficulty when a prophecy threatens the father, forcing the baby to be given away to chance where it is raised by peasants. Joseph Campbell made a point of acknowledging the miraculous nature of the hero’s conception or childhood survival against all odds. Lord Raglan stated it more plainly, the hero is born from a royal virgin and a king descended from gods, only to have his life threatened as a baby and be raised far away by foster parents.
Now, taking all those theoretical views in, take a look at the most popular super-heroes (and the popular movies based on their origins).
Superman was the child of the greatest scientists on a doomed world, raised by kindly farmers in safety.
Batman was the child of one of the nation’s wealthiest families, miraculously surviving a tragedy to be raised by a servant.
Spider-Man was the child of expert spies (not revealed in the movies, but covered in the comics) who was raised by his kindly aunt and uncle.
Iron Man was the child of privilege, left to his own devices after his parents’ deaths and forced to become his own man.
Hellboy was the child of Hell raised by a quiet bookworm in a secret laboratory.
The list goes on.
Even for heroes who don’t fit the pattern so perfectly, when attention is paid to the archetypal nature of the hero, an epic story emerges.
Campbell and Vladimir Propp describe a magical helper or donor who comes to the aid of the young hero after a family member is lost, bringing a powerful weapon or skill before sending the hero into the lion’s den, the whale’s belly, the heart of danger. Rank said the hero had to gain revenge on (or avenge) his father to become a hero.
Batman was trained by the world’s greatest thieves, magicians and assassins, but was forced to face down his predecessor (especially in Batman Begins) to become a true hero.
Spider-Man gained advice from his ill-fated uncle before gaining radioactive powers. Green Goblin fancied himself a father-figure, and naturally, Spider-Man had to take him down.
The Hulk got advice, wanted or not, from Gen. Ross, and after gaining powers in an accident, he would have to face his future father-in-law in battle time and again.
Spawn was given “gifts” from a lord of Hell, then made it his mission to take the demon down.
The list goes on.
That makes an origin important from a story-telling point of view, but what about a money-making one?
Let’s be honest, as comic book geeks, we know these origins by heart and we don’t need to see them again and again – but what about the general audience?
How relatable is a man in an iron suit if he had it from the get-go? The audience needs that grounded, human, familiar element to relate to a new concept. Hellboy was a marginal hit (made more significant with its smaller budget), but how easy could it have been to understand if the young Hellbaby hadn’t been established first?
This is why the Thor movie, so promising with its Shakespearean director, high-caliber (but not high-profile) actors and tested producers, seems so worrying. Thor will apparently have no human side. As a comic book fan, that makes sense, but as a movie-goer it leaves one to wonder – if the hero is an invulnerable god, what is there to relate to?
Don’t ignore origin stories, but embrace them.
Origins can be done wrong. Ghost Rider picked all the wrong elements, Daredevil glossed over the early set-backs and Fantastic Four – well, that movie was just bad.