What’s So Bad About Origin Story Comic Book Movies?

By  · Published on August 18th, 2014

Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

Not only is Doctor Strange not going to tell us how Stephen Strange became the Sorcerer Supreme, but starting with that movie, Marvel Studios is done with origin stories altogether.

That’s a scoop revealed by Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci while a guest on Meet the Movie Press last week. It’s an unconfirmed piece of information, particularly the broader point about the whole franchise, and of course it doesn’t apply to Ant-Man, which goes into production today, way ahead of the Dr. Strange vehicle. Still, whether true or not, there’s a certain excitement spreading around in fanboy and movie geek circles as a result of the possibility. Origin story movies are apparently a much-hated part of superhero cinema. But why? Because it’s the expected start of any series to set up the character, especially for audiences who aren’t as familiar ahead of time as the geeks are? Too bad, because Hollywood wants to cater to the moviegoers who aren’t also comic book readers, and those moviegoers want to see movies about superheroes, including ones they don’t know a lot about already.

What I find odd about the hate thrown at origin story movies is how many of the best and most popular superhero movies are first installments focused on the beginnings of their respective characters. Look at Superman: The Movie, Iron Man, The Avengers (as a team) and I’ll throw in Unbreakable. Sure, there are a lot of number-twos favorited over their first films, including Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but Spider-Man, Batman Begins and Captain America: The First Agenger are very close to being just as beloved – also those second installments probably wouldn’t have worked so well without there being the origin movie before them. As with most general complaints about movies these days, such as the claim that remakes are a bad idea, there are enough exceptions here as there are reasons for the blanket criticism. Origin stories can seem tired when there are so many superhero movies overall and many of them involve similar foundations, but great films can still be made out of them.

And non-origin story movies can also be disappointments, as we’ve seen with Superman Returns and obviously plenty of bad sequels. I’d throw in X-Men, too, although I’m a rarity in how much I despise that franchise pilot. If Marvel is indeed making a commitment to making non-origin movies, that’s nearly as bad as the generalized criticisms against them. And it’s limiting. Maybe they have another hero or two they want to introduce into their cinematic universe and the best way to tell those characters’ story is to start with their history. Then by all means they should do that, as long as they do it well. For the most part, Marvel hasn’t had any problem with their origin-based movies. The bad apples are Sony with their unnecessary recycling when rebooting Spider-Man and Fox with their mediocre pilot-episode-as-feature-film Fantastic Four as well as X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

One thing I will say for Fox, though, is they got it better with X-Men: First Class, an origin story movie that came well into a superhero franchise. Any series that does kick off without starting at the beginning has a similar opportunity for a prequel down the line, maybe one as clever or nostalgic in its retro, historical fiction approach as that and this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. There’s also room for what Tim Burton’s Batman does in skipping over the hero’s origin story while giving the villain a more developed back story or creation, something that continued with the director’s follow-up, Batman Returns. Or they can just save all that background stuff for a prequel TV series, since those are pretty popular these days, and if Gotham and Agent Carter are hits than we might see even more.

Not every superhero can get away with not having at least some background relayed in their first films. Superman, Batman and Aquaman are big enough pieces of pop culture that it works for them. For the near future, a lot of other characters that might be rebooted also can easily skip the reintroduction formalities. Doctor Strange may be a character who can get by as just existing. I don’t know, because I’m not familiar enough with the character to say for sure. But is Marvel going to entirely avoid origins, whether through flashbacks for brief back stories in prologues and the like? If they can do so without frustrating the masses while seemingly appeasing the in-the-know fans, great. I don’t see how it can be done with just any superhero the studio wants to bring into the fold.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.