clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Superhero movie origin stories aren't played out — they're the best thing about the genre

Stop the hate

According to popular wisdom, superhero origin stories are either bad or boring, to the point that calling a movie an ‘origin story' has become the kind of throwaway criticism that requires no additional justification.

I think that's total bullshit.

The moment when a superhero first becomes aware of their powers encapsulates everything I love about superheroes in the first place. That moment of discovery hints at much greater possibilities, and the expanding scope makes it easier to buy into the hope and optimism that superheroes are supposed to inspire.

That's why the origin story is the ideal format for the superhero genre. The excellent Doctor Strange is merely the latest example, demonstrating that origin stories can still be both original and entertaining.

So why has hating origin stories become so popular? To an extent, I understand the fatigue. Batman and Spider-Man get a new origin story every time the role gets recast, and a lot of origin stories hit the same narrative beats. There's been a glut as more and more comic book characters have made the leap to the big screen, and it often feels like we've seen it before because in many cases we have.


However, I'd argue that origin stories that feel redundant are failing in their intended purpose. Green Lantern and Fantastic Four are poorly made movies that would be terrible by any metric. The fact that they also happen to be origin stories is largely incidental.

Ideally, origin stories should show us something we've never seen before. The extent to which they succeed depends on their ability to make the impossible seem plausible. That's the critical flaw in many of the lesser origin stories of the past few years. Despite a brief interlude on Oa, Green Lantern was set primarily on Earth and Hal Jordan never used his ring for anything more interesting than a machine gun. In The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker tests his superpowers with a skateboarding montage. There's no creativity, nothing that suggests that having superpowers has changed the way the protagonists think about the world.

On that front, Doctor Strange is exceptional. The movie introduces the concept of magic to the Marvel Universe, which in turn gives Director Scott Derrickson freedom to create visuals that break all laws of conventional physics. The opening fight scene between the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen) is simply spectacular, a kaleidoscopic blur in which buildings fold in on one another and weapons are conjured from midair. It immediately forces us to throw away all of our assumptions about what is and is not possible in the Marvel Universe, which is no small feat for a series that has already been to outer space and given us mystical Norse alien gods.

The origin story is the ideal format for the superhero genre

The protagonist is able to walk us through that mind-altering shift in perspective. We get to live vicariously through Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), sharing in his awe when the Ancient One blasts his astral form from his body. His reaction gives greater significance to the multiverse. When he begins to study time, we revel in his progress because it means we'll get to see more secrets, and there's a real sense of joy that comes from those revelations.

In the case of Doctor Strange, the visual splendor also complements the narrative because it parallels Stephen Strange's deconstruction of his former worldview. Superheroes are not subtle with their metaphors, and an origin story is as much about a character's thematic motivation as it is a vehicle for special effects. Like Spider-Man's mantra about power and responsibility (which The Amazing Spider-Man oddly repudiated with its final line), superheroes are supposed to stand for something. An origin story is the purest distillation of a superhero's mission statement, introducing a character and then telling us why they fight.

When done well, that journey is inspiring because it shows how an ordinary person becomes exceptional and makes the decision to be better. 

It suggests that certain values are worth defending because our champions - the fictional characters that represent the best of us - make a public commitment to those ideals, and we can aspire to live up to that example.

The key is that that does not mean the hero has to be perfect. The protagonist usually has to learn the same lesson as the audience, and that process provides a strong framework for a story and gives the theme more resonance.

That's what makes Doctor Strange so satisfying. On the surface, Doctor Strange is a lot like Iron Man, and the two characters go through similar arcs. Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange is brilliant but arrogant, and while he is in the business of saving lives, he doesn't have much in the way of compassion. Stephen Strange is selfish, protecting his reputation at the expense of patients in need of his assistance.

The same is not true at the end of the movie, when Doctor Strange displays a willingness to (repeatedly and comically) sacrifice himself in order to protect the Earth. He first pursues the mystic arts for personal ends, but eventually comes to realize that he cannot stand apart from the rest of humanity.

Doctor Strange

His initial goal is to help people and be praised for it. Though he lives a cloistered existence, first in his lavish New York penthouse and then in Kamar-Taj, he's a better medical professional and Sorcerer Supreme when he's able to set aside the self-interest. His growth mirrors the selfless changes that we wish we could make in ourselves.

Of course, there is a real element of fatigue, and I don't necessarily think the origin story should be the default now that the concept of the superhero is so well established. With Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War demonstrated that it's possible to introduce a new character without a full-fledged origin story, while the origin stories for characters like Batman have unquestionably been overdone. As with anything else, studios and directors need to figure out whether or not an origin story is appropriate for the movie they want to make.

Even so, origin stories are often worth telling in their own right. The fundamental narrative arc is about the main character's exploration of who they are and who they want to be. The origin story is therefore an effective way to usher in new concepts because we're able to discover them alongside the main character, and that feeling of wonder is one of the things that brings people to the movies.

That's why I'll continue to look forward to movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel in the future. I want to believe in superheroes, and Doctor Strange is a good reminder that there are still fresh origin stories waiting to be told.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.