Cracked online has run an article breaking down the 8 Pointless Laws All Comic Book Movies Follow. Much like the old magazine it’s “heh-heh” rather than “haw-haw” funny, and works a little too hard trying to make hard and fast rules that don’t always work, but law #8 is the one that got me thinking:
#8. The First Film Requires a Tedious Origin Story
For some unknown reason, tradition states that the first movie must consist largely of something no one in the audience paid to see: The superhero as he lived before he could do any cool superhero stuff.
Other genres don’t feel the need to do this; Die Hard didn’t spend the first half of the movie with John McClane taking target practice, Rambo didn’t spend an hour showing Rambo in basic training. Why can’t we just jump in?
Instead we have to watch Peter Parker struggling as a photographer, and Bruce Banner quietly working as a scientist, as if we must first appreciate the tedium of their regular lives before we get to see them jump off an exploding building.
Which isn’t true for any number of reasons. First and foremost is that almost every action movie of any stripe likes to show us what the main character is like before events beyond their control turn them into the hero. John McClane’s problems with his wife for example, or Rambo as a simple drifter before the eeeevil local law enforcement forces him to reveal that underneath the homeless exterior lies a well oiled fighting machine created by our own government!
But one thing that makes Superheroes super is that they have powers that are outside of what can be explained away simply by a little suspension of disbelief. So, if you’re superhuman then the audience would like to know how you got that way, and the writer would like to use that to create some cool thematic resonance, if that’s okay with you..
Setting up the powers to mimic emotions is a trick that’s been used ever since Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four back in the sixties, and the one that put Marvel on the map: The superheroes external transformation is their “old” inner-self suddenly appearing on the outside, and that allows them to become someone better within.
Look at the FF: Sue gains newfound confidence from her invisibility, Ben Grimm gets in touch with his emotions after becoming a man of stone, Johnny controls his “fiery temper” by learning to master his flaming body, and Reed Richards learns to control his brilliant (but unfocused) mind by learning to control his “out of control” body, and in the process becomes a true leader.
And when it works, it works well. Why are we looking forward to seeing Iron Man this summer? Just watch the trailer again. We know that Tony Stark is a man with an iron heart. And when his human heart is damaged, he learns compassion for his fellow man by becoming encased in steel.
Their origin stories are what makes these ridiculous characters acceptable and dramatic. It gives them an emotional motivation as well. Spiderman and Batman are out there trying to change the world in order to right the wrongs that were committed against the people that they loved. In Spiderman’s case the accident came after he gained his powers, in Batman’s it drove him to become a man capable of superhuman acts. But what fun would it be if we never saw what it is that drives them?