Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Origin You Glad I Wrote This?

So apparently the filmmakers, or at least the star, of the upcoming Green Lantern movie are saying that it "won't be a laboured origin story". This is the kind of thing that makes fanboys breathe a sigh of relief, since the common wisdom would have it that spending too much time on the origin is a mistake in a superhero movie. And I agree...except...

What do we mean by "origin", exactly?

Because when I started to think about it, I realized that there are very few superhero movies that don't have their hero gaining their amazing powers within the first twenty minutes or so. It sometimes takes longer to get them into the costume and adopting the pose of superpowered crime fighter; Batman Begins was nearly half over before Batman made his first appearance, and Spiderman in his classic suit wasn't much faster on the scene. You can see why they made those decisions, though: Batman was rebooting the franchise, setting themselves apart from the Schumacher films with a new beginning, so it made sense to tell that story, and Spiderman--well, more on him in a moment.

All the others usually have their powers and costume by the end of act one (Iron Man has a prototype version of his costume, but it's still a costume). That seems reasonable to me; so why do so many superhero movies feel kind of pedantic and slow to begin?

I think it's because there's often a lot more to a superhero's "origin" than how he got his powers and costume. There's also the question of how he (or she, but let's face it, if it's a lone hero, it's always he) got his personality. And that's exactly the kind of thing that can make for the plot of a movie, so naturally it's going to form the spine of his first outing. So far, so good. Except...

A lot of people who make superhero movies seem to think that a superhero's character arc needs to be "how he became a hero". And this is where the problem arises.

There's only one superhero character who's journey towards heroism, in the movies, is legitimately interesting: Spiderman. You could maybe make a case for Wolverine, too, but his attitude towards heroism doesn't strictly change much, it just gets recontextualized (i.e. he's the Clint Eastwood-type loner who learns to care about the people around him/becomes politically aware). All the other superhero characters were given fairly simple, straightforward origins in their respective origins, and no one's ever been able to retcon these satisfactorily. Few have even tried. That's because, in the comics, if the hero doesn't take a relatively heroic pose early on, it's awful hard to get them fighting crime and thus make the story happen.

The end result is the plot element I hate most in any superhero movie: The Hero Must Learn To Use His Powers (usually while coping with everyday life). That might seem like a weird thing to hate on, but I think it gets to the root of what I'm complaining about here.

Look at Iron Man, for instance. Decent enough movie, but it's marred by a second act that is comprised almost entirely of The Hero Must Learn To Use His Powers (or, uh, THMLTUHP, I guess). He foils a few villains, low level terrorists, who are essentially just the classic Bank Robbing Thugs you always see get taken out in these movies. They may as well be practice dummies. Meanwhile the Big Bad Villain is scheming away with his evil schemes, schemingly, but doesn't do anything until act three. The fact that this works at all is because Robert Downey Jr. is always fun to watch, and director Jon Favreau knows how to direct actors noodling around and hanging out, but it's still a loooooong stretch of nothing much that could easily, from a writing perspective, have been trimmed.

The Fantastic Four movie is the worst offender. I've heard that the early Fantastic Four scripts opened with the FF already in their classic forms, having already become world famous heroes, and I think that's exactly right; everything about the FF that's interesting comes after the basic setup has been taken care of. So of course, in the movie we got, director Tim Story lets that setup last for most of the movie. Forget exploring anywhere or going on adventures or anything; most of the movie is spent sitting around the Baxter building, while Johnny Storm almost, but not quite, does something interesting with his powers, and Dr. Doom slooooowly morphs into the form we all know him in.

I think every superhero needs their own pace in terms of this stuff (I don't really have a problem with the first X-Men, for instance, because it was bringing together a large cast in a complex world), but the point is that THMLTUHP is frequently a dull patch that drags down the middle of a movie while we wait for the good stuff to start up again. Future superhero movie directors: If you MUST have THMLTUHP scenes, make sure they go along with the actual plot, or provide some interesting character scenes, or something.

And if you're pulilng this crap because you don't have the budget to fill the movie with superhero stuff, maybe you, y'know, shouldn't be making a superhero movie at all. I'm just sayin'.

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