Uh-Oh, Another Origin Story

Maybe you like origin stories.

The world certainly seems to like them well enough.

But I’m not a fan.

I in fact actively dislike them.

I pee on them. I make an angry face, and I pee on them.

Here’s why:

An origin story is all prologue.

It’s act one of a story stretched across the narrative expanse of three (or five, or seven) acts.

Just as the origin story ends is when I want to begin.

Note: an origin story differs from a story that presents a character’s origin. The latter is a tale whose primary plot is something else, but that may touch on or reveal the character’s origin in an oblique way — a side-angle, a sub-plot, a component that features but does not dominate. An origin story proper is where the character’s origin is the dominant sequence of events.

Origin stories frequently hit the same beats. Childhood. Before the powers and abilities. Gaining the powers and abilities. Learning (and failing to learn) responsibility with those powers. Epiphany and sometimes, apotheosis.

These stories are often reiterative and redundant. We know how Superman becomes Superman because we’ve seen it a hundred times. Same with Spider-Man (and they even rebooted that pesky web-head approximately ten minutes after we ended the last set of Spider-Man movies).

The more interesting stories frequently occur after the origin, and yet we remain subjected to the origin narrative over and over and over again.

Imagine if we had to sit through a film before Die Hard where we have to first learn how John McClane becomes the alcoholic hero-cop — his youth, his training at the academy, his time as a beat-cop. (There’s a comic book series that covers this, I believe; I don’t know if it’s worth checking out.) Is it necessary? Would it even be that interesting? Aren’t we better off just jumping into the story as it is? Leaving some open variables? Doors and windows yet to open?

Most aspects of an origin story can be embedded in a non-origin story. Flashbacks. Dialogue. World-building. We don’t need it to fill up two full hours of film.

Origin stories are expository.

Origin stories defeat mystery. And mystery is good.

Avengers is so much fun because it is not an origin story. We’ve gotten over all that stuff in the other films. (Curiously, of the new Marvel series, Thor really isn’t an origin story.)

The Dark Knight is a far stronger film than Batman Begins because we have dispensed with all the Stuff We Already Knew and got right to All The Awesome.

Origin stories are money-making plays meant to stretch out the potential narrative bandwidth. I’m sure if somebody could get away with an Iron Man Takes His First Dump story, they would have. (Hey, Hollywood — call me. I’m your Huckleberry.)

An origin story defies that old writing chestnut — “Start the story as late as you can.” I’m not opposed to defying traditional advice, obviously. You can do anything with a story and violate any rule and if you do it well and with aplomb, nobody gives a bag of koala cock that you did it.

That’s the thing. Some origin stories can and do work. The Star Wars prequels are a bad example, but the original Star Wars: A New Hope is a pretty solid example. I thought the first Iron Man was solid enough, though buoyed more by RDJ than by anything else, maybe.

All of this is, of course, IMHO, YMMV.

It is my cross to bear, this disgust toward origin stories.

And so I ask you:

What origin stories work? What ones don’t?

What would make an origin story better? What do we see too much of?

Noodle. Answer. I’ll sit here and stare at you, eating comic book pages like Communion wafers.

104 comments

  • I actually prefer orgin stories. These usually contain the complete character arc in the movie. After that it’s just punching people and smashing stuff. Most of theses films I would happily turn off after the origin section is complete.

    • I agree with you- however, I still prefer to have the origin story told after the ‘intended’ story. Origin stories can spoil the mystery, as Mr. Wendig points out. Fair enough. It’s a simple matter of either telling them after the ‘intended’ story is done, or not bothering to read them.

  • I agree with the sentiments further up the page about origin stories being good if the material is new. However, I see the origin story thing like a way for Hollywood to try and get an audience who would not usually be into a certain genre interested in it by retelling the beginning. They have a sort of “Hey, we know you may have skipped on this in the past, but you can catch up now and be a part of the group” feeling to all of them.

    However, I think it’s really unnecessary. I know who Superman is. I don’t need to see how he comes here and grows up. I don’t need to see Peter Parker get bitten by a spider or Tony Stark build the first suit. In 1989’s Batman, we start out seeing the Dark Knight from the get go. It is only through Vicky Vale’s investigation into his past that we learn how Batman became Batman. I was completely fine with that. I don’t need a refresher course in urban brutality to know he is orphaned and grows up to take vengeance.

    The origin story seems lately like nothing more than just the reboot of something from the past. “Let’s trot it out and see how much money we can make on it this time.” It seems like lazy storytelling to me. They have been writing these comic books in various storylines for decades. You’re telling me that someone out there can’t come up with a new villain and story for a Superman film? Why do we need to rehash the comic books?

    I won’t go deep into Star Wars, but sufficed to say, the prequels killed Vader for me. I didn’t need to see where he came from. On the flip side, I have a deeper appreciation for the manipulative power of the Emperor now.

    I think I’d rather see Hollywood leave origin stories alone.

  • Actually, a superhero who hasn’t been mentioned yet is Daredevil. Yes the movie was so full of holes it was basically plot lace, but it handled the origin story IIRC before the title sequence – or at least very shortly thereafter.

    I think comparison to Die Hard is a little unfair. Cynical cop isn’t exactly a new archetype, but for minor superheroes, I think at least an introduction (ie 5-10 mins, not a movie) is useful.

  • Origin stories are sometimes presented as prequels too. I don’t mind them if they actually have an interesting story (with, you know, a conflict, crisis and resolution) that takes place while you are learning about how a character, situation or world came to be. But this can be darned tough. I know with my own writing, going back and trying to write a story about something that happened to my character before the story I just wrote happened has been problematic because I’m constrained by how it has to end.

    Maybe that’s because I’m one of those writers who gets ideas for plot twists and interesting clusterfucks and so on as I go. If the story “has” to end up in a certain place, this seriously limits my ability to throw wrenches and interesting twists into the thing. I’m not saying all writers have this issue with prequels or series that start with a stand-alone origin story. But it seems to be a common problem. Especially with characters and universes where there is already all this canon that can’t be messed with.

  • One of the best 1st movie I’ve seen so far was the Hulk with Norton. Story explained a bit along the way but straight into the action.

    Iron Man was something cool because his origin story is actually not one. His “super” power is how he got super smart, so we should see him go to college and do his first tinkering, becoming the playboy we know. In the movie he was already in the middle of his story and then he built the suit. But the character was already complete, unlike a Batman or Superman. It’s not as much the Superhero building as the character building that can get annoying I think.

  • I like an origin story to happen later on in a series, after I give two shits about the character’s evolution. Otherwise, it’s the oh so boring boringness that must be waded through to get to the good stuff. And often, the “good stuff” isn’t so good afterward, because the characters have no mystery or mystique anymore. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

    I’m a sucker for the prequel that answers all those questions I had during a story, but a good writer could probably show us the past without having to pen a full out prequel to do it. Hmm…

  • as a rule I do not like origin series. I am sick to death of Spiderman and Superman. I enjoyed Hancock because the origin wasn’t in the beginning…it was in the heart of the movie itself. And I thought Thor did a fine job of working the backstory of the worlds, his childhood, etc into the movie.

    The second run of SW’s movies was a waste to me (my son adores them all) because I already knew how it would turn out, and I frankly did not CARE. In the end I wound up losing all respect for Vader because he was such a zero in those origin stories.

    My opinion. I know plenty of people who love origins. I’d rather have a great story. Then again, I am not particularly enamored of ‘coming-of-age’ stories either. Guess I am quite out of step with the norm?

  • The issue is not origin stories as a premise, I think. The issue is badly handled, badly written, weak origin stories. Origin stories that don’t fulfil the promise of the character, of the story. Particularly when the main story is well known, well loved.

    For me, that was the first few comics that presented Wolverine’s origins. I only read a few issues because it just did not interest me. For an origin story, it took too long to even get to the point of identifying who Wolverine was. Was it the rich kid or the poor kid everyone calls Dog? Oh, it’s the rich kid… whose surname is ‘Howlett’. HOWLett. Great. (And is Dog going to be Sabretooth? Before I found out, I stopped caring. I had also stopped buying comics to save money.)

    And it went out of its way to fill in the gaps too fast. OH, so he loves Jean Grey and has a thing for redheads because his first love was a redhead who died in his arms… and at his hands… Which, narratively, I felt was handled kinda sloppy and rushed. And I guess I would have preferred that angle to come later in his story. He’s had such a long career, they could have built up the love of his life thing so much better. They didn’t have to cram everything in at the very beginning.

    It was disappointing.

    I think one reason Star Wars I-III doesn’t work for long term Star Wars fans is because it only fills in the gaps and Vader as Vader only shows up briefly at the end of the third movie. While the story of Vader’s fall could have been awesome… it was not. It doesn’t tell the story they wanted to see, as they wanted to see it.

    At the same time, some people, like my fiancée, first really came to Star Wars through the prequels. For them, it IS Star Wars.

    The original Star Wars (New Hope) worked as an origin because we did not see it as one. It was an original story. If we had been introduced to Luke as he is at the end of Return Of The Jedi, when his major mistakes have been made and he has decided who he wants to be, and then later shown his origin the way it is told in New Hope… we might think less of New Hope.

    If Dark Knight had been released first, and Batman Begins later as a prequel, it would have made Batman Begins a lesser movie, I think. As it stands, it tells the story of how Nolan’s version of Batman put himself together, and it tells it well enough.

    Raimi’s Spider-Man worked for me as a movie because even though I knew the story, SEEING it was just great. And they made it ABOUT more than just Parker discovering his powers, they made it a first big super-battle/feud with the Green Goblin, too. It was as much a ‘coming into his powers’ story as it was ‘origin’. (Where I feel the Raimi films really fell down was the third. Too much crammed in. Black Suit Spiderman PLUS Sandman PLUS Venom PLUS New Goblin… maybe if they’d left Venom, at the least, for a fourth movie or something. And I really just did not feel Topher Grace as Brock/Venom).

    I’ve been hesitant about seeing the new Spider-Man movie because it’s just too soon to tell the origin over again. For me, anyways. For someone else, that is the Spider-Man movie of their generation.

    And I felt Fantastic Four worked because it was also as much ‘coming into their powers’ as it was ‘origin’. And it was cool seeing them adjust to things and seeing how it all came together. Plus, tying Dr Doom’s origin into it made it a little different, a little more fresh.

    I think that’s what an ‘origin’ movie needs. It needs to be fresh, it needs to put an interesting spin on things. And if it’s a prequel, it needs to satisfy the questions we want answered.

    And above all, it needs to stand on its own as a movie. As a good story.

  • Origin stories can work just the same as others, but only if they are well-told, and if the later stories have left some burning questions unanswered.

  • One more theory to throw out. It’s been mentioned, but not fully. Or maybe it has… whatever, I’ll go ahead and say it. Let it rattle around ye-olde brainpans a bit.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the origin story. They are like any other story told. If they are interesting and well executed, then they rock. If they suck… well then they create their own center of gravity that pulls our will to live from us like some kind of hope black hole. Some are awesome. Some kinda suck. Same with any story you wish to tell.

    The problem with the origin story is that, with the never-ending stream of comic book movies, the story as been done. That dead horse has been flogged to the point that it’s just a red, mushy lump of flesh that can only be used to pad out the protein content in low-cost hamburger meat.

    There’s only so much you can say with an origin story, or at least only so much that has been said up to this point and we’ve seen it.

    Our hero is a nobody.

    Our hero gets powers

    Hero uses powers badly or selfishly or… whatever.

    Villain appears and whoops the hero’s ass all over metropolitan area.

    Hero has epiphany, and decides that power must be used for good. We learn a lesson about humility, responsibility, or the need to know what the hell is happening in the company you control. (Steve Stark I’m looking in your direction…)

    Smack. Blam. Klablooie!!

    Wait until after the credits because Samuel L. Jackson will say something pithy.

    It’s been done.

    There’s a lot of footprints down that road. Also those footprints come from shoes that cost a million dollars a pair. As creators it is our duty to, if we chose to take that road, find a path where million-dollar loafers fear to tread.

    …or better yet, find completely new road. There are millions of roads to take, and the traffic is bad down Origin Story Highway 101. Take the side streets, the scenery is better. Fewer billboards at least.

  • I have to agree with you. The problem with origin stories is that we usually don’t meet the villain in any significant way until the last act, or maybe the middle of the second. And they don’t want to waste a good villain on such a short appearance, so we get lame throw away villains. A weak antagonist is a major flaw in a story. The only exceptions are when the antagonist isn’t really the point of the thing–like the 2009 Star Trek. Star Trek is always more about adventure and camaraderie than an overarching villain (I’m looking at you Into Darkness). Or, if the performances are so stellar that we forgive the flaw, like RDJ in Ironman or Michael Fassbender in X-Men: First Class (Which I can almost forgive for the blatant lie in its title). But ultimately, there’s a reason that epics classically begin en medias res.

  • June 18, 2013 at 9:52 AM // Reply

    I don’t think origin stories are always bad. Yes, most of the time they’re less amusing than the adventures that follow, but sometimes they can really add for character development. Not to mention cases like the unwilling hero, where the hero’s origin is a part of the plot.

    But hey, we have to know how Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins became heroes, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about Frodo’s childhood in the Shire or Harry’s adventures in muggle school. So maybe the biggest sin some authors commit is to tell readers what they don’t need to know – and too often don’t care.

    I think there are commercial reasons behind superheroes origin movies, but I’m kind of sick of them. Most of the origin stories don’t really affect the hero’s adventures, so I don’t think they need to be told. Spider-man’s origin is an important part of the hero, but I wish they had told us a different story in the reboot other than a different version of the same story. That’s perhaps why I deslike reboots: they also reboot the Thing We All Already Know Because It Was Told A Thousand Times Before.

  • You seriously don’t know anything about storytelling if you think origin stories are necessary. Do you think avengers would’ve been as good, or successful, if people weren’t familiar with the first Marvel movies? Do you think batman begins sucked? DKR was so epic because it built off the energy of BB. Honestly–origin stories are part of character development and part of getting an audience on board with a character. Maybe they should have started Harry potter at book four when voldemort is about to be resurrected?

    Use your brain and don’t talk about things you don’t understand.

  • For me, it’s a matter of proportion.

    I HATE 90% of origin stories because they spend way too much time on the actual origin and way too little on what happens AFTER the origin. It’s like watching a movie that spends the first hour in the grocery store buying liquor and cupcakes, but only 30 minutes at the party where people put it all to use.

    Take Superman (not the specific film Man of Steel, but Superman in general). You can sum up his origin in three sentences. Batman only needs two. So it shouldn’t take two-thirds of the movie to show it. Burn through the moment when things start to CHANGE and get us to the point where things start to HAPPEN. Spider-man’s origin merits a leeetle more screen time because of the Uncle Ben stuff and how that affects Peter, but you can still do it quickly.

    The interesting part is not that a person gets super powers (in other words, the origin, which is mostly internal conflict). The interesting stuff is what happens AFTER that (the external conflict that comes from the changed person interacting with other people in new ways). You don’t go to a Spider-man movie to see a kid get bitten by a spider. You go to see a lovable geek try to get the girl, live in a way that pays tribute to his fallen uncle, and have some semblance of a normal life while also defending the helpless, cracking wise and webslinging around a city full of supervillains trying to hit him in the face with a bus.

    Plus, like someone else said, I’ve read comics since I was seven. I know the origins already.

  • These are my initial thoughts: If we follow the Jack M. Bickham school of thought, stories are about conflict, and we narrow down our story window to the time in the character’s life where things changed for the protagonist. By that reasoning an “origin” story could stand on its own. The character’s sense of self is threatened by this new power they have discovered (if we are following along the lines of superhero stories that is), and their life will never be the same and they have to deal with that. I get it. I actually feel that a lot of books are really origin stories.

    However, we aren’t really talking about books, we’re talking about movies and while movies are written by word-nerds, they are fueled by the quest for large profits. We’re getting origin movies stuffed down our throats because we have proven that we’ll throw our money at them because we either like the franchise, the actor, or the character. It’s for this reason that I am wary of origin movies.

    If I already know the history of a character because it’s been established for decades, an origin movie just seems like a big “give me your money,” ploy. However if it’s a movie about someone we’ve never met before, and how they come about their powers, it seems much less like a marketing ploy and much more like it’s just a movie about someone’s origins. That being said, such movies tend to be part of a series, so it could also just be another way to convince us to give Hollywood more money.

    Ultimately I guess it comes down to the quality of the content. For me a movie falls flat if the writing is horrible, no matter how much it gets dressed up with CGI. I tend to handle things on a case-by-case basis.

  • Inneresting. I’ve been wondering if my YA-superhero tale would count as an “origin story;” according to your definition, it would not. Though in my MC’s character arc she works her way up from sidekick to full blown hero and takes on her mentor’s mantle, she still starts out powered and with a high level of (officially bestowed) responsibility towards her city. She’s still learning, and has quite a bit of growing up to do, but she knows who she is and what she represents.

    I don’t really care for origin stories, and I certainly don’t feel like writing one. I’d rather jump straight into the action, thrown in with a character who bears the weight of responsibility to humanity and who has a few battle scars. I don’t mind backtracking and flashbacks and what-have-yous, but spare me the feckless youngster who dicks around before committing to a cause.

    I think some people confuse “origin story” with “character arc.” All origin stories present a distinct character arc, but you can have a compelling superhero story arc without it being an origin story.

  • I think origin stories are pretty much useless. They only really exist in comic book movies. I have a few problems with that.

    1. Everyone knows the comic book hero paradigm. We know how they get their powers. We know their motivations. We know they are outcasts. We know they are the only ones capable of stopping the villain/saving the world. There was a time when only comic book nerds knew the origins of their favorite hero. Now EVERYONE does. Not only does the internet make all of that common knowledge, but three quarters of all summer movies are Superhero movies. Its practically the only type of movie people go to the theaters to see anymore. I think the studios can take a leap of faith that we can follow a story about a Superhero without having been spoon-fed his tedious back-story. As has been said before, leave some mystery. Our imaginations can do a much better job of filling in the blanks than some two-bit hack of a script writer/focus group.

    2. Who has ever started reading your first comic book by opening up the first issue? Maybe that happens nowadays, but when I was young, you either got what was in the store at the time, or borrowed some off a friend. And it was NEVER the first issue. You got plopped in the middle of the story and had to make sense of it, and that’s what drags you in. It captures your imagination. That’s what I want out of a Superhero movie. Take a good storyline out of a series and just drop us in it. That’s pretty much the concept behind every OTHER movie that’s made. Here are some characters. Here is some interesting things they have to do. You will figure out who they are and why they are there as the movie goes along.

    3. Origin stories are a waste. Realistically, if you get a decent cast in a franchise, how many movies are they going to do? Three, IF its a success. So wasting a whole movie on watching the guy awkwardly fumble with new found powers is a waste of all the good storytelling that goes on later in the comic’s series. A lot of these origins are pretty lame since they were written a generation ago now. As time has gone on and grittier, more interesting writers have taken over the series and created much richer stories and cooler villains to fight against.

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