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.
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.