I just saw Ant-man, so naturally I’m livid. There are so many ways in which Ant-man is a disaster of film (though it seems lots of people disagree with me) that I can only focus on a big cause of that stupidness: hollywood (and the comics’ industry)’s addiction to the origin story narrative.
Some of Ant-man was quite good. The individual gags were pretty funny—which presents, of course, a whole other ethical dilemma, since these rare moments of innovation are almost certainly the remnants of Edgar Wright’s brief stint as director. On the whole, Ant-man was the most predictable film I have ever seen for one primary reason: it refused to veer from what has become a deeply clichéd origin story narrative.
The origin story is a superhero staple, and does important work for the genre. It emphasizes transformative character change in a way few other tropes do; it’s about advocating for clean slates, for new chances, in a way that reinforces the transparent metaphor of most comic franchises—which is that you can change too. This campy naiveté is, for better or worse, an integral part of western superhero comics. But there’s a growing frustration with the way origin stories are employed in contemporary films, partly because of what they represent.
The medium is the message; publishing an origin story—unless it’s a subversion of the typical script—serves as a universal symbol for the emotional high you’re supposed to get. Origin stories have become an empty symbol; when they’re present, they signify only that “this guy had a rough start but he’s going to struggle to become morally good and strong and that will give you a fun and exciting experience.” And an origin story inevitably signifies in this exact way every time. Except in something like Kick-Ass, which explodes some of the common features of the trope.
Comic book films are addicted to the origin story because It provides an emotional high. And as my mother always warned me, when you smoke drugs it requires more and more each time to continue getting that feeling. Later films in the franchise suffer when they don’t have the transformation story high to bum off of, and have trouble introducing emotional depth into their story or coming up with actual ideas. Marvel studios/Disney is hands-down the worst offender; later installations of their franchise (see Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World) are blandly dark and trapped by their “in-between” status. Since the characters have already become superheroes, they don’t seem to know what to do with themselves. Iron man has marital problems and gets drunk, Cap acts jaded about stuff, and Thor frowns solemnly about his mother’s death. These films come across as in-betweeny and boring.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Thor and Captain America (and Iron Man for that matter), two characters with sets of pretty distinct traits in their respective origin stories, were flattened in their followup films. Where has Thor’s adorable ignorance of modern cookware gone? Did his famous arrogance dissipate overnight? Perhaps most tellingly, to where did Captain America’s boundless faith in human goodness fly? (These changes are partly due to something unfortunate that happened in comics during the 90s “dark ages”, a period that brought us every superhero better than ever AKA darkly brooding and… well, that’s about it.) You could also answer “becuz character development”, but only to a point.
The fact remains that the only thing we feel comfortable doing after an origin story is turning every hero super jaded and grumpy—and this really demonstrates the flawed way we conceptualize character development. Growing up doesn’t just mean becoming suitable to bear awesome responsibility and becoming jaded by the knowledge that the world contains evil. It also means liking new and stranger things and becoming weirdly shitty in new and fascinating ways in addition to becoming jaded. People pick up bad habits and good ones along the way. The real problem arises when every character changes in the same exact way.
So you want to keep your superhero franchise alive, but you’ve already done an origin story… what’s next? One option is to make everyone really grumpy and angry and growl at each other as they scowl into the distance. But if you don’t find that keeps the momentum going in your franchise, there’s good news: you can always produce origin stories over and over to keep the hype train rolling!
Fox has managed to resist the origin story temptation with their X-men franchise—for the most part—but had less luck with Spider-man; coming up on their third reboot, most fans seem weakly resigned to seeing one origin story after another.
Just to provide some contrast to these superhero films, let’s look at John Wick, Keanu Reeves’ recent(ish) return to action films. Now, there are obvious differences between John Wick and superhero films that account for some major narrative differences between the two. Most notably, it has no interest in presenting the transformation from impotence/evil/moral ambiguity to strength and goodness so integral to superhero films. Rather, John Wick tells a story about the character’s present through the lens of his past. The narrative is juxtaposed with what the character was in order to tell a story about the person that is, and vice-versa; the layered nature of these stories, of past and present, is what makes the best films tick.
Increasingly, superhero movies flatten that psychological chronology in order to place emphasis on the narrative of transformation. Presenting the past and present simultaneously says something about both times and the person that connects them; it discusses difference and change, but by definition also confronts the idea that some things have not changed, that people are connected to who they are by what they were.
So while the origin story is not inherently terrible from a story craft perspective, it does deliberately take characters’ layers (think: onion) and lay them out in chronological order—meaning that its message is always coloured by the origin story form which presents an emotional high, the promise of transformative change, and serves to signal the beginning of a franchise. And, as it turns out, these things rarely guarantee the health of the franchise. Just ask the Fantastic Four.