The Secret Origin Of Secret Origins

I recently heard a gripe about the upcoming film The Amazing Spider-Man, but it wasn’t the gripe I was expecting.

Me, I’m irked at Hollywood for rebooting the Spider-Man franchise all of a decade after Sam Raimi’s perfectly awesome 2002 film, but I heard someone crab that yet another super-hero movie was adapting a character’s origin story.

I’ve heard this complaint before, usually from film critics who were tired of Hollywood doing origin stories instead of all-new adventures, but from a writing perspective, it’s an extremely logical choice.

My first argument is that not everyone knows a particular character’s backstory and, from a business perspective, studios need to capture a wide audience, not just the fanboys, to make their money. To do that, they need to introduce the character to the masses, and what better way than by telling the story that made the hero a hero?

Sure, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t know that Superman is the sole survivor of the exploding planet Krypton or that Bruce Wayne launched his crime-fighting crusade after his parents were gunned down by a mugger, but I dare you to find anyone outside the comic-reading community who can give you the origin of, say, the Flash or Dr. Strange off the top of his head.

Second, and more importantly, by doing an origin story the movie gets to easily honor one of the most important rules of storytelling: characters should come out of the story different than how they went in.

To use Spider-Man as an easy example, the character of Peter Parker starts his story as a shy, withdrawn nerd with no friends and little going for him beyond a talent for science and a loving family in Uncle Ben and Aunt May. After he gets bitten by a radioactive (or genetically engineered, depending on which interpretation you’re presenting) spider, he gains super-powers that also grant him a new sense of confidence…a sense of confidence that quickly becomes self-centered arrogance, and that ego balloon is popped in a huge way when his selfishness winds up costing him his uncle.

That’s a great character arc, filled with drama, tragedy, and self-discovery, and Peter is definitely a changed man by the end of the story. Why wouldn’t you use it? It’s infinitely more interesting than your standard “good guy fights the bad guy” action plot.

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