As all comic book movie fans know, it’s a bit of an obvious go-to when making a superhero film to tell the origin story: how did the character get to be who they are. When I was a kid first discovering superheroes, this was a big deal. I could read about the adventures of Superman or Batman, or watch them on TV, but I’d have to get a special book from the library, or wait for a special reprint, in order to actually enjoy the origin story.
(Incidentally, this is #6 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
The reason why origins were a big deal? It was because they were rare, they were special. But now with Hollywood snatching up one superhero after another and making movies about them, they are no longer unusual. In fact, they are common. Indeed, in some cases it seems like people don’t know how to tell a story other than the origin. But what makes characters like the Fantastic Four or Batman or Spider-Man memorable and worthwhile to follow isn’t their origins, but rather all the adventures they had after that. It’s one of the reasons that I think superhero stories translate better in television than in feature films.
And of course, it’s not just superheroes. Lots of old TV series get remade as movies now, and so often the story you get is a “first meeting” type of story – how these guys got together and started doing their thing, sometimes at the cost of what “the thing” actually is.
But our topic today is Top 3 Origin stories, and there are lots of good ones out there. The point here isn’t that we shouldn’t do origin stories, it’s just that we should get past them and onto meatier stuff. For this short list, I’m only considering origins that came out for pre-existing properties – characters or situations that the audience might theoretically already be familiar with, even if it’s not in film. So that rules out things like Unbreakable or Ghostbusters, for example.
The Man from UNCLE (2014) – Directed by Guy Ritchie
The Man from UNCLE was a bit unnoticed in a year that was jam-packed full of spy movies, sequels and reboots, but I quite enjoyed it. It’s got a solid little story built around it’s two leads: Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin. It effectively goes into how these two meet and get past their obvious differences–both are spies, one is American, one is Russian, and it’s the 1960’s–which is something I believe they never really focused on on the original TV show back in the real 1960’s. Normally, the conceit of having the in-universe name or other recognizable aspects of the story not show up until the last seconds of the movie is a little annoying, but in The Man from UNCLE it all works pretty well.
Batman Begins (2005) – Directed by Christopher Nolan
Our loan superhero entry on this list is one of the best superhero movies ever made, and that is Christopher Nolan’s fantastically fresh reboot of Batman. Batman’s origin was briefly told before in 1989’s Batman, and then revisited in the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in 1993, and in about 500 comics in between. But Batman Begins is one of the best depictions, both because of its style and because of its breadth. Rarely even in the comics have we seen so much detail on how Bruce Wayne came to be the kind of man he is – from the trauma of his parent’s murder, to his frustration about being powerless to do anything about injustice, to his self-imposed exile and quest for training, to his return to Gotham City and the development of the familiar techniques he uses as the Batman. It doesn’t all make sense but overall it’s a fully developed completely satisfying look at how Batman came to don the cape and cowl, and is the best movie ever as far as exploring Bruce Wayne himself as a character.
The Muppet Movie (1979) – Directed by James Frawley
But perhaps the best movie origin for a pre-existing property of all is this one, which uses a film-within-a-film technique to tell us how the Muppets actually began (more or less, according to Kermit) as a musical variety & comedy troupe. Coming out during the original run of The Muppet Show, the origin of the Muppets was a logical choice for a movie since the tale had never been told before, and because it afforded a natural way for the Muppets to appear outside in the real world, which at the time was unheard of. As such, the movie represented all sorts of technological breakthroughs in cinematic puppets, thus expanding greatly upon the original source material. At the same time, it remains faithful to that material since it was put together by Jim Henson and the rest of the same writers and puppeteers as the television show.
You might argue that the original creative team is a key for making a successful origin story, but the Star Wars prequels would belie this theory in the minds of many.
In any case, if you liked The Muppet Show, you were sure to love The Muppet Movie, which is the sort of thing you can’t always guarantee…so, well done all involved.
Considered & Rejected: So many. Richard Donner’s Superman movie is close to make this list, as is Iron Man. Also rejected films include Batman, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, The Avengers, Daredevil, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Green Lantern, Man of Steel, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: First Class, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four by Tim Story, Fantastic Four by Josh Trank, The A-Team, the Star Wars prequels, Monsters University, The Hobbit parts 1, 2 & 3, Casino Royale (although that’s a good one), or Hulk.
Full Disclosure: I’ve never seen Godfather part II or Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Bonus Pick from the Vault: Stingray (found on this site here) is an origin story, though not for a pre-existing character. But I think as origins goes it’s pretty good, even if the film making is quite cheap.