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Saturday In the Echo Chamber

Okay, enough already.

This is the classic example, I suppose, of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ When I was a kid, routinely getting mocked– and even beaten up once in a while– for liking comics and superheroes and SF (because everyone assumed it was all as silly as the Adam West Batman or Lost In Space) I would wish devoutly for some movie adaptation that would prove to all those people that I was right all along, that this stuff was serious and cool.


    I knew Batman was cool…. but no one else in my school did. All I ever heard was guffaws and a reference to ‘some days you can’t get rid of a bomb!’

Well, we live in that world now. Superhero and big-budget science fiction movies are everywhere. The biggest box office hit in history was Marvel’s Avengers. Everyone knows that superhero movies are supposed to be serious and cool. Even Superman and Star Trek got all serious and cool.

This is what I hoped for, that everyone would, finally, get it. We own pop culture now.

…and I came to the startling realization this week that I kind of hate it. I find myself wishing that Hollywood would just go away and leave us alone.

Here is my issue. The glaring problem with our new nerd-culture/superhero movie renaissance is this– They’re all the same movie.

Seriously. Let’s see if you recognize this plot.

A hero who’s a selfish jerk must overcome his childhood traumas/personal demons and learn to care about the people around him and serve the greater good.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s Mask of Zorro and Daredevil and Hancock and Zoom and Green Lantern and Man of Steel and Thor and The Green Hornet and Elektra and Amazing Spider-Man and Ghost Rider and Battleship and The Shadow and the rebooted Conan and Solomon Kane and… I mean, I could go on and on. Some even use that plot twice, like Iron Man and Iron Man 2, or Batman Begins and Dark Knight Rises, or Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness. They all blur together.

This isn’t to say that some of these aren’t done well. Or that some of them aren’t good movies. I actually really enjoyed quite a few on that list. But when you get right down to it, it’s all the same thing. The execution varies, maybe sometimes it’s played for laughs and other times it’s deadly serious…. but the journey and the landmarks are always the same. The hero starts out as a douchebag, but we understand his douchebaggery because he has an excuse– usually a trauma like the death of his parents or some other loved one. Still, we know that he has to get over it, usually by killing the villain who’s the source of his original trauma. (Or sometimes he just beats the living shit out of him or watches him fall out of a train, while bragging about NOT killing the bad guy.)



    Some of these movies were good, others not; some of the actors did it better than others; but really, scrape off the paint and they’re all THE SAME GUY.

Inevitably, the whole damn movie’s about that arc, and every turning point along the way becomes predictable. You have the Event that Causes the Hero to Relive the Moment of Trauma. You have the Angry Friend Calling Him Out. You have The Return of the Villain that Started It All. You have the place where the Hero’s Overconfidence Leads to the Horrible Setback. You have the Epiphany where the Hero Realizes He Must Must Face His Fear. You have the Final Huge Confrontation (where a lot of shit blows up, more often than not.) And finally you have the Optimistic Ending where the Hero Goes Off A Better Man, and is rewarded by finding out the Girl Loves Him After All…. until the sequel, when we find out the lesson didn’t stick and he has to learn it all over again.

You know what’s even worse? Most of these movies also have an origin sequence that takes up the first third or even the first half of the story, because they’re using the same template of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. (That template being Act 1- Origin, Act 2- First Appearance, and Act 3- Big Showdown.)

We’ve reached a point now where it’s a formula. And that formula is the character arc of Rocky III, where Rocky has to learn humility to beat Clubber Lang, but throwing in some kind of origin story using the Superman three-act structure.

    I probably would have liked DARK KNIGHT RISES a lot more if Mr. T had played Bane.

Honestly, I’m getting so jaded about this that most of the time I feel like I can call it from just the trailer. We haven’t seen the new Lone Ranger yet, but I’ll bet a year’s pay against a stale doughnut that it uses the Superman three-act template, and that John Reid has to get over the loss of a loved one and learn to put other people first, and that the big explosive showdown is where he finally gets even with Butch Cavendish. Hell, they already MADE that movie back in 1981 and it was dull then.


    My prediction? Same basic plot as the 1981 version but with more smirking and stuff that blows up.

Here’s a nutty idea. How about skipping the origin?

Is there anyone at this point that doesn’t understand who Superman is? Or Captain Kirk, or the Hulk, or Batman? There have been zillions of non-origin stories about those guys. Why not trust the audience to have enough of a clue that it’s okay to just get on with it? A quick voice-over was more than enough for the original Lone Ranger, and that sufficed for hundreds of radio episodes, five seasons of a TV show, and two movies.

Or– here’s an even crazier notion– just introduce them without bothering with an origin story at all. The original Solomon Kane never needed an origin– he was just there, fully-realized and fighting evil. Likewise with the Shadow, Zorro, the crew of the starship Enterprise… it really is possible to introduce your protagonist without reaching back to childhood. Sometimes it works better to just do it on the fly.

The screenwriter of the first Michael Keaton Batman movie, Sam Hamm, said something very smart in an interview once. When asked about how he structured the screenplay and cracked a project that had languished for years in development hell, he said, “I went back to the very first story, where you open with a fully-realized Batman and work your way back to Bruce Wayne. Because what you want to avoid at all costs is the part where the hero sews the suit. I mean, what the hell do you do? A montage? Every draft up to that point was structured the same way as the Superman movie. But that’s not the approach to take with Batman. He’s a different character.”

Exactly. Different characters require different approaches. That should be Writing 101 for Christ’s sake. And yet apparently the wisdom of Sam Hamm has been lost to the ages, because I can think of dozens of movies with the sew-the-suit/training montage scene. Sometimes it works– Batman Begins did a nice job of it– but most of the time it just stops the damn movie cold in its tracks.

Of course, railing at the movie industry for being derivative and unoriginal is hardly a new complaint. I remember all the crappy space-dogfight films that showed up in the wake of the original Star Wars, and the retro-adventurers that followed Indiana Jones. Not to mention all the rubber-suit-with-abs superheroes that showed up after the aforementioned Batman movie in 1989. Sometimes the second-wave imitators get enough of it right to be fun– I admit to being very fond of High Road To China, a movie that owes its entire existence to Raiders of the Lost Ark– but you never lose the air of déjà vu that hangs over the films that were made solely hoping to cash in on the initial success of the first one.

I will even cop to enjoying a familiar tale told well, because sometimes you want to see the band just play the hits, damn it. (I have something like six different versions of Dracula here on DVD. What? I happen to like Dracula.)


    The Coppola version with Gary Oldman is not among them, though, because even I have STANDARDS.

So I’m okay with a redemptive hero story. Especially when it actually is the original story, like Spider-Man learning that with great power must come great responsibility.

What I object to is that same arc being grafted to every single hero in the genre. Because they’re not all the same guy. I like the Dracula story well enough to have a bunch of them here, but I’d be really annoyed if someone made a Werewolf or Frankenstein movie that was beat-for-beat that same story and character arc. Different characters should have different approaches. I explain that to my fifteen-year-olds in Young Authors and they understand it, so why can’t your average Hollywood studio exec get his head around the idea?

You know, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s just the old Adam West problem with a new coat of paint. Except this time, instead of every superhero and genre piece forced into being a campy comedic version, now it’s a forced makeover of every hero into a tormented loner who needs to face his fears.

The irony? After a decade or so of this crap, I think I like the Adam West take better. Yeah, my childhood wish came true… but I should have quit when I was ahead.

See you next week.

87 Comments

Love that Louis Jordan Dracula from PBS. It was just first rate. As for the rest of your column, I have to agree with you that most Superhero films, heck most blockbuster action films really do follow the same exact pattern again and again. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the Avengers as much as I did. All the extraneous , plodding origin stuff was taken care of in the solo films leaving lots of room for exciting set pieces and enjoyable character bits. I haven’t seen the new Lone Ranger film yet, but just looking at the commercials and reading reviews tend to make me think it’s more of a remake of the 1981 bomb then the classic original. It certainly wasn’t a good sign for this old fanboy when the classical music playing in the background of the Lone Ranger trailer was, O Fortuna..I mean come on, O Fortuna?

While I agree with a lot/most of your points here, I must say I definitely prefer your usual celebratory tone towards pop culture. “Bitter fanboy” does not look good on you, though I certainly get where you’re coming from.

While I thought Man of Steel was pretty good (I liked it better than other recent superhero films), when I heard it was going to be yet another origin story I also wondered why we needed that. Is there anyone who doesn’t know Superman’s origin?

Re: the 1981 Lone Ranger film, it did stay quite true to the eventual origin of the Lone Ranger that the radio show devised around 1940 or so.

“What I object to is that same arc being grafted to every single hero in the genre. Because they’re not all the same guy. I like the Dracula story well enough to have a bunch of them here, but I’d be really annoyed if someone made a Werewolf or Frankenstein movie that was beat-for-beat that same story and character arc. Different characters should have different approaches”.

This reminds me of a review of 1932′s The Mummy: “the movie’s script is basically just a rehash of the screenplay from Tod Browning’s Dracula, dressed in Egyptian drag and tarted up with a love-from-beyond-the-grave motivation for the undead villain [which in turn resembles Ayesha from She by H. Rider Haggard]. And the passage of time has rendered the latter point of contrast between this story and Dracula’s all but invisible, as one Dracula remake after another has adopted the very same idea [starting with Blacula and the Jack Palance version]. The casting of Edward Van Sloan as The Mummy’s Van Helsing figure, and of David Manners in a role very similar to that of Dracula’s John Harker, only serves to emphasize the point. I find it most instructive that this, one of the first American horror films to be shot from an original screenplay, should have so much of its story cannibalized from a film made only a year earlier– it really says something about what “originality” means in Hollywood, if you follow me”.

Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for saying this so much better than I could. I am SO tired of going to a superhero/action movie and seeing the jerky, not-yet-ready-to-be-a-hero hero deal with father issues. Could we just have one well adjusted hero who does the heroic thing because it’s the right thing to do and jump right into the action? What is so hard about that? I mean I like Taylor Kitsch, but I really wanted his character to die in BATTLESHIP instead of Alexander Skarsgard’s. And John Carter definitely didn’t need a tragic backstory/origin in Disney’s JOHN CARTER. Like you, I enjoy a lot of these movies, but they’re getting awfully cookie cutter.

One of my former students and I have had this discussion. I keep telling him you don’t really need an origin for these characters. A line or two of dialog or voice over will do. He laughs at me. He grew up on the Anakin Skywalker STAR WARS and believes Nolan’s BATMAN trilogy is the voice of his generation. He thinks you NEED three movies to tell a character’s story. Apparently Hollywood agrees.

Could The Seven Per-Cent-Solution by Nicholas Meyer have contributed to this origin focus? It provided an origin for Holmes where Doyle had left it vague.

Tarzan largely stands as defined by his origin, but the Weismuller films from MGM left it vague, though the silent films did cover it extensively.

Yep, you pretty much nailed it – I think it’s particularly silly that Star Trek and any Conan film should tell an origin. In the latter case especially, it makes what should be a fun, fast-paced pulpy adventure flick slow and at times even boring (I’m thinking of the first Arnie film here in particular). And the lack of a lengthy origin sequence is one of several reasons why Burton’s first Batman is still my favorite Batman movie. Also, as Rick noted, it’s why the Avengers movie is so enjoyable.
Also, I see you share my contempt for Coppola’s Dracula – “Bram Stoker’s” indeed…
And I can’t believe anyone else besides me even remembers High Road to China, much less fond of it. And the only reason it made such an impression on me was because my parents made such a big deal about going to see it when it was first released – they were really stoked by the fact that a big-budget Hollywood film was shot entirely in Croatia (then, of course, still part of Yugoslavia).

i agree with some of your points including hollywood should just stop including the origin every time they do like a new take on superman and batman and even spider man. but sadly hollywood won’t for they figure movie goers who are just discovering these characters film wise won’t other wise know who they are to enjoy the film. plus till comic book movies become box office poison or do a howard the duck or elektra hollywood will keep making them since that is what sells for a certain fan base.

as for the lone ranger. the main reason hollywood went the origin route is due to the fact of trying to get the character known to a new fan base given how old the character is .since the younger and current movie goers have never heard of the lone ranger.

Derek Handley

July 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I couldn’t agree more! It’s all so formulaic. We don’t get to have anything with a different character arc or story structure. And I just can’t sit through another origin movie. By all means introduce the world* if necessary**, but not another origin story.

*Bryan Singer’s X-men did a good job of introducing the world and giving short origin scenes that clarified some of the characters’ motivations without making a whole first act about origins.

**I agree with other commenters that some of these worlds don’t need any introduction: X-men did because it wasn’t a known property at the time, so Patrick Stewart’s voiceover and expository dialog really helped. However, is there anyone who needs an introduction to the worlds of Star Trek, Superman, Batman, Spider-man or Sherlock Holmes?

What movies have forgone the origins and lengthy introductions? I can only think of the Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr.

I see the problem described by the writer here as a result of success in a way. I guess that if lets says Batman Begins makes a billion bucks then the Execs all think they have to do exactly what they did with Batman or they wont make another billion dollars because that is all that matters. And this thinking is just now the norm and until these movies stop making money you are going to see this formula over and over. Then when the movies stop making money…..we will all be a joke again….

One of the reasons I like watching superhero cartoons is that they largely don’t rely on telling the origin stories for the characters. Sure they’ll refer back to the origin (in the case of Spider-Man constantly), but it doesn’t dominate the overall story.

http://monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.com/topic/48915/New-Old-BATMAN-comic?page=1

features some of the quotes from Max Allan Collins and Count Karnstein.

Andrew Collins

July 6, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Aw, I actually like the Coppolla Dracula movie, overwrought melodrama and all…

It’s not exactly fair using the Avengers as a film that didn’t use the “origins” template when you factor in that Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man were all “origin” films that used the same old clichés of the douchebag becoming bigger than himself. Both Thor and Iron Man used this template, and Cap was the basic three part origin arc. Avengers was able to jump straight into the action because the other films had already set the whole film as a third part act – that’s why Avengers is just one action scene.

I would also point out that the 90s Phantom film also avoided the third part origins template by initially giving a little intro to the characters origins, but then let the main character reveal why he was the current Phantom. That allowed the film to not have to adhere to the origins template and we got to see the hero straight away.

Personally my favourite template for these kinds of films is Raiders of the Lost Ark and Dr No. A brief action scene at the start of the film establishes who the character is, what he stands for, and his motivation. Then throughout the film we get extra snippets of the character’s origins e.g. Indy’s previous romance with Marion, his relationship with Marcus. We don’t even learn about Indy’s childhood until the third film and even these are revealed through the interaction of the characters and not through a lengthy origins process. IMO that is often the way to go.

I don’t think that there is anything wrong the template itself, but forcing every superhero character into it is a real problem.

THE LONE RANGER was actually an interesting variation on the theme. Tonto got all the superhero beats (e.g. childhood trauma, loner, the villain is the source of his trauma) and The Lone Ranger is just along for the ride. It isn’t perfect by ant stretch of the imagination, but it is (slightly) different. It is not an awful way to approach a socially well-adjusted hero with an established partner/ side-kick. You just wish they had thought a little more deeply about what moving those beats meant.

@ Jimmy:

I think the character should dictate the formula.

Neither Indiana Jones, nor James Bond, need to have their motivations explained. When we first meet them, Indy wants money and Bond wants sex. It is how they go about trying to get those things that make them interesting.

The best Batman films have given the origin story stuff to the villains, which works great with villains that have origins.

Greg, you are right on. We know the story. Stop telling it over and over. As they say, cut to the chase!

The superhero movie that did the origin story best was The Rocketeer. Cliff wasn’t a douche and he didn’t have to suffer a trauma. He found a jet pack and used it for good.

My favorite superhero movie is still The Phantom. He shows up full blown and awesome and punches evil and saves the day and there is not an ounce of angst to be found.

The problem is that at some point people started taking Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theory about the hero with a grand destiny and started turning it into an instruction manual.

Captain America in his movie wasn’t a jerk who became a better person – he was always a pretty nice kid. His transformation was more about his exterior qualities finally coming to match his interior ones.

Also I don’t see how The Dark Knight follows this template. He did the ‘jerk becomes a hero’ storyline in Batman Begins, but The Dark Knight is not that story. Batman as a character grows, but it’s more about finding his place in Gotham.

This is why Superhero movies are one of the only genres where the sequels tend to be alot better than the originals.

Captain America in his movie wasn’t a jerk who became a better person – he was always a pretty nice kid. His transformation was more about his exterior qualities finally coming to match his interior ones.

I agree. It’s one of the reasons I loved that movie. It was Steve Rogers as the good guy he is, without apology or justification.

Also I don’t see how The Dark Knight follows this template. He did the ‘jerk becomes a hero’ storyline in Batman Begins, but The Dark Knight is not that story. Batman as a character grows, but it’s more about finding his place in Gotham.

Again, agreed. There are a lot of problems with The Dark Knight and the more I look at it the more I notice that it falls apart if you poke it with a stick. But it doesn’t fall into the category I’m talking about here.

No, I said The Dark Knight Rises recycled the basic arc of Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne, who spent all of Batman Begins learning the difference between justice and vengeance and finding his mission, drops it and becomes completely self-absorbed AGAIN. Despite his training, despite what he’s learned as Batman, despite the moral stand he took against the Joker. He’s actually a BIGGER jerk at the beginning of Rises because by that point he should know better. And beat-for-beat, in terms of the character arc, the plot is pretty much the same as Rocky III. Slob-softened hero is beaten by a vastly more powerful foe, and, once he has recovered from the shocking realization that his own arrogance betrayed him, has to regroup and retrain despite his crisis of confidence and suffering personal loss…. etc. Same thing. Except I think Rocky III was more fun.

great article

Has anybody mentioned ‘Dredd’ yet? Surely this is an example of a superhero movie that bucks the trend…straight into the story. Some quick/ punchy voice-over narration about the future world and the Mega-City society…then bam, action all the way.
And the thing that struck me most about this one was that (despite the campy Stallone version) Judge Dredd is NOT a character with a huge recognition-factor outside of the comic-loving world. So the makers took an even bigger risk by skimming over origins etc….and it certainly paid off.
Hopefully the success of this will show Hollywood that the public don’t have to be so spoon-fed all the time and it’s story and pace that count ultimately.

Hopefully the success of this will show Hollywood that the public don’t have to be so spoon-fed all the time and it’s story and pace that count ultimately.

Dredd’s worldwide box office was $8 million less than its budget, so I don’t think Hollywood would term it a success, even if it was critically acclaimed (and it was).

Have you ever seen the fantastic 30 Rock “Class Reunion” eppisode…. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reunion_(30_Rock)

Most people live for the simple pleasure of interactive communication…. getting drunk, living life, being simple…

Then you have the intellectual nerd, into comics and other sci-fi dorkyness, filled with hatred for those who seem to have happiness from their dull experiance. He/she is snarky, some what depressed, a target for ridicule! In reality the turd in the bowl that made everyones life less easy to deal with. Sometimes the problem is ME! And I understand my inability to get those High School neanderthals (thinking of them so, makes my point) to get into the dorkitude of my chosen anti-social aestetic: I was way too bitter against them to try (until I stoped being bitter, and found them to be of a like mind),

I am happy that I no longer have the hang-ups that seperated me from the popular crew, and am quite pleased that they are into the cool stuff I was back when I was too busy being counter to their culture. Baaahhhh I’m rambling, sorry!

I don’t really mind that comics movies have become mainstream but I have to agree that I am so bored with the story structure of most of these films you are talking about and also the similarities of main characters. There is so much creativity on the effects and setting front but not enough in plot development. The Spider-Man thing is a prime example of this. Rebooting is obnoxious in the extreme. It would be different if the last film in the series was 20 years ago, and even then… if it was done well the first time, why not build off that, even if the actor has changed? And I think Raimi is a great director and he did the job well. It is almost an insult to him that the production house saw the need to reboot the project.

Also, when planning a trilogy, they need to act like the films are an actual trilogy, like the in the case of The Lord of the Rings. It’s okay to end on a cliffhanger or a downbeat like in The Empire Strikes Back. Those examples are stronger films than most blockbusters being made now because they were not afraid to take chances with story structure. There doesn’t need to be a separate villain in each chapter that they need to overcome to move on. It just creates the same third act in all three films: a large drag-out fight that you lose interest in halfway through because you couldn’t follow it.

As much as I grew up with comics and still enjoy them now, the films I am interested in aren’t really related to the field. I didn’t see a whole lot of films in 2012 but if I were to rank the films I saw, I doubt a comic book movie would show up in my top 10 of the year.

Again, the real culprits here are Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and George Lucas’s Star Wars. Campbell arguably boiled down all the great heroic myths to a certain structure and certain mandatory elements. Lucas popularized the idea of deliberately using the Monomyth as a screenwriting manual, to specifically construct a myth with the Monomyth concepts as a guide. A big part of the Monomyth is the idea of a guy who is “born special” and with a grand destiny, even if no one around him or even he himself quite knows it yet.

For example if you watch the original Star Trek, Kirk was not born special and was not born with a grand destiny. He was just a smart, hard worker who made his way through the ranks. He took risks, used his brains, was resilient, and never gave up. Great work ethic. He was also something of a wonk and a nerd and had a strong intellectual curiosity. The new Star Trek, we are beat over the head that Kirk is born special, that he has a grand destiny. In fact he’s so great he doesn’t HAVE to work hard, things just go his way almost as he disdainfully goes out of his way to be cocky and self-destructive and arrogant. If anything, if Kirk worked TOO hard it would work against his character for modern audiences because it would undermine the idea that he was born special. If he has to bust his ass to succeed hes not special, he’s normal. That’s why new Kirk goes from Cadet to Captain in like a week. You see this in modern heroes like Neo from the Matrix. On the outside he’s just a cubicle jockey but secretly he is born special and has a grand destiny. He’s hand picked. He does zero hard work. Even a training montage is too much work, he just has to play a video game and rely on natural instincts that only he was born with and he’s now a god. Compare that to Rocky. Not born special at all and has to struggle and work for decades. No grand destiny at all. Not chosen for anything but has to beat down doors for things instead.

We really need to gt screenwriters off their Campbell and Lucas kick.

There’s a good article I’d like to recommend about the homogenization of geek culture tht is highly related to Greg’s excellent one above:
http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/01/jj-abrams-star-wars-and-the-homogenization-of-geek-pop

I also want to add, we had a debate a few years ago about Patton Oswalt’s piece about weak otaku. He said that the ability for anyone to become an expert in anything overnight thanks to DVD box sets, torrents, message boards, the Internet, was creating fandoms that were no longer narrow but deep but were instead wide but shallow. Weak fans. It took no investment or effort or hurdles to cross to become a hardcore fan.

I think this homogenization of geek culture highly related to Oswalt’s weak otaku argument as well. Since now everyone is acquainted with everything since every remotely interesting genre is widely disseminated and instantly accessible, everything is influencing everything and now everything is becoming the same. Audiences are now aware of more tropes from more genre works than ever and that means hack screenwriters who are lazy can draw from a wider pool of cliches because they know audiences are acquainted with a far wider range of genre fiction.

In media res. Stories like these can be handled brilliantly starting in the middle. How many comic readers did not start reading their favorite series with the first issue or origin? I bet most. And they figured out the characters. The least important part is how the character got powers; the most important is what they do with the powers. A great Spiderman movie could have just started full-blown with him swinging through New York, quipping, and bringing it to the bad guy. We don’t need to see him bit by a spider for the umpteenth time; if you don’t know who Spiderman is (even if you are 5 years old) then I am willing to bet you are not attending the movie anyway. The origin could be a 10 second flashback. The drama should be elsewhere, How many of the best comic arcs you have read have anything to do with the origin? Put those great arcs on the screen.

Funny thing I just remembered…. Way back in the late ’70s-early ’80s, before Tim Burton signed on to do BATMAN, Tom Mankievicz (writer of SUPERMAN, LADYHAWKE and a whole bunch of Bond movies) was signed to write a Batman script. In an interview (probably in Starlog) he made the comment that he felt a Batman movie had to start in the middle of the action and not worry a lot about the origin. The quote I remember was “nobody wants to watch Bruce Wayne do push-ups for 20 minutes.”

Today every damn superhero movie has the hero doing push-ups for 20 minutes.

The one superhero trope that ROCKY III missed was “the hero and villain create each other and are locked in a symbiotic death-struggle.” Tim Burton invented that when he turned Joe Chill into the Joker, and from then on, it’s shoved into every story; Daredevil’s father was murdered by a thug who became the Kingpin; Peter Parker was bitten by a spider at Oscorp where the same research produced Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, and the Lizard, and Uncle Ben was murdered by the Sandman; Ras Al Ghul caused the urban blight that led to the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne; Jor-El was killed by Zod; etcetera ad nauseum.

This is the one thing we need to kill.

@ T.

Brilliant comment.

The difference is between having a protagonist that is a boy and a protagonist that is man. Luke Skywalker was a boy hero. He was petulant and self-involved, but it was fine because he had special talents that gave him a special destiny. The monomyth framework works great for boy-heroes. It works so well that we have imposed it on the lives of actual people.

However, it is limited. It only concerns boys and, therefore, has limited interest in girls and men. Women don’t fit into the narrative at all.

For better or worse, Captain Kirk used to be a grown man. William Shatner was cast in the part as a 35 year-old. He had a profession and established relationships. He had decided how he was going to conduct him romantic life.

@ JimMacQ:

The most egregious example of needless push-up/sewing the suit nonsense had to be GREEN LANTERN. The narrative of the movie comes to a dead halt so that Hal Jordan can travel to Oa, train with a bunch of characters that have nothing to do with the main story and set-up a sequel that was never to be. Not that the rest of the movie was pure genius, but that sequence just killed it.

Again, the real culprits here are Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and George Lucas’s Star Wars. Campbell arguably boiled down all the great heroic myths to a certain structure and certain mandatory elements. Lucas popularized the idea of deliberately using the Monomyth as a screenwriting manual, to specifically construct a myth with the Monomyth concepts as a guide.

What’s funny about this is that all the Campbell hoorah was mostly Lucas putting a fig leaf over how much of STAR WARS was lifted straight from comics and old SF serials, trying to persuade interviewers that it was really okay for so many people to like his movie. The original from 1977 owes a hell of a lot more to Jack Kirby than to Campbell; Darth Vader is pretty much a spacegoing Dr. Doom with the serial numbers filed off, and there’s a lot of New Gods in there too. It’s a shame it stuck. T’s right; Campbell’s book isn’t a manual. I can imagine a lot of studio guys barking things like, “Who the hell is this Campbell? Let’s get him on the phone and get a deal done.”

Speaking of screenwriting and plot construction, screenwriter and occasional CSBG commenter Matt Bird has a much better manual getting built a post at a time over at his blog Cockeyed Caravan. I don’t always agree but he’s a smart guy saying things I wish more writers took to heart.

Then you have the intellectual nerd, into comics and other sci-fi dorkyness, filled with hatred for those who seem to have happiness from their dull experience. He/she is snarky, somewhat depressed, a target for ridicule! In reality the turd in the bowl that made everyones life less easy to deal with. Sometimes the problem is ME!

And sometimes the problem is the sociopaths tormenting you for years and adults who refuse to believe it’s anything more than boys being boys. I can see where you might think otherwise given the throwaway reference at the opening, but what you describe was not what happened to me. Your idea that it was all my fault and I should have just ‘gotten over it’ and made everyone’s life easier was a big part of the reason I got beat up and harassed for YEARS and no one did anything about it, though.

JimMacQ
July 7, 2013 at 10:29 am

“The one superhero trope that ROCKY III missed was “the hero and villain create each other and are locked in a symbiotic death-struggle.” Tim Burton invented that when he turned Joe Chill into the Joker”

============================

I think Wes Craven deserves status as originator of that trend, as 1982′s The Swamp Thing may have been the first film to put the hero’s main villain in his origin. In the original comics, Arcane was not responsible for Holland becoming the Swamp Thing (or rather his memories being imprinted on vegetable matter…..) or for the death of Linda Holland. In the original stories, a white collar conspirator named Nathan Ellery and his coterie the Conclave sought the formula and caused these events. However, the 1982 film made Arcane responsible.

To give Wes Craven some leeway, he did not have a huge budget from the producer (the same producer, who, oddly enough, also funded the 1989 Tim Burton film-they used the money from Swamp Thing to generate some quick funds before they could get funding for a big film). So, I can understand why he decided to simplify the story. In the original tales, Arcane comes out of “left field”, a sort of stereotypical mad scientist/sorcerer out of Berni Wrightson’s playbook in a generic Transylvania.

Also in 1982, Conan the Barbarian had Thulsa Doom as the slayer of Conan’s parents, something unheard of before that point. However, Conan did not start in comic books, so that may not count.

The initial douchiness is also a part of Campbell’s monomyth theory. One of the stages is the refusal of the call to adventure. Modern screenwriters and audiences, since we glorify douchey bad boys to a large degree now in this age of brashness, celebrity obsession, swag, social media, and reality TV, equate refusing a call to action with being a douche. Think about it, how would a frat-bro or cool kid refuse any request today? Politely? With vulnerability? Or with an in your face too cool for school snarkiness? Hollywood obsessed with 18-34 year old frat bros and cool kids so the monomyth has to be filtered through those sensibilities. So the refusal to call to adventure stage of the monomyth thanks to their limited imagination can only be done like a smirky frat-bro Abercrombie model (Abrams Kirk) or too cool for school American Apparel indie kid (Garfield’s Peter Parker).

Screenwriters need to realize there are more story possibilities out there than playing Mad Libs with the monomyth outline and they also need to realize there are more young male characters than the angry young frat-bro and the angry young emo indie kid.

Pete Woodhouse

July 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Agreed about the origin story. It turns too many SF or superhero film scripts into traffic jams, resulting in a too ponderous or overlong end result.
The intro to All Star Superman suffices – what was it, a few caption boxes with fewer than a dozen words?

Greg, you’ve excelled yourself this week! Very thought-provoking.

Thanks for the shout-out, Greg!

On the one hand, I sometimes get frustrated with fans who complain about origin stories, even when they’re clearly necessary (“Why couldn’t they just have started with a Green Lantern adventure from the middle of his career?” “Uh… because audiences would have been utterly baffled.”) but It’s no surprise that in most superhero franchise, the second movie is everyone’s favorite (Superman 2, X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, etc.)

Part of the problem, a “T” points out, is that the douchiness is way too generic (Andrew Garfield’s Peter insists on riding his skateboard through the halls in school? Really? Is he Bart Simpson now?) and it’s pushed way too far (Ryan Reynold’s Hal was a flat-out monster. I kept waiting for a hero to come along and defeat him.)

In this post, I talks about one of the fundamental problems movies have when they adapt comics:

http://cockeyedcaravan.blogspot.com/2010/07/storytellers-rulebook-34-movies-wont.html

Movies are really bad at showing someone doing a good thing everyday (or at least Hollywood *thinks* they’re bad at that). American movies are all about catharsis: breaking through, rising above and reaching a peak. They shun “day in the life” stories, which describes most non-origin superhero stories.

This is one reason why I wish Hollywood would do more super-hero spin-offs. I liked that “Man of Steel” set up a Supergirl spin-off (all that talk about colonies) because that’s a way to finally get a girl-superhero movie without a lot of new mythology building. I was asked at one point (by an outside producer who had an opportunity to pitch to Marvel) to submit a treatment for a “Kitty Pryde” movie, which I had a tremendous amount of fun writing. They’ve got these universes set-up now, so hopefully they won’t have to spend as much time laying pipe.

@ Matt Bird

Wonderful blog.

One of the great things about superhero stories is that so many of them have that magical moment of transformation (e.g.- Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, Jonathan Kent shows Clark what is buried in the barn). The problem is that few of them really came from a character-driven place in their original interpretation. Tony Stark had a lot of his depth added in stories that appeared decades after his debut.

Most of the sense of comic superheroes as well-rounded characters comes from years of immersion. Movies just don’t have nearly that much room to tell their stories. Good superhero screenplays should do a lot of editing things down. Characters need to get combined, events compressed and that risks alienating the core audience.

@ T.

I’ve given some thought to your weak otaku point and it has a lot of merit. George Lucas was quoting an awful lot of stuff in STAR WARS, but most of it was pretty damn obscure to the mainstream film audience of the time. As a kid, I didn’t get THE SEARCHERS references and I certainly missed the Kurasowa references and Fritz Lang ones and on and on.

The movies that are coming out this summer are referencing hit films from 30 years ago that have been in the culture ever since. You don’t have to work very hard to get the WRATH OF KHAN allusions in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Somehow, that makes them less meaningful.

I’ve given some thought to your weak otaku point and it has a lot of merit. George Lucas was quoting an awful lot of stuff in STAR WARS, but most of it was pretty damn obscure to the mainstream film audience of the time. As a kid, I didn’t get THE SEARCHERS references and I certainly missed the Kurasowa references and Fritz Lang ones and on and on.

The movies that are coming out this summer are referencing hit films from 30 years ago that have been in the culture ever since. You don’t have to work very hard to get the WRATH OF KHAN allusions in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Somehow, that makes them less meaningful.

Yes, and a big difference is that because Lucas wasn’t relying on his audience to recognize the references, he was using them not as nods, winks, or easter eggs but as full-fledged elements of his story. Now with the weak otaku driven homogenization of pop/geek culture, references and influences are used primarily to be recognized by fans, in the form of easter eggs, nods, and winks. Abrams Star Trek is a prime example of this glorified easter egg hunt trend. It makes the use of influences an exercise in gratuitous excess rather than a useful repurposing.

“It’s not exactly fair using the Avengers as a film that didn’t use the “origins” template when you factor in that Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man were all “origin” films that used the same old clichés of the douchebag becoming bigger than himself.”

Actually, the Captain America film featured almost everyone else EXCEPT Steve Rogers being a douchebag…

I’m pretty much of the same mind as this guy. I’ve loved superheroes since I was a kid, but modern movies are now just milking them for all they’ve got, and doing as much bad as good to the comics industry.
And he’s got a point about the origin stories; the best TV adaptations didn’t waste countless episodes on it, most either filled us in on backstory later on or just slipped in a few casual references to give us an idea.

Or there’s something I like bringing up: The Amazing Spider-Man movie. Not only was it a film that did not need to be made, but over an hour is wasted on origin when every moviegoer already knows it from the Tobey Maguire films. Couldn’t they have done what The Incredible Hulk movie did and have the whole origin done in the opening credits? Five minutes to spit the ‘how it happened’ out and you can move on with the real story, ‘what’s happening now’.

This is why the X-Men films (The Last Stand excepted) are some of the stronger superhero films

Sam Robards, Comic Fan

July 10, 2013 at 6:57 am

I can agree that a lot of super hero movies have utilized the formula, but there are two instances where I think the formula works: when the mass audience doesn’t really know the character or instances where the origin is a key part of later stories.

Iron Man and Thor are two good examples of introducing the character to audiences, and Amazing Spider-Man could be an example of using the origin as a means of delivering future stories, depending on what happens in the sequels.

There are some recent films that have skipped or skimmed over the origin, with the main example being Incredible Hulk. It skimmed over the origin in the opening credits and spent the rest of the movie getting to the action.

But yeah, I would definitely like to see more super hero films play with their structures and character arcs a bit. I mean, I don’t want to see Thor go through his douchebag phase again in The Dark World. I want to see him act heroically and hit things with this hammer (in addition to his character and relationship building, of course).

It’s not just the heroes, but the villains, too. In both cases, something traumatic occurs (in Superman’s case, it’s finding out that he’s an alien from outer space). The difference in the heroes and villains is how they react to the trauma. The heroes use it to become a force for good, the villains use it as a revenge motive.

Indiana Jones wants money?

I guess Dean Hacker and I saw COMPLETELY DIFFERENT VERSIONS of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“THAT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!”

The reason your 15-year-olds get it and the Hollywood execs don’t is that your 15yo’s don’t have a career tied to the performance of stories they approve. The exec is going to go with what Aunt Pearl in the Midwest can understand, and not much further.

This is probably why the second movie in a lot of superhero movies is better: We got through all the origin stuff and get straight into what makes the comic fun. I always have a problem when it takes the superhero too long to put on his costume because we, for some reason, need to watch his journey.
I think the reason this template repeats is because every movie is about change of some kind, about the main character going from being one type of person to another. So, you go from a normal guy to a super guy, which should be enough, but Hollywood writers usually think this is not a big enough change.
I can forgive Spider-Man movies, because in both movies he starts off as a nice enough nerdy guy and when he gets the power it goes to his head until he learns the great lesson that every Spider-Man fan knows my heart. Thor and Iron Man were definitely always arrogant jerks that needed to learn humility before becoming heroes. I was even cool with Batman Begin scene, where Bruce Wayne is about to shoot Joe Chill himself but it is already done by one of Carmine Falcone’s lackeys, because it gave depth to the character, showing how close he came to breaking the moral code Batman would later have.
Where I have a problem is where it is grafted on the character, because writers felt said character was not flawed enough. I think of Green Lantern, where, on the surface, he is like Hal Jordan was before he became Green Lantern (brash and a womanizer). But, some failed psych major had to make all this character flaws caused by daddy issues, rather than this is how any guy would act if given the advantages Hal Jordan had, and had to throw in a ridiculous excuse for him to suddenly quit being a hero halfway through. I’m sorry, but that’s ‘Spider-Man no more’, not ‘Green Lantern no more’.

I wonder if this is related to so many TV shows tendency to have characters grow as people, learn to adjust to things, and immediately go right back to their cliched and jerktastic behavior in the following season as if it never happened. I’ve stopped watching quite a few shows because of this.

@ Wayne: “The exec is going to go with what Aunt Pearl in the Midwest can understand, and not much further.”

Or, what the exec believes Aunt Pearl will understand based on the spreadsheets and figures marketing prepares for him. Aunt Pearl used to enjoy and appreciate the complexities of movies like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Dog Day Afternoon” when it was presented to her. There’s a vicious feedback loop in the system that creates the myth of an unsophisticated Midwest.

>> “till comic book movies become box office poison or do a howard the duck or elektra hollywood will keep making them ”

I can understand the contempt for Elektra. It was a terrible spin-off to an already middling movie. The disdain for Howard the Duck….. I’m not sure I get that. No. I’m not joking. Hear me out

Did HtD faithfully offer up social commentary like the Gerber original. Certainly not. For anybody looking for a truly subversive and insightful comic movie, HtD was a travesty. It was definitely a blemish on Lucasfilm’s post Star Wars record.

However, to a certain extent, Howard the Duck (the movie) really did kinda represent where Marvel was back in 1986. Put aside the pioneering work that they were doing on their core books like X-Men, Thor, Spider-Man, and so forth. Their slate was also filled with a lot of campy fluff.

Marvel, in 1986, was putting out cheesy family friendly stuff like Care Bears, Spider-Ham, Groo, Ewoks, Fraggle Rock, Masters of the Universe, GI Joe, Sectaurs, & Transformers. Frankly, most of their core 616 stuff was hardly as gritty or “mature” as today’s books.

Most of what Marvel was pumping out back in the 80s had camp. I’m not saying that the Byrne/Claremont X-Men was like the Adam West Batman, but these books did have their moments of “pure 80s” to them. That was never more true whenever they tried to be “hip” and “now” with their pop culture stuff.

Like it or not, Howard the Duck and its cheesy 80s synth and wacky, over the top Dark Overlord stuff DID kinda represent 80s comics decently well. I won’t lie. It awesomely failed to tap into the more mature aspects of comics. However, like it or not, Howard did accurately represent the lighter tone of the 80s and 80s comics themselves

People always cite HtD as being the worst comic book movie ever, but I really don’t think that they know what they’re talking about. Expectations were just unreasonably high since Lucas had his name attached.

You still have to give HtD credit though. I wasn’t simply a live action version of Donald Duck with New Wave music. Strip away some elements or change others and Howard the Duck really could’ve been better than good. Much of the movie could’ve been fixed by removing Tim Robbins and make Jeffrey Jones’ Dark Overlord less goofy and mustache twirling. Those two changes alone would’ve made the movie’s comedy and action much darker.

Howard the Duck, if we’re to be honest, wasn’t nearly as bad as you might remember – especially in context. I can name WAY worse comic movies, big screen or otherwise.

- Corman’s Fantastic Four
- Man Thing
- Steel
- Nick Fury
- Elektra
- Batman & Robin
- Superman 4
- Captain America `90
- Blade Trinity
- Catwoman

I can keep going too. Those movies just make Howard the Duck look like Schindler’s List. =)

What I want from a modern comic movie….

- Bare bones origin. If you can’t tell it in a 5 or 10 minute flashback, skip it.
- More fun. Not camp, but fun. Don’t be afraid to make us laugh or smile. Everything’s just too grim nowadays.
- Embrace the wackier aspects of comics. I want my Kirby Crackle. I want my epic Glactus. I want my Squirrel Girl or Great Lakes Avengers/X-Men/Initiative. I want villains like MODOK or green armored Lex Luthor.
- Don’t be afraid of real costumes. Spandex isn’t as toxic as you think. I want a real Wolverine costume damnit.
- Keep the villains alive DAMNIT!! =) Except for a few, most comic baddies die or get permanently neutralized at the end. Zod. Green Goblin. Venom. Galactus. Parallax. Joker (Burton). And so on. It’s hard to build a Sinister Six when you kill them off one by one. Rogues galleries are important.
- Tell larger than life stories. Stories about characters are awesome. I love personal stuff. HOWEVER, I want to see more epic scenes. Sentinels. Skrull invasions. Red Lanterns. Dark, alt APOCALYPtic futures. Go big or go home.

They already did a Superman reboot without the origin story, it was called Superman Returns and it was terrible.

They already did a Superman reboot without an origin story, it was called Superman Returns and it was terrible!

One of the dumbest, whiniest articles I have ever read. Seriously. I try to be a positive person on he internet, but fuck… if this weren’t an article, but a real conversation, I would’ve walked out on you after a few sentences.

The plot description you gave doesn’t fit on all the movies you listed. For example, Bruce was not a selfish jerk, Clark was not a selfish jerk. Peter was not a selfish jerk. What you said, you pulled straight out of your ass.
its like saying ” oh man, so stupid that all action movies revolve around a guy who uses a gun/martial arts to beat the bad guys”.

Your argument makes me so angry, I don’t even want to list what I think is wrong with it all, because it would make my head explode. You are the prime example of angry old fanboy, who will never be pleased with anything they give you, its disgusting. How can you complain about superhero movies, in an age that gave us Dark Knight, Avengers, Watchmen and Man of Steel!?!?!? All of them were great (in my eyes at least) and are VASTLY different movies.
What you are doing is complaining about tropes of the heroic fiction genre. If you hate this then you shouldn’t read comics, man, because its much worse there.

Man, do I hate the old guy comicbook fans negativity. If you old guys are so bitter about this hobby, maybe you should drop it. I am reading so many books each month and enjoy them all. When I dislike one, I drop it and do not rant or hate about it. The same goes for movies. I am so happy to live in a time where Hollywood takes those stories seriously and people who don’t read comics finally get whats so great about those characters and it makes me sick to read those long complain lists about bullshit that is not even an issue.

Man, I really hate this part of fandom you currently represent to a T.
I love most of Marvels books right now, love a lot about the New 52, am happy about every single comicbook movie that is made with quality in mind (which is most of them today, which is great!) and am just happy.
I loved MoS, I loved DarkKnight Rises. Sue me.

Chris – Superman Returns wasn’t terrible because it lacked an origin

Heck this has been happening in comic books too, pretty much since The Dark Knight Returns! – The Flash, one of the most happy go luck heroes of all now broods over his murder mother thanks to Geoff Johns.

In movies, maybe this will stop once we get more chapters of a the characters and fewer reboots.

One of the dumbest, whiniest articles I have ever read. Seriously. I try to be a positive person on he internet, but fuck… if this weren’t an article, but a real conversation, I would’ve walked out on you after a few sentences

So what? If your maturity level is such that you can’t handle a contrary opinion no matter how rationally expressed, backed up, and thought out, to the point you have to walk out on a conversation rather than display intellectual curiosity and maturity and make the intellectual effort to defend your position, then driving you away from a conversation is not a loss at alL, it’s a good thing. If you need things to follow some vague principle of being universally positive toward things you like in order to have value, maybe reading criticism isn’t for you. It’s almost like a veiled form of entitlement. I assume you’re a millenial because I see this weird entitlement in my workplace all the time, where millenial coworkers feel like they’re entitled to never have to hear anything they disagree with or that makes them feel bad, no matter how well-intentioned or thought out.

I don’t mean to get so worked up but dealing with trying to discuss criticism with Millenials reminds me of working with them as shown in this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sz0o9clVQu8

“…and I came to the startling realization this week that I kind of hate it. I find myself wishing that Hollywood would just go away and leave us alone.”

It’s funny, I thought I was the only person who felt this way, its nice to hear I’m not alone. I get aggravated when people think they’re Spider-Man experts b/c they’ve seen a few movies or read a few wiki entries. My longboxes full of books are my rite of passage, it’d be nice if these ‘experts’ did the same. I notice the same thing occurring in the music industry, when I was young hiphop was in its infancy, now its everywhere and its lost a lot of its appeal, imo.

“Is there anyone at this point that doesn’t understand who Superman is? Or Captain Kirk, or the Hulk, or Batman? … Why not trust the audience to have enough of a clue that it’s okay to just get on with it?”

I think this point underlies the cause of the problem. Superhero movies aren’t made for die-hard comic fans, they’re made for everyone else. Again, I don’t think that necessitates an origin story but I can see why filmakers lean toward ‘introducing the character to the audience with an origin story’. Although more Americans probably know who the Hulk is vs their State Representatives…

I don’t mean to get so worked up but dealing with trying to discuss criticism with Millenials reminds me of working with them as shown in this video….

I was just telling Julie, “Geez, this one must have made the CBR front page.” I can always tell because the comments section is swarmed by people who are mad at me for violating the superhero loyalty oath, or who are in a rage over the imaginary article they think I wrote rather than the actual one in print above. Or both.

And sure enough, it’s on the front page. Never fails.

I really liked Hancock, and note that we didn’t get his “origin story” until near the end, and when we learned it, that answered a lot of questions. I note that there was a lot of damage done in the movie, which as you note is to be expected — but not because the hero was fighting a bad guy but because, while he was drunk (if he actually could get drunk and wasn’t instead using that as a cover for his deep depression), trains ran into him and he tossed cars around and that kind of thing. I hope they get around to making a sequel — I want to know what happens next!

This is not a zero sum game. The OP is a whiny old fanboy, but Hollywood is overly obsessed with crapping out origin story after origin story. This is the last stage for the major superhero characters before they (hopefully) move into the public domain in a few decades. They are really no longer characters, just IPs being exploited by massive corporations. Despite doing a great job overall, Marvel is leading the origin parade, I’m thinking Phase 3 will be stocked with origin stories, especially with contracts wrapping up for all the Phase 1 and 2 actors. It does suck, but the change will have to come from some smaller project massively outperforming a major superhero movie and the corporate stooges hurrying to copy the success. But since almost all superhero properties are held by major corporations, that’s unlikely.

And movies like Chronicle proved that origin stories can still be fun, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

I completely agree. Instead of making individual movies, DC should just start with a JLA movie. Everyone knows who Superman and Batman are. Wonder Woman isn’t complete unfamiliar to the mainstream. If anyone needs to know about Flash or GL they can look it up online.

Sadly, there is now a new formula within the formula. Now its tell your origin in a 3 movie arc….THEN tell it again with a slight twist (Spiderman). Hollywood now just sees the dollar signs from these early films and their origin stories and will continue to crank out more. Origin story…3 flicks and done. Rince and repeat. It’ll be interesting to see if we will see an Iron Man 4…or a new guy in the armor once Avengers has run its course

They did it right with the Incredible Hulk movie. They did the origin during the opening credits. So, when the credits were done, we went right into the movie and didn’t have to sit through another 45 minute origin that everyone knows and has seen before.

Would that our world is a disappointment?

Penguinslayer7

July 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I agree, part of what makes comic books great is the ability to jump between and play to different genres. It would be nice to see different heroes play to different concepts. Just with the existence of various things (ie. super-powers) added in.
Like a Heroes for Hire movie that’s more Lethal Weapon or the Other Guys than Spider-man. Iron Fist and Luke Cage are partners, show off their powers, maybe in the film people ask how bullets bounce off Cage. Have car chases, and chasing D list villains to get to the big Crime Lord.
Let the 3 part Super-man plot get used somewhere else.

I swear, comic book nerds are the worst, & I hate to even be associated with them, most of the time. They say the dumbest things, for the sake of trying to sound intellectual. For example:

1) The writer claims the comic book movies basically all have the same pathos, & are formulaic. Number one, so what??? So do most chick-flicks, but you don’t see women complaining, as they like up at theaters, or turn on tue Lifetime channel, to watch a marathon of the same rehashed love story.

And number two, did this guy ever stop to think that maybe superhero movies are formulaic, because the comics they are based on, are also formulaic? And thus, it’s not really Hollywood’s fault?

Comic publishers create the characters/stories that Hollywood draws from, not vice versa. So isn’t your grievance misdirected? Unless of course, your grievance is also with the publishers (& something tells me that it is; you seem like just the type to launch into a wordy tirade, about how fill-in-the-blank publisher is “ruining *your* characters).

2) You complain about the origin stories being redone…

You ever stop to think that not everybody is a comic nerd like you, & has never heard of GL prior to the movie? Pr that not everyone on the planet was born in the 70′s/80′s, when Christopher Reeves was Superman?

The purpose of these films (rebooted origins & all),is the same as with the New 52 or Marvel Now: to refresh the mythologies, & update them for a newer audience. And as even you admitted, most of these are done quite well. So what exactly is your beef? The origin stories only account for the first film.The goal is to create an ongoing franchise, or a trilogy at the very least, the likes of TF’s, X-Men, Spiderman, Blade, Batman, & Iron Man.

Were you concerned with Tony Stark’s origin during IM3? Or Bruce Wayne’s origin during DKR?

Less than a decade ago, super hero movies were barely a blip on Hollywood’s radar. Now they are the star attraction, & a major part of the movie going experience, especially during the summer.

While you’re sitting around being petty, nitpicky, & difficult to please, I’m enjoying all these super hero films (even the not-so-good ones),while anxiously looking forward to what comes next.

The most egregious example of the origin story fixation HAS to be Man of Steel, where they felt like they had to cover the destruction of Krypton TWICE! Talk about stopping a movie dead in it’s tracks…

I’ve literally never been exposed to comic book (or general adventure-type) character for the first time with his or her origin and that hasn’t hampered my ability to follow along. I have no idea why the movies feel the compulsory need to start off with the same origin every time.

If comic book movies really want to tell good stories, they should start off with an All-Star Superman-style ultrabrief intro and then get to the damn story.

What is funny, is that I noticed you had actually replied to a post I made and wanted to post an apology for an unintended slight. I have now read a few post that actually attack you for representing all they hate about old gripping fanboys and their bitter arguements and they were left ignored. Whats funny is that in your reply, you called them sociopaths for picking on you as a youth, into the comic culture. The point I was trying to make was that they represent the society! They care about the name if Kanye and Kim’s baby. The think American Idol represents what music should be, and can relate to the goings on of the Jersey Shore. If anyone is the sociopath, it’s the nerd who actually read this funny books back in the day when they were not cool to read, They probably also read other notable works of fiction, found an interest in history, politics and philosophy, engaged in independent thinking and an individualistic lifestyle targeting them for criticism. I learend to embrace this reality, and appreciate my place in my earlier social paradigm, as it made me the man I am today.

The middle road, artistically, is a dull one to travel. Many of the comic books in the mid 90′s were targeted for that middle of the road audience. It’s why there is no way you re-read any issue of X-Factor after Peter David’s first run, or works like The Crossing. The movies are appeling to that same audience. They want to sell tickets. That revenue allows the comic industry to maintain it’s existence. How many people have seen “The Dark Knight Rises” and loved it? How many have seen “Mirror Mask”? I’m still apart of that sociopathic sub-culture and happy to be so.

Hugo Sleestak

July 10, 2013 at 3:01 pm

All of this is why I always loved the 1980 Flash Gordon film. “It doesn’t look anything like Star Wars.” THAT’S RIGHT. Without Star Wars, it probably wouldn’t have been made, but at the same time, it owes absolutely nothing to George Lucas’s little brainchild. That made it perfect for me. Nor did it look like the “gray and beige suits in antiseptic space” junk that came after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and which was one of the less inspiring qualities of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I think most of these movies are just fun. And if you think about the characters and their COMIC BOOK origins…THEY ARE ALSO THE SAME! Spider-man, Thor, Iron Man all went through their arrogant, self-involved stages which brought them to their current noble views on power and responsibility. And DC just loves broody billionaires who take to the streets to beat up the poor, blue collar criminals (Batman, Green Arrow, etc.)

I just have one notion.to add to this, unrelated to the article. Sometimes we deserve the ridicule. I was physically and verbally abused for my interests many many times in my youth. I came to realize early on that it wasn’t my fault. It was a combination of the mentally unstable inside AND outside of fandom. It caused me to distance myself from other fans for their religious zealotry. It is only now, almost 20 years later, that I have rejoined the community, and even then it is with great emotional caution.

I believe that it is partially the fault the people who take this shit WAY TOO SERIOUSLY. Those who petition angrily if anyone tries to modernize an idea or re-imagine a costume so that a female characters breasts and vagina aren’t popping out of the side.

Us nerds are always crying for respect and legitimacy of others, yet it is many in our own community that act like lunatics, and it just invites ridicule and abuse from sociopaths on us all.

Brian from Canada

July 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Blockbusters require two audiences to succeed: the 18-24 male audience, and the parent-child audience. The former is now appeased by visual effects. The latter is now appeased by films that introduce icons of the parent’s childhood to the adult.

And it’s not just superheroes. Just look at Smurfs. The success of that franchise owes a lot to children of the 80s who are now parents and buying the same product for their children, just as they have for Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats, and so on. Studios get a boost in nostalgic product sales too, something they’ve known for years.

Even Star Trek, with its 2009 reboot, was reaching a new audience with the parents’ version — if you were a kid over the last 20 years, you most likely have equal or more reference to Capt.s Picard, Cisco, Janeway and Archer than you to Kirk. And Star Trek’s changed its interactions greatly from Kirk to Picard, not to mention the fact that they had to demonstrate for the audience who was familiar with Kirk how this is a different but same version — something that makes the reboot a success no other franchise can really achieve (even Bond).

So the superhero film is not unique in its need for origin. Where it is unique is the realization on behalf of the studios of its value in the movie.

For one thing: a hero is defined by their villain. But in many cases, the reflection is based on something within the hero’s backstory: scientific genius in Peter Parker, poor home life for Bruce Wayne, Krypton for Clark Kent, etc. So the origin is presented first with emphasis on the aspects that the villain, introduced in act two, will create a challenge for the hero to overcome in order to succeed.

After all, we need to see the hero overcome or else there is no point in calling them a hero. They become… ordinary. And the greater the challenge, the greater the “super” aspect. Plus, for many of the heroes, it IS the father issue that has a dominant place in the hero’s backstory after all these years.

Note that Peter Parker is driven to his ideology by his foster father. Kal-El’s entire life is a balance between the ideologies of Jor-El and Jonathan Kent. Bruce Wayne is in eternal mourning for his father. And when there is no father, there are other family issues as well. Diana defies her overprotective mother. Billy Batson is an orphan who finds stability with his twin sister. The Fantastic Four must balance family dynamics with superheroing. And that’s an added attraction to the family audience because it’s a trope parents AND children can understand.

For another: most of the characters being transferred to film are outdated in terms of origin. All due respect to comic book fans, but the US is not rushing to beat the Soviets into space, testing gamma radiation bombs in the desert, or has kids hawking newspapers or reading the news on the radio. So heroes like The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk and Shazam need to be reframed into today’s context for today’s audience to avoid being a nostalgic piece.

When a film doesn’t — as Dick Tracy, The Shadow, The Phantom and The Rocketeer do — it’s poorly received by Hollywood and audiences in their initial release. I saw all four films in the theatre, bought them on DVD and love each and every one of them for their celebration of a different time, but I can remember the poor reviews and dismal responses by audiences who wanted to see the next re-envisioned Batman.

Reiterating the origin for a new audience in recognizable tropes cements an understanding that will, if done right, make the final battle more valuable. The hero feels a real challenge and gets past to triumph. Which then opens the door for a second film in which the hero becomes more confident against a harder villain, and (if there is a third) then gets their confidence undermined by the third.

That’s a trope from the comics as well. Each new writer chooses an aspect of the origin to refocus on. The character gets stronger. And then they get undermined. X-Men is the ultimate example, as that every so often a new villain comes along to threaten the confidence of one member that weakens the entire group: N’astirh, Sinister, Apocalypse, etc. How many times have we seen Reed & Sue on the verge of breaking up? How many times has Peter Parker gone from a high to a deep low? How many times must Bruce Wayne’s loved ones suffer?

Not that this should be conceived as a trilogy initially. I COMPLETELY disagree with Ryan’s assertion that the Lord Of The Rings is the right model to copy; if anything, trilogies (and duologies like the latter Matrix and Back To The Future films) need to be avoided at all costs. The Lord Of The Rings — like many an HBO series I’d add too! — are a single story divided into multiple parts, best valued as a whole. But watch each individual film on its own and you’ll quickly realize that they are quite weak. Fellowship just… ends. There’s no threat and achievement. Nor is there one in the first Hobbit film, either. And cliffhangers suck as well because they automatically negate the sense of satisfaction for the films.

If anything — and I know this is a bit blasphemous to say — comic films should look to the Fast And Furious franchise as to how series should be constructed. Each film, from 4 through 6, is a complete narrative that has a bonus teaser towards the future, much like Marvel’s phase one films do only with a sense of plot. Watching Iron Man 2 and Thor, it was a confirmation of what’s coming; Fast 5 and 6 end on notes you don’t see coming but make you wonder about the next film much like the shocking revelation that Darth Vader was Luke’s father did back in the early 80s. It opens the doors of possibility to create a demand for the next film without assuming there will automatically be a next film in 2/3 years.

Because that’s ultimately the failing of Man Of Steel, Green Lantern, even Iron Man 3 — as well as non-superhero films like Die Hard 5. There’s the automatic assumption that another one will follow soon because the money will flow in from the last. How many times have we seen sequels ignited before the first one hits the screen?

Comicbooks have taught us audiences come and go as characters fluctuate in popularity. Eventually, this will permeate into Hollywood. But for now, Hollywood is happy celebrating nerd culture because it’s the only part of pop culture they haven’t exploited completely.

Brian from Canada

July 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Alex, much as I’d like to agree, I think there’s a greater argument against the absorption of the nerd culture by Hollywood and mainstream pop culture that’s being completely missed by this author and that of most responders.

Nerd culture was alternative culture. It emphasized a fandom for something that was not representative of the alpha male/alpha female of upper-middle class America. Those middle class individuals responded to sport, while the upper class responded to high art and theatre. What car you drove made a statement. What labels you wore indicated your social class as well.

But now that they are mixed, the formerly sports/car/fashion oriented are identifying themselves by the same terminology of the nerd. Computer power. Technology. Comic and science fiction icons on their t-shirts. What makes the nerd an outsider has vanished to the point that Peter Parker, in The Amazing Spider-Man, is not the glasses-wearing science type, he’s just the brooding one. The science type — or geek — can also be cool, as representative by the reactions to science on shows like Eureka or the modern Doctor Who. In fact, Luke Smith on Sarah Jane Adventures or even Sheldon on Big Bang Theory now have positive values emphasized beyond their brains which wasn’t something you’d see in the mid-80s or before.

And so nerds feel a sense of loss mixed with anger and resentment. They like seeing their dreams come fulfilled on big screens but don’t want everyone to think they’re an expert or experienced in it from a small sample. It’s a simple matter of protectionism for identity against the marginilization of the jock, and preference over the socially negative gangsta.

So…does the origin part of Kick-Ass follow the formula? It certainly doesn’t do the angst thing; it’s simply an “I wanna be a superhero” bit of naive wishfulness.

[...] author points out some interesting factors on the genericization of heroes.  There’s definitely a point here, though I’d say some elements are archetypical.  No [...]

One thing that’s worth noting is that many of the indie superhero movies buck the trends. Now granted, many of them are still dark, but in interesting ways.

Defendor, while a bit single minded in his pursuit of “Captain Industry”, is a kind soul and an inspirational hero from the get-go. The Crimson Bolt from the movie Super is in some ways more morally questionable than the initially selfish heroes, but his primary motivation is to rescue his wife from her drug dealer. All Superheroes Must Die focuses more on the end of a group of heroes rather than their beginning. And it could be argued that the lead character in Sidekick is selfish (single-minded in terms of wanting to be a sidekick) but *not* a jerk (his main problem is his inability to realize how much of a jerk the guy with the powers really is).

We probably do need more outright light fun hero movies like the Phantom (which wisely got most of the origin over with in a voiceover at the beginning) but I think the indie superhero movies are worth a look for people looking for superhero material that’s a bit different.

Hmm? Maybe that’s why I enjoyed Superman Returns more?
But well put. Comic movies do have too similar formulas for stories and plots, and as others have pointed out, use the same tropes(i.e. the villain almost always dies) where there needs to be more originality and creativity..

What is funny, is that I noticed you had actually replied to a post I made and wanted to post an apology for an unintended slight. I have now read a few post that actually attack you for representing all they hate about old griping fanboys and their bitter arguments and they were left ignored.

‘Left ignored’ is a little strong. Much as I’d love to respond to everything everyone says, there aren’t enough hours in the day.

Actually, what’s funny is how many people are either answering arguments I did not MAKE, or mis-characterizing what I wrote. I’m pretty damn sure that at least half of the people who are apparently so wound up over what they THINK I wrote didn’t finish the article, read only every third word, or are apparently so incapable of holding more than one idea at a time that they think everyone has as binary a world-view as they do. I have not responded to all of them because, for God’s sake, I have a JOB. I WORK during the day. And believe it or not, I don’t have THAT much skin in the game.

I responded to YOU because of your glib dismissal of something that is frankly a bit of a hot-button issue for me, and I linked you to the reason why. I wrote about that issue at length and published it and there’s really no mystery about it. I even admitted asking for it, I probably shouldn’t have made light of it as a hook to hang THIS article on; but the irony of getting my wish, and seeing what that has turned out to be, struck me as mildly amusing.

Apparently it has sent many others into paroxysms of rage that I dared to suggest that we’re not in the BEST EVER GOLDEN AGE OF SUPERHERO MOVIES, or that I pointed out that it’s actually possible to tell different stories different ways and that that’s PREFERABLE. Or something. I’m not even sure why most of these people who are so mad at me for being a bitter old fanboy that they would walk out of a room with me in it (but nevertheless are in such a fury they have to write out all my failings) are even HERE to be honest. But whatever. I assure you I am not including you in that lot. And life is too short to try and correct the internet. But your particular point seemed to call for a clarification of my actual position. Which brings me to…

Whats funny is that in your reply, you called them sociopaths for picking on you as a youth, into the comic culture.

What’s funny is that you keep saying ‘what’s funny’ as though it’s some sort of mystery, like I’m trying to get away with something illicit. I called the sociopaths of my childhood “sociopaths” because that’s what they were. I am totally willing to lump in anyone else who excuses them or any other brutal vicious bully as being ‘just in fun’ or ‘part of growing up’ or whatever as being equally uncaring and thus equally worthy of contempt. That’s the beginning and the end of my position on the matter and there’s nothing particularly mysterious, hypocritical, or ‘funny’ about it. If you are NOT saying that, if you are NOT in the ‘well, what did you say to make them MAD?’ category, then forget it– chances are I misread what you’re trying to say. We’re cool. But if you ARE, then you are part of the bullying problem in this country and as a working educator I assure you it is NOT something to just shrug off as part of the culture.

***

As for the rest of you people out there who are in such a rage? Jesus Christ. How binary are you? If I didn’t care for MAN OF STEEL, it doesn’t automatically mean that I adored SUPERMAN RETURNS. The point is, the point in the column I actually WROTE, is that we now have a formula and that formula is becoming tiresome. It doesn’t disprove the thesis to yell at me that some movies don’t USE the formula. Hey, more power to them. To suggest that some movies can be done BETTER or that other movies are looking a bit too homogenous is not the same thing, AT ALL, as being a ‘bitter old fanboy,’ nor is it code for “I want all movie adaptations to look exactly the same as the source comic books from whence they came.” It’s what I said. Formula movies are tiresome and I’d like to see some variety. Period. There’s no hidden subtext. I spelled it out as clearly as possible. It’s really possible to love superheroes, love movies, and still occasionally wish that we got better ones. Why that seems to enrage some folks so, I have no idea.

Thank you Greg Hatcher. Your article sums up exactly my own discontent with the raft of films coming out. I’ve wanted these films for so long (I’m 54!) but now – while many are good – many appear so leaden, so formulaic and so SIMILAR.

We don’t need origin stories in every film.

I am dreading how this approach may sink any Justcie League movie.

This is the dumbest thing I’ve read in years. You obviously have a simple mind and can’t think outside the box when watching all those movies you listed.

What does it say about us Americans as a culture that we like so many of our heroes to be spoiled self-centered douchebags first who have to be offered an explicit, spelled-out chance to become something greater? Why are 1% heroes like Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, Thor (since he’s Norse royalty), etc. popular even amongst audiences who fall into the rest of the 99?

Brian from Canada
July 10, 2013 at 5:42 pm

When a film doesn’t [update the setting] — as Dick Tracy, The Shadow, The Phantom and The Rocketeer do — it’s poorly received by Hollywood and audiences in their initial release. I saw all four films in the theatre, bought them on DVD and love each and every one of them for their celebration of a different time, but I can remember the poor reviews and dismal responses by audiences who wanted to see the next re-envisioned Batman.

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This reminds me:

http://monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.com/search/topic/topic/14296#.UeFYeRzGqL8

http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com/2013/01/second-times-charm-part-01-when-x-men.html

Perhaps the success of Indiana Jones and to a lesser degree the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman (whose first season took place during World War II) inspired period piece approach for the Phantom (whose strip updates itself, having run without interruption since 1936 to present) in the 1996 film and Dick Tracy in the 1990 film (same situation, from 1931 to present). (Of course, the Shadow has largely not had new prose adventures since the 1960′s tales by Dennis Lynds.)

Someone observed this to compare and contrast the reception of those period piece adventure films:

There’s another difference between RAIDERS [of the Lost Ark] and these other films (besides the
fact that it’s just a better film, I mean)… TEN YEARS. Seriously, those ten
years make a big difference; in the early 1980′s, your average moviegoer under
25 would have been exposed to the old movies,and to a lesser degree, the pulp
fiction, that inspired RAIDERS (remember, there was a bit of a nostalgia craze
in the 1970′s, and although it was focused on the Fifties, there was also some
renewed interest in the Thirties, with films like THE STING and reprints of guys
like Robert E. Howard). By the 1990′s, reruns of black-and-white movies were
almost non-existant, and the whole CONCEPT of “nostalgia” had been co-opted. [Reruns on UHF channels of black and white films had petered out due to infomercials.]

Later comic book based films seem to emphasize modern slang and music, which obviously a period piece film set in the 1930′s or 1940′s would less obviously do.

I think there are too many people creating these stories who think being a self-centred douchebag is so normal that they need to expose the character to trauma to make them a hero (and thus disregard the multitude of good people in the world who do good/noble/heroic things without any past trauma – yeah I get that corporations and governments are greedy and corrupt- but there are still good individuals out there).

I’m not really that interested in origins – I’m more interested in what they do afterwards (this is my main dislike against the first Fantastic Four film – it was all origin and clearing up mess caused by the origin leaving them no time to make the world a better place).

One problem with reboots is they tend to lead to retelling of the origin – come on, filmakers! We know that story already. Don’t waste our time telling us again

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