Pulling punches: why origin stories keep superhero films from soaring

A UK newspaper analyzes an American tradition – and gets it right:


ff-yechhby Noah Berlatsky

Superhero origin stories are a problem.

You can see that demonstrated at seemingly interminable length in Fox’s newFantastic Four reboot. The film starts with Reed Richards and Ben Grimm (Mr Fantastic and the Thing) as fifth graders working on a science project. The science project that (predictably) will eventually give them their powers.

Eventually. After a while. Time stretches like Reed’s stretchy powers. It grinds like Ben’s rocky powers. It takes an hour of farting around with introducing other characters and setting up giant machines and improbable explanatory science burble before we see a single super-feat. It’s only in the last 20 minutes of the hour and 40-minute run time that you get to watch the awesome foursome exercise their CGI stunts all at the same time. The film is all portentous build up, with a little sputtering super-pay-off at the end.

The writing isn’t terrible overall, and Miles Teller as an obliviously nerdy Reed is fine. But – who is this film aimed at? You go to a superhero movie to see superheroics, not to watch a bunch of boring science projects. If I wanted to watch McGyver or A-Team, reruns, I could have done that. It would have been cheaper.

The difficulty here is that when you tell a superhero story, the natural impulse is to start at the beginning – with the origin. But superhero origin stories are essentially a different genre from regular superhero stories. Superhero tales are about extraordinary superbeings bashing each other with ridiculous powers. Origin stories are about ordinary people suffering some sort of transformative trauma. The first is exhilarating, fanciful – fantastic. The other tends to be a somber downer. Watching Warthog Boy blast aliens with his tusks is one thing; watching Gomer Grunt’s family trampled by irradiated wild pigs is another.

Jack Kirby and Stan Lee knew which sort of story they wanted to tell in their first Fantastic Four adventure in 1961. The comic opens with all the heroes summoned by a Fantastic Four flare; you get to watch each of them power up, including a famous scene where The Thing bashes his way out of a sewer. Then there’s a quick origin in flashback before the comic gets down to an unrelated battle against the invading subterranean Mole Man. There’s no tedious wait for the superhero powers to show up. Instead the comic gets right down to business with Kirby drawing monsters busting through things, which is what he did best. It’s what his audience was paying to see.

A brief flashback seems like a perfect way to handle superhero origins, but screen creators have been oddly reluctant to embrace it. Netflix’s Daredevil sort of picked up on the idea. The exploration of Matt Murdock’s childhood is lengthy and laborious, but at least it’s interspersed through the early part of the series as memory, so that you get to see some Daredevil action early on. More typical, though, is Man of Steel, where you drag through Kevin Costner as foster dad Jonathan Kent providing sage advice for what feels like an age before you get to see Henry Cavill in the skintight outfit.

Read it all at The Guardian