Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Everyone loves origin stories. Really, it does seem like this is the thing that sells like crazy these days. People love reboots of comic book series; they love mini-series that retell a character’s origin stories; they love movies that start at the inception of the hero and show you the slow process of learning who they are. Batman Begins obviously did this with wild success, but I have to say, I think part of what made The Dark Knight so successful was that it was another origin story: the origin of the terrifying relationship that Batman and the Joker maintain.
Funny thing is, I’m actually not as hardcore a fan of origin stories as I am the stories that occur later in a superhero’s evolution. Some of the best stories are told from the point of view that the hero has matured to some extent and is now being put to the test. Still, movies, television shows, the New 52, getting in on the ground floor so to speak is what people love. This phenomenon isn’t just limited to superheroes in pop culture either. I mean, okay, I suppose James Bond might be considered a superhero of a sorts. But the recent reboot of Casino Royale was for all intents and purposes an origin story. J.J. Abrams knew which way the wind was blowing when he relaunched Star Trek and his new film even comes with a nice touch of dramatic destiny feel to Kirk and Spock’s partnership.
Now to be fair, you CAN learn a lot about a character from their origin. Often times, the kind of circumstances that made the hero the hero are representative of the kind of themes that are going to keep springing up in their stories. There’s an almost infinite number of possibilities and variations to draw from but some of the most well known are probably:
By some twist of fate, the hero is granted some kind of amazing (or sometimes awful) power. This is the kind of thing that would be vary dangerous for everyone to go around wielding. The question is knowing what we know about this character and who they are what do you think they’ll do with their new power? Will it isolate them from their past life? Help them realize their potential?
There’s usually a big contrast between the direction the person was headed before the accident and after the accident. And you the reader/viewer are kind of left wondering whether or not things have played our for the greater good. Sure Peter Parker has really grown into being Spider-man, but is it fair that Ben Grimm has to be the Thing? Does the amount of good he does outweigh his own suffering in the grand scheme of things? And isn’t the world ultimately lucky that Bruce Banner--not someone else--ended up the Hulk? Because do you think anyone else would be able to contain it the way he does?
The hero is forged through the fires of unbelievable pain and loss. Maybe they brought this tragedy about in some way or maybe they were just unwitting victims. They’ve got something to fight for and possibly even to atone for. This never gets old really. Sometimes the most badass superpower is an undying thirst for revenge or at least a chance to even the books. Of course, guys like Batman and Punisher rush to mind when you start talking about this, but there are others: Iron Man is a bit of a good fit for this category, isn’t he? He really stops and takes stock of his life and what he’s doing once he sees violence firsthand. Everyone can relate to this; feeling the tension of having to turn around the impossible. How do you really stop crime--ALL crime--in a city? Batman’s quest is an insane, but it’s a worthy one and one that we’d all like to take on.
I suppose what’s interesting about characters that are truly TRULY alien is that they demonstrate to us, through contrast, what makes humanity humanity. I mean sure, Superman embraces all those down home country values, but Silver Surfer seems sort of fascinated with people and why they do the things they do. We get to see us through them to some extent. Which can be fascinating.
Maybe the hero was a weapon of some kind (a la Wolverine) or maybe they’re the pinnacle of training and ideals (Captain America) or maybe they’ve got a shady past but a clean slate as long as they follow orders (Black Widow). Questions about autonomy tend to come up in these kinds of stories. The hero was bred for a purpose and takes orders from higher up, but does upholding the chain of command keep the world safe? Or should the hero be questioning exactly what he’s being asked to do?
I suppose this gives us a chance to just feel some wonder about the world again. Superheroes are, after all, the modern equivalent of the iconic figures that were discussed in Greek and Roman lore. Lots of literary references here. It’s hard not to love these the same way that it’s hard not to love Shakespeare. Because when you’re reading about Thor and Wonder Woman to some extent you’re reading the same stories that’s captured the human imagination for thousands of years.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just seems like fate itself has chosen a hero. Maybe this is made explicitly clear, maybe it’s just suggested to the viewer in some subtle way (to some extent, all superheroes seem like they have a touch of this). But people do sometimes have exceptional circumstances that call them to action for no other reason then they were in the right (wrong?) time at the right (…wrong?) place.
There are others too. Mutants just ARE. So you know, being a mutant is the equivalent of learning how to just accept yourself and make your way in the world, whatever lot in life you were dealt. Magic opens up the door to all sorts of strange and wild storytelling and there are plenty of characters that tamper with dark forces, but still try to do good with said forces. Still, others are just anomalous stories that don’t even fall into these categories.