As superheroes take to the big screen, we’re being introduced to ever more characters. But film studios and writers are asking one key question: how do they introduce us to the superhero? How do they make their superhero stand out? Here are four patterns I’ve noticed…
THE ORIGIN STORY
Who is the superhero? Where did she come from? How did he gain his powers? An origin story is a basic introduction to the superhero and to their world. It can take one of two forms:
- It can assume that a viewer knows nothing, and so tell the story from the start. Iron Man follows this pattern – it sets up the lifestyle of Tony Stark, gets us familiar with the key people who play a role in his life, and then moves on to the actual origin of Iron Man.
- It can subvert expectations by telling a side of the story we weren’t expecting to see. Batman Begins did this with tremendous efficiency, taking us to Bruce Wayne’s training as Batman and showing how Batman found his feet as a superhero.
The superhero will always have an enemy to fight against, and the more personal this is, the better. A fairly common trope is for the enemy to be the mentor – so Iron Man’s business mentor becomes the Iron Monger, and Bruce Wayne’s trainer Ra’s al Ghul launches an attack on Gotham. The advantage of this approach is that it contains the personal betrayal, acting as a motivator for the superhero, but also forces them to learn how they are different to their mentor. This learning experience sets them up to truly become the superhero their world needs.
Ironically, the need for a major antagonist is one thing that sets the movies apart from the comics. In the comics, for example, Amazing Fantasy #15 introduces Spider-Man – and simply tells his origin story, establishing the selfish choices that led to the death of Uncle Ben. There is no Green Goblin, no Oscorp; these things aren’t necessary. In a movie, where the origin is often only a part of the film and the superhero’s baptism by fire is really the main event, a supervillain is pretty much required.
WELCOME TO THE X-MEN…
Back when comics were first flourishing, Stan Lee was getting tired of having to create endless origin stories. And so he created – or, perhaps, copied – the idea of ‘mutants’, ordinary people who just so happened to become super-powered. Originally he toyed with the idea that mutation was due to higher levels of background radiation (hence the X-Men had the nickname ‘Children of the Atom’), but Marvel eventually settled with the idea of mutants just being humanity’s evolutionary next step.
It was a smart idea. It meant that they could have a pre-existing world, and simply use a fresh new viewpoint character to introduce us to that world. So, in X-Men #1, Jean Grey arrives at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and meets her new teammates; so, in 1989’s Pryde of the X-Men pilot, Kitty Pryde arrives at the School. In the 1992 X-Men Animated Series, Jubilee is attacked by Sentinels and the X-Men spring to her rescue, and in Fox’s first X-Men movie, Rogue and Wolverine play a similar role.
This specific idea works best if a new superhero is being introduced to a pre-existing team. Their introductions – and the explanations of the world they are now entering into – are also the reader’s background information on that world. This new character essentially becomes the lens through which the reader establishes the ‘rules’ of that world, and so they often wind up playing a starring role, ‘proving’ their value to the team.
It’s an idea that was used most effectively by J. K. Rowling to introduce readers – and, by extension, viewers – to the wizarding world. Harry Potter himself is the new wizard being introduced to the wider world of wizards.
MRS. PEEL, WE'RE NEEDED
It’s rarely done on the big screen, but it’s sometimes possible to jump straight in with a crisis that needs resolution. Perhaps a civilian is in serious trouble, and either they go to the superhero – or the superhero suddenly emerges, saving the day. You can then either follow the superhero, introducing the viewers to their world – it’s an idea commonly used in comics – or you can follow the civilian, having them view the superhero’s world as an outsider and marvel at what they see.
My instinct is that we’re going to see both approaches in the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon. I think that the first will be used for Spider-Man, and the second will be used for Doctor Strange. Thor followed a variation on this, crossing over with elements of an origin story.
YOU GET THE IDEA
Sometimes a character is firmly enough embedded in the public consciousness that film-makers choose not to waste time with introductions. They can pick up an already-formed world and assume that viewers will just roll with it. Interestingly enough, the two superheroes this can be done most easily with are Superman and Batman; it’s an approach that has been taken successfully with Superman (see Superman Returns), and will be used for Batman in Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The writers and directors need to be absolutely confident that no introduction is necessary. Doing this with Iron Man back in 2008, for example, would have been a mistake; Marvel tried it with The Incredible Hulk, assuming that the previous Hulk film was still fresh enough in the public’s awareness, and its one reason that film didn’t perform as well. Viewers have to already care about the superhero, have to already know the basics of their world, and you are doing little more than re-introducing them to an old friend.
The catch, of course, is that you get to have fun by subverting expectations every now and again. Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice looks to jump in with a retired Batman, who has never quite dealt with the emotional scarring of a Robin’s death. This means that movie will give a particularly fresh and intriguing take on the Bat-mythos.