2015 has been the year of the big-ticket sequels. We’ve seen the fourth installments from the Terminator, Mad Max, and Jurassic Park franchises, the fifth Mission: Impossible movie, and the 11th and 12th chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Additionally, we can expect the 24th (official) James Bond adventure, and Episode VII of the Star Wars saga.
While entertainment reporters and industry pundits may cry foul over “genre fatigue” or a “lack of originality,” I quite simply could not be happier. I don’t lay claim to having the finest taste in cinema, but I do try to evaluate a film on its intrinsic qualities rather than the larger trends within which it exists.
There is, however, one trend that is starting to bug me. It isn’t a recent development, and it isn’t always something that significantly distracts from the enjoyment of a movie, but I think it’s something that writers of these films should seriously consider abandoning. The trend is this: in a superhero or comic book movie, the hero(es) and the villain(s) frequently share an origin story. They often knew each other before they became “enhanced” (or whatever term is appropriate in each fictional universe) and have a personal conflict that predates their acquisition of special powers.
There are a lot of movies that are guilty of leaning on this story element, but before we go through a few examples and talk about why this is a trope that has to go, a quick a side note: I’m not arguing that just because the villain and hero may share an origin then the movie is automatically terrible. There are beloved films that are just as guilty of this as ones that are reviled.
Additional note: SPOILERS AHEAD for Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man, Batman, Superman II, Man of Steel, Hulk, Fantastic 4, Hellboy, Spiderman, Spiderman 2, Spiderman 3, Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and Superman… also: Darth Vader is Luke’s dad, Edward Norton is Tyler Durden, and Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.
That said, let’s delve first into the aforementioned MCU. Of the six origin stories that Marvel has told so far, four of them have involved shared origins. In Iron Man (2008), Tony Stark squares off with his former mentor Obadiah Stane, in the Iron Monger armor he created from Tony’s original designs. Armor faces off against armor, all from the mind & manufacture of Stark Industries. (Special bonus points to Iron Man 2 (2010) for recreating this dynamic: Iron Man is again opposed by his own technological brainchildren, as Justin Hammer makes more metal suits and Ivan Vanko adapts the arc reactor energy.) Stane tries to murder him, on multiple occasions, because of Tony's personal transformation into a actual person with morals and stuff.
Next is The Incredible Hulk (2008), where the Hulk is pursued by Emil Blonsky (aka the Abomination) who has been enhanced via a procedure similar to what caused Bruce Banner to have to spend the rest of his life telling people how they “wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.” Chemically enhanced rage-monsters collide, orchestrated by General Thaddeus Ross. This is the same Ross who is the father of Banner’s long-time paramour, Betty, so you know he’s completely objective on the matter.
The super-soldier serum that General Ross was toying with was based upon the research of Dr. Abraham Erskine, the man who created Captain America. In Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Steve Rogers is transmogrified from the archetypical 98-pound weakling into a near-perfect physical specimen using the same process that was previously responsible for Cap’s nemesis in the film, Johann Schmidt, who became Red Skull. The procedure apparently enhances the subject’s innate nature, making the Commander of Hydra even more of a power-hungry maniac, as Steve becomes the epitome of selfless, principled idealism. Two very different ideas of an übermensch punch it out to determine the fate of Europe–men who stand tall over their contemporaries because the same magic juice runs in their veins.
The other overt pairing of superhero and supervillain in the MCU is in the recent film Ant-Man (2015). Hank Pym, the first man to wear the Ant-Man suit, recruits a replacement to bring down his former mentee in a misguided attempt to keep his daughter, Hope, out of harm's way. Scott Lang confronts Darren Cross–now in his Pym-particle-powered Yellowjacket suit–at the climax of the film, as they acrobatically alter the sizes of themselves and various other objects in their theatre of battle (aka a little girl’s bedroom.) The sequence is brilliantly conceived and expertly executed–but once again, derived from the same source: shrinking suit versus shrinking suit. Cross, of course, is interested in getting investors to invest in his company's revolutionary weapons program, but he also becomes obsessed with getting back at Hank, who he sees as an abandoning father figure.
Movies based on Marvel heroes aren't the only culprits, DC characters have also been forced into this paradigm as well. The most egregious of these has to be Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), wherein the Joker’s origin has been entirely reconfigured so that he was the one who murdered Thomas and Martha Wayne. This leads to a regrettable scene where Bats and Jack argue over who created whom–turns out, they’re both wrong. The superior origin of the Joker (on film) is his depiction in The Dark Knight (2008) which we’ll touch on again a little later. Add to this vexingly silly argument their competition over the reporter Vicki Vale, and you have a recipe for some fairly shallow conflict.
The other tentpole DC character who has been poorly served by this trope is, of course, Superman. Both in Superman II (1980) and in Man of Steel (2013), Kal-El’s principle antagonists are his fellow Kryptonians. These films both feature General Zod and a number of yellow-sun-enhanced subordinates, providing some alien-on-alien action for the poor humans of Earth to cower from. This is basically the definition of a shared origin: the Khryptonians all originate on the same planet (which doesn't orbit Sol) and came here to fly around & punch buildings in the face.
These are only some of the highest-profile films that feature the hero and villain sharing an origin, injecting personal conflict into what might otherwise be bigger-picture, more elemental storytelling. There are many others (lightning round!) including:
–Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), where Bruce Banner fights his own father, whose genetic experimentation primed Bruce for becoming the Hulk in the first place, somehow (I think there were starfish involved.)
–Fantastic 4 (2004) wherein Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Sue Storm and Johnny Storm already know Victor Von Doom, and all five of them get their powers together during the same cosmic event. Doom’s main reason for trying to take out the 4 is apparently getting romantically rejected by Sue, in favor of Reed.
–In Hellboy (2004) our hero ends up face to face with Rasputin, the man ("man"?) who summoned him to Earth in the first place. Sure, Hellboy and his team face major embodiments of good and evil, but there is a dueling fatherhood story at the core of it all.
–The five extant Spiderman films all have problems in this area, as Peter Parker has relationships with the Osborns and their goblinesque alter-egos, as well as many of the other villains.
–Even The Watchmen (2009) features a villain who was formerly a team member of the titular organization the heroes belong to–the movie that was supposed to be the meta/anti-superhero superhero story. Ozymandias hides in plain sight, using his personal knowledge of the other Watchmen to divide or incapacitate them so they can't foil his evil scheme.
So what are we trying to prove with all of the citations? Most of you reading this have already seen these movies, already know the stories, have already spent hours picking everything apart ad infinitum. Here’s the point: shared origins lower the stakes. They make our villains petty and our heroes soulless. We deserve a better class of criminal, and the movies that give them to us are the ones that succeed on a deeper level.
Let’s go back to our DC heroes for a while, and look at two of the most well-regarded superhero films: The Dark Knight (2008) and the original Richard Donner Superman (1978). Both contain primary villains who have no previous connection to their title protagonists, and are stronger stories because of it–especially in light of the fundamental purpose of superhero stories is in the first place.
In Christopher Nolan’s lauded follow-up to Batman Begins (2005) we are presented with quite possibly the finest Bat villain to ever appear on screen: Heath Ledger’s Joker. The Joker has no origin story. In fact, he tells conflicting and in all likelihood utterly manufactured versions of his own origin at multiple points throughout the film. He and Bruce Wayne have no previous relationship, no axe to grind, no hatchet to bury. The Joker just “wants to watch the world burn.” Batman opposes him because he must be opposed, and (as seems to be par for the course in Gotham City) the police absolutely get their asses handed to them and badly need the help. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object, and we the audience are the beneficiary of more elemental storytelling. It’s not quite good-vs-evil on the level of Tolkien or Star Wars, but the stakes are high because protagonist and antagonist fight for the very soul of their city–not just over a girl or something.
Likewise, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in Superman is a stranger to Clark Kent. He has big plans for himself and a world in need of conquest–despite the mostly incompetent company he keeps (“do you know why the number 200 is so vitally descriptive to you and me? It’s your weight and my I.Q.”) Again, Superman simply rises to the occasion, confronting the threat without immediate personal interest. Superman, like Batman, and many other costumed heroes, is a crime fighter. He is driven to do good and protect people, for their own sake. He of course has his parents, Lois, and his co-workers at The Daily Planet who keep somehow blindly stumbling into harm’s way, but that’s not why he suits up.
Superman exists, explicitly and purposefully, to stand on the side of truth and justice; Batman exists to be the darkness that holds back the night. They, and others like them (see: the Avengers, Spiderman, the Watchmen, etc.) oppose violence and injustice and anarchy because they’re usually the only ones who can. The regular citizens of their universe–and by extension us, the audience–are in need of a hero, and thus the hero appears.
If all we see on screen is Clark in red underwear or Bruce in a cowl, then the stakes are lowered. Our heroes are supposed to occupy a higher plane, and serve the common interest, rather than their own personal goals. These stories aren’t just about people, they’re about symbols and ideas. They’re about finding the best in ourselves and in each other, and I’ve never met anyone who’s at their best when they’re only thinking about themselves. I can't imagine calling a person like that a hero.