Origin Stories: Do we need them?
With so many superhero movies coming out and Hollywood’s love of reboots, the value of origin stories has become an unavoidable debate, often focused on the execution of particular storylines rather than the role of origin stories more broadly and the information they impart. Many of these debates center around issues of audience fatigue with repeated storylines and the audience’s desire not to know everything. What these arguments tend to overlook is the value of what we do know and how it can be used to tell better stories and keep us watching.
Why We No Longer Need Origin Stories
We no longer need origin stories. That is the sentiment of many committed fans who have rejoiced at the new structure of recent films such as Spiderman: Homecoming (2017) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Writing for NPR’s Monkey See blog , Glen Welden summarized the sentiment, “Give them their advantages from the get-go. Fine. We get it.” Praising the lack of origin story in the latest Spiderman installment, Welden admits that he once (back in 2010) believed that a universal theory of hero films depended on origin stories. He wrote:
“The origin story is what drives and shapes a superhero franchise, because it grounds all that third act (and sequel) CGI action in the first act world where characters have dreams, and relationships, and have lived lives. Because in that life, something magical happened — this guy got amazing powers!”
Welden supported this claim at the time by pointing out that, barring a few exceptions, almost every superhero franchise loses steam after its origin stories. The result: sequels are rarely as good or better than the first film.
For Welden, this “unified theory” of the superhero film changed drastically with the arrival of Spiderman: Homecoming. It was a good superhero film with an obvious lack of origin story, and Welden needed to step back and examine his theory. Upon re-examining the superhero film genre he found that it was not the origin story which drove viewers’ interest and empathy, but the training montage that follows.
To win our empathy and interest, it’s not enough for a superhero to start out like us. We have to see him strive. And struggle. And fail. And start over.
Spiderman in Spiderman: Homecoming certainly struggles. He struggles with waiting for Tony Stark to call him back. He struggles with hiding his identity from his aunt and friends. He struggles with winning over the girl. And he struggles with his new tricked out super suit (which leads to a quick training montage while trapped in a top secret storage facility). That’s a lot of struggle and no origin story.
Thus Welden’s new unified theory and final advice to Hollywood screenwriters: leave the origin stories behind and show characters working hard and earning their powers through failure.
The Force Awakens is a great example of this new theory in action. We don’t know much about the past of our new heroes or how they managed to get their unique skill sets. Rey just has the ability to pilot starships, use the force, and fight with a light saber. Poe Dameron is the best pilot and a hero of the resistance, but we don’t know where he learned these skills. Finn is the only member of his cohort to defect from the First Order. Why?
In each case, key components of the character’s origin story have been left out but not their struggle to earn those distinctions. Rey first leaves the only planet she has known and then has to survive an interrogation by Kylo Ren. Poe has to make a crash landing and “die” before he can make the attack run on the new Star Killer Base. And Finn struggles with learning to make decisions and deciding what he really wants in life before finding the courage to stop running and face the First Order.
We No Longer Need the Re-telling of Origin Stories
But the new unified theory misses the mark. It is not that the audience desires to see heroes struggle instead of seeing their origins; rather the audience wants the information we know and don’t know about the character to drive the story. In other words: the audience desires good storytelling.
We don’t need necessarily to see the origin story played out because “We’ve, all of us, been there.” But that is precisely the point. We as a communal audience have all already learned that origin information and can now use it to enhance our experience and tell new stories–stories that would not be possible without knowledge beyond the immediate struggle of the characters.
The progression of origin story knowledge is perhaps best exemplified by the character Meacham in Pete’s Dragon (2016). At the beginning of the film, Meacham spends his time telling anyone who will listen about his run-in with the Millhaven dragon. After the entire community witnesses the existence of the dragon over the course of the film, Meacham sums up the situation.
“No one ever saw that dragon again. And I never told another tale about it. I didn’t have to.”
He didn’t have to tell the story of how the dragon was discovered anymore, because everyone knew the dragon was real. In the same way, audiences today don’t need the re-telling of Spiderman’s origin story or a Star Wars universe history lesson. However, to get to this point, both the community of Millhaven and the seasoned movie goer of today had to experience those events and add them to a collective psyche. The stories had to become the “static hiss of a kind of narrative background radiation that now pervades the culture” (Welden).
Without the information provided by origin stories, these new proposed legends of struggle lack something we still desire: to work for ourselves based on what we know.
An Evolved Sense of the Origin Story
It is at this point that a broader perspective on the role of origin information must be taken in order to understand its importance beyond the implications of specific storylines or even isolated genres. We may no longer need origin stories, or at the very least no longer need the re-telling of them, but this has not eliminated the need for origin information.
What people know (knowledge) has two main functions in stories 1) to build suspense and 2) drive mystery.
Suspense draws on what the audience already knows in order to build expectation for a certain result. Often described as the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock presented the idea of suspense as follows:
“If the audience does know, if they have been told all the secrets that the characters do not know, they’ll work like the devil for you because they know what fate is facing the poor actors. That is what is known as ‘playing God.’ That is suspense”
Hitchcock’s films lean heavily on suspense. Whether it is the knowledge that Thorwald has returned home and Lisa is in danger in the film Rearwindow, knowledge that there is a dead man in the crate in Rope, or working to seed misinformation through a false narrative at the beginning of Stagefright, it is always what the audience knows (or thinks they know) that drives the story.
Mystery on the other hand is playing up what the audience doesn’t know. A foil to suspense, “mystery” is where the audience’s “work” happens.
We may know the answer, but how do we get there? Never mind that we know the hero will succeed. We want to know: How will the hero succeed?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as discussed above, is perhaps the perfect example of mysterious character origins and follows a well-established pattern in JJ Abrams’ work such as Lost. As Abrams put it:
…then there’s the thing of mystery in terms of imagination, [withholding information] intentionally is much more engaging….you love it because you don’t [know the truth].
However, none of the tantalizing mystery would be worth the dedicated fans’ efforts without the suspense that comes with knowing about the Star Wars world. After nine feature films, two animated tv shows, countless books & graphic novels, toys, and games, we all know the politics and the worlds that are at stake in every move the characters make. Rey’s immediate past may still be an important mystery for us to solve, but without the knowledge of why that mystery matters it really loses its potency. (For a fuller exploration check out Star Wars: Who is Rey (And Why Do We Care)?)
Aside: The Star Wars story of Rogue One is another (perhaps more clear cut) example of the balance between mystery and suspense. We all know that many rebels died to get the stolen plans seen at the beginning of A New Hope. While we watch Rogue One we know that the plans will be retrieved and that our favorite characters are more than likely to die, but we all watched anyway, because we still wanted to know how. Our knowledge only made the value of the mystery greater.
A great example of using communal knowledge of an origin story to build suspense can be found in The Legend of Tarzan (2016). While the director David Yates provides some flashbacks he doesn’t bother with giving us the full origin story. After more than 100 years (and around 50 films) of retelling the Tarzan story, he has become a legend (pun intended). Also within the world of the film, Tarzan has become a legend. This fact is played up in a scene where a printed publication tells the story of Tarzan, the reactions of the children to seeing his hands, and his greeting with songs telling of his past deeds upon his return to Africa.
These references come to a head after the film’s villain Leon Rom captures Lady Clayton (Jane). In a self-referential moment, Rom declares “He’s Tarzan. You’re Jane. He’ll come for you.” In that one line, Rom says what everyone already knows, bringing the few stragglers up to speed and setting the audience up to wonder not if but how Tarzan will achieve his goal, and then to enjoy the struggle Tarzan goes through to be re-united with Jane.
The elements of mystery and suspense are what drive us to watch a film again and again. With each viewing we continue to search for new information and then apply the information we already know. What kind of stories could we tell if we finally hung up the mantle of origin stories and embraced the role of audience knowledge? What new stories await our favorite characters as we move into this new era of storytelling?
What do you think? Leave a comment.