Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Who needs origins? 8 comic book films that just dove right in.

Much of the criticism hurled in the direction of The Amazing Spider-Man centers around the choice to spend the first half of the film retelling the same origin story that was rather explicitly told in Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man. It is part of a swelling debate of sorts about whether or not proverbial 'part ones' always need to retell a well-known origin story in order to kick-start their respective franchises.  But there exists at least a handful of comic book adaptations that either completely eschew or compartmentalize the origin material.  Be they successful as art or not, they represent the idea that it is possible to start (or restart) a comic book series without retelling the same origin over and over again.  To wit...

Batman (1989) and Batman Forever (1995)
In Tim Burton's groundbreaking blockbuster, we don't even realize that Bruce Wayne is Batman until about 20-minutes into the 126-minute film.  And we don't have any real clue as to why Bruce Wayne became Batman until right before the film's extended action climax.  Vicky Vale learns through a newspaper article that Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered, we see a quick flashback of the event, and then we've back into our story.  While Batman Forever is technically a part 3 in the 1989-1997 Batman series, it also operates as a textbook case in how to do a reboot.  The Joel Schumacher film serves as either a sequel to Batman Returns or a whole new start to the Batman series, depending on how you choose to view it.  It looks and feels completely different from the Tim Burton films while offering just enough information (Bruce's parents were murdered as a child, how Harvey Dent became Two-Face) to be completely comprehensible to new viewers.  In a clever fashion, it tells Bruce Wayne's past-tense origin through the present-tense telling of Dick Grayson's origin.  In a sense, Batman Forever is the Live and Let Die of the series, starting over while not really acknowledging that they've started over and merely telling another adventure in the life of its respective hero.  Say what you will about the overall quality of Batman Forever (I like it, you might not), but 20th Century Fox would do well to look to Batman Forever as a model when they eventually reboot Daredevil and Fantastic Four

Dick Tracy (1990)
It's no secret that I think Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy is one of the finest comic book films ever made.  It's a splendidly somber adult drama about a cop, a criminal, and a woman stuck in the middle, with all parties utterly miserable because they happen to excel at a job they loathe with no probable escape outside of death.  And, 22-years later, it's worth noting that Beatty doesn't give his title-character an origin at-all.  Dick Tracy is a cop, he catches bad guys, he's dating Tess Trueheart, that's all you need.  Heck, Dick Tracy actually had an origin story in the comics (he became a cop after Trueheart's father was murdered during a robbery by Big Boy Caprice's thugs), but the film wisely left it out and let it stand that Tracy was merely an obsessive cop in a city full of corruption.    

The Punisher (1989) and Punisher: War Zone (2008)
There are three Punisher films, and I've written about them extensively here.  Whatever their merits as films, the 1989 version and the 2008 film both tell stories that take place after Frank Castle has been slaughtering bad guys for quite a while.  Both films pay lip-service to the origin, quite literally.  The tragic case of Frank Castle and his murdered family is literally stated via monologue by a supporting character during the first act of the picture.  The films are no poorer for not spending the first act or whole first act explicitly detailing how Frank Castle's family was murdered and how he became the Punisher. Yes the 2004 Punisher is a full-blown 130-minute origin story and it's arguably the highest-quality film of the three (John Travolta is quite good as a conflicted villain).  But when it comes to stories we already know, comic book origins may be the one place where 'tell don't show' is the way to go.

The Shadow (1994)    
Yes, this is based on a radio serial, but I'm cheating just a little.  I made a comment in a 'music of Batman' post the other day about how much the Batman Begins theme resembled Jerry Goldsmith's score to The Shadow.  I was gifted with THIS link, which lays out the case that Batman Begins is basically a remake of The Shadow (which in turn has a very similar origin as Marvel's Dr. Strange).  We can debate the merits of the apparent 'homage' (which I guess means that Iron Man is really a remake of The Shadow and not Batman Begins?), it cannot be disputed that Russell Mulcahy's somewhat entertaining 1940s pulp adventure tells a very similar origin story as the one detailed in Batman Begins (which in turn was based around a Batman origin retell "The Man Who Falls" from 1989) and tells it in a lot less time.  We get the whole tormented millionaire taught how to be a ghostly vigilante in a faraway Eastern country bit by the first ten minutes, and the Shadow (Alec Baldwin) has already returned to New York City and stopped his first crime by the time the first reel ends.  For better or worse, the rest of The Shadow plays like a campier and more streamlined version of Batman Begins where Chris Nolan's first act is basically condensed to about five minutes.

The Phantom (1996)
I happen to adore this underrated little gem of an adventure movie.  Billy Zane is gee-wiz heroic as 'the Ghost Who Walks', the 'find the magic skulls and rule the world' plot is full of old-school peril plus just enough PG-rated carnage to make an eight-year old feel like they got away with something, and Treat Williams is one of my favorite comic book villains.  Seriously, there is a second-act moment where he, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and James Remar basically sit in the office and talk shop that is one of the best-written and acted superhero scenes in the genre.  So while you race to check out the shoulda-been-a-smash flick on Netflix, let me point out what else it does that deserves notice.  It dispatches with the origin in the prologue, beginning with a title card exclaiming 'For those who came in late!" and containing into a 90-second bit of Patrick McGoohan-narrated exposition that succinctly explains how the Phantom was created.  Yes there are a few details that are peppered throughout the film that offer a bit more context, but the Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove, natch) film sees no need to waste time when there is adventure to be had!  Slam origins!

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
It's no secret that I don't like The Incredible Hulk much at all, finding it dumbed-down and painfully generic compared to the flawed-but-ambitious Hulk from five-years earlier.  But in terms of reboots, it does make one terrific decision.  That origin story that we all know so well?  The one where Bruce Banner gets exposed to gamma radiation and becomes a giant green monster? Yeah, director Louis Leterrier tells the whole thing in the opening credits sequence. After that, we cut to 'five years later' where Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run from General Ross's men and desperately searching for a cure to his condition.  Heck, if not for the token differences in this film's origin versus Ang Lee's film, it could basically operate as a sequel to the Ang Lee tone-poem.  Whatever other issues the film has, Universal's quickie reboot is a testament that you don't have to retell the first film in order to jump-start a new franchise.

And that's a wrap for this session.  There are plenty of terrific comic book films that exist primarily as origin stories (the TV pilot for The Flash remains one of the best comic book films of the pre-X-Men era) and plenty that straddle the line between origin and off-to-adventure (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes to mind), but there is no reason for studios to believe that retelling an already established origin story is essential to reboot a comic property.  If we already the story, and if it's already been told well before, there is no need to tell it again. And if you must retell an origin, please follow Chris Nolan's example in Batman Begins (and hopefully Zack Snyder's Man of Steel) and tell us something we've never seen onscreen before.  If you don't have anything new to say in your origin, don't make Marc Webb's mistake and waste most of your movie telling it while sacrificing the stories you really wanted to tell in the process.

Scott Mendelson    


Guido Rosas said...

Even though I disagree with you on Amazing Spider-Man (it might have been because I had low expectations, but I quite enjoyed it), and I liked the status quo it sets up in the end (especially regarding the relationship between Peter and Gwen), I agree that devoting half the movie was pretty unnecessary. I understand they wanted to distance this new film from the original trilogy, but the Incredible Hulk should have been a good example of how to handle it. They would have had the chance to flesh out Curt Connors story, and make it more affecting (It was kind of surprising to have Lizard as the villain and not even showing Billy!)

I know you didn't mention this one because it's not a comic book property, but The Incredibles is another brilliant example of a superhero movie that doesn't bother with origins. We don't even learn the source of the heroes' powers, but why would we need to? Everyone understands the superhero archetype. An origin story can be really good if the story is inherently interesting, but so many times it just comes off as half a film (or a full film!) of exposition.

David said...

I have to agree with Guido below that The Incredibles is another property that doesn't bother with origins. It's a great point. And that movie is already too long for kids - an origin would make it WAY too long.

Also, by the way, I LOVED The Phantom when I saw it in the theater. I DID, in fact, feel like I was getting away with something - although I was nine, not eight. I'm going to watch it tonight on Netflix, in honor of your review's suggestion.

PB210 said...

Yes, this is based on a radio serial, but I'm cheating just a little. I made a comment in a 'music of Batman' post the other day about how much the Batman Begins theme resembled Jerry Goldsmith's score to The Shadow. I was gifted with THIS link, which lays out the case that Batman Begins is basically a remake of The Shadow (which in turn has a very similar origin as Marvel's Dr. Strange). We can debate the merits of the apparent 'homage' (which I guess means that Iron Man is really a remake of The Shadow and not Batman Begins?)


Thank you for using the link. The Shadow's oriental scholarship stood as long established prior to the 1994 film, established in the 1930's and 1940's. Regarding "The Man Who Falls" I checked with John Wells (Mikishawm) a researcher, and he noted that this introduced the idea of the trip to Tibet for that particular franchise.


Scroll down to the comments for a little more on this matter.

Revgabe said...

I like to call this the "Boba Fett syndrome". Fett was an awesome character that nobody knew anything about (Until the later crappy movies)and that's what made him awesome. I remember taking notice when even Vader talked to him with a kind of respect that he gave no one else. Leaving his past blank made you fill in the blanks which in turn made it impossible for the later movies to live up to. Although I give Lucas no credit due to the fact that in a interview when asked about the character he was totally clueless at his popularity and considered him a throw away character.

Leah said...

Thanks for your words on Dick Tracy, Scott. I love, love Dick Tracy. Would so much like to see a Dick Tracy vs Flattop film...

Scott Mendelson said...

Disagreements about Amazing Spidey aside, the fact remains that Marc Webb basically sacrificed the story he actually wanted to tell (Peter learning about his parents) in order to tell the same damn origin story we saw ten years ago. The film he wanted to make could have just as easily taken place post-origin, after Spidey had been around for a few months and magically discovers his father's briefcase while helping Aunt May clean the house. That way we get a full movie about Peter's parents, a fully developed story for Dr. Conners, and more room for the Gwen/Peter romance subplot.

TP said...

I remember an article in Comics Scene where someone as early as 1994 had already picked up on this obsessive focus on origin stories. He actually criticized The Shadow for spending too much time on the origin, which seems odd. (He also criticized Greystoke, The Legend of the Lone Ranger and the Doc Savage film.)


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