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Friday, June 10, 2016

The Death of the Superhero Origin Story

Despite the ten hour run time, Captain America: Civil War was a really good movie, and despite my general aversion to Marvel superhero films and movies that have too long of a run time, I thoroughly enjoyed the latest installment set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are a lot of things the film did right, but the one thing I want to harp on is the origin story of its two new characters.

By far and away, the best part of Civil War was its introduction of Spider-Man into the fold. Not only does Tom Holland, a 19-year-old actor, actually look like a high school student (as opposed to early 20's Tobey Maguire and late 20's Andrew Garfield), but the character acts like one too.

After the flop of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony leased the rights for Marvel to use the character in its MCUMarvel didn’t waste any time and added the web-slinger as its 76th superhero involved is this internal struggle. Whether it was because Marvel didn’t have the appropriate amount of time to add any more scenes (the rental occurred in the midst of pre-production of Civil War), the film was already too long, or because the general public already fucking knows how Peter Parker became Spider-Man by now, Civil War smartly skipped over Peter Parker’s entire origin story and introduced the character as already being a crime fighter for six months. By the time Tony Stark introduces himself to Peter Parker and Aunt May, Uncle Ben has already passed and the high schooler is already jumping off of buildings and kicking ass. Civil War doesn’t tell us why this character exists, only that he does and that he’s ready to join hashtag Team Stark.

Civil War didn’t lose anything from a narrative or creative perspective. Thanks to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012, plus how pervasive and popular the comic book character has been in our culture, the vast majority of Civil War’s audience already knows that Peter Parker gained his powers thanks to being bitten by a spider, and feels the responsibility to fight crime as a result of the death of his Uncle Ben. And for the few members of the audience who are either too young to know anything about Spider-Man’s origin story or too ignorant, Peter Parker’s introduction in the film and conversation with Tony Stark tells you all you need to know about this character. This is Spider-Man, watch him fight, now the plot moves along. It’s short, it’s simple, it’s funny, and it’s perfect.

Contrast this introduction to the other superhero versus superhero film released this year: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. After Man of Steel, DC Comics and director Zach Snyder introduce Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman into the fold. In the film, we see Bruce’s parents murdered. Again. I would argue that Batman is a more iconic character than Spider-Man, but either way, the same viewing audience that knows how Peter Parker became Spider-Man is, at minimum, the exact same viewing audience that know how Bruce Wayne became Batman. Even worse for the DC character, we’ve seen the Waynes murdered so many more times in recent years that we’ve seen Peter Parker get bitten by a spider. Outside of The Joker being the ones to kill The Waynes in Tim Burton’s Batman, we’ve seen Christopher Nolan kill The Waynes in 2005 and the show Gotham kill The Waynes in 2014. We also get Lego Batman commenting on it all the time. We get it. Bruce is sad that his parents died; it sucks. But we don’t need to see it every time we get a new Batman on the screen.

Even if we’re not familiar with a superhero character like a Batman or a Spider-Man, we still don’t need a long, two-and-a-half-hour origin tale. The other character Civil War introduced T’Challa and his alter ego Black Panther. Black Panther was a character I know almost nothing about before Civil War. I knew he was a Prince of a fictional African country and I know that country is a producer of the material that Captain America’s shield is made out of. And that’s about it. Further, Civil War didn’t add a whole lot on top of that. Very early on it brings T’Challa to New York for a United Nations meeting, and the film gives the character his main motivation. He gives him a credible reason to don his Black Panther outfit and why he joins Tony Stark in this battle of superhero versus superhero. In a film with a lot of superheroes to juggle, the Russo Brothers gives Black Panther is own mini-arc in the film and confidently introduces him into the fold. One of my main complaints of these Marvel movies is that they feel like they are both telling a current story while also setting up ten other films down the road. Captain America: Civil War does do that with Black Panther, but does it in a way that it actually feels natural to the story at hand.

Marvel isn’t completely done with origin stories. This is the studio that recently gave us Guardians of the Galaxy and will give us Doctor Strange later this year. But they certainly know when to do an origin story and when to bypass it. Marvel certainly seems smart enough to avoid going back in time for Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I pray that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther will take place after the events of Civil War. Marvel doesn’t need to do an origin story for its most iconic characters, only for the weird, fringe characters even comic book readers barely know. If DC wants to compete with Marvel, it needs to learn when to introduce origin stories, and when to immediately throw its audience into the action. 



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