In the wake of this year’s Man of Steel and last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man which of course followed the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, it appears the rebooting comic franchises is very much in vogue right now. But I also get the feeling that people are a little tired of these reboots (I know I am, although I did, to varying degrees, enjoy all of the aforementioned films), perhaps because they always cover the same ground. These reboots are always origin stories.
And so, I really need to ask this question: why?
Is it an unfamiliarity with the canon? Perhaps that’s the most likely reason, especially with, for instance Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which package the Caped Crusader for a newer generation, making him much grittier, and in fact devoting an entire film in his trilogy to the genesis and birth of the Bat in Batman Begins.
But I think, especially given that these are reboots of franchises (admittedly franchises with varying degrees of succes), considering the wealth of old material out there on these characters, sometimes focusing on the origin can simply be time wasted.
Take The Amazing Spider-Man for example. The first act is of course dedicated to introducing us to Peter Parker, and showing us how he got his powers. But basically everyone knows that. Spider-Man is a staple in pop culture, and has travelled across so many different mediums, I think it’s tough to find anyone who’s likely to go and see the film that doesn’t already know the origin. The same goes for Superman. I’ll admit I’m not well versed in the comics that Superman originated in, but based on, quite simply, exposure to pop culture, I know that his origin was being sent to Earth from his dying home planet of Krypton.
The other issue with focusing on origins so much, especially in reboots, often means that the same gallery of rouges can be re-tread. Granted that hasn’t really happened, but it immediately puts the film at a struggle to establish a villain, and it’s often the villain who is granted some semblance of origin as well (particularly with The Lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man and, to a point, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). And the issue here is sometimes we don’t get to see villains that aren’t already wildly well known. Of course that’s what people want to see, but sometimes villains that don’t get focus have interesting stories. Why not a ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt’ storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man, for instance?
I know it’s a tall ask to disregard total newcomers from the franchise, those who don’t know the source material, although less likely, people that are simply not aware of the characters. I gather these people will need to see the origin in order to become invested in the characters and their situations. But surely there’s a better way to do it than dedicating an act of a film to establishing it all.
Man of Steel tries to shake things up a bit, and is in fact the closest that a reboot has come to not being an origin story. While we do see what is essentially a prologue on Krypton, showing us the fate of the planet and it’s people, as well as introducing Zod, the film’s antagonist, afterwards, there’s a time skip. We see an already grown Clark Kent, having adjusted to his powers and trying to live a normal life on Earth.
Now, while this sounds like Man of Steel completely discounts Clark’s formative years on Earth, that’s not the case. Instead, sometimes through flashback and sometimes not (as well as sometimes being unfortunately uneffective), flashbacks are used in order to show us when Clark discovered his powers, and how he coped with them. This -while having some detrimental effects to the pacing, as well as making the chronology sometimes pointlessly pseudo-intricate – seems like a much more time-effective way of establishing a character, especially given, when the flashbacks are used well, they add an interesting level of depth to the characterisation of eponymous hero.
As I mentioned, Batman Begins spent an entire film exploring the origins of Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, but that was under a different context. There was a planned endgame, a planned trilogy, in place for this incarnation of the character. On the other side of that spectrum is The Incredible Hulk, who has, in the 21st century had two standalone films and appeared in The Avengers. Both standalone films were origin stories, because they didn’t get sequels (the two standalone films were released only five years apart, to seemingly no response, yet there was outrage across cyberspace when it was announced Spider-Man was being rebooted, even though it was ‘too soon’ after the end of Raimi’s trilogy). Just because a franchise (or even an attempt at one) is being established, doesn’t mean old ground must be totally retread.
Besides, reboots aren’t meant to just show us the same characters again and again and again. The point of a reboot, more than anything, is to alter the sensibilities of the character and their universe. World-building is the core of any reboot, perhaps even more than re-establishing the central character. Nolan’s Batman films are a perfect example of this. Even in Batman Begins, dedicated to exploring the origin of its eponymous vigilante, he also sets out to build a new, darker universe for his character to occupy. The same goes for Man of Steel, everything seems decidedly less ‘All-American’ and homely than the Superman of yore, this modern version is shot in a sleeker, bleaker way, with a little more edge to it. In Nolan’s films, even the Batcave, a staple of the character, is given a makeover.
Burton’s Batcave (left) and Nolan’s (right).
And all of this world-building can be done without giving the character an explicit origin. Instead, they’re shown at the beginning of their arc for any given film, and the world, and the character, are simply introduced through the events of the film. Now, while this could of course lead to streams of exposition loaded dialogue, Man of Steel proved there are other ways to explore origins and world-building (especially given Krypton is very deliberately designed and shown in the prologue).
Between pre-existing material, a wealth of canonical options, and quite frankly, more interesting ways to tell a story, I think that the terms ‘reboot’ and ‘origin’ can finally be severed from each other, so that, while the latter still plays a role in narrative, it isn’t symbiotically joined to the former.