Origin stories used to be the exception.
When I was a kid, comic books would recap Batman’s or Superman’s origin every once in a while. In comic strips, you’d get an annual Sunday page of The Phantom’s origin “for those who came in late”, but the rest of the time, you could count on the Ghost Who Walks fighting evil as usual. On TV, syndicated reruns of shows like Batman and Star Trek would give you a throwaway line at best.
But now, origin stories are everywhere. Ever since Batman Begins hit in 2005, it’s become the default way to kick off a series. It’s even infected movies and TV shows outside the superhero genre. We finally got an origin for James Bond in Casino Royale, 44 years into the film series. The movies of The A-Team, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, and even Starsky and Hutch were all origin stories, taking two hours to tell us what the opening credits used to cover in two minutes.
Now, I personally enjoyed all of these movies (Heck, I’m still bitter that the A-Team and U.N.C.L.E. movies didn’t get sequels), but a part of me wonders if they were really necessary. What would have happened if they had just started with the status quo already in place?
I’ve come up with a term for stories like this, where the telling of the origin becomes more important than anything that follows: Originitis.
With Originitis, we’re not just getting more origins, we’re also getting longer origins. Casino Royale was so successful that its origin elements spilled over into Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, meaning that it took six hours of screentime and six years of real time to put us in the same place that Bond was in the opening minutes of 1962’s Dr. No. Superheroes seem especially susceptible to Originitis. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko told Spider-Man’s origin story in 11 pages in 1963. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley spent seven issues on it in 2000. Heck, some of DC’s TV shows have turned origins into their own franchise, with Smallville, Gotham, and the upcoming Krypton all telling multi-season long prequel stories.
Origins used to be an appetizer, the thing you quickly got out of the way before you started on the main course. Now they’re the appetizer, a four-course meal, a dessert, and an after-dinner drink.
But are we better off covering this ground so thoroughly? We like origins, but do we really need them? Or at least this much of them? Is knowing everything really better than not?
In the original Star Wars trilogy, much of the backstory was implied. We picked things up as we went along — Obi-Wan Kenobi served Princess Leia’s father during the Clone Wars, Ben Kenobi knew Luke Skywalker’s father back in the day, Jabba the Hutt was after Han Solo for dumping his smuggled cargo, and the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But all of that info was in service to the new story being told.
When The Empire Strikes Back hit in 1980, we got a few more details — Yoda was the guy who trained Ben Kenobi, Lando Calrissian was an old friend of Han’s who used to own the Millennium Falcon — but there was still lots that we didn’t know, like how Han and Chewie first met (and for the hardcore fans who were just dying to know this stuff… Well, that’s what the tie-in fiction was for).
And yeah, hearing about those bits of backstory was cool. But the stuff that really got us talking after Empire was the mystery — What was the deal with the Emperor? What did Yoda mean when he said “There is another?” Was Darth Vader telling the truth when he said he was Luke’s father, or was it all some sort of dastardly trick? We didn’t know, and there was a certain thrill to not knowing. I think that might be why the prequels disappointed so many. We finally got the backstory we’d wanted for so long, only for it to be less interesting than what we’d imagined for 20 years.
I really think that in most cases, you don’t need much in way of backstory. Let’s look at how two of the most iconic characters of today were introduced in their first movies — James Bond in Dr. No and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They’re remarkably similar.
We start with both heroes already well-established in their professions, with just teasing glimpses seen through the eyes of supporting characters before they’re fully revealed to the audience:
So right off the bat, they’re mysterious and intriguing. Most of their relationships also have some history to them. Bond’s ongoing flirtation with Moneypenny is well-established, as well as his pricklier relationship with M (who orders Bond to change his sidearm to the famous Walther PPK, as his Beretta jammed on him during his last job.):
Indy has a rivalry with Belloq, a romantic history with Marion, and friendships with Marcus Brody and Sallah all predating the film, but we never get the full story on any of them:
All of this is incredibly efficient storytelling, as we’re immediately intrigued by what we’re presented with, but we don’t get bogged down in backstory. We’re told what we need to know. We don’t have to know all their history — It’s enough that the characters do.
Arthur Conan Doyle did this brilliantly in his Sherlock Holmes stories. The individual mysteries were sometimes great and sometimes just okay, but what kept readers coming back was the mystery of Sherlock Holmes himself. We didn’t learn what made him become a detective until the 17th short story, we didn’t find out that he had a brother until the 22nd, and in the 24th story, we suddenly discovered that Holmes had been secretly combatting someone he called “the Napoleon of Crime” for years on end.
But Doyle didn’t stop there. He also had Holmes and Watson drop in tantalizing references to cases we never saw, and they got you wondering. Why did one criminal knock out Holmes’ left canine in the waiting room of Charing Cross Station? What about Mr. James Phillimore, who disappeared after stepping back into his house to get his umbrella? What was the story behind the Giant Rat of Sumatra?
It was a genius move on Doyle’s part, because it gave his characters a life outside the page. If you’ve ever wondered how the whole phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes scholarship got started, it was through references like that.
Most every character can benefit from a little mystery. When Superman and Batman were both revamped in the mid-80s, I don’t think it was a mistake that their new origin stories left several years largely unaccounted for. Clark Kent spent seven years travelling the world before debuting in Metropolis, and Bruce Wayne now spent 12 years away from Gotham, learning how to become Batman. As well as we knew them, certain parts of their lives remained unknown to us, and I think that’s for the best. Somehow, when you explain everything about characters like Superman and Batman, they become less believable, not more.
In Superman Annual #7, Roger Stern had Clark Kent mention walking the length of the Amu River in Afghanistan. You could easily get years’ worth of stories out of that throwaway reference. But it’s almost better if you don’t, because it’s important to keep a sense of discovery about these characters. As soon as you feel you know everything about them, as soon as they stop intriguing or surprising you — it’s over.
So let’s not too worked up the next time we don’t know everything about a character right off the bat. Let’s just delight in the mystery.
See you next week.