Originitis and the Power of Mystery

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.

Origin Posters 2
Actually, IMDB says that Starsky & Hutch came out before Batman Begins, so maybe this is all Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s fault.

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.

Gotham Header
I don’t like the show very much, but this is a great piece of design.

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.

Star Wars Poster
And also with you.

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).

Empire Poster
“I’m gonna go see this new movie Star The Empire Strikes Back Wars. I hear it might be pretty good.”

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:

Dr. No Montage

Raiders Montage 01

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.):

Dr. No Montage 02
Bond also meets Felix Leiter for the first time, but hey, no theory’s perfect.

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:

Raiders Montage 02
BTW, how GREAT are Steven Spielberg’s compositions?

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?

Giant Rat of Sumatra
I found all of these in a two-minute Google search. I’m sure there are more.

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.

25 Comments

  1. Simon

    Sure, an answer is the doom of a question. A secret disappoints when a mystery endures. But why not call a spade a spade, or if the call comes, a goddamn shovel? I’d blame:

    (1) Passive TV and other infantilizations, nurturing the need to be spoonfed, including origin stories.
    (2) OCD and other cognitive diseases, nurturing the need for every last detail to be filled in, and this by someone else (for lack of imagination, see above).
    (3) Old-fashioned greed, taking advantage of the aforementioned idiots.

    (This means you too, BEFORE WATCHMEN!)

    – “comic books would recap Batman’s or Superman’s origin every once in a while”

    Yes, but what about all those Spider-Man or Daredevil issues always opening with, “Bitten by a radioactive spider, blah blah blah”?

    – “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”

    And Ozymandias spent years retracing the footsteps of Alexander. I’m sure there’s a trope name!

    – “See you next week.”

    But you didn’t tell us the origin story of originitis!!!

    1. Digression: of the Giant Sumatran Rats shown above, Boyer’s is brilliant. One not shown that I found in college is Fred Saberhagen’s THE HOLMES-DRACULA FILE, which led me to Saberhagen’s New Dracula series. It’s not shown anywhere on the cover but the Giant Rat indeed plays a role, and if you recall the story in which that quote actually appeared, you will see how Saberhagen cleverly gets round the Holmesian assertion that there are no such things as vampires. The Holmes entry was actually one of the lesser books in that series but the others are terrific. I’m especially fond of THE DRACULA TAPE, in which Dracula gets to tell his side of the events recounted in Stoker’s novel (and really, it does make more sense that Lucy Westenra died of incompetent blood transfusions, done without any attention to typing the donors, than from a vampire bite) and AN OLD FRIEND OF THE FAMILY, in which Dracula aids Mina Harker’s descendants in a battle against a vampire cult.

    2. John Trumbull

      Yes, but what about all those Spider-Man or Daredevil issues always opening with, “Bitten by a radioactive spider, blah blah blah”?

      I’m okay with them, personally. They don’t offend me or anything, and I’d much rather have those than multiple issues devoted to recapping stuff.

      But you didn’t tell us the origin story of originitis!!!

      Ummm… I noticed that origins were becoming more prevalent, and I figured I should come up with a pseudo-intellectual type term for it for the sake for my column.

      I hope that was worth the wait. 🙂

      Greg, I knew about THE HOLMES/DRACULA FILE (I have a copy of it not five feet away, actually), but I didn’t include it since it doesn’t have “Giant Rat of Sumatra” in its title. It would’ve seemed like a weird combo breaker.

      And I like Loren Estleman’s SHERLOCK HOLMES VS. DRACULA better, anyway. I don’t think I ever got past the early chapters of Saberhagen’s book when I attempted reading it in the early 90s (I know about the big revelation at the end, though).

  2. Charlie 217

    If (hopefully when) the restart DC’s JSA and LSH, I hope they don’t start from scratch. I just want to get into the action and fill in the backstory as it becomes relevant. This originitis also contributes to the “boring” first novels of so many series. I mean so many great novels and stories just start in media res.

  3. Along with the now-obligatory origin story (how many more times are we going to see Uncle Ben die or Krypton explode?), there is a second disease that’s endemic to superhero movies and spreading fast: I don’t know its fancy Latin name, but it’s the demand that the villain and hero have to create each other and be locked forever in a symbiotic death-struggle forever.

    No, Dr. Doom does not have to get his powers in the same accident that created the Fantastic Four. No, Green Goblin’s origin does not need to be linked to Spider-Man’s. No, the Kingpin does not need to be the mob goon who killed Daredevil’s father, and no, the Joker does not need to be the guy who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents. In fact, all these stories would be better, more exciting and less contrived if they weren’t linked this way. It’s okay for the bad guy to get his powers on his own and come after the hero for entirely new reasons that have nothing to do with their shared history.

    1. Le Messor

      I love the MCU movies, but a lot of the time they feel like it’s just the heroes cleaning up their own mess.

      I think it ties into yet another idea – where people start saying ‘this is really good story-telling’ until you get the idea that ‘this’ is what good story-telling looks like, and nothing else. In this case, the idea that the villain is a dark mirror of the hero.

    2. John Trumbull

      Yeah, the doppelganger thing can really wear thin when you go to that well too many times. I can totally see why screenwriters tie the origins of heroes and villains together like that, though. It saves precious screentime.

      I totally want to see Uncle Ben get blown up on the planet Krypton now, though. 🙂

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Definitely agree with Jim’s added point above; otherwise, I think this Originitis is really detrimental in many cases.
    I’m glad you mentioned Indiana Jones, as the over-explaining of his past always bothered me: I found those scenes in the third movie (which explained his whip and the hat) as well as that entire TV series that takes us through his youth and his travels about the world completely pointless. It kind of diminishes the character rather than making him more interesting.
    Another good example of this is the Conan movies. I think Greg covered this in one of his columns a few years ago, but why do they always have to start by taking us through his youth and (needlessly) explaining why he is what he is? Howard never did that! All that needs to be done is to adapt one of Howard’s original stories and you’ll have a goddamned great movie (the Hyborian setting can be explained in a 2-3 minute narrated introduction at the beginning).
    I think the Marvel movies, specifically Iron Man and Captain America, are the only ones in which the origin is done well and integrated into an overall entertaining story.

    1. John Trumbull

      I’m glad you mentioned Indiana Jones, as the over-explaining of his past always bothered me: I found those scenes in the third movie (which explained his whip and the hat) as well as that entire TV series that takes us through his youth and his travels about the world completely pointless.

      I honestly don’t mind the flashback origin thing in Last Crusade, as it’s more of a gag than anything. “Hey, kids — Ever wondered how Indy got his hat, his whip, his scar, and fear of snakes? Here, watch him get all of them in 15 minutes!!!”

      The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles I know was partly intended as a device to inspire kids to learn about history, but I always found it vaguely depressing. “Look at Indy — He’s already met more famous, important people than you ever will, and he’s eight! So you may as well just give up now!” Not really the message I was looking to hear during my college years. 🙂

    2. John Trumbull

      I agree that Conan is probably a good example, but I know very little about Conan, so he’s not an example that springs readily to mind for me. One of my best friends is a major Conan fan, but I’ve never gotten into the sword & sorcery genre in a big way.

      One movie that did a big origin that absolutely shouldn’t have was the Alec Baldwin Shadow movie. Mystery is a BIG part of the Shadow’s appeal. Heck, they didn’t even do the novel “The Shadow Unmasks” until 6-7 years into the run! And those pulps ran biweekly, IIRC.

  5. Le Messor

    When I was a kid, I always wanted to see the episode of The A-Team where they first got together. It always felt like it’d be special to me. (I just sorta assumed it existed.)

    I don’t mind the telling of the origin, I never have. Though I agree that it can and does go too far.

    1. I don’t mind the telling of the origin, I never have. Though I agree that it can and does go too far.

      What I object to is grafting the SAME origin on to everyone. Ne’er do well trying to live up to the expectation of dead parent by finding the killer/assuming the legacy. This makes a sort of sense with Iron Man– though it still seemed unneccessary– but it seems WAY off for the Flash and Green Lantern, and it’s completely nuts to apply it to James T. Kirk AND Mr. Spock… in the SAME MOVIE, no less.

      1. We need to convince screenwriting teachers and studio executives that “The Hero’s Journey” is descriptive, not prescriptive, and not every story has to hit every point. Some of these movies, you can sit there and check off the list as the the plot points arise. “There’s the call to adventure… and there’s the refusal… and oh look, the Mentor!”

        I blame George Lucas. when people started noticing how much Star Wars was “what if Kurosawa had made a Flash Gordon movie designed by Jack Kirby?” George went scrambling for a fig leaf. He hit on Campbell, and now everyone who wants Star Wars level box office demands slavish adherence to the formula.

        1. John Trumbull

          Yeah, movies have gotten a little too blatantly formulaic. If I ever see the “bad guy get captured halfway through, but then uses it to set his big evil scheme in motion” bit again, it’ll be too soon. After The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and Skyfall, it’s pretty played out.

          And none of those caged bad guys will ever be as cool as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, anyway. (Hannibal Lecter — now there’s a character who got an unnecessary origin!).

          1. Simon

            – “If I ever see the “bad guy get captured halfway through, but then uses it to set his big evil scheme in motion” bit again, it’ll be too soon. After The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and Skyfall, it’s pretty played out.”

            Wasn’t it already played out after SEVEN?

            Also, isn’t it amusing how audiences originally complained about it in SEVEN? (Apparently, they’d prefer that film to use the repetitive formula of cranking out creative torture porn to the end.) But once that bit has become a repetitive formula in itself, they just accept it?

            That could underline, if needed, how most dwellers of Plato’s Cave hate the different and want the same. Maybe not unlike how many hate people that seem different?

  6. Jazzbo

    In general, I find origin stories boring. Especially in relation to super heroes or similar over the top characters. I’m not reading a comic book about a space cop with a magic wishing ring because I want to spend 6 issues learning about his daddy issues and problems with authority when he was just a regular guy. Just stick with the good stuff, and fill in the origin if necessary. And it’s almost never necessary.

    1. Amen.

      Green Lantern was a textbook case of how not to do a superhero movie, and the suits at the studio don’t even know why it went off the rails.

      Take Sinestro: in the comics, when he first appeared, we got a one-sentence back story; former Green Lantern gone rogue, uses a yellow ring. That’s everything we need to know about him and we don’t need to see him get there. When he shows up, his fall from grace is in the past, and nobody felt the need to dig it up and look at it until a good 30 years later. His story needs to be past tense, because the first time Sinestro’s name is mentioned, we know he’s going to be a bad guy.

      Of course that wasn’t the only flaw. They wanted Ryan Reynolds to be an irresponsible jackass, but nobody gets to be a fighter pilot or test pilot with that attitude. Hal Jordan is not Van Wilder, he’s Chuck Yeager. He’s not a flake, he’s a maverick; when he breaks the rules, it’s because the rule is stupid and he has to get stuff done, and he owns it and takes the hit for it if he has to. He should have been the guy that we don’t have to slog through the Hero’s Journey with. He got through his callow youth phase in basic training 10 years ago.

      Spending half the movie on what should have been a pop song fueled five-minute training montage was another mistake.

      1. Le Messor

        That one also brings up one of my pet peeves of adaptations – bring in something the hero is really famous for, show them rejecting it for most of the movie. (In this case, lack of fear; Robin Williams’s Popeye spent most of the movie hating spinach.)

        There’s also a character hating something that’s definitive to them in the original work – I’m thinking The Blob in Wolverine: Origins having the name ‘The Blob’ being a berserk button, for example.

  7. Jeff Nettleton

    Well, everyone has covered most of my thoughts. I’m with Greg on the same origin thing; not to mention the same plot. What really irks me is the need for an origin for everything. It’s like Santa Claus is Coming to Town, expanded to two hours, then spread across 3-4 (or 5) movies. Daniel Craig has been the new Bond how long, and has yet to deal with a threat that isn’t tied to his past, or sets up something we got thrown at us in the original films? Just let the guy have a new adventure. Look at the classic adventure cartoons of the 60s. We have no idea who Space Ghost is under the mask, how he got started, where Jan and Jace came from and we don’t really care, cause we are getting cool action and battles with weird villains! We are too busy having fun to worry about that stuff. Then, when we got that DC mini-series, it just felt wrong for the character.

    Jonny Quest got a throwaway line about his mother being gone and Race Bannon was assigned to protect Dr Quest and Jonny. Hadji say’s he learned English and judo from an American Marine. We don’t find out why he was an orphan, we just accepted it. Now, the Comico series gave us a nice story about the day Jonny’s mother died and Race joined the team. William messner-Loebs established a character in a few pages, made us like her and care for her and feel the loss that Jonny has when she dies. That’s all you need. The broader strokes give you the emotional impact, the details just slow down the story. Flash Gordon, Yale graduate and world renowned polo player. That’s all you got. Then his plane is hit by a meteor, he and Dale Arden bail out, land near Dr Zarkov’s lab, who takes them prisoner and force into a rocket to Mongo. That was the first strip. That was the origin. After that, we were thrown into adventures. We didn’t need anything else. We didn’t need to know how Ming ascended to the throne. We just wanted to see Flash kick his butt.

    I’m also tired of the character who needs to be inspired to become a hero by some event, rather than just decides to go out and do it because it’s needed. Superman and Captain America are about the only ones that still get this and Supes had some of that taken away by that mess of a film, where his moral guide says maybe he shouldn’t have helped people in trouble.

    I’ve started reviewing Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter, at the Classic Comics Forum (cheap plug) and Archie didn’t hit us with an origin for Paul Kirk until Chapter 3, after we have seen him best a gang of murderers, three zen archers, a horde of assassins with his own face, a tiger, thugs, assassins in the Middle Eastern desert, would-be kidnappers, with his face, and see him pluck arrows out of his chest and stand up after being riddled with bullets. We needed a reason to care about how the man became Manhunter and Archie and Walt gave us a reason why. Wolverine was a greater character when his background was mysterious. The more he got a definitive origin, the less I cared.

    1. Le Messor

      Well, I do think the phrase “world-renowned polo player” needs some explanation. 🙂
      (JOKING!)

      “I’m also tired of the character who needs to be inspired to become a hero by some event, rather than just decides to go out and do it because it’s needed.”

      Oh, yeah. One of the sadder lapses of the need for ‘realism’ and darkness.

      1. M-Wolverine

        Thing is, it’s kind of faux realism. Because lots of people go on to do good and great things without tragic backstories. If anything, that’s more real. Because people with really dark screwed up early lives more often become the bad guy.

        That’s not to say that Batman can’t have the great origin he has; just that James T. Kirk doesn’t need the same backstory to do what he does.

        And Batman can effectively have his origin told in one page (as the original “parents killed, trains mind and body, sees bat fly through window” page did). The more detailed you get the more improbable it all becomes as EVERYTHING is tied to everything else. For comics specifically, the Amazing Fantasy vs. Bendis fantasy origin decompression is what really hurt comics.

        1. Le Messor

          “Thing is, it’s kind of faux realism. Because lots of people go on to do good and great things without tragic backstories.”

          Yes, true.

          “people with really dark screwed up early lives more often become the bad guy. ”

          Hey! I resent the implication! 😀

    2. John Trumbull

      Other GREAT examples, Jeff! Jonny Quest is one of my absolute favorites, which you can tell from my avatar, and Flash Gordon is also pretty damn great.

      Even the great Al Williamson fell prey to originitis with Flash Gordon — He did a story in 1995 for Marvel Comics with a young George Gordon and his father Alex meeting Dr. Zarkov. George picks up the nickname “Flash” and they meet Azura from the planet Mongo. Flash and Dr. Zarkov are put under a Mongo “Spell of Forgetfulness” so that their first meeting in Alex Raymond’s original comic strip is preserved. BEAUTIFUL artwork, but far from a necessary story.

      I’m also tired of the character who needs to be inspired to become a hero by some event, rather than just decides to go out and do it because it’s needed.

      Yeah, sadly, true-blue goodness is much harder for some people to relate to these days. Revenge and angst seem to be pretty popular, though (“Let’s give Barry Allen a dead mom and a dad in prison!”).

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