Tom Jolliffe delves into the fascination with origin stories…
Movies and television have long had a burning desire to milk popular characters or franchises for all they’re worth. If it works and the audience responds to it, then logic dictates that more adventures must follow. It could be sequels, spin-offs, reboots (with an iconic character played by different actors). Every once in a while you get a prequel. For the most part, the prequels have a particular fascination with origin stories. Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous first sequel, The Godfather Part II was a brilliant side tale that continued from the first film but simultaneously told the story of how Vito Corleone (played by Brando in the first and in younger form by De Niro in the second) rose from an Italian immigrant to become the Don.
Perhaps the most iconic origin story is that of George Lucas. More than 20 years out of the directors chair, he returned to helm the first of a new prequel trilogy to his iconic star wars trilogy. It was a three-movie arc (beginning with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) showing us how Anakin Skywalker would eventually become Darth Vader. Of course the star wars prequel has drawn a lot of ire over the years for a number of unfortunate characters, heavy storylines, poor casting (especially for Anakin himself), and flat performances. Still, the public shelled out their hard cash, which made the exercise worthwhile. This move into the new century would see a very definitive shift towards franchise material. By the 2010s, Hollywood’s predilection for intellectual property was in full force. A few years later, Marvel and Disney had essentially monopolized theaters and further bolstered executives’ thirst for franchise.
When it comes to origin stories, it’s not just the prequels that offer those moments, but the occasional reboot as well. The perpetual reboots have seen us repeatedly cycle through the origin of Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. Every once in a while, reboots actively avoid doing the ‘original’ thing again, almost acknowledging that we’re all now very well aware of what launched Batman into revenge and Spider-Man into web slinging. . However, for the most part, many studio franchises seem to have a definite penchant for showing origin stories. We have seen that in the world of Harry Potter with fantastic beasts (which of course was adapted from Rowling’s own prequel series). Besides, star wars recently gave us A thug, the origin story of the capture of the Death Star shots that launched the highly original film. We also got Han Solo’s origin story. So why this constant fascination with her? Why the need?
In connection with Solo, does an entire movie to show us how Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon and even his name (among a host of other mini Easter eggs) really have to happen? The lackluster reviews and box office suggested that audiences weren’t as enamored as Disney might have hoped. In The Empire Strikes Back the whole story of Solo, The Falcon and Lando is quite succinctly told in a few lines. In A new hope we just take the idea that the plans are in the hands of the rebels as a starting point, which triggers the story. A movie longer than 2 hours to do less effectively than the five-minute opening in A new hope fact was also somewhat unnecessary, although at least A thug has a group of fans who consider him in the upper echelons of Star Wars’ filmography. In truth, like everything in cinema, there are good and bad examples. Dumb and Dumber To is the much-maligned and now completely forgotten sequel to the Farrelly Brothers’ original cult favorite, which showed us the young lives of Harry and Lloyd. In fact, the film was excruciatingly bad, with a smell of cynical puncture that infected cinemas (at least for the three people stupid enough to go there). The only real saving grace for this film is the fact that the Farrelly’s own sequel, which saw the return of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, was even worse.
Perhaps the most ridiculous (though rather enjoyable) origin story I’ve ever seen comes from Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie. Death on the Nile. As the iconic mustachioed detective, Poirot, Branagh has crafted a few lightweight but perfectly well-made units. Those familiar with the original stories won’t be too surprised, though one of the creative liberties taken involves a prologue in Death of the Nile which tells the origin story of Poirot’s mustache. Yes…a mustache gets a 10-minute opening origin story. Sensibly, it’s limited to this opening rather than spending an entire movie telling us why Poirot chose his fuzz face (in all honesty, it also gives an indication of the birth of several character traits). I joked that Disney+ could happily expand a mustache origin story to an 8-episode series (where I’d bet Grogu and Mando could pop up to commandeer a few episodes).
My only gripe with the overabundance of origin fascination is the fact that mystique can often be a strength within a character. Darth Vader was at his most interesting as a dark, almost mythical villain with a vague backstory. Compare the original The Hitcher with Rutger Hauer’s enigmatic and illegible villain, to the austere remake that opted to fill the titular villain with more backstory (and strip it of any mystique). Increasingly, the film and television landscape is an arena where blur is not valued as much as clarity. Where everything needs reasoning and spelling. Maybe an audience really wants to know why a character has a particular scar or wears a piece of jewelry, or maybe those points are never given much thought when an immediate storyline grabs your attention.
Are we sitting at the start of A new hope Wondering what kind of adventure it took to capture the Death Star schematics? I did not do it. A particularly frustrating trend, which isn’t entirely new, is segues into the past, or origins in movies, that disrupt the rhythm and flow. There are certainly good examples, but likewise, there are so many movies that spend far too much time delving into a character’s past to show the first encounters that form the reasoning for their actions. Reach recently, for example, had a perpetual need to continually dive back into Jack and Joe Reacher’s past, where the point being made could have been made with half the money diverted to them when they were kids.
Sometimes these asides can be a pleasant indulgence. If uncovering the origins of a mustache was inherently clunky, in a pleasantly airy, old-school murder mystery, then seeing the origin of Indiana Jones’ famous fedora was also a welcome indulgence. The opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade starring River Phoenix as a picture-perfect young Indiana, has always been a great example of origin storytelling and succinct enough to not intrude too much on the movie ahead. There’s usually a noticeable difference when the original dive becomes a symptom of a lack of progressive ideas, but the lack of creative ideas and forward momentum is now commonplace in filmmaking.
Do you like origin stories? Are there too many? What’s your favorite origin story? Let us know on our social media @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. He has a number of films released on DVD/VOD worldwide and several releases scheduled for 2021/2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you will ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/