One of the things that annoy me about superhero movies is their constant need to start off with origin stories. Let's face it, an origin story is usually slow and needlessly complicated and very rarely shows the hero in question at their best.
Richard Donner's Superman (1978) needed to be an origin story because it was, essentially, introducing a (then) forty-year-old character to a new medium and world that may well have forgotten or misunderstood his origin. Superman was the first serious superhero film in a generation; it was a proper reboot and therefore needed to start from the ground up. There is no denying that Superman is a fine example of the form, epic in scope and groundbreaking in its calling-upon big stars (need I remind you of the god-like awe in which the movie-world held Marlon Brando, never mind the kudos brought by Oscar-winner Gene Hackman?) The Salkinds were also pioneers in that they had the vision and the finances to make Superman and its sequel simultaneously (a practice I believe they originated with The Three Musketeers / Four Musketeers - 1973 / 4) something that is not even unusual these days.
So, Superman had to be an origin story ... But is there anyone who prefers it to Superman II? Even the diluted version of Superman II which backroom squabbling left us with? Superman II has the conflict that the first film lacked. It has the badguys which, let's be honest, you still quote from time to time! It was more fun, more exciting and a truer representation of who Superman is. Those of us who read comics at the time were used to seeing city-blocks being levelled by tussling titans that was far more interesting than saving trains and repairing dams!
Jack Nicholson, laughing all the way to the bank with his (reputed) $50 million for three weeks' work
Then, after many, many false starts, along came Batman (1989). It side-stepped the origin problem by including its origin as flashbacks, but it was still weighed down by the need to turn Jack Napier into the Joker and then ruined by a villain who had infinitely more charisma than the hero. Again, Batman has one or two quotable lines but is mostly remembered now for Danny Elfman's first standout score and for having been the rehearsal, if you will, for the far more successful Batman Returns (1992). This film hit the ground running, had room for three villains and hurtled along at a cracking pace.
X-Men, in 2000, was peppered with some origin material, but mostly around Wolverine, leaving a lot of questions unanswered (and thusly paving the way for a steady stream of prequels). Despite some exceptional casting (better, even, than Donner's Superman) the problem for this film was simply the sheer number of characters with which one had to become familiar. By the time we got round to X-Men 2 in 2003, this job was done and they could all get on with being useful and interesting (except James Marsden of course, whose Cyclops was, sadly, neither). One could argue that origins have run through all of the X-Men films and I couldn't disagree but, what that hasn't done, is get in the way of the narrative and conflict.
Spider-Man (2002). Oh dear. That origin story seemed wafer-thin back in the 60s when Lee and Ditko first came up with it. It certainly doesn't stand up to too close inspection now. Okay, so they tampered with it, adding the extremely-useful 'genetic' catch-all and having him grow web-shooters rather than build them (which always seemed unlikely, one has images of him swinging around with a tank of web-fluid on his back). Again, it doesn't all really tie-together until Spider-Man 2 where they can just get stuck into super-hero versus super-villain which is, after all, why everyone stumps-up their money.
Batman Begins (2005) ... Okay, so, given how spectacularly far off the rails Warners had allowed its franchise to go in the nineties, this series desperately needed a re-boot! I will therefore, begrudgingly, admit that I enjoyed all that learning to be an ice-skating ninja stuff and the process of finding his cave, developing his suit and, of course, finding his Bat-Mobile. But, when his past returned to haunt him in the film's third act, the movie just fell apart. Not so The Dark Knight (2008) which is simply the best, most powerful, hugest superhero film ever.
So, you see, I don't like origin stories, they drag a film down. If they were so bloody important every film would be an origin story. All characters have origins. All characters have reasons for being who and where they are. But, no, most films are content to tell you what you need to know when you need to know it and no more.
And please, don't even get me started on the god-damn Punisher films.
So, despite all my advice, Hollywood has decided to reboot both Superman and Spider-Man. Oh joy.
And, in both cases they have cast young men hardly able to shave. Both remarkable actors, I'm sure (I can't lay claim to having noticed Henry Cavil - who is to be Clarke Kent - in much but Andrew Garfield - who is at the moment being Peter Parker - is an actor with considerable range) but they are both kids. This means we are going to get origin stories. Again.
Garfield in the 'leaked' photo of him in costume. Yes, Sony must be livid at the VAST amount of free publicity this leak has got them ...
I still think Warners made a massive error in 1988 when they green-lit Batman, that they didn't hire Clint Eastwood to don the cowl and cape and just put Miller and Janson's genre-defining masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns up there on screen.
Click to enlarge ... And just bask in the magnificence of this - the absolute zenith of the superhero comic-book.
Superheroes typically become more interesting as they develop. They have more experience, more adventures, more bad-guys! The dilemmas they face become more interesting, the emotional baggage they carry becomes heavier, they simply have more to lose and, therefore, the stakes are higher!
But, of course, these characters will be older and therefore of less appeal to the all-important 16-24 movie demographic. Well, ignoring just how patronising an assessment of movie audiences that is, let's look at the facts ... The 16-24s turned out in record numbers to see Up (2009). They pile into the cinemas to see the mid-life-crisis films of once young (but rarely funny) comedians like Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Will Ferrell and Steve Carrell and exactly how appealing to a sixteen-year-old would a film called Forty Year-Old Virgin be anyway? Extremely, it seems!
My point is that Hollywood doesn't have to slavishly pander to its belief that teenagers will only watch films about teenagers nor, for that matter, that teenagers represent the entirety of its audience. It could, therefore, portray these same characters at later points in their careers and come up with something genuinely different for the movie screen.
Case in point: Comics readers are, stereotypically, even younger than cinema-goers and yet they can accept stories about characters far older than they are. Readers and viewers don't need to identify precisely with a character in order to care about them. Let's face it, what sane person identifies with Superman, anyway?
|The mid-life-crisis on infinite Earths ...
Alex Ross has blown away comics readers with his photo-realist paintings of superheroes in action, particularly in his magnificent mini-series Kingdom Come (1996) which is absolutely about older, thicker-set heroes. He has also done remarkable work with The Justice League - all of which could be filmable because DC doesn't have Marvel's problem of licensing different characters to different studios since they're all owned outright by Warners. Well, wouldn't it be an idea to see his version of a mature Superman, dealing with issues far larger than how not to let down Ma and Pa Kent. As for casting, well, it seems obvious to me: Patrick Warburton.
You will probably know his voice (not least from Family Guy) more than his face (although he was excellent ten years ago in the criminally short-lived The Tick TV series).
Have a look at Ross' now definitive version of Superman ...
Now have a good look at Warburton and you tell me if that isn't uncanny.
The campaign begins here: bring on the wrinkly superheroes! Death to origin stories! It's the way forward!