DC and Warner Bros. have finally broken ground on their shared movie universe with the release of Man of Steel, and though critics and fans may be divided on how well Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot turned out to be, many conclude that the studio’s plan is now obvious: a Man of Steel sequel to capitalize on the success, and get to work on similar origin stories for the rest of DC’s heroes – even a Batman/Superman team-up film – before the Justice League becomes a reality.
While the success of Man of Steel could lead many to feel that standalone origin stories are the best move –and, in some cases, the only right way of proceeding – it isn’t the only one. There’s a case to be made for following Marvel’s formula, to be sure, but a look at other successful film franchises (including Marvel) leads us to believe that moving to Justice League next may not just succeed, but could offer something genuinely new to the superhero genre.
First, it’s worth remembering that Man of Steel wasn’t just tasked with introducing a new version of Superman – a feat it accomplished (read our review) – it was also saddled with washing away the lingering memories of Bryan Singer’s failed reboot, Superman Returns (2006). For Snyder to launch a Superman universe that makes Justice League possible, a new origin story, a new actor and new approach was needed.
That’s not an issue that Warner Bros. or DC needs to worry about in the case of Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, since those heroes have yet to be introduced to modern movie audiences, and as such, are freed from much of Man of Steel‘s burden. There is no doubt that those characters could stand on their own, and given the right treatment, rival the feats and scale of Superman. Yet for good and bad, they are characters with whom modern audiences have less experience with on the big screen.
That means a new approach is possible, and given a few facts about modern audiences and DC’s biggest heroes, a group introduction could be the right way to move forward and gain unparalleled audience attention. We’re all in favor of half a dozen more superhero films – provided they’re well-made – but it’s worth hearing the other side of the Justice League discussion.
Origin Stories are Just One Kind
The sad truth of comic books: origin stories are usually not the most interesting or acclaimed part of any classic superhero’s history. That might sound like heresy coming from self-professed comic book fans, but look up the very best comic book arcs for any superhero, and the vast majority do not tell of the character’s earliest days. Why? That’s a difficult question to answer.
While occasionally interesting science fiction or fantasy tales in their own right, origin stories also tend to be the first ones sought out by new readers, for obvious reasons: they answer the first questions a curious reader is likely to ask – is Superman even human? How can Flash run so fast? Why is Wonder Woman so strong?
As a result of this need to explain the nuts and bolts of a mythological character, origin stories often follow a painfully formulaic layout. Since readers are just looking for answers – or in the case of John Byrne’s iconic “The Man of Steel” origin story, what’s been changed canonically – writers are limited in how much of the character’s personality and meaning can be addressed. The makers of Man of Steel clearly knew how rigid an origin story can be, doing everything possible to change up the standard formula (skipping over Clark’s childhood completely, giving flashbacks where needed, etc.).
Nobody says a good story needs to start at the start – just ask Tarantino – and Warner Bros. (under Nolan’s leadership) has shown an interest in surprising comic book fans with their structures. Batman Begins kicked off a reboot with Bruce Wayne in a Chinese prison, after much of the film’s ‘story’ has already occurred. Far from lost, fans were thankful for it, since most have been forced to witness the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne more times than their son ever did.
Instead, Nolan introduced the world to his Batman late in his life, only showing elements of his childhood trauma and maturation where it aided the overall plot. That fact was not lost on Zack Snyder when charged with similarly reinvigorating a spoiled brand.
Yet in the case of both Batman Begins and Man of Steel, the writers and directors needed to make significant changes in order to distance the new films from those that came before. The fact that both succeeded despite those hurdles led to a widespread belief that in order to care about a character/superhero/villain, audiences need to see exactly how they got the way they are. If the audience is simply told that a hero is good or a villain is bad, this logic states, they can’t buy in and never become invested. And yet, the most beloved of genre films seem to defy this rule as often as they adhere to it.
While origin stories are great for fiction buffs, audiences react just as strongly to what characters do on screen as where they came from. No one needed to be told, for example, that Darth Vader was evil – the first thing he does is kill people cruelly – and by the same token, no one needed to know that Obi-Wan Kenobi was once a soldier for good; he saved a helpless boy from certain death, and could therefore be trusted.
If audiences had no idea how Obi-Wan Kenobi came to be an old hermit, or how Vader had cast off the light in favor of evil, the above logic implies audiences should have never been able to invest in either. But let’s give movie geeks some credit: they’re willing to fill in the gaps and details if given enough substance to go on. And provided the heroes they’re presented with are iconic enough to begin with.
It’s this idea that Zack Snyder tapped into when he claimed that DC’s heroes are “purer archetypes” than any of Marvel’s, and can therefore reach higher heights, if done properly. Being introduced to Luke Skywalker (we’re Star Wars fans, sue us) when he’s barely a teen isn’t what tells audiences that they’re witnessing the hero’s journey; he could be a thirty-year-old moisture farmer and most of the story would remain unchanged.
George Lucas made the wise move of beginning the story in the middle, where the most archetypal characters – the hero, the rogue, the princess, the sage – would draw crowds in and carry the bulk of the story (the story of how Luke came to be born, as it turns out, took three movies to tell and nearly killed the entire franchise).