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).
The Origin Story Debate: DC vs. Marvel
So why did origin tales work for Marvel? Well, for the main reason we first argued Justice League wouldn’t need to follow Marvel’s plan: audiences are more familiar with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman than they ever were with Thor, Black Widow, Captain America or Iron Man. For Marvel, an introduction was necessary. Not only to get audiences familiar with these characters, but out of a necessity to make their symbolic meaning clear to anyone not already steeped in decades of their mythology.
As our own Kofi Outlaw has explained in the past, Snyder’s claims of “purer archetypes” are founded in literary study, not fanboyism. Marvel’s characters, while perhaps not as “archetypal” as DC's, are more likely to encapsulate elements of the human experience; Captain America embodies the scrawny kid with a good heart who becomes super strong, and turns against those who would bully others. Spider-Man is the nerdy kid who finally gets the girl, and Dr. Bruce Banner speaks for every introvert who ever longed to be powerful, and invincible.
They’re characters everyone can relate to, but to understand the symbols that each of them truly were, audiences needed to see them as weak, unwanted, and limited before they were granted their 'hero' status.
DC’s characters, on the other hand, are more easily identified; sure, they don't encapsulate human experiences (how many interstellar space cops do you know?), but the do embody universal archetypes, myths, icons, or ideas. Superman: the demigod from a far-off land. Batman: grief and anger in the flesh. Wonder Woman: the warrior princess. Green Lantern: fearlessness, using courage as a weapon. And Flash: a man for whom time has no meaning.
Each of these characters has a deep and relatable history, but that doesn’t need to be shown for human beings to understand what ideas and wish-fulfillment they embody. Hal Jordan may be without fear, but only when that notion is tested are the best Green Lantern stories written. Flash can run faster than sound, but what happens when speed won’t help him? Wonder Woman can turn stone to dust, but knows little about the modern world and its people.
That’s the reason why you won’t find many origin stories among the most revered in DC’s catalogue: the best storytelling wasn’t concerned with how the people got to where they are, but what happened once they did.
Man of Steel and Batman Begins prove that sometimes, telling an origin story in bits and pieces, not laid out from beginning to end, can be an entertaining delivery method. And with the plethora of Marvel films set to be released in the coming years – all looking to follow a similar formula, if trends hold – differentiating themselves in any way is a wise move.
DC and Warner Bros. don’t have to start at the start to show why their characters are unique and iconic, so why not start at the most interesting point from a story perspective? As in, what happens when these archetypes meet for the first time in a Justice League movie?
Learn From Marvel
It may seem a bit harsh to describe Marvel’s ‘Phase One’ films as essentially a lead-up to The Avengers, but given the use of ‘Phase One’ internally at the company, it seems an accurate categorization - and it showed. Both Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) followed similar structures, and formed a common idea of what ‘a Marvel movie’ meant. With similar tone, similar humor, and even shared characters, the studio knew that audiences needed more than just origin stories to keep them interested – they needed to know they were building to something.
Iron Man 2 (2010) acted most heavily as a prologue to The Avengers (to the chagrin of many fans and critics), Captain America ended with Steve Rogers answering S.H.I.E.L.D.’s call to leadership, and Thor’s main antagonist soon returned as the villain of ‘Phase One.’ Once the studio had explained to the world why they should care about these heroes – since most didn’t know about their powers or morality – they could get to the heroes actually being the heroes they’re famous for - and audiences arrived in droves.
That's the biggest benefit of moving forward with Justice League, either following on the heels of Man of Steel or after a sequel: audiences want their heroes to be heroes, and who can blame them? But if Justice League gives audiences what they desire – Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman and Superman as the superheroes they know them to be – can they really understand why they should care for them without formal introductions?
There’s no question that audiences would make a Justice League film a billion-dollar proposition, and we’d argue that the League members embodying archetypes – and sporting powers that embody each of their personalities – wouldn’t be hampered with the same challenges Marvel faced. In fact, people have proven that they’re somewhat fond of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman already.
With the origin stories out of the way, The Avengers allowed writer/director Joss Whedon to throw the heroes together, bringing out each other’s weaknesses and proving their strength through teamwork. Now that the origin stories are out of the way, and audiences understand what makes these characters differ from one another in a fight, ‘Phase Two’ is taking them in completely different directions. Thor: The Dark World (2013) looks to be a Viking adventure with gritty violence and magical themes. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) claims to be a “political thriller.” Iron Man 3 explored the ways that Tony Stark was forever changed by facing a threat he couldn’t defeat alone (*cough*Superman*cough), and fans are already crying for a standalone Hulk franchise, despite his role in the film being rather limited.
The Avengers was built on the foundations of the origin stories, yet with higher review scores and box office numbers, more audiences came to see the teamup than the lead-ins, and left happier. Now that Man of Steel got the reboot right – and massively changed the fiction movie fans were familiar with – why ignore the message sent loud and clear? The simple truth: The Avengers was the payoff people were hoping for, and (Marvel hopes) convinced more fans to follow the heroes down different paths, telling unique stories based on their own qualities.
With that in mind, it seems foolish to claim that either a) audiences wouldn’t happily see Justice League without origin stories for heroes they either already know, or haven’t sought out thus far, or b) that their interest in the characters post-team-up would depend on individual origin stories, not the promise they showed along one another.
If comic book fans are already crying for Mark Ruffalo to be given a new Hulk series – a character already played by two different actors, at least one of which was a complete failure – then we’d put our money on a well-executed Flash or Wonder Woman in Justice League garnering the same support. Expose the characters to more audiences than would ever be interested in a single origin story – as evidenced by Marvel’s ‘Phase One’ box office numbers – and take each in their own direction with fans in tow, not demanding they buy in with every new solo film.
Again, we think of Aquaman most of all in this regard. Although there is reason to believe that Aquaman could work as DC’s next epic event film, featuring a well-written, well-cast Arthur Curry fighting alongside Superman would attract more viewers to a grossly under-appreciated hero. Once he's shown who he is to the larger world, let the writer/director of the Aquaman movie explore his origins in greater detail. Besides offering a plot that isn't simply 'another origin story, this method of exploring a character is also much closer to the way people familiarize themselves with anything, or anyone in the real world.
The same logic applies for Flash, Wonder Woman, and a possibly re-cast Green Lantern. The mere fact that the story and approach to Marvel’s post-Avengers films is generating more interest than those that preceded it proves the point: thus far, origin stories simply aren’t as bankable from a studio perspective, and from a comic standpoint, aren’t the most interesting.
The Sad Truth For Fans
As much as Superman fans soaked up every second of the Kryptonian backstory, Clark Kent’s struggle to adapt to his new powers, and his angst-ridden trek around the globe, the truth is that those character moments aren’t what mass audiences showed up to see. That may seem a cynical perspective, but take one look at Warner Bros. marketing push in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, and it becomes clear that the action, spectacle, and Supersuit is what puts butts in seats.
While fans and critics may appreciate some drama and character development throughout – although, going by the mixed reception to Man of Steel, even that’s debatable – it’s the Superman name (with action to match) that drives summer audiences into theaters, willing to pay the 3D ticket prices.
Hardcore fans may be the most deserving of a faithful adaptation, but a film made just for them – like, say, Watchmen (2009) – is a nightmare for studios, and a death sentence for budding franchises.
So what’s the solution? Well, that’s a loaded question, so let’s begin by realizing that a film with Superman – or Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, etc. – featured at their full power, in the form most recognizable to casual viewers, is just as likely to draw the same crowds as a dialogue-heavy, painfully-crafted origin story. Fans may flock to see a new take on a superhero’s first steps, first fight, or first failure, but from a financial point of view, that structure is as risky as it is unnecessary.
For example: a lengthy glance at the backlash against Man of Steel from critics around the world makes one thing clear – while not every one of Snyder and co.'s choices were a success, most agree that Henry Cavill is a convincing Superman, and the action is about as epic as blockbuster crowds can hope for. As a result, Superman’s first outing is anything but a unanimous success, but where the film leaves our hero, now fully embracing the role he is known for, holds incredible promise for a sequel.
While die-hard fans, casual fans, critics, and comic book writers may be divided over the origin story, fans got the Superman action that the film demanded, with an actor who gives hope for what lies ahead. Is it so crazy to think that a film bringing Superman – with an actor and style sure to please – and the rest of the League members, just as well-cast and written, would be exactly what most audiences are hoping to see from the team-up?
Had Warner Bros. decided to test the waters earlier on, and introduced Henry Cavill as Superman in the middle of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – knowing how well he embodies the character – would audiences have been turned off, and felt no attachment to him whatsoever since they hadn’t been told his origin story again? Or would the brief look at the Superman they always hoped to see on screen have them crying for a standalone movie?
If it’s safe to assume that Warner Bros. and DC actually have some respect for their characters – and the four films centered on Batman and Superman imply that they do – it’s unfair to assume that foregoing origin films is a clear-cut case of prioritizing money over integrity. Again, some of the best DC stories have centered solely on the League as a group, with the most compelling origin stories for its members coming decades after they first became household names.
Could the same strategy work for DC's movie universe? It’s possible. Could hooking audiences to lesser-known heroes by showing their true power and character off the bat, and diving deeper once viewers decided they actually cared about them work as well? Again, it’s possible.
All of this hinges on the right story and vision, of course, and both Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill have explained that their Superman isn’t quite where he needs to be to bring in the League. Having seen the film, we can agree. But if Goyer, Nolan, or Snyder decide in the coming years that they’ve got “a great idea for a new Justice League,” we’ll be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Not only because we long to see the greatest superhero team on the big screen, but because we know full well that once these characters shine alongside one another, fans will seek them out and demand each be granted their time in the spotlight. It already worked in the comic book pages, so why not try the same formula on film?
What do you think of the many decisions sure to be facing DC and Warner Bros. in the coming years? Is a strong Justice League movie what you’d hope to see from this group of filmmakers, or is four origin films over as many years what you’d prefer to see (along with those coming from Marvel)? Be sure to add your voice to the conversation in the comments below.