Why All The Superhero Origin Re-Hashing?

Originally published: 11/2011 by J Wynia

Had another conversation with someone who is baffled by the fact that they just keep re-making the origin story comic book movies rather than moving forward with other stories. It's not all that surprising, actually.

See, there's this pattern of storytelling for sci-fi/fantasy that TV and movies (and many books too) stick very closely to as it's the least risky structure they can go with. The pattern involves a "mundane" or "normal" person as a primary character.

That normal person serves as a proxy for the viewer or reader. All of the weird stuff going on in the sci-fi or fantasy universe needs to be explained to them and thus, to the audience. Luke Skywalker knows nothing about the force and neither does the audience at the beginning of Star Wars.

Since Luke needs so much stuff explained to him, it becomes much easier for the filmmakers to explain it to us as an audience. When Sheriff Carter shows up in Eureka and has never heard of the place, anything the writers need us to know gets explained to Carter. When a weird artifact needs to be explained to the audience on Warehouse 13, it gets explained to any of the half of the cast filling this role on that show.

This can be multiplied to include more than one such character. Shows like Stargate put nearly the entire cast into this role when the started out. Same with most of the cast on Lost.

This formula is so completely ingrained that when a show like Stargate matures, the often need to inject a new character or set of characters to fill the role.

Once you realize this pattern and are looking for it, you can usually see which sci-fi or fantasy material has any chance of mainstream success. Those that follow the formula have a shot, those that don't, don't. I'm sitting here trying to think of ANY examples that succeeded against this formula and I'm coming up empty.

This formula is seriously powerful. First, it really is good storytelling, particularly when the story world deviates from the rules of current reality. Second, it provides an onramp for those who wouldn't otherwise be interested in the weird story world. That second part is damned near a law of nature when it comes to TV and movies. Whether or not it's ACTUALLY necessary or it's just talking down to audiences is irrelevant. The studios clearly believe that nothing in the genre works without this.

Back to super-hero movies, you'll probably see that, in an origin story, the hero serves as our proxy character, exploring their new powers, learning how to be a hero, etc. This is a particularly powerful combo because our proxy user (whom we are meant to empathize with) is combined with the protagonist (whom we are meant to empathize with). Put those together and nearly all of the story's empathy is channeled in the direction of the hero.

When you look at the non-origin super hero stories, they often lose the proxy character. At the very least, the hero stops being able to fulfill that role. That means siphoning some of the empathy away from the hero. That gets tricky to write and still keep it compelling. As such, each time a franchise strays away from origin stories, it gets more and more risky, speaks to a smaller and smaller audience and generally scares the crap out of the people in Hollywood pouring hundreds of millions into making these movies.

Their reaction? Stay in the end of the pool where it's safe. Let's just re-boot and go back to the origin story again.

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