Avoiding the Origin Movie

I’ve written a fair bit on the state of superhero movies in the current cinematic era, and considering the next five years of scheduling I’ll be writing quite a bit more. But while the success of Marvel Studios has clearly won the hearts and minds of fans, and their cinematic universe is going to be a blueprint model studios will likely try to emulate with properties beyond superheroes in the future, DC are poised to take the combined movie universe concept in a unique direction. One is strictly theoretical, the other seems more established, but somewhat overlooked right now. But while the obvious direction to discuss is the fan theorised ‘multiverse’, a comic concept DC could go down if they wanted to link the various properties from both movies and TV without restricting them to the same casting decisions, there is another pathway that deserves more immediate attention.

When you look at virtually every comic superhero movie there is a clear trend, be it a Marvel or DC property. It all starts at the beginning of their history. The conflict between hero and villain is the first in their war. Xmen is the closest we’ve come to dumping the audience into the middle of the universe’s continuity, but that still starts afresh for the lead protagonists in that movie, Wolverine and Rogue, in what is the theoretical beginning of their journey (of course Days of Future Past kind of screws with that concept but it still makes sense in a release based viewing order).

DC look to be breaking the mold with their upcoming cinematic universe. While Man of Steel was clearly an origin story, we won’t be spending a movie establishing the origin of Batman. All reports place the BvS Dark Knight well into his crusade with a storied history. And more importantly, the same can be said for his arch nemesis The Joker.

This flies in the face of general movie reasoning. You start at the logical beginning and expect the audience to come in with no prior knowledge of a character. If you use a known quantity like a fairy-tale character, the first movie tends to re-establish what we already know and ground it into the world you’re establishing.

The same goes for the superhero movie. There is a reason The Amazing Spiderman retread the origin story despite not being that far removed from the Toby Maguire Spider-series. Producers presume naivety from their audience. It might be fair to assume 95% of the audience for Amazing Spiderman knew the basic story beats and premise of how Peter Parker became Spiderman, but what about that 5%?

The thing is, this concept is brutally restrictive to the medium. The cinematic universes of the heroes and villains will borrow heavily from the rich comic history, but if every encounter with a villain is for the first or second time, there is only so much you can do with it. Hardcore comic fans might know the deep history between Red Skull and Captain America, but in ‘The First Avenger’, how much could that really be explored if they only meet each other for the first time in that movie?

Which brings us back to Batman and The Joker. It is probably the single most famous and storied battle in comics. A war between order and chaos that is 75 years old and spans every medium available. Next year we’ll be introduced to new iterations of the characters on the big screen through Ben Affleck and Jared Leto. And while details are slim,everything we’ve heard leads us to belief the first time we see Affleck and Leto face to face, it won’t be the first time in universe.

It’s clear that the Batman we’ll see in BvS: Dawn of Justice will be a veteran to the cape, both from the continual creator references to the Alan Moore classic ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and the look of the Batman teaser image and casting choice. In both the 1989 movie and Batman Begins our introduction to Batman is of him early in his career. And while both series lasted long enough to follow his rise as Batman, neither could truly follow the kind of career Batman has had in comics. And when we see Joker for the first time, so does that iteration of Batman.

Contrast this to the Arkham video games or Batman: The Animated series. In those stories (barring the third Arkham game – a prequel) their feud is well established. It didn’t need to show the viewers through years of battles, it just assumed you knew that they’ve had a storied past and went from there. It allowed the writers to use that ‘accepted history’ to tell stories that the movie universes couldn’t. The stakes could be higher because of the history that is already there. Take the Heath Ledger line from the end of ‘The Dark Knight’:

“You and I are destined to do this forever.”

Now obviously this never came to be. Ledger passed away and any plans Nolan might have had changed for a Gotham that never saw The Joker again. But considering the tension built up from their battles in that movie, and the pain Bruce would still have over losing Rachel thanks to Joker that would likely be brought up again (remember even though The Joker doesn’t know the man behind the Bat-mask he knew Rachel was someone special to him). Take that tension and build that up over several more encounters, then imagine what it’d be like to see a movie of their tenth encounter, and the kind of story that could be told.

That’s the kind of thing we could experience if we could get here. The fans don’t need to see every battle. We just need a simple nod so we know that history is there. And if there’s any duo to try it on, it’s Batman and Joker. Even the most casual of fans will know they’re arch rivals and there’s no need to spend precious time right now re-establishing that.

Imagine Leto Joker asking if the latest Robin is fitting in, and then casually mentioning how long it took to clean the blood of the last Robin off of his crowbar. Right there we get a big easter egg relating to the classic Death in the Family story when the second Robin (Jason Todd) was murdered by Joker with a crowbar. We don’t need a movie showing the event, but through clever storytelling and foreshadowing (establishing the new Robin and a shot of Jason’s costume memorial in the Cave) you have a rich layer of history between the hero and villain to build off of. We haven’t gotten that in the movies yet, bar maybe Magneto and Xavier, which has taken the entire series to build to that kind of level.We could potentially get that in one movie, or even through a Bat-cameo in Suicide Squad (don’t rule it out).

If DC can make an implied history work with Batman and Joker, suddenly the game changes. If it works for Batman, maybe it’ll work elsewhere? We didn’t get introduced to Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders’ with his first adventure, he was already in his prime. No reason the same concept couldn’t work for Aquaman, especially since when Raiders came out you knew literally nothing about the protagonist, where as casual fans might have some knowledge about Arthur Curry. It’s done all the times in other film genres, but superhero stories have gotten stuck in telling (admittedly successful for the most part) origin stories for over a decade now. They genre is ripe to expand beyond there by now, especially as we get more and more new heroes thrust onto the big screen

Most of this right now is merely speculation. But the Joker has clearly been around long enough in this universe for Harley Quinn to exist, and given the potential for storytelling there, it seems wise the have a lengthy history there too. The DC cinematic universe has a lot of catching up to do to the almighty MCU, but shortcutting past origins and early history, while risky, isn’t the silliest thing to do with known entities like Batman. And I assure you Marvel are watching with great interest. Since half-acquiring the rights back to Spiderman the one public concern has been of another needless origin movie. If the MCU Spiderman is indeed Peter Parker and not Miles Morales (and maybe even if it is) they stand to benefit from introducing him as an experienced superhero. There’s no time to waste, not with The Infinity War starting in four years.

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One comment

  1. I think you hit the nail right on the head there Trent when you suggested that studios assume naivety on the part of their audience. When Doctor Who was shown on PBS in the US during the 70s and 80s it had a ‘last time on Doctor Who’ preamble because it was felt that the audience would be lost without it. However in Australia from the age of at least 9 I was able to get up to speed very quickly. Like education, people will raise themselves to the level that you set the bar.

    I think the not wanting to lose the audience argument though might sometimes be an excuse for laziness: it’s just easier to tell the same story over and over rather than make up a new one. The great thing about Batman The Dark Knight is that we know nothing about the Joker’s origins. He is really a force of nature and he has no history. I thought that was a refreshing contrast to the Nicholson version from the original movie series.

    Sometimes it perhaps helps to have a very quick recap. I think the second Hulk movie took this approach. There was no need to waste precious screen time telling stories that had already been told (albeit poorly) only a few years before.The priority should always be on telling the best story by the best means possible.

    Like

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