The title of the movie might be Man of Steel, but the star of the latest clip from Zack Snyder’s franchise reboot isn’t actually Superman. It’s Clark Kent, the alien boy who grows up to be a (hipster-bearded!) man, learning along the way some tough lessons about power, responsibility, and the cost-benefit bottom line of using his super strength to save all his schoolmates from a submerged bus. Which makes it official: Man of Steel isn’t just going to be another superhero movie. It’s going to be everyone’s — yours, mine, Hollywood’s — favorite kind of superhero movie: an origin story.
Why exactly do we love watching our favorite heroes begin again (and again)? Do we get some kind of parental joy from seeing their tall-building-spanning baby steps? Were scientists right about the Twitterfication of our attention spans? Maybe, but there’s also a deeper-seated reason: creation stories show the exact moment when a normal guy goes from being Just Like Us to being somehow better, faster, stronger. It’s the bridge between the relatable and aspirational parts of the hero myth. It’s also a handy way for filmmakers to pay their dues to a brand’s fan base (“See? I know my stuff!”) before sending its character off on a splashy villain-fighting quest that might diverge wildly from anything in the sacred comic book canon.
And so, having found that origin stories are a handy narrative tool for kicking off a franchise, Hollywood decided that every superhero movie should be an origin story, dropping our spandex icons into a Groundhog Day loop of childhood traumas, first kisses, and clumsy jumps off high roofs. The intro portion that used to take 10 minutes at the beginning of a movie is now filling entire movies — franchises, even. Consider this: In 2002, Sony gave us a spiffy version of Spider-Man’s origin, complete with the radioactive bite, Peter’s crush on Mary Jane, and Uncle Ben’s death. A mere 10 years later, we were already hungry for a step-by-step refresher course in The Amazing Spider-Man. And this time, the filmmakers decided to stretch Spidey’s origin out even longer — when the credits roll, we haven’t even met Mary Jane, one of the most important character’s in Peter Parker’s world. She’s holding out until the sequel.
Likewise, in 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman barely glanced at Bruce Wayne’s backstory. But when the series relaunched in 2005, Christopher Nolan devoted all of 2005’s Batman Begins to reintroducing the world to a darker, more Bale-ful caped crusader. And two movies later, Dark Knight Rises couldn’t help but to fold in yet another origin story: Robin, the cop-turned-crimefighter. The Avengers movie was almost entirely the story of the crew coming together, Captain America shows Chris Evans’ full transition from 80-pound weakling to Nazi-trouncing Abercrombie model, and X-Men: First Class literally rewound the series back to its Muppet Babies days. (One notable exception: Thor, which whipped through a relatively quick set-up to make way for hammer time.)
It’s not just comic movies, either. The Hobbit is essentially a thrilling 300-page prologue to LOTR that’s currently getting a three-movie-wide space to stretch its dwarven legs. And the same thing is happening with the latest incarnation of Bond. Whereas back in 1962 Sean Connery could just wander into a bar, order a martini and start fighting the bad guys, our 21st century 007 is just now meeting Moneypenny and getting his first Q-approved gizmo in Skyfall — three whole movies into the Daniel Craig-ified franchise. So in one possible reading, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are both just an extended prologue that slowly tells Bond’s origin story. (Skyfall indulged our love of re-beginnings even more, showing us Bond’s childhood home and his old groundskeeper.)
I like these first-chapter stories as much as anyone, but I also love the kind of deep-dive plotlines that you can only get when you’re done establishing all your key players. Part of the appeal of comic books — or any serial stories, from Sherlock Holmes to Dick Tracy — was always the promise of endless new adventures with familiar heroes. And can movies keep tapping into that if they never let their heroes step off of square one?
Follow Adam Markovitz on Twitter: @amrkvtz