Between Thor: the Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Batman vs. Superman, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy, the next two years look set to deliver a crop of blockbuster superhero movies. Notably underrepresented on that list: pure, single-hero origin stories.
Some no doubt rejoice in this shift for its own sake. Two decades of comic book movies have worn the origin story a bit threadbare. How many more Thomas and Martha Waynes will we gun down in front of little Bruce? How many Kryptons must crumble to kryptonite? How many Wonder Women must —
Well. Maybe there’s room for at least one more origin.
Anyway, I don’t mind origin stories. They’re common because they work. Origins don’t presume knowledge of a character. Origins have a built-in Campbell wheel. An origin story is a logical way to bring new actors and directors into a franchise. But the coming slate of comic book movies excites me because it seems production companies finally trust the audience to speak superhero.
What do I mean by that? Well: to appreciate a work of art we need to know the language of that art. Coming to Impressionism, we’ll be disappointed if we hunt for Dutch Master detail. Someone without martial arts experience won’t get much from ringside seats at the WFC; as a non-SC2 player, watching an Mvp match is an exercise in nodding and saying, “that guy sure can click fast.” But as a fencer I can appreciate the rhythms of a bout, and as a writer and reader of fantastic fiction I know when a writer’s trying to do something new, or better.
Superhero, let’s face it, is a hard language to learn. The basics aren’t hard — stop crime, wear costume, and so forth — but the superhero universe with its constant world-threatening catastrophes, its hordes of villains, its face-heel turns and its permeable boundary between life and death, has little in common with our day-to-day existence, even though our day-to-day existence is exactly what superheroes are (supposed to be) trying to save. When superheroes emerge, the story world they inhabit sharply diverges from our own. Even as superheroes “save” our world, they destroy our sense of it.
The origin story is easy to tell an audience that doesn’t “speak superhero,” since it spends the most time in a world similar to ours—that is, a world without superheroes. But, after the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and the X-Men franchise’s revivification with First Class, it looks like creative teams and companies alike trust the moviegoing public with the basics of the language, and are ready to branch out.
X-Men: First Class, Iron Man Three, and the recent slate of post-Avengers films all assume that the viewer already speaks enough superhero to know that some people have special powers, and that these people have problems, and we’re going to watch movies about said Problems. First Class is technically an origin story, but it goes from zero to SuperTeam in two acts, embracing its role as an ensemble piece while 2000’s X-Men film focused on the Rogue-Wolverine dynamic for fear of drowning the viewer with new characters.
Iron Man Three is, among other things, a statement about the stories one can tell with superhero language—stories about the people inside the armor. Captain America: Winter Soldier looks set to use superhero language to talk spies and black flag ops, while Thor: the Dark World seems to offer more earnest mythic melodrama. Nor is this confidence in the audience’s superhero fluency all on the Marvel side of the aisle. I doubt Batman vs. Superman will be an origin story, for example — though I may be wrong.
The best part about audiences’ increasing fluency in superhero-speak is that artists can use that language in a more exact and complicated manner. The language of heroes is, and has been since before Homer, a language of hubris and overreach, of unintended consequences, of golden ages falling, of failures and tragedies every bit as compelling as victories. A comic like Watchmen reads well to someone who doesn’t know the superhero language; to someone who does, it’s devastating. Now that the audience comprehends the language of superhero movies, we can get better, more complicated, more effective stories told in that language.
But first. Seriously. Wonder Woman.