As I write this, Marvel’s Doctor Strange is a little over a week from release in the UK (continuing the fine tradition that we get Marvel movies before the country that made them). It’s something of a milestone for a couple of reasons. First up, it’s the first real foray into magical heroes and villains – even the Asgardians are expressed as science aliens in the MCU. Secondly, Doctor Strange marks the end of the twice-yearly Marvel movies schedule. Next year, we’re getting not two, but three Marvel movies: Thor: Ragnarok, Spiderman: Homecoming, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Bigger and Blousier.
I may have made up the subtitle for that last one. Here’s hoping the protagonist has an actual, explicit character arc this time, and that Gamorra is more than an attractive lamp.
Thing is, I’m struggling to get excited for Doctor Strange. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the trailers make it look like Inception 2? Maybe it’s the weird one-two punch of whitewashing the Ancient One (Marvel can justify it however they want – it’s still whitewashing, and they’re still doing it), and then tiptoeing around the Chinese government to make sure the movie can release over there? No, I’m not going into detail on that one, but it involves Tibet. Or maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch peering out of the screen at me? (Nothing personal to the guy. He’s a good actor, but he does seem to have carved out a particular ‘type’ along the way.)
No, I think it’s because Doctor Strange is yet another origin story.
So here’s the thing. Every so often, a media outlet with empty column inches delves into the theory that we may have reached superhero saturation. That audience fixation with the spandex set is going to die out, leaving overcommited studios with a series of duds on their hands.
The folk writing those columns are sort of right and sort of wrong. Superhero films aren’t a genre. They operate within other genres. Captain America: The First Avenger was a war film. Iron Man was science fiction (without the downer ending you’d get if it were ‘true’ science fiction). Thor was space opera more than anything else. And so on, and so on. But do I think we’re in danger of reaching a kind of superhero saturation? Yes. Superhero origins.
I propose that the origin is actually the dullest bit of any superhero’s story. Let’s be honest, any superhero origin plays out thus:
Character is some kind of screw-up. Character gains powers through macguffin. Character overcomes own innate screwiness to use those powers for the greater good. Resolves to keep doing so. Roll credits.
We all know how it’s going to go. We’ve all seen it a hundred times. What’s that? There haven’t been a hundred superhero films? That’s true. But you’ve seen it a hundred times all the same. In Rocky. In Top Gun. In a solid ten or fifteen percent of the James Bond movies. Almost any sports movie. Most cop movies. And ultimately, this is why we get so many origin stories.
Origin stories are easy to write. Easy to sell to an audience. That’s why despite Kevin Feige (the Marvel movies’ head honcho) claiming that he wanted to get away from origin tales, he hasn’t. Doctor Strange is an origin. Captain Marvel will be an origin. Black Panther is currently claimed not to be, but I’ll believe that when I see it. Only Spider-man might break with tradition, but that’s more to do with the fact that Spider-man movies have become a triannual tradition at this point. (Mind you, DC haven’t learned that with Batman, have they?)
I want to know what the superhero does with their powers, not what they did before they had them. I want to know the challenges that come with donning the cape. Show me the drama of the hero’s life. In short, if you’re going to give me a film about a superhero, why not give me a film about a superhero, not a training montage stretched to 118 minutes. Treat your audience with respect. Trust them to understand what’s going on. Police Academy aside, you don’t get cop films that are 90% training, 10% law enforcement.
Does knowing that Peter Parker got his power from a radioactive spider bite (rather than dying of a heady brew of toxin and radiation poisoning) help us suspend disbelief? Hey kids, don’t do drugs – unless you’re trying to be Captain America, that is. Goodness knows we’d all have been happier not to see Darth Vader’s origin…
We’re already suspending disbelief. We do it all the time when watching movies – the Die Hard franchise remains the longest running movie series starring a superpowered individual, no matter what the official record says. Will we really find the reality-warping powers of Doctor Strange that much harder to swallow if we’re just asked to accept them? One of the best bits about the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk was that it fed out the origin story in the opening credits.
Ultimately, this is why the pundits who predict a collapsing superhero boom are wrong: we don’t have a superhero boom. Under the skin, most of the Marvel and DC movies are standard genre movies with a superhero theme. And you know what? That’s fine, in moderation. Wonder Woman looks like it’ll be awesome, and it’s a different kind of origin story, just as Thor was – these are heroic individuals already.
But let’s mix it up a bit, shall we? I don’t see Warner Brothers doing this any time soon. They’re still struggling with plotting, pacing and finding the light switch. On the other hand, Marvel used to be known for taking risks. I think it’s time for them to do so again.