So Captain America: Civil War is here in all of its glory. Among the many big awesome things about it is the debut of two major characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, T’Challa the Black Panther and Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man. Both highly anticipated characters whose first appearances on screen drew wild applause in the theater. Both characters have a significant presence in the movie, T’Challa moreso than Spidey, who clearly was added in only after he was legally able to be, but still used in a way that worked for the film. Both have distinct showcases for their particular skills, for their personalities, and what drives them as characters.
Neither of them has an origin story.
Marvel promised us back in 2014 that they were moving away from origin stories starting with Doctor Strange but it looks like with Civil War they’ve already jumped ahead to the new origin-free era. (Or origin-lite maybe? Am I imagining things or does the trailer for Doctor Strange sure look like an origin story?).
With Peter Parker this is in no way a gamble. We all know his origin story. Every schoolchild is forced to repeat it before class every morning, it’s on the back of our money, it’s in our wedding vows, it’s sworn on a stack of comics when one is being put under oath. “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” Sing a song of Uncle Ben who on the ground did die. It’s one of the three most well known origin stories, following Batman and Jesus.
So kudos, Marvel/Sony Joint Spider-Man Task Force, you managed to toss pretty much the best on-screen depiction of the webhead at us, make him steal a movie despite, like, maybe 15 minutes of screen time at best, and did it all without even saying the words “radioactive spider bite” or “Uncle Ben.” That’s pretty damn impressive. In one single scene, when Tony Stark meets Peter Parker for the first time, we learn that Peter already has his powers, has had them for about six months, we learn why being a hero matters to him, and we get a look inside his life with Aunt Tomei. Five minutes of character-based conversation that somehow still feels like showing and not telling, and manages to encompass what used to take an hour of screen time. To be quite honest, as perfectly entertaining and welcome as that scene was (to me it felt like the moment where the movie decided to start having way more fun with itself), even that probably wasn’t needed. The audience applauded as soon as the word “Queens” appeared.
Okay, so that’s Parker. But what about T’Challa? Black Panther has been in comics since 1966, and he’s a very popular character, but his origin story is hardly as well known as Peter Parker’s. In fact I’m going to be totally honest here; I didn’t know his origin story. But at no point in the movie last night did I actually care. From the movie, we know that he’s now the king of Wakanda due to his father’s death, that the mantle of Black Panther is something that is passed down through generations to protect his people, that they had previously kept their vibranium a secret until its existence was revealed to the world. We also know that T’Challa has a strong sense of justice, that he prefers dealing with people directly than through diplomacy, and that he is willing to admit when he is wrong. Once he knows that Bucky is innocent in the death of his father he drops his animosity toward him and even offers to help him at great risk to himself if he’s discovered. We also know he can kick some serious ass and that we really, really, really want to see his movie, like now. Like, let’s all go down to Ryan Coogler’s house and offer to do some chores for him and stuff so he can focus on making Black Panther.
During the first big boom of superhero movies of the late 90s/early 2000s, and into the early days of the MCU, origin stories seemed to be the rule of the day. Studios seemed to be afraid not to include them out of fear that the audience wouldn’t come along for the ride. But was this ever actually something they needed to be concerned about? I believe we probably could have chucked out origins a long time ago. In fact, we actually kind of did for a minute.
In the Burton Batman series, we have some flashbacks to the death of the Waynes, but that mostly serves as a way of establishing the continuity change that the Joker killed them. We don’t see Bruce learning to be Batman, we just start the movie in a Gotham City where there already is a Batman. In fact that’s what made Batman Begins an interesting concept, it, like the Batman: Year One comics it drew a lot of inspiration from, were tapping the early parts of Batman’s story for freshness.
The X-Men series also chucked out origins for the most part, with some quick exposition to establish a world filled with mutants, and then using Jubi— Rogue and Wolverine to be audience surrogates into the already established team. And let’s not forget the movie franchise that helped kickstart the modern comic book franchise to begin with, Blade. Blade opens with a flashback to his mother’s attack, but then cuts right to the kickass blood rave scene and then Blade comes in and just drops vampires left and right. Whistler talks about finding Blade as a kid and training him, but the story is about Blade Vs. Stephen Dorff. God, how weird is it that Stephen Dorff was the villain in a badass superhero movie?
The origin story can be interesting if done well, but usually it just feels a bit formulaic and forced. It also seems to profoundly misunderstand the core audience for these kinds of movies. Kids can almost universally jump right into a movie and understand which costumed people they’re supposed to root for, or have viciously torn through every cartoon and comic book they can find for their favorite characters, or have played as them already in 20 different badly made superhero video games. Adult fans have already seen a chunk of these movies and can usually call out beat for beat the standard origin story, and would rather just get some flavor peppered in and get to the action. Origin stories work best as seasoning for the plot and are about as exciting an entree as boiled potatoes.
I never need to see Uncle Ben die again, I just want to see Spider-Man being Spider-Man.