The popularity of superhero movies has enabled the contrarian view that these big-budget crowd-pleasers totally suck. Not just one or two, but ALL of them. The notion is getting louder as Marvel keeps dominatig while DC/Warner Bros. hopes to do the same with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a superhero movie engineered to kick off even more superhero movies. “Superhero fatigue” is a pretend illness hipsters are diagnosing themselves, but maybe it isn’t “the superhero” making them sick. It’s the origin story, and Marvel needs to shape up, because Phase Three is chock full of it.
When filmmakers began adapting superheroes, they invariably created the origin genre, a plot-focused structure that reinvents kitschy heroes with a framework of gritty realism. And they had to, because once upon a time pop culture didn’t know what an “Iron Man” was pre-Downey Jr. Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan popularized origins with Spider-Man and Batman Begins, and now exactly half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far have been superhero origins. Count ‘em: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man. That’s six out of twelve, and there will only be more with Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, and the new Spider-Man (depending how much Spidey is in Civil War and what Jon Watts is doing with his standalone feature).
There isn’t superhero fatigue because Marvel is unstoppable and Batman v Superman is expected to make a ton of money. Origin fatigue is a better diagnosis; Ant-Man was the last try and it did okay (domestically; in China Ant-Man won big), while Deadpool mocked origins and made $673 million worldwide. Meanwhile, origin stories without superheroes are the real duds. The Green Hornet, John Carter, The Lone Ranger, Dracula Untold, none of those were superheroes but they were definitely super-zeroes.
And let’s not forget the Marvel movie with “origin” actually in the title, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which fans, and even the people who made, it agree was trash.
Fortunately, Marvel has shown foresight. Avengers: Age of Ultron was a de facto Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch movie, and Captain America: Civil War will introduce Black Panther and Spider-Man, at last joining after his two wasted efforts (one of which was an origin movie!). Marvel’s Netflix-verse, Daredevil and Jessica Jones have reinvented origins or skipped them completely, introducing Luke Cage, Patsy Walker, Punisher, and Elektra without really exploring how they “started.” No time will be wasted on Luke Cage’s history when his solo series premieres this year.
But this has to be Marvel’s strategy going forward. Audiences lack the patience for historical deep dives — among the many criticisms of Man of Steel was its lengthy retrace of Superman’s beginning, as if there weren’t ten seasons of Smallville — and a lot of the new Marvel movies are shaping up like origin tales. Last year’s mega flop Fantastic Four, though strictly speaking not a Marvel movie, was another superhero origin that shows how deflated the genre’s wheels are.
Marvel has welcomed less geeky filmgoers who don’t need a two-hour history lesson, and the Falcon and Black Widow enjoy hordes of fans without the help of a solo prequel (side note: I’d watch the hell out of a Falcon and Black Widow movie). Marvel won’t die if it makes one or two more superhero origins — it’s too strong of a brand. But the brand is a trendsetter, and if Hollywood is aping Marvel’s strategy, the least it can do is lead with better examples. Superheroes are supposed to save things, after all. They shouldn’t be accused of killing movies.