There’s a scene in Jessica Jones’ third episode where the title character and Luke Cage, a hero soon to receive his own Netflix show, have discovered each other’s powers and are chatting to one another about it. “Accident,” says Jones. “Experiment,” replies Cage. And that’s it. So much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been built on origin stories that it’s refreshing to see it dispensed with in two words.
The origin story problem will become pressing for Marvel as it moves into the next phase of its film universe. With five entirely new films on the way, there’s going to a lot to introduce. And for somewhat lesser-known heroes like Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and The Inhumans, perhaps an origin story is unavoidable. But for the fifth, Spider-Man — the most popular superhero in Marvel’s stable, and one who’s had five films in the past two decades — the Jessica Jones approach may prove the best.
See, we know Peter Parker’s origin story. Geeky teenager bitten by radioactive spider, develops secret superpowers. We get it. We’ve seen it in two different film series, not to mention all the various comics, cartoons, and Spider-Man-inspired origins of other heroes, like Kamala Khan.
Happily, Marvel seems to know this. Their grand cinematic leader, Kevin Feige, said so straight-up: ”In Spider-Man’s very specific case, where there have been two retellings of that origin in the last whatever it’s been — (thirteen) years — for us we are going to take it for granted that people know that.”
What Jessica Jones demonstrates is how simple this is to do when you recognize that the grammar of the superhero is understood. We’ve seen enough examples of origin stories that the details of the “accident” or the “experiment” or the “spider-bite” are essentially irrelevant.
When writers can distill the origin story into its essence, there’s room for much more variety in superhero stories. In comics, the assumption of knowledge of the grammar of origins helps lead to greatness. Just look at the first page of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, a book that leans into superhero mythology more than just about any other:
The constraints of the origin story have made it no surprise that the comic book film sequels have tended to be better than their premieres. Moving forward, if superhero films have the confidence that shows like Jessica Jones and books like All-Star Superman in bypassing the origin story, they’ll all be better off.