Ten Deep 1.05.12: Top 10 Origin Stories
If we took a truly broad look at cinema, most films could fit the definition of origin stories on some level because they introduce new characters and show us how they got that point in their life. This week I wanted to take a sharper focus and look for stories that strive to give us the full back story of some impressive and iconic characters and events. These films answer the important questions about how events came to pass, where characters have derived their motivation, and solidify their place in the cinematic pantheon.
When we first meet Gollum he is already a twisted, obsessed troll like creature. We know that he has a history but it is not made clear until the opening sequence of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Here we discover the true impact of The Ring on those that encounter it. Before this point we knew it could twist perceptions and dominate desires but Smeagol’s descent to Gollum truly cements this. It is a small portion of the film, but it resonates throughout the story of the trilogy in a lasting way. It gives the audience everything they need to now fully understand this poor twisted character. Andy Serkis does such a fantastic job transforming the lost Smeagol during this sequence.
The brilliance of the origin story presented in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek is how it is able to capture the essence of the original characters while weaving an entirely new thru story to the property thanks in part to this “alternate universe” created by the time travel “device.” These characters that we have come to know and in some cases love throughout their history on film and on television, become new and fresh because they are not bound so tightly by all of this continuity. This may upset some purists but to me the idea of meeting Kirk, Spock, Scotty, etc, with a clean slate was both invigorating and intriguing. In the end we are left with a whole new playground for these characters to explore and adventure while leaving the source material intact. Some may call that convenient, for me it is exciting!
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street is special because it does not just detail the origin of a horror icon, Freddy Krueger, or an amazing hero, Nancy Thompson, but it brings us into the birth of their rivalry. Much in the way the first Halloween introduced us to Michael Myers and his sister Laurie Strode, this film sets the stage for a horror film clash that would not only continue in several movies but would capture the attention of pop culture in general. We get to see Freddy’s twisted story play out as he invades the dreams of Nancy and her friends. As these Elm Street children are picked off one by one, Nancy is forged into a true heroine by the experience. By the end of the film, they stand in balance with one another in a truly rare fashion.
In Iron Man we not only get to see how that famous red and gold armor came into existence, but we are treated to the evolution of the man inside. Tony Stark is taken on a fantastic journey in this film that tests his mettle as a man and forces him to take a stand against the forces of evil. He is the literal drunken billionaire playboy at first but events shape his perceptions and convictions in such a way that when he declares to the press at the film’s end that he is Iron Man; you not only believe him wholeheartedly but cheer on his proclamation. To me that is the power of an epic origin story. It drags you into the story and makes you comprehend how it has developed.
Throughout my years writing for 411Mania there is always controversy when I bring up my appreciation for M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable but I will assert that I am completely sure it deserves a place on this list. Not because it is the origin story of a hero, as played by Bruce Willis, but because it is perhaps the most unique telling ever of the origin of a super villain. Samuel Jackson’s “Mr. Glass” is slowly revealed to be the villain in this tale but what makes his story stand out is that he does not fall accidentally into this role but instead chooses it for himself. He lives his life by the rules of the comic book story, so when he looks at the events of his life he sees the makings of a super villain, but is lacking one key component, a super hero. He devotes his life to finding his antithesis so that his life will finally have meaning. And when he succeeds, we finally learn that length trail of tragedy he has left in his wake. It is shocking and ingenious at the same time.
Batman Begins does something that many other superhero origins, and Batman focused stories specifically, often fail to do. It not only told us that Bruce Wayne became Batman, but it showed us his transformation in detail. We are presented with the tragedy that ignites his story, the well known meeting in the alley between a small time hood and the Waynes, but then we see the next steps. We learn how he develops mentally and physically to become the Bat, as Gotham also transforms into a place that needs him desperately. There is something truly grandiose about a man, with no superhuman powers, choosing to hone himself into the perfect weapon of vengeance. He cannot fly, or block bullets, or even climb walls with his bare hands, so he finds ways to make his desired actions possible. His costume and arsenal are as much a part of his development and in this film we see them all birthed. Batman Begins was as close to perfection when it comes to telling a known tale, as we deserve.
The Harry Potter universe, as created by J.K. Rowling, is a vast magical place filled with unique characters and innumerable stories to tell. The film adaptation of the stories about the “boy who lived” and “he who shall not be named” were inevitabilities and something most fans both anticipated and worried about. Could a film actually capture the magic, no pun intended? While not a director of real substance, Chris Columbus does paint with a detailed palette and he did so in this first film in the series. We were introduced to young Harry, his horrible home life, and the mystical play land that exists beneath the world we all know. It is the fantastic portrayal of, well, the fantastic that makes this film stand out. The first time Harry is brought to Diagon Alley, your breath is taken away, never mind our first glimpse of Hogwarts. There is a sturdy foundation laid here for the seven films to follow.
While The Godfather: Part II did follow the story of Michael Corleone’s take over of his father’s criminal empire, it presented the back story of his father in parallel, and it turned out to be the most fascinating part of the film. Vito Corleone’s transition to the venerated Don Vito we met in the first film was expertly brought to life in this sequel with Robert DeNiro stepping into Brando’s shoes to portray the younger Vito. Francis Ford Coppola’s choice to highlight Vito’s rise to power in 1920’s New York was a masterful decision that elevated this film from being a mere sequel to a true artistic rival to its original piece. It was no surprise that DeNiro took home the Academy Award for his work.
I am as shocked as you are that this film landed itself a place on this list, but then Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be the true surprise of the summer. I went in to it with low expectations and walked out cementing it as a selection on my list of best films of the year. The production, direction and acting ended up exceeding all expectations with ease. Instead of just another cut-rate rehash like the Mark Wahlberg film a few years back, we were treated to a well crafted tale of how the earth became the Planet of the Apes. Every detail was addressed, every question was answered and it was all wrapped up in a pretty great film. We learned how the apes’ evolution was jump started, how the intelligence was spread, and we even got to hear the first ape speak. The film not only presented these details but infused within them such a strong sense of heart and feeling that by the end of the film one could not help but root for the apes to take over. Do all of the timelines of the film series fall into place? Not necessarily but then they never really did. The success of this film as an origin story is more about setting the stage with all the players in place for what was to come.
This film is not just about a dorky teenager and a radioactive spider, it is about the impact of choice and yes, responsibility on shaping the path of a hero’s life. Spider-Man is an entire film putting together the pieces of a superhero’s back story beginning with that fateful field trip to the laboratory holding the radioactive spider and leading to repercussions of a teenager dealing with a whole new world. Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben always told him that “With great power comes great responsibility” and as cliché as the line has become through the years, it is at the center of the web slinger’s first adventure. The film is really about how the people in our lives shape who we become as the often teased and bullied Peter Parker discovers he has become superhuman. Overwhelmed by the possibilities of his new gifts Peter heads down a path of fame and fortune, looking out only for himself… until tragedy strikes. It is in moments like that when a hero emerges, and so he did, at a price. Sam Raimi’s film stayed true to the source material because there was no need to mess with brilliance. Peter may have to suffer loss to eventually rise but that is always the case with Spider-Man. There is no true happy ending for him and that is ok.
As we’re headed into a whole new franchise with the production of The Amazing Spider-Man underway, I thought I would leave you today with one last look at the man who spun the webs under Raimi. Here is Tobey Macguire’s screen test for the role:
Did I miss your favorite origin tale? Made that X-Men: First Class didn’t make the cut? (It was so close! 1978’s Superman also.) Let me know in the comments, as always!
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