Do We Need An Origin Story? or Get to the Action!

As I write this, the Independent Film Chanel (IFC) is saluting the nation by running a Batman marathon. No, not the recent Nolan trilogy. No, not the Burton movies. No, not even those movies in between that we don’t discuss and generally try to pretend never happened.1

No, IFC is running an all day marathon of the cheesy 60’s television show. Adam West, Burt Ward, and a weekly Special Gift Villain.

Holy Awesome, Batman.

I should confess to the fact that while I actually prefer the psychological make up of my Batman to be as dark as night,
2 I am a big fan of the television show. It is mostly a nostalgia thing, I used to watch the show every day on one of the local Detroit stations.3 I loved the over the top villains, the wall climbing, the idea of a crime fighting millionaire.4 Most of all I like the idea that Batman wasn’t like other superheroes. He wasn’t born with incredible powers. He didn’t come from another planet. He didn’t gain his abilities after exposure to the fall out from an experimental bomb, space radiation, or an irradiated arachnid.5

No, Bruce Wayne became a superhero by having an incredible mind and by applying himself. He was just a normal guy who pushed himself to become amazing. Sure, he had a zillion dollars, but he was able to channel that wealth into inventing cool gadgets. He was like Tony Stark without the addiction issues.

Granted, he had gained the wealth and the desire to fight crime after his parents died…

I appear to have gone a little off topic. What I wanted to discuss, what I found absolutely amazing, was what happened and more importantly didn’t happen, in the episode I watched.

Um, SPOILERS I guess.

The episode started out with a diplomat from Moldavia praising the ties between his country and the US. He brings out a “traditional friendship cake,” which explodes when it is cut into. This reveals a riddle (and not a very good one). The Commissioner calls together the top of the department, none of whom are willing to even try to apprehend the Riddler. The glowing red phone is dialed (with the push of a button).

“I don’t know who he is, but I’m glad we have him to turn to,” or something like that.

Things proceed as anyone familiar with the show would expect: a quick trip down the Batpole, solve the riddle, off to catch the crook. Unfortunately for our heroes, the whole thing is a setup. The Riddler tricks Batman into assaulting him, then sues him for false arrest.
OK, now there are some glaring problems with this, from a legal standpoint, but what I want you to focus on is that we jump right into the action with this episode. Later we have the introduction of the Batusi, Robin getting kidnapped,
7 and the inevitable cliffhanger.

Now what is amazing, from today’s point of view, is what it did not feature. The episode entitled “Hi Diddle Riddle,” original airdate 12 January 1966 introduced a number of firsts. It was the first time Frank Gorshin played the Riddler. It was the first appearance of the Batcave. It was the first time we see the mobile Batphone in the Batmobile. What viewers did not see is an origin story.

Which might be a little shocking, since it was the first episode of the series.

That’s right, the first episode of
Batman did not feature a lengthy flashback showing Bruce Wayne’s parents getting gunned down outside of a movie theater. It did not show a young Bruce falling into a cave and being frightened by bats. There isn’t even a training montage set to upbeat music.

In fact, the only nods to Batman’s origins are two throw away lines about his parent’s murders.

There are probably a lot of reasons behind this. The show was originally planned as an hour, but was changed into a 30 minute show with the popular cliffhanger and the admonition to “Tune in next time, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.” An origin episode might have fit as the first half hour episode, but it would not really have reflected the nature of the show itself. It might have been confusing for viewers to watch a young kid one week, then be thrown into the world of Bats the next.
8 There was one other, important reason why the television series did not have an origin story:

It wasn’t needed.

Everyone knew who Batman was. They already knew his origins. If they didn’t, they could glean everything they needed to know from watching the first episode.

This is something that Hollywood seems to have forgotten in the last two decades. Part of this is due to the success of the Marvel franchise’s method of introducing characters in their own stand alone movies and then bringing them together. Call it the
Real Avengers Initiative. While many of these movies have been entertaining, I would posit that they are unnecessary. The majority of the movie going public already knows these characters. The real target audience certainly does. The last thing a comic book reader needs is an hour of set-up.

It remains to be seen how the DC universe will unfold. Recent reports list a number of expected cameos in the upcoming
Batman v Superman including Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and Lex Luthor. After this, they have an ambitious line up including Shazzam9 and Sandman10. I can only assume that many of these will be origin story heavy.

This would make sense in these cases. The hero formerly known as Captain Marvel has appeared in many recent DC formats, but despite being one of the bestsellers of the 1940s (outselling Superman), he may be unknown to many movie-goers.

Another major reason that Hollywood has focused on the origin story is that they tend to screw around with them before they hit the screen. Burton’s Batman had the Joker killing the Waynes in his pre-acid bath days. The recent Superman movies have a Pa Kent who thinks that allowing a busload of people to drown might be OK. I don’t even know what is going on with the recent Spiderman adaptions, something about the Parkers being scientists or some crap.

Which brings us to the next reason for the origin story movie — with each new reboot
12, the new directors, screen-writers, and whoever else is attached to the picture, feel the need to show what distinguishes their version from the previous ones. Given how often things get rebooted, the audience occasionally needs a scorecard to figure things out.13

The problem, which I have more than hinted at, is that the beginning is not always the best place to start a story. Writing advice often includes information about “the hook,” that bit in the opening which grabs the reader and says “Hey, you are going to want to find out what happens next!”

Sometimes where the character came from can be a good start. A lot of time it can be really boring. Two adults gunned down outside of a movie theater? That’s a pretty explosive beginning. A teen-ager walking around being a doofus before finally getting powers? Not so much.

I think the main problem is that people who are making these movies and television shows aren’t giving the viewers enough credit. Even if we don’t know the background for a particular character, a good writer will be able to provide enough contextual clues that the audience can figure out what happened before without a giant info-dump (or in the case of the previous Spiderman movies, an opening credit scene which was essentially the Cliff Notes version of the previous two movies).

1 Two words — Bat nips.

2 If you didn’t get that reference you probably want to do some background research on the Caped Crusader before going on.

3 One of the UHF stations. If you don’t know what that means, you’ve probably never had to use a pair of pliers to change the channel. You might not be old enough to be reading this blog.

4 Come one, who doesn’t love the idea of being a crime fighting millionaire? That’s way better than being a crime fighting newspaper reporter or a crime fighting newspaper photographer, am I right?

5 All of which are potentially life threatening and generally unpleasant.

6 What is it with superheroes and dead parents anyway? Batman, Superman, Spiderman. Their real folks die and they get some other relative to look after them. Comic books and Disney movies — bad places to be a parent.

7 Because that is what he was there for, Robin, the boy hostage.

8 Although I kind of doubt this.

9 Really?

10 Sigh. I’m already dreading this.

11 I’m not really a huge fan of Captain Marvel. If was was to pick a JLA dream team it would include the big three — Superman, Batman, Wonder-Woman, the three green guys — Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter, the Flash, and Plastic Man (because they would need some goofiness to cut the seriousness inherent in Superman and Batman being n the same room).

12 Ugh.

13 OK, which version of the Hulk is in
The Avengers?