A few weeks back on Twitter, I had a small rant about origin stories in superhero movies, specifically how I generally dislike them. The specific target of the rant was the origin stories in movies that have been remade frequently, so that the beats of the origin story become like the Stations of the Cross — nerdy Peter Parker, radioactive spider, Uncle Ben shot, great power = great responsibility, etc. (Someday I want a version where the Waynes make it out alive. I’m sure there’s a comic.) However, today I saw Doctor Strange and thought a little bit more about the origin story thing. Since I have nothing better to so (lies, I am horribly procrastinating) I thought I’d write something down.
SPOILER WARNING for Doctor Strange and some other popular superhero movies everyone has already seen!
So, Doctor Strange is, on the balance, not a very good movie, for a variety of reasons. (As you’ll see, I think a chunk of that can be blamed on the way the origin story is handled, but there are other problems.) The way it unfolds looks like this: we see Kaecilius (I will never learn how to spell that) break into a library and steal a page from a book, and also behead a guy so we know he’s the bad guy. The Ancient One chases him and fails to catch him. Then we cut to Dr. Stephen Strange, establish that he’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and kind of a dick. He has a car accident, in which his hands are badly damaged. He tries to get doctors to fix them, but nobody can. Eventually, he finds a guy who tells him about a magical healer, and he goes to Nepal to find her. It turns out to be the Ancient One, who demonstrates magic for him and eventually agrees to teach him stuff.
Dr. Strange learns a bunch of magic, some karate, and gets some backstory explained and some Chekhov’s Guns set up. Then Kaecilius (I’ve just got it in my copy/paste now) shows up, attacks the Ancient One and her people, and generally wrecks everything. The Ancient One dies, Dr. Strange has to fight the bad guys, and then he resolves the plot with a bizarre trick pulled out of nowhere. (Then there’s a stinger tying it to the Infinity Gauntlet saga because it’s the Marvel universe and of course there is.)
I think two things that seem contradictory at first are in fact both true:
1) The origin story stuff is the best part of the movie.
2) The origin story makes the movie’s structure fail utterly.
The first one is self-evidently true. Origin stories are often the best parts of superhero movies. As was pointed out in the Twitter discussion, they capture the purest part of the superhero fantasy — the time when an ordinary person discovers they have awesome powers and how cool that is. All but the broodingest of superhero movies have a scene where the hero plays a prank, flies around for fun, or generally just revels in the use of his new powers; even Batman typically has a scene or two where he clobbers some muggers and looks like an omnipotent badass, which probably counts as fun if you’re Batman. Doctor Strange is no different — there’s psychedelic journeys, Strange stealing books from the library with portal magic, and playing around with time magic. It’s also the part of the movie where there’s a lot of good humor and character-building moments.
In contrast, the whole second half of the movie, after Kaecilius attacks, is awkward and rushed. Literally hours pass in-world between “oh no here they come!” and the potential apocalypse; the only time Strange stops running is to have his stab wounds stitched. There’s a good moment at the death of the Ancient One, but otherwise it’s straight from one set-piece to the next, with very thin connective tissue. There is, essentially, no plot. Kaecilius wants to summon the Dark God, which means destroying three sanctuaries. So he attacks the sanctuaries, and keeps attacking them until he succeeds, but then Strange undoes his success. Roll credits!
Why is it awkward? Because the plot has no room to breathe. The action set-pieces, which are admittedly pretty spectacular, take up a lot of running time, and there’s only enough left over to tell the very barest bones of the story. The audience has no investment in stopping Kaecilius other than that he’s going to destroy the world — Strange doesn’t know him, and the other characters who have never demonstrate a personal connection. At one point, Kaecilius tells strange that the Dark God isn’t so bad, and he really just makes everyone live forever, and Strange actually has no way to refute this, because he has no idea what’s going on. All he ends up going on is that Kaecilius and his friends murder people, and the Ancient One kinda-sorta tries not to. We as the audience have the same problem!
The squished structure exists, of course, because the origin story takes up half the runtime. Like all the worst origin-story offenders, it’s essentially two movies running back to back. First there’s the story of a guy who become a superhero sorcerer, and then there’s a story about that sorcerer having to fight some unrelated bad guy. A few bits and pieces carry over, but they’re mostly unconnected. (There’s what I can only describe as a half-hearted swipe at a love interest.) This is always going to be a problem for a movie with this structure.
This is more or less where I was at re: origin stories before. But the failings of this movie got me thinking about the examples of origin stories that do work, because the problem, as I said, is that the origin story is often the best part of the movie. So what are your options?
First, you can leave out the origin story. This feels controversial, which is weird. Most movies don’t have long sequences at the beginning explaining the origins of the characters! This is why we have exposition and flashbacks, which (if used deftly) can get the job done without wasting time. The first Blade movie is a good example. The movie starts with Blade already being a badass vampire-murderer. We get a little flashback about how he got there, but that’s it! The Ed Norton Hulk explains everything we need to know about how Hulk came to be in the opening credits with a wordless animation. This is particularly useful for heroes like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc., where everyone in the entire universe already knows the origin story.
Second, you can make the origin story the entire movie. This is actually a surprisingly natural choice, since the origin story typically has an arc all its own — from skepticism to excitement to a sobering realization of danger, from weakness to strength, from fear to courage, etc. All you really need to do is make the completion of the origin story (the point where the hero steps out on his own) basically the end of the movie, so that the objective of the movie is the completion of the origin story. This is so straightforward many non-superhero movies do it as a matter of course; think The Karate Kid and similar. The Matrix arguably follows roughly this trajectory too.
Why don’t the superhero movies do this? The main reason, I think, is lack of patience and fear of audience disappointment. In this format, the first movie doesn’t have the hero saving the universe or generally running around under his own steam; the end of the movie is “graduation”. In Doctor Strange it would mean that the story of Strange learning awesome powers and becoming a wizard would be the whole movie. Perhaps he clashes with the other students, learns to befriend them except for the villainous one who cheats, and ultimately is tripped of the Ancient One’s protection at a critical moment and has to step up. (If this formula sounds familiar, it’s basically Harry Potter.) But … then we wouldn’t have the clash with Kaecilius and Dormamu?
I’m a little baffled in this case, actually, because who cares about Dormamu? Comic book fans, but they’re not going to skip the movie anyway. But in some better-known cases it makes sense — if you’re rebooting Spiderman, you can’t not have the Green Goblin, or Superman without Lex Luthor. I think it’s an adaptational problem — the movies are handicapped, in some ways, by their source material. They have to do the origin story, which comes from one text, but also the most popular villain, which comes from a different text. If you don’t, then you risk not even getting a second movie!
Sometimes, therefore, they attempt the third solution, which is to tie the origin story and the rest of the plot together. You still do them both, but have enough common elements that they feel like a single movie instead of two separate ones. This is the most common thing superhero movies actually attempt, because it means they can have their origin story cake and eat it too, but it’s the hardest to do from a writing perspective. As noted above, the origin and whatever popular villain/threat you’re using generally come from very different parts of the source material, and attempting to just mash them together can go really wrong. At worst, it ends up relying on staggering coincidences. (The guy who hates the hero in his ordinary identity just happens to get superpowers and come back for revenge! Note that in Dr. Strange, Strange arrives at the Ancient One’s school, by chance, just a few weeks before Kaecilius attacks and destroys it, after months of recovery and medical work. Good thing he didn’t wait longer!)
There’s a few successful examples here though. Batman Begins works, probably because it takes a ton of liberties with the source material to hammer the origin story and rest of the plot into a single piece. (Arguably it belongs in the former category!) It’s worth noting that they took a huge risk not including the Joker in Batman’s first outing, since he’s the only villain most of the non-comic-book-fan audience would have heard of. (It paid off, obviously, since they got to essentially give the Joker his own movie.) The first Iron Man movie also more or less makes this work, with the whole movie being a single arc of Tony’s progression from self-centered jerk to hero. But it’s also possible to try this and fail horribly — Man of Steel comes to mind, and some of the Spiderman outings.
So that’s my more nuanced take on origin stories: they’re fun, but you really, really can’t take the “origin story for an hour, then cut to a different story for an hour!” approach and expect the resulting movie to hang together. If you can’t lose the origin story, it’s much better to stretch the origin story to the full movie (and risk the audience not staying around for the next part) or blend the origin story with the rest of the plot (and seriously stray from the canon, plus the risk of doing it badly). Doctor Strange just does neither, which is one of several reasons why it’s pretty bad in spite of being pretty and well-acted.