Thursday, June 30, 2011

Origin Stories And Do We Need Them?

When I was a young kiddie I never knew how the Fantastic Four became the Fantastic Four. I new some of the basic super-hero origins, Superman, Spider-man, Captain America, something about Bat-man and his parents, but there were plenty I didn't know about. Did that stop me from enjoying their exploits? Not in the least. Did I need to know that the FF received their powers by being blasted by cosmic rays before I read their battles with Doc Doom? Not really. They were good, Doom was bad. Simple.

I bring this up because of the Solomon Kane movie and the upcoming Conan flick and their need to tell the origin of both characters.

Does knowing if full detail a character's 'origin' enhance the character's story?

At times, yes and at times no.

Sometimes it's better not knowing, leaving it a bit of a mystery.

Superheroes almost beg for an origin story, it's part of the genres mythos. We've seen it in most hero movies. So I can let that go most of the time. But remember Tim Burton's first Bat-man movie? Bat-man good, Joker bad, Bat-man kicks Joker's ass. Bat-man's origin (thus motivation) was woven into the story with flash-backs and character connections. Sure, it was part of the story but it wasn't the centerpiece of the move. I think that worked great.

Now, why can't something like that be done with Howard's characters? Where the origin takes a back seat to the story. I'm not saying eliminate the 'origin' and motivation altogether, but weave it into the story. Let these characters be a bit ambiguous to the audience. Let the audience decide on their own if these 'heroes' are good or evil or something in-between.

Take for example Sergio Leone's 'Man with No Name' spaghetti western trilogy staring Clint Eastwood (For A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly). Now what side of the 'law' is he on? Who knows and who cares. He's a bad-ass with his own moral code. Now who does that sound like? Maybe a couple of Howard's characters perhaps?

Did we need to know that Eastwood's Man with no Name had a troubled childhood or that his parent's were killed by bandits and since then he's had a mad-on? No, and we don't care. He's just a guy in the world living by his own code and us as the audience either has to travel with him or not.

I think a take on Howard's characters can lift a thing or two from these films mentioned above.

The 60's and 70's were a much different time. The anti-hero was all the rage. The law was just as crooked as the 'bad-guys'. These days, the lines between good and bad are more 'clearly defined', at least in most media but that is just an illusion. George Bush's "you're either with us or against us" philosophy defined the beginning of this century but on either side of that line is both good and bad. And who's to judge? This thin line is where our heroes lie, Solomon Kane, Conan, The Man With No Name.

I know Hollywood is scared chicken-shit to take any chances and to leave the audience with any ambiguity of where a 'hero' stands these days; case in point, Han Solo from the 70's as opposed to the 90's Han Solo. But these ambiguous anti-heroes are iconic as who they are.

The Man With No Name, 1970's Han Solo; these are our heroes and these are very Howardesque characters.
I don't need their origins, leave that a bit of a mystery. I just need them to kick some ass on both sides of the law and take what they can get because we know that who ever they kill most likely deserved it.

Sometimes it's better not knowing everything.


  1. Great post! You made some good points. It seems like somewhere in the '90s when it became "necessary" for movies to show us the origin story of a character. I'd like to go back over some of those films and try to figure out where that trend started.

    We never read a definitive origin story for Conan or Solomon Kane in Howard's work, only bits and pieces from their past that show us the nature of their characters, as it relates to the story at the moment. For the movie versions, just drop the audience into the middle of the action and let us figure it out.

  2. "For the movie versions, just drop the audience into the middle of the action and let us figure it out."
    -I agree 100%!

  3. I'm with ya all the way on this.

    I think the demand for origin stories stems largely from movies being more interested in "franchises" than in stories.

    Just tell me a story with an awesome character. How they act and react should be plenty to give me the picture of what that character is about.

  4. Good post. I think your're right about the sorts of characters that definitely don't need origin stories--not that you can't drop hints about parts of there origins, but we just don't need to see it all played out.

  5. I like how the second Hulk movie handled the origin story: a 30-second flashback. I think you're correct that a character like Conan doesn't even need that.

  6. Totally agree. William Goldman gives a great example in "Which Lie Did I Tell?" of how one of his movie scripts got totally messed up because the producer/star insisted on explaining the origins of a character who was supposed to be mythic.

  7. I absolutely HATE the conan movie origin story. I'd go so far as to say it ruins the movies for me. Many people seem to like the first one with Arnold. I didn't like it at all. And lets not even mention the second one. The new one doesn't look any better imho. I'm one of those guys who believes that several of the original Howard stories (or a couple of them blended together) would make fantastic basis for a origin story necessary thankyou.