question of the day: Why are we obsessed with origin stories?

John Carter Taylor Kitsch

Sometimes origin stories work. Sometimes they don’t. Darren Franich at PopWatch has hit on why John Carter is such a snooze: it’s an origin story for a character who really, really doesn’t need one. From “Why does every movie hero need a freaking origin story?”:

Without fail, a hero’s origin story is the absolute least interesting thing about them. It’s the story of a hero before they become a hero — which is to say, the story of an interesting person before they become interesting.

It helps to compare the difference between Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter and his literary namesake. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ glorious pulp novel A Princess of Mars, Carter is literally a man without a past — there are intimations that he might be some sort of immortal, and he doesn’t even seem to know much about his own history. He’s not a particularly deep character — his most well-defined character traits are “general awesomeness” and a tendency to speechify — but part of what makes that sort of story fun is that characters are defined by action. Conversely, the movie version of John Carter comes weighted with a backstory straight out of the Modern Manic Depressive’s handbook. He fought in the Civil war. His wife and child were killed. When we meet him, he has a sad-hipster beard. When he gets to Mars, he spends the entire movie trying not to be a hero, because he’s sad or something. (Origin Stories always turn even the mightiest heroes into emo kids.)

This hits on something that made the film such a bore for me: Carter isn’t even a reluctant hero or a flawed here: it’s that he doesn’t want to be a hero at all, and the movie, characteristic of its general couldn’t-give-a-shit-ness, let’s him spend half the film doing next to nothing, as if he’s just waiting around for something interesting enough to happen so that he can start to want to get involved.

One of the primary rules of storytelling is, Jump into the story as late as you possibly can. Origin stories often don’t work because they’re starting the story too early. Iron Man worked as an origin story, for one recent example, because Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was a magnificent son of a bitch even before he build that crazy metal suit for himself. Kitsch’s Carter, not so much.

And yet Disney figured we were all dying to see a John Carter origin story. Were we?

Why are we obsessed with origin stories? Or maybe only Hollywood is obsessed with origin stories, and we’re just along for the ride?

What do you think?

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