There are certain rules, known only to a select few, by which it is possible to predict the quality of movies. The origin of these rules is often obscure and difficult to explain. One of the oldest rules is Rule 9: All Our Greatest Heroes Arrive Fully Formed. In fact this rule is so old that it may even pre-date movies and go back to the writings of Homer and the time of Achilles.
Even since before the success of Batman Begins (2005) movie studios seemed obsessed with origin stories. This is particularly true when movies are being made based on existing properties and the studio is terrified that the dumb-as-a-post public won’t understand why a man dressed as a bat fights crime. Missing the point, of course, that the answer can always be: “because this is a movie!” This is most obviously true of superhero movies. The great example being Superman: The Movie (1978). Obviously true of superhero movies, but not exclusively. After the success of Batman Begins we had to have a Bond origin story to reboot the franchise. This was Casino Royale (2006). But we didn’t need an origin story, Bond Just existed and has always existed ever since Sean Connery lifted his eyes and through a haze of cigarette smoke took 12 takes to say in just the right way: “Bond, James Bond”. We were introduced to Connery’s Bond through context. In his very first scene we learn that he is a fearless gambler and a confident womaniser. In the next scene we learn that he is the person the British government can call upon when it is all going to shit. Part of the interest in watching Dr No (1962) is that the character of Bond remains alluring but mysterious. You never know what he might do, where his limits are and what he is capable of. We don’t need to know who his adopted brother is, where his family home is or what he was like when he was an inexperienced, impulsive agent before the double-0 status.
So the best heroes are like Clint in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Without a past, without a name and without explanation. The audience learn about them through their actions and in the context of the movie. Bond is the same kind of character as ‘the man with no name’. He is just placed in a different context. By focusing on the origins of the character the context becomes less and less important. This is a mistake because the hero of a story is someone who rises to the challenge. Without the world to save and a villain to overcome, Bond is nothing more than an irritating, arrogant playboy who is obsessed with fast cars, guns and treating women like shit. You can do this for almost any of the great movie heroes. John McClane for example. McClane of the original Die Hard (1988) turns up fully formed. We never see him struggling to pass exams at the police academy. We never see him getting into exciting adventures as a uniform policeman on traffic duty. In the opening scene he is a middle-aged police detective with a smart mouth and who is estranged from his cleverer, more successful wife. We don’t need to know any more than that and it is all explained in the context of the first few scenes. John McClane would have remained just another New York police detective if Hans Gruber hadn’t planned to steal some bonds! Context makes the hero.
Dirty Harry of the 1971 movie by the same name and Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon (1987) are basically the same character but for different decades. Both are uncompromisingly violent policemen, both are defined by the loss of their wife in a seemingly meaningless car accident (Riggs’ wife is given significance in the sequels) and both are characterised by their firearm and ethnic-minority partner. What is perhaps more important is that in both movies all of these things are true from the start. We learn about their tragic back stores through actions and explanations as the first third of the movie progresses and as both grow closer to their new partner. In both movies it is the criminals against which there are fighting that gives their lives meaning again, forces them out of their shell of grief and closer to being a more rounded human being. We never find out how Harry chose his 44-magnum. We never find out why Riggs enlisted or why he became a sniper. Crucially the audience never experience the death of either wife – the defining aspect of each character. We are able to understand the loss by the actions of the characters and the quality of the actors. In the end both Harry and Riggs throw away the token of their sadness: Harry’s badge and Riggs’s hollow-point. The story demanded that both heroes are fully formed from the beginning. The trouble with origin stories is that the character spends half of the movie not being who you came to see. Would you want to see Martin Riggs and Harry Callahan as calm, well rounded and loving husbands?
Marvel (yes, eventually it was necessary to talk about Marvel) were clever when they avoided yet another origin story for Spiderman. Instead we got Spiderman: Homecoming (2017): a fun, breezy, friendly-neighbourhood superhero movie where we didn’t need to experience Uncle Ben’s death on screen for the fourth (?) time. How many times have we seen Thomas and Martha Wayne die on screen? Five? Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) was already Batman in the first scene. And the best Batman movie so far, The Dark Knight (2008), includes no explanation for Batman’s origins. He just is. Heroes who arrive fully formed go way back to early cinema. Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) rides onto screen already a gunfighter. Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) is already a detective, already Humphry Bogart and already as cool as ice. More recently, Ethan Hunt, of the Mission Impossible movies (1996 – present) is already a badass, acrobatic, mask wearing super-spy. Thankfully Tom Cruise has never felt the need to make a movie about young Ethan on Uncle Donald’s farm dreaming of a life chasing bad guys. Some characters, just like Spiderman, are groaning for a movie which is not an origin story. Conan, for example. Conan just is, always was and ever will be a big sword-wielding barbarian basket-case. If ever another Conan movie is made please let him just arrive fully formed and realised like Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher (2012). “A Mr Conan to see you sir.”
Some heroes are almost ruined by origins stores which come after a perfectly good beginning. Hannibal Lector for example. Hannibal was mysterious, hypnotic and terrifying until the terrible Hannibal Rising (2007) when we see him as a crazy mixed up kid. Oh, the scamp! The same could be said for Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith (2005). Those pesky kids! Or Indiana Jones. We first see Jones in the Peruvian jungle in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Whip: Check. Gun: Check. Hat and leather jacket: Check. Fully formed archaeologist/mercenary in all his glory. We never needed and still do not need The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-1993). The audience is resilient enough to imagine where their mysterious hero might have come from. In fact, imagining is half of the fun. Which brings us to Han Solo. In the original Star Wars (1977) Han Solo was a random pilot/smuggler with a modified old ship who somehow got Luke and the princess to the Death Star and back then ended up a reluctant soldier in the rebellion. We didn’t need to know where he came from because it was what he did in the context of the story that was important. Is he going to take his reward and leave or is he going to stay to save Luke? Han Solo is fine the way he is. A lovable rogue who does the right thing despite his best intentions and being out of his depth in a big universe. This summer Disney is giving us Solo: A Star Wars Story, an origin story for Han Solo (with Alden Ehrenreich as Solo, see below) .
Beware, Disney, you have forgotten Rule 9.