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A Discussion of Origin Stories: The Real Difference Between Spider-Man and Superman

September 27, 2012

Just yesterday, my friend and I were discussing our current writing projects. Both of us are essentially making a go of writing in the vast and complicated genre known as Urban Fantasy, but more importantly both of us happen to be writing about teenage characters. Ever since The Outsiders, writing adolescent characters has become a more and more distinct skill set from writing adults, and of course children. Children, I think, are a very different (and exceedingly difficult) bag from Adults and “Young Adults.”

While my friend is working on more of a stand alone project where the character just happens to have an age in the teens, I’ve chosen the age for a particular reason. Namely, I’m hoping that this project could turn into something quite larger. I’ve imagined the character at a variety of ages though anything beyond 21 has a tendency to get somewhat sketchy. While there are definitely more distinct and self-contained stories that involve the character and the tropes of the world, I feel it’s important to start from the beginning. With the origin story, if you would.

The concept of the origin story is something that we’re all definitely familiar with at this point. With countless movies being dedicated to translating franchises (namely comic books but also things like toy lines that inspired 80s cartoon series) to the silver screen, our society is becoming almost hyper-aware of origin stories. Even bored, I might say.

Of course, I think the fact that we’re tired of origin stories doesn’t necessarily have to do with the fact that they’re origins, but that they’re being tacked on to characters that don’t need them.

My favorite whipping boy, Green Lantern, comes to mind as an example of where an origin story was not only wrong but also unnecessary. There was nothing about Green Lantern as a character that required more than a quick few lines. His character would shine through his actions and the fact that he was a Green Lantern. What needed to be more established in that film were the dull and banal science fiction elements that fell to the wayside more often than not. The relationship between hero and villain could have been strengthened as well (since apparently it was a thing).

I think a good contrast to the Green Lantern film was Marvel’s Thor. Both were about adult characters with whacky over the top origins that don’t really matter at the end of the day. Which is exactly where Marvel picked up with Thor. The movie just begins with them saying, “Oh yeah, the Norse gods exist but they’re actually hyper-advanced aliens,” and then it moves on to establishing Thor. It’s not a perfect movie, but it does revolve around the fact that Thor is an adult, albeit one who is still fairly immature at the start of the film and needs to learn the importance of humility. The film doesn’t tell the origin of Thor in any sort of technical detail, it tells the story of Thor, the God who decides to defend humanity. Thor was already an established character, this was merely a new dimension of the character.

That’s the thing about Adult characters, they’re already established. Their back stories and origins provide interesting dimensions to the plot, rather than forming the actual plot as they might in a Young Adult story. We don’t need to know every fact about an adult character’s life to get a feeling for them. We learn who adults are by their actions.

Teenagers communicate who they are through a wider milieu. They show us who they are not just by their actions, but their lack of actions. They tell us about themselves through their clothing, their language, and through actual self-description. Social hierarchy is more important in high school, and thus defining themselves through relationships becomes more important than defining themselves as an individual.

I believe a really great way to frame this idea is simply: Superman doesn’t really need an origin story, whereas Spider-Man is his origin story.

I choose these characters because they are prime examples of their age groups. Is there really a character better known for being 15 years old than Spider-Man? Even though many of his most memorable story lines and love interests take place when he’s in college, people still insist on imagining him as a teenager (and some writers will go to great lengths to keep him young). On the other hand, even though Superman has been depicted as a wide variety of ages, is he ever really anything besides 32? Even when he’s supposed to be sixteen year old Superboy, he approaches problems with the calm and poise of someone far older.

Superman is established in Action Comics #1 as an adult with barely any mention of Krypton. His origin was told in depth over various issues in later years to better flesh out the character. One could argue that in 1938 that what mattered more was the action and selling magazines, I think it’s important to remember that Superman was able to capture the imaginations of countless children and adults by his deeds. As time wore on, Superman began to take on the persona of a morally good and right man. The big blue boy scout that we all know and love. His origin story has mostly served to further reinforce the adult that we know, as well as occasionally provide a twist or new character (Lana Lang, Zod, some incarnations of Supergirl, the bottled city of Kandor, etc).

This all works because we accept the fact that Superman is a fully grown adult. He is someone who can stand on his two feet. While in some interpretations he may be socially awkward because Clark Kent is a mask he wears to interact with humans as a kryptonian, he still has a fully formed personality and understanding of the world. Superman’s past isn’t as important as his present, and ultimately his future. This is why stories that deal with Superman’s retirement, like What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? are more interesting than even Donner’s interpretation of his origin in Superman: The Movie. Even a story like For the Man Who Has Everything, which could be read as The Last Temptation of Superman, is intriguing because it shows us the normal life that Superman truly does yearn for. Those types of stories are more interesting and do more for the character than the majority of Smallville‘s first season.

In contrast to this, there is Spider-Man. Spider-Man like I mentioned before, is his origin story, and I don’t just mean the single line, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” I mean the wider story that helps Spider-Man realize what it is he’s supposed to be doing. Whether we’re talking about the movie with Tobey McGuire, the original comic, or Brian Michael Bendis’ amazing first Ultimate Spider-Man arc “Power and Responsibility,” the first thing Spider-Man does with his powers is be sort of a dick. Sometimes it’s unintentional, like in the Raimi’s film when he beats up Flash. Sometimes it’s entirely planned, like when he ignores Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Ultimate Spider-Man.

No matter what though, Spider-Man learns the error of his ways and is reminded of what is important to him. A lesson he gets continuously reminded of throughout his career as a superhero. Spider-Man’s life is more often than not about about learning lessons, and about growing as a person. People grow up with Spider-Man in more ways than one. You don’t just grow up reading him, you grow up as he does. You apply the lessons he learns in high school, and college, and life to your own. Every nerd’s first shitty boss is inevitably compared to Jameson at the Bugle, because it’s relatable.

This is because he is an adolescent character. His character is about expression across the wide landscape of his life. Peter Parker is not just Peter Parker and Spider-Man, the two are intertwined with each other, linked together for good or ill. They are expressions of the same person, not perfectly formed yet because Peter is still maturing in his stories. And if Peter didn’t have that origin story, we wouldn’t really know what to make of him. If he just referred to some crucial event in his past involving his Uncle dying, we’d be like, “Woah, hold the phone, what?”

As I muse on this I think this is why older depictions of Spider-Man are hard to pull off right. I’m reminded of Spider-Man: Reign, and how uncomfortable it was to watch a middle aged/elderly Spider-Man do… well anything. Yet, at the same time, I’m reminded of how an older middle aged Peter Parker was depicted in the Spider-Girl universe and always felt it had that appropriately mellow retired hero feeling. Akin, one might argue, to the various incarnations of a retired Superman. Aware of his own power but solidly removed from the world.

Spider-Man’s aging has this tug and pull, because he’s a character who grows. We want to see Spider-Man grow up because we are growing up. Yet, as Spider-Man grows he reaches this point where he wants to settle down, where the danger of being a costumed adventurer outweighs his sense of duty. As always, Spider-Man learns lessons, and the last lesson he would presumably learn (as hinted at due to the loss of his limbs in Spider-Girl) is that the responsibility to his family comes before his responsibility to a city.

Still, everything about Spider-Man flows from that origin story, whereas Superman develops as a character from his first actions. I’m not trying to suggest that Superman, as an adult character, is static but he has a strongly developed core that cannot necessarily be shaken. It is not so much Superman’s character that gets developed, as it is Superman’s world. The twists and turns of other characters, their plots, and how they interact with Superman matter more in the long run than where Superman comes from. Spider-Man, starting at age 15, doesn’t have a strong core. He gains one through his origin story, and it further develops and solidifies over the course of countless comic books.

A final example comes to my mind as I sit here and think about the fully formed adult character. Mad Men spends the entirety of its pilot developing the character of Don Draper. We see him interact with subordinates, superiors, men, women, and see him face a seemingly insurmountable challenge. The audience gets an extremely strong sense of who this man is, and how he acts. Then in the last scene of the pilot, the bomb is dropped and we learn that he has a family. Yet, his family doesn’t change Don Draper’s character. His family is actually another obstacle, another element of drama within the show. This is because Don Draper is an adult character, this isn’t a show about his origins, even though those origins are extremely interesting and unraveling his background is part of the show’s tension, it’s still ultimately about Don Draper interacting with the present. His background only becomes another factor in the long saga of his life with his wife and in the advertising world. Imagine how silly the show would have been if it had laid all the cards about Don Draper’s origin from the get go.

This isn’t to say that origins are solely the purview of younger characters, but they do gel better with them. When someone is an adult they have a core to their personality that isn’t going to drastically change. Whereas people who are still growing are going to learn more from their experiences, change more in reaction to them, and so their existence can often require explanations, their origin story.

The ultimate point I’m trying to make is think more about your characters when you create them. Does their existence, do their habits, and views need an explanation? Or do they speak clearly through their actions and opinions? Are they a Harry Dresden or a Harry Potter?

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