In my last post earlier this week, I started trying to tackle some pretty big questions of originality in fiction writing. I looked at the recent success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which, though enjoyable, lacked originality and seemed to recycle many elements from the original Star Wars. Today I’d like to explore the same ideas but in a slightly different genre of story, one that is also immensely popular despite some potentially legitimate claims of unoriginality. And it’s one of my favorite genres too. I’m talking about superhero movies, specifically the ones made by Marvel.
Before we begin, I’ll admit my personal bias. I love superheroes and superhero films. Even the mediocre ones are still enjoyable to me on some level, and it has to be pretty bad for me to actively dislike it (but trust me, there are some bad ones out there). While I love Star Wars as well, I do have to admit that Star Wars is probably my second-favorite fandom–after superheroes. So with the exponential popularity of Marvel movies over the last several years, I’ve had quite a lot to enjoy.
But I can certainly understand why, from a perspective of an outsider who doesn’t love all of those characters as much as I do, the movies may seem to follow a similar or predictable formula. If you’re unfamiliar, you can find a pretty decent summary of that formula here. This type of movie may have seemed fresh and innovative when Iron Man introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008, but eight years later, it’s been done and redone a number of times.
Consider the Ant-Man, Marvel’s most recent big blockbuster from August. (Interestingly, I almost typed “bug blockbuster” there, but I guess that would have also been accurate.) The film was, in my opinion, a lot of fun and a well-made story for what it was. But it was also very predictable, at least to someone like me who has watched quite a few action and superhero films over time. The good guy overcame his challenges and figured out how to be a hero in the end, even when it seemed like there was no hope left. The bad guy was fairly one-dimensional and was pretty obviously the bad guy from the beginning without much subtlety. The whole film was laced with Marvel’s trademark blend of flashy action sequences and witty humor and dialogue. I won’t say that it lacked character development, but the characters and the relationships it did build were familiar too from a number of other works of fiction–the ex-con looking for redemption, the older mentor figure and his estranged daughter, the maniacal businessman-turned-supervillain, the goofy friends who provide comic relief. Etc. (Not to mention the fact that Ant-Man is a science expert who gets his powers from a scientific suit. Now where have we seen that before?)
Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ant-Man is exactly like all the other Marvel movies. Each hero and their backgrounds and personalities are different enough to make them distinct, ranging from a billionaire scientist hotshot-turned-hero, to a legendary god come down to earth, to the idealistic super-soldier back from the past. The film version of Ant-Man is a little different from them all in that he’s a former criminal, a down-on-his-luck ordinary guy trying to support his family, who ends up becoming a superhero. The individual characters and settings are different in each movie, and of course team films like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy shake up the dynamic somewhat too. But still, I must admit that by and large the Marvel movies are getting similar and predictable in terms of plot structure and overall tone.
So then, what’s the missing element? What is it that makes Ant-Man and similar films so enjoyable still, even though they’re so formulaic? And why do I appreciate one type of movie despite its unoriginality, but still look with a critical eye on recycled plots like that of The Force Awakens? Is it just because I happen to like superheroes a little bit more than space operas? Or is it because TFA was hyped up so much more that unoriginality on its part felt like a letdown in comparison? Maybe. But maybe there’s something more objective in the content of each story, too.
I’m honestly not sure exactly what that would be yet, but maybe I can figure it out in my next post later this week. And if I can, then I’m sure there will be some important applications for us as writers as well when it comes to originality and borrowing from other works.