Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sympathetic vs Force of Nature

This weekend we get X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tasty treat for fans of the X-saga (after the let-down that was film 3) that exploits Marvel's most enduring character. We love Wolverine. He's a badass. With claws.

What better way, then, to declaw him than with an origin story? Yay!

Most major characters can be divided into two groups: sympathetic characters and forces of nature. Origin stories work well for sympathetic characters--they endear the character to us by providing insight into their motivations. These are the people we root for. We wish we were in their shoes, making their choices.

Forces of nature are characters that we are intended to react to, not relate to. They are shocking, extreme characters whose motivations (and by extension their limits) are unclear to us. These characters work best when their past is hinted at but is largely shrouded in mystery. The audience imagines the horrible things that must have happened to create this person. We want to know, and for that reason, we must never know. An origin story for such a character is an attempt to deliver on an impossible promise.

Look at The Dark Knight. Batman is sympathetic, so we know all about his origins and his motives. The Joker is a force of nature. He acts without reason or limitation. His actions are shocking because they exist without any context. Giving him an origin story would only provide that context, and then his actions would no longer thrill us. The mystery would be gone, the explanation would almost surely disappoint.

Don't believe me? Look at Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is the quintessential force of nature. Clarice Starling's past was explained through dialog and the occasional flashback because that helped us relate. But Lecter was a frightening enigma. When his turn came in Hannibal Rising, when the monster was revealed to be... some rich kid... who was tortured by... Nazis... it was almost laughable.

But nobody took it quite so hard as Vader. Remember when Darth Vader was cool? Before he became a whiny little brat trapped inside a robotic candy shell? Not one but three movies deconstructed and ultimately castrated him.

I digress.

The original X-Men film opened with Magneto enduring the Holocaust. That worked, because Magneto--though a villain--was a sympathetic villain, and that sympathy is what allows him to shock us. His aims are lofty, but they're almost justifiable, until we see just to what lengths he is willing to go. Wolverine, on the other hand, is a heroic force of nature. The mystery about him is what lets us believe that he can do whatever it is that needs to be done. He's heroic because he does what we can't do, what we would not be willing to do. Wolverine's origins have been explained over and over in the comics, but there are so many to choose from that with the films it was almost like a return to mystery--a clean slate. Time to dirty it up again and hope it's not too disappointing.

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1 comment:

Bill Haworth said...

This is a shocking phenomenon... for anywhere but inside the comic industry. Why did the premise of this movie not surprise me? Because Marvel explored Wolverine's origins, in detail, back when I was still into comics (the '90's). Why are they so insistent on killing all the mystery in their "dark, mysterious pasts"? 'Cause the fanboys won't stop asking for the reveals.

And yes, DC did the same to the Joker. About a hundred times over.