Has 'Justice League' Killed the Superhero Origin Story?

Justice League and Spider-Man: Homecoming Still - Split - Publicity - H 2017
Left, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures; right, courtesy of Columbia Pictures
It could be the final nail in the coffin after 'Captain America: Civil War' successfully introduced Spider-Man and Black Panther ahead of their solo movies.

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Justice League]

Justice League is no Avengers.

Yes, and yes, that is a comment on the quality and its box-office success. The film underwhelmed with a $94 million opening weekend, compared to Avengers' then-record $207 million bow in 2012. But it is also a comment on the structure. 

The Avengers gets the band together, but all the band members had already been introduced in previous movies. Justice League moves things along by introducing half the band members in addition to bringing them together. Perhaps despite the disappointing box office and critical response, Justice League will pave the way to make superhero movies more streamlined, the introductions of the new characters were more-or-less successful.

At first glance, this may appear like the Warner Bros.' DC universe taking shortcuts in order to try to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but there is something else important to be considered. Namely, that the MCU’s Phase One strategy to build up to The Avengers is no longer an option. It’s too reliant on solo origin stories. Even within Phase One, audiences were getting a little restless with the formula by the time Captain America: The First Avenger rolled around only two months after Thor.

There’s nothing wrong with origin stories, and even just this year we got a great one with Wonder Woman. But the cinematic reboot craze jumpstarted by 2005' Batman Begins lead to such an explosion of origin stories that the market has grown saturated. There is still a niche or two left available here and there. "Quality female superhero origin story” was still wide open for Wonder Woman, and can probably fit a few more entries before things start getting too crowded. But origin stories revolving around one Great Big Hero are naturally going to end up hitting the same narrative beats and plot points. Switching up various elements can keep things interesting for a while, there are limits that the superhero genre is inching very close to surpassing — a boundary where pleasantly or at least tolerably familiar crosses into the territory of boringly repetitive.

Which brings us to Justice League. For all of its issues, one thing you can’t say about the film is that the newcomers — The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) — play second fiddle.  The most entertaining moments in the film involve either Flash or Aquaman, while Cyborg holds Justice League’s semblance of a plot together and in several regards represents the most intriguing potential. The whole human-AI/flesh-machine hybrid is something that comic book movies have tried but thus far not managed to hit out of the park, especially on the heroic side, meaning there’s a definite opportunity there (let’s be honest here, we all preferred Vision when he was still JARVIS).

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is still great, though it would be even better to see her back in a film where the camera isn’t so dead set on lingering on her derriere. Meanwhile, watching Batman (Ben Affleck) traverse a snowy mountain is a painful reminder of how far we’ve fallen since the days when the main point of contention was whether Christian Bale’s Batman grumble-voice sounded dumb. Finally, no matter how much Justice League tries to convince otherwise, everyone would have been better off if the dry toast known as Superman (Henry Cavill) stayed dead. And that’s not even getting into what attempts to digitally remove Henry Cavill’s mustache in postproduction does to his face.

That is to say, while Justice League has many problems, it further proves what the spectacular introductions of Black Panther and Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War suggested: solo superhero origin stories are dying, and for a good reason. Introductions and at least some exposition can be woven into larger narratives that, as a bonus, have other components at their disposal to help balance out dull but necessary information-dumping. We’ve seen it done now in a great film (Civil War) and a not-so-great one (Justice League), and in neither case do these introductions weigh the film down, nor are the newcomers hopelessly overshadowed by established characters.

To top it all off, weaving introductions into ensemble adventures frees up solo films to jump straight to the good stuff instead of having to sacrifice half the first installment to exposition, as evidenced by the supremely enjoyable Spider-Man: Homecoming. Sure, perhaps there’s a mind-blowing superhero origin film out there still waiting to be made (Brie Larson's Captain Marvel?), but we’ve been walking that path so frequently since the early 2000s that some heroes have already walked it twice. The MCU and DCEU now have a viable alternative, and they are ready to explore it.