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‘She-Hulk’ just revealed how Marvel can fix its biggest Phase 4 problem


Since the start of Phase Four, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has mostly avoided telling origin stories. You can’t really blame it for the choice.

The superhero movie explosion of the 21st century, dating back to 1998’s Blade and skyrocketing after 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man, is replete with movies that laboriously recap the spider bites and/or murdered parents that create the heroes we know and love.

Now, this deep into the MCU and other competing franchises, origin stories have fallen out of favor. But recent shows Ms. Marvel and now She-Hulk: Attorney At Law prove there’s still untold value in the origin story. With the MCU prepared to introduce even more obscure characters to its canon, it’s maybe not a bad idea to rely on old tricks to tell new stories.

For the first 20 years of superhero movies’ dominance at the box office, origin stories were a necessary evil. While mainstream audiences unfamiliar with comics could, theoretically, grasp the concept of Iron Man without learning about Tony Stark, it was more efficient and beneficial to introduce Tony Stark and the specifics of his character (and to explain how he’s not like other billionaire superheroes like Bruce Wayne) through the structure of an origin story.

Our introduction to Iron Man is contextualized firmly in our reality before it brings us into a speculative one. It is Robert Downey Jr., drinking in the back of a Humvee, bragging about going “12 for 12” with Maxim models and not wearing his armored suit. (He’s a playboy narcissist, remember?)

Origin stories were and still are helpful because you simply cannot underestimate how most people understand comic books. In Ben Fritz’s 2018 book The Big Picture: The Fight For the Future of Movies, Fritz prints a telling quote from New Line Cinema co-CEO Bob Shaye, who argued with Marvel’s Avi Arad about New Line’s then-stewardship over the Iron Man rights.

Shaye once swore he’d never produce a movie where Iron Man flies. “It just doesn’t make sense!” he argued to film producer Avi Arad. “Steel cannot fly.” Remember: It was Shaye’s literal job to make an Iron Man movie, and even he couldn’t fathom how Iron Man operated.

Audiences have a more sophisticated understanding of superhero stories than they did when Iron Man broke records in 2008. At the time, superhero blockbusters were still taking cues from the paradigm-shifting Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman reboot (and retelling of his origins) from 2005. But, now, when superhero movies are pretty much the only thing you can watch in theaters, it’s understandable how the taste for origin stories has soured.

The MCU has responded and is, in many ways, responsible for the discarding of the origin story structure. 2014’s record-breaking Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a classic origin story — at least not in the traditional sense (you never see how Rocket became a talking raccoon) — and audiences still got on board, despite its unprecedentedly bizarre elements.

The billion-dollar grossing Black Panther in 2018 wasn’t an origin story, either; audiences met Chadwick Boseman’s regal T’Challa two years earlier, in the third Captain America film, and Black Panther had a much bigger story to tell — about legacies, heritage, colonialism, and kingship — than its hero learning how to wear a bulletproof catsuit.

2019’s Captain Marvel was the last time Marvel ever told a character’s origin story, where the climax is all about the hero assuming their mantle, on the big screen. In more recent Marvel projects with lesser known characters (like last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or this year’s Moon Knight on Disney+), the “origin” part of their stories are glossed over (Shang-Chi) or played as flashback further into the story’s runtime (Moon Knight).

In an Inverse interview, Moon Knight head writer Jeremy Slater observed that origin stories are going the way of the dodo (even if Ms. Marvel would prove him wrong a few weeks later). “We've seen so many origin stories at this point that they have become a trope in and of themselves,” Slater told us. “I think, in order to keep the audience guessing, to keep them on their toes, you kind of have to show them something new or come at it from a fresh angle. I think the direct one-to-one translations just don't feel special anymore, because we've seen it done so often.”

She-Hulk: Attorney At Law is something of an in-between. It details Jennifer Walters’ origin on how she became She-Hulk, with Jennifer (Tatiana Maslany) acknowledging it up front so she can move on to her “lawyer show.” The dramatic irony and humor is that She-Hulk: Attorney At Law will never simply be a lawyer show. But, even if it’s done reluctantly, it’s welcome. It truly does help to see Jennifer come into her powers up front, even if it’s just a prologue and not the dramatic thrust of the episode. Before the end of the first episode, we not only understand Jennifer as a character, but also understand what makes her different from cousin Bruce Banner.

Ms. Marvel is a more traditional origin story by comparison, but its fresh flavorings — including its youthful perspective, its vibrant depiction of a Pakistani-Muslim community in New Jersey, and parents who actually foster their lead’s superhero efforts — means it’s hardly in the same, tired breath that Moon Knight’s Slater believes the superhero zeitgeist is in.

There is a semblance of truth that origin stories are trite and overcooked these days. Not every superhero movie needs to have that act one inciting incident that leads to a meaty act two (where they learn to use their powers) so they can fight their nemesis in act three. Audiences have seen that before. But, as Ms. Marvel and now She-Hulk prove, there’s still value in making sure everyone knows the fundamentals.

She-Hulk: Attorney At Law streams new episodes Thursdays on Disney+.

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