Star Trek: The new J.J. Abrams film is only one of a recent spate of successful origin stories that advance the story by retreating.
by Mark Blankenship
These days, whether at the movies or on television, you can't swing a cat without hitting an origin story.
The current season of Lost has focused on how the Dharma Initiative and Ben Linus began, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine reveals its point of view right there in the title.
And of course, half the allure of J.J. Abrams' new Star Trek film, opening today, is its promise to show us how Kirk and Spock met, how Uhura got her job, and so forth.
But these are more than just origin stories. All three properties are interrupting the chronology of long-running narratives to tell us how things began. And since none of them started their stories at square one to begin with, many of us are learning the early histories of popular characters for the very first time.
That's especially true for people like me, who rely on movies to get their X-Men information, and who aren't so deep into Star Trek lore that they'll read a novelization about Kirk and Spock's teenage years.
So why is this type of origin tale so satisfying? Why is it interesting to begin a narrative in medias res, then suddenly bounce back to the beginning?
(SPOILERS AHEAD!) (For Lost thus far and for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that is. We won't spoil Star Trek.)
Why origin stories are so appealing, after the jump...
The structure of Lost holds some clues.
From its first episode, the series has teased us with mysterious present-day scenes that are as disconcerting as they are entertaining. How did the plane crash? Why can Sun speak English? Why is Charlie so interested in those statues of the Virgin Mary?
Questions like those are tantalizing because they imply that a story has a larger purpose. We're encouraged to be an active audience if we sense that paying attention will reward us with something deeper than what's immediately apparent.
And when we're primed for revelations, "origin moments" become promises fulfilled. It's incredibly satisfying to be delivered from confusion to clarity — "Oh! Charlie hordes those statues because they have coke in them!" — because it lets us feel that the world makes sense.
Origin stories also make narratives richer by altering what we thought we knew. Who wasn't blown away to learn that Lost's John Locke had once been a paraplegic?
Similarly, if you've watched the first three X-Men movies, then Wolverine can shake you up in all sorts of ways. It's always seemed like Logan was forced to get the adamantium grafted onto his skeleton, for instance, but it turns out he volunteered for the procedure. And while the earlier films declared that Wolverine's healing powers make him practically ageless, I was still shocked to learn that he was born in the mid-1800s. It forced me to reevaluate my understanding of his character. Now I know he's old enough to have outlived everyone he loved.
I savor those "what you didn't know" moments, because they suggest that the story is in control. There's nothing more boring than a predictable plot, and I enjoy myself more when I don't know what to expect.
Finally, there's additional satisfaction in learning the history of characters you've cared about for a long time. I mean, I don't love-love James T. Kirk, but he's been present for my entire pop-cultural life. I certainly have affection for him, so it's nice to get "closer" to him by learning about his past.
In last week's Entertainment Weekly cover story, Zachary Quinto (the new Spock) sums up that attachment when he describes the current Star Trek's appeal.
"It straddles a line between giving people what they've known about these characters for 40 years," he says, "and what they've wished they knew about them.''
What we wished we knew. That may be the key to these origin stories. They only work for characters and plots we want to learn more about. They only work when we've already invested ourselves, despite not knowing everything. They only work when they can make a good relationship even better.
Find more by Mark Blankenship at The Critical Condition.