This argument originated in a rather unconventional way: it was dropped in my lap. The AV Club’s Scott Eric Kaufmann (or “SEK” for short) dropped this on me in a particularly interesting Facebook thread; in his words:
Because I just can’t with today anymore, I’m just going to say that Batman Begins is the greatest origin film ever, and let the brilliant Jeff Buchbinder defend my position. Did he ask me to do this? No. Did he want me to do this? Probably not. But can he do it? Without a doubt.
What is an “origin film”, anyway?
An “origin film”, at least, in the context of this discussion, is the first in an epistemological film system comprised of one or more properties which defines the origin of the main (usually titular) character.
This differs from films which show the formations of teams and leagues of superheroes in that those films do not necessarily illustrate the actual genesis of the titular character(s). A notable example to this would be Fantastic Four, as it showed the acquisition of special abilities for the titular characters on screen, as well as their metamorphoses into their eventual characters. The first of the Hulk reboot films (Hulk, courtesy of Ang Lee) would fall under this definition, but the second (The Incredible Hulk, courtesy of Louis Leterrier) would not; in the Leterrier film, Bruce Banner has already become “the Hulk” off-screen, even though a certain degree of fan service to this process is paid through the initial credit sequence.
It should be noted that one of the commenters on the aforementioned thread asked, somewhat jokingly, if The 400 Blows could be considered an origin story for François Truffaut. (It fits the definition of an origin film, incidentally.)
From the venerable TV Tropes:
An origins episode is an episode, issue, chapter, or a multi-part story arc that exists primarily to examine the origin of a character or setting after the work has been going for a while. Many prequels qualify, but not all. Likewise whilst many things have had extended flashbacks it does not necessarily count. However the episode or issue need not be all set in the universe’s past to qualify, so long as exploring that past in the point. Done well these works help build the universe’s mythos and continuity; done badly they just feel like the author trying to show how clever they are. Worse still are the origins episodes where the writer does not bother to check their own continuity and creates a mess of plot holes and poor characterization.
The Batman as a primal archetype
It is unsurprising that Batman is the most popular hero on social media, while his most famous nemesis is the most popular villain. Batman has had more analysis devoted to him, as well as an impressive collection of epistemological material across several reboots and mediums, than any other superhero of which I am aware. There’s even a Psychology Today article about the primal archetype(s) underscoring the popularity of The Batman, in A Dark and Stormy Knight: Why Batman? (cite), in addition to several books and articles.
Whether it be his self-made superhero nature, the universal internal darkness in which he dwells, the pantheon of colorful foes he fights, or the primal fear which he exudes, The Batman is a very powerful cultural force. This is recognized through the vast array of comics, television material, multi-auteur epistemological film systems, adjunct films (The Suicide Squad is already incredibly popular – months before its theatrical release), and vast array of insanely varied merchandising.
In another, somewhat expected, aside: I have been trying to collect data to look at the source of fandom surrounding The Batman through an online survey.
Batman Begins as Film
Batman Begins, as a film, is quite good. It benefits from agile direction from Christopher Nolan, intricate and precise camerawork from Wally Pfister, and a compelling storyline based (somewhat) on a number of graphic novels and comic lines, including Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” – not to mention a varied and relatively impressive cast.
I’m not going to reiterate the complexities of Batman Begins' horror-inspired introduction of The Batman, nor its intricate and well-thought-out shots; it’s enough to say that it is a very competent film outside of the constraints which I have been applying to determine whether a film is an “origin film” or not.
Batman Begins and the Process of Elimination
In order to determine which film is the best origin film, I’m looking at two criteria:
- Is this a good film?
- Is this a good origin story?
The origin of Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, for example, would be excluded due to the dodgy nature of the quality of those films. (If you really need a full elucidation of this, please visit Mr. Plinkett for more information.) Luke’s origin is tied into the prequels, as well, so we can discount Star Wars-related films entirely.
Batman Begins is both a good, artful film and a good origin story, especially due to its subject matter (the powerful Batman archetype). It’s very difficult to make that same assessment of other films, since there are no other strict Batman origin films, and few origin films pass as being extremely artful.
Films like Guardians of the Galaxy are less accessible; they require a “normal person” through which they can be experienced, which decreases the potential relatability of the main character, unless that main character is the “normal person”. This tends to result in a predictable trope where the “normal” main character becomes The Jesus, who was Special All Along. Examples of this would be Keanu Reeves' “Neo” in The Matrix, Rufus Sewell’s “John Murdock” in Dark City, and Mila Kunis' titular “Jupiter Jones” in Jupiter Ascending. Though archetypal, these stories are far more common and overused than something like the Batman mythos, which touches on a number of dark and sensitive parts of the human psyche.
Honorable Mention: Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)
It’s not an origin film – strictly speaking – but Tim Burton’s Batman is an amazing piece of film, and alludes to the Batman origin story very heavily in its introductory sequence. I have done an analysis of the introduction of The Batman elsewhere in Batman: Examining the Introduction of The Batman as Three-Act Gothic Horror, so I won’t burden the reader with needless repetition.
By necessity, the greatest origin film of all time would belong to the greatest archetypal hero of the modern era: The Batman. As the best (and most valid) example of a Batman origin film is “Batman Begins”, it must, by necessity, be the greatest origin film.
I also suggest reading the original thread, as there are quite a few interesting sub-topic discussions, including a few about The Batman’s role in society. This is one of my more memorable notes:
There’s potentially an interesting dichotomy to be found in the artificial differences which we believe lie between vigilantes and superheroes. I remember that the 1960’s era Semple Batman series made it very clear that Batman was deputized to act as an officer of the law – otherwise he would have been potentially seen as a vigilante. The rise of the film “anti-hero” and the emergence of the neo-noir film genre probably played substantial roles in legitimizing the idea of superhero as masked vigilante – but vigilantes who have some sort of Greater Good in mind. The second Nolan Batman film lampshaded that artificial divide by having Really Nice Rich Guy Bruce Wayne admonish another Batman-suit-clad vigilante for not having enough money to do the Batman thing.