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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Not Every Character Needs an Origin Story

In the 1990 Christmas classic Home Alone, a young boy fights off the Wet Bandits, a duo of cartoonish burglars motivated by little more than greed and a desire to say the movie’s name in a sinister voice while flashing a gold tooth. Three decades later, Home Sweet Home Alone, a rebooted version of the story streaming on Disney+, sees a young boy fight off another pair of burglars—struggling parents Pam and Jeff McKenzie, who simply want to take back a priceless doll that was stolen from them so they’re not financially ruined and forced to sell their family home.

It’s unclear exactly why the Home Sweet Home Alone writers decided that a thief can no longer simply be a thief, but they are following a precedent firmly established in the last few years. Last summer, audiences learned that a puppy-murderer can no longer just be a puppy-murderer when Disney’s Cruella revealed that the infamous 101 Dalmatians villain had a difficult history with the dogs. (Spoiler alert for the movie, but also spoiler alert for everything that is good and decent and right: They killed her mom.) Netflix’s 2020 series Ratched similarly explored the origins of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s bitter, twisted antagonist Nurse Ratched, portraying her as a victim of child abuse.

Where will this trend end? In infinity and beyond. Toy Story prequel Lightyear is set to drop next summer; the animated movie follows human astronaut Buzz Lightyear, meaning that a toy can no longer simply be a toy. Everybody—be they made of plastic or draped in animal skin—now needs a complicated, emotional, psychological backstory, whether it’s presented in a feature-length origin story, a prequel, or a labored plotline of a reboot. It’s at best confusing, and at worst cheap.

It’s obvious why studios make prequels and spinoffs: They’re an easy way to cash in on popular intellectual property and tap into existing fanbases. Although I instinctually roll my eyes at Lightyear, I also know I’ll probably go and see it—it’s hard to resist the next (or previous) chapter in a beloved franchise that’s almost 30 years old. But an obsession with backstories means that everywhere you look, writers are adding depth to characters who really, really don’t need depth: When watching Home Sweet Home Alone, are we supposed to cheer when a desperate mother-turned-burglar has her feet lit on fire and lies down in defeat, sobbing in the snow?

Believe it or not, way back in 2009, Den of Geek published an article asking whether it was “time to lose the obsession with prequels and origins stories.” This prescient 12-year-old tome starkly reveals just how long we’ve been in the clutches of Big Backstory—it laments the “dark, miserable” X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the “corporate cookie cutter production line” that led to Hannibal Rising and Underworld 3. But this piece was written five years before the debut of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty prequel Maleficent, the movie that kicked off the studio’s obsession with reexamining its vintage villains. In 2019, DC Films gave us Joker, and next year Illumination will treat us to the backstory of Despicable Me’s antihero in Minions: The Rise of Gru. In 2023, the musical movie Wonka will see Timothée Chalamet portray the past of everyone’s favorite chocolate factory owner. We are deep inside the origin story era, and the obsession is leaking into the backstories we give to otherwise perfectly straightforward villains.

Academics have argued that the rise in longform television content has led to a greater search for psychologically rich characters, and arguably society now has a better understanding of the ways in which trauma can beget trauma. Many of the cheap heroes-and-villains tropes of days gone by are now rightly recognized as problematic—good people are sexy! Bad people have scars!—and on paper, it’s no bad thing to make goodies and baddies more complex than those labels traditionally allow. But now that every film and franchise features a tragic backstory to underpin villainy, this type of writing has become cliché and lazy in turn.

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In April, a tweet with over 38,000 likes noted a common trope in superhero films: “There’s always a point with modern superhero stories where the ‘villain’ starts looking so reasonable in comparison to the unfettered capitalist nationalism of our status quo that the writers have to shoehorn in a dissonant violent episode in case the audience changes sides.” In the 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, audiences were given the tragic backstory of villain Erik Killmonger—but when he started making great points about the evils of colonization and the distribution of wealth, the writers made him kill his girlfriend.

Similarly (OK, sort of similarly) in Home Sweet Home Alone, Pam and Jeff’s motivations are perfectly reasonable, but their actions aren’t (as a general rule, you shouldn’t try to break into a house when a child is—flash your gold tooth now—home alone). But thanks to the sympathetic backstory, the film does a bad job of convincing audiences that the duo deserve the violence inflicted on them (Jeff nearly gets impaled by an icicle! He loses a tooth!). The result is confusing, and it strips the original of its simplicity and joy.

There’s no telling what we’ll lose next. Will we be able to look at (the toy version of) Buzz Lightyear the same way when we know more about (the man version of) Buzz Lightyear (who, we’re plainly told, is the in-universe inspiration for the toy)? If writers are willing to provide a backstory to explain why a woman literally named after the devil is compelled to skin puppies, then what exactly is off limits? The 30-year gap between Home Alone and Home Sweet Home Alone nicely illustrates what has changed in cinematic portrayals of villainy, and shines light on what’s lost when we make characters needlessly complex. In the immortal words of Kevin McCallister: Keep the change, you filthy animal.

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