Eight of the best and worst origins films: from ‘Joker’ and ‘Casino Royale’ to ‘Catwoman’ and ‘Hannibal Rising’

As '101 Dalmatians’ villain Cruella de Vil gets her own backstory, we look at movies that enhanced (and ruined) some of the most famous characters in film

'The Godfather Part II', 'Catwoman' and 'Casino Royale' are all origins films which explored the backstory of some of cinema's most famous characters. Courtesy Paramount, Warner Bros, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
'The Godfather Part II', 'Catwoman' and 'Casino Royale' are all origins films which explored the backstory of some of cinema's most famous characters. Courtesy Paramount, Warner Bros, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Why is Bruce Wayne scared of bats? Who gave Indiana Jones his fedora? Why is the Joker an unhinged lunatic? There are some movie characters so intriguing we can’t help but want to know more about them long after the credits have finished rolling.

Origins stories are big box-office hit for Hollywood, with Cruella currently in cinemas, exploring why the 101 Dalmatians villain – played by Emma Stone – is so dog-hatingly mean.

Meanwhile, Willy Wonka, of chocolate factory fame, is the latest fictional character to be given an origins story, as Call Me By Your Name star Timothee Chalamet gets set to follow in Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp’s footsteps to play the quirky candyman.

But for every Batman Begins, there’s a Green Lantern. And for every cinematic squeal, as audiences discover exactly how James Bond achieved double-o status, there’s a groan into the popcorn as a cat brings a woman back from the dead to seek revenge for a batch of bad beauty creams in Catwoman.

Here are 8 origins films to check out, four great ones and four not so great. Spoilers ahead …

Four of the best origins films

‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974)

When it comes to backstories, none are as compelling as the journey of young Vito Andolini, who is sent to America from Italy to escape the local mafia boss who wants him dead.

Played with talent and cut-glass cheekbones by Robert De Niro, then 31, part two of the trilogy (can we pretend that controversial third instalment doesn’t exist?) answers every question you ever had about how Vito became the Godfather.

The Corleone surname? It was the name of his home town, given to him by an immigration officer on Ellis Island. His rise to power? Set on the path by his neighbour Clemenza. The first offer he made that couldn’t be refused? The list goes on …

Vito’s tale is told in parallel with that of his son, Michael (Al Pacino), who, similarly blessed of cheekbone-ness, puts family at the heart of his bid to make the Corleones legit.

'Joker' (2019)

Divisive before it even came out, Joaquin Phoenix won the Best Actor Oscar in 2020 for his portrayal of one of cinema’s most enduringly complex villains. Even film critics went to war over the film, with The New York Times dubbing it “an empty, foggy exercise in second-hand style and second-rate philosophising”, while Empire sung its praises as: “Bold, devastating and utterly beautiful.”

Phoenix stars as aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, who struggles to hold down a day job and form relationships thanks to a neurological disorder that includes delusions and the propensity to burst into laughter when he’s nervous.

A series of increasingly desperate situations that are both within and out of his control – via some frankly lazy ‘it was all his mum’s fault’ revelations – results in him shooting Robert De Niro’s abrasive talk show host, Murray Franklin, live on television. Bonus origins points are awarded for a fleeting meet-up with a young Bruce Wayne through the gates of Wayne Manor.

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ (2018)

The Marmite of the Star Wars spin-offs, fans either loved or hated Han Solo’s origins story. But it wins a place on the best list simply because it revealed how he came to be in possession of the Millennium Falcon – arguably the greatest spaceship in the universe (with apologies to the USS Enterprise).

The lowest-grossing live-action Star Wars film ($393.2 million worldwide), it was considered a bomb, although any film featuring Donald Glover being that charismatic as Lando Calrissian is far from a fail.

Originally a one-name person, like Beyonce or Madonna, Han becomes Han Solo when he tries to enlist in the Imperial Navy and is given the surname Solo after revealing he doesn’t belong to a people. The film also gives us the backstory of the infamous 12 parsec Kessel Run first mentioned in Star Wars IV: A New Hope.

We also learn how he and Chewbacca became two halves of one of cinema’s most beloved bromances. When Han was thrown into a pit ostensibly as a snack for the Wookiee, in classic Solo style he smooth-talks his way out of being chewed-by-bacca (sorry).

'Casino Royal' (2006)

The 00-status, the preference for shaking or stirring, the penchant for tailored tuxes, and the inherent distrust that makes James Bond a stone-cold killer were all explored to incredible effect in what became the highest-grossing Bond film of all time.

Critics heaped lavish praise on the film, which stripped away the campy quips and invisible cars, leaving the bare bones of Bond whose behaviour is so raw and impulsive it leads Judi Dench’s M to put a tracking device in his arm to keep an eye on him.

If you ever wanted to know how Bond wore a tuxedo so well, you had his first love Vesper Lynd to thank, after she “sized him up the moment we met” and presented him with a tailored tux. But best of all was learning how Bond gained his 007 codename. It takes two kills apparently, with the second one being “considerably” easier.

Four of the worst origins films

‘Prometheus’ (2012)

The prequel to Alien was kind of an origins story, but also sort of not, and left fans scratching their heads as they tried to make out what was actually happening. According to director Riley Scott, Prometheus takes place in the same universe as the Sigourney Weaver-starring Alien films, but also explores its own mythology.

Cue holograms running through tunnels which may or may not be giant alien carcasses or ancient spaceships, monolithic statues, alien corpses, evil Charlize Theron, robotic Michael Fassbender, and pollen that gives a whole new meaning to the word “allergy”.

The film was criticised for being overly dark and complicated, and ultimately for an origins story, for raising far more questions than it provided answers.

‘Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith’ (2005)

We’d all only just got over midi-chlorian counts which no one cared about, and Jar Jar Binks who everyone hated, before Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith shouldered its way into the Force.

Although we finally got to see how Anakin Skywalker turned into Darth Vader, witnessed the birth of Luke and Leia and saw some excellent lightsaber play by Yoda, ultimately the film was a culmination of Star Wars’ least-loved trilogy, with some pretty wooden acting on Hayden Christensen’s part. And the least said about Skywalker/Vader’s final "Nooooooo!" the better.

Ultimately, the main lesson audiences took away from the film was that when you leave your enemy for dead on the edge of a lava shore after a fiery lightsaber battle, go back and make sure he’s actually dead. Looking at you, Obi-Wan!

'Catwoman' (2004)

The film that won its star Halle Berry a Razzie for Worst Actress, which she good-sportingly accepted in person, has become the stuff of legend for how bad it was. Failing to make back its production costs, earning $84m on a $100m budget, the film is supposed to explore the origins of one of Batman’s most famous foes who, in comic book canon, goes by the day job name of Selina Kyle.

Instead we get meek graphic designer Patience Phillips who, after overhearing a conversation about the dangerous after-effects of an anti-ageing cream (yes, really) gets chased by the bad guys and drowns. A mysterious Egyptian Mau cat revives her, and she develops cat-like abilities before going undercover in the beauty biz to bring those snake oil salesmen to justice.

Written by three men, the thought process obviously went: "Women like anti-ageing creams, this is a film about a woman, oh wow, you guys, let’s have a killer face cream as the plot device."

Why more male-orientated films don’t have evil beauty serums as the central big bad remains a mystery.

'Hannibal Rising' (2007)

In just 16 minutes of screen time, Anthony Hopkins cemented Dr Hannibal Lecter as one of the most terrifying cinematic bad guys of all time.

His portrayal won him the Best Actor Oscar in 1992, beating out the likes of Robert De Niro and Warren Beatty, and lines such as “fava beans and a nice Chianti” have remained entrenched in pop culture.

But let’s face it, Hannibal Lecter did not need an origins story. Played by French actor and model Gaspard Ulliel, the film boiled everything that was fascinating about Lecter down to a simple tale of revenge as he sought to punish the Nazis who had murdered his family.

What made Hopkins’s Lecter so terrifying was not knowing what drove him, feeding into cinema-goers’ fear of the unknown. An origins story, which gave him a humanity audiences can relate to, took the edge off one of film’s greatest monsters.

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Read more:

BFI Player Classics: 9 good old British films to watch on the new streaming service

The 21 films from the Mena region that have been nominated for Oscars

'A Quiet Place Part II' sets US box office alight as it makes pandemic-era record

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Published: June 4, 2021 09:21 AM

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