Murphy’s Law – No backstory required

Joel Murphy

Joel Murphy

Have you ever watched Snakes on a Plane and wondered what those snakes were doing before they ended up on that flight? Have you ever watched Die Hard and wondered what made young John McClane decide to become a police officer in the first place? Have you ever lost sleep wondering how Blade spent his awkward teenage years?

Well, if the films coming out of Hollywood these days are any indication, studio executives certainly believe that’s the case and are willing to devote entire movies to these types of trivial backstories.

This past weekend I went to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Overall, it exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations and I enjoyed it. However, my biggest complaint (besides the fact that Channing Tatum tries to suck the energy out of every scene he’s in) is that it felt like the entire purpose of this film was to set me up for the sequel.

In the movie, we find out how Destro becomes Destro. We find out how Cobra Commander becomes Cobra Commander. We find out how Duke joined G.I. Joe and we discover that he and The Baroness have history together. We find out about Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s pasts. In fact, half the movie involves one character or another gazing off into the distance as we fade into yet another flashback.

I understand that the filmmakers want to reboot the franchise, so they decide to start at the very beginning. But I’ve never once wondered how any of these characters ended up as Cobras or Joes. As a kid, I tuned in every week to see them fire blue and red lasers at each other. Cobra Commander was an incompetent coward; Destro was his intelligent righthand man with a smooth Barry White voice; Duke was a heroic ladies man and The Baroness was a hot chick with a ridiculous accent. That was enough for me.

It’s not just G.I. Joe that makes this mistake either. Most big franchises have embraced this trend. X-Men, Spider-man and Batman Begins all focused on the backstories of the heroes we know and love and all three films weren’t nearly as good as their sequels. Watching Bruce Wayne train overseas before he becomes Batman is nowhere near as entertaining as watching him battle The Joker. Likewise, seeing how Spider-man and the X-Men came to be just takes time away from all of the bad-ass action scenes that should be the focal point.

I just think Hollywood puts too much emphasis on the backstory. I mean, look at the most recent Star Wars trilogy. For years, fans of the original three films kept waiting for George Lucas to go back and film the three previous chapters in the story. We all wanted to know how Darth Vader came to be and how the Clone Wars played out. Then the films came out and were a huge disappointment. In the end, we were better off not knowing. Darth Vader was just a bad ass in an awesome costume who choked people for fun. That should have been enough for all of us.

In fact, I’ll probably catch a lot of flak for saying this, but even the original Star Wars film isn’t as good as The Empire Strikes Back. Sure, Star Wars is a great film and it has a lot of memorable scenes, but watching Luke pout during dinner because Uncle Owen won’t let him leave the farm is hardly as riveting as watching Lando Calrissian betray Han Solo in Cloud City. I know that a lot of Luke’s backstory was important in setting up the three films, but it still seems like we could have gotten from point A to point B a bit quicker.

I mentioned both Blade and Die Hard in the opening. Both are fantastic action movies and both do a great job of telling a story without dwelling on the past. Blade has one of the greatest opening scenes in any action movie I’ve ever seen. Watching Wesley Snipes take on a room full of vampires in a nightclub tells us more about the character than two hours worth of pointless backstory ever could. And the limo ride with Argyle gives us more than enough information about John McClane and Holly Gennero. By the time John arrives at Nakatomi Plaza, we have all the information we need to enjoy his epic battle with Hans.

So I say we ease up on movies entirely devoted to backstory. I think a little character history goes a long way. Focus on telling me a good story and only give me the background information I need to enjoy that story. I don’t want to feel like I paid $10 to watch a film that is simply setting me up for a far superior sequel.

So get those snakes on the plane as quickly as possible. Have Batman suit up or Destro don his mask within the first 10 minutes of the film. And, for the love of god, stop casting Channing Tatum in lead roles. Seriously, that guy sucks.

Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at

  1. Bill August 12, 2009
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  3. Thor August 13, 2009
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  5. Milhouse44 August 13, 2009

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