This month Man from UNCLE hit theaters, the latest in a long line of movie adaptations of sixties TV shows. And like so many of these attempts to capitalize on name recognition, the reborn Man from UNCLE chose to tell an origin story. But not just any origin story — a very specific origin story. The “enemies forced to work together” one. Why does this specific trope keep popping up and how can we stop it?
In these rejuvenated properties, there seem to be exactly two options: tongue in cheek or origin story. Both options represent a huge lack of confidence in the original stories. Like no one could unironically like Charlie’s Angels or be seriously engaged in Man from UNCLE without knowing how the characters met.
The obsession with origin stories is endemic to Hollywood right now, but at least in some (*cough* comics *cough*) franchises, it’s actually supported by canon. That has not and never has been the case with TV shows from the sixties. At best, you’d get backstory during the opening credits, either through song (“Here’s a story of a lovely lady”) or a monologue (“Space, the final frontier”).
Then the show would launch into the action. It was enough to show that people worked together well or had some friction, without starting from the very first meeting. The specifics of everyone’s first meeting was relegated to a nebulous past.
And this was fine! It was absolutely fine. If you wanted to know the deep past of these characters, well, that was what tie-in novels and fanfiction was for. And more than that, it is a much better use of your visual medium to have the relationships conveyed through dialogue and acting rather than explicitly telling us everything.
It’s even more baffling that movies seem to be so attached to the origin story. There’s far less time in a movie than a TV show, shouldn’t they want to cut to the action sooner? Especially when we have proof of concept — the original TV show — that an origin tale isn’t necessary?
And then, once they decide to tell an origin story, we get the phenomena where everyone settles on the same origin story. There are three main offenders to this: The Avengers (here’s where I specify that this is the 1998 movie based on the British spy-fi show and not the superhero team), Star Trek (2009), and Man from UNCLE.
All three of those movies chose to show how their various partners and teams ended up together. The Avengers took the iconic John Steed and Emma Peel — with their banter, ambiguous relationship, and extremely effective crime fighting partnership — and spent the whole movie with Steed investigating Peel. While also supposedly working with her. Because clones.
Star Trek put all its characters (except Spock) in Starfleet Academy. And then paraded an endless number of scenes where Kirk and Spock are at odds. Kirk cheating at the Kobayashi Maru, Spock literally throwing Kirk off the Enterprise, Kirk goading Spock into choking the life out of him … on and on and on.
Man from UNCLE was originally about two agents — who happened to be American and Soviet during the Cold War — at an international spy organization foiling evil attempts to take over the world. The movie was about an American agent and a Soviet agent hating the fuck out of each other and then being forced to work together, discovering true partnership while killing Nazis.
This particular plot point is a horrible origin story, for a number of reasons:
First of all, it removes one of the selling points of adapting an existing property. In all three cases, the relationships between the characters was huge part of the appeal. In The Avengers, Mrs. Peel and Steed were clearly close friends and maybe more, with a lot of playful banter. Star Trek had work colleagues and close friends. Man from UNCLE were friends with a snarky way of dealing with each other. It made them likable protagonists.
Second of all, it removes any drama from their disagreements. Part of the great thing about starting with characters who have an established good relationship means that serious disagreements have more weight. There’s bickering and there’s reasoned argument. And then there’s out and out fights. When Spock loses his shit, it should be a serious event. But, by the time he strangles Kirk in 2009, he’s already shown a marked inability to stay rational with this bro-idiot. He left him on an ice planet to nearly get eaten by snow monsters! A little strangling seems less insane by comparison, actually.
Third, it can just be too much. A lot of the time, focusing on all the interpersonal drama of the heroes means the villain gets the shortshrift. That was a fairly large problem with Star Trek, where a lot of the villain’s backstory was cut for time. And it means that we spend a lot of time watching our heroes fight each other instead of the bad guy.
Fourth, and most importantly, this trope turns our heroes into ineffective, unprofessional, useless hunks of flesh. In every single case, these are supposed to be the best of the best, the tops in their field. But they are incapable of exercising the bare modicum of professionalism when paired with this person. The point of this trope seems to be to inject personal conflict into the “opposites attract” idea. But, going back to the last point for a second, we end up watching our heroes defeat each other instead of the villain.
The other part is that we’re supposed to be watching professionals at the top of their game. All three of these movies had their best and brightest be assigned to work together and being so unprofessional that they cannot get along. You don’t really admire people who can’t get shit done because they hate the guy they’re paid with. Everyone’s had to work with someone they didn’t like, and the people who couldn’t get over it weren’t the awesome lone wolves. They were that asshole no one wanted to work with.
This was a giant problem with Man from UNCLE, which added a ton of unnecessary backstory and had the leads hate each other so much they could barely bring themselves to use the other’s name. It’s not great that they spent much of the movie calling each other derisive nicknames. We were constantly told how great they were, but they very nearly let Nazis get their hands on a nuclear bomb because they were sniping and working at cross purposes.
At the end of the day, these movies could stand to learn a bit more from the shows their supposedly based on. Be more episodic. Tell one story well. “Banter” isn’t code for “barely disguised loathing.” Embrace the joy of people who work in teams that they love.
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