My Back Pages: Oz and the Lure of Origins

Author: Liam Farrell '04

Liam Farrell, alumni editor

Despite middling reviews and an uneven execution, Oz The Great and Powerful has already become a bona fide hit and launched the development of a sequel.

Part of this is due to the serendipity of its release date. Between December’s Oscar bait and May’s kickoff of summer blockbuster season, there is often a wasteland of second-rate comedies and action films that the slightest bit of whimsy can shine through. When late winter cabin fever kicks in, are you going to take the kids to The Last Exorcism Part II or a candy-colored fable they are already familiar with?

There is a lot to support the idea that Hollywood and pop culture are becoming ever more repetitive and unimaginative, with seemingly every film cannibalizing already popular books or just remaking older films. Some critics pointed out a few years ago that Christopher Nolan’s Inception was partially striking because it didn’t have source material — it was actually an original movie.

But what Oz and its ilk prove is how much we can always fall in love with an origin story.

That’s because 1939’s The Wizard of Oz (its own sort of remake) is basically part of our society’s mythology, with Dorothy and the Tin Man standing in for Odysseus and Achilles. Why wouldn’t we be interested in a story that portends to illuminate how they, or at least the world they encountered, was made?

Which is why the choice of director for this latest Oz was so interesting: Sam Raimi, a man who made his bones directing the Evil Dead-trilogy but attained a new level of success with 2002’s Spider-Man and its sequels (his self-aware 2009 shlock-fest Drag Me to Hell also deserves to have regular rotation in midnight campus screenings around Halloween).

Much like the characters in Oz, superheroes are part of our mythological tapestry as well — seemingly invincible beings with tremendous powers but also a susceptibility to human flaws. Creating a story around the Wizard is not so different than one with Peter Parker, and if the box office results are any indication, people still love to see new takes or new narratives around characters they think they know.

Especially, it seems, if it deals with origins. There is a primal creative thrill in seeing someone with the audacity to try and reinvent the very basis of our mythological characters, sometimes to the point where the origin story will be much more fascinating than subsequent adventures. It’s no accident that the first Iron Man was far superior to its sequel, and the coming Iron Man 3 appears to be more focused on a villain making the hero re-examine his entire identity rather than just save the world. And when Nolan’s Batman trilogy was completed, the enduring conversation was far more about the potential for a new hero to arise from Gotham’s ashes than what the film said about greed.

The new Oz is strong in some aspects. Anyone who has watched Evil Dead or Army of Darkness will recognize some debatably unconscious homages (my brain inserted the latter’s classic “Honey, you got real ugly” line at one point), as well as Raimi’s wellspring for extreme close-ups, warp-speed camera movement and creepy set pieces. But its slightly 21st century dialogue and humor, and the use of creakily obvious computer effects, is debilitating to the world crafted so delicately on screen nearly 75 years ago.

We are left watching, mostly, because we want to see how Raimi creates the characters we think we already know, and if there are any surprises along the way. (As it turns out, maybe a minor one or two. The attempted pathos with the Wicked Witch was pretty poorly developed for a movie that runs 130 minutes.)

Television is not immune, either. On the darker side of our culture’s imaginings, this month sees the unveiling of Bates Motel, a re-imagining of the titular Psycho character, and Hannibal, which builds on the Lector canon. You can bet if those succeed, there will be similar projects in the works.

True, for every Avengers there will be a Green Lantern, but as we roll our eyes at more supposed unoriginality coming out of California, it’s worth keeping in mind they are still building off a culture’s touchstones. We not only love our heroes, we love knowing what they once were.

Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine. Email him at