Anghus Houvouras on ‘Cin-Cest’, or how geek films keep it in the family…
I was watching the latest trailer for How to Train your Dragon 2, a sequel to a movie I quite enjoyed. While pouring over the gorgeous looking teaser for the film, a major plot point was revealed. Technically its not really a spoiler since it’s being used in the marketing, however if you’re looking to go into the movie completely surprised, steer away as there are spoilers ahead.
The young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is facing a potential new villain who seems to have an almost magical connection to the many Dragons that populate this world. The Dragon Whisperer removes their menacing mask to reveal…. Hiccup’s Mother.
My eyes rolled, my mouth opened, and the sound that escaped was something like “Urrrrrrrrrrghhhhhhhhhhh” or the the kind of noises that would be produced if Taylor Swift was chewing on aluminum foil.
Geek movies are often creatively lazy. Plots are crafted for the sake of convenience. The idea of having two family members connected to increase the gravitas and keep everything tidy is hardly anything new. Darth Vader is Luke’s Father. Because the hero who saves a Galaxy Far, Far Away and the villain who helped enslave it have to be related. There’s a certain weight to the familial story element that has been around as long as the written word has been chiseled into stone tablets. While it’s nothing new, it does seem to become oddly overused when it comes to geek and franchise films.
The idea of using family in a film to connect all your loose ends is something I call Cin-Cest (Cinema + Incest). The act of using a family member of a character to incite an act or be pivotal to the resolution.
I was plagued with thoughts of Cin-Cest when I watched the trailer for the Amazing Spider-Man 2, a series that has been hammered by many for using the story of Peter’s father, Richard Parker, and connecting him to Oscorp. It’s the kind of seamless unity that comic book movies look for: plots that don’t tax the imagination or require any level of deep thought. Although for the sake of these films it makes a lot more sense since Oscorp has become the engine for all things super-powered in this version of the Spider-Man story.
The original Spider-Man films were hardly any more creative. Peter still got bit by the Spider and Norman Osborn was still the villain of the piece. The kind of weird connection that makes sense in comic books but feels awfully convenient in film. In the original comic series, artist and creator Steve Ditko wanted the identity of the Green Goblin to be somebody random. Just a guy with villainous intent who become
s hell bent on destroying Spider-Man. While Stan Lee wanted the identity to be Norman Osborn, the father of Peter’s best friend Harry. This was the philosophical debate that ended their working relationship and provides a real litmus test to fans of the medium. Do you prefer the random existence of evil or believe that everything is somehow interconnected?
The original Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man movies are such an interesting test of this theory, because the convenience of the Spider-Man/Goblin dynamic is so painfully thin. No matter how well done the story is put together, there is always something strange about having the villain of the piece be the father of your best friend. There are two people in the world who get super powers. One is Harry Osborns father. The other is Harry Osborns best friend. What are the odds? Vegas would have a fun time crunching those numbers.
In the Amazing Spider-Man films, Marc Webb seems to be making these connections seem slightly more plausible by connecting Peter and Harry’s parents as co-workers who were working on scientific experiments that have birthed all these genetic mutations, Spider-Man included. Sure, it’s Cin-Cest, but it makes a lot more sense to double down on the connections between Peter’s parents and Norman Osborn. It’s one of the few examples where engaging in more Cin-Cest seems to make more sense.
Off the top of my head, here’s a list of Cin-Cest examples in Geek Cinema:
– In Daredevil, the villain is the guy who killed Matt Murdock’s father.
– In Die Hard with a Vengeance, the villain is the brother of Hans Gruber.
– In Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze makes a deal with the devil for the soul of his Father.
– In Pirates of the Caribbean Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) has to save his father from the eternal damnation of Davy Jones locker.
– In Man of Steel Superman fights General Zod, the man who killed his Father.
– In Batman Joker turns out to be the shooter who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents and inspired the Dark Knight’s creation.
– In Batman Begins Ra’s Al Ghul’s actions are indirectly responsible for the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
– In The Dark Knight Rises the villain turns out to be Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of the man Batman let die in Batman Begins.
– In the rebooted Star Trek, the villain is responsible for the death of Kirk’s Father and Spock’s Mother.
– In The Lone Ranger, the masked hero is out to avenge his Brother.
The X-Men films provide some interesting Cin-Cest examples and how it impacts the overall narrative.
– In X-Men: First Class Magneto’s mother is no longer killed by the Nazi’s but by Sebastian Shaw, another mutant.
– In X-Men: First Class Mystique is now Charles Xavier’s adopted sister.
The changes to X-Men: First Class are interesting, because it’s another example of doubling down on the Cin-Cest. Magneto’s parents were killed in concentration camps by the Nazis fueling his hatred for humanity. Then, Matthew Vaughn decides to double down and add an extra layer making his murderer another mutant. Thematically, it’s a tragedy and takes so much away from the Magneto character. You understand his contempt for humanity. It makes a lot less sense when you make the killer another mutant and connect it directly to his mother’s death. Wasn’t Magneto’s tale far more tragic when he gets separated from his parents and you never know what happened to them? I certainly think so. Assigning a super powered killer and turning Magneto’s origin story into Bruce Wayne’s feels so lazy and convenient. Making Mystique and Charles Xavier have a family connection was odd. It certainly adds a lot of subtext to the first three X-Men films which sees them have almost no interaction at all.
I thought back to the first film when Xavier was out mind-searching for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants but couldn’t access them because of Magneto’s special helmet. Wouldn’t he have had an easier time finding his adopted Sister whose mind he had probed many times before. Or are we supposed to believe that the one line from Mystique in First Class when she says “You promised you’d never read my mind, Charles” means he kept his word even when the fate of the world is at risk. First Class was employing a lot of revisionist history.
Men in Black 3 is a fine example of Cin-Cest. In the first Men in Black you have Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) recruiting Agent J (Will Smith) who is a hard nosed NYC cop who shows a lot of promise. In the third film, they apply Cin-Cest and now all of a sudden Agent K met Agent J when he was a kid and… you guessed it… his Father was killed. Blurgh. The goal, of course, is to make everything feel pre-determined. Changing happenstance to destiny. To me, it’s kind of a creatively bankrupt pursuit.
The first Iron Man film had the basic family dealings. Tony Stark was trying to live up to his Father, but it wasn’t a daunting shadow that touched every aspect of the story. Instead it was just the normal trappings of a son trying to honor the legacy of his father. Iron Man 2 on the other hand had to work the Father character in posthumously and shoe-horn in a storyline that involves his deceased dad providing the solution to Tony’s life threatening illness.
It’s a difficult trend to buck since so many comic characters’ origin stories are molecularly bonded with family members. Almost every major iconic super hero has lost a Mom, Dad, or beloved family member as part of their origin story. It seems like you can’t be a popular super hero unless you’re a surly orphan.
Cin-Cest is a convenient method of storytelling. But let’s be real honest: it’s also remarkably lazy. And yes, I realize that many of these ties come directly from the comic books. Tying everything to family is the laziest go-to move in genre filmmaking. Cin-Cest is so rampant in geek cinema, it begins to feel insulting. It’s as if there is no random evil anywhere in the world. Everything is connected, and the world these fictional characters exist in is remarkably narrow. Last month I wrote a column about how I would prefer new Star Wars films that don’t feature anyone with the last name Skywalker, simply because I think the potential for creative storytelling is limited by using familiar family connections.
Personally, I’m with Steve Ditko. I wish more villains would be like the Joker: random personalities inspired by the crazy world around them, but not having direct ties to the main character on ancillary cast. It might be less tidy, but it certainly not lazy. Superhero films are often such redundant experiences. The real threat to their longevity will be the inability to tell a story that doesn’t exist outside the rigid structure all these films adhere to.
While Cin-Cest doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie for me, it is kind of odd how all these films tend to keep it in the family.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon.