Recently Marvel Studios made a definitive statement declaring that none of their future films will be origin stories, even for characters who are being introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time. It’s an interesting decision and one that we still have to wait and see how it will play out, but it’s not hard to see where they’re coming from. With the superhero boom that began with 2000’s X-Men we’ve seen dozens upon dozens of superhero origin stories played out on film, and while there are a handful of standouts, most are just frustrating retreads of the same plot beats, often falling victim to weaknesses of that particular story structure. If there’s one categorically negative thing I can say about Big Hero 6 – Walt Disney Animation Studios’ new superhero film – it’s that the decision to stick to the standard superhero origin structure makes the plot feel somewhat generic.
Thankfully, that’s more-or-less the only negative thing I have to say about Big Hero 6.
The film – loosely based on an ultra-obscure Marvel comics series – tells the story of Hiro Hamada, a 14-year old high school graduate and robotics prodigy who spends his spare time hustling adult opponents out of their money in illegal robot fights. His older brother, Tadashi, is a student at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and tries to convince Hiro to put his talent to use by enrolling in a robotics expo at the school. However, when Tadashi dies during an accident at the presentation, Hiro retreats away from the world with nothing but a nurse robot called Baymax, invented by Tadashi, to console him. When the two of them encounter a mysterious masked figure who may be responsible for Tadashi’s death, Hiro assembles a team of students from his brother’s school to track down the killer.
The early parts of the film are all incredibly compelling. Hiro showing off his prowess as both an inventor and a robot fighter is a joy, the relationship between Hiro and Tadashi is earnest and heartfelt, and Baymax is a character that inspires love-at-first-sight reactions. Between the beautiful environment of San Fransokyo and the unbridled energy of the college’s lab, there are moments of awe and wonder at every turn and in the midst of this beauty is a very strong, very honest story about coping with loss. If the whole movie had just been this personal story of Hiro and Baymax I would have been completely satisfied.
Since this is a superhero movie we do, however, have to get to the superhero stuff, and this is where the movie falters just a bit. The rest of the characters that round out the team are all a lot of fun: there’s Honey Lemon, the quirky, perhaps even eccentric inventor of a chemical that can alter the state of different types of matter; Wasabi, who is a major stickler for the rules and everything being in order, has developed supercharged plasma beams; and GoGo Tomago, who is the impatient and somewhat brash creator of high-speed electromagnetic wheels. The only one who occasionally grates is Fred, a comic book geek who is intrigued by science but is not a scientist himself. For the most part he works, but the film occasionally leans a bit to hard on him for forced comic relief.
The biggest problem here is a problem that I feel is shared somewhat with X-Men: First Class. Admittedly, I have a somewhat controversial stance on that film, but I feel like it rushes through the introductions of most of its supporting characters in order to get to silly plot stuff that isn’t terribly compelling. Similary, in Big Hero 6 we get a very brief section where the “assembling the team” beat gets to play before we dive straight into the mode of thwarting the villain’s plan. The time we do spend getting to know these characters is very good, I just wish the movie gave us more of that. I will say that I really like how the characters’ superpowers all come from technology that each of them has invented; it plays nicely with the film’s enthusiasm for science and the theme of living up to your potential. Again, all of these characters are characters that I like (which I can’t say for X-Men: First Class), but I’d like to spend a lot more time with them.
It’s the need to hit all the standard beats of a superhero origin story that hampers this movie, somewhat. The problem with superhero origin stories is that, often, the first half of the movie contains the stuff that’s exciting and fun to watch, while the second half tends to be a perfunctory battle with a villain who has thinly sketched motivations. It’s fun to see ordinary people forced to rise to the occasion and learn to use their new abilities, but when that’s over it’s just not as fun to see them defeat a sneering super villain tacked onto the end. The same is true here. Baymax attempting to help Hiro cope with the grief of losing his brother is powerful and compelling, meeting the rest of the team and seeing them learn how to use their abilities is fun, but I really didn’t have any kind of investment in the battles with the film’s villain. As far as action scenes go, they’re fun to watch, but like so many other superhero origin stories, it wasn’t terribly engaging on a narrative level.
Still, these are relatively minor complaints when stacked against all that the film does right. The heart of this movie, which is Hiro and Baymax, is virtually flawless. It’s a relationship that evokes memories of Hiccup and Toothless, of Elliot and E.T., of Hogarth and the Iron Giant. It’s moving and honest and beautiful in the same way that these other all-time-greats are. It’s a powerful story about how we deal with the loss of those who are the most important to us and about the drive we have to try and help those who are experiencing this kind of grief. It’s also reasonably solid a superhero origin movie, unfortunately that aspect never soars to the heights the rest of the movie does.
Over the last few years, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on an amazing winning streak, putting out joyous, heartfelt films featuring great characters and smart themes. Big Hero 6 is no exception to this. It’s a film that dares to compare itself to some of our most beloved classics and is not damaged by the comparison. It’s a movie that, while imperfect, is an absolute delight to experience. It’s rare for me to request a sequel to a Walt Disney Animation Studios film – a studio that has only ever released four sequels in the nearly 80 years they’ve been making feature films – but I very much hope that I get to spend more time in this world with these characters. For now, though, I am thoroughly satisfied with my care.