Origin stories aren't reserved for superheroes, as "Joker" made clear. But the mob drama occupies a peculiar niche, with "The Many Saints of Newark" following "The Godfather Part II" in charting the roots of a crime kingpin, as well as a privileged son who, despite nobler aspirations for him, goes into the bloody family business.
"Many Saints" represents an interesting exercise, not only following up the landmark TV series "The Sopranos" with a movie prequel but doing so 14 years after the character of Tony Soprano (the late great James Gandolfini) signed off, leaving behind endless debate about what happened at the end.
Yet in terms of who wore it better, watching "Many Saints" merely heightens an appreciation of all that the "Godfather" sequel represented then, and remains now. Not only did the film go back to reveal how Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) became the Godfather, but it explored the moral decay of his son Michael (Al Pacino), the war hero who turned out to be the best suited temperamentally to replace his father, despite dad's hopes that Michael would escape that life.
"I never wanted this for you," the elder Vito tells him in the first movie, but by then, the die has been cast.
Despite the similarities -- and a billboard that coyly asks "Who Made Tony Soprano" -- "Many Saints of Newark" runs along several parallel tracks. The most prominent arc involves Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the uncle to whom Tony looked up, who would play an oversized role in his life during these formative years.
That actually leaves Tony as something of an afterthought for much of the movie, with the connection to the original heightened by the casting of Gandolfini's son, Michael, in that role.
Practically speaking, there's no mystery why studios would be interested in digging into the past of popular franchises, which often represents a more efficient way of tapping into presold titles without needing to go pay the talent a fortune to reprise their roles. As a bonus, HBO is pushing "The Sopranos" across its networks and streaming platforms, maximizing the bada-bang for its bucks.
Still, there's also something particularly resonant about seeing the makings of a monster, especially when the route from a more mundane existence to a life of crime and murder offered exit ramps along the way.
Like Michael, Tony was seen as having the potential to pursue bigger and better (or at least less dangerous) endeavors, before descending -- rung by rung -- into the life he would later refer to as "This thing of ours." And "The Godfather Part II" illustrates how Vito transformed from humble immigrant to Mafia titan, doing his own dirty work before there were soldiers to dispatch making "offers" that can't be refused.
Inevitably, these movies have a way of romanticizing their subjects, while making clear that their work comes at a perilous cost. In Michael Corleone's case, that included a desire to go legitimate summed up by the most memorable (and often quoted) line from the third movie, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
For anyone puzzled as to why "The Sopranos" would be back after such an extended absence in this altered form, there's the explanation. Because the Corleones and the Sopranos might represent figures from the past, but when it comes to this "thing" known as Hollywood, almost nothing with a shred of equity in it ever really dies.
"The Many Saints of Newark" premieres Oct. 1 in US theaters and on HBO Max, and it's being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, part of WarnerMedia. It's rated R.
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