Why do we like origin stories so much? Film critic Adam Markovitz says it's because they "show the exact moment when a normal guy goes from being just like us to being somehow better, faster stronger,” and I think he might have something there. From radioactive spiders, to watching your parents get shot, there are a lot of ways to become a superhero. Some involve less trauma than others, but they all lead to regular people rising above the rest of us so they can live a life spending their nights catching bad guys.
The origin of a superhero is arguably the most important piece of their mythos, giving the audience a reason to root for their struggle. Plus, comic writers have come up with some pretty darn creative ways to show how their heroes came to be. Read on for 41 powerful facts about superhero origin stories.
41. Bred by Necessity
Marvel had a golden age during World War II, with characters such as Captain America fighting Nazis and using real political enemies for their stories. The company began to flounder afterwards and was in dire straits by the 1960s. Publisher Martin Goodman tasked the head of the comics division, his nephew, to make a new superhero team, like the Justice League, and his nephew created The Fantastic Four. The nephew was a guy called Stan Lee, the man who would take Marvel to never before seen heights.
Barry Allen became The Flash after being struck by a bolt of lightning while working in the police laboratory. The lightning strike also leads to Barry being bathed in chemicals. Thanks to comic book pseudoscience, he becomes lightning fast, instead of a corpse. A 1988 comic also adds some more backstory, revealing that Barry is the lightning bolt that gave himself powers. Long story short, Barry accidentally travelled back in time and gave himself powers, a la Harry Potter in Prisoner of Azkaban.
39. Sure, Let’s Go With That
Ever heard of Rory Regan, AKA Ragman? Basically, his dad was murdered by some thieves who hid their stolen loot in his dad’s shop. The thieves got creative and used electrical wires to torture Rory’s dad (and his friends) for the exact location of their goods. Rory tries to stop them but ends up getting electrocuted. He’s knocked unconscious and when he awakes, his dad and his dad’s friends are dead. Rory grabs a costume his dad made, one made of sewn-together rags, and then hunts for his dad’s murderers.
Also, the wire that electrocuted him allowed him to absorb all the skills of the other people it killed—his dad and his friends, who happened to be a boxer, an acrobat and a bodybuilder. It's a little more complicated than a radioactive spider bite, but hey, not everything can be so simple. A revamped origin story has Rory come across the ragman suit in a Israeli holy temple, where the suit then latches onto him. Honestly? I think that second origin actually makes more sense.
38. Pick One
In the original comics, Krypton blew up due to the ignorance and/or greed of Kryptonians: They either created the issue or ignored signs that the planet was going to blow. However, some comics or related material like Krypton also have Brainiac as the culprit for the planet’s end. New 2018 revamps also have the alien conqueror, Rogol Zaar to blame. So you can take your pick of reasons Superman's parent's had to ship him off to Earth.
37. The Greatest Showmen
The first Robin, Dick Grayson, debuted in 1940. He, along with his parents, were circus acrobats known as The Flying Graysons. Business is going pretty well until a pesky gang comes knocking, looking for protection money. One thing leads to another, and Grayson becomes an orphan, just like Bruce Wayne. Wayne sees a kindred spirit and takes the boy in, leading to the greatest duo in comics history.
As a whole, the X-Men’s powers are attributed to rapid leaps in human evolution. Stan Lee came up with the idea after exhausting some other ones, e.g. gamma rays and radioactive animal bites. Lee thought of real life mutations (albeit not as extreme) like “frogs with five legs” and decided that if he labeled his characters as mutants, “Nobody can argue with that!”
Billy Batson is imbued with mystical power by the wizard Shazam, after accidentally boarding a magical subway car and stumbling across Shazam’s lair (yes, really). Billy is able to call on Shazam to gain his powers. To be exact, Batson gets:
S for Solomon’s Wisdom
H for Hercules’ strength
A for Atlas’ stamina
Z for Zeus’ power
A for Achilles’ courage
M for Mercury’s speed
Barry Allen’s nemesis, The Reverse Flash, is to blame (in most comics) for the death of Barry’s mom. The Reverse Flash goes back in time with the intention of ruining Barry’s life, killing his mom and framing his dad for the murder. The Reverse Flash makes sure to do this before Allen reaches puberty.
Remy Lebeau, AKA Gambit’s red eyes were present at birth, leading his parents to abandon him. He was then stolen from the hospital by the New Orleans’ Thieves Guild, who dubbed him “le diable blanc,” the white devil.
32. Hello Again
The second robin, Jason Todd, had big shoes to fill. He had an attitude that rubbed some readers the wrong way and hate mail started pouring in. Eventually, the comics gave a 1-900 number that would allow readers to vote on whether or not Todd would be killed by the joker. The people got their wish, and Joker beat Jason Todd up with a crowbar, before blowing up the warehouse in which he was keeping Todd (and Todd’s mom) captive.
Todd came back thanks to an alternate version of Superman literally punching reality so hard that it caused him to return to life—comics, am I right?
Anyway, Todd returned pretty messed up in the head, but Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia found him and gave him a dip in the Lazarus Pit. Todd’s memories were restored and he became the villain, then anti-hero known as The Red Hood.
31. Up to Date
Jon Favreau's Iron Man showed Tony Stark getting captured in the Middle East, building off the military tensions of the day. The comics did the same with the Cold War era, planting Stark in Vietnam. It was a communist land mine that led to Stark’s injuries and paved the way to building his first suit of armor.
30. It’s the Tail Right?
Nightcrawler co-creator Dave Cockrum was originally going to take his character down a different route. He envisioned Nightcrawler as an alien, not a mutant. His name would be Baalshazzar, and he would be more of an anti-hero with “the attitudes and personality of a really rotten villain type" and a seriously dark sense of humor. Writers Len Wein and Chris Claremont came to the rescue and salvaged the idea.
29. Red Scare
The Fantastic Four got their powers when they were exposed to cosmic rays from space. Why were they in space? To try to beat the commies (as actually stated by Sue Storm). It probably isn’t a coincidence that the Soviets were able to put a man into orbit, before the US, earlier in the team's first year of publication. The Cold War as a whole inspired a wave of heroes whose origins were tied to scientific innovations that were on everyone's mind at the time, ie. nuclear or space accidents.
Kate Kane, one of the women to hold the Batwoman title, was a member of the US military prior to her crime-fighting days. She was kicked out of the military due to the real-life, controversial Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Rumors arose that Kane was lesbian, and she made her exit.
27. No Good Deed…
Most people know that Bruce Banner got his other, madder, greener half due to gamma ray radiation. The cruel part of his origin story is that it could have been avoided if a teenager didn’t wander onto the site where the rays were being tested. Being a good guy, Banner runs off to save the kid. It also didn’t help that Banner’s assistant was a Soviet spy who failed to cancel the test when Banner ran into danger, because he wanted to sabotage it.
26. Black as Night
In most of Daredevil’s origin stories, his relationship with his father is a bright spot in a tragic past. However, Frank Miller’s classic series The Man Without Fear gives Matt Murdock his darkest origin yet, making him a victim of child abuse and even adding accidental manslaughter to his already traumatic early years.
25. Good For The Eyes
Image Comic’s hero the Flaming Carrot is a testament to creativity.
After being dared to read 5,000 comics in a row, an unnamed man dawns a carrot mask and begins fighting crime. His weapons include sneezing powder and silly putty, so think twice the next time you decide to mug someone, because anyone could just go and do that at any time.
24. Dark Superman
Mark Grayson, AKA Invincible, was half-Viltrumite, gifted with flight and superhuman strength. His dad, Nolan, originally tells him the Viltrumites were a noble people. However, it turns out Viltrumites were pretty big on survival of the fittest. They conquered other races and killed off their weaker members in a bloody period known as The Purge (real original).
Trying to conquer the universe left their armies thin, so Nolan was sent to Earth as a vanguard. Nolan’s task was a 500-year mission (Viltrumites age a lot slower) to collect intel and weaken Earth’s defenses. When Mark learns the truth, a bloody fight between he and his dad ensues.
23. Up and…
The issue with some origin stories is that they rely on science, but the writers get in over their heads. Ray Palmer was working on a device to shrink things, and was fortunate enough to stumble on the final ingredient needed to make his invention work: A piece of a white dwarf star that fell to earth. Although it should have been hot and heavy, Palmer easily picked it up with his bare hands, and integrated it into his device. Say hello to The Atom.
22. Revisionist History
Spider-Man has one of the most popular origin stories of any hero, and his creation is inseparable from his uncle's iconic phrase “with great power comes great responsibility.” These words are now attributed to Uncle Ben, but they were actually just a caption in the original 1962 comic, not voiced by a specific character. It wasn’t until 1972 that the line was retconned as an Uncle Ben quote.
21. Deja Vu
Remember how Barry Allen became the Flash via lightning? So one day he is giving Wally West, his girlfriend’s nephew, a tour of his lab. Guess what happens?
West gets hit by lightning and is exposed to the same chemicals to become Kid Flash. That’s just lazy writing.
20. Has A Ring To It
Green Arrow and his sidekick, Speedy, didn’t bother picking their own hero names. In a bizarre twist of fate, they both ended up on a island called Los Mesa. Roy Harper, AKA Speedy, was there because his plane crashed on the island. Roy’s Native American servant (different time) Quoag, taught him how to use the bow and arrow and live off the land.
Meanwhile, Oliver Queen, AKA Green Arrow, was on Los Mesa because he was looking for Native American artifacts. Some criminals followed Queen to the island, hoping to cash in on his findings. Quoag, Harper and Queen all fought the criminals off. Quoag died, but that gets brushed off pretty quick. Since the criminals referred to Harper as “Speedy” and Queen as “Mr. Green Arrow” the names stuck, and the two decided to keep fighting crime together.
Sometimes the defining part of a hero’s mythos is developed after the hero debuts. Batman’s origin story wasn’t revealed until the comic’s seventh issue.
18. Daddy Issues
If you’ve seen Wonder Woman, then you probably caught the line about the heroine being sculpted from clay by her mother. This is the origin story as told in the original 1941 comics. The film reveals that Diana is actually the daughter of Hades, sculpted by the God of Death and her mother, Hippolyta. Some comics and related media also follow this origin.
The Blue Beetle is another example of a “legacy character:” One where the mantle or title is passed down from one person to the next e.g. multiple Robins, multiple Flashes. The Blue Beetle title was relaunched in the mid 2000s, and focused on a third Blue Beetle named Jamie Reyes. The third Blue Beetle got his powers from an alien scarab, like the first two did, when he found it. However, the scarab latched onto Reyes in the most literal away, attaching itself to his spine. The alien scarab grants him blue armour he can retract at will, as well as flight and enhanced strength.
16. Side Effects May Include…
While traveling with his parents in Upper Lamumba (a fictional African country) Garfield Logan contracts a rare disease. His parents were both geneticists and believed only animals could survive the illness. His dad, Logan, then injected Garfield with an experimental serum that was meant to isolate the genes shared by humans and animals. The serum saved Logan, but also gave him green skin and the ability to change into animals. Beast Boy’s powers manifested for the first time when he turned into a mongoose to save his mom from a black mamba.
15. Superheroes Against Drunk Flying
The Rocketeer, as the name might suggest, had a jetpack that allowed him to fly. Cliff Secord was a stunt pilot who discovered an experimental jetpack in his hangar. The pack was a gift from thieves who hid it there before they got arrested. Secord’s experiments with the rocket led him to skip his next flying job, and a drunk pilot filled in. When Secord got wind of this and realized his inebriated replacement could die, he put the pack on and flew into action to save his life.
James O’Barr created The Crow as an outlet for dealing with his girlfriend’s death by a drunk driver. The story reflects his mood perfectly, introducing us to Eric. Eric is shot in the head by thugs but is left conscious long enough to watch the thugs beat and murder his fiancée. Eric is later resurrected by the crow, which is a spirit guide in some mythologies, and uses this second chance to hunt down each of the thugs.
Psychologist Robin Rosenberg, groups superhero origin stories into three general categories: The first is trauma, such as the death of Batman’s. The second is destiny, eg. “Chosen One” stories, like Thor, the Prince of Asgard. The third is “sheer chance,” such as Spider-Man’s guilt trip over letting Uncle Ben’s killer go.
12. Got Myself A Gun
The Punisher’s first comic book appearance was in 1974, where he served as a Spider-Man villain. Spidey was framed for the murder of Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) and The Punisher wanted to do what he does best. Frank Castle’s backstory, involving losing his family in a senseless shooting, was created a year later. In the backstory, Frank and his family accidentally come across a mob hit in Central Park (why would someone do a hit there?). The mob isn’t big on witnesses so they kill the Castles on sight, but Frank survives the shooting. Castle becomes The Punisher because he believes that corrupt cops are protecting the mob, so the only way to get justice is to claim it himself.
11. Double Cross
So you’re a CIA operative, and you get betrayed by your best friend on a mission. You get sent to Hell, but make a deal with the devil to come back. You come back and find your best friend is married to the woman you loved, and has a kid with her. You have awesome powers but you’re also a deformed demon. Such is the life of Todd McFarlane's Spawn.
10. Good Boy
Rocket Raccoon fell into some bad company early in life. His owner was mentally ill and was carted off to “Halfworld,” a planetary prison. The administrators experimented on all the inmates’ pets, giving them speech so that they could perform tasks for their owners. Rocket was eventually appointed sheriff and makes his way off the planet. And no, he was not from earth. Apparently other planets have raccoons too.
9. Who Watches the Watchmen?
DC’s latest comic relaunch, Rebirth, which features some new characters, origin stories etc. is Doctor Manhattan’s fault. The comics have not given details yet, but it has been confirmed that the big blue man from Alan Moore's The Watchmen is at the root of the issue.
8. Where’d You Get The Whip?
In Frank Miller’s Year One, Catwoman’s backstory includes a colorful turn as a S&M practising prostitute. The black tights actually make a lot more sense now.
7. The R Word
Some writers view sexual assault as a go-to motif for making a female character’s backstory tragic, calling it a “lazy, offensive trope.” Sexual assault has featured in the origins or the formative crime-fighting years of Jessica Jones, Huntress, Batgirl, Batwoman and Black Cat.
6. Short and Sweet
Superman is another hero with an iconic origin story, and writer Grant Morrison gained praise for being able to sum it up in eight words in his All-Star Superman: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.” Although some films might overdo the retelling, the source material shows that brevity can be just as appealing.
Prior to the whole adamantium thing, Wolverine was born James Howlett in 19th century Canada. His parents were plantation owners John and Elizabeth Howlett. Thomas Logan is a worker on the plantation who is implied to have had an affair with Elizabeth at some point. When James is a teen, Logan kills John Howlett in front of him. The event marks the first time James’s claws come out, and he uses them to kill Thomas. A tragic origin made all the more disturbing knowing that Wolverine would end up going as Logan for most of his life.
4. Follow in Daddy’s Footsteps
Cassandra Cain was raised to be the perfect assassin. Her dad, David, raised her in isolation and avoided speaking around her. Body language became her mother tongue, as her dad intended. When Cassandra was eight, she accompanied David on a vacation to Macau. However, instead of spending time on the beach, she ripped out a Triad boss’s throat. Due to her body-reading abilities, she was traumatized by all the emotions she could see in the Triad boss as he died. She ran away but eventually prevented her dad from killing Commissioner Gordon. This caught Batman’s attention and she became a member of the Bat Family, as Batgirl.
Some fans are pretty upset about the choice to cast Jason Momoa as Aquaman, and some of the haters can’t get past his hair color. In the comics, Arthur Curry was banished from Atlantis due to his blonde hair. But, like most Marvel and DC comics, there are different lines of comics, with different origins. In one of them, Arthur’s dad is sterile and a wizard impregnates his mom through a dream (don’t think we’ll see this on the big screen). The King, Trevis, then knows the child isn’t his. Also, Trevis is wary of the Curse of Kodax, a curse named for a blonde tyrant who could communicate with sea life. He does what any paranoid dad would do and leaves his son to die on the reef. Fortunately, his son is raised by dolphins and then later found by a human, who gives him the name Arthur. Just think, how would that story make any sense with Jason Momoa as the character?!?
2. Meant To Be
The new series, The Gift gives an alternate origin story for Batman. In this storyline, the time traveling superhero Booster Gold goes back in time to prevent the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This leads to an alternate timeline where Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman. Meanwhile Dick Grayson (Robin) becomes a violent vigilante and Ra’s al Ghul gets his hands on a lot more power.
Booster realizes the damage he’s done and tells the alternate Bruce about the regular timeline. This only leads to an attempted meeting between Bruce and Catwoman (who is a serial killer in this world), where Catwoman kills Bruce’s parents.
Booster convinces Bruce to go back to the night his parents were supposed to die. Bruce tries to stop the murder. When another version of Booster Gold shows up (the one that stopped the fateful shooting), Bruce tries to shoot him and it’s the sound of these gunshots that leads Bruce’s parents to take a shortcut through the alley where they originally died.
Can’t escape fate.
In the Flashpoint Paradox, Barry Allen travels to an alternate universe where Thomas Wayne, Bruce's father, is Batman. In this universe, it was Bruce who was killed by a mugger. His two parents react very differently to the trauma of seeing their son die—Thomas becomes the Caped Crusader, while Martha Wayne becomes The Joker.