To close Superhero September, here’s my take on superhero origins, primarily from comic books. Origins are the foundation on which great comic book characters are built. Events in the origin often don’t just give characters powers or abilities, but also build up all the reasons for becoming a hero…versus just becoming some jerk running amok with power.
Keep in mind by “best,” I mean, of course, my opinions plus explanations for the choices.
The story of Superman is probably the most well known in comic-dom. Baby Kal-El is sent from his home planet of Krypton before its destruction. He’s found by an old couple in Smallville, Kansas who raise him like he’s their own child. He soon grows into his powers due to absorbing yellow sunlight, as opposed to the red sunlight of his home world.
This origin makes for a fantastic orphan’s story. The difficulty of being so very different caused young Clark Kent to feel like an outcast. The kindness his adoptive parents showed him turned him into a hero that cares for people who are also essentially, aliens to him.
The reason this is at the bottom of the list is because Superman came into his powers through simply existing. He never truly knew what it was like to be a vulnerable human with limits. Variations on the story do show awkward struggles a young Clark and the Kent’s go through in raising him; these are interesting enough, but Superman is still a child destined for great things. In the original origin, he just seemed to become a hero because that seemed like the obvious thing to do.
9.) Dr. Strange
Truly an M.D., (not like some of those other heroes or villains who tack on the ‘Dr.’ title because it sounds cool), Dr. Strange practiced medicine until a fateful day when he and his wife were in a car accident. The cruel twist of fate was that he was the most talented surgeon in the city, and probably the only one who could have saved his wife’s life. Alas, he lost not only his wife, but control of his hands. So he seeks cures from all corners of the world, and one such cure is in ancient temple said to house magic.
Although the Ancient One–the master sorcerer at the temple cannot restore his hands–he sees something else in Stephen Strange and begins to teach him the secrets of the occult. So Dr. Strange trains, helps thwart an evil coup d’etat at the temple, and becomes the most skilled sorcerer in the world. What is interesting about Dr. Strange’s origin story isn’t so much the training, but the human longing he had to save his wife and the regret that turned him into a whole new man after.
The reason he makes the list is that he lost one life and gained a new one. His origin eventually gets lost in the new magical world that Dr. Strange steps into, and so the character does in some ways leave his origin behind, making it not quite as pertinent as the origin remains for other characters on this list.
8.) The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Not just turtles, but master martial artists who trained with a rat sensei for many years, before they took to the streets in their teenage years to fight crime and corruption…who the hell would think of this? Actually, their creators had been goofing around when originally drawing sketches that they wisely saw had original potential. The comic world had nothing similar to the turtles in the 80s and the ensuing popularity of the TV show, games, movies, toys, etc. easily attest to this originality.
They make the list because they are extremely unlikely a concept for superheroes. They also have a pretty interesting story. They come from a radioactive isotope/ooze that makes them not only bigger and more intelligent than a regular turtle, but human-like. Much of their history happened before they even mutated, when Splinter (their rat sensei) lived with a Ninjitsu master who was killed by a vengeful rival—the same man who’d become the Shredder. The Turtles end up seeking their own revenge on the Shredder, but there is more to their origin than revenge. In the many years that Splinter trains them, they develop a father/children relationship that carries on with them as heroes. They also develop deep brotherly love, and although they are four individual turtles, they are also fairly inseparable. These emotional connections make something absurd seem almost real, almost human.
Of course, the story of the turtles has been somewhat diluted with the different series, movies, even different ownership of the comic. Still, they do have a rather interesting emotional connection that continues to resonate in the ongoing storylines. They fall a little lower on the list because they share their story four-ways and lack some of the individualistic origins the other heroes on here possess.
For more than twenty years, Wolverine’s origins were shrouded in mystery. What people knew originally: Wolverine was an experimental weapon that didn’t quite turn out as planned. He had superpowers even before his origin—born a mutant with super-healing abilities. This healing factor made him appealing for lacing his skeleton with indestructible metal. The experiment was also designed to teach him to be completely savage, to rely on animalistic instincts and senses, and to fight viciously and savagely, which he did. Except, the man took over in spite of all the training and he did not want to be a killing machine. He called himself Logan and accepted an offer from Professor Xavier to join the X-Men.
For years, Logan struggled to control his violent tendencies and to adapt to being around others. Wolverine’s life was often defined by the violent events of the Weapon X experiments. Throughout the 80s and 90s, bits and pieces of his life before the X-Men were revealed to him, but nothing truly comprehensive actually emerged. Wolverine was always simply defined by events meant to unmake him a man, and make him into a killer. Perfect…and this is the origin story that makes #7 on this list.
In the early 2000s, however, some folks at Marvel decided to write about Wolverine from the time of his childhood. In his new origin story, creatively titled, ‘Origin,’ Wolverine is given the name of, sigh, James. He’s a sickly boy and illegitimate son of a beastly man. He has healing powers that apparently need time to develop. He has a rival in a half-brother who has similar powers. Oh, and he also loves some girl who ends up dying because of his fighting. This story is not terrible, but once it was out, it came to be considered standard-fare for the character. This second origin story took away the mystery that had originally surrounded Wolverine, and it also detracted from the character’s struggle to maintain his humanity because Origin showed him becoming fairly animalistic before Weapon X. Well, perhaps fans of his more mysterious origin days` can be like Logan and just forget the ‘Origin’ storyline ever existed.
Frank Castle witnessed his family being gunned down by the mafia. He snapped. Who wouldn’t? He turned all of his agony toward vengeance and sought out not only his family’s killers, but any criminal who he saw as so violent and dangerous, they didn’t deserve to live.
The Punisher’s origin puts him on this list because it is so very sadly close to reality when crime hurts innocent people. There are no bizarre or random circumstances that gift him with amazing powers and abilities. He is a man, though one who had extensive military training. As opposed to other heroes who witnessed family members dying, the Punisher wears his origin about his identity as he works as a vigilante a.k.a. psychopathic murderer. At least he only goes after criminals…mostly anyhow.
He holds an odd place in the Marvel Universe. He’s taken on enemies with powers, and he’s been at odds with superheroes. Depending on the times, the Punisher stories range from grim and dark to a little more cartoonish. Introducing such a raw character into the Marvel roster and the world of comics in general has made the Punisher a bit of a standout. Since the 80s, he’s even had a total of three live-action movies made about him. All of them can at least be considered decent movies, even the one that had Dolph Lundren playing Frank Castle.
I admit, I wish I had more female characters on my list. Elektra, Big Barda, Ms. Marvel, and others came close, but frankly, male characters dominate the comic-book world and often get much more attention than woman. There are way too many female knockoffs of male characters, and though characters based in mythology can be cool, I find the overall creativity a little lazy, so no Amazonians make this list either.
Rogue is a mutant. Her powers emerged during adolescence and emerged fairly violently when she first kissed a boy. Skin to skin contact allows her to sap strengths and thoughts from others, though at a cost. The boy she kissed went into a coma. Rogue fled her family and the area, fearing she’d be lynched. Her abilities brought her to the attention of the villain Mystique, who saw Rogue’s power as an ace up the sleeve when dealing with superheroes. On one mission, Rogue encountered the Avenger’s Ms. Marvel. Instructed by Mystique to absorb her power and turn the tide of battle, Rogue held on too long and permanently stole Ms. Marvel’s superpowers, also putting Ms. Marvel in a coma and sidelining the character from the Marvel Universe for a while. Rogue gained super strength, near-invulnerability, and the ability to fly. She fought against the X-Men, Avengers, and even sided with Magneto before she had enough of being used as a villain and wanted to repent. To do this, she sought out Professor X and asked to join the X-Men.
Rogue holds an odd status by being a former villain whose conscious turned her into a hero. Her arc from villain to hero had time to play out in the comics, and so never seemed like a contrived move. The events that led to her powers are just as complex as the story-arc that led to her wishing to become a superhero. Her original powers also remain a part of her existence, and could potentially make her absurdly more powerful, though she also risks losing her own mind in doing so, and resists even the urge to even temporarily steal powers. Her past offenses against others always hangs heavy on her and her origin story is therefore the conscience that keeps her on a heroic path.
Near the end of WWII, occultist Nazis tried to summon a demon to help turn the tide of the war. When Grigori Rasputin opened the door to another dark realm, the first demon to come through was a tiny child. Allied forces interrupted the ceremony and the demon-child was abandoned by the Nazis. Since the small devilish creature acted friendly, a scholar helping the Allies decided to take it back to his research facility. Despite the fact that it was a demon, the man raised Hellboy like a son.
Hellboy was essentially a product of coincidence, of circumstances forcing him into a different existence than that which would have awaited him if he hadn’t left his realm for Earth. He is physiologically different: stronger than a human for one, he ages different, and his true father chopped his right hand off to replace it with a relic that also happens to be a key to opening the end of the world. Though he sounds like a pretty grim demon, Hellboy also wants to fit into the human world.
Thus far, his origin may sound as simple as that he was born different and brought to Earth from somewhere else (like Superman). But Hellboy is a character who can never truly escape his origin. Everything naturally about him is tied to a dark and evil world. He is an example that nurturing and loving a child can change even evil-destined creatures into finding humanity. Hellboy works as an investigator at the paranormal bureau where his father raised him. In this line of work, with the humanity his father taught him, he stays true to morals and behaves far more civil than many humans he encounters. He’s an unexpected hero, and because the origin is rich with story and not exactly what one might expect of a demon, Hellboy becomes a sympathetic, and even relatable character.
3.) Silver Surfer
Norrin Radd lived on the technologically advanced planet of Zenn-La. One day, sensors revealed an enormously powerful cosmic entity on its way to “eat,” the planet. The people of Zenn-La had long ago vanquished a need for discovery or weaponry, so lacked means of escaping or fighting the threat. Norrin Radd was an oddity on his planet—desiring to learn and experience new things that the rest of his people didn’t. When the planet’s destruction seemed nigh, he mostly wanted to save the life of the woman he loved. He found the only working spaceship in a museum. He flew this to meet with one of the most powerful beings in the universe. Galactus listened and when Radd proposed a radical idea, Gaalactus actually accepted a proposal to turn Radd into a servant who could find planets full of life energy, either uninhabited, or forewarning the occupants to flee. Galactus turned Radd into the Silver Surfer and gave him a tiny fraction of his “power cosmic.”
In saving his planet, Norrin Radd agreed to never return to it. Such sacrifice certainly deserves credit, and self-sacrificing all one’s man desire to serve a greater good makes for a great story. The origin was also fairly unique in the 60s in that the superhero storyline didn’t take place on Earth. The Silver Surfer’s origin did not necessarily end with saving his own planet. Actually, the first time the Surfer appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four, he heralded Galactus’s coming by telling the people of Earth to flee. When this wasn’t an option, he watched as some of the greatest heroes on the planet were helpless against his master. As the Surfer watched the Fantastic Four fight despite the futility of battle, something stirred inside him and he joined the fight, rebelling against his master’s monstrous hunger and near infinite power. He helped turn the tide against Galactus, and for his defiance, was punished by his master and imprisoned on Earth for many years to come.
The Silver Surfer’s origin is fairly grand in scale, and is unique in that it’s forged by total empathy. He thought of Shala-Bal and the people on his planet when offering Galactus servitude. He thought of the heroes and people of Earth when joining in the fight to save it. On both occasions, he sacrificed some of his own desires to save lives. The Silver Surfer is extremely powerful, though he’s also humble, and his great strength is multiplied by his strength of character that made him a hero even before he had powers.
A boy watches his parents get murdered by a mugger. This boy becomes consumed by this event. His growth is shaped by wanting revenge not necessarily on the mugger who shot his parents, but on the entire world of criminals. Batman’s origin is pretty famous for good reason. It’s terrific. From the moment Bruce Wayne watched his parent’s die, he was no longer a boy, or one might even say, no longer was he even Bruce Wayne.
Batman’s origin is so emotionally painful that the heroic side seems nearly plausible. Even if only imagining similar trauma to Bruce’s, most people can understand how a boy could be fueled to spend his entire youth training in order to pursue an agenda of revenge. Batman is in perfect shape, is as agile as a gymnast, and has mastered many fighting styles. He’s educated in fields ranging from chemistry to psychology, all which help justify the, ‘world’s greatest detective’ tagline. He’s also studied how to blend in with shadows and sneak up on opponents. One of the reasons he can contend even with super-powered beings is that he’s also an amazing strategist.
The fact that he simply worked his ass off to become Batman is what makes the character’s origin story wonderful. No coincidental scientific accidents, birthrights, or freak events contribute to his heroic origin. His origin story has been redone countless times in Batman movies, TV shows, even different variations of the comic. There’s never been reason to diverge far from the trauma that turns the boy into something so very different from the man Bruce Wayne might have been if his parents were never mugged.
The one flaw of small of Batman’s story that I feel detracts from overall emotional resonation is that Batman is rich. Bruce Wayne is loaded. The boy comes into his parent’s fortune and funds his elite training and education that allow him to later become Batman. This in many ways helps make the origin more believable, but it also makes him less relatable. See, if Bruce wasn’t rich, he probably would have ended up an orphan, and he probably would have led a rough life. Whether he’d have become a hero then, is kind of up in the air. Most likely, yes, he would have wanted to do something worthwhile, but the rich factor just seems like a lynch pin in the story that once removed, allows some of his origin to fall apart. I’m not saying the origin isn’t great, because I think it is. I just think there is one origin story slightly more amazing.
Peter Parker gains his powers when attending a scientific demonstration where a radioactive spider bites him. His body undergoes mutations that allow him to do things far beyond human. He can leap far and high, can cling to walls, and depending on the story, spin webs either from his wrists, or from web shooters of his own design. His spider-sense warns him of danger, he’s insanely agile, and he’s strong enough to toss cars around. His combination of power and speed make him a powerful match for villains who might on first glance, seem more powerful than him. He’s also quite witty, and as well as being the original wisecracking hero (No, it wasn’t Deadpool), Spider-Man can often think his way through overwhelming odds. Yet, although Spider-Man gains his power through what seems a fluke event, the circumstances that lead to this event, and especially what comes after, is where things get more interesting.
Peter Parker is in high school when he gains his powers. He is nerdy. This is not today’s trendy nerdy where people with tech knowledge are admired. Originally, this is the 60s kind of nerd where jocks rough the shit out of him, and girls mock him. Peter Parker is a complete outcast, and not only that, his parents died when he was a kid. He has his old Uncle Ben and frail Aunt May who look after him, but he is a really lonely kid. In fact, the first panel of the first Spider-Man comic shows a forlorn Peter looking at his classmates as they speak about how lame he is. Loneliness turns to hobby, and he finds solace in science. One day, he goes to a scientific demonstration and even there, feels invisible. No one even notices him getting bitten by a spider that had gotten zapped by radioactive rays. So here is where the fluke circumstances seem to align perfectly. Were Peter not just a nerdy overlooked kid, someone probably would have gotten him medical help after he’d been bitten. Were he a popular noticeable person, scientists would have probably monitored his situation. As far as the choice for Peter Parker to become Spider-Man, he’s a great character choice, but that nerdy lonely Peter at first also had zero interest in becoming a hero.
Instead of running out to fight crime with newfound powers, Peter wants to exploit them to make money and to seek fame and the attention lacking in his life. He makes the Spider-Man costume so he can both wrestle, and make an appearances on TV, all without giving away what he sees as his boring identity. Basically, he does what most people would do, and especially what a person who has always longed for friends might. Then one night while leaving a TV studio, he spots a security guard chasing a thief. Spider-Man watches the thief pass him and escape. When the guard asks why he didn’t help when he easily could have, Spider-Man’s response is that he watches out for “number one” these days. A few days later, when he’s returning home, Peter sees police cars and learns that his Aunt and Uncle’s house was broken into. His uncle confronted the intruder and was killed.
A distraught Parker dons his costume to go catch the thief. Only when Spider-Man knocks the burglar out, does he see it was the very same thief that he let pass in the TV studio. Had he stopped the thief then, his uncle would not have been murdered. From that moment on, Peter Parker becomes a hero, and knows he has to use his powers for good. Even years later in the comic, if ever Peter questions his desire to be Spider-Man, whenever he feels too tired to go on searching for a villain, whenever he needs strength to overcome overwhelming odds, he thinks back to the moment when he once didn’t do enough.
What separates Spider-Man from many other heroes is that he didn’t necessarily want to be a hero, but the events of his origin story convince him not only to become one, but to give precedent to Spider-Man over the things that Peter Parker wants. He is by no means the most powerful superhero on this list, but he could be said to have the most compassion. Spider-Man seems to see everyone who’s in danger, as someone similar to his Uncle Ben. Everything about his strength goes back to the beginning for him, and that’s why Spider-Man has the greatest origin story. He did not just become a hero, did not work or train or desire to be one, but inexorable events of his origin turned him into a hero. Not only is his uncle’s death his biggest mistake, but it also often becomes Spider-Man’s greatest strength.