Not everyone is born a hero. In the case of superheroes, it’s a singular moment that typically sets the individual on the path to becoming a force for good. That’s what is known as the origin story. Whether it’s an alien with unbelievable powers or a regular Earthling who’s just trying to do the best with their natural talents, each comic book protagonist has an experience that leads them on their heroic path. And boy, have there been a lot of these told for both classic and modern heroes.
The comic book medium has been going strong for more 75 years, and over those decades hundreds, if not thousands, of superheroes have been introduced. Typically these origin stories have been seen across a variety of media by both passionate comic book fans and people who are just looking for a good tale. And just because a hero is successful doesn’t mean that they got off to the best start with their origin stories, but when these tales are told right, they’re the stuff of legend. Here are some of the most famous superheroes of all time ranked by how great and epic their origin stories are.
10. The X-Men
Of course, each individual X-Men has their own unique stories, but together the team’s origin tale is a classic. As mutants, they were all born with their abilities rather than imbued with them by science, magic or aliens. Consequently, many of these people face mistrust and bigotry from the general population who view them as freaks of nature. However, despite their persecution, they still use their powers to protect the innocent. Brought together by Charles Xavier, the X-Men not only combat threats ranging from fanatical humans to fellow mutants, but their overall mission is to fight for the rights of their fellow mutants and usher in a world of acceptance and peace. So even though their overall story is based in a superhero world, it’s memorable because their goals are similar to what many of us want to achieve in real life.
Seen On Screen: In Bryan Singer’s initial X-Men foray, back in 2000.
9. The Flash (Barry Allen)
In the 1950s, DC Comics decided to relaunch several of their most successful superheroes from the 1940s as new individuals. The Flash was the first to receive this treatment, being reintroduced in 1956 as forensic scientist Barry Allen. While working late in his lab one night, he was struck by lightning, which subsequently knocked him into shelf full of chemicals. After waking up, he discovered he could run at superhuman speeds, and donning the red and yellow costume that’s become much more recognizable than his predecessor’s, Barry became the new Flash and built a quite a supporting cast. Visually it’s one of the best origins on this list, but it also has a distinct sci-fi feel to it that few DC hero origins had before it. Many non-comic book fans saw this origin told for the first time back in October on the CW series The Flash.
Seen On Screen: As mentioned, the best version of The Flash Can be seen each week on The CW.
8. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
Green Lantern was the second DC hero to be revitalized during the Silver Age of comic books. This time around, test pilot Hal Jordan inherited a special ring after it was bequeathed to him by a dying alien named Abin Sur who had crash-landed on Earth. Unlike the magical ring that the Golden Age Green Lantern wore, Hal Jordan’s ring was a product of science that allowed him to use his willpower to fly and make solid constructs with his mind. Inheriting Abin Sur’s legacy, Hal became the new Green Lantern of Sector 2814, and the first human to ever join the Green Lantern Corps. Like The Flash, it’s memorable for its sci-fi feel, but also to due to how this Green Lantern inherited his heroic legacy from a mysterious visitor (which would later be repeated with Kyle Rayner) whereas his predecessor Alan Scott just sort of stumbled upon his power.
Seen On Screen: In the flawed, but right now only, Green Lantern origin movie with Ryan Reynolds, which hit theaters in 2011.
7. Iron Man
Although the location for Iron Man’s origin has changed several times throughout the decades, the story itself has not. While demonstrating some of his creations abroad, Tony Stark was injured and taken captive by enemy soldiers. While in captivity, he was forced to build weapons for these terrorists, but with the help of scientist Ho Yinsen, he built a mechanical suit that allowed him to defeat his captors and escape to freedom. With a renewed perspective on life, Tony uses his new armor to protect the innocent as Iron Man. Not only is it one of best redemption origin stories and full of action as Tony escaped his imprisonment, it also showed that not everyone who becomes a superhero starts out as a moral individual. Sometimes takes a nudge (or in Tony’s case nearly dying from shrapnel in your heart) to discover your true potential.
Seen On Screen: Stark’s destiny was brought to life by Jon Favreau in 2008’s Iron Man, with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead.
6. Captain America
Captain America’s origin story wouldn’t work well as an anti-drug PSA, but it’s an excellent story of trumping over the odds. Steve Rogers wanted to serve in World War II, but his scrawny body and ill health prevented him from enlisting. Fortunately for him, he was chosen as the test subject for Project Rebirth, and after being injected with the Super Soldier Serum, his body became the epitome of physical perfection. Soon after the scientist who created the serum was assassinated by a Nazi spy, leaving the serum’s formula lost and making Steve the only one of his kind. He subsequently became Captain America to not only to help defeat the Axis forces, but to become one of the most well-known superheroes in the present-day after being frozen for decades. As mentioned earlier, it’s memorable for featuring the little guy rising up to beat the odds, but it also helps that it was an important reflection of the era he was created in and even inspired good to defeat evil in real life.
Seen On Screen: Joe Johnston did a bang-up job with Cap’s origin in the 2011 Marvel movie Captain America: The First Avenger.
5. Fantastic Four
The comic book sci-fi origins don’t get much kookier than the Fantastic Four. In the original comics, Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Susan Storm and her brother Johnny were sent out on an experimental rocket into space when they were bombarded by cosmic rays. Landing back on Earth, they discovered they had undergone unusual transformations; Reed was able to stretch his whole anatomy, Ben was turned into a rock monster, Susan could turn invisible and Johnny could ignite his entire body in fire. Despite their physical changes, they decided to use their powers for good and become a superhero team. Not only is their origin tale memorable due to its sci-fi wackiness and how the heroes reacted to their new abilites, but if it wasn’t for the success of the Fantastic Four, most of the Marvel superheroes we have today wouldn’t exist, and that’s not an exaggeration. We owe a lot to Marvel’s First Family.
Seen On Screen: Let’s look ahead, hopefully, to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, because Tim Story’s 2005 effort left a lot to be desired.
4. The Hulk
If ever there was a story arguing against tampering with nuclear forces, it’s the Hulk’s. Scientist Bruce Banner was overseeing the detonation of a gamma bomb when he noticed a young teenager named Rick Jones had snuck onto the testing ground. He was able to push Rick into a trench to save him, but Banner consequently absorbed nearly all of the bomb’s radiation. Later, he transformed into a brutish monster which was labeled "Hulk." Over the years, the circumstances of Banner’s transformations into the Hulk have been altered (the most common explanation being that they are trigged when he gets too angry or upset), but he’s become one of the most polarizing figures in the Marvel universe, considered to be both a hero and a villain. It’s the superhero equivalent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only in this case, the Hulk has caused way more destruction and property damage. The story is a perfect combination of superhero tropes and the classic theme of man vs. the inner beast. Oh, and there’s the gigantic explosion. That helps.
Seen On Screen: In Ang Lee’s 2003 effort, though Hulk was probably better served by the 1978 TV series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.
If Hulk is a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde story, then Superman is the modern day retelling of Moses. Born on the planet Krypton, Kal-El was sent to Earth on a rocket by his parents so that he would escape Krypton’s destruction. When he arrived on Earth, he was discovered by a married couple and raised as their son just like a normal human. When he got older, the now-named Clark Kent discovered that the Earth’s yellow sun gave him special powers like flight, super-strength and heat vision. Imbued with a strong moral code by his Earth parents, he decided to use his powers to fight against evil and inspire hope among Earth’s populace as Superman. It doesn’t get much more inspiring than that. It’s also worth noting that since Superman is considered the first superhero, his introductory tale is known by practically everyone.
Seen On Screen: With all due respect to Zack Snyder’s Kal-El rebirth, we have to go with Superman: The Movie, and it’s heartfelt treatment of Superman’s earliest days on Krypton, and in Kansas.
Spider-Man being the first non-sidekick teenage superhero was already a big deal when he was introduced back in the 1960s, but his tragic origin is the stuff of legend. Bullied teenager Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider at a science exhibit. Discovering he had unique abilities like super-strength and the ability to stick to walls, he built himself a pair of web-shooters and decided to become Spider-Man so he could achieve fame and profit. Unfortunately, after purposefully deciding to stop a fleeing thief, he comes home hours later to discover that the same criminal had murdered his Uncle Ben. Stricken with grief by his father figure’s death, he took to heart the advice "With great power comes great responsibility," and decided to use his powers to protect the innocent. From the sci-fi powered arachnid to the to the personal tragedy, overall it has all the best ingredients of a comic book origin, and because it’s been told many times on the big and small screens, even a comic book newbie would recognize what’s going on when that spider bites Peter Parker’s hand.
Seen On Screen: Twice now, though Sam Raimi gets the edge over Marc Webb for his adaptation of Peter Parker’s transformation in the 2002 film Spider-Man.
I dare any of you to think of the term "origin story" and not have Batman’s beginnings be one of your first thoughts. You’ve all seen it at least twice in various comics, movies and TV shows. While walking home from a movie, Bruce Wayne and his parents were held at gunpoint by a criminal who wanted their valuables. A struggle ensued, and Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered before Bruce’s eyes. Now an orphan, Bruce vowed to wage war against crime, and after training both physically and mentally, he put on the cape and cowl to become Batman, the terrifying vigilante that uses fear to subdue evildoers. Batman’s origin may not have any of the fantastical elements typically found in a comic book origin, but its striking visuals and the psychological trauma it leaves on young Bruce makes it perhaps the origin that most people, both comic book fans and those not familiar with the source material, are well familiar with. If there’s a Pop Culture 101 textbook, you’ll find this story as one of the entries.
Seen On Screen: In Christopher Nolan’s seminal Batman Begins, which rescued Batman from cinematic irrelevancy and reinvented how the film industry approaches comic-book movies.
Connoisseur of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, John Wick, MonsterVerse and Doctor Who lore. He's aware he looks like Harry Potter and Clark Kent.
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