Desperate parents send their child away from a dying world, raised by humble American farmers, the boy grows up to be a symbol of truth and justice. A mugger shoots and kills two wealthy industrialists in a dark alley, in front of their son. He dedicates his life to stopping the criminals who prey on the innocent. A bullied teen gets bitten by a radioactive spider and learns the hard way that with great power, comes great responsibility. Why are we so fascinated with origin stories?
A distinguishing feature of an origin story is that it's followed by subsequent stories. Take Jurassic Park, you could argue that the first movie in the franchise is the origin story. It shows how the dinosaurs were grown and the beginning of the proposed theme park. It showcases the transformation from an exotic island resort and amusement park to a terrifying landscape of certain death and a very scary place to use the bathroom.
But, if there were never any sequels, then we might not consider it to be an origin story. It would simply be a story, the existence of accounts that take place after the first movie, in effect, turn it into an origin story. But a great comic book origin
is deceptively complex. In reality, it has to cover a lot of ground in a very short amount of time.
Comic book writer and editor, Tom DeFalco, laid out a blueprint for crafting the perfect superhero origin stories. The main character has to already be interesting before they become a hero. Whether that's Barry Allen being a forensic scientist obsessed with solving his mom's murder and proving his father's innocence, or Scott Lang, being an ex-convict who would do anything for his daughter. These are people you can get invested in immediately. Then, something happens. There's some kind of accident or inciting event that changes the character. A radioactive spider bite, the death of a loved one, getting bitten by a snake and then injected with mongoose blood until you have super-speed. Then the death of a loved one. And it doesn't even have to give them powers or abilities right then and there. It can simply inspire them to become a hero through their own needs.
Bruce Wayne didn't become Batman and start beating up thugs as soon as the trigger was pulled. Instead, he used that moment as motivation to train, and learn, and become the Dark Knight years down the line. But remember, that's just the super part of superhero. A good origin also needs to explain the hero part. Spiderman used his powers initially as a means to make money, but when Uncle Ben died, Peter did not hesitate for using his special skill set to catch the murderer. Imagine, though, if that was the end of the story. Pete caught his uncle's killer.
There's no reason for him to continue fighting crime. Why not just go back to making money on TV? Because of that famous twist. That criminal wasn't some random guy, it was the same thief Spiderman intentionally failed to stop earlier that day. Because of this revelation, Spidey learned a lesson to use his powers responsibly. An origin needs to clearly spell out why someone would choose to be, and remain, a hero. The origin should also establish the rules of a character. Green Lantern has to keep his Power Ring charged.
Deadpool can heal from almost anything. And Wolverine must refer to everyone as Bub. Has to, no way around it. We need to understand how the heroes' powers work and their limits. Are their abilities strictly advantageous, or are there downsides? It doesn't have to be entirely laid out like the excruciatingly detailed Bloodshot comic.
Lastly, the origin needs to set up a theme and structure of the kinds of stories that you'll be telling with that character. Batman often fights ruthless, criminally insane adversaries. Doctor Strange revolves around the mystical and magical. The X-Men regularly struggle against oppression in the eyes of the public. It's fun to see Batman fight aliens occasionally when he's with the Justice League, but I'd feel really weird if that's how his stories were all the time. That's not the theme of his origin. Batman's origin is about the loss of his parents at the hands of an average street thug. It's about the trauma he suffered as a child and how he found meaning in it. And trauma, as Rosenberg points out, is one of three kinds of superhero origins.
She explains that all superheroes are made in some way. They can be born super, i.e. with powers, but they're never born superheroes. This leads back into the idea that an origin story is a kind of transformation that the character undergoes. And the events that lead into these transformations can fit into one of
three general categories. The first one, as we mentioned, is trauma, this one is super common in comic books where the number of protagonists with one or more dead parents rivals that of Disney. Batman seeing his parents gunned down in front of him, Daredevil losing his sight and his father, Wolverine enduring unimaginable amounts of pain to become a living weapon. These are characters who suffer through physical and psychological pain, which serves as the catalyst for their transformation.
The second type of origin is about destiny. These are your quote-unquote chosen ones. Though I do feel like a clarification should be made here. Being chosen for something isn't the same as being a chosen one. Steve Rogers, for example, was chosen for the Super Soldier program, but he wasn't destined from birth to become Captain America, at least that wasn't explicitly stated that way in the comics. You do whatever you want with your own headcanon. A more accurate representation of the destiny origin might be Hawkman and Hawkgirl on Legends of Tomorrow, they keep dying at the hands of Vandal Savage, only to be reborn perpetually. In each of their new lives, they are preordained from birth to once again, become Bird-people. As much as Kendra wants to, she can't fight it. She can only embrace her destiny as Hawkgirl.
The 3rd and last category of origins is chance, or luck, like the Fantastic Four, accidentally flying a spacecraft through a storm of cosmic rays. Or Barry Allen being randomly struck by lightning and doused in a chemical bath to gain his super-speed in the initial, at least. We all know Flash's true origin was at the hands of a magical imp. Chance can sometimes feel like destiny and sometimes traumatic events seem preordained, especially as we view origin stories of one character across many alternate universes. The important thing here is that these types of origins aren't mutually exclusive. Superman's origin is traumatic, how he's one of the last surviving members of his species, but it's also pure chance that he would end up being raised by two small-town farmers.
Spiderman's origin is also a blending of chance with a radioactive spider bite and trauma with Uncle Ben dying. You could also argue that it was destiny, with the whole spider totem thing. But none of this explains why we care, why we invest so much into a character's origin story. Rosenberg explains that it's because origins satisfy your curiosity and make a character more predictable. Humans love predictability, our brains are pattern recognition machines, so learning why a character acts a certain way, how they came to be, where they are now, why they have a particular belief system, it all helps fill in the gaps that we've previously had to fill in ourselves using our best guesses.
Origin stories help us make sense of other people and see them as a little more predictable. It's no surprise that many comic book movies dedicate a large chunk of the film on the origin of the hero to the point where some viewers have complained about origin story fatigue.