Superheroes gain power from their origins, which explain how they perform their awesome feats, but also why. And most superhero movies are still origin stories. But sometimes Hollywood takes liberties and loses the souls of these characters. Here are eight superhero origins Hollywood captured, and eight they ruined.
Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay changed the whole way we thought about superhero origin stories. Because it's not just about how this character can do the things he or she can do, it's why he/she chooses to become a hero. As Sammy says to Joe during one of their epic brainstorming sessions about a flying character, "Why can he fly? Why does he want to? And how come he uses his power of flight to fight crime? Why doesn't he just become the world's greatest second-story man?"
A good superhero origin story answers the question of "why" and the question of "how" at the same time. A bad superhero origin just hits you with a series of random incidents that culminate in a power fantasy. A really bad superhero origin creates a hero who might as well be a villain.
Hollywood's doing more and more superhero movies, and these tend to be origin stories — even in cases where Hollywood's already done movies about a character before, they tend to do reboots or remakes, to allow them to retell a character's origin once again. Because origin stories are fun and provide an easy, engaging structure. But not all superhero origins are created equal — here are six that actually worked on film, and six that... not so much.
Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film goes through the Caped Crusader's origins really quickly, so we can get on with the important stuff, like the Joker vandalizing an art museum and unleashing poison-gas balloons. But Burton definitely hits the correct notes, and shows Bruce Wayne's parents death, spurring Bruce's resolve to become the night. It's not until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins that we really get the important stuff — Batman's overwhelming drive to fight crime, stemming from watching his parents die as a young boy, and the lengths he goes to, to become the ultimate crime-destroying machine. It's the difference between hitting the high points in a hurry, versus really exploring them. (Although I still think having Batman's trainer turn out to be Ra's Al Ghul cheapens both characters a bit. But nothing's ever perfect.)
The first half hour or so of Sam Raimi's first spider-picture is nearly perfect. Peter Parker is a high-school nerd who gets pushed around by the jocks, and then a freak laboratory accident happens, and he's bitten by a radioactive spider, giving him all of the spider's abilities. So he does what anybody would do: try to turn this ability into profit and success — until his selfishness leads to the death of his beloved uncle at the hands of a robber he could have stopped. So he vows to use his powers for good, instead of just wasting them. I remember being totally thrilled as the film covered all of these points and brought them to a new vividness — and then we leave high school behind, in kind of a hurry.
Meanwhile, The Amazing Spider-Man takes some liberties with the source material, adding an obsession with Peter's missing parents and losing the "Spidey tries to make money off his abilities" subplot. Instead, Spider-Man's selfishness comes in the form of wanting to use his powers to get justice for Uncle Ben's killer, which more or less works. The main thing, though, is that the spider-bite and Uncle Ben's death remain intact, and Spidey still learns responsibility.
A good Superman origin tale should show us two things: Jor-El and Lara sending their baby son to Earth to become a champion; and Jonathan and Martha Kent raising the boy as their own, instilling him with their good old-fashioned Kansas values while discovering his powers over time. Despite a few notable flaws, Richard Donner's Superman film does both things beautifully. He spends just enough time on the childhood of Clark Kent to give us a sense that he really grew up struggling with the use of his powers, without turning the whole movie into a coming-of-age story. And in keeping with the Silver Age version of the character, his final moment on the threshold of adulthood is dealing with the death of Jonathan Kent, whom his power could not save.
As for Man of Steel, I'm still on the fence about it — it includes the important elements, and it's a pretty good story in its own right, but it lacks the sunny optimism that makes Superman's origin the quintessential "you can make it" immigrant tale. Like Amazing Spider-Man, it overlays its own themes onto the character's origin story rather than capturing the original themes.
Like we said when this movie came out a couple years back, this is the rare superhero film which actually improves on the original comic book origins. As in the comics, Tony Stark gets trapped in a cave by a nasty warlord-type person who wants him to build weapons — and Tony's injured, with a piece of shrapnel that's going to stop his heart unless he can keep it away. So instead of building weapons, Tony makes a suit of armor that keeps his heart alive and allows him to thrash his captors. But the movie adds another layer, drawing on the much later comics — the assholes holding Tony captive are using leaked weapons from Tony's own company, forcing Tony to confront the evil he's done as a weapons-maker. So Tony has to make a vow, similar to Spider-Man's, to use his power for good instead of evil from now on.
Speaking of films that had a lot of flaws — Zack Snyder's Watchmen film was slow and dull, except when it was delving into the past and showing us how these characters had come to be. When we saw Dr. Manhattan created in a burst of energy, or the complicated backstory of how Laurie Juspeczyk and Daniel Dreiberg took over as the Silk Spectre and the Nite Owl respectively, the film came to life. Because the film wasn't really able to do a great job of navigating the complicated relationships and crises of conscience these characters were dealing with now, but it was great at showing how they got here — especially that justly praised opening credits sequence.
This is sort of a no-brainer — with original creator Mike Mignola in the mix, and not enough money at stake for Hollywood suits to insist on screwing it up, Guillermo del Toro was able to capture most of what made Hellboy's origin work in the comics, including the Nazis trying to raise a demon and a kindly scientist finding the young demon boy and raising him as a human, until he becomes part of the stalwart gang of the B.P.R.D. It's great stuff in either medium.
The most important part of Thor's origin is in the first movie — he's too arrogant, so his father Odin sends him down to Earth and strips him of his power so he can learn some humility. And then, yes, the film takes some liberties — Thor doesn't turn into mild-mannered physician Donald Blake, in particular. But I never quite understood why Thor is able to change back into Thor by striking Blake's walking stick in the comics, if the point is to punish him. In any case, the notion that Thor can't wield his hammer, Mjolnir, until he's proved himself worthy again, is perfect and gives the character a proper arc.
And last but definitely not least... Captain America's movie origin story is pretty much perfect. It captures the absolute most important thing about this character: he volunteered. The movie goes to pretty great lengths to show how badly Steve Rogers wants to join the fight against the Nazis, and just how much he hates bullies of every stripe. Rogers is rejected from military service because of his physical weakness, but that just makes him more determined. And when he becomes the one and only successful test subject of the Super-soldier program, you know that he's earned it and that he'll use his power to defend the weak against those who would abuse them.
I freely admit that I haven't kept up with all the crap they've loaded onto Logan's origin story in the comics, because it's gotten too confusing — but I don't think they've gotten rid of the basics. He was part of the Weapon X program, which gave him superpowers along with a lot of other mutants and gave him memory implants to wipe his memory. Logan fights to regain his sense of selfhood and to be more than the weapon he was made into. In the film version, Logan's more of a patsy — William Stryker has Logan's half-brother Victor Creed kill Logan's girlfriend Silver Fox, except she's not really dead, she's just faking it — and it's all a scheme to get Logan to submit willingly to an experiment where they metal-up his bones. So that they can then chase him around for the rest of the movie. None of it makes any sense — but more important, there's no drama or character in there at all, and Wolverine actually manages to become a boring character.
Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier both took their best shots at doing the origin of the Hulk — in Leterrier's case, via a flashback — and they both blew it. Here's the thing about Bruce Banner: He becomes a hero before he becomes the Hulk. In the comics, he's a scientist testing a horribly destructive bomb, and he sees a young kid sneaking out onto the testing range. So he rushes out and pushes the kid out of harm's way, taking the full blast himself. That moment of self-sacrifice defines him, and even though the Hulk always seems like a totally self-centered force of id and destruction, you know that he'll always wind up putting others first when the chips are down. Because the Hulk was born in a moment of self-sacrifice, and he's a weird mixture of rage and softness. (The Hulk's compassion and inability to understand cruelty is a major feature in a lot of the comics.) For some reason, people adapting the Hulk's origin always dispense with the bomb — and the kid, Rick Jones, who's the most interesting supporting character in many of the comics. Instead, we always get the Hulk's origin taking place in a misguided experiment in a laboratory. Because, you know, laboratories are automatically more dynamic to watch than bomb tests.
This is a bit of a cheap shot, sorry — but yikes. In the comics, Catwoman is pretty basic: She's a fancy jewel thief who loves cats and puts on a sexy persona, only to become more of a hero over time as she becomes the protector of the East End and of a younger girl, Holly. In the movies? In Batman Returns, here's some kind of supernatural cat thing where she dies and gets brought back to life by cats — if you're thrown off a building by Christopher Walken, you really ought to have the decency to stay dead. And in the Halle Berry film, it's even worse. There's some sort of temple cat thing and she has to learn girl-power Buddhism in order to fight evil cosmetics executives. If they ever make another Catwoman film, they should have her get her powers from a supernatural maneki neko, and she should have the power of getting people to shop at your store. I would watch that.
Honestly, I wanted two things from this film: Nicolas Cage being ridiculous, and a biker with a flaming skull for a head. So I really have no complaints. But if you actually cared about the comic-book character, I can imagine it would have been a sad experience. They got Johnny Blaze's origin half right: He sells his soul to cure his dad's cancer, then his dad dies immediately afterwards in a motorcycle accident, leaving Johnny feeling ripped off. (Except in the movie, Johnny doesn't actually sign the contract, he just accidentally bleeds on it. WTF?) But then they missed the other, crucial, part of the deal — Johnny manages to cheat the devil back. This is like the whole point. When the Devil comes to take Johnny's soul, his girlfriend's pure love for him saves him, and the Devil gets bupkis. So the Devil curses Johnny to be bonded with a biker demon as payback for the reverse rip-off. Instead of this nice bit of symmetry, the movie creates a whole other mythology involving a contract of 1000 souls, and it turns out that Johnny Blaze becomes Ghost Rider for reasons totally unrelated to having sold his soul. It's sort of confusing.
The comics version of the FF's origin is simple and elegant — they're searching for knowledge, taking an experimental rocket flight, when they get hit with cosmic rays that transform them and give them super powers. But instead of deciding that this means they shouldn't take crazy risks like that in the quest for knowledge, they become ever more fearless explorers, and also become the front-line defenders of the planet when it comes to "cosmic" threats like Galactus. The movie, meanwhile, muddles this up — Reed Richards is actually seeking to interact with a cloud of cosmic energy that "triggers evolution." And the movie ties the FF's origin with Victor Von Doom's, making Doom responsible for the accident that gives them their powers. Instead of a more clear-cut story, you end up with something kind of muddled — and it also makes the world seem smaller because everybody has the same origin, including the villain. Most of all, the FF's origin should be Reed's fault, and Victor's scarring should be due to Victor's own hubris — and those incidents really ought to be separate or they don't have as much weight.
Let's hope Josh Trank's new FF movie gives them the launch they deserve.
And then there's Steel. As Cyriaque puts it, "He went from being a stand-in for Superman to being just a guy in a suit." This film cheapens everything that's great about Steel, not least by removing him from the Superman mythos where he belongs — he's also no longer a top weapons designer, but just a military developer who's just part of a weapons-development team — and the main point, that the weapons John Henry developed are now being used on the streets — is blunted considerably. The Steel suit is no longer a power-armored marvel, but instead is just sort of a clunky travesty. It's got Shaq-fu, but it's lacking the heart of the original.
You should go read Chris Sims' cogent explanation of why we didn't need a Jonah Hex movie, and how Hollywood took a scarred cowboy with no superpowers and turned him into a supernatural avenger, for no particular reason. And nothing much in this movie makes any sense, at all. As Sims says, "Apparently popping open Microsoft Word and doing a find-and-replace to swap out "STEAMPUNK COWBOY" with "JONAH HEX" took so much effort that making sense was relegated to a secondary concern." To the extent that Jonah Hex felt like a terrible remake of Will Smith's Wild Wild West.
We can probably all agree that this movie did no justice to the story of Hal Jordan, the heroic fighter pilot who gets a superpowered ring from a dying alien. But we might disagree about why. Although I guess it sticks fairly closely to the facts of Hal's origin, it's lacking something of the heart of the character — especially his sheer determination to do the right thing. Hal is a ladies' man and a bit of a cad, but he's also a stand-up guy who gets handed the most powerful weapon in the universe and uses it to save people. In any case, the comics offer a few ways to do Hal's origin: 1) Copy the excellent DC: The New Frontier comics, which give Hal Jordan a new character trait, being a soldier who won't kill. 2) Copy the original 1960s Showcase issues, in which Hal figures out the ring on his own and doesn't meet the Guardians or other Lanterns for 20 issues or so. (And thus, have him get his first glimpse of Oa at the end of the movie.) 3) Focus on Hal's training with Kilowog and Sinestro, and build up those relationships, so those two aliens really come to feel like Hal's brothers — and thus, Sinestro's eventual betrayal carries some weight. In any case, turning Hal into a jackass as well as a cad just gives us nobody to root for.
Thanks to Cyriaque for the suggestions. Another version of this article first appeared in 2010.