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Twenty Reasons Mild-Mannered Civilians Became Superheroes

We ranked the best (and worst) superhero origin stories

Brian Taylor illustration
Brian Taylor illustration

With last Friday’s release of Doctor Strange, another major hit (to the tune of an $85 million weekend) can be added to the list of 21st century superhero movies. And while there is a lot to like, and even love, in the film — great CGI, good Chiwetel Ejiofor, pretty good lead performance, decently kinky hand porn — there is one element of Doctor Strange that I just can’t seem to will myself past: the fact that we are doing [clears throat to exaggerated effect, waits for money to be put in hand] A N O T H E R M A R V E L O R I G I N S T O R Y ™.

This isn’t Doctor Strange’s fault, in the broadest sense. It’s a “standalone” movie — but that hardly means it stands alone. Strange operates, first and foremost, in the same role as any other Marvel property: as a cog in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. And in the MCU, cogs at Strange’s level (i.e. of multibillion-dollar importance) are introduced within the terms of a very particular house style. And that house style includes — and, in many ways, is defined by — a very particular sort of origin story, told amid a very particular sort of introductory film.

Is this a good thing? It’s a dumb question. Through no fault of its own (to the extent that wanting to get rich as fuck off of making movies about Tilda Swinton running a SoHo House for literate defense-assassins is a no-fault venture), the MCU’s origin-story template has essentially upended any sense of “good.” The What matters only insofar as it accents the How: this “Hi, it’s me” beat; this [not-at-all-sociopathic voice] humorous joke; this most entry-level villain imaginable; this “the real superpower … was love” tonal shift; this messy third act carried out with “the origin stuff is over — are we good here?” gusto; this iconic actress reduced to being like, “I understand.”

For all that Doctor Strange does (often magnificently) well, the movie still fails when it comes to its most fundamental task: to compellingly answer the question of, “Wait — what is this dude’s reason for literally becoming a superhero?”

So it’s time for a course correction: the Origin Story Power Rankings. These are 20 of the biggest superheroes who have starred in the current wave of origin films and — liberated from the beats and debts and larger universes of those films — ranked on the basis of one simple question: How good was their reason for becoming a superhero?

20. Green Hornet, ‘The Green Hornet’

19. Spider-Man, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’

Reason: Does something small-scale heroic and it feels good.

Notes: This is a pretty dumb reason. Saving a couple from getting mugged, like Seth Rogen does in The Green Hornet, is not that big of a deal — and deciding to become a superhero off of that is insane. I have slightly more sympathy for Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man, whose small-time heroics at least involve avenging his uncle’s death. Like: I could maybe — maybe — see myself becoming a superhero after getting addicted to fighting crime, if the first crime I fought involved avenging my uncle’s death in a cool way. But even still, I don’t know, that’s mostly dumb. This is a “Look, just join the neighborhood watch”-level reason.

18. Fantastic Four, ‘Fantastic Four’

17. Superman, ‘Man of Steel’

Reason: Does something large-scale heroic and it feels good.

Notes: Same as the above, but fit to a more appropriate scale (Fantastic Four: invent interdimensional travel and soothe Miles Teller’s insecurities; Superman: murks a Kryptonian general and gets a job). Still more or less pathetic — but at least somewhat viable, in context.

16. Daredevil, ‘Daredevil’

15. Batman, ‘Batman Begins’

Reason: Wants to Save City From Ruin in order to bring his dead dad back to life, which is impossible.

Notes: Wanting to Save City (e.g. Gotham, Hell’s Kitchen) From Ruin in order to bring your dead dad back to life, which is impossible, is not a good reason to become a superhero. First of all … he’s not coming back. I understand what you’re doing, on a spiritual level — but you just can’t live like this. Reality is one of life’s divine anchors; you need to come back to it. And, second of all, cities having bureaucratic corruption or an escalating mob presence is simply not a good enough reason to go around playing vigilante with people. It’s narcissistic and it’s overdramatic; no one asked you to and no one is impressed. Please honor your dead dad’s memory by not being a fascistic annoyance.

14. Doctor Strange, ‘Doctor Strange’

Reason: Is good at it.

Notes: It’s nice to be good at things, whether that’s fancy brain surgery or opening portals into the astral plane.

13. Wolverine, ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’

Reason: No explicit reason.


12. Guardians of the Galaxy, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

11. Hulk, ‘The Incredible Hulk’

Reason: A location is in peril and they are the only ones who can save it.

Notes: This is essentially the replacement-level reason for becoming a superhero. In Guardians, the location that needs saving is the galaxy; in Hulk, it’s Harlem. No one would criticize this reason, but there’s also no need to talk about it for very long. An unremarkable, standard-issue superhero moment presented itself and you seized it. Good for you.

10. Deadpool, ‘Deadpool’

9. Thor, ‘Thor’

Reason: There’s a girl.

Notes: Usually I’m not a huge fan of the “there’s a girl” reason. It feels lazy — like it’s somehow simultaneously lacking and overkill. (Just go on a date!) But applied to these two movies it actually works pretty well. Deadpool is the horny teenager of superheroes — so, yeah: Doing superhero things so as to continue having sex checks out. (Also it’s good that Brody’s wife from Homeland is getting a second chance, she deserves it.)

As for Thor: The first Thor is easily the most romantic of the Marvel movies. Chris Hemsworth looks like the cover of a romance novel; Natalie Portman knows her way around a rom-com; it works. The idea that Thor would become a superhero to impress Natalie Portman is completely justifiable and does not require any further examination.

8. Ant-Man, ‘Ant-Man’

7. Iron Man, ‘Iron Man’

Reason: The military-industrial complex.

Notes: I like this reason, it’s modern and relevant. It also just makes sense: Tony Stark is a defense contractor who needs to come to terms with the destruction he’s sold the world; Scott Lang must wear a Cold War–era suit to stop that same suit from being sold by defense contractors. On a storytelling level, for the two heroes whose powers come from advancements in military tech to have military-adjacent reasons for using those powers — it feels right. If you told me that the military-industrial complex had inspired you to become a superhero, I don’t think I would be blown away or anything. But I think I would shake your hand, bring you in close, and whisper, “That sounds modern and relevant. Good luck. Have an awesome time.”

6. Green Lantern, ‘Green Lantern’

5. Captain America, ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Reason: Gets convinced by some guy.

Notes: Getting convinced by some guy is a completely justifiable reason to become a superhero. Green Lantern’s iteration of this reason is the worst, because everything Green Lantern is the worst: Basically … Mark Strong taps Hal Jordan on the shoulder and says, “You’ve got this.” Weak, but still: Mark Strong, tapping you on the shoulder with encouragement. Not unconvincing.

Captain America: The First Avenger fares much better, by turning off the positive reinforcement and going straight for the manipulative hard-sell: Samuel L. Jackson tells Steve Rogers what’s up, and sorry about the guns, and — oh yeah, that he hasn’t been awake for 70 years — and that his girlfriend is dead, and that he’s in the middle of Times Square (the no. 1 worst place on earth to wake up from a coma), and that he has no friends. In other words: he’s alone, sad, lost, confused — and is being offered a sense of purpose by a charismatic man in an eye patch. This is exactly how people get recruited into cults, and I respect it.

4. X-Men, ‘X-Men: First Class’

Reason: Mechanism of self-preservation in the face of a world that ostracizes what it does not understand.


3. Suicide Squad, ‘Suicide Squad’

Reason: Victims of top-secret government extortion.

Notes: As irredeemable as its final two acts were, and as loath as I am to compliment anything that willingly tried to ruin “Spirit in the Sky,” I wonder if Suicide Squad didn’t get quite enough credit for having (grading on a curve of curves here) a pretty competent “getting the band together” section. Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller found a pressure point for each member of the Suicide Squad, leaned on it hard, and they agreed to become superheroes for her. Done and done. There was plenty of time later on in the film for (incoherent, borderline offensive) moral revelation. But as pure origin, reasoned credibly and with clarity, Suicide Squad’s “top-secret government extortion” is probably underrated.

2. Hawkeye, ‘The Avengers’

Reason: You’re Jeremy Renner and you like archery and your agent said, “This could be a great opportunity.”

Notes: I support you 100 percent.

1. Spider-Man, ‘Captain America: Civil War’

Reason: Hybrid.

Notes: For my money, Spider-Man’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War is the platonic ideal of a modern superhero origin story. Why?

5. It involves Marisa Tomei getting flirted with like an adult.

4. It’s taken care of, not in one movie but in one scene.

3. That scene comes not as a cynical This Is The New Character appendage at the end, but rather earlier, organically, within the flow of the larger narrative.

2. It’s a great scene:

But most of all:

1. Spider-Man’s reason for becoming a superhero is a hybrid of many of the other reasons: He’s good at it (teen prodigy). He’s in a world (high school) that ostracizes what it doesn’t understand. A location (New York, Berlin, etc.) is in peril and he’s the only one who can save it. There’s a light attempt (“Don’t tell Aunt May”) at extortion. And in the end, yeah: He gets convinced by some guy.

But if you were a teen prodigy who got bullied in high school and a city was in danger and you were the only one who could save it and you were being extorted by Robert Downey Jr. who was being very convincing and also flirting with your aunt, Marisa Tomei, then trust me: You wouldn’t even have to tell me your reason for becoming a superhero. I would tell you.