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Original Sin: The Best and the Worst of Superhero Origin Stories

With great reboots come great retreads

Krypton — which started airing on Syfy this week — has a novel pitch for Superman fans: “You thought you didn’t want Smallville? What about a show that doesn’t have Superman in it at all?!

That’s right: While Smallville, a show ostensibly about Superman, didn’t actually reveal the real, cape-and-boots adult Superman until the very final episode — ten seasons in! — Krypton goes one step further (backwards). Set on Superman’s home planet, it focuses on what happened before Krypton exploded and Superman was sent rocketing to Earth as a baby. Before, in other words, anything that anyone who likes Superman cares about has even occured.

Why they think we want to see this is anyone’s guess, but with shows like Krypton and Gotham (a Batman show set before Batman) on the air, and superhero origin stories being played out at the movies every other month, we decided to have our own little superhero award show, acknowledging the bravest, the boldest and the most creatively bankrupt origins in comics history.

Up, up, left a bit and away

The Award for the Most Tedious: Spider-Man

This one’s a little tricky, because on one hand, Spider-Man’s origin story — his arrogant failure to stop a criminal who would later kill his uncle, teaching him that (altogether now), “With great power comes great responsibility” — is a stone-cold classic, and one of the most important, impactful and memorable origin stories in all of comics.

But in a world where we’re on our third series of Spidey movies in a decade, it’s become clear just how long and convoluted a story this is to tell: The absence of Peter’s parents that causes him to be raised by his aunt and uncle (hence his uncle’s death being such a terrible blow); the wrestling promoter ripping off Peter Parker so that he, in turn, doesn’t stop the robber ripping off the promoter (and, oh yeah, the bit where he’s a pro wrestler because he needs money because his aunt and uncle are poor — sheesh this is already long); the criminal then killing Uncle Ben in a completely unrelated crime; Peter hunting down said criminal and having a flashback so we all know it’s the same person he could have apprehended earlier but didn’t.

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Both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man took half a movie each to tell this part of the story — compared to the brevity of Batman’s parents being senselessly gunned down in a filthy alley behind the Monarch Theater. It’s a slog, especially if you’re already more than familiar with the tale. It’s why the current Marvel Cinematic Universe ditched the sequence altogether for Tom Holland’s run in the tights, confident in the average moviegoer’s ability to remember Spider-Man’s whole deal from the 50 years of comics, five recent movies and at least 12 different TV shows that preceded it.

While “tedious” might be a somewhat unfair label, the fact is that Spider-Man’s origin story has become the movie equivalent of the song you fell in love with for a hot month a decade ago, but which today you can’t turn off fast enough: If you hear it one more time, you know you’re going to scream your own face inside out.

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The Award for the Worst Knock-On Effect: Batman

It was, admittedly, a toss-up between Batman and Spider-Man for the previous award. Certainly, Batman’s origin has been shown in even more movies than Spider-Man’s — there are small, shrimplike creatures living at the bottom of the Marianas trench who know that Bruce Wayne became Batman because his parents were murdered in front of him.

But the really insidious part about Batman’s origin story is how it has affected the stories of other characters over the years. Comic book canon is a vast and malleable thing: After 80 years of stories (in the case of Batman and Superman, at least), it’s hard to keep things fresh, so comic book universes constantly reboot and reset, changing with the times in an effort to stay relevant. The upshot of this is that a character who’s been around for decades might suddenly have their entire continuity swept under the rug in the latest reboot in order to better fit with the current zeitgeist. (See: Catwoman, formerly an amnesiac flight attendant, suddenly getting a backstory as a skinhead, S&M-practicing prostitute in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One.)

I mention Year One specifically because, alongside Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it was largely responsible for ushering in a new age of violent, gritty stories at DC Comics (an ethos often mockingly referred to by comics fans as “grimdark”). It’s an ethos that, sadly, has stuck around for the better part of three decades now, which is why in recent years we’ve had a Superman who looks like this:

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Instead of this:

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As the king of all things dark and gritty, Batman has become the poster boy for such stories, and the mandate to writers seems to be, “Make it more like Batman,” even when that doesn’t make any sense at all. To this end, other characters have found themselves being given not just updated personalities, but updated back stories. Because if Batman has an awful, depressing origin story and the kids dig Batman, let’s give everyone an awful, depressing origin story!

It’s bad enough that formerly fun characters were suddenly smothered in a wet blanket of grimdark tragedy, but it took an especially odious turn with female characters. When searching for a “realistic” motivation for these characters to become tough-as-nails vigilantes, the almost-entirely male comic book writers of the time all hit on the same tired — and just plain horrible — idea: Rape.

Over the years, some form of sexual assault has been shoehorned into many of the major female characters’ origin stories, or at least the formative years of their crime fighting careers. Black Cat: Raped. Jessica Jones: Raped. Huntress: Raped. Batgirl: Raped. Batwoman: Raped. Wonder Woman’s mother: Raped. The Elongated Man’s wife: Raped.

The lazy, offensive trope of rape being the only possible motivating factor for a woman to want to fight for truth, justice and the American Way is itself thankfully showing signs of being slowly retconned away these days. But the fact it existed at all is something you can trace back to Batman, Lord of Grimdark, and the idea that only a truly vile tragedy for an origin could possibly make a superhero interesting.

The Award for the Most Undeserving: Green Lantern

Back in 1994, DC Comics were almost done running stuffy old Green Lantern Hal Jordan into the ground. They’d destroyed his home of Coast City, driven him insane and given him the villainous new mantle of Parallax (a word that actually refers to, “a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight,” but hey, it sounds badass) before making him slaughter his fellow Green Lanterns and most of the little blue Guardians of Oa.

Oh, and then they killed him.

Briefly.

Wanting a Green Lantern on shelves but not that Green Lantern, DC launched a new series with a new man behind the green mask: Kyle Rayner, freelance graphic artist and endearing dude-bro.

What still sticks out about Rayner’s introduction is how random it was: Traditionally, the Green Lantern ring would be bestowed only on the most worthy recipient — a creature/being (there is a squirrel in the Green Lantern Corps, FYI — and a mushroom) who has demonstrated utter fearlessness in the face of dire peril. Kyle Rayner, meanwhile, wandered out the back of a heavy metal club wearing a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, whereupon a dying Guardian appeared, shrugged, said “YOLO” and handed him what’s often described, in DC Comics law, as the most powerful weapon in the universe.

It is not, in other words, an origin story you would describe as inspirational. But for a teenager who wore a lot of Nine Inch Nails shirts, it certainly gave me something to aspire to.

The Award for the Most Convoluted: Wonder Woman

The hero with far and away the most complicated backstory is Hawkman, whose past has been retconned so many times that it now involves him being a mace-wielding archeologist, a space cop from the planet Thanagar, a Native American reincarnation of the Hawk Spirit, none of the above, all of the above mixed together and you know what? Fuck Hawkman.

Let’s talk about Wonder Woman instead, an iconic character who’s become so emblematic of strong women that the annual Women’s Media Awards created an award named for her last year — and gave the inaugural trophy to Hillary Clinton.

Nevertheless, Wonder Woman’s origin story isn’t one that’s ever really stuck with people. As a result, it gets retconned on a fairly regular basis, which — surprise! — doesn’t exactly help matters. At various times she’s been sculpted out of magical clay by her “mother”; blessed by powers from the Greek gods; and most recently, she’s been revealed as a demigoddess and the daughter of Zeus himself.

Some things stay constant — in all of these versions she lives among the Amazon warrior women on the island of Themyscira — but her mission changes as much as her origin. Sometimes she’s the Amazons’ ambassador of peace to Man’s World; other times she’s just a straight-up costumed adventurer. Then there was that period where she lost her powers and opened up a mod boutique.

Again, none of this has helped cement the core of her character in the pubic consciousness. We know that Batman is driven by his obsessive war on crime, and Superman by the desire to inspire and protect humanity. But the third member of DC’s so-called “trinity”? Everyone knows Wonder Woman’s name and what she looks like, but even hardcore comics fans might struggle to succinctly tell you what she’s about.

Sad to say, but perhaps Clinton’s award was more fitting than we realized.

The Award for the Absolute Best of All Time: The Whizzer

There’s no contest here. None. If you don’t think a man being bitten by a cobra, then being cured by a transfusion of mongoose blood that inexplicably gives him super-speed powers and inspires him to run very fast while wearing a bright yellow costume with a big “W” on the front is the greatest thing ever, I honestly don’t know why you’re even reading comic books in the first place.

The Award for the Most Iconic: Superman

Superman’s origin story is almost as well known as Batman’s and Spider-Man’s, and it’s never been summed up better than in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman (aka, the best Superman story ever written). In its opening page, the pair condense the entirety of Superman’s origin into just four panels and eight words:

It’s a feat of stirring yet economical storytelling that both relies on, and builds upon, Superman’s iconic status. In his excellent essay for the now sadly-defunct Comics Alliance, writer Chris Sims sums it up thusly:

“The fact that all this can be conveyed in such sparse terms is one of the real strengths of Superman’s origin. It’s like Robin Hood: The crusades and the ransom of King Richard and the politics of land ownership in England in the 1300s and the fact that Maid Marian was only his girlfriend after a 16th-century retcon are certainly interesting, but all you really need to know about that guy to get started on his adventures is robs from the rich, gives to the poor. Eight words, folks.”

What’s truly astonishing about this brilliant lesson in brevity being the soul of a good origin story is that, regardless, we’re still getting Krypton: A show about the culture and politics of Krypton (a planet that Superman has never actually seen), and the personalities of his grandparents (people who Superman has never actually met).

Oh well.

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