I tried an experimental drug
I went for a stroll on a gamma testing range
I found an enchanted Uru cane
I made a serum that made me small
I modified the serum so it would make me tall
I got a radioactive isotope in my eyes
A dying alien helped me accessorize
Every Superhero has an origin story, telling how they gained their powers and decided to fight crime. It may be revealed in their first appearance, or not until an eventual flashback. But once established, it sets ground rules for which tropes are applicable to that particular superhero.
- Lucky Accident: A Freak Lab Accident, one-in-a-million malfunction, or what have you; e.g., Spider-Man, The Flash, Hulk, Daredevil or The Fantastic Four. This is one of the most common superhero origin tropes.
- The Chosen One: Given powers by an ancient and wise being, such as an alien, one of the Powers That Be, or a being that's a combination of the two; e.g., Captain Marvel (who is not Shazam) or the Silver Age Green Lantern, or the previous wielder handed it down. They were probably granted these powers because they were deemed worthy to handle them or, maybe, as part of a prophecy. Note that the transfer of power isn't always positive as they may now be Blessed with Suck thanks to a Gypsy Curse; e.g., Ghost Rider.
- Non-Human Hero: They're superhuman because they're not human at all; e.g., aliens like Superman or Martian Manhunter; after all, they're from space or they're from a mystical realm like Wonder Woman or Aquaman or they're deities/demi-gods like Thor. They might alternately be genetically engineered, a cyborg (inevitably involuntary and Angsting over his condition), or otherwise a creation of science; e.g., The Powerpuff Girls. In this case, expect them to be a Phlebotinum Rebel.
- My Own Creation: A scientist, engineer, or other makes-cool-stuff type invents something that gives them powers and uses it to help people; e.g., Iron Man; or experiments on himself and gets powers; e.g. Henry Pym (Ant Man/Giant Man/Yellowjacket/Goliath/Whatever he calls himself now). These types rarely sell their secret or use it to empower others, usually on the basis of "I can't trust anyone else to use X responsibly" or "The World Is Not Ready".
- Applied Phlebotinum: Their powers may not directly derive from them, but rather from using a Magical Accessory, an Upgrade Artifact or even an Artifact of Doom they just happen to come across; e.g., The Mask. It could also be a powerful substance that renders them impervious; e.g., Blankman. Naturally goes hand in hand with My Own Creation and The Chosen One and may overlap with Lucky Accident. Often invokes Comes Great Responsibility as well as You're Nothing Without Your Phlebotinum.
- Pure Will: A suitably motivated mere mortal achieves a high degree of competence in crimefighting owing to a combination of extreme training and/or scientific/engineering ability along with native ingenuity; e.g., Batman, the second Blue Beetle (Ted Kord).
- Evolutionary Levels: Sometimes, they're just simply born with superpowers maybe as a result of a Bizarre Baby Boom, a mere biological fluke of some kind or other mysterious circumstances. These powers could manifest at any point in their life, though many examples have them especially occur during puberty; e.g., the X-Men.
- Superpowerful Genetics: They inherited their powers (whether the same or completely different) from, at least, one superpowered parent or ancestor; e.g., Spider-Man's daughter Spider-Girl, Violet and Dash from The Incredibles, Magneto's twin children Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch or the entire student body of Sky High. Tends to overlap with Evolutionary Levels.
- Random Selection: Something totally random that nevertheless isn't an "accident"; e.g., any mutant character. Tends to be retconned into one of the others later.
...each of which has its associated tropes. Any of the last seven may be retconned into The Chosen One. Supervillains can also get their powers in these ways, though their accidents tend to be more unlucky, thus initiating their Start of Darkness. Occasionally, these can be compounded across several characters with a Mass Super-Empowering Event.
That's how they get their powers; motivations to actually fight crime include:
- The Cape
- Set Right What Once Went Wrong
- Order Versus Chaos
- Comes Great Responsibility
- Boisterous Bruiser
- Because Destiny Says So
- Legacy Character
- It's Personal
- La Résistance
- Let's Get Dangerous!
- Small Name, Big Ego
- The Atoner
- I Just Want to Be Normal (e.g. if a scientist wants to reverse his Freak Lab Accident, or if the Chosen One has a task that's possible to complete.)
- Contrived Coincidence
Often, the hero to be gets both powers and motivation in the same event, wrapped in one neat package. They may also get a supervillain arch-nemesis to fight, motivated and empowered by that same event.
- One-Punch Man: Saitama was your average Japanese salaryman until one day, when he saves a butt-chinned boy from a Lobster-Man, which reignites his passion to be a hero. After that, he trained every day, doing 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and running ten kilometers, until all his hair fell out and he was strong enough to beat opponents with one punch.
- Jack Hawksmoor of The Authority has a particularly odd origin: He was repeatedly abducted and altered by what he thought were aliens, who were in fact time-travellers from the 70th century, in order to use him as a weapon to fight a rampaging Kansas City by bonding with Tokyo. ...yeah.
- Deconstructed by the post-Crisis Captain Atom, whose actual origin was kept secret by the military, which "revealed" his pre-Crisis, Silver Age, Charlton comics origin as his origin to the public.
- DC Comics' Ambush Bug claims that his costume was sent to Earth by a scientist who predicted (wrongly) that his planet would explode; along the way the clothes were bitten by a giant space radioactive spider. Obviously, this is a send-up of both Superman's and Spider-Man's origins. Considering Ambush Bug is crazy, he likely made up the whole thing.
- Subverted in Krypton No More when Supergirl claims she and Superman are genetically-engineered humans and "Krypton" is nothing but a Superman's dellusion. Superman comes to believe it until he realizes several details don't hold up, confronts Kara and she admits she was cajoled into lying to him.
- DC, at one point, had a lot of heroes with the "lucky accident" origins whose accidents had been rendered laughable as science marched on. To reconcile this, they introduced the concept of a "metagene", a dormant gene carried by all these characters that activated in the presence of these accidents that would have crippled or killed any other person who lacked the gene, thus transforming their "lucky accident" heroes into "random selection" heroes.
- In Johnny Saturn, most of the superheroes (called metaheroes) are modern versions of Greek gods. Many of the metaheroes have descended from higher dimensions, or are alien hybrids, or non-powered mystery men, such as Johnny Saturn himself.
- A running joke in Ed Brubaker's Sleeper is that bored supervillains like to kill time by telling third-person, slightly hokey versions of their own origin stories. These are accompanied in the story by an Art Shift to brighter colors and a more traditional panel lay-out.
- The Powerpuff Girls origin is already established, but the comic book story "Everything You Know About The Powerpuff Girls Is Wrong" (issue #40, DC run) plays with this. The students of Miss Keane's kindergarten class offer up their own interpretations of how the girls came about, using the origins of Superman, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four as parallels.
- MCU Rewrites: Black Widow details Natasha Romanov's origins: from her training in the Red Room to be conditioned into a cold-blooded killing machine to meeting Clint Barton and being offered a chance at redemption.
- Supergirl fic Survivors is the origin tale that tells how Kara Zor-El and her cousin arrived on Earth, were raised by a family and became the first super-heroes.
- In The Vampire of Steel crossover, one entire chapter is devoted to Supergirl and Buffy the Vampire Slayer exchanging origin tales after having a run-in with some vampires.
- In A Force of Four, Power Girl retells Jimmy her origin in the first chapter.
- Superwomen of Eva 2: Lone Heir of Krypton details how Asuka Langley Sohryu finds out about her powers and heritage and becomes Supergirl.
- Last Child of Krypton is an origin story detailing how Shinji Ikari gained Kryptonian powers and became his world's first and greatest hero.
- Deconstructed in The Incredibles, where the Big Bad Syndrome created the Omnidroid with the express purpose of staging his own debut as a superhero, being the only person that could defeat it on account of having a remote to control it. Unfortunately, in order to make it the ultimate threat, he gave it an artificial intelligence that can learn from its opponent, causing it to rebel and disarm him, leaving the actual superheroes to save the day.
- Deconstructed in Batman Begins: Mook Joe Chill kills Bruce Wayne’s parents. Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop Gotham police cannot deliver justice to him. The Mafia Don Carmine Falcone gives Bruce Wayne a "The Reason You Suck" Speech that forces him to begin The Hero's Journey, then he is trained by the League of Assasins and outsmarts Corrupt Corporate Executive Earl to become Batman. A possible explanation is that Gotham was a Cornered Rattlesnake and it is trying to produce a superhero to survive: Notice that all of the forces oppressing Gotham were Threshold Guardians that created the Superhero that will fight them.
- Wonder Woman tells the story about Diana's parentage, how she acquired her uniform and other equipment, how she received her mundane name, and how she came to be in the world of man.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- Most of the films in Phase 1—namely, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger—act as this for their titular characters, who are the four "super-powered" members of the Avengers, so the audience will know who they are and how they became who they are when they all come together in The Avengers. Iron Man 2 is the sole exception, continuing Iron Man's story (though it does introduce Black Widow, another future Avenger, but she doesn't have superpowers and doesn't receive an origin story). As with their comic book counterparts, Iron Man is Type 4 (he made his original Iron Man suit IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!), Hulk is Type 1 (lab experiment gone wrong), Thor is Type 3 (an Asgardian, whom the Norse gods are based on in this universe but are really Sufficiently Advanced Aliens), Captain America is Type 2 (was chosen to be made into a Super Soldier by the scientist in charge of the program).
- This also holds true with other characters who are introduced in their own movies and have their own adventures before meeting others from the MCU, including Ant-Man (the original, Hank Pym, being Type 4, and his successor, Scott Lang, being Type 2), and Doctor Strange (2016) (also Type 2).
- The MCU version of Spider-Man notably averts this; likely because there are already two recent film series that already went into Spider-Man's origin story, the MCU doesn't bother to do so. In his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, Peter has already been Spider-Man and had his powers for some time, and his own subsequent movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, offers little more about his origin. Presumably it's the same as his origin in other versions.
- Captain Underpants's origin story is told in one of George and Harold's comics - he was born as "Little Baby Underpants" on the planet Underpantyworld, which was under attack by the Wedgie Warlords. Little Baby Underpants's father, Big Daddy Long Johns, created an amulet intended to prevent the planet's destruction from the spray starch the Warlords were using, but it ends up in his son's underwear. Big Daddy Long Johns and his wife, Princess Pantyhose, reluctantly decide to save Little Baby Underpants instead, and they slingshot him (using his underwear) to Earth, where he is adopted and renamed "Captain" by an old couple. Captain's birth parents eventually appeared to him in a dream, revealing his origins and inspiring him to become a superhero. Outside of the comics, Captain Underpants was created when George and Harold use a 3D Hypno Ring on their mean principal Benny Krupp and can't properly undo the hypnotic trance as they lost the instructions. Resorting to breaking the trance by dumping water on his head, Krupp can be put back in the trance at the snap of a finger. He later gains superpowers as Captain Underpants when given superpower juice, though wearing clothes as Mr. Krupp keeps these powers dormant.
- In the book Superpowers the character telling the story directly refuses to explain what happened to give the students their powers. Partly this is to keep the information out of the wrong hands, but mostly it's to avoid an avalanche of snide letters telling him his science is all wrong.
- An odd retroactive example in the Leviathan trilogy by Scott Westerfeld turns the entire trilogy into one for a couple characters due to the ending. The main characters Deryn and Alek make a career change from, respectively, a bio-zeppelin midshipman and Prince-in-exile to agents under the employ of the powerful Zoological Society. Some cryptic remarks in conjunction with the skills they learned throughout the trilogy and the experiences they've had would seem to suggest that they were recruited to be international espionage or diplomatic agents of some sort. However, we're never actually shown what the Zoological Society has planned and the trilogy is done at that point. Whatever the case, after the trilogy they are set up to become powerful and professional figures in the field of political intrigue, whereas they were competent but ragtag amateurs working off limited resources during the trilogy.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer Buffy is explicitely referred to as The Chosen One (though, even when we finally get told how Vampire Slayers came to be, who or what does the choosing is still left vague) and fights evil mainly Because Destiny Says So and, with great ass-kicking ability, Comes Great Responsibility.
- Angel, meanwhile, had its main character be of non-human stock (namely, a vampire) who fights other demons because he's The Atoner who, if he plays the right role in the coming apocalypse, might get to become human again.
- Doctor Who gradually revealed the Doctor's identity and backstory over the course of the show. In 1969, "The War Games" established the Doctor as a Sufficiently Advanced Human Alien called a Time Lord, and revealed that the Doctor stole his TARDIS. In 1973, "The Time Warrior" gave the Doctor's home planet a name: Gallifrey. In 1976, "The Deadly Assassin" introduced Gallifrey as a once-great world that fell into decadent corruption, and explained that the TARDIS was a decommissioned "museum piece" in a government stockpile before the Doctor swiped it. In the late eighties, showrunner Andrew Cartmel planned to establish the Doctor as one of the original founders of Gallifrey, but the show went off the air before this "Cartmel Masterplan" could come to fruition. And starting in 2005, the Time War is part of the new series backstory, taking Gallifrey out of the picture and leaving the Doctor as the Last of His Kind.
- Obscure d20 System superhero game Deeds, Not Words lets players mix power origin, race, and class to make their own Super Hero Origin, with a Point Build System to help custom-build to fit whatever the player wishes. Most of the origins listed above specifically correspond to power origins you can take, such as supernaturals, mutants, avatars, or channelers. Class choice is the go-to for origins such as "My Own Creation" or "Pure Will" types, however.
- Truth & Justice encourages players to outline their character's Origin, but it doesn't automatically have any kind of mechanical relevance - it's there for the Game Master to mine for plot ideas. A player can choose to make it matter mechanically by basing their Weakness on their powers (such as a Superman character listing "Kryptonite"), or if the player takes a Meta-Power for their character, a package of shared powers and vulnerabilities based on that Origin.
- In City of Heroes, the above 5 origins are organized thusly: Magic, Kheldian/Natural, Science, Technology/Natural* , and Mutant.
- "One day, at the scene of a fire, the cop found the perfect fireman axe. That was the day he became... Axe Cop." Yes, that's his whole origin.
- Parodied in The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!, when Bob ends up randomly stumbling through five different super hero origins in the space of a few minutes (alien ring, radioactive spider bite, cosmic rays, sadistic Canadian scientists, etc.), resulting in his becoming so powerful that he can barely move without destroying his surroundings.
- Ciem Webcomic Series. Stan Flippo was experimented on by aliens, who fused his genes with those of a mutated centipede. His daughter gets superpowers.
- The current story arc of M9 Girls! is their origin story: the Girls get their powers at the scientific job they are working as interns.
- Elliot of El Goonish Shive reminds◊ why most try keep their origin secret.
- Appears in this Comments on a Postcard strip. Allegedly.
- Takotsubo: The story of a superhero is a Deconstruction of this: Cord Cai is an unassuming Asian-American young man, who's trying to be good after a life of street gangs and homophobia. After his fiance Roland gets shot, the police barely manage to help, and Cord attempts to jump off the Golden Gate, but gets spotted and taken to the hospital. Desperate for justice, Cord tracks down the murderer... and then shoots him. And then starts a gang instead of becoming a superhero, because he thinks he's not good enough to get out of the streets. Of course, this will clearly be a Reconstruction since his alias is the Tin Man, his gang works with the police to clean up civilian crime, and the story's tagline states that this is "the story of a superhero."
- Several episodes of Society Of Virtue including "Choices", "Adopted Son" and "The Impressives"
- Whateley Universe: While super-powered mutants are the primary focus of both the titular Superhero School, Whateley Academy, and the series as a whole, examples of damn near every other possible origin can be found in the series as well. This has been lampshaded multiple times. For example, when a superhero team with no mutant members find out that they are pretty much the only ones who had been kept in the dark about Whateley, everyone else was surprised to find out they didn't know about the school already. Since most of the other teams had had at least one mutant who had been a Whateley student, it never occurred to anyone to mention it to them. Conversely, others suspected that the reason that SPECTRUM didn't have any mutant members was because they were all bigoted against mutants, so they didn't want to spill the beans, though most figured they would have heard about it anyway.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender lays it out in the Opening Narration before every episode. All together now:
Katara: Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he still has a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.
- Interestingly, both Metro Man (a Superman Expy) and his arch-nemesis Megamind have the same initial origin mirroring Superman's - they're both from neighboring planets that were sucked into an Unrealistic Black Hole. The difference is, Metro Man looks human but has Superman's powers. Megamind has a large cranium, is completely blue, and is devilishly smart (he can also survive a Megaton Punch but otherwise has no powers). Also, while Metro Man was raised by loving, rich parents, Megamind was raised by (also loving) convicts in prison.