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Origin stories have been the bread and butter of superhero movies for a long time. Before cinematic universes were ever a thing, the big studios could hope for is to grab the rights to a popular comic book character, give them an origin story and if it turns out to be big hit, put out a sequel or two (or if you’re really unlucky, a third sequel about ending the Cold War by throwing nukes at the sun or one where Arnold Schwarzenegger makes horrible ice puns). Franchises and big ensemble movies may be all the rage these days, but every hero needs to start somewhere. Origin stories aren’t going away anytime soon, as the recent release of Doctor Strange proves and as such, it’s only fitting that we take look at the Top 5 Best among them.
Before we start with the list proper, one honorable mention is in order – this year’s Deadpool. Stuck in development hell for more than a decade, the Merc with the Mouth was finally given the big-screen, live-action treatment he deserved, thanks to the commitment, hard work and passion of star Ryan Reynolds, as well as director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. It was well worth the wait. An incredibly faithful adaptation, packed with hilarity, violence and self-awareness, Deadpool was exactly the breath of fresh air superhero movies needed in 2016. For all its fourth-wall breaking, self-referential humor, it still clung a little too close to superhero conventions and tropes to make the Top 5 list, but it’s definitely one of the best origin stories out there. The movie didn’t shy away from Wade Wilson’s gruesome backstory, and in keeping with the character, found a way to balance side-splittingly hilarious and uncomfortably dark really well. To think this was all made possible because of leaked test footage (which star Ryan Reynolds is 70% sure wasn’t done by him).
5) Superman (1978)
The modern age of superhero movies undoubtedly begins with Richard Donner’s Superman, starring Christopher Reeve. While it hasn’t aged particularly well in some aspects and the infamous scene of Superman turning back time by reversing the Earth’s rotation will forever be a point of contention for fans, the 1978 Superman still has a lot going for it. It’s a solid telling of the classic origin of the Man of Steel (alien baby is launched into space from a dying world, crashes in Kansas and is raised by farmers) and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the character remains one of the most beloved among fans and general audiences, despite how terrible some of the later sequels became. It was a time when it was still cool for Superman to rock the red underpants, smile and actually be a hero and an inspiration to people. It was a time where villains were cartoonishly evil and over-the-top and damsels were frequently in need of rescue. Old-fashioned? Unabashedly corny? Yes. It’s also the movie that promised “you will believe a man can fly”, and nearly forty years on, it still pretty much makes good on its word.
4) Spider-Man (2002)
After the decline of superhero movies in the mid-to-late 90s, culminating with the trainwreck that was Batman & Robin (more on that later), it seemed like comic book adaptations had peaked. Fortunately, Marvel was there to pick up the slack, with big hits like Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). Directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man was a massive hit back in the day and with very good reason. Maguire’s portrayal was a little lacking when it came to the character’s trademark wit, but he made up for it with plenty of heart and nerdy charm. The costume was an original design that deviated from the classic comic book look and took it in a bold and very striking new direction, with pronounced web lines and mirrored eyes. The origin story was updated and revised, but still pretty close to the original tale – the radioactive spider was now a more scientifically plausible genetically modified spider and the death of Uncle Ben made more tragic because of a fight he had with Peter right before it. Casting J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson was so spot on, that to this day seeing anyone else in that role is practically unimaginable. At the end of the day, this wasn’t a perfect movie – even back then the Green Goblin costume was way too silly looking and the special effects have really not aged well in certain parts – but it’s pretty damn close.
3) Iron Man (2008)
The current meteoric rise in popularity for superhero movies can be attributed almost entirely to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man jumpstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way and made a superhero that was mostly known to comic book fans turned him into a household name on par with the likes of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. It set the template for many of the Marvel movies that followed and its influence can still be felt strongly today – in fact, Doctor Strange, in particular, owes a great deal to Iron Man, what with both movies being about rich, charming assholes rethinking their lives and becoming superheroes after a personal tragedy. Tony Stark made being a superhero fun in a way that no other movie before it had because the character seemed to be enjoying himself even more than the audience was. Aside from changing the landscape of cinema, which alone would have earned it a spot on this list, Iron Man is also just a fantastic action-adventure, with an excellent cast and a phenomenal lead performance by RDJ in the titular role – a role that also was a huge comeback for the star, what with his troubled history. It is not just one of the best superhero origin stories, it is one of the best superhero movies period. It’s so weird to think that it was released just eight years ago, considering how much has happened since then for superheroes.
2) Batman Begins (2005)
1997’s Batman & Robin effectively killed The Cape Crusader’s big screen prominence for the better part of a decade. In 2005, director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale brought the character back in a big way. Batman Begins is the most comprehensive and grounded look at The Dark Knight’s origin story to date, delving deep into the psychology and mythology of the character. We not only witness the death of the Wayne family at the hands of a mugger, but we see Bruce’s haunting journey of self-discovery, as well as his long period of physical and psychological training on the path to becoming the Batman. Batman Begins had a richness of character and realism that few, if any superhero movies before it dared to go for, borrowing heavily from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, showing Gotham to corrupt, decaying, crime-filled cesspool. Lackluster action scenes and Christian Bale’s highly divisive Batman voice aside, this was the movie that showed the world superheroes can be serious business, while also resurrecting an iconic character from what seemed like certain death. Plus, it paved the way for arguably the best superhero movie of all time – The Dark Knight.
1) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is a modern superhero flick that tends to get overlooked – at the time, people were far more interested in the upcoming Avengers movie and now, it’s overshadowed by its undoubtedly superior sequels – yet The First Avenger brought us easily the best superhero origin story yet. It achieved the impossible – taking a superhero that is literally dressed as the American flag seem down-to-earth. The First Avenger embraced the overblown patriotism that’s inherent to the character, but approached it in a very clever way, making Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a hero not just of America, but of the world. After all, Steve is just a kid from Brooklyn who doesn’t like bullies – it doesn’t matter if they happen to be from Germany. A stellar supporting cast that includes the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan and Hugo Weaving among others, a healthy dose of old-school adventure charm and one truly standout musical number doesn’t hurt either. The Winter Soldier and Civil War are both better movies, but they wouldn’t have worked half as well if The First Avenger wasn’t the rich, nuanced origin story for Captain America it turned out to be.