Greetings from the Odinson,
Every super hero has a Secret Origin. A singular event or moment in time that set him or her on their path. The Odinson has determined there are 6 main types of Origin Stories – Vengeance, Born to Shine, The Calling, Accidental/Circumstance, Destiny, and Redemption. Now, some of these motifs may overlap, and there may even be other unlisted situations that have helped shape and/or set a hero on their path, but I believe it’s safe to say all origins of heroes in popular fiction can be traced back to one or more of those listed below.
Vengeance – Probably the most prominent and used source of motivation. When a boy named Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in front of him on the shadowy, dingy streets of Crime Alley, he swore vengeance. He grew up and became the crime-fighter known as Batman, a caped crusader dedicated to making sure nobody will have to suffer the same tragedy that befell him.
Eric Draven was brought back from the grave by the Crow in order to seek out revenge on the street gang that attacked and murdered him and his fiancé one year earlier. After his family was caught in the crossfire of rival mobsters, Special Forces operative Frank Castle declared war on crime and to this day wreaks bloody vengeance on all those who would visit evil on others. Blade was born on the day his mother was bitten by a vampire. All the supernatural powers of the undead were passed to him, but none of their weaknesses. Now, the Daywalker stalks the night, seeking vengeance on the vampires that murdered his mother and cursed him with the thirst. So, it’s Open Season on all blood-suckers. When Hanzo Hasashi and his entire family were wiped out by a rival ninja clan, he made a deal in hell and returned to the land of the living as Scorpion, a spirit of vengeance fueled by fiery rage and an all-encompassing thirst for retribution.
Vengeance is a powerful source of motivation, but it is a double-edged sword. Without a strong moral code to keep it in check, those fueled by only vengeance run the risk of becoming that which they hate most…the bad guy.
Born to Shine – Then there are those that are just born special. Danny Torrance possesses strange empathic and clairvoyant powers that allow him to see the future and read the thoughts of others. This wasn’t anything he asked for. He was just born with it. As his mentor, the kindly Dick Hallorann once said, “Some shine, and some don’t.”
These characters were born with the gifts that helped them become a hero. By virtue of their heritage and/or nurturing, these heroes were going to be great no matter what. Clark Kent’s Kryptonian physiology absorbs the rays of the yellow sun like a sponge and grants him powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Raised on a rural farm in Kansas and having been instilled with the virtues of truth and justice, Clark grew to become Superman, the greatest super hero of them all.
Diana Prince was born and raised on the magical paradise island of Themyscira. Blessed by the gods at birth, she grew up to become one of the most beloved heroes in history. The mighty Thor and Hercules are the scions of divine royalty and born with the stature and strength that comes with that. Both the Sub-Mariner and Aquaman were the product of a union between a human and an Atlantean, making them more than human and more than Atlantean. Saiyan blood courses through the veins of Goku giving him the capacity to tap into ultimate potential and beyond.
No greater example of Born to Shine can be found than the Children of the Atom. Mutants are the next stage in human evolution and they are born, though some may say cursed, with powers and abilities beyond normal men and women.
The Calling – Sometimes someone just answers the call to rise to the occasion and thrive to serve something greater than their own personal needs or desires. Steve Rogers wanted to fight for what was right and he was willing to sacrifice everything to do just that, even if his frail body kept him from doing it. Transformed into a super soldier, now as Captain America, Rogers is the living embodiment of truth, justice, and the American Way and the stalwart Sentinel of Liberty.
Luke Skywalker was a simple farm boy on a backwater planet located on the fringes of known space, but he wanted so much more. He desperately wanted to join the fight against tyranny and evil and ultimately he did, saving the galaxy, redeeming the Jedi Order, and saving the soul of his father along the way. In order to protect the legacy of his people, Beta Ray Bill gave up everything, including his humanity. His calling ultimately proved him worthy of lifting the Hammer of Thor, a privilege bestowed on only a handful of people in history.
Frodo Baggins is not a mighty warrior, a regal elf, nor a fearless dwarf. He is but a Hobbit, a simple farmer from the unassuming Shire who never had any aspirations of influencing the larger events of the world. However, it was the Calling to serve the greater good that led Frodo to taking on the monumental responsibility of the ring bearer and embarking on the harrowing quest to destroy the One Ring.
Accidental/Circumstance – This is someone that was not necessarily born to be a hero but was set on their heroic journey by happenstance and/or just blind luck. Ellen Ripley was the warrant officer serving on the Nostromo, a deep space commercial hauler. However, when a deadly Xenomorph slaughters her entire crew, Ripley is forced to rise to the occasion and face down her alien adversary in a deadly showdown. Years later, Ripley would be forced to take her heroic actions to the next level in Aliens when an entire team of Colonial Marines is wiped out leaving Ripley as the only one left to save a young girl and face down the Alien Queen.
The Marvel Age of Comics was launched and sustained almost exclusively by this trope. The powers of the Fantastic Four are a byproduct of accidently being exposed to Cosmic Rays. Peter Parker was given the proportionate speed and strength of a human-size spider when he accidently crossed paths and was bitten by a radioactive spider. Trying to save the life of teenager Rick Jones, Bruce Banner was caught in the explosion of a Gamma Bomb which transformed him into the Incredible Hulk. Pushing a man to safety, young Matt Murdock was blinded by radioactive chemicals which actually granted him super human senses, powers he would use as the super hero Daredevil.
Oliver Queen was forced to hone his longbow hunting skills to elite levels when he was shipwrecked on an island. A one in a billion-billion chance event occurred when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals which doused Barry Allen and granted him the super human speed of the Flash.
The point is not everyone was born to be a hero or destined for greatness. Sometimes it is just misfortune, a roll of the dice, or just simply the virtue of Circumstance that leads to the birth of a hero.
Destiny – Arthur was the boy that pulled Excalibur from the stone, destined to be king, and foretold to be the man that would rule Camelot and bring forth peace and prosperity to the land. This is the category that features those whose fate has been preordained. They have no choice in the matter. They are, for lack of a better term, the Chosen One.
Buffy Summers is the Slayer, the one girl in all the world that can protect mankind from the vampires and the forces of darkness. Like it or not, this is her destiny. Neo never asked to be The One. However, his path to becoming the most powerful force within the digital reality that is the Matrix was predetermined long before he was ever born. In fact, there have been others before him. But it was only Neo that was able to break the cycle and bring about the end of the war between machines and man, thus fulfilling the prophecy of The One.
It would absolutely shake someone to their very core to learn they are destined to impact the future and their fate will either save mankind, or doom it. This is exactly what Sarah Connor learns when a soldier from the future reveals to her that she will give birth to the leader of the resistance that will topple the machines that have all but wiped out humanity in a time that has not even happened yet. What does Sarah Connor do? She transforms into one of the toughest, most capable heroes cinema has ever seen and faces down not one, but two deadly Terminators. She bucks the system and redefines the rules for Destiny and establishes there is no fate but what we make.
Redemption – Or rather, the pursuit of redemption. Usually fueled by guilt and/or regret, this is a path of the one who seeks to set right the wrong doings and sins of the past. Once upon a time, Angel was one of the vilest creatures of the night to ever stalk the earth. For over a century he and his brood cut a swathe of death and destruction from Ireland to China. His cruelty and evil were legendary, even amongst his own kind. Then one day, Gypsies cursed him with a soul and now he is forced to feel the guilt of all the atrocities he has ever committed. Now, in modern times, this vampire with a soul helps the helpless and one day hopes to balance the scales for his past sins and redeem himself in the eyes of the Powers that Be.
Xena the Warrior Princess follows a similar path as Angel. The Twelve Labors of Hercules, the most astounding heroic achievements of the ancient world, were in fact a penance for past sins. Norrin Radd lives with the guilt of knowing that for many years he led the world-devouring Galactus to countless planets and sentenced untold billions to oblivion. These Past Sins have threaten to overwhelm the Silver Surfer before, but now they fuel his determination to bring justice to a chaotic galaxy forevermore.
Every super hero has a Secret Origin. There may be other examples and there is no doubt overlapping among them, but, without a doubt, the origins of all our favorite super heroes can be traced back to Vengeance, Born to Shine, The Calling, Accidental/Circumstance, Destiny, and/or Redemption.
This is Odinson bidding thee farewell
NOTE: For past entries of the So Sayeth the Odinson blog, over a decade’s worth of comic book and pop culture articles and reviews, click HERE. Also, be sure to check out my novels The Survivors and Autumn Dawn, which were inspired by 1980s horror – HERE and HERE