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Debate Club: The 5 best superhero origin stories
Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
With great power comes great responsibility … but where did the great power come from in the first place? The appeal of superhero origin stories is that we get to witness the moment when a seemingly ordinary guy suddenly confronts his destiny. One day he’s just an average scientist … or high school student … or Gotham’s richest citizen … and then, wham, he’s our newest crime fighter.
Hollywood loves telling origin stories as a way to introduce (or reintroduce) iconic characters to movie audiences. But when they work well, these narratives have an undeniable appeal, sort of a behind-the-scenes story of our favorite caped crusaders and masked men.
Before Evil Dead II director Sam Raimi got his hands on Spider-Man, he told the story of another superhero, an original creation that tapped into his love of B-movie mayhem.
In Darkman, Liam Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, who is developing synthetic skin, never imagining he’ll have to use his invention on himself after being badly burned. This gonzo action-thriller actually served as a template of sorts for how Raimi would later approach 2002’s Spider-Man. (Both movies are about men who have to learn to cope with an uncomfortable reality brought forth by their unwieldy new powers.)
Darkman is funky and funny, borrowing from Batman and Phantom of the Opera and whatever else Raimi can think of. But it’s also the story of a good man who comes to realize how dark he can become.
04. Captain America: The First Avenger
In a world where they can digitally de-age Samuel L. Jackson for a whole movie, the technology that made Chris Evans look like a 5-foot-tall pipsqueak is a little less impressive today. But the film itself is as cheerfully square and straightforward as its hero, introducing us to a guy who is going to fight for what’s right, forever, and that’s all that matters.
Captain America was always seen as a cheesy, cartoonish character – at least to mainstream audiences – but this film made him powerful, human and… noble. It made him ours.
03. Iron Man
Remember when it was weird, even risky, to cast Robert Downey Jr. as a superhero? Perhaps the only way the Marvel Cinematic Universe could have even been launched even semi-organically would be to let Downey and director Jon Favreau have a ton of freedom with a character who, on the whole, had never been one of the most beloved in the Marvel stable. Downey changed that immediately and became, in one film, the centerpiece of the biggest Hollywood franchise in 40 years. And it even has the perfect twist ending… and the ideal origin story finish.
02. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Did anyone need another Spider-Man movie? Nah, but after seeing Into the Spider-Verse, it was clear one more couldn’t hurt, especially when it introduces moviegoers to Miles Morales, a New York kid who’s about to discover he’s part of a weird and wild multiverse of Spider-Men and Women.
Actor/singer Shameik Moore gives voice to Miles in this eye-popping animated treat. But it’s his likable, vulnerable performance that brings significant emotional heft to this tale of a kid torn between two very different male role models, his straight-arrow cop dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and his more permissive uncle (Mahershala Ali). Spidey’s story has always been about a boy becoming a man, but Into the Spider-Verse makes that coming of age poignant, thrilling, and hilarious.
01. Batman Begins
One of many amazing things about Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is that it’s such a terrific crime thriller, with such a sense of place and scope, that you spend most of the movie forgetting it’s a superhero movie at all. Bruce Wayne is just a tortured guy flailing around, strong but unsure of his place, reckless and dangerous, not least of all to himself. But as the film goes along, we see him slowly becoming the figure he’s supposed to be, but it’s never rushed or inevitable, which is astounding considering how well we know the legend. Still a small miracle, 15 years later.