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I got bitten by a radioactive bugA dying alien helped me accessorize
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 eye
—Ookla the Mok, "Super Powers"
Every Superhero has an origin story, tellling how they gained their powers and decided to fight crime. It may be revealed in their first appearance, or not until an eventual Flash Back, but once established it sets ground rules for which tropes are applicable to that particular Superhero.
- 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; for instance, Captain Marvel (who is not Shazam) or the Silver Age Green Lantern, or the previous wielder handed it down.)
- Non-Human Hero (They're superhuman because they're not human at all; for instance, aliens Superman or Martian Manhunter; after all, they're from space.) They might alternately be genetically engineered, a cyborg (inevitably involuntary and Angsting over his condition), or otherwise a creation of science. In this case, expect them to be a Phlebotinum Rebel.
- Lucky Accident (A Freak Lab Accident, a one-in-a-million malfunction, or what have you; for instance, Spider-Man or The Flash.)
- My Own Creation (A scientist, an engineer, or some other makes-cool-stuff type invents something that gives them powers and uses it to help people; for instance, Iron Man, 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".)
- 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; for instance, Batman, the second (Ted Kord) Blue Beetle.)
- Random Selection (Something totally random that nevertheless isn't an "accident"; for instance, any mutant character. Tends to be retconned into one of the others later.
...each of which has its associated tropes. Any of the last four may be retconned into The Chosen One. SuperVillains also get their powers in these ways, though their accidents tend to be more unlucky. 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 (if, for example 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.
- 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.
- 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, but they can't properly undo the trance as they lost the instructions, so they often had to turn him back to normal by dumping water on his head, only to 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stan Flippo was experimented on by aliens, who fused his genes with those of a mutated centipede. His daughter gets superpowers.
- In City of Heroes, the above 5 origins are organized thusly: Magic, Kheldian/Natural, Science, Technology/Natural, and Mutant.
- Elliot of El Goonish Shive reminds why most try keep their origin secret.
- 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.
- 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.
- "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.
- 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 a 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 convicts in prison.
- 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.
- Parodied in What's New? with Phil and Dixie, in which a single hero-to-be is subjected to so many variants of this trope that he's reduced to ashes by their cumulative effects.