Traumatic Superhero Origins: When The Going Gets Tough

Traumatic superhero origins are pretty prevalent in comics. Sometimes, getting powers isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. For most heroes, their origin story is what sets them on the path of costume-wearing heroics. A tragedy is often an integral and well-known part of a hero’s origin — everyone knows that Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed and that Uncle Ben was shot by a thief. 

But what happens when your superhero origin tragedy is a physical transformation? For some characters, gaining superpowers can be the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. The effects of trauma can be inescapable, but what do you do when the source of your power is your trauma?

When Your Body is a Prison

In THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008), Bruce Banner’s powers come at the cost of his agency and personhood. The film presents the Hulk’s traumatic superhero origins in the opening credits, a botched experiment that nearly resulted in the deaths of Betty Ross and her father. Bruce’s escape as the Hulk is implied to have resulted in the deaths of multiple people. In order to prevent it from happening again, he decides to remain in hiding.

Superhero Origins

Edward Norton as Bruce Banner in THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Image Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

The first scene of the film finds Bruce in Brazil, working in a bottling plant and desperately seeking a cure for his condition. He practices yoga and actively controls his pulse and breathing to prevent transformations. Text in the corner of the screen indicates that it’s been five months since Bruce’s last “incident.” If his heart rate rises above 200 beats per minute, a Hulk transformation will occur.

Trapped by Traumatic Superhero Origins

When the Hulk takes over, Bruce blacks out and resurfaces with little to no memory about anything that occurred. In addition to this, Bruce is never truly able to examine or process any of his feelings properly. Stress, anger, and strong emotion in general trigger transformation.

In order to fully process a traumatic event and move past it, you must first allow yourself to feel something. However, Bruce Banner is trapped inside of a body that is his trauma. Thinking about his circumstances will only force a transformation he does not want.

Until Bruce finds a cure, he is permanently trapped inside of his own body, at the mercy of “the other guy.” At the beginning of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, the beeping of Banner’s pulse monitor marks the anxious seconds passing as the U.S. military chases him.

Bruce desperately pleads with the thugs preventing his escape as his heart monitor ticks upward, telling them that “Something very bad is going to happen here.” It’s pretty clear that Bruce Banner does not have any love for his gamma-irradiated powers.

Superhero Origins

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in the AVENGERS MCU series.

In the AVENGERS (2012), Natasha Romanoff approaches Banner to join the team with an entire contingent of armed soldiers, just in case anything should go awry. When the fractured Avengers team begins arguing over the Tesseract, Banner reveals that all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s contingency plans are for nothing; “I put a bullet in my mouth, and the other guy spit it out.”

In the second AVENGERS film, only a few people (namely Black Widow) are able to calm the Hulk down, reciting the mantra “the sun’s getting real low.” In THOR: RAGNAROK, a video of Natasha breaks the Hulk’s two-year grip on Bruce. Even then, it’s not a fool-proof method.

What Is an Alter-Ego?

Similar to the Hulk, the Thing from the FANTASTIC FOUR gets exposed to cosmic radiation from a space cloud, resulting in a permanent new look. However, in the aftermath of cosmic radiation exposure, Ben is the one who draws the short stick.

Compared to his companions, the Thing is the only member of the Fantastic Four without the option to appear human; when your powers are permanent like Ben Grimm’s, you do not get the luxury of having a secret identity. Everyone knows who you are at all times. This is a problem that Ben deals with often — he just wants some normalcy, but his physical transformation doesn’t allow that.

Superhero Origins


The reactions people have to Ben after his transformation aren’t exactly pleasant, either. When he goes home to visit his fiancée, she screams and runs away at the sight of him. On the Brooklyn Bridge, Ben attempts to help a man about to commit suicide but worsens the situation when the man runs away in fear.

Even after the Fantastic Four’s first rescue on the bridge, Ben receives the least enthusiasm. Bystanders look at him in shock and children fear him. Reed Richards promises Ben that his first goal is to find a cure for their powers.

Who’s In Control?

The new JUSTICE LEAGUE film released in 2017 introduces Victor Stone’s traumatic superhero origins as Cyborg, newly transformed by his father and the Motherbox. As a result, Victor has isolated himself in his home and refuses to work with his father to learn more about his new body.

The first conversation audiences get to see between Victor and Silas addresses Victor’s fears about his new body and his contempt for his father for making him that way. Silas says,

“I didn’t think you were ready for them [to see you]… you are not a monster, Victor.”

Superhero Origins

“This is not what I meant when I asked for a new computer, dad.”

To which Victor replies,

“It’s interesting that you think I was talking about me.”

Victor then goes on to explain that the alien technology in his head doesn’t just suddenly make sense to him now that it’s in his head. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; the technology seems to be making sense of Victor and shutting him out in the process. Victor says,

“I’ve got a language in my head that I don’t speak. Every day I wake up different… modified.”

Gifts or Burdens?

Victor doesn’t have the ability to completely control his body. The alien technology exists as an entity separate from Cyborg, and he runs the real risk of losing himself. Cyborg’s body automatically activates defensive protocol after Superman is Frankensteined back to life. An actual canon sprouts from his hands and shoots at Superman.

For Cyborg, it’s a viable worry that alien technology has corrupted him. The DCEU marks a world where Superman lived, fought an alien invasion, and died. Now that his body is more alien than human, could he be the next invasion? What kind of responsibility does he have to world if that’s true? Cyborg sums it up best after Wonder Woman describes his transformation as a gift;

“If these are gifts, then why am I the one paying for them?”

Powers as a Curse

In the Marvel Netflix series DAREDEVIL, Matt Murdock gets his powers after pushing an old man out of the path of an oncoming truck, taking the hit himself. In true comic origin fashion, the truck was carrying radioactive chemicals that blinded Matt while simultaneously granting him powers. Talk about traumatic superhero origins.

Matt experienced many difficulties adjusting to his life after the accident. For one, he was now blind and had to compensate for his missing sense. In a flashback to Matt’s childhood, we see him struggling with his new heightened senses. He was unable to understand what was happening to him.

Superhero Origins

Daredevil in his prime in Marvel’s Netflix Original, DAREDEVIL.

People often say that when someone loses a sense, the others grow stronger to compensate for the absence. This is doubly true for Matt. After the radiation transforms him, his heightened senses allow him to perform feats that most people could not.

Matt Murdock’s greatest conflict comes from the fact that he believes, on some level, that his powers are a curse. A defining aspect of Matt’s character is that he is a devout Catholic. This provides an interesting tension between the two warring aspects of his identity. His abilities compel him to use them. Put simply, he cannot hear a crime is happening and let it happen. And Matt Murdock hears everything.

It’s heavily implied in DAREDEVIL that Matt takes on his superhero persona (so far, he’s the only Netflix hero to don a costume, and it is definitely an intentional choice) as a method of atoning for his sins. Playing into heavy Catholic imagery, Daredevil’s powers are his own cross to bear.

Moving On From Traumatic Superhero Origins

To be honest, there aren’t that many characters who don’t have traumatic superhero origins. The Thing is a living rock mass, and the Human Torch is literally on fire.

The critical difference is that Johnny Storm can turn the flames off. The Thing never gets that opportunity. His multiple film incarnations have reached different places of acceptance with Ben’s powers. It’s interesting to see how later possible adaptations could tackle Ben Grimm’s comic book attitude about his powers.

Similarly, Bruce Banner’s relationships are invariably fraught with the fear that the next time he goes green, that could be the last of Banner. After the events of THOR: RAGNAROK, Bruce’s fear feels especially poignant; he spent two years fighting in a gladiator arena with little to no memory of it happening. Any semblance of control he had over the Hulk has shattered. Who knows what AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has in store for the green guy?

On the other hand, Cyborg appears to find some peace with his new life, or at least a sense of direction, in spite of his traumatic superhero origins. In a tense moment where he and Superman are attempting to remove the three pieces of the Motherbox, he admits that he’s happy to be alive. Despite everything it took to get him there, Cyborg does not regret his second chance at life. It’s a start.

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