Most times, the best place to start any story is at the beginning. That’s none more evident than in the following films on this list, which each kickoff with the backstory of some of some of the most famous characters in cinema history. Origin stories are fascinating for audiences because it gives us a look at how characters are shaped and molded in the people that they are. The movies on this list can either be a look at what drives a superhero, what pushed a villain over the edge, or anything in between.
The films mentioned here are some of the best examples we can think of compelling narratives that reveal the legends behind the myths. To be clear, this isn’t a list of fantastic prequels. The first film in a series can still qualify as long as it as sequels, or soon to be sequels, under its belt.
With that in mind, here are the 15 Best Origin Story Movies.
15. Hannibal Rising
As we watch Anthony Hopkin’s stoic and haunting face from behind the glass in Silence of the Lambs, we have to wonder, what makes such an intelligent man like that become a monster? In 2007’s Hannibal Rising we finally learn that it is revenge that sends Dr. Lecter off the edge into the charming cannibal we all know and love. After his family is brutally murdered by the Nazi war machine during World War II, young Hannibal moves in with his aunt and makes it his mission to kill the murderers responsible.
Though Hannibal Rising is a decent origin story, Gaspard Ulliel is unable to achieve the iconic status with the role that Anthony Hopkins provided. It’s a revenge story, and a good one, but not an in-depth character study that most fans were expecting. Still, the movie has its positives like its gorgeous cinematography, and the fact that the story significantly picks up in speed by the end of the second act. It may not be Silence of the Lambs, but Hannibal Rising is an intriguing origin story of the twisted psychiatrist who became a monster.
14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
To say that George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy is divisive would be the understatement of the century. The set of movies are frequently criticized for bad pacing, wooden acting and an oversaturated amount of CGI. Still, the general consensus would be that the third installment, Revenge of the Sith, is easily the best of the bunch. While it still suffers from many of the problems in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, it finally reveals how Anakin Skywalker became the evil Darth Vader in a satisfying fashion.
The final hour of the movie is indeed riveting as Skywalker accepts Palpatine as his master and lays waste to the Jedi temple. The climactic duel with Obi Wan, though a bit overblown, is a personal one, and for the first time in the prequels we are emotionally invested in the outcome. To see Anakin be burnt alive as he vehemently declares his hatred for his former master is hard to watch, but necessary in order to understand the man who becomes the most ruthless Sith Lord in the galaxy. We just wish Lucas hadn’t almost ruined it with that very awkward “Noooooo!” at the end.
13. Ghostbusters 1984
What happens when three former parapsychology professors set up a business where they hunt and remove ghosts? They create a classic comedy in the process, which combines supernatural elements with fantastic performances and mind-blowing special effects. Ghostbusters is a brilliant origin story that follows Bill Murray’s cynical Dr. Peter Venkman, Dan Aykroyd’s enthusiastic Dr. Ray Stantz and Harold Ramis’ reclusive Egon Spengler as they form New York’s premier paranormal research team.
It’s nothing but laughs as we watch the Ghostbusters’ transition from college professors to clumsy ghost hunters. From their less than humble beginnings, including their first assignment where they practically destroy a hotel ballroom, it’s a blast to watch the Ghostbuster team take shape. The dynamic between the three, and later, four, core members is something that casting dreams are made of. Although the origin story of the recent reboot is decent enough, Ghostbusters 1984 truly is in a league of its own.
12. Monster’s University
Twelve years after the release of Monster’s Inc., Pixar announced a much awaited follow-up with everyone’s favorite monster duo, Mike and Sulley, back in action. It piqued audiences’ interest even more when it was revealed that instead of continuing their adventures, Monster’s University was going to be a prequel set years before the events of the first installment. Viewers are treated to a look back in time at as the two monsters meet at “Monster’s University.”
Besides the fact that Monster’s University has an overwhelming nostalgic factor, it is surprisingly a well-crafted origin story in its own right. It’s fun to watch the two mismatched monsters endlessly bicker with one another, and form a long-lasting friendship by the end of the film that we all know they would. Like all of Pixar’s movies, the animation here is rock solid, as is all the creative designs for the various monsters. Monster’s University is a fun origin story that reminds us yet again what made Pixar so groundbreaking in the first place.
11. The Hobbit
Before Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring set forth on their quest to Mordor, there was another hobbit who got into a crazy adventure of his own. The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, who reluctantly sets out on the trail of the Lonely Mountain with his new pal Gandalf, and a whole troop of dwarves who wish to reclaim their home from a fierce dragon.
Almost a decade after his very popular and beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson returns to the world of Middle-earth in this prequel trilogy set of films. While it is nowhere near the groundbreaking territory Jackson set up with previous installments, The Hobbit is a decent origin tale as Bilbo and his companions run into elves, goblins, orcs, and even a giant dragon named Smaug. Perhaps most importantly, this origin story depicts how Bilbo came into possession of the mysterious one Ring from a familiar creature known as Gollum.
Kicking off our top ten is the origin story of everyone’s favorite chimichanga eating, gun toting, and katana wielding vigilante. Deadpool took audiences by storm earlier this year for its unique blend of comedy, action and romance. It was FOX’s first R rated X-Men movie and the gamble more than paid off, smashing box office records in the process.
But the reason Deadpool was so popular wasn’t that it was R rated. No doubt that certainly helped, but its success can be credited to that the fact that it was creative, entertaining and most importantly, it was something different. The story of Wade Wilson may borrow certain superhero tropes, but its nonlinear narrative and stylized action scenes keep it new and refreshing for audiences. Thanks to its focus on characterization, we care deeply when Wilson becomes his alter-ego, and can’t wait to see him get his much deserved revenge by the end of the movie.
It’s a fantastic origin story, and now that the character has been properly setup we’re eagerly awaiting Deadpool 2 which will add more laughs, more guns, more violence, and more time travel with the introduction of Cable.
9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Though Harry Potter’s story was ongoing through the eight movie series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is really our introduction into the magical world of witches and wizards. We are introduced to the life of Harry Potter, an average 11-year old boy who is severely mistreated by his rotten aunt and uncle. Harry is, as it turns out, no average boy, and is soon told that he is a wizard who has been invited to attend Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Once there, Harry meets his best friends Ron and Hermione, learns how to play Quidditch, forms a rival with Draco Malfoy, meets headmaster Albus Dumbledore, and learns of his important destiny against the ongoing battle of He Who Must Not Be Named. This origin story gives audiences a look into the magical realm that was crafted so vividly in the books play out on the big screen. While the following sequels certainly grow more mature and darker, Sorcerer’s Stone is still a solid introduction into this fascinating world of magic.
8. Spider-Man (2002)
With great power comes great responsibility.
These are powerful words echoed in Sam Raimi’s coming of age superhero story, Spider-Man, which was the first major film adaptation of the popular webslinger. The movie chronicles the origins of Spidey as Peter Parker makes his fateful visit to a laboratory and is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider. Endowed with superhuman strength and senses, plus the ability to shoot webs, Spider-Man does his best to clean up the city of New York, while at the same time doing battle with his arch nemesis, the Green Goblin.
Though it was released almost fifteen years ago, the first Spider-Man still holds up surprisingly well on repeat viewings today. Sure, the special effects may be a tad dated, but the narrative is still a very solid extension of his comic book adventures. For a movie about a kid who swings from rooftops using webs, there are important life lessons that can be learned here from the fantastic script by veteran screenwriter Mark Koepp. Though he might have been recently outshined by Tom Holland in the role, Tobey Maguire will always be Spider-Man to a generation of fans.
7. X-Men: First Class
One of the most compelling aspects of the X-Men movies is watching the tumultuous relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr; the yin and yang of the mutant world. Once trusted allies turned brutal enemies, their beginnings as a mutant team are chronicled in X-Men: First Class, which serves as an origin story of how Professor X and the rest of the X-Men came to be.
Director Matthew Vaughn creates a compelling tale of mutants, some familiar to the film franchise and some new, discovering their powers and trying to control them for the first time. Set to the backdrop of the far-out 1960s, this prequel (or reboot depending on who you ask) deliveries new energy from a great cast including Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy in the leading roles. It’s fascinating to see their friendship as Lensherr and Xavier dissolve as a deep rift drives them apart by the movie’s end, explaining how both Magneto’s Brotherhood and Professor X’s X-Men came to be.
6. Iron Man
Iron Man doesn’t just serve as the origin story for Tony Stark, but also as the foundation that Marvel built its powerhouse cinematic brand on. Before all the Avengers movies, all the Thors, and the all the Captain Americas, there was just the story of Iron Man, and what a story it was. Director Jon Favreau founded a franchise based on adventure and humor, and what can be said that hasn’t already of Robert Downey Jr.’s fantastic portrayal of Tony Stark? He simply is Iron Man.
Starting with Stark’s capture in the middle east and working backwards, we are shown how Stark created the super-suit he became so famous for. It’s an origin story that is full of rich characterization as Tony moves from cynical arms manufacturer to an unorthodox superhero who feels compelled to make a difference. This is the blueprint that all MCU films were set to follow, and though Marvel has been crushing it ever since, Iron Man will go down as the movie that introduced the world to an entire universe.
5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Since the release of the original Planet of the Apes in 1968, audiences have spent sleepless nights wondering just how humans were usurped by their ape overlords. With the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, we now have an answer to that question, or at least part of the answer. Rupert Wyatt’s fascinating prequel takes audiences to the very beginning of the ape rebellion, led by super-intelligent chimp Caesar.
Raised like a child by a caring scientist (James Franco), Caesar eventually finds himself imprisoned in an ape sanctuary. It is here that he forms a connection with his fellow inmates and the beginnings of his uprising. Caesar’s exploits are beautifully captured in a riveting motion capture performance by the legendary Andy Serkis. Thanks to Serkis, Caesar is not simply a computer generated monkey; he is a character capable of conveying powerful emotions.
Though Rise of the Planet of the Apes was well received, its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was considered by most to be even better. With a stellar track record like this, the anticipation is high for what director Matt Reeves does in next year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, which continues the ongoing saga of Caesar and his rebellion.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
If you had asked someone ten years ago who the Guardians of the Galaxy are, you probably would have gotten a very confused, “Who?” as a response. But things change, and today Guardians of the Galaxy is a household name thanks to their fantastic origin movie which was a sleeper hit in the Summer of 2014. It’s a film that not only appeased hardcore Marvel fans, but average moviegoers alike for its classic blend of action, comedy, adventure, and a little romance added in for good measure.
Chris Pratt is a fantastic Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, displaying the type of charisma one would find in a young Harrison Ford. The rest of the cast is equally impressive from Zoe Saldana’s fierce Gamora to Bradley Cooper’s cynical yet lovable Rocket Racoon. The amazing chemistry between the members of the group is a blast to watch, and since this is an origin story, there’s always that warm fuzzy feeling we get when the Guardians finally assemble to keep some Ronan butt.
Now that the origin tale is out of the way, we can’t wait to see how James Gunn continues the saga in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which hits theaters next May.
3. Casino Royal
We all know the characteristics of Bond: license to kill, fancy cars, beautiful women, and perhaps the most important of all, drinking his martinis shaken, not stirred. With these guidelines taken as scripture, audiences were taken aback in 2006’s Casino Royal when a bartender asks Bond whether he likes his martini shaken or stirred, and the MI6 Agent curtly retorts with, “Do I look like I give a damn?”
Casino Royal brings Bond back to the basics, and for the first time in his 44-year film career, the British secret agent is given his very own origin story. This is Bond before he earned his license to kill, before he gained the title 007, and before he figured out which way he prefers his martinis. Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel is given a modern update as James fleshes out his identity and is carved into Britain’s most famous secret agent. Daniel Craig was the perfect man for the job for this beginning, portraying Bond as a devastatingly ruthless agent, but also one who is quite vulnerable.
Since Casino Royale, we’ve been treated to three more outings with Craig 007, though that chapter in the saga now seems to be coming to an end. With the bar set so high, it will be interesting to see where the franchise goes next.
2. Batman Begins
When it came time to reboot Batman in 2005, director Christopher Nolan and writer David S. Goyer sat down to discuss where to take the character next. They realized that there was a large gap in between the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and the moment he took up the mantle of Batman that had never been explored cinematically before. Intrigued by the idea, they decided to use that as the basis of Batman Begins.
No one but Christopher Nolan could have opened up a Batman movie in a prison in an unnamed country in Asia, but it is just this setting that allows us to get in the mind of Bruce Wayne like never before. For the first time we get to see what makes the man behind the cowl tick. We had seen Bruce’s parents get shot in the movies before this, but never resonating so deeply as it does here. Not only is this origin story faithful to the comics, but it was the film that demanded audiences take the character seriously after Joel Schumacher’s abysmal Batman & Robin. Batman Begins is the origin tale that saved the Caped Crusader’s film career, and for that, we will forever be grateful to Christopher Nolan.
1. The Godfather Part II
When the young Vito Andolini journeys to Ellis Island at the turn of the 19th century, his last name is mistakenly changed by an immigration officer to that of his home town in Italy: Corleone. The Godfather Part II chronicles how young Vito Corleone went on to become the most powerful crime boss in the city of New York. Widely considered not just one of the best origin stories, but one of the best films of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s sequel explores the Don’s origins in Sicily to building his crime empire in America.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the origin tale is that it is told in parallel to Vito’s son Michael, and his rise to power in Las Vegas during the 1950s. It is interesting to note the similarities between the two, but more striking are their differences. Both are motivated by the love for their family, yet Vito’s power is founded on respect while Michael’s is rooted in fear. The Godfather Part II is a fascinating look at both the beginning and end of the Corleone empire, which earns it the top spot of best origin story ever told in film.