Superhero origins range from iconic (Kal-El rocketing away from his doomed world) to idiotic (getting super-speed from a transfusion of mongoose blood). Either way, writers can’t seem to resist tinkering with origin stories. Sometimes, it’s for practical reasons — Tony Stark no longer became Iron Man in the Vietnam War, as that would make him a senior citizen in the modern era. Sometimes, a writer wants to fix some inconsistency, or just wants to tell the story their way.
Some retcons don’t even affect the fundamentals of the story. Others, like the ones covered here, are significant. A few of them, such as Swamp Thing’s or Aquaman’s, totally transformed the character. Some, like the Falcon’s thug-life past, were deservedly forgotten or retconned away.
All sixteen origins listed here are reboots to a preexisting character, rather than a new origin for a legacy hero with the same name. Each heading shows the original origin on the left, the do-over on the right. The new origins are not necessarily better, or worse, only significantly different. Here are 16 Superheroes Whose Origin Stories Were Completely Changed.
16. Falcon – Social Worker/Brainwashed Gangster
Sam Wilson was as all-American as Steve Rogers when they first met in Captain America #117. After seeing Sam’s courage, Cap convinced him to become the Falcon, was the first African-American superhero in comics. The duo was a hit, and Sam shared cover billing with Cap for several years. But in Captain America #185, Sam turned on the Star-Spangled Avenger, in the service of the Red Skull.
Next issue, the Red Skull gloated to Cap that Sam was really “Snap” Wilson, an LA hood. The Skull had brainwashed him to create the perfect partner for Captain America, an honorable, decent man “with a love for the same brotherhood you cherish” (the Skull probably sneered when he said it). Underneath the new persona lay a sleeper agent waiting for the Skull to command him.
The Falcon regained his free will, but some of Sam’s personality seemed to stick. That was unfortunate, as turning a major black hero into a stereotype didn’t sit well with many readers. Later writers mostly ignored Snap, some tried to explain it away, and in All-New Captain America #3, Falcon dismissed Snap as the fake, artificial personality — Sam Wilson was the real deal.
15. Swamp Thing – Victim Of Lab Bombing/Demigod Of Plants
A lot of characters get powers from lab accidents, but Alec Holland’s origin was sabotage. Swamp Thing #1 told how Alec and his wife Linda refused to sell the shadowy Conclave a miracle formula that could make even deserts fertile farmland. The Conclave responded by blowing up the Hollands’ Louisiana laboratory. Linda died, and Alec staggered into the nearby swamp, where the formula merged his body with plants and mud, creating the Swamp Thing.
That stood as the origin until Alan Moore’s legendary run on the second Swamp Thing series. In #21, a scientist discovered Swampie’s body wasn’t even partly human — just plants shaped into human form. Swamp Thing had never been Alec, he’d simply absorbed his memories and thought them his own.
Bigger changes grew from this. Swamp Thing eventually learned he was one of many similar plant champions created by the Parliament of Trees, the overlords of the plant world (you can see some of them in the illustration). Instead of a monster, he was a plant superhero with incredible powers, and that’s been his role ever since.
14. Spectre – Cop’s Ghost/Avenging Angel
For the first fifty years of his existence, the Spectre was the ghost of Det. Jim Corrigan. After gangsters murdered Corrigan in More Fun Comics #52, God (represented as a heavenly voice) sent his ghost back to Earth with vast supernatural powers. The Spectre waged war on crime and black magic in a string of unremarkable stories. His Bronze Age adventures are more memorable, as Jim Corrigan got brutally creative in killing crooks — turning one into wax and melting him in a fire, for instance.
Then came the 1992-98 Spectre series by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. The authors revealed the Spectre was an angel of judgment, cast out from heaven for getting too harsh with sinners. Corrigan was one of a long string of mortals bound to the angel to see if the human factor would soften the Spectre’s anger. Corrigan finally found eternal rest, but the Spectre moved on to other hosts. The most interesting was Hal Jordan, the past and future Green Lantern; during his short time as the Spectre, Hal tried to make him a force for redemption rather than punishment. Ultimately he failed.
13. Thor – Mortal Doctor With Thor’s Power/The God Himself
Everyone following Marvel comics or movies knows Thor is the Norse Thunder God and son of Odin. Yet when Thor began his career, he was just an ordinary mortal gifted with godly power. Handicapped doctor Donald Blake found Thor’s hammer in Journey into Mystery #83, turned into Thor and vowed to use his new power to fight evil.
The retconning started faster than anyone else on this list. In #85, Thor clashed with Loki, who treated Blake as if he were the real god of thunder. So did the other gods, when Thor met them. The hero initially responded as Don Blake — he knew Loki only from legend — but by #92, he was referring to Odin as his father.
It took until Thor #159 for fans to get an explanation. Odin, fed up with Thor’s arrogance and misbehavior, had transformed him into a mortal, replacing his Asgardian memories with false mortal ones. As a doctor, Thor learned compassion; as a handicapped man, he learned humility. When Odin judged his son ready, he steered Blake to Mjolnir so that he could become Thor once again.
12. Wonder Woman – Born Of No Man/Daughter Of Zeus
Wonder Woman‘s origin in the Golden-Age Wonder Woman #1 was positively mythic. After the Amazons establish their home on Paradise Island, Queen Hippolyta wished for a child. Guided by Aphrodite, she sculpted the clay figure of a baby, which the goddess brought to life as Princess Diana. Initially, her strength and skills were all the result of Amazon training, but later on, writers usually credited them to divine blessing.
In the New 52, though, the clay figure is just a cover story, to hide that Diana is the daughter of Zeus. Hippolyta had a liaison with the disguised Olympian, then concocted the myth to protect Diana from the wrath of Hera, Zeus’ wife. Eventually, Hera found out, and Diana was dragged into the power struggles of her Olympian kin.
Surprisingly, this isn’t the first time someone’s decided Wonder Woman needed a father. Wonder Woman #152 claimed Diana’s father was a sailor, lost at sea years earlier. That reboot didn’t take and was never heard of again. DC’s Rebirth is changing things up a bit once again, though we won’t spoil that for you here.
11. Spider-Man – Irradiated Spider Bite/Transformed By Totem Spirit
Spider-Man‘s origin is one of those tales that everyone seems to know. In Amazing Fantasy #15, a spider suffering radiation poisoning bites nerdy Peter Parker, endowing him with spider-powers. Peter uses them selfishly until his uncle’s death makes him realize (all together now) that with great power comes great responsibility.
While writers have tinkered with details about the experiment, nobody made any major changes until J. Michael Straczynski’s run as Spidey’s writer. He introduced Peter to the mysterious Ezekiel, who asked a seemingly bizarre question: would the spider have given Peter powers even without the radiation?
It turns out that Ezekiel is right. Like Ezekiel, Peter was gifted with power by a spider totem-spirit. In Peter’s resentment for bullies, the spider-spirit saw the potential for a perfect avatar, someone who would become a willing hunter and spidery stalker. The radiation in the spider did mutate the powers Peter received, though, so he’s as much a creation of science as of magic. Still, this wasn’t one of the more popular do-overs in this list.
10. Flash – Freak Lab Accident/Chosen By The Speed Force
Unlike anyone else in this list, Barry Allen’s origin didn’t get retconned until he was dead.
In Showcase #4, Barry acquires super-speed after lightning toppled a rack of chemicals onto him. As a lifelong comics fan, Barry decided to use his powers to fight crime like his favorite character, the Golden Age Flash (back then he didn’t know that that Flash existed on a parallel world). Later, Wally West suffered an identical accident and acquired identical powers, becoming Kid Flash.
After Barry died, Wally took up the mantle of the Flash. With the help of speedster mystic Max Mercury, Wally eventually learned that speedsters draw their powers from the Speed Force, an other-dimensional entity/energy. The Speed Force was in the lightning that hit both Wally and Barry. That opened up new directions for Wally as he tapped into the Speed Force and the added powers it could give him.
Eventually, Barry returned to life and became the Scarlet Speedster again. The Speed Force retcon stuck, though, both in the comics and in the CW Flash series.
9. Superman – Advanced Evolution/Living Solar Battery
Superman‘s origin in Action Comics #1 didn’t just explain his arrival on Earth, it explained his powers. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster credited them to evolution: Kryptonians were millions of years more advanced than humanity, making Superman stronger, faster and tougher than us. This worked fine for a while, but as writers kept expanding Superman’s powers, it began to seem inadequate. By the late 1940s, stories started explaining Superman’s powers through Earth’s lighter gravity and “Krypton’s unique atmosphere” (Superman #113) — outside Krypton’s air, Kryptonians naturally became super-human. The nature of the atmosphere went unexplained.
The gravity explanation stuck, the atmosphere didn’t. Instead, various 1960 stories explained that some powers, such as super-strength, are gravity-based, while others (invulnerability, super-vision, etc.) come from the “ultra-solar” rays of Earth’s yellow sun. The next step was John Byrne’s mid-eighties reboot, which made all of Superman’s powers derive from the sun. The Man of Tomorrow stores up solar energy like a battery, and if he uses too much, he can deplete his powers temporarily. This led to other changes, such as Superman recently discovering he can generate a devastating flash of energy with his stored-up solar power.
8. Aquaman – Atlantean Science/Half-Atlantean Heritage
Like Thor in Asgard, Aquaman sitting on the throne of Atlantis seems essential to the concept of the character. But Aquaman’s first origin assigned Atlantis a very different role. In 1941’s More Fun Comics #73, Atlantis is a long-dead sunken city. Aquaman’s father, a famous marine explorer, found the ruins and used Atlantean science to give his son superpowers — command of sea life, water-breathing, and incredible strength.
Eighteen years later, in Adventure Comics #260, Aquaman got an origin upgrade. Much like Disney’s Ariel, Aquaman’s mother was an Atlantean exiled for trying to visit the surface world. She married a lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry, and their son Arthur inherited her powers. Although Aquaman had yet to visit Atlantis, by the end of the story, he’d stopped the Navy from testing nuclear bombs where they might harm the city. He’d go on to become the city’s champion, king, and ex-king at various points in his career. Later writers have tinkered with the details of this origin, but nobody’s outright replaced it (yet).
7. Hulk – Freak Radioactive Accident/Split Personality Given Form
Bruce Banner was yet another comics victim of science gone wrong. In Hulk #1, he’s caught in the radiation from the gamma bomb he’s invented. That night, for the first time, he transforms into the Hulk, originally grey, then green (it was easier for colorists). While Stan Lee has claimed he wanted to create a sympathetic, persecuted monster, the Hulk comes off in his early appearances as a bully, only gradually becoming sympathetic. The rules for Banner’s changed switched around every issue, before Lee and Jack Kirby settled on Banner “hulking out” whenever he got excited, angry or afraid.
None of those changes affected the origin. That was left to Peter David, when he started his amazing run on the Hulk in 1987. The Hulk turned grey instead of green, and for a while became completely villainous. The reason? Bruce had been abused by his father, creating a split personality. The hyper-rational Bruce persona repressed his emotions; the gamma blast manifested them physically. The idea let David, and later writers, try constant new developments with the Hulk as the different personalities jostled, merged, and separated over the years.
6. Ghost Rider – Man Transformed By Curse/Man Possessed/Angelic Warrior
Ghost Rider‘s origin in Marvel Spotlight #5 fit an age when stunt-bikers were celebrities and The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby were best-selling novels. Stunt-rider Johnny Blaze sold his soul to Satan to save his foster father from cancer. Satan, of course, pulled a fast one and “saved” Crash Simpson by killing him in an accident. Johnny refused to give up his soul, so Satan cursed him to turn into the Ghost Rider every night.
After years fighting more Satanic attacks and Ghost Rider’s dark side, Johnny learned his real origin: Satan had trapped the demon Zarathos inside Johnny, triggering the transformations. Exorcising Zarathos freed Johnny from the curse, but not from more retcons.
The next Ghost Rider series introduced Danny Ketch, the brother Johnny didn’t know he had. Danny suffered from a second Ghost Rider curse, driving him to avenge the spilling of innocent blood. In a later retcon, it turned out that there are hundreds of ghost riders, heavenly agents who avenge evil (hence the gathering in the photo). By the time you read this, Johnny may have been retconned a couple more times. You might want to set up some sort of Google alert.
5. Wonder Girl – Wonder Woman’s Sister/Protege Of The Greek Titans
When Wonder Girl appeared in Brave and the Bold #60, her origin seemed simple enough. She was Wonder Girl’s sister and sidekick, just as teammates Aqualad, Robin, and Kid Flash were sidekicks. Trouble was, Wonder Woman didn’t have a sister. We imagine that the creators glanced at an issue of Wonder Woman, saw one of Wonder Woman’s teenage adventures as Wonder Girl, and assumed they were separate characters.
In Teen Titans #22, readers finally learned that Wonder Girl was an orphan that Wonder Woman had rescued from a fire. She’d grown up on Paradise Island as Wonder Woman’s adopted sister, Donna, with Amazon science boosting her strength to superhuman levels.
When DC rebooted much of its line in the 1980s, Wonder Woman’s entire history was erased so that George Perez could introduce a new Wonder Woman. In Donna’s subsequent retcon origin, the Titans of Greek myth saved her from the fire, took her to their far-off home and trained her as a hero. When they sent her back to Earth, they erased her memories of them, but she eventually recovered them. Later, John Byrne would add a retcon that supposedly simplified everything, but didn’t.
4. Vision – Creation Of Ultron/The Original Human Torch
When the villainous robot Ultron sent the Vision against the Avengers in Avengers #57, it seemed obvious that the murder bot had created the android. The Vision never doubted he was Ultron’s sort-of son, but it turned out he was wrong.
In the course of an epic battle with Kang the Conqueror that started in Avengers #129, the Avengers encountered Immortus, Kang’s manipulative future self. Immortus sent the Vision back in time to witness his real genesis. Ultron’s skills didn’t extend to creating androids, so he stole the body of the Golden Age Human Torch, which had been reactivated to fight the Fantastic Four, then killed (why yes, this was a continuity-heavy storyline). Ultron forced the Torch’s creator, Professor Horton, to modify the body for a different set of powers, then mind-wiped the Human Torch to create a docile slave. That, of course, did not work as planned, as the Vision turned on his supposed creator.
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Knowing his heroic history gave the Vision the confidence to finally marry the Scarlet Witch. John Byrne, however, disliked the marriage and retconned the Vision’s history away, only to have Kurt Busiek retcon it back in Avengers Forever. Comics are fun.
3. Valkyrie – Magically Transformed Mortal/Real Valkyrie
Much like Thor, the Valkyrie started as a woman transformed by Asgardian magic, then got retconned into a real Asgardian.
Amora, the Asgardian Enchantress, transformed feminist Samantha Parrington into Valkyrie in Incredible Hulk #142. Amora wanted revenge on the Hulk for a past defeat, so she made Valkyrie strong enough to take him out and angry enough to attack him for being a man (a stock satire on feminism back then). Valkyrie actually defeated the Hulk, but the spell wore off before she could finish him. Later, the Enchantress turned a madwoman named Barbara Norris into another Valkyrie, and made the change permanent.
Many years later, a different origin emerged. Valkyrie was nothing less than Brunnhilde, the leader of the real valkyries, Asgardian warrior women who bring the souls of dead fighters to Valhalla. Amora had trapped her soul in a magic crystal, enabling her to impose Brunnhilde’s form and powers on a mortal template, or use the powers herself. Brunhilde eventually reclaimed her freedom and returned to Asgard, and Samantha Parrington became a new Valkyrie.
2. Phoenix – Jean Grey At Full Power/Cosmic Jean Grey Impersonator
It’s been more than thirty years, but you can still get a good argument going among X-Men fans about the retcon of Jean Grey’s time as Phoenix.
The story began in Uncanny X-Men #100 and 101, as Jean sacrificed herself to save the team. To her surprise, and theirs, she didn’t die; tapping into a deeper level of psionic power than ever before, she was reborn as Phoenix. She was the most powerful member of the team, but eventually became even more powerful — as Dark Phoenix, a destroyer that annihilated an entire solar system (killing billions of innocents) by…eating a star. Marvel higher-ups decided she needed to die for that, so Jean killed herself to end the threat of Dark Phoenix.
It was a classic arc, but several years later, it got retconned. Jean’s body turned up comatose but alive, and the X-Men learned she’d never been Phoenix. That entity was a separate being that had taken Jean’s place, saving the mutant heroes in return for experiencing human life. This freed Jean to join the other original X-Men in the new X-Factor series. The Phoenix had survived the death of “Jean” so it was available for more stories too.
1. Batman – Orphaned By Hold-Up Man/Orphaned By Contract Killer
Detective Comics #33 is another origin almost everyone knows. Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered by an armed robber, then vowed on their graves to devote his life to warring on criminals. Later stories tweaked this a little — Martha Wayne died of a heart attack rather than a second bullet — but Detective #235 made a much bigger change.
In “The First Batman,” Bruce learned his father had been kidnapped from a costume party (he’d gone dressed as a bat-man, a subconscious influence on Bruce later) to treat injured mobster Lew Moxon. Dr. Thomas Wayne captured the gang instead. After serving his time, Moxon promised to kill Thomas and Martha, but in such a way that nobody would ever trace the crime back to him. Bruce realized stick-up man Joe Chill had been Moxon’s assassin. He’d left Bruce alive to testify that the shooting was nothing but an armed robbery gone wrong — Bruce was Moxon’s alibi.
At the climax of the story, Batman confronts Moxon while wearing Thomas’ old costume. Horrified at the apparent ghost, Moxon flees right into the path of a truck, and the Wayne murder was closed at last. It’s better than many such stories, and stayed canon for another thirty years, during/after which the Dark Knight would rack up an absolutely insane number of additional retcons.
What other superhero origins have been retconned beyond recognition? Let us know in the comments.