In a world of expanding franchises and multiverses, origin story movies play a key role in the development of our favorite characters.
From heroic superheroes to dastardly villains and all the offbeat characters in between, it's always interesting to see how these infamous figures came to be who they are. And in some cases, when one origin story fails, it's fun to see the next attempt at it.
Indeed, there are so many character origin movies out there, and plenty of them have bombed—or, at the very least, have been forgotten due to their extreme mediocrity and/or empty fan service.
It's rare for a movie like this to be downright awesome, but it does happen from time to time. Here are my picks for the best character origin movies ever made and why they stand out!
15. Klaus (2019)
Directed by Sergio Pablos
Starring Jason Schwartzman, J. K. Simmons, Rashida Jones
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 36m)
Before we dive into the origin stories of famous superheroes and infamous supervillains, why don't we start off with a cozy little animation called Klaus? This one's worth it, I promise.
It's common knowledge that Father Christmas was born from the very real Saint Nicholas of Myra, a priest who was kicking about in 300 AD.
But for his directorial debut, Sergio Pablos proposes a different take on Santa Claus's origin story: that his identity is rooted in a Danish toymaker named Klaus during the 19th century.
Klaus reimagines the whole thing as a kids adventure where a spoiled postman learns about the gift of giving after meeting the reclusive Klaus in Smeerensburg. It's silly, heartwarming, and gorgeous enough to be the first Netflix animation nominated for an Oscar!
14. The Founder (2016)
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Starring Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch
Biography, Drama (1h 55m)
Okay, this one's a bit weird, but here me out: The Founder is based on the true story behind the creation of McDonald's. As in, the world-famous fast-food chain. Yes, even restaurants have origin stories!
Business ventures and real-life inventions could litter this list, but I'm sticking to just The Founder for origin movies based on things rather than people. That said, this one's arguably also the origin story of Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton) and how he got rich.
Kroc didn't create McDonald's; he literally found it, hence the title. A failing itinerate salesman, Kroc stumbled upon a walk-in McDonald's restaurant in California and decided to buy it out, kicking the original McDonald brothers to the curb empty-handed.
13. Cruella (2021)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry
Adventure, Comedy, Crime (2h 14m)
Cruella is a crime-comedy that's bursting with energy, wit, and a poppy soundtrack, which fits perfectly with its notorious protagonist: Cruella de Vil, best known for being the iconic animated Disney villain.
She first appeared as the antagonist of Dodie Smith's 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was later animated by Disney in 1961 and brought to life by Glenn Close in 1996.
Cruella de Vil is known for her monochromatic fashion style and her eccentric personality. Under Craig Gillespie's direction, Emma Stone puts on her best British accent for her rendition of the villainous fashionista, who begins life as the orphan Estrella.
12. Wonka (2023)
Directed by Paul King
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Calah Lane, Hugh Grant
Adventure, Comedy, Family (1h 56m)
Wonka is a fantastic musical that's bound to get at least one song stuck in your head. Timothée Chalamet gives his version of the crackpot chocolate maker previously embodied by Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp, but this time it's before he becomes famous.
Willy Wonka was originally a strange and awkward man who didn't particularly get on with kids, despite inviting a bunch of them to his chocolate factory (i.e., his death trap).
However, Paul King creates a warm, family-friendly atmosphere in his sweet-toothed fantasy musical Wonka, where the wacky inventor charms his way to success and shows kids the power of friendship. Only thing we're not sure on is Hugh Grant as an Oompa-Loompa...
11. Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 6m)
Every iconic Avenger has their own origin movie, but our favorite is still the very first MCU movie: Iron Man.
A billionaire playboy who made weapons for the US military, Tony Stark finds himself ambushed in war-torn Afghanistan and almost dies. When a doctor implants an electromagnet into Tony's chest, he himself becomes a weapon—and the first superhero of Earth.
Made before the onslaught of Marvel sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, Iron Man remains one of the greatest superhero movies. Immortalized by Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark was a wealthy prodigy of mechanical engineering before he was ever flying around in a suit of armor.
10. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne
Action, Sci-Fi (2h 11m)
There's more than one gang of superheroes (and supervillains) with cool superpowers in the MCU. Next to the Avengers, there's the X-Men.
The live-action X-Men movies first appeared on the big screen in 2000, but with X-Men: First Class in 2011, director Matthew Vaughn took us back in time to the 1960s to show us the beginnings of Charles Xavier and his school of mutant students.
Not yet bald or wheelchair-bound, James McAvoy plays the young British genius as he earns his doctorate in Oxford. Meanwhile, Erik Lehnsherr (played by Michael Fassbender) is hunting down Nazis in bloodthirsty vengeance.
The main goal of X-Men: First Class is to establish the legendary friendship-turned-rivalry between Professor X and Magneto, which is achieved by McAvoy and Fassbender's sparking chemistry.
9. Prometheus (2012)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender
Adventure, Mystery, Sci-Fi (2h 4m)
Ridley Scott, champion of the sci-fi genre, brings us the ultimate origin story: mankind itself. Set in 2089, Prometheus follows a team of scientists who encounter the horrifying truth about the birth of humanity.
Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, and Charlize Theron make up the all-star cast, who venture into the deep and dark chambers of the universe. You can bet they wish they'd skipped out on this one!
Given that this is meant to be a precursor to the Alien franchise, I recommend starting with Prometheus for any Alien-themed movie marathon you might have, despite it being made later on.
8. Pearl (2022)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright
Drama, Horror, Thriller (1h 43m)
The X trilogy began life as a slasher-horror simply called X, which followed a group of porn filmmakers who are attacked by a crazy couple in rural Texas. Then we got the prequel, Pearl: An X-traordinary Origin Story, where Mia Goth reprised her role as an unhinged wannabe actress.
Pearl became an internet sensation because of the scene where Goth screams at her lover in a barn, triggering the cultural trend of exploring female rage. There isn't a single teardrop or suicidal damsel here; just one pretty girl with the rage of a monster.
7. Spider-Man (2002)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 1m)
Tobey Maguire reprised his role as the original movie Spider-Man in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Alongside his fellow webbed gymnasts Tom Holland and Andrew Garfield, Maguire also appeared as an alternate version of Peter Parker in Marvel's Spider-Verse.
However, there was a time when Maguire was the only big-screen Peter Parker around—long before Andrew Garfield swung in for a reboot in 2012, long before Tom Holland won over hearts in the MCU.
We're picking Sam Raimi's Spider-Man origin movie for this list, in which the high school senior gets bitten by a radioactive spider. This trilogy still has many die-hard fans, and for good reason!
6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow
Action, Drama, Sci-Fi (1h 45m)
The original Planet of the Apes movies from 1968 to 1973 were all the rage back in the day. Tim Burton tried to revive the franchise in 2001 but failed. Rupert Wyatt decided to give it another shot in 2011.
The result was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which lays out the foundation for its following two sequels (in 2014 and 2017) which involve intelligent apes taking over Earth from mankind.
Rupert Wyatt's origin story is much more nuanced than the apocalyptic war movies that came after it. It tells the touching story of a young chimpanzee who's raised like a human by his loving owner.
Caesar (animated by motion capture pro Andy Serkis) is unbelievably intelligent due to being the product of animal testing, but that also makes him the victim of great injustice.
5. Casino Royale (2006)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench
Action, Adventure, Thriller (2h 24m)
We've all heard of James Bond and his numerous incarnations since 1961, but where did he really come from? No one truly knows! But the closest thing James Bond has to an origin story is Casino Royale, which is based on Ian Fleming's first Bond novel published in 1953.
As the first installment of the Daniel Craig line of James Bond films, I consider it to be the root of the modern franchise—and it also happens to be the best one in the series.
Daniel Craig's rendition of the MI6 spy takes us through all sorts of action-packed thrills. Promoted to 00 Agent with a license to kill, the James Bond of Casino Royale is tasked with preventing a mob banker from winning a poker game. Easier said than done.
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman
Starring Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld
Animation, Action, Adventure (1h 57m)
We've already mentioned Spider-Man as the webbed origin story of choice, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is more of a standalone series compared to the Peter Parker films.
The first of two movies (with more coming), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an incredible animated take on the tower-swinging superhero in which multiple versions of Spider-Man exist in a multiverse.
In this reimagining, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is the depressed teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and replaces Peter Parker as the masked vigilante. Tom Holland himself says it's the best Spider-Man movie he's ever seen, and critics tend to agree.
3. Joker (2019)
Directed by Todd Phillips
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 2m)
The Joker is arguably the most famous supervillain. Like, ever.
It's no wonder that fans were divided when it was announced that director Todd Phillips would take a standalone indie film approach to his origin story, deviating from the standard Hollywood blockbuster.
Joaquin Phoenix shed pounds and put on a happy face for his version of the iconic Batman villain, following in the footsteps of the legendary incarnations by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. (Let's forget Jared Leto's version, if we can.)
Reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Joker is full of grain, grime, and grit. The tale centers on failed comedian Arthur Fleck, who suffers with Pseudobulbar Affect, which eventually causes him to break down and adopt a clown alter ego.
2. Batman Begins (2005)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe
Action, Crime, Drama (2h 20m)
The birth of Batman was best told by auteur director Christopher Nolan, who's been hailed for his direction of The Dark Knight Trilogy. The series begins with the (aptly titled) Batman Begins, in which Christian Bale stars as the rich businessman Bruce Wayne.
As Gotham City is worn down by its criminal underworld, Wayne is recruited by the League of Shadows to train in the art of fighting. Putting his money to good use, he hires an engineer to build all his superweapons and fights crime under the shadow of night.
Who needs magical powers when you've got wads of cash and six-pack abs? Batman Begins does the superhero genre justice.
1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall
Crime, Drama (3h 22m)
The Godfather is widely considered one of the best movies ever made, but its prequel is even better in many ways—so it's only fitting that this mafia character origin movie makes it on this list.
The Godfather Part II marks the second film in Francis Ford Coppola's trilogy, which follows the infamous Corleone crime family.
Switching between two timelines—before and after the events of The Godfather—this film takes us back to 1901, when a younger Vito Corleone (this time played by Robert De Niro) escapes the Sicilian Mafia by taking a boat to New York City.
After going through the procedures of Ellis Island, Vito settles down to start the family that evolves into an iconic criminal empire.