Some superheroes have their origins in ways unavailable to your average person. Batman and Iron Man rely on their own personal well-funded technology. Captain American is a result of a highly complex super soldier program. Thor is a space alien god, which could also be said for Superman. And someone like Ghost Rider or Jonah Hex has his origins in the supernatural.
Still, there are plenty of superhero origins that rely on pure chance, often a result of a horrible accident.
That got me thinking… could an industrial accident really turn you into a movie superhero?
The Answer: Almost assuredly not. And you’d die a painful, horrible death. So don’t do it.
In the interest of simplicity, these origins are from the movies rather than the comic books themselves. While the comics feature some pretty outlandish and unbelievable origins, there’s a narrower field in the films themselves.
Two main type of accidents seem to be responsible for a disproportionate number of superheroes (and super villains, actually). The first type is the chemical spill of come sort. This is what gave Matt Murdoch (Ben Affleck) his super senses to be Daredevil. It’s what turned Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) from a mob thug into the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman. Later in the dreadful sequel Batman & Robin, a hodge-podge of plant chemicals and Day-Glo lighting turned a mousy botanical scientist into a Greta Garbo abomination of Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman).
Of course, that’s not how chemicals work. Depending on the film, the cocktail of life-changing chemical is different, but overdosing on almost anything has a devastating effect on the human body. In fact, it only takes a relatively small amount of a chemical to throw the body chemistry off. Even something as simple as Tylenol can be taken in excess (less than half of a gram) to the point of causing acetaminophen poisoning.
Many chemicals can be described with their median lethal dose number, or LD-50. This is the average dose needed to kill 50 percent of a population (usually tested in rats). While some chemicals like water have an insanely high LD-50, most poisonous chemicals have a much lower LD-50, a dose of far less than a gram needed to kill a human being.
Of course, most chemical poisoning happens to young children who find their way into the medicine cabinet or ingest the chemicals under the sink. So far, there are no records of children developing super powers for this.
Chemical poisoning results in a relatively short list of symptoms, including fluctuating vital signs, loss of consciousness, sweats, cool skin, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and abdominal pain. While these may seem similar to the symptoms of the Bane atrocity in Batman & Robin, the end result would yield something closer to the toxic waste guy in Verhoeven’s RoboCop than anything else.
Radiation is just as bad
Many superheroes got their origins during the Cold War, and their origin stories continued into their films. The Incredible Hulk results from an overdose of gamma radiation. Spider-Man got his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider (or a genetically altered spider in Sam Raimi’s movies). Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) from Watchmen was torn apart by radiation only to reassemble himself as a giant blue entity. The Fantastic Four got their powers from cosmic energy during space travel.
These make great stories, but radiation doesn’t work that way. Rather than imbuing you with amazing and fantastic powers, you’ll die a horrible death.
Radiation poisoning is a terrible thing. Severe radiation exposure will quickly lead to nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and fever. Other more severe effects would be dizziness and disorientation, weakness and fatigue, hair loss, blood in the vomit and stools, sudden infection and wounds, and low blood pressure.
Rather than gaining the ability to become a giant green rage monster or get the powers of the Human Torch, you’ll almost literally melt away. This is why there were no explosions of superheroes from Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl… only misery.
Other movie superheroes have found more unique ways around human limitations. In Sam Raimi’s Darkman, the very badly burned Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is given a chance to survive when doctors sever his spinothalamic tract so he won’t feel the constant pain from his wounds. However, this also deprives him of all tactile stimulation, sending him into the depths of insanity fueled by an adrenal overload. This allows Peyton to become Darkman, a foreboding superhero who does not feel pain and has increased strength.
Similarly in Kick-Ass, when Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) first starts patrolling, he gets beaten up really bad. However, during his recovery, he developed a greater resistance to pain, which allowed him to be a better superhero.
The problem with this is that pain is a good thing. Pain is the body’s way of telling us something is wrong. It’s a survival method that doesn’t just kick in when something is shocking. Little bits of sensation and pain keeps us healthy. Chronic pain is bad, but everyday pain is not. In fact, there’s a rare congenital defect that in which a person does not feel pain.
Not feeling pain is actually more dangerous for everyday life. Children who can’t feel pain have been known to chew through their tongue when they were teething. They won’t notice if they’ve broken a bone or gotten cut, often times not realizing this until someone else tells them. When they reach adulthood, they actually tend to become more careful rather than reckless for fear of harming themselves and not knowing.
A character like Darkman or Kick-Ass, who gets in physical confrontations like they do have an exponentially increased danger of getting hurt. Their injuries may not cause them discomfort when they happen, but they will have a difficult time healing and even recognizing external or internal injuries.
So stop dousing yourself in chemicals, dosing yourself with radiation, or severing your spinothalamic tract, people. It’s not worth it.