The origins of iconic characters on screen

The origins of iconic characters on screen


Neither superheroes nor supervillains were born into this world as they’ve come to be known – everyone had to start somewhere.

In the Batman universe, the highly revered Commissioner Jim Gordon started out as a fresh-faced rookie, and even the caped crusader’s most twisted enemies were once younger folk trudging the path to their psychotic peaks. New TV series Gotham explores the origins of these characters, one of which is the vicious Penguin, played by Robin Lord Taylor.

“I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel any pressure,” the actor admitted. The Penguin, who has also been portrayed by Danny DeVito and Burgess Meredith in earlier Batman films, is the one whose origin story kicks off the whole show.

“He starts the show at a very low place in the totem pole [and] he’s finding his footing. His end game is to run the show – he absolutely refuses to be powerless and to be stepped on because that’s how he’s been treated his whole life.”

And as with all these origin tales, we get to see the iconic villain’s rise to brazen malevolence. “I think [his failures are] what fuels his homicidal tendencies – [they] are what push him towards those really dark, violent, sadistic places.”


(Left) Robin Lord Taylor as the young Penguin. (Right) Ben McKenzie as the young Jim Gordon.

Other backstories explored in the program, which premiered on Warner TV to top ratings In Singapore on 29 September, include those of Catwoman, The Riddler, Two-Face and The Joker. Ben McKenzie plays the young Jim Gordon, who forms an unlikely friendship with the 12-year-old Bruce Wayne (we all know how he grows up to be) as he makes his way up the ranks of the Gotham City police department.

Gotham is just the latest in a long line of origin TV shows and movies. Read on to see which other iconic characters have had their earlier days chronicled on the small or silver screen:

Gotham airs Thursdays at 9pm on Warner TV (StarHub channel 515).


Luke Evans as the young Dracula.

Count Dracula in Dracula Untold

What he’s known as now: A malicious blood-sucking immortal
What he once was: A human prince trying to protect his people

Before the coffins and bats, Vlad III Tepes was just a young lord ruling peacefully over a small kingdom. However, things took a terrifying turn when a powerful sultan demanded for 1,000 boys – including Vlad’s own son – to join his army.

Driven by the desire to protect his family and realm, Vlad made a pact with a sorcerer and gained superhuman strength, exceptional speed, great destructive power… and the insatiable thirst for human blood. Thus, Vlad was reborn as Dracula, the most feared mythical monster of all time (and a very popular Halloween costume).

Dracula Untold is now in cinemas.


(Far left) Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. (Far right) James McAvoy as the young Professor X.

Magneto and Professor X in X-Men: First Class

What they’re known as now: Powerful mutant leaders
What they once were: Stumbling greenhorns who couldn’t quite control their abilities

A long time ago, the wise Professor X had hair and Magneto was chiselled, bitter and vengeful (he might have retained the latter two qualities later in life). They were also just known as Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, good friends who were still trying to get a grip on their respective mind-reading and metal-controlling powers.

It wasn’t long before their differing opinions and personalities drove them apart – the calmer, more righteous Prof X spearheaded the X-Men, while the more dangerously volatile Magneto formed his own antagonistic group, the Brotherhood.


Angelina Jolie as Maleficent.

Maleficent in Maleficent

What she’s known as now: The Mistress of All Evil
What she once was: A pure-hearted fairy in love

We thought we would forever remember Maleficent as a creepy, heartless witch who can turn into a dragon. While that side of her did get its screen time in the Angelina Jolie-starring live adaptation, it also showed her tragic backstory and kinder days, leading us all to sympathise and side with the scorned villainess.

In fact, the real baddie of the story was Sleeping Beauty’s father, who betrayed Maleficent’s love and trust for him in exchange for the throne. This changed her from a sweet, affectionate protector of the forest to a menacing, leather-clad sorceress who would curse a helpless child. Thankfully, she found redemption in the end and met a fate that’s different from that of her animated counterpart, but her image as one of Disney’s most formidable adversaries remains.


(Left) Benedict Cumberbatch as the young Sherlock Holmes. (Right) Martin Freeman as the young Dr John Watson.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in BBC’s Sherlock

What they’re known as now: Fiction’s most famous sleuthing pair
What they once were: London flatmates-turned-crime-busters

When Dr John Watson agreed to share a rented apartment with his friend’s friend Sherlock Holmes, little did he know that he would be thrust into a world of chasing after rogues and facing off against chilling baddies like Jim Moriarty.

At the start of the highly successful series, we witness how the “consulting detective’s” skills go from being questioned to being highly sought after; how the doctor goes from paranoid and confused to fearless and fiercely loyal; and the development of a partnership that’s just as engaging as any of the show’s delightful deduction and “mind palace” scenes.


Tom Welling as the young Superman.

Superman in Smallville

What he’s known as now: The superhero of superheroes
What he once was: A farm boy with out-of-this-world abilities

Growing up feeling like you don’t belong is normal for most – if not all – teenagers, but for Clark Kent, it’s a whole different story. After crash-landing on earth in a meteor shower, the dreamy-eyed alien was adopted by human parents and struggled to live like a normal, non-extra-terrestrial while dealing with high school and hiding his powers from his friends.

Finally, after years of trying to fit in, Clark realised he will never be an average guy, and towards the end of the show’s 10 seasons, we see him seeing past his fears and doubts, and start to embrace his destiny as the Man of Steel – complete with his signature red-and-blue suit and cape. (Cue the famous Superman theme)


Donnie Yen as the Monkey King.

Sun Wu Kong in The Monkey King

What he’s known as now: Hero and icon of classic Chinese literature
What he once was: Mischievous, havoc-wreaking creature

Thanks to his involvement in Journey to the West, Sun Wu Kong is one of the most recognisable of classic Chinese characters. In The Monkey King, which sees Donnie Yen rendered unrecognisable for the role of the titular character, we see the events in the monkey god’s life, such as his unusual birth, training and of course, his impish monkeying around.

The latter runs rampant throughout the film – from him being an unruly student, to his ultimate offence of unleashing absolute chaos in the heavens. Naturally, the latter incident didn’t sit too well with the divine, and Sun Wu Kong was sentenced to mountain imprisonment for 500 years before Tang Sanzang recruited him for his harrowing but redeeming pilgrimage.

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