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5 Superhero (and Supervillain) Origins

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We've read their comics, watched their movies, TV shows and cartoons, and dressed like them for Halloween. But where did our favorite superheroes come from?

1. Superman

Arguably America's first superhero, the Son of Krypton made his debut in June of 1938 in Action Comics. Being, as he was: faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive (we're confused by that metaphor, too) and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Superman represented an entirely new kind of American hero. No longer satisfied with idolizing self-made men, pioneers, and various and sundry presidents, American kids suddenly seemed to need a hero who was incredibly powerful and, with his easy sense of right and wrong, deeply not human.

2. Lex Luthor

Lex-Luthor.jpgEvery hero needs a nemesis and that role in Superman's life was soon filled by mad scientist, wealthy businessman, and occasional presidential hopeful Lex Luthor. Of course, the Lex of the 1930s looked nothing like the slick tycoon you're accustomed to, largely because, at the time, he sported a clown-esque shock of red hair. It wasn't until 1941 that Lex acquired the smooth pate we've all come to know and love. However, later editors would revise what was originally a simple fashion decision into something much deeper.

In the 1960s, the story of Superman and Lex's relationship was stretched back in time to have them meeting up and, naturally, fighting during their teenage years. During this re-writing of history, it was revealed that Lex lost his hair as a child in a freak chemical plant explosion, which, inexplicably, he blamed on Superboy. Filled with the sort of animosity only a member of the Hair Club for Men could truly appreciate, Lex vowed to destroy the man who caused his baldness. In fact, in a November 1962 issue, the now-grown Superman intimates that Lex might have been the world's "greatest benefactor" were it not for the explosion that turned him into a bitter criminal.

3. Batman

batman.jpgThe year after Superman premiered, Detective Comics came out with their own, very different superhero. Who was he? The Batman, that's who. For Bruce Wayne, fighting crime wasn't about flying, punching people to the moon, or burning holes in things with his eyes. No, Batman was more honest than that. Just an average guy in peak physical shape (later revised to peak physical shape and ninja training), Batman got by on his wits"¦ and a never-ending supply of thematically named accessories—Batmobile, Batplane, Batmarine, the list goes on and on. He was the first superhero to indulge in a secret hideout, constructing the Batcave as a base of operations and the first to take on an underage protégé, touching off both a major comics trend and decades of snickering innuendo.

4. The Joker

joker.jpgA major innovation in his own right, the Joker's introduction in Spring of 1940 marked the arrival of the first true supervillain. Sure, Lex Luthor came first, but evil business honchos are a dime a dozen. The Joker represented comics' first foray into literally insane bad guys that were at once writhing in high camp and utterly terrifying. All three men involved in the creation of Batman claim individual credit for the Joker, citing various inspirations from the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs" to personal experience as a practical jokester. Of course, the Joker's "jokes" tended to lean a bit more toward the homicidal than anything being perpetrated by turn of the century schoolboys—like the Grinning Death, a rigor mortis"“stiffened smile brought on by the Joker's specially developed poison gas.

5. Wonder Woman

wonder-woman.jpgAlthough she's certainly earned her role as a feminist icon, the origins of Princess Diana the Amazon aren't exactly as "feminist" as we might think today. Created in 1942 by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was indeed intended to be a role model for comics-reading little girls. But Marston's intentions were a little different from what you might expect.

In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar magazine, he explained Wonder Woman as an attempt to show little girls that women could have fun adventures while still being "tender, submissive, and peace-loving." The character was actually inspired by two real women: Marston's wife, Elizabeth, and their polyamorous lover, Olive Byrne—which puts quite a twist on Wonder Woman's original catch phrase, "Suffering Sappho!" Then there's all the bondage. Early Wonder Woman books were chock-full of women tying up men, men tying up women, and lots of women tying up each other. Wonder Woman even told stories about how much the Amazons liked to play bondage games. Spanking, for the record, was also rather prevalent (the Amazons apparently had a whole penal system 2in-the-beginning.jpgbased around it) and Marston made it clear in interviews that this was intentional"¦a love of light S & M just being one more trait of his ideal woman.

This piece was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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