Back when Superhero comics started in The Golden Age of Comic Books, there were no "universes" at first. Each character's adventures took place in their own little bubble. This came to an end with the first team-ups, such as the Justice Society of America, or the "war" between the original Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. Slowly, individual characters became part of a greater whole.
This, however, led to a few questions. While it might make sense that a Freak Lab Accident could increase someone's natural strength and speed to superhuman levels, the fact that Million-to-One Chances had independently gifted fifty or sixty different people with different powers started to stretch Willing Suspension of Disbelief. And as the comics started appealing to an older target demographic, they started noticing such things more and more.
Thus, certain Retcons were set up, changing it so that there was a reason why so many people were suddenly receiving super-powers. Essentially, this was the origin of the origins; thus, the Meta Origin—a classic example of The "Unicorn In The Garden" Rule in action.
I Love Nuclear Power, Lightning Can Do Anything and similar tropes tend to be explained away by showing that the dangerous experience really just activated something latent, or brought one to the attention of an extradimensional force.
On a much smaller scale, this can also refer to the effect of a Retcon or reinterpretation that directly links individual character origins in ways not present in the original formulation.
This tends to be built into the world when new Superhero worlds are created from the ground up.
A related concept is the Magnetic Plot Device, which could be considered the meta origin of all the weird stuff that happens to you. In many cases, the Meta Origin will become the Magnetic Plot Device for that particular story, although the two concepts aren't always the same.
Contrast with Fantasy Kitchen Sink, All Myths Are True. See Mass Super-Empowering Event for non-Retconned starting events providing everyone's superpowers and thus linking everyone together. See Randomly-Gifted for a similar setting-wide explanation for the random appearance of powers.
Anime and Manga
- In Naruto everything remotely powerful can be traced back to the Sage of the Six Paths. Ninjutsu? Created by the Sage. The powerful Uchiha and Senju clans? Descendants of the Sage. The Biju? Was originally the Jubi but split by the Sage. Rinnegan? Eyes of the Sage. The Uzumaki clan? Related to Senju.
- In the Stars storyline for the Sailor Moon manga, the Galaxy Cauldron essentially functions as this.
- In Claymore, all of the various superpowers in the series can be traced back to the dragons allied with the Organization's nation's enemies. The youma were created through experiments performed on a pair of captive dragons' flesh, and the Claymores are merely humans with youma flesh implanted in their bodies.
- In Hellsing, almost every supernatural being seen in the series is related to Alucard. All of Millenium's vampires are simply knockoffs created with the remains of Mina Harker, one of Alucard's past victims who still retained a bit of his vampiric power. The Captain a werewolf is one of the few exceptions.
- The Marvel Universe has Sufficiently Advanced Alien Ancient Astronauts called the "Celestials", who did experiments millions of years ago on proto-humanity, creating the offshoot races known as the Eternals and Deviants, as well as putting in the "X-gene", which causes the wide variety of super-powered mutants in the MU.
- In Earth X, everything is a direct-or-indirect result of Celestial manipulation. The superhumans, the Kree, the Skrull, and even the Asgardians.
- In Marvel Knights Spider-Man #9, it was explained that, after World War II, big businessmen had feared superheroes would start interfering with politics and business, so they created most of the early supervillains, to keep them busy and make sure that Reed Richards Is Useless. This hasn't been mentioned again since, and may have fallen into Dork Age status.
- Of course, the one who suggested this was a B-list supervillain on behalf of an A-list supervillain who made a living creating and arming B-list supervillains. Perhaps it's best to consider it the supervillain equivalent of NAMBLA, attempting to justify its Complete Monstrosity by appealing to historical records of pedophilia and saying "things have always been this way". Well, we used to drill holes in people's heads to let out the evil spirits, and we stopped doing that, too. Shut UP, Hannibal.
- In Ultimate Marvel, pretty much everyone who isn't a mutant, an alien or a god has their powers derived from the Super Soldier project or one of its offshoots. The mini-series Ultimate Origins elaborates on the Meta Origin and how it connects everything else; it seems that the Mutants, too, owe their origin to the project.
- The forgotten miniseries Conspiracy implied this was largely true of the 616-verse as well but everyone's forgotten about that.
- The New Universe had the "White Event", a sudden flash of energy over the entire surface of the Earth that gave one out of every 500,000 people powers. Later revealed to be the first Star Brand wearer trying to rid himself of his power. A similar event destroys Pittsburgh when the next Star Brand also becomes unsatisfied with his power.
- In the reimagined newuniversal [sic] series, the Earth enters a region of space controlled by a vast, ancient computer system that empowers several humans as heralds to help humanity adapt to the new physical laws. It's shown that this has happened before, but was interfered with by other humans each time.
- Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602 empowers Elizabethan-era Captains Ersatz of mainstream Marvel characters by sending Captain America (comics) back in time during a failed execution attempt, which "signals" to the universe that it's time for superheroes to start showing up.
- The Marvel Universe takes this to its limit with the little known Anthropomorphic Personification called Origin, the origin of every empowered individual.
- The DCU copied the Marvel concept when they introduced the "metagene" in the 1988 Crisis Crossover Invasion!. When someone with this gene underwent a moment of extraordinary physical stress, the gene would activate, giving them some ability that would allow them to handle it. Any character who doesn't have powers from some other, explicit source is assumed to be a "metahuman".
- The titular hero of Hitman once recapped his origin from the 1992 Crisis Crossover Bloodlines, and said "Even I think it's embarrassing." Said origin involved said metahumans having a specialized reaction that allowed them to survive when aliens with a taste for spinal fluid fed on them.
- It also has the "Speed Force", which links most super-speed heroes (like the Flash) by positing that they draw the energy needed to break physics like they do from an extradimensional power source; it's implied that the Speed Force has a will of its own and needs to "notice" you to give you its powers, and it's also implied to be a sort of Heaven/Valhalla for dead speedsters.
- As well, there's the "Godwave" from the Crisis Crossover "War of the Gods", which was explained as creating both Physical Gods and super-powered humans, but that seems to have been quietly ignored since.
- In Milestone Comics (now part of the DCU), many supers are "Big Bang Babies" who got their powers when a massive gang fight was broken up by cops deploying tear gas that had (without the cops' knowledge) been laced with "quantum juice".
- The Valiant Comics universe was a fairly ordinary universe with no supernatural aspects until a scientist named Phil Seleski accidentally created a "wish machine" that gave him god-like powers. Due to events too long to summarize, he wound up collapsing the entire universe into a black hole. He tried to restore it, but, because he was a superhero fan, he subconsciously recreated the universe as a more fantastic version of the original, complete with invading aliens, evil robots, sentient Powered Armor and mutant-like "Harbingers".
- In the Wildstorm universe, the main sources of powers were either alien ancestry (like the Wild CATS, who were all part or full Kherubim) or the Gen-Factor, a Super Serum whose results were inheritable. The Century Babies also often had mysterious abilities, but their origin is unclear.
- In PS238, metahuman powers, which come from a huge variety of sources, are inborn or obtained in an equally large amount of ways; it is eventually revealed that an unknown cosmic determinant appears to be responsible for whether or not humanity will have access to metahuman powers. The process is circular; ever so often, humans will start to develop/be exposed to superpowers, and then, following a short 'trial period', this determinant will select a 'chooser' from humanity to decide if this state of affairs will continue. If the chooser says no, the powers will be removed and humanity will have a century or two without them. If yes, metahumans will continue to exist. So far, every chooser has elected to say no.
- There are exceptions, however. Uncommon origins, such as close encounters with the higher powers of Order and Chaos, happen. They "don't count", as in not a part of Superpowerful Genetics and other common rules of metahumanity: Julie still is a plain FISS in all regards and Tyler still doesn't detect as a metahuman at all, even if now they can see things like cherubs, imps or portals leading outside "mortal" Universes.
- In Defiant Comics' shared universe, the powers could all be somehow traced back to "dreamtime" - humanity's collective Id that existed on another plane of reality. All super-powered humans either learned to tap into dreamtime and wished superpowers for themselves or got powers from dreamtime's native lifeforms.
- Supreme Power links all of the powered heroes' origins to Hyperion's arrival on earth.
- Spiderman: Chapter One retconned and fused Spiderman and Doctor Octopus' origins.
- In Salman Rushdie's Magic Realism novel Midnight's Children, 1001 babies born at midnight on the day that India achieves its independence gain low-level superpowers. One can reverse gender, another can teleport through bodies of water, and the main character can smell disaster and other things no one can smell. They're also all able to maintain telepathic contact with one another, and try to form a sort of national congress (it fails miserably).
- In the classic pulp horror novel Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson, all the monstrous creatures of worldwide myth and legend (and most of the evil in the world) spring from Homo lycanthropus, a werewolf-vampire species of "witch men" who have lived secretly alongside "real men" since prehistoric times and can interbreed with Homo sapiens.
- Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton Family concept posited the Wold Newton meteorite as a source of mutation, which, while generally not producing metahumans, produced an extended family including Tarzan, Doc Savage et al.
- Christopher Stasheff's Warlock of Gramaraye series reveals that the existence of so many mythological creatures on the world of Gramarye is due to the presence of "witch-moss," which can be psychically shaped.
- In the Wild Cards book series, all human supers get their powers via infection with the Wild Card virus. This also explains why so damn many of them live in New York City; that's where the virus was originally released.
- In Wearing the Cape, all superhumans are "breakthroughs"—individuals who's powers manifested in response to great physical stress or emotional trauma. Superhumans themselves began appearing in the aftermath of the Event (a worldwide phenomena where every living person experienced complete sensory deprivation for 3.2 seconds), but neither the Event nor the source of superhuman powers is every explained.
- In Dark Life, living at the high pressures of the undersea homesteads gives people "Dark Gifts".
Live Action TV
- Where the DCU has the Speed Force, Power Rangers has the Morphing Grid. In Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the series' first incarnation, it was a term frequently tossed out in Techno Babble but never defined. Dusted off over a decade later, it seems that all Rangers, whether their apparent power source is magic, technology, Green Rocks, or some combination thereof, are actually powered by a connection to the Grid. The Grid is potentially explained in Power Rangers RPM (that's season seventeen) to be an energy field produced by the bioelectricity of living beings, but RPM never acknowledges it by name (it was described as a "grid" so we're assuming it's the Grid) and takes place in a separate universe from the rest. In any case, it's still not explained how the various apparent power sources and the Grid interact with each other.
- Fanon suggests that the morphing powers tap into the grid to access the uniform and weapons, it is sort of a canon Hyperspace Arsenal. The Grid doesn't necessarily supply the power to the morphers but it instead channels that power into what they need. That's why the different teams with wildly different power sources can all use the morphing grid, you just need to figure out how to channel the grid abilities. There are other characters within the franchise that can "Morph" without being called Rangers, such as Masked Rider and (debatably) the Magna Defender.
- All the superpowers on Heroes supposedly come from certain people evolving a sort of "superpower gene," like in X-Men. However, a few scenes, as well as some Word of God comments, suggest there might be a quasi-religious aspect determining which people are granted which powers.
- A two-parter in season 3 attempted to retcon an explanation that an eclipse was what caused the characters' latent powers to emerge, with another eclipse taking those powers away.
- The superhumans in the TV version of Painkiller Jane were all either "Neuros" who shared a neurological abberation, or were empowered by a Neuro.
- In The 4400, everyone's powers are due to everyone getting a fifth neural transmitter, promicin, when they were kidnapped by the future.
- The entirety of Exalted is one big Meta Origin, with the various types of Exalted having been literally Chosen By The Gods to receive their powers.
- The Mutants and Masterminds setting Paragons has everyone's powers emerge in the past few years due to one source; however, that unified source is left deliberately vague, though the book heavily hints that the world of myth is leaking back into reality.
- In the Trinity Universe, Novas and Psions both have the same latent genetic potential that is later activated by some outside stimulus, particularly the presence of existing Novas or Psions. In Aberrant, a large number of Novas were activated by the explosion of the Galatea, and in Trinity, most Psions are activated by dunking in one of the psi-orders' Prometheus Chambers.
- International Super Teams, the official super hero roleplaying setting for GURPS, traces powers back to the Seeders, Precursor-like aliens who uplift dead-end species by adding the potential for sapience and a racial super power (to be determined by its evolution and environmental stresses) to the species' genetic code. In the case of Earth, humanity's engineered ancestors suffered a solar radiation event which suppressed most of the Seeder genes; only intelligence evolved until another radiation event in the late 1920s reactivated the "power genes", which then began to express themselves more or less randomly from individual to individual.
- The backstory of City of Heroes involves the original Superhero and his Rival Turned Evil opening Pandora's Box, unleashing the last four millennia of humanity's stored creativity. This was in the early 1930s, again paralleling The Golden Age of Comic Books. In the novel Web of Arachnos, it's claimed that the last time the box was opened, it led to the gods of Greek myth. But it's also said specifically that not all beings of legend were born of its power...
- There's also "the Nuclear 90", "90 children from around the world all born in one year with an unusual mutation that gives them natural magnetic nuclear fusion reactors for hearts, and the ability to channel energy from their internal reactor for a variety of super powers." The only one of these who's currently a character in the game is the NPC Fusionette.
- A story arc included in Issue 12 notes that the first mutants appeared after 1938, corresponding to the earliest human-controlled nuclear fission.
- There's also the Meta Origin of the Origins themselves, and the apparent web that connects and entangles all super-powered beings—meaning that there is, apparently, a reason that going through Training from Hell doesn't give everyone superpowers, or that scientific accidents don't always cause powers...
- The mostly-forgettable video game Lionheart had King Richard the Lionheart's aggressive hoarding of holy relics during the Third Crusade result in an explosion of magical energy, the "Disjunction", that caused human beings to begin manifesting magical powers, significantly altered the geography of western Europe, and turned ordinary animals into mythological beasts.
- Most of the characters in Freedom Force got their powers from a mysterious form of energy imaginatively called "Energy X". This energy is explained as the "secret weapon" of the multiverse-spanning empire known as the Domain. Their leader, Lord Dominion, thinking that Earth, the only place he hasn't conquered, won't prove to be a challenge, orders his underlings to give Energy X to the most evil people on Earth in the hopes that they will destroy Humanity and each other. However, a rebel named Mentor steals all the Energy X canisters and tries to bring them to Earth, so he can give them to the most heroic people on Earth... only to be shot down by the pursuing fleet, causing the canisters to rain down on Earth, and giving powers to those who happened to be in their vicinity.
- This is taken even further by the sequel, Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich. At the end, it is revealed that Energy X is actually a sentient being. This was probably planned to be further explained in another sequel, but at this point that seems pretty unlikely.
- A few of the origins are questionable. Eve may or may not get her power from Pan, for instance. Another may be getting it from a Wiccan goddess, the origin video is actually ambiguous on that point but she thinks so.
- Super Robot Wars, starting in Alpha, handles this surprisingly well, especially with how many series the games have to balance. Most of them involve Human Aliens, Ancient Astronauts, and so on. A few games even mix the different varieties of Phlebotinum as manifestations of some greater, overarching power in the universe.
- Many characters from Mind Mistress have connected origins. Mindmistress and Forethought gained their intelect from the same source. Moodswing and members of Venegance Inc. mutated because of the same thing. Moodswing's belt and tsunami-causing rod of sea people were both created by Miraclemaker. And there's bunch of character created by mindmistress actions
- In the Whateley Universe, people with the "meta-gene complex" may just manifest as a mutant (typically around age fourteen) for no known reason. However, at least a sixth of everyone on earth has this genetic structure, and yet there are only thousands of mutants. The roughly 600 mutants at Whateley Academy represent by far most of the high-school age mutants on the planet.
- Academy of Superheroes has the Magene, which gives one the ability to, essentially, break the laws of physics. The original holders in prehistory were powerful wizards, and the most powerful became the gods of mythology. In the modern day, the gene is far more diluted, resulting in superhumans. There are highly-detailed classifications detailing what kind and how powerful a particular individual's physics-violating abilities are.
- The Global Guardians PBEM Universe copied the Marvel solution by having Sufficiently Advanced Alien Ancient Astronauts, the P!k Gardeners, experiment on early protohumans millions of years ago, adding the metagene to human DNA, thus allowing the possibility of superpowers. The 1908 Tunguska explosion caused extraterrestrial biomolecules to spread around the world and bond to human DNA, causing superhuman children to be born.
- In the comicbook-styled Omega universe, all superpowers (be they magic, psychic or even chi), come from the same source i.e. all humans are at least latent psychics. Omegas generally activate with a single power while mages use rituals to temporarily access their dormant psychic talents. The gods in the setting didn't create humanity, it was the other way around.
- The 1990s Spider-Man: The Animated Series has the science of "Neogenics", which is basically the science of applying Lego Genetics to an existing life-form (why take years to grow your super-mutant to adulthood when you can zap someone who is already an adult?) in a process that involves a kind of radiation. The spider that bit Peter hadn't been zapped by generic radiation, but with a "neogenic recombinator". Neogenics goes on to be responsible for the transformation of almost every member of Spider-Man's Rogues Gallery, mostly preserving their comic-book origins but pulling them together in a way that makes it a bit more plausible than a million Million-to-One Chance accidents.
- Similarly, The Spectacular Spider-Man: Many of the previously unconnected villains now related back to Oscorp: Dr. Octopus worked as a scientist there, Toomes became the Vulture because Oscorp stole his technology, Sandman and Rhino get their powers from Oscorp experiments, Shocker gets his suit as the result of Norman Osborn's machinations and so on. Interestingly, one of the few major villains in the series whose origin was related to Oscorp in the comics universe, Tombstone, has a criminal-working relationship with the company, and nothing more.
- Spectacular also makes use of the ESU genetics lab: For one thing, it's where Spider-Man himself got his powers. Then there was the accident with electric eels that created Electro, which in turn affected Doc Connors' Lizard serum. Doctor Warren later used the Lizard serum research to give Kraven powers. And to top things off, the symbiote later known as Venom was to be studied in the lab, too.
- Bang Babies from Static Shock all got their powers from a single event.
- While much less overarchingly-celestial in origin, Superman: The Animated Series tended to interlink the origins of various characters that were previously not related in-comics, making for stronger continuity: For instance, rather than being made by an unaffiliated scientists, Metallo and Bizarro are now the direct creation of Lexcorp (though the latter was true in the comics canon as of John Byrne's Post-Crisis Man Of Steel reboot). Brainiac is portrayed as a Kryptonian computer system with a direct link to the end of that world, rather than being an unrelated alien that just happens to stumble across Earth. Toyman's origin is now the result of the actions of Intergang, which itself became a pawn to Darkseid's schemes, and so on.
- In the Ben 10 verse, each sapient species has evolved a series of traits that they consider mundane, and others consider superpowers. The Omnitrix was designed to allow a single individual to use all those myriad powers.
- Oh, and Humanity's "superpower" is the ability to produce viable offspring with ANY other sentient life-form. Which retain the strengths of both species. Theoretically, Humanity's mongrelized descendants could have every power in the universe.
- God, or the Big Bang, depending on religion or science. Either way, one of the two has caused EVERYTHING, in a way, including the opposite.