Batman? Superman? Maybe Groot? Ever since Superman and Batman re-invented hero tropes found in folklore such as Robin Hood, Zorro, Tarzan, and William Tell, and blended them with classical Greek and Norse myths, Superheroes have taken the world by storm.
Since the dawn of the 21st century, Superheroes have become the biggest news at the box-office too with the majority of the highest grossing movies of the last few years being inspired by the adventures of those spandex-clad heroes from comic-books.
But when it comes to who is the BEST superhero, there’s no easy answer. It’s the stuff of playground and internet debate across the world and may never be definitively settled. Heroes rise and fall in popularity, where the Fantastic Four once ruled comic book sales in the ‘60s, they now face obscurity post-cancellation. The X-Men went from forgotten heroes in the ‘70s, to being top-dog in the ‘90s. Spider-Man was Marvel’s poster-boy for decades, and now faces stiff competition from Deadpool and Iron Man.
Considering their impact on the genre, cultural relevance, their originality, enduring popularity, and dozens of other factors, we humbly submit our list of the 25 Greatest Comic Book Heroes.
25. Mister Fantastic
Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, is the smartest man in the world. He’s also a fairly terrible husband who pays little attention to his wife and kids, despite loving them very much. He is also insanely egotistical and assumes his intellect always makes him right in any given situation. He’s kind of a jackass.
So, why does he make the top 25? It’s his flaws that make him a great character. Before the introduction of the Fantastic Four (the moment that sparked the Marvel revolution) superheroes were largely flawless characters who represented the very best in humanity. They saved the world before breakfast, got the girl, and were home in time for cocoa. But Stan Lee changed all that with the Fantastic Four and made heroes real people, living in the real world, with real problems. All of a sudden, they were relatable. And while each of the four had flaws, none had more than Reed.
Despite his many mistakes as a man, Reed is at heart a good man. He loves his family and friends, despite a tendency to always put work first. He’s also saved the world from Galactus and Doctor Doom a bunch of times. While he is currently retired, and finally spending time with his wife and children, Reed deserves to come back to the limelight one day.
It’s hard to be a truly iconic comic book hero. Even tougher when you aren’t a DC or Marvel hero. Tougher still when you don’t wear a costume or have superpowers. And close to impossible when you live in a world overrun with the undead. But Michonne is truly an icon, and a great one at that.
As one of the most popular characters in The Walking Dead series of comic books, Michonne has gone from being a lone warrior to a leading figure in Rick Grimes’ rag-tag band of survivors. Much of her early story focussed on her violent struggle against The Governor, which was far more brutal and personal that in the TV show. Her past, particularly the loss of her daughters, haunted her very badly and made it hard for her to form strong connections.
23. Miss Marvel (Khan)
It’s not easy to take on the name of an established hero and make it your own. It’s harder still when said hero is Miss Marvel. But, when Carol Danvers (The original Miss Marvel) took the title Captain Marvel, the young Kamala Khan stepped up.
Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own series, Kamala Khan is an American of Pakistani decent and was raised in Jersey City. When Black Bolt, leader of the Inhumans, released the Terrigen-Bomb into the atmosphere, many humans with inhuman DNA underwent terrigenesis and developed superpowers. Kamala was one of these people, and developed shapeshifting-like abilities.
Coming from Jersey, and hanging out with the heroes of New York, Kamala often feels like a second-string hero from a second-string city and often feels the need to prove herself. Between that and her home life as a young Muslim woman, Kamala has enough going on to give her book the kind of pathos and emotion that Spider-Man had back in his early days. While still relatively new, Kamala is the kind of well-rounded character Marvel is famous for and one sure to be making waves for years to come.
22. Black Panther
While Moon Knight is often referred to as Marvel’s Batman, that moniker is equally, if not more so, applicable to Black Panther. Not only does he have the same black-clad thing going on, but he’s also a man of immense resources and an indomitable will. He’s also a technological genius with expertise in multiple fields as well as one of the greatest-ever trackers and martial artists.
Black Panther is more than a superhero, he’s a king. As the leader of the incredibly advanced and highly private nation of Wakanda he has near-infinite financial resources, as well as access to technologies that are decades ahead of anything else in the world.
Black Panther was created at a time when Black characters in mainstream comics were either sidekicks or racial stereotypes. As a technological genius, diplomat, statesman, and superhero, Black Panther helped to encourage the creation of other prominent black superheroes who were more than stereotypes. As a character, and a cultural milestone, his importance cannot be overstated.
21. John Constantine
John Constantine, sometimes referred to as Hellblazer, is a working-class magician and occult detective. He’s also a slippery con-man with a golden tongue as likely to con a demon back to hell as he is to send them via use of force. He’s famous for his sharp-tongue and scathing wit and is a perpetual cynic, despite having seen all the good, as well as evil, in the world. While he’s not anti-establishment, he’s certainly counter-culture and serves as something of an anti-hero. Despite his many character flaws, or maybe because of them, John is a die-hard humanist and is deeply driven to protect mankind from the forces of evil.
Descended from a long line of magic users, John was born in Liverpool (England) but grew up in London. It was in London that he began to show an interest in the occult, and first became a demon tricking con-artist. Since then, he’s gone on to be one of the foremost authorities on matters relating to magic across the world and has skills that put him in the same league as Zatanna.
Barbara Gordon, Daughter of the famous Commissioner Gordon, was the first Modern-Age Batgirl. She was attending a costume party dressed as a female Batman when she saw Bruce Wayne kidnapped by the villain Killer Moth. Inspired by her costume, she intervened and saved Wayne, which drew the Dark Knight’s attention to her. Sharing Bruce Wayne’s cunning and brilliant mind, Barbara became a skilled martial artist and gymnast and began working with Batman and Robin.
After retiring as Batgirl, she is hunted down and shot in the abdomen by The Joker. The shot severed Barbara’s spine and she was paralysed from the waist down. Initially falling into a bout of depression, Barbara soon began to use her skills with computers as well as photographic memory to re-invent herself as Oracle, provider of intelligence to the heroes of the DCU and leader of the Birds of Prey. Recent changes have meant that Barbara has recovered from her paralysis thanks to intensive physiotherapy, and is once again a costumed crimefighter under the Batgirl alias.
The son of a prostitute, Walter Kovacs was raised in extreme poverty and was removed from his mother’s care by the state. He grew up in children’s homes and thrived, despite a distinctly dark and violent side. At age 16 he took a job as a garment worker until the death of Kitty Genovese, an event which deeply affected him. He used some cast-off material to fashion a mask, and became the crime-fighter Rorschach.
Rorschach remained a relatively mirror crime fighter for several years until he investigated a case involving a child who had been murdered and fed to dogs. His already unstable psyche snapped and he killed the dogs and burned the child’s murderer alive. At this point, he considered Walter Kovacs an alias and Rorschach to be his true self.
Rorschach investigates the death of The Comedian, and uncovers the conspiracy which takes place in the pages of Watchmen. Discovering Ozymandias’ plot to fake an alien invasion in order to unite humanity, Rorschach refuses to go along with the plan as it is against his morals. He demands Doctor Manhattan kill him before he can spread word of Ozymandias’ actions, and is vaporised on the spot.
Hellboy is the name given to the demon Anung un Rama. He was brought to earth by Nazi occultists who were seeking incredible power. Rescued by allied forces, and raised by his adoptive father Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, Hellboy developed a deep hatred of Nazi’s and went to work for the American Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD).
Hellboy aged far slower than a human would generally, but his aging seemed to accelerate and slow at different stages. In time grew to resemble a large red-skilled demon with horns, a tail, cloven hoofs for feet, and a giant right hand made from stone. He typically sands his horns down to stumps to “fit in”. Despite being gruff, he has a wicked sense of humour thanks to his upbringing as a normal boy. He possesses none of the evil traits one would expect of a demon.
17. Captain Marvel (Danvers)
Carol Danvers was introduced in the 1960s and was immediately written as a character who overcame gender stereotypes. She was an ace fighter pilot, officer in the USAF, and CIA field agent when she was hired as the head of NASA security at Cape Canaveral. She worked alongside Dr Philip Lawson, who was later revealed to be the Kree agent Mar-Vell, the first Captain Marvel. After Captain Marvel battled a dormant Kree Sentry, Carol discovered his identity, and a relationship blossomed between the two.
After a battle with Yon-Rogg who used a forbidden Kree Psyche-Magnitron, Mar-Vell used his body to shield Carol but his Kree DNA was fused with hers and her DNA became a perfect fusion on Human and Kree, granting her incredible superpowers of her own. She took the name Miss Marvel, and became a successful superhero.
After many tragedies and triumphs, which saw her lose Mar-Vell, be raped by the extra-dimensional Marcus, and physically and mentally assaulted by Rogue, as well as become a leading member of the Avengers, Carol took Mar-Vell’s name Captain Marvel to honor him as well as signify her new status as a major player in the Marvel Universe.
The ultimate Jekyll and Hyde (Marvel’s Mister Hyde notwithstanding) must be The Hulk. Initially, The Hulk was the brutish and childlike alter-ego of the genius Doctor Bruce Banner. Over time, the Hulk became a character in its own right and several different personas began to emerge. Besides the savage Green Hulk, there is a Grey Hulk also known as Joe Fixit who is more canny and street-smart than the green Hulk, but not quite as strong. There have also been intelligent “Professor” Hulks and the tactically brilliant Green Scar persona. Each represent different aspects of Banner’s fragile psyche and their powers vary to different degrees.
Unlike most heroes on this list, The Hulk is rarely celebrated as a hero. He’s seen as a menace at best, and an omega-level threat at worst. While he has often been sought out by the other heroes to battle alongside them, they have also taken up arms against him when one of his personas has caused destruction on a vast scale. The Illuminati (Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Mister Fantastic and the rest) once attempted to banish Hulk after one such rampage. His return led to the epic World War Hulk, which saw Hulk at his most powerful. In his highest level of rage, Hulk is only stoppable by a cosmic level force such as The Phoenix, or Galactus.
Several superheroes created by Stan Lee in the 1960s had a disability of some kind. Charles Xavier was confined to a wheelchair for instance. It added a layer of vulnerability to his characters which made them more human and relatable than the larger-than-life god-like figures of DC’s Justice League. None had a disability more prominent than Daredevil, however, his blindness has never stopped him being one of Marvel’s most interesting and unique characters.
Born sighted, Matt Murdock was the son of boxer “Battlin’ Jack Murdock” and grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. On his way home from school, he rushed to save an old man from being run down by a van carrying toxic materials illegally through the streets. Matt saved the man, but in the resulting crash lost his vision forever. An unexpected side-effect of the toxic materials that robbed Matt of his vision was that his remaining senses were enhanced to superhuman levels. His hearing became so acute that he learned to focus it in such a way as to be able to detect the proximity of solid objects.
After his father was killed for refusing to throw a fight, Matt studied hard to become a lawyer. He also used his athletic prowess, skills as both a boxer and martial artist as trained by the enigmatic man known as Stick, and his powers, to become the crimefighter Daredevil.
14. Jim Gordon
One of the few non-superheroes on this list is Jim Gordon, the Police Commissioner of Gotham City and one of Batman’s key allies. While the Batman comics have birthed numerous heroes, Jim stands out as one of the best due to his steadfast nature. While he does bend the law at times to provide Batman with vital information (Batman isn’t always considered to be a hero and is legally a vigilante in many continuities) Jim Gordon does so to protect the city he loves. Unlike Batman, who hides in the shadows, Jim is the face of law and order in Gotham. In a city often ravaged by gang war or held to ransom by lunatics like The Joker, Jim stands resolute. With the city relying on him to keep them safe, Jim has a huge responsibility.
Jim is one of the few characters that has been represented in almost every adaptation of Batman. Even when Robin is absent, Jim is usually present. With the exception of Alfred, Jim Gordon is the character most associated with Batman in assorted media and integral to the wider story of Gotham, and in particular, Batman.
Just edging out Jim Gordon, is none other than the original Robin, Dick Grayson. As Robin, Dick was the first sidekick of Batman (and probably the most famous sidekick of all-time) and made the role his own. Although trained by Batman, he added his years of experience as an acrobat making his fighting style unique.
In time, Dick grew out of his role as a sidekick and became much more. Leading the Teen Titans, and growing ever more competent in his own right, he gave up being Robin and became Nightwing. As Nightwing, Dick moved away from Gotham (although remained a steadfast ally of Batman) and became a hero in his own right. While many of Batman’s other sidekicks have grown, and changed, none have done so quite as successfully as Dick has.
12. Rick Grimes
Another non-superhero is Rick Grimes. In a world overrun by “Walkers” (nobody call them Zombies!) Rick is a former Sheriff’s Deputy who comes to lead a small band of survivors. Initially merely trying to survive in a world where civilisation seems to have collapsed, Rick eventually tries to build a community where people can do more than merely survive the apocalypse, they can thrive.
After a time simply moving on from place to place, his group take refuge in an old prison. The fences keep them safe from Walkers, but prove ineffective when it comes to his first nemesis, the Sadistic “Governor”. Attempting to bargain with the Governor, Rick is maimed when his hand is cut off.
Eventually, the prison falls and his band find themselves on the road once more. Finding the Alexandria Safe-Zone, Rick thinks he has found peace. In time, Alexandria comes into conflict with numerous other communities such as Negan’s Saviours.
Unlike many whiter than white heroes, Rick has done some terrible things to survive including killing people in a brutal manner. His actions sometimes make him cross the line and make him a full-blown villain, and his sanity is often tested. As characters go, he’s one of the most complex ones on the list.
11. Judge Dredd
In the dystopian future of the post-apocalyptic 22nd century, crime has all but taken over Mega-City one. The only thing that stand against crime are the police force known as Judges. These elite cops do whatever it takes to eliminate the criminal element and prevent anarchy, including sentencing them to death and executing them on the spot. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Judges are greatly feared for their incredible skills. In the hell that is Mega-City One, no Judge is as respected, and feared, as Judge Dredd. He is the Law!
Dredd is a clone created from the genetic material of Chief Justice Fargo. Dredd and his twin, Rico, emerged from cloning vats with the equivalent development of five-year olds and were immediately trained to be Judges. 13 years later, Dredd hit the streets as a fully-trained Judge.
Unlike most heroes, Dredd has no secret identity, no time off, he only sleeps ten minutes a day and he’s back on the streets. Despite this, he’s not seen as a beacon of hope. Even the most minor crime he sees is dealt with as harshly as possible. He was built to enforce the law, and uphold justice. And that’s just what he does.
10. Luke Cage
Beginning our top ten is a character that could have easily been a product of his time but grew to be far more. Luke Cage, the indestructible ex-con from Harlem was created during the Blaxploitation era of movies such as Shaft. When the popularity of this era wore off, Luke’s adventures could have been forgotten. However, his team up with Iron Fist (who was created to cash in on Kung-Fu movies) meant that the Heroes for Hire remained a visible presence for many years.
For a long time, Luke represented the street-level of the Marvel Universe. An urban hero, Luke didn’t wear a mask and was a visible member of his community. But over time, he grew. An affair with Jessica Jones led to Jessica falling pregnant. Luke and Jess realised they had real feelings for each other and married, later they welcomed their baby, Danielle. Around the same time, Luke accepted membership into the New Avengers. Despite his reservations, he wanted to be a man his child could respect. In time, he even led the New Avengers after Cap’s death. Later still, he would lead an incarnation of the Thunderbolts.
9. The Flash (Wally West)
Struck by a bolt of lightning in identical circumstances to those that that gave his uncle Barry Allen his powers, Wally West became Kid Flash and became his uncle’s sidekick and a member of the Teen Titans. When Barry died saving the universe, Wally stepped up and became The Flash to honor his uncle’s legacy. Like Barry, Wally also became a member of the Justice League. While on the team, he became a close friend of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and the two became a formidable team as well as providing some much-needed levity at times.
Although he was often seen as a replacement, Wally embodied The Flash as much as Barry ever did. His determination to match Barry’s heroism, and speed, made him often strive to be a better hero. Although his life seemed to go into a tailspin after winning the lottery, and then losing all the money, Wally managed to find a way back.
8. Captain America
Steve Rogers was a polio-stricken young man who desired to fight the forces of fascism when Hitler began to march across Europe. His impassioned pleas fell on deaf ears when he tried to enlist in the Army, but Professor Erskine offered him the chance to be a test subject for a Super-Soldier project. Although successful, and Rogers was transformed into the peak of human strength, speed, and agility, the Professor was killed before he could replicate the experiment. Instead of being one among many, Steve Rogers became Captain America a symbol on the battlefield and he helped the Allies win WW2.
Shortly before the end of the war, Steve was frozen in Antarctic ice after battling Baron Zemo. He would remain in suspended animation until many years later when he would be discovered by the newly-formed Avengers. His life having passed him by, he remained with the Avengers and eventually became the team’s greatest leader.
Forever seen as a man out of time, Steve still struggles to adapt to the modern world, but has risked life and limb many times to defend it. He remains a symbol of America’s greatest attributes, courage, selflessness, and the desire to defend the weak. His heroism is as inspirational now as it ever was.
7. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
There have been many Green Lanterns from Earth, Jon Stewart, Guy Gardner, Kyle Rayner… but the first and best is Hal Jordan.
Initially written as a straight arrow, Hal had some revamps to his character over the years and became something of a rebellious figure. One of the few to stand up to the Guardians of the Universe, Hal is seen among the Lanterns as someone who disobeys orders, but is generally trying to do the right thing. On Earth, he is a respected member of the Justice League, but frequently locks horns with Batman whose style clashes with Hal’s.
Hal’s greatest failure came when he was driven mad by the destruction of his hometown and he lashed out at the Lantern Corps, destroying them. It was later revealed that he had been possessed by the fear entity known as Parallax, and his actions were not his own. Despite this, many people still didn’t trust him and he fought hard to regain his reputation as well as repent for what he did while influenced by Parallax. His story is often one of redemption.
6. Wonder Woman
The Princess of the isolationist Amazons, Wonder Woman is one of the most powerful heroes in the DC universe and a leading member of the Justice League. Many comic books have been heavily influenced by her and she is widely considered to be the archetype for the superheroine. Strong female characters such as Power Girl, Storm, Captain Marvel and Vixen all draw huge inspiration from Wonder Woman.
Her original origins depicted her as having been a clay figure, crafted by her mother, and given life by the Greek Gods. More recent versions have seen her re-imagined as the daughter of Zeus and the Amazon queen Hippolyta. Her divine origins are the source of her incredible strength and make her one of the few Members of the Justice League to be in the same League (excuse the pun) as Superman or the Martian Manhunter, although her raw strength is generally accepted to being greater than either of these.
A modern character who ran contrary to the established lore of what a hero should be in many ways. Unlike the whiter than white Captain America, Wolverine was a grey character from the outset. His origins were a mystery for decades, with only hints as to where he truly came from. All that was known was that he was a mutant, far older than he appeared, and had been experimented on in the past and given an Adamantium skeleton and claws by an unknown party.
Eventually, his origins were fleshed out and much of the mystery washed away. But what remained was a character that stood apart. He wasn’t relatable, like Spider-Man, or the subject of wish-fulfilment like Superman. Wolverine was an outsider, who managed to make friends, and a loner who joined just about every team there is. He’s bad tempered, rude, arrogant.. and yet he’s also spiritual and wise. It’s these many contradictions which make him so appealing.
When Deadpool first appeared, he was an antagonist of X-Force who had some history with an enemy of Cable known as Tolliver and worked as Tolliver’s enforcer. An obvious rip-off of Deathstroke, with elements of Spider-Man thrown in, Deadpool could have easily been forgettable. And yet, over time he grew into something unique. A few mini-series fleshed him out and his history became quite tragic. Over time, he became slightly wackier and often used as a more comedic character than the more straight-up merc his original stories painted him as.
Numerous solo-series as well as team ups with Cable, Wolverine, Spider-Man, and just about everyone in Marvel have seen Deadpool become more and more popular. His obsession with chimichangas and Bea Arthur aside, he’s probably one of Marvel’s most popular characters right now and thanks to the success of his 2016 movie, he’s re-writing the book on what superhero movies can be too.
A fourth-wall breaking, utterly insane, gun-toting madman running around cracking jokes and blowing up buildings may not sound like a hero, but somehow Deadpool remains quite lovable by characters such as Spider-Man (who he has a weird bromance with) and fans across the world.
Superman’s not just AN archetype, he’s THE archetype for superheroes. Not only the most famous superhero, he’s the one that inspired all that followed in his wake. Sure, he was inspired by classical mythological figures, but he’s the one that embodies all that heroes aspire to be. His origins are straight out of Greek myth and even the Bible. Sent from a dying planet, the last son of Krypton lands on Earth and is raised by kindly farmers in Kansas who instil in him all that is good about America. Later, as his powers grow, he heads to the city of Metropolis and becomes a crime-fighter and symbol of hope to the masses as he stands against supervillains, criminal corruption, and outside threats to the world.
While his powers make him akin to a god, and he’s even fought and defeated gods, it’s his Kansas-raised boy scout persona that makes him who he is. Sometimes seen as something of an optimist, he sees the world as it can be and strives to lead by example and make it a better place. This doesn’t mean he’s a soft touch by any means. He fought the monster Doomsday to the death and took a beating that would, and did, decimate the other heroes of Earth combined but he didn’t give up until he’d saved the city. Even uber-powerful foes such as Darkseid respect his power. He may be a boy scout, but he’s also a bad-ass.
Spider-Man is, in many ways, the hero that changed it all. Unlike the billionaire playboys in their skyscrapers, or the gods and aliens with the power to move mountains, Peter Parker was a fifteen-year-old boy with regular problems when he gained superpowers. This guy was relatable. He was bullied, but couldn’t fight back because he could beat up the whole football team without breaking a sweat. He had homework, which he had to fit in around his crimefighting. He also had loss. His pain from losing his parents, and the guilt he carried due to failing to stop a criminal who later killed his uncle, made him feel more like a real person than any hero before him.
As the character aged, he became an experienced and respected hero. But the challenges he faced also grew. His enemies were no longer content to merely fight him, they went after his friends and family too. His nemesis Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin even murdered his girlfriend Gwen Stacey, a watershed moment that is the beginning of the modern age of comics.
The countdown is over, and who else could be number one but the caped crusader himself, Batman! His origins have been told many times, and are pretty much consistent across all media. The sole heir to the vast Wayne fortune, young Bruce Wayne was powerless to prevent the murder of his parents Thomas and Martha. Determined to fight the criminal element, he dedicated his life to becoming the world’s greatest detective and honed his mind and body to the very peak of human excellence.
Despite being one of the greatest fighters in DC comics (Shiva and Cassandra Cain probably stand his equal), his mind is his greatest weapon. It’s often said that he could defeat any foe, even his allies, if given enough prep time. Sometimes seen as the opposite of Superman, the two are generally depicted as good friends. Batman’s pessimism is often balanced by Superman’s optimism and Batman is often forced to concede that maybe the world isn’t as bleak as he sees it.
Despite the cool costume, the car, plane, and assorted gadgets, what makes Batman so enduringly popular for so many decades is his place in the collective unconsciousness of western culture. The question of what could drive a man to push himself to such extremes, to don himself in darkness to serve the light, is as relevant now as it ever was.
Did your favourite make the cut? Are you bummed we missed someone you love? Tell us in the comments!
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