In the real world, heroes are not always likable. It’s true for fictional heroes too. Most superheroes are genuinely nice guys. Shazam, Ms. Marvel, and Captain America seem like they’d be great to hang out with. But nobody’s ever described Punisher, Orion, or Wolverine as lovable.
Sometimes though, it’s not obvious to us whether a hero is naughty or nice. Nine of the superheroes in this list may appear to be stand-up guys (or gals) but underneath, they’re inconsiderate. Selfish. Shallow. Constant sources of gratuitous pain. In short, jerks. The rest of the list is made up of the opposite end of the spectrum, heroes whose arrogant, hard exteriors hide a softer center.
Getting into the list isn’t a commentary on a character’s entire life. Characters change radically through the decades, as writers shoot for a fresh take. The Hulk, for instance, has been written as a thug, a mindless brute, a lonely gentle soul, and a calculating fiend. The Spectre’s soft side only lasted for a couple of years. What gets characters on this list is recurrent bad behavior, exceptional acts of douchebaggery and equivalent levels of niceness — all contrasting with the way some people perceive them. Read on for Screen Rant’s picks of the secret super-jerks and super-sweethearts of the superhero world.
17. Jerk – Superman
One of the staple tropes of the Silver Age Superman books was to hook the reader by having Superman or his friends doing something horrible. Then it turns out that they had a perfectly good reason for what they did. Only sometimes did they still wind up looking like a jerk.
In Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #30, for instance, Superman adopts Jimmy. Suddenly, he begins treating him like dirt, so Jimmy calls the adoption off. It turns out that a computer warned Supes that his son would die (actually, just an artificial sun he created). Superman figured playing Bad Dad to drive Jimmy off would be kinder than scaring him with the truth. Given how miserable he made Jimmy, this seems like a tissue-thin excuse.
16. Sweetheart – Namor
For much of his comics history, Namor has been a jerk. Arrogant even for royalty, hot-headed, and responding to the slightest disrespect by either punching someone out or launching an invasion. Even his love for Susan Storm Richards seemed more about his desires than hers — but in Fantastic Four #147-9, he proved he could put her happiness first.
In FF #141, Reed placed his son Franklin in a coma to stop him exploding like a psionic bomb. Horrified, Sue walked out and turned to Namor. In #147 she served Reed with divorce papers; in #149, the Sub-Mariner attacked New York to punish Reed for hurting her. In reality, he figured attacking Reed would make Sue see who she really loved — and he was right. He pulled the same stunt years later in #412. Two soft-hearted moments in the career of a man whose definitely not known for softness.
15. Jerk – Iron Man
Handsome millionaire entrepreneur, American patriot — when Tony Stark first appeared, he was cool. The luster dimmed when he became a superhero with a drinking problem. Then came the Civil War crossover, which made Tony a jerk while he was stone-cold sober. While the list of Tony’s unethical actions (cloning Thor, faking an assassination attempt, creating an illegal super-prison) is long, the way he manipulates Spider-Man is particularly jerky.
Knowing Peter idolizes him, Tony convinces him to show his support for superhero registration by publicly revealing his identity. The risk that Peter’s legion of enemies would aim for revenge (and they did) didn’t faze Iron Man at all. He even has the gall to threaten Spidey with prison just for questioning some of Tony’s actions.
14. Sweetheart – Batman
The Dark Knight Detective seems to get grimmer, grumpier, and colder with every decade, leading to a long list of bad Bat-decisions in recent years. It’s hard to remember that under it all, the Bat is a compassionate man. But if we look back through the years, the stories are there.
In Batman #15, for instance, Batman and Robin take it on themselves to bring Christmas cheer to the loneliest folks in Gotham City, such as a local lighthouse keeper. In #239, Batman even shows compassion for a crook robbing charity Santas around town. The guy, Tim, lost his job and wanted to give his kid a good Christmas. Despite his crime wave, Batman realizes that Tim’s no supervillain and offers to help. When Tim saves the life of the man he blames for his problems, it proves that the Caped Crusader had made the right call in being such a softy.
13. Jerk – Superior Spider-Man
A few years back, when Dr. Octopus found his mind in Spider-Man’s body, he set out to prove that he could be a better hero than Peter Parker ever was — a superior Spider-Man. He became an effective, though ruthless, crimefighter, built a thriving tech firm… and tried bringing Mary Jane back to Peter’s bed, while pretending to be Peter.
This touched off an Internet firestorm over the legal questions (would the law count that as rape?), the ethical ones (if it wasn’t rape, it was still sleazy), and how the writer handled it all. Doc Ock eventually gave up, but only because he could access Peter’s memories of MJ; that gave him enough voyeuristic satisfaction, so he could move on. The jerky nature of his actions never crossed his mind.
12. Sweetheart – Spectre (Hal Jordan)
The Spectre was killing criminals long before heroes who kill became an everyday thing. While it wasn’t part of his original concept, it’s become his dominant defining trait, save for the Spectre series in 2001-03.
The series followed Day of Judgment, a crossover event that ended with Hal Jordan become the new host for the Spectre’s power. Unlike previous hosts, Hal’s force of will reined in the Spectre’s wrath so that Hal-Spectre could become a Spirit of Redemption. His mission would be to help wrongdoers fly right, rather than just kill them in grotesque ways. This Spectre was even kid friendly, with Hal having become caregiver to his niece Helen.
11. Jerk – Starman (Ted Knight)
When the Golden Age Starman appeared in All-Star Squadron (a series set back in WWII), he was less than admirable. An idle playboy, Ted Knight became Starman as much for fame and glory as real heroism. He took more credit for his gravity rod weapon than he deserved. He cracked up after his first major defeat. And he supported the government’s decision to imprison Japanese Americans who’d shown no sign of disloyalty. In short, a perfect jerk.
In one of the A-SS letter columns, writer Roy Thomas said that while Bruce Wayne only faked being an idle wastrel, the other millionaire playboys turned heroes probably hadn’t begun training in childhood. Instead, they must have been real socialites and playboys until their secret origins — and so that’s how he wrote Ted Knight.
10. Sweetheart – Doc Savage
Next to the Shadow, Doc Savage was the pulp comic world’s most successful superhero. What made Doc different from the other pulp crimefighters was that his mission wasn’t to destroy evil — he wanted to destroy suffering.
In his second adventure, The Land of Terror, Doc encounters a penniless blind woman while he’s hunting down a gang of killers. He stops the hunt long enough to arrange a free operation to restore the woman’s sight. In the Depression allegory The Czar of Fear, Doc saves an entire city from financial ruin. In The Feathered Octopus, Doc visits a dying child whose one wish is to meet his personal hero, Doc Savage. Softhearted Doc never suspected a trap until it was too late.
Hopefully Doc’s upcoming film will remember that side of him.
9. Jerk – Hercules
In Thor #126, Thor compares Hercules to a spoiled child who’d never been properly disciplined. The Thunder God nailed it.
Over the course of several issues, Hercules tosses a mortal who annoyed him into a nearby trash can and shows no regard for collateral damage during his clash of titans with Thor. His disdain for people weaker than he is puts Herc one step above an outright bully.
Small wonder that when Pluto tricks Hercules into replacing him in the Netherworld, none of the Olympians help Hercules out. Pluto gloats that Hercules hasn’t made friends in his adventures, only enemies. But wouldn’t you know, Thor, despite his bruising slugfest with Hercules, comes to his adversary’s aid. It probably helped that Thor saw a lot of his younger, more reckless self in the Olympian.
8. Sweetheart – Big Barda
Sweetness is the last thing anyone should expect in a person raised on Apokalips, let alone someone trained as one of Darkseid’s Female Furies. But you’ll find it in Big Barda.
From the moment she first appeared in Mister Miracle #4, Barda barked orders like a drill sergeant (“Wake up you zero!”), leaving Scott Free’s sidekick Oberon grumbling that she was Attila the Hun in drag. Balanced against that was a capacity for friendship and loyalty rarely seen on Apokalips. As a Fury, she protected her weaker comrades from punishment, even if she had to kick their ass to discipline them. When Scott sought to leave Apokalips, she impulsively fought off the troops trying to stop him.
7. Jerk – Ant-Man (Hank Pym)
As the former Ant-Man once put it, it takes a strong man to keep it together when you’re ant-sized, and Hank Pym was never that strong. He was uncomfortable as a superhero and went insane twice. But even sane, his treatment of the Wasp — Janet, Hank’s sidekick, lover and wife — was inexcusable.
Jan was incredibly rich, which bugged Hank enough that he kept postponing the wedding. When a string of research projects hit dead ends, leaving him dependent on her money, Hank became increasingly angry. Jan was afraid to tell Hank that she was seeing a shrink for marriage advice, which in hindsight was a big warning flag.
Many issues later, when things were going even worse for Hank, he struck Jan to the floor in anger. Although writer Jim Shooter said it was an artist’s mistake, that blow redefined his character as being way worse than a mere jerk.
6. Sweetheart – Katana
When samurai Tatsu Yamashiro debuted as a member of the Outsiders, she wasn’t terribly likable. Not a jerk, just ruthless enough that stabbing enemies through the lung was an act of compassion — they were still alive, right? Like Batman, she had reasons for her rage, but she was a lot less restrained about acting on it.
However, her life with the Outsiders also involved her with Halo, a sunny young blonde amnesiac of unknown origins. Before long, they’d become a surrogate mother/daughter pair. Tatsu was never anything but protective and caring toward Halo, whether it was reluctantly watching the same bad movie over and over or trying to unearth Halo’s true identity.
5. Jerk – Triumph
Triumph, AKA William MacIntyre, thought he deserved to be an A-lister, and could never accept that he wasn’t.
Years before the Justice League’s official origin, Triumph gathered the heroes together to stop an alien invasion, but he was too arrogant to lead the team effectively. Things ended with him and the aliens getting hurled across time, their existence erased even from the JLA’s minds. When Triumph returned a decade later, “his” team had become legends, while he was a nonentity.
Working with the Justice League Task Force, Triumph continued acting like a jerk, but finally changed. That lasted until he got to change reality so he never disappeared — but in the new continuity, he was still an insignificant C-lister. This eventually pushed him from jerk hero to outright villain.
4. Sweetheart – Hulk
Stan Lee claimed he created the Hulk as a tragic, sympathetic figure. The early Green Goliath, however, was a badass, a brute, and something of a bully. The definitive Hulk for a generation of fans came after Lee left the book, and new writers gave him a sweeter, softer side.
The Bronze Age Hulk was a big green child, desperate for love, for friends, for people who wouldn’t scream and call in an airstrike when he showed up. Unfortunately, he was a child whose temper tantrums could level a city, which made it hard not to call in an airstrike.
A story in Hulk #147 captured the hero’s vulnerable side perfectly. Wandering in the desert, Hulk hallucinates a town where nobody’s afraid of him and decides he’ll stay there forever. But it’s only a mirage, and mirages cannot last …
3. Jerk – Human Torch
The Human Torch has some excuse for being a jerk in his early years: he was a teenager. Still, you can see why the Thing and Spider-Man were constantly getting fed up with him.
In Strange Tales #106, for instance, the criminal Acrobat convinces the Torch that he’s so superior to the rest of the Fantastic Four, he should quit the team. The Torch swallows every word. In Spider-Man #21, when Johnny’s girlfriend tells him Spider-Man and the Beetle are fighting outside her window, he laughs her call for help off. Then there were the frequent, endless pranks he played on the Thing — though in fairness, Ben Grimm gave as good as he got.
2. Sweetheart – Superboy (Kon-El)
When the clone Superboy debuted after the Death of Superman crossover event, he was egocentric, brash, demanding, and irresponsible. Lois described him as what Clark might have been if he hadn’t been raised by the Kents. Superboy eventually learning he wasn’t Superman — the real Supes wasn’t dead, and the kid wasn’t his clone — made his bad attitude a little worse.
For all his loud, smartass ways, though, there was a sweet heart underneath. He was always willing to help out others (particularly hot women), even though he’d brag about it afterwards. And like the Hulk, he was desperate to make real human connections — a girlfriend, teammates, buddies to hang with. He even took in a pet dog.
1. Jerk – Hawkeye (Clint Barton)
Back when he first joined the Avengers, Hawkeye put the “loud” in loudmouth.
From his first story as a team member, he saw himself as the natural leader — after all, what could an old fossil like Captain America have to teach someone as awesome as Clint Barton? He argued with Cap, argued with the rest of the team, refused to listen to instructions, and when Quicksilver outperformed him in a contest, Clint proved to be a sore loser.
Hawkeye might have remained a ginormous tool, if not for Steve Rogers’ influence. As Clint put it years later, Cap refused to give up on the “hot-headed punk” and eventually turned him into a real mensch. Given Hawkeye’s popularity in recent years, Marvel fans owe Captain America a big debt of gratitude.
Which secret jerks (or sweethearts) do you think get a bad rap in the eyes of the public? Tell us in comments.
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