Since the dawn of the 21st century, Superheroes have become the main news at the box-office too with the majority of the highest grossing flicks of the last few years being inspired by the adventures of 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 10 Best Comic Book Heroes.
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 realized 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.
From counter-culture icon, to respected Avenger and father, Luke is always growing and maturing. Despite this, he’s never forgotten where he’s from and remains an enduringly popular character.
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.
While Wally initially believed himself far slower than Barry, he later realized that he was in fact a conduit for the Speed Force and could attain faster speeds than Barry ever could.
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.