Superheroes teach us a lot of valuable lessons, like standing up for justice, looking out for each other, persevering in the face of adversity, and knowing the proper timing for a witty barb. It’s easy to find a superhero whose struggles echo your own in at least some cursory way, especially given the immense number of modern, inclusive representations and reinterpretations of characters.
All superheroes are, well, super — it’s in the name — but some are definitely more super than others. Take a walk with us through the annals of superhero history in celebration of National Superhero Day (April 28), as we explore which superheroes are the best of the best.
Disclaimer: I haven’t read every comic book known to man. I have glaring blind spots in that regard. I take my superhero content via cartoons, movies, and series. You can be as angry about that as you like.
Sometimes you just want your superhero to be fun. You want to love them enough to root for them, but you also want them to make the most entertaining decision, not the “right” one.
That’s what Deadpool is for. Sarcastic quips? He’s got it. Gratuitous, comedic violence? He loves it as much as you do. A heart of gold hidden under layers of leather, dark humor, and action-hero rigamarole? He thought you’d never ask!
Disney movies probably aren’t what comes to mind first when you think about superheroes, but since Disney owns the MCU, shouldn’t they be? Elastigirl is a metaphor for the role society places upon mothers. She has to be flexible enough to wear a thousand different hats — mother, wife, protector, the public face of superheroes-at-large. She’s the rubber band holding her own world — and the rest of the world, since she tends to have a hand in saving it — together.
“Watchmen” would be wildly incomplete if not for Rorschach, whose narration is central to both the graphic novel and Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation. This isn’t a “good role model” kind of hero. Rorschach is an embodiment of moral absolutism — something is either good or evil, and he doesn’t have time for any nuance. That means he’s single-minded in his pursuit of evil, but his refusal to compromise tends to cause problems. Still, we sometimes need our heroes to come with flaws to make them more believable while they kick big-screen levels of bad-guy ass.
Bonus points for the epic one-liner (in both the comic and film): “I’m not locked in here with you; you’re locked in here with me!”
Some superheroes — like Spider-Man — become cultural icons. Having been featured in several comics and animated series, three different movie franchises, more video games than I care to count, and even as a cameo in cartoons that have nothing to do with superheroes (looking at you, “Family Guy”), to say Spider-Man is a prolific character would be an understatement. Not only is Spider-Man everywhere, but there are also all types of Spider-Men — and I don’t just mean the Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland kind of “different Spider-Men.” The upcoming “Across the Spider-Verse” movie explores the many alternate-universe iterations of Spider-Man, and they range from the wacky Spider-Pig to Spider-Girl, a Gwen Stacy spider-hero.
There’s a Spider-Man for everyone, but the important part is that they’re all fun and endearing, based on that same geeky, goof-ball kid who gets beat up for cracking the wrong joke at the wrong time.
3. Jean Grey
The 1990s X-Men TV cartoon was a cornerstone of many Millennials’ after-school routine. Gambit and Rogue wooed us with their super-cool accents and Wolverine was just Wolverine (more on him later), but the coolest of the core X-Men is Jean Grey. Everything we get to see about the evolution of her powers, including “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” paints her as a hero who, despite her incredible abilities, is most heroic for her heart.
There’s a Spider-Man for everyone, and the same goes for Batman. The character has been portrayed by many actors over the years, and they’ve all put their own spin on the Bat: Adam West is the classic, high-camp-and-spandex hero of yesteryear; Michael Keaton gave us the aloof millionaire, blessed with the slightest bit of edge; George Clooney gave us rubber nipples to mock for eternity; Christian Bale gave the millionaire a touch of charisma in his life as Bruce Wayne; and Robert Pattinson gave him depression and the ability to get his ass thoroughly kicked.
We haven’t even mentioned Val Kilmer or Ben Affleck, but you get the idea. There are so many different Batmen that to say there is a Batman for every generation is a misnomer. There are multiple, and we haven’t even talked about animated greats like “Batman Beyond.” Batman is another character that has become integral to Western pop culture.
We’ve covered characters with different versions for everyone, but let’s talk about one character who has done it all: Wolverine. He’s been part of a team (you may have heard of the X-Men); he’s been a lone wolf; he’s been a grumpy, reluctant father figure and protector (before “The Witcher,” “The Last of Us,” and “The Mandalorian”) — and he’s been portrayed by the same actor the entire time. At this point, Hugh Jackman should be considered a superhero. His power? Being Wolverine.
Wolverine has worked alongside Spider-Man, Deadpool, Mystique, Ghost Rider, The Hulk, and even Cyclops, who married Wolverine’s love interest, Jean Grey, and more. He’s proven that he can work with anyone — friend or foe — to get the job done.