The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 1: The All-Star Tier
I’ve been re-reading The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons lately, and it’s inspired upon me an idea. As any sports fans will know, basketball players considered of appropriate worth are inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for those that excelled in the sport over their career. Little more than a glorified museum, it is however considered an extreme honor, and a validation of one’s accomplishments on the court. A player only needs to receive the required number of votes, from those eligible to vote on such matters, to be accepted. Once in, no other discriminating factors are applied.
Bill Simmons postulates in his book that the inductees should be tiered into five different categories of accomplishment, with the best players of all time occupying the top floor of the Hall, comprising the Pantheon of the sport. This was little more than an exercise for him to rank the 96 best players of all time, using his own criteria. Basically it’s just a list, and anyone that knows me knows that I’m all for lists.
All of which is a long-winded explanation for how I’m going to steal his idea, and use it to rank the best superheroes of all time. I will do this by using discriminating criteria of my own devising. My goal is to be as objective as possible (Cranky Editor's Note: HAH!), meaning I’m going to try to limit my extreme preference for Marvel characters as much as possible, and try to score the categories as logically as possible.
Here are the categories I have decided to use.
The best origins are able to define and describe the respective character in the most simplistic of ways. In other words, a great origin will tell you all you need to know about a character to understand them.
Which characters have the kind of powers (or in the case of non-powered heroes, skills) that are worth emulating? In the simplest terms, the characters that a kid would want to pretend to be while they’re playing.
A strong supporting cast goes a long way toward making a character iconic.
Along with the supporting cast, a hero is nothing without his villains, and a strong rogues gallery can make even the blandest of characters infinitely entertaining (first shots fired, Batman).
Even the most determined of heroes should find time for love, and a strong love interest can often find his or her own book to headline. What kind of madman wouldn’t want to see their favorite character find happiness (other than me, of course)?
Comic books are a visual medium, and I believe that the character’s costume plays a big role in how well they are received, whether people realize it or not. Sometimes, looking cool is all it takes.
Has the character had a consistently entertaining series over the years, or is their publishing history marked with extreme peaks and desolate valleys. A pedigree of strong storytelling can go a long way toward establishing a character as a favorite.
Beyond a record of consistent storytelling, which characters have provided a platform for truly transcendent benchmark stories that have stood the test of time? If you needed to give an interested fan one book on a specific character, could you?
This will involve a complex matrix of how well a character is known by the general public, and how much they seem to be loved overall. Either that or a judgment call I will make on my own authority.
Which heroes are most often adapted into other mediums, like movies and cartoons, along with toys, bedsheets, and toothbrushes. Are those adaptations entertaining in their own right?
It should never be just about the mask. The person underneath should be just as interesting as the costume. The best characters have a civilian identity that provides opportunities for greater storytelling.
With the categories distinctly laid out, I will assign point values to each character by each category, and average that total out. The list will then be assembled from the highest average point total, to the lowest. I am not nearly crazy enough to attempt to list the top 100 or even 96 superhero characters of all time, so I’ve settled on a list of 32, with a few honorable mentions.
Now that all that preamble is out of the way, let’s begin.
HONORABLE MENTION: THE PIONEERS
The Spirit – brainchild of the legendary Will Eisner. Headlined his own unsuccessful movie. Highly influential to an entire generation of future comic book professionals. (Cranky Editor's Note: The movie was still awesome. Go watch it. Also, has to be said, that entire generation of professionals includes Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Walt Simonson. I really think Eisner is all things considered more influential than Jack Kirby.)
Miracleman – impactful British import, helped launch the career of the highly influential Alan Moore. Level of sophistication in the storytelling would be important to the evolution of comic books, before disappearing due to legal battles over ownership.
The Watchmen – the most highly acclaimed graphic novel of all time. Received its own major motion picture adaptation. Always intended to be a standalone story with no continuations.
Spawn – At one time would have challenged the top of the list in terms of popularity and multimedia adaptations. Influential in terms of being the most successful of the creator-owned Image characters that attempted to break Marvel and DC’s stranglehold on the genre. Beyond a flashy but dated costume, decent origin, and a compelling lost love angle, the character didn’t have much to sustain it as a top level contender. All flash with no substance.
THE ALL-STAR TIER
32. Black Canary
Stats: costume, Birds of Prey, powers, cartoons
Black Canary would be on this list (sexism alert) for her costume alone, but they keep changing it. She had an excellent run as part of the Birds of Prey series, where it was established that she is one of the deadliest martial artists in the DC universe. She is currently part of the Arrow television series, and her episodes with The Huntress on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon were some of the best of the series. (Cranky Editor's Note: Everyone go read Black Canary/Zatanna: Bloodspell. It's fun.)
Stats: cartoons, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Just go see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Cranky Editor's Note: Wait, what? Seriously? Falcon?)
30. Captain Marvel
Stats: cartoons, Black Adam, Shazam catchphrase, power set, early dominance.
Captain Marvel was another fast burner in the early days of superheroes, challenging and even surpassing Superman in popularity on the comic racks. He had his own early motion picture serial series. A DC lawsuit eventually removed him from the picture for many years, until DC eventually purchased the rights to the character. The character has had trouble finding his own niche ever since, while his arch-nemesis Black Adam has arguably found a more comfortable position in the modern DC comics. Captain Marvel had a forgettable animated series in the ‘80s, as well as an unmemorable direct to DVD animated movie co-starring Superman. Feature episodes in Batman: Brave and the Bold and Justice League Unlimited remain his greatest modern contributions.
(Cranky Editor's Note: Putting Captain Marvel this low is just Ben baiting me into writing something for the site, and IT WORKED. Putting Cap this low is a joke. He was the most dominant character of superhero comics' most dominant era, had spinoffs in different styles as it was happening, had the only critically acclaimed serial of the decade, and had a TV show in the 70s that sucked, but somehow led to the creation of He-Man. So eat that, Smith!)
Stats: longtime and popular Avenger, love interests, The Avengers movie, The Avengers animated series
Hawkeye has had limited success as a solo character, never having enough of an independent supporting cast or rogue’s gallery to sustain him on his own. He’s long been one of the more popular and entertaining member’s of the Avengers, and arguably has had the best history of love interests in all of comics. Black Widow, Spider-Woman, Mockingbird, and many others have all had extended romances with Hawkeye. He’s also managed to find his way into every multimedia adaptation of the Avengers. The late ‘90s cartoon may have only been loved by my wife, but the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series was well received by fans, the ones that actually watched it. Hawkeye played a major part in the series, with his trademark rebelliousness and original (and preferred) costume. The Avengers movie was the most successful superhero movie of all time, but unfortunately, Hawkeye is the least beloved character of the principle cast. Hawkeye is a member of the team on the currently running Avengers Assemble animated series.
28. Green Arrow
Stats: Arrow television series, love interest, The Longbow Hunters, Kevin Smith
As much as it pains me to rank Green Arrow above Hawkeye (Cranky Editor's Note: Green Arrow sucks.), he has the significant edge on him in terms of solo comic books. Green Arrow has him in terms of consistently headlining his own book, as well as some mildly evergreen projects like The Longbow Hunters by Grell, and Kevin Smith’s short but wildly successful run on the character. Hawkeye may have the Avengers movie, but Green Arrow has his own moderately successful television show, as well as his prior appearances as a supporting character on Smallville. Green Arrow also had a significant part on the greatest superhero animated series of all time, Justice League Unlimited.
Stats: powers, X-Men, movies, cartoons, costume
Storm has many of the same advantages of the next character on the list, a strong backing as part of the X-books, always a core member of every iteration of a X-Men cartoon. The mohawk and leather look. One of the first breakthrough minority female characters, that I have to imagine was the first one to ever be the team leader of a major superhero team. The reason Black Widow gets the edge over her is that Storm, as played by Halle Berry, never really had a breakthrough performance in any of the X-Men movies. (Cranky Editor's Note: It was nice to see Halle Berry back as Storm in Days of Future Past. I mean, she didn't really do anything, but it was fun to see.)
26. Black Widow
Stats: The Avengers, love interests, costume, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Black Widow has had some decent solo starring ventures, including the recently launched book as part of All New Marvel Now. Historically, she’s been best as a member of a duo or team, first with Hawkeye, then with Daredevil. Along with those two, she enjoyed a long run as the love interest of Bucky Barnes, more commonly known now as the Winter Soldier. She has one of the better looks in comics, not much can beat a black bodysuit. Sometimes less is more. Despite historically not being a major member of the Avengers in the comics, she was included in the Ultimate Avengers animated movie series, along with the Next Avengers. Just like Hawkeye, she’s been a major part of the recent animated series. Unlike Hawkeye, her breakout movie appearances, as played by Scarlett Johannson, in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have left many moviegoers clamoring for her to star in her own. (Cranky Editor's Note: If any female character gets a movie before Natasha, I'll be very surprised.)
Stats: Mera, popularity, cartoons
Aquaman, for better or worse, is one of the more well-known superhero characters publicly. Unfortunately for him, it’s more often for worse, as he’s frequently the target of ridicule for his power set. Images of him riding a seahorse from his incredibly dated solo animated series, and as a member of the Super Friends cartoon, don’t help matters. Attempts to grim and gritty him up for modern projects, like the Justice League animated series, and Flashpoint animated movie, have been met with moderate success. His longtime love interest Mera received a boost in status thanks to a starring role in the Blackest Night comic event. He also has one of the all-time coolest looking arch enemies in Black Manta. Despite his questionable reputation, he’s almost always included in any Justice League project.
We’ll stop here for the time being. In part 2, we’ll continue along with the All-Star Tier, on our way towards the ultimate goal of identifying the greatest superhero character of all time. I’m sure all four of you are on the edge of your seat with anticipation.