Jun 23, 2014

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 4: The Franchise Tier

The Superhero Hall of Fame, Part 4: The Franchise Tier
Ben Smith

For all of you incredibly, incredibly late-comers, I made the insane decision to create a superhero hall of fame, very much like you would find in major professional sports. I also unwisely am attempting to rank the characters that will fill these fictional halls of justice, using categories of my own devising.

Those criteria for selection are detailed in the very first part, so I’m not going to take the time to re-type it all here, because I am lazy, and hate introductions. You also clearly have access to the internet.

Previously, I detailed the All-Star and Superstar tier of my beloved figurative Superhero Hall of Fame, with the All-Star tier mostly representing characters that were pretty decent in a few areas, but also pretty darn weak in others, and the Superstar tier representing strong all around characters, or characters that were exceedingly strong in certain categories, but still weak in others, like actual comic books. All of which I am quite certain makes no sense to anyone but me, but that’s okay, I made a graph and used math, so, yeah.

This week, we’re going to launch into the final arbitrary tier of distinction, which will represent the characters with the least amount of weak areas across my entire range of discriminating factors. Characters capable of supporting multiple books, cartoons, and/or movies. Dare I call them…


9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Resume: origin, cartoons, toys, supporting cast, rogues gallery, popularity, powers

The single most successful creator-owned comic book ever created. (Cranky Editor: Who's second, and how far are they?) From a tiny garage, Eastman and Laird launched a multimedia juggernaut that has continued from the ‘80s until today. The original comics were high quality entertainment, and that legacy continues to this day with a very well-received series published by IDW. The supporting cast was top notch, with April O’Neil and Master Splinter, as well as a Magneto-level villain in The Shredder. The ninja aspect was instantly appealing to young boys, each character outfitted with their own individual weapon of expertise. The look of the characters was brilliant, especially after incorporating the different color headbands from the cartoons. Speaking of, the original cartoon was an absolute sensation, leading to three live-action movies and a never-ending stream of action figures. The early ‘00s cartoon was a little less silly, and adapted a lot more of the elements from the comics. That series ended with a special three-part episode that teamed up the current turtles with the ‘80s cartoon turtles, and then even the original comic book versions, in a epic storyline that crossed multiple dimensions (showing DC how to properly tell an amazing multiverse story in the process). The TMNT CGI-animated movie was good, even great in some moments. The fight between Leonardo and Raphael is something kids had been debating since the earliest days. (Cranky Editor: Leo threw the fight. I'm sticking with that.)  A few years ago, after the Turtles were sold to Nickelodeon, a new cartoon debuted which is hands-down the best TMNT cartoon yet. It combines the best elements from the comics and previous cartoons, keeping the turtles largely as deadly ninjas operating only at night, but still with lots of fun, and a great sense of humor (Michaelangelo is now my favorite turtle based purely on this show, he’s hilarious). Even another live-action movie is in production under the shaky direction of Michael Bay. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a true superhero comic book franchise.

8. Green Lantern

Resume: origin, supporting cast, Sinestro, consistency, Blackest Night, popularity, cartoons, movie

Hal Jordan was a fairly successful (I assume) if unremarkable superhero for the majority of his career. Guy Gardner and John Stewart had their moments as the Lantern (Guy mostly as the asshole lantern that got punched out by Batman), but none of them ever really caught on. Kyle Rayner had his fair share of fans after taking over, but it wasn’t until Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Sciver, and the Green Lantern: Rebirth mini-series that Green Lantern really took off as a character. Now Green Lantern was supporting two monthly books, and the creation of an entire spectrum of colored lantern corps kicked them into overdrive, leading to the critically acclaimed Sinestro Corps War. That mini crossover did so well, that next came the big company-wide crossover event, Blackest Night . That success carried over into animated films, one poorly received live-action movie, and a Green Lantern cartoon that only managed one season. The greatest superhero cartoon ever, The Justice League, went with John Stewart as its lantern, adding some much needed diversity to the team. The John Stewart in that cartoon was the best the character has ever been, and as a side effect, causes a bit of confusion as to who the “true” Green Lantern is supposed to be among casual fans. (Personally I think Hal is the worst of the bunch, something that Johns obviously does not agree with.) The great thing about Green Lantern that nobody properly capitalized on until Johns, was that it has its own built-in supporting cast, with thousands of Green Lanterns from across the galaxy to incorporate as needed. Instead of limiting the series to one central Earth lantern, they used all four Hal, John, Guy, and Kyle, along with fan favorites like Kilowog, Arisia, and Soranik Natu. Green Lantern is now a legitimate comic book franchise.

(Cranky Editor: Okay, this is a joke. Green Lantern is nowhere near as successful as his status indicates. Hal Jordan had lagging sales 75 issues into his existence and had to team up with Green Arrow and get the entire series retooled, and then that still didn't do well so he had to become a backup character in Flash. Hal Jordan had to be replaced multiple times and wasn't even in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Only Geoff Johns' giant man-crush on him saved him and made him a comic franchise today, but that hasn't translated into other media successfully, and being a big comic book franchise in 2014 for DC is like the equivalent of being the winner in the contest for tallest hobbit. Yes, he's an icon, but so is Aquaman. Number 8 is too high. John Stewart is a more important character, and he has the same name as the Daily Show guy. So pfah, Smith! Pfah!)

7. Thor

Resume: powers, love interests, consistency, Loki, evergreen, popularity, movies, cartoons

Thor has made quite a leap in recent years. Always a little bit underrated on the comic book end, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby enjoyed their second longest collaboration (to FF) on the original Thor series, and it’s a highly entertaining one. Of course, the legendary Walt Simonson has a well-deserved reputation for providing the definitive Thor run in the ‘80s. Thor: The Mighty Avenger was a fantastic book that ended far too early, and is easily worthy of being an evergreen book that you can give to any casual reader interested in the character. Jason Aaron is currently in the midst of providing yet another classic Thor run. When the Thor comic is good, it’s great, and it’s great for a lengthy run by that specific creator. When it’s bad, it’s pretty darn awful, which is pretty much every time inbetween one of the more heralded tenures. Thor has a great rogues gallery, including the Enchantress, Lorelei, Surtur, Mangog, The Wrecking Crew, Ulik, my beloved Karnilla the Norn Queen, and of course, Loki. His supporting cast is just as strong, with Balder and the Warriors Three, Odin, and his rotating love interests, Jane Foster or Sif (I really can’t choose who I prefer). Thor had a star role in one of the made for television Hulk movies, and guest-appearances in Marvel cartoons here and there (I think he and his world be great in its own animated series). It wasn’t until the Thor movie (which I always thought it would be impossible to translate him to live-action) that the character achieved any true adaptation success, thanks to the underrated portrayal by Chris Hemsworth. (The Hulk Vs animated movie was excellent also.) More than anything, the breakout success of Tom Hiddleston as Loki, has helped to propel the entire franchise to even bigger heights, primarily after a star-making turn as the lead villain in the highest grossing superhero movie of all time, The Avengers. The second Thor movie, The Dark World, was a bit uneven, but Hemsworth and Hiddleston are electric together. Never would I have ever believed that Thor was capable of carrying his own movie franchise, but we live in wondrous times, my friends.

(Cranky Editor: Thor should be #2.)

6. Wolverine

Resume: powers, popularity, evergreen, X-Men, Sabretooth, movies, cartoons

Take all the violence and edginess that the casual fan likes about a character like the Punisher, and then add claws that pop out of the back of his hands, a mean growl, and you get the insanely popular Wolverine. I’ve said before that I think every comics reader goes through a Wolverine phase at some point. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by the Dirty Harry of comics, with knives that readily spring from his hands, and a mutant healing factor that makes him unkillable. The adamantium skeleton, the mysterious origin (until recent years), the tough talk, there’s nothing about this character that doesn’t scream cool to a 12 year-old (or 36 year-old, in many cases). He’s been an integral part of the X-Men books since they were reinvigorated in the ‘70s, giving him a ready made supporting cast of any X-Man or mutant in the Marvel universe, as well as a mysterious espionage past that allows him to cross paths with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury. He even has a history with Captain America dating back to WWII. His solo rogues gallery is pretty limited, with standouts like Omega Red and Sabretooth. His immortality gives writers unlimited story possibilities from the past, and all the way to the distant future. His evergreen stories include his original solo mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, Origin, and the pure insanity of Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. Wolverine has been a central figure of every version of an X-Men cartoon, including the highly influential ‘90s cartoon, that made a lot of new fans among an entire generation of viewers (despite it being objectively awful). The Wolverine and The X-Men cartoon was the best version yet, but only lasted one season. The real impact of Wolverine lies in the live-action movies. Blade opened the door for Marvel characters in big budget action movies, but the first X-Men movie kicked that door down and smashed it to pieces. Hugh Jackman’s star turn as Wolverine was undeniable, leading to three more X-Men movies, two Wolverine solo movies, and the upcoming return of original director Bryan Singer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. Love him or hate him, Wolverine is here to stay.

5. Captain America

Resume: costume, origin, powers, Red Skull, consistency, evergreen, popularity, movies, cartoons

Captain America has almost all of the same advantages of the previous two entries, Wolverine and Thor. He’s got the cartoons, the recent Marvel movies wonderfully brought to life by Chris Evans. Like Wolverine, his supporting cast works best when filled with other heroes like The Falcon, Black Widow, Nick Fury, or as part of S.H.I.E.L.D. He’s got a much better origin than either of them, but his powers aren’t quite as fun, though I’ve always been enamored of his ability to lead and his strategic abilities. His best love interest, Sharon Carter, isn’t as great as Sif or Jane Foster, but his relationship with Peggy Carter from the first movie trumps all other contenders. (I feel like I keep saying this, but Hayley Atwell gave a breakout performance in Captain America: The First Avenger, and then in the Agent Carter one-shot short movie on the Iron Man 3 blu-ray. It was so good, it inspired its own upcoming television series, which I am insanely excited about.) The Red Skull, Baron Zemo, or Arnim Zola are not on the level of Loki, but they’re better than Sabretooth. There are two things that put Cap over Thor and Wolverine. The first is that he has had the far more consistently entertaining comic books over the years. None of them may match the peaks of a Jack or Walt Thor, but the deservedly praised Brubaker run isn’t that far behind. (Cranky Editor: Right now, the Brubaker run is not that far behind, but I say give it 10 years or so, and the Brubaker run will start outranking the Walt Thor run when it comes to greatest runs on characters, if only because the people making those lists at that point will have been the ones to have grown up with it.)  There was the short but memorable Sterenko years, the Michelinie and Zeck era, the short-lived but fantastic Roger Stern and John Byrne run. Gruenwald (for all its flaws) and Mark Waid. It hasn’t always been great, but on the whole, I think it outpaces Thor or Wolverine. The second factor that puts him ahead, is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is arguably the best movie Marvel has ever made (which means it’s the best superhero movie ever made). I don’t know what else to tell you.

4. Iron Man

Resume: powers, origin, costume, Pepper Potts, popularity, movies, cartoons, Tony Stark

Iron Man may have the weakest track record in the comics out of everyone in this category, but he makes up for it by being the star among stars (thanks to Robert Downey Jr) of the Marvel movies. He’s not completely hopeless in the comic book arena, thanks to standouts like Armor Wars, Demon in a Bottle (I may not like it, but others do) and Extremis by Warren Ellis. The combination of his central role in the Civil War crossover event, and the first Iron Man movie, have helped make him far more interesting in the comics than he’s ever been. The recent run by Matt Fraction started off excellent, and carried on at an above average level until he left the book. He has one of the coolest looks of anybody in comics, ever since the armor was redesigned by Adi Granov for Extremis, and then adapted into the movies. He’s got a weaker rogues gallery than Cap or Thor, but a comparable love interest in Pepper Potts, especially as played by Gwenyth Paltrow. So, you might be asking yourself right now, Thor and Captain America have had the better comics, the better villains, comparable movies and cartoons, why is Iron Man ranked higher? It’s because of Tony Stark. Thor, Cap, and Wolverine have decidedly weak alternate identities (or none, in Wolverine’s case). Tony Stark is the most interesting and entertaining character in all of the Marvel movies, easily. Robert Downey Jr’s performance has carried over into the comics, making Stark the most flawed Avenger, but no less heroic. This may not last once RDJ decides to move on and do other things, and the list can be adjusted if need be, but until then, he’s planted in here firmly at #4. (Plus he makes for the best action figures.) 

(Cranky Editor: Hard not to go with Iron Man right now at this specific point in time, but I wonder if it's sustainable. I think it is, but they're going to have to figure out a way to move past Robert Downey Jr. at some point. Any attempts to replicate his voice alone, in animation, has been kind of laughable.)

That’s a pretty impressive list of franchise-carrying characters. Hopefully the three of you actually reading this have some pretty strong opinions about where I messed up (in your own opinions of course, my math is sound). If so, send us some comments. Or don’t, as you usually do, and make me sad. I feel so alone.

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