There was a time when superheroes were not very popular. They were not grossing $1 billion at the worldwide box office. They were not inspiring Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. They were not getting attention for their sexual orientation. In the late ’90s, following the catastrophic burst of the comic book bubble, the whole industry that created superheroes seemed to be flailing towards extinction.
But in the last decade, costumed crimefighters haven’t just become popular again. They have colonized the mainstream. Once pure geek fodder, the tropes of superherodom — the origin story, the superpowers, the costume(s), the various conflicting interpretations — have all entered into the average citizen’s lexicon. Which means that now is the perfect time to throw all our favorite superheroes into the ring for an epic cage match and try to answer a decades-old question: Who is the greatest superhero… of all time?
We here at EW.com have assembled a list of the 32 greatest superheroes of all time into a single-elimination bracket game, and we task you, the readers, with casting the deciding votes. We will break down the first match-ups on Monday and continue rolling them out until we have a champion.
We put this list together with a mixture of brutal comic-book scienc and pure fanboy passion. The line-up is a mix of blockbuster A-listers (Superman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman) and lesser-known but essential fan-favorites (Black Panther, Deadpool, The Spirit, Spawn).
We kept the list focused on characters who originated from comic books: No Incredibles, no Escapist, absolutely no one from Heroes. And there are plenty of great comic book characters that just don’t quite qualify as “superheroes”: Judge Dredd, Dream of the Endless, Jesse Custer from Preacher. In an attempt to be fair, we’ve corralled the heroes into the following sub-categories for the first round:
Aliens: Superman, Silver Surfer, Thor, and Martian Manhunter represent Krypton, Zenn-La, the godly realm of Asgard, and Mars.
Supernatural Entities: A trio of demonic personalities (Ghost Rider, Hellboy, and Spawn) and a hero powered by the Greek pantheon (Captain Marvel — as in, “Shazam!”)
Science Gone Wrong: Pick your favorite mad-science experiment: Spider-Man’s radioactive spider, Daredevil’s radioactive waste, Hulk’s gamma bomb, or The Flash’s dynamite combination of police-station chemicals and lightning.
Transformed By Mysterious Space Magic: Four heroes transformed by mysterious extraterrestrial powers, including Green Lantern, The Great Machine (a.k.a. Mayor Mitchell Hundred from Ex Machina), Invisible Woman from the Fantastic Four, and Metamorpho.
Streetwise Crimefighters: Batman, Rorschach, The Punisher, and The Spirit face off in the noirish corner of our hero bracket.
Special X-Men Showdown: Generally speaking, we tried to limit the number of characters from a single franchise in this bracket. (Sorry, Robin!) But there are just too many interesting and wholly distinctive characters in Marvel’s band of misfit mutants. Thus, we granted the X-Men their own special category…and with Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Storm, and Jean Grey doing battle, this is one of the toughest draws in the tournament.
Visiting Dignitaries: Captain America, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Aquaman represent the United States, the island of Themyscira, the African nation of Wakanda, and The Oceans of Earth in a battle between two-fisted diplomats.
Gallivanting Billionaires: Who doesn’t love a caddish rich dude with a penchant for crimefighting? Iron Man and Green Arrow will have an old-fashioned one-percenter duel.
Absurdist Psychopaths: Deadpool and The Tick are both utterly insane and curiously endearing. They’re also uncomfortably accurate portraits of what an actual costumed human being would probably be like in real life.
We look forward to having profound arguments about all these superheroes once the tournament begins on Monday. And yes, we know Kitty Pryde has an actual codename…but come on, “Kitty Pryde” sounds so much cooler than “Shadowcat,” doesn’t it?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich