Visiting Dignitary Showdown, Round One: Captain America vs. Aquaman
Name: Captain America
Origin Story: Patriotic but pallid New Yorker Steve Rogers keeps getting turned away from enlisting in the U.S. army during WWII, until Dr. Abraham Erskine chooses him to be the guinea pig for Project: Rebirth. The secret military program hoped to create an army of super soldiers using Erksine’s top secret serum combined with that formidably potent technological breakthrough, Vita Rays. A Nazi assassin kills Erskine just after Rogers undergoes the procedure, however, so Steve becomes the program’s one and only success story. And what a success: Essentially a biologically perfect specimen, Rogers is given the honorific of Captain America, serving his country as both a potent propaganda and a bona fide hero.
Costume: Red, white, and blue through and through — though mostly blue, with red and white stripes running up the torso, red boots with giant cuffs, a bright white star on the chest, and a helmet covering the eyes and nose with white wings over each ear. A telling detail: Rogers designed it himself.
Coolest Power/Ability: Cap isn’t exactly a “superhero” — he’s still mortal, but his enhanced physiology means his strength, endurance, metabolism, and ability to heal are at the zenith of human ability. But he would be nowhere without his iconic, boomerang-like shield, made from that nearly indestructible technological breakthrough, vibranium.
Defining Stories: In “The Coming of the Nomad,” released right after the Watergate scandal, Rogers forsakes his Captain America identity after becoming disillusioned by the corruption inside the U.S. government, and becomes the nationless “Nomad” instead. In the more recent “Winter Soldier” arc, Cap’s trusted sidekick Bucky Barnes becomes a brainwashed Soviet assassin, a story so personally resonant for Cap that it appears to be the plot of Marvel Studios’ upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Cultural Legacy: The very first issue of Captain America, which came out months before the U.S. entered WWII, showed Cap punching Hitler in the jaw. Which is to say, from the start, the character was engineered to be an icon of American might, and a not-so-subtle salvo in the effort to get the country to support joining the global struggle against Nazism and fascism. But after the war was over, Cap fell out of favor, and ultimately fell out of print for a decade. He was resurrected in 1964, literally brought into the modern age as a man out of time. But multiple efforts to bring the character into the greater cultural mainstream through feature films and TV series never quite took off — until Marvel Studios handed Cap’s shield to Chris Evans for 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which pulled in $369 million worldwide. —Adam B. Vary
Origin Story: Appropriately, Aquaman’s personal history has been rather fluid. At first, he was the human son of an ocean explorer who relocates to an airtight bungalow inside the sunken city of Atlantis — because that’s what ocean explorers do with their young children. By the Silver Age, Aquaman had become Arthur Curry, his father a lighthouse keeper, and his mother an exiled Atlantean. In 1989, he was re-imagined once more as a full-blooded Atlantean named Orin, born to royalty but abandoned as a child and raised by a lighthouse keeper named Arthur Curry (who rechristened Orin as Arthur, Jr.). We’ll just skip over the Joseph Curry/One Year Later/grew-up-in-a-marine-tank storyline altogether. In all versions of his backstory, however, Aquaman’s past is connected in some way to Atlantis, and his domain is the sea and all that reside inside it.
Costume: While it’s gone through its fair share of re-designs over the years, Aquaman’s main threads have always been a shirt made of golden scales, with deep green gloves and tight pants that often sport fins near the feet.
Coolest Power/Ability: Super-strong, he can swim like the dickens, plunging into the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean. And at one point, he loses his left hand and has it replaced with a mystical mitt made of water. But who cares about fancy fingers when you can communicate telepathically with sharks?! (Also: every creature who lives in the sea… including sharks!)
Defining Stories: Oddly, one of Aquaman’s most defining moments did not come in an Aquaman comic: In “Justice League of America Annual,” he essentially fires Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern from the League for being too busy with their own pursuits (i.e. too popular in their other comics).
Cultural Legacy: Thanks in large part to the innate storytelling limitations of remaining primarily in the ocean, Aquaman’s never quite won the respect that many of his fellow members of the Justice League have always enjoyed. (Raj on The Big Bang Theory put this sentiment most succinctly: “Aquaman sucks.”) His comics have occasionally stopped running altogether, ergo all those origin story reboots. But the King of Atlantis somehow keeps striving for dignity amid all this ridicule, and he’s remained an integral part of the Justice League (see above). Plus, James Cameron’s feature film adaptation enjoyed a record-breaking $116.8 million opening weekend… on HBO’s Entourage. —Adam B. Vary
Next Page: Iron Man vs. Green Arrow