Southeast Regional Final: Batman vs. Wolverine
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
Name: Iron Man
Origin Story: Anthony “Tony” Stark, wealthy industrialist, endures a severe heart injury, builds himself an armored suit powered by a mechanical chest plate. Decides to use his money and brains for forces of good.
Costume: Red and gold impenetrable metal — oooh, so shiny!
Coolest Power/Ability: In the suit, Stark can fly, tremendously amplify his natural strength, employ computer technology within the helmet, emit power blasts through his palms.
Defining Stories: The Stan Lee/Larry Lieber-writ, Jack Kirby/Don Heck-drawn silver age initial stories in Tales of Suspense from 1968. The Mark Millar-authored “Civil War” storyline, a 2006-7 limited-series “event.” Invincible Iron Man, a run begun in 2008 from writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvator Larroca, brought a new sophistication to both the dialogue and action.
Cultural legacy: Combined at least four pulp hero clichés into one archetype — the billionaire/playboy/inventor/alcoholic — and emerged a symbol of American capitalism redeemed. He began life as an anti-Communist Cold Warrior who over the decades hardened into the staunch supporter of the “Superhuman Registration Act,” a stance that put him at odds with, among others, Captain America, thus out-patriotizing the comics’ ultimate patriot. In film, is portrayed by arguably the most fleet, witty actor to don a super-hero costume, Robert Downey, and has arguably the slinkiest assistant of all assistants, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. —Ken Tucker