By EW Staff
August 08, 2012 at 04:00 PM EDT
DC Comics

Who is the greatest superhero of all time? This month, we’re going to settle the age-old debate once and for all! Here at PopWatch, we’re taking 32 seeded contestants and pitting them against each other in a superpowered bracket game. Everything is on the table: The heroes’ costumes, their superpowers, the number of actual great stories they inspired. To level the playing field, we’ve separated the heroes into nine different groups for the first round of match-ups. Today, we’re featuring four magnificent face-offs: Thor vs. Martian ManhunterGhost Rider vs. HellboyGreen Lantern vs. The Great Machine; and The Punisher vs. The Spirit.

Scroll down to vote in today’s polls, and be sure to click here to download the printable image of the complete Superhero Showdown bracket. Day Three polls will close in exactly 48 hours, at Noon ET on August 10. Be sure to vote in our Day Two match-ups: Batman vs. Rorschach; Storm vs. Jean Grey; Wonder Woman vs. Black Panther; and Deadpool vs. The Tick.

And check out our handy video introduction to all this superhero madness here.

Alien Showdown, Round One: Thor vs. Martian Manhunter

DC Comics

Name: Thor

Origin Story: Raised among the Norse pantheon in the realm of Asgard, Thor was the egotistical eldest son of Allfather Odin. He was punished to walk the earth in human form to learn humility, and frequently moves back and forth between Earth and more cosmic planes of existence.

Costume: A brightly-colored Asgardian warrior’s uniform, with a red cape and an essential winged helmet. Lately, Thor has also taken to ornamenting himself with chainmail, possibly because the whole “Inexplicable Circles” look was, well, inexplicable.

Coolest Power/Ability: Thor wields the hammer Mjolnir, which grants him the incredible ability to control the weather, along with the incredible ability to throw a hammer in your face.

Defining Stories: Walt Simonson’s run on the character in the ’80s is the unquestionable high point for the character. Simonson could do epic fantasy (“The Surtur Saga”), cosmic space opera (the three-issue arc which introduced Beta Ray Bill) and semi-comedic fairy tale (the wonderful “Thor Turns Into a Frog” story).

Cultural legacy: Until recently, Thor seemed like one of those comic book characters who would never cross over into the mainstream. He was too weird, too particular, too much a combination of seemingly disparate genre tropes. And then the Thor movie grossed $450 million worldwide. And then Thor’s main nemesis, Loki, was the Big Bad in The Avengers, currently the third highest-grossing movie ever. With the Thor sequel promising to dive deeper into the character’s extensive mythology, we could be living at the dawn of a mainstream Thor renaissance.

An Important Aside About Thor’s Place in the Bracket: We realize that Thor could just as easily be considered a “Supernatural Entity” as an “Alien,” but the most consistent interpretation of the character states that the Asgardians are extra-dimensional beings who occupy a realm where “magic” is a rough analogue to science…which, for the purposes of this tournament, seems to put Thor in the “Alien” class. This might also just be because Thor frequently flies through space, which seems to classify him as a character from science-fiction rather than the fantasy-oriented Spawn or Hellboy. But if you really think Thor is misplaced here, than vote him through the final round and make the point moot. —Darren Franich

DC Comics

Name: Martian Manhunter

Origin Story: Centuries ago, a highly-advanced society lived on Mars, and a noble every-guy named J’onn J’onzz patrolled that society as a police officer. A plague spread throughout Mars, leaving J’onzz as the last member of his race. A scientist from modern-day earth accidentally brought J’onzz to Earth using a transmitter beam, where he decided to fight for righteousness on his adopted planet.

Costume: J’onzz wears an outfit very much in keeping with the Superman school of Superhero Costuming: A bold red-and-blue color scheme, a flowing cape, and boots. The only difference is that J’onzz bears considerably more of his (green) skin.

Coolest Power/Ability: Geez, where to begin? Martian Manhunter has pretty much all the typical superpowers – strength, speed, agility, flight. But he’s also got a veritable cornucopia of special Martian powers, including telepathy, invisibility, telekinesis, and even hypnosis. Still, the most intriguing aspect of the Manhunter’s identity is his ability to shapeshift. He actually rarely shows his true form to anyone: His de facto green-humanoid form is just another illusion.

Defining Stories: Martian Manhunter is really one of the great supporting characters in comic books, which unfortunately means that most of his best stories involve him sharing the limelight. But the great Mark Waid/Brian Augustyn 12-issue miniseries JLA: Year One features one of the best renditions of J’onn: He’s simultaneously a mentor to the newly formed Justice League and an eerily remote figure.

Cultural Legacy: The character seems doomed to be overshadowed by the bigger names on the DC roster. Which is unfortunate: Martian Manhunter’s incredible mixture of powers (and tragic backstory) makes him one of the more interesting players in the DC universe. That’s probably why the character has appeared in pretty much every DC cartoon show, to say nothing of Phil Morris’ recurring role as a version of the character on Smallville. —Darren Franich

Next Page: Ghost Rider vs. Hellboy

Supernatural Entity Showdown, Round One: Ghost Rider vs. Hellboy

Marvel

Name: Ghost Rider

Origin Story: Johnny Blaze was a hotshot stunt motorcyclist who sold his soul to the devil in order to save his stepfather from the cancer that was killing him. Lest you needed further proof that it’s really not a good idea to make a deal with the devil, Blaze’s stepfather soon died in a motorcycle crash. Blaze’s soul was bonded to a demon, dooming him to transform every evening into the Ghost Rider.

Costume: The Rider’s original costume was a fairly standard all-black ’70s cyclist outfit. When the character was rebooted in 1990, he started modeling a more outré steroid-goth look that has become iconic: Black leather jacket, gray leather pants, and spikes everywhere.

Coolest Power/Ability: When the Ghost Rider looks into the eyes of evildoers, he can deploy his Penance Stare. Whoever receives the Stare is forced to live through all the suffering they have caused, effectively incapacitating them. It’s basically Weaponized Super-Empathy, but with extra flames.

Defining Stories: The original ’70s run of Ghost Rider can seem like an impenetrable mix of stunt antics and supernatural horror – with goofy/awesome titles like “And Vegas Writhes in Flames!” Far more memorable is the ’90s era Ghost Rider: Resurrected, which follows a new incarnation of the Rider as he faces off against hard-edged villains.

Cultural legacy: The Ghost Rider is one of the more eccentric characters in this bracket, and his weird mixture of genre tones – gonzo Americana and mythological bleakness – paved the way for later comics like Spawn and Preacher. For a brief time in the ’90s, the Rider headlined a complete horror-centric corner of the Marvel Universe called “The Midnight Sons.” He also provided the basis for a pair of movies starring Nicolas Cage. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good. Still, you gotta admit: For a guy who is mainly known to the public at large as “the guy with the flaming skull,” Ghost Rider’s done pretty well for himself.—Darren Franich

Name: Hellboy

Origin Story: A demonic creature summoned to earth by the magician Rasputin to help the Nazis, Hellboy was instead raised by the army and trained to take on supernatural threats to America.

Costume: Hellboy is a big red guy with a tail, a pair of horns he shaves regularly, and a right hand made of stone. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be fashionable! Hence: The never-out-of-style tan trenchcoat.

Coolest Power/Ability: Remember that stone hand we mentioned? That’s called the Right Hand of Doom. It’s actually the key to releasing the Ogdru Jahad, the creatures who will cause the end of the world. Which means that Hellboy holds the Apocalypse in his right hand. Heavy.

Defining Stories: The first Hellboy miniseries, Seed of Destruction, is a great introduction to the character, and to creator Mike Mignola’s impressive mix of no-bull procedural and cosmic mythmaking. There are plenty of great Hellboy one-offs, but lately, Mignola has been telling grander serialized stories – the best of which, The Wild Hunt, delves deeper into Hellboy’s backstory.

Cultural Legacy: Hellboy is a creator-owned comic book that freely combines folklore, H.P. Lovecraft, world history, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker into one gloriously weird package. It doesn’t really seem like the fodder for a major Hollywood movie…which makes it all the more impressive that Ron Perlman played Hellboy in two major motion pictures directed by Guillermo Del Toro. (And some of us really like Hellboy 2. Like, I mean really, really, really like Hellboy 2.) Although the movies Hollywoodize the character ever so slightly, Hellboy is the rare comic book character to cross over into the mainstream with pretty much all of his weirdness and rough edges intact.—Darren Franich

Next Page: Green Lantern vs. The Great Machine

Transformed by Mysterious Space Magic Showdown, Round One: Mayor Mitchell Hundred (a.k.a. The Great Machine) vs. Green Lantern

DC Comics

Name: Mayor Mitchell Hundred, a.k.a., The Great Machine

Origin Story: New York City civil engineer Mitchell Hundred was just a normal guy with an odd name and ambiguous sexuality until the fateful night he was tasked with checking out a glowing green thing stuck to the Brooklyn Bridge. The cryptic artifact – mystic technology from another dimension – imbued Mitchell with the power to communicate with – and to varying degrees control – mechanical objects. After a brief career as a costumed crime fighter known as the Great Machine – the awkward name an ironic appropriation of Thomas Jefferson’s famous term for government — Mitchell quit the vigilante life to pursue an allegedly more legitimate form of public service: Running for mayor. He was elected in 2002, his campaign helped by his heroics on 9/11: In the fictional world of Ex Machina, Hundred stopped the second plane from taking down the second tower of the World Trade Center. During his single term, Hizzoner Hundred heroically tackled a number of controversial hot button issues, including gay marriage, drug legalization, hate speech, terrorism and more.

Costume: As The Great Machine, Hundred was a thrown-together Rocketeer: Fighter pilot helmet, biker leather, a jet pack and belts and straps and buckles. As mayor of New York? Suit and power tie, of course.

Cool powers/abilities: Besides the supernatural ability to commune with machines, Hundred was armed with various weapons and gadgets, many of which were designed by his prickly mentor, Kremlin, a Russian immigrant and Coney Island mechanic.

Defining Stories: The entire 50-issue run of Ex Machina, created by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. We nominated Aaron Sorkin to handle the big screen (or HBO) adaptation. (Unless Vaughan wants to do it himself.)

Cultural Legacy: Mitchell Hundred is the Ralph Nader of our bracket competition, a fringe candidate and underfunded underdog who – let’s face it – is unlikely to progress much further in this contest. (Especially considering the competition.) Yet his epic and sobering arc is the most relevant riff on  “with great power comes great responsibility” themes that superhero comics have given us so far in this new century, not to mention a potent if slightly cynical cultural yawp against partisan politics as usual. It also represents the medium’s best attempt to grapple with real-world issues since a certain fabled set of stories starring Hundred’s first round opponent… —Jeff Jensen

Name: Green Lantern

Origin Story: Depends on which Green Lantern you’re talking about, of course. The Golden Age original, created in 1940, was a railroad engineer named Alan Scott who channeled the mystic energies of a magic lantern via a ring of his own design. This Green Lantern was the one who was recently rebooted as a gay man, and resides in a parallel universe known as Earth 2. But the Green Lantern that shall sally forth in our bracket battle is the Silver Age reboot, introduced in 1959, i.e., Hal Jordan, a hot shot test pilot who learns humility and gains higher purpose after being tapped by a dying extra-terrestrial super-cop – a member of the Green Lantern Corps., overseen by big-headed, blue-skinned Guardians of the Universe – as his replacement.

Costume: Green and gray leotard, domino mask, emerald bling.

Coolest power: With his power ring, which generates objects of solid viridian-hued light, Green Lantern can –through application of will power — conjure anything he can imagine. Additional benefits: Flight, life support, mental telepathy, more. Older stories gave the ring a flaw: It couldn’t work against anything yellow. In more recent stories, the ring is basically as strong – or as weak – as the wearer’s moral character.

Defining stories: Showcase #22 by John Broome and Gil Kane; The Green Lantern/Green Arrow Collection by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams; Green Lantern: Rebirth by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver; Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps. War by Johns and various artists; The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke.

Cultural Legacy: At heart, the Silver Age Green Lantern is a giddy-geeky embodiment of Space Race-era gee-whiz will-to-power optimism and possibility… and Cold War America ‘policeman of the world’ self-righteousness. He’s a cop archetype, and useful to comic book writers as a means to explore both the good and bad of institutions dedicated to protecting and prosecuting law and order. In the late sixties, O’Neil and Adams produced a legendary string of politically-charged comics by playing Green Lantern as an avatar of The Man, well-meaning and decent, but obedient to the system, resistant to change, and conservative, a foil to counter-culture firebrand Green Arrow. In more recent times, Green Lantern stories have been pure sci-fi fantasy escapism, and the best succeed as rollicking space operas. Maybe Hollywood should consider a movie adaptation. Check that: A good movie adaptation. —Jeff Jensen

Next Page: The Punisher vs. The Spirit

Streetwise Crimefighter Showdown, Round One: The Punisher vs. The Spirit

Name: The Punisher

Origin Story: His wife and children murdered by the Mob, Frank Castle – military vet, martial arts and weaponry expert – exacts his revenge and proceeds to attack all sorts of organized crime figures, including drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Russian Mafia, the Yakuza, and various and sundry psychopaths.

Costume: His black shirt has a picture of a huge white skull.

Coolest Power/Ability: Killing without remorse.

Defining Stories: Garth Ennis’ brutally hardboiled 2000 run as writer. For such a deceptively simple hero concept, Punisher has attracted some first-rate writers; in addition to Ellis, these include Peter Milligan and the mainstream novelists Duane Swierczynski and Charlie Huston, who all contributed to best Punisher series, published by Marvel’s “mature” comics line, MAX, throughout most of the first decade of the aughts.

Cultural legacy: An anti-hero lacking the moral compass of most superheroes, The Punisher is a pumped-up ordinary joe who helped put the humanity, as amoral as that humanity can seem, back in comics. —Ken Tucker

Name: The Spirit

Origin Story: Denny Colt, police detective for Central City, is left for dead after battling the criminal called Dr. Cobra in the opening pages of the first, 1940 Spirit story. Supposedly buried in a Central City’s Wildwood Cemetary, the indomitable Colt applies a small mask and becomes the Spirit, helping Police Commissioner Dolan rid the city of crime while wooing any number of women, from Dolan’s daughter, the presciently feminist Ellen, to Silk Satin and Sand Serif, femme fatales who break laws and the Spirit’s heart again and again.

Costume: Black mask, suit, gloves, and fedora, white shirt, and red tie.

Coolest Power/Ability: No super-powers, but an ability to solves mysteries, take a great deal of punishment while still throwing punches, and the healthiest libido of any comics hero.

Defining Stories: Hard to pick just a few, but: The melancholy, film noir-ish “The Last Trolley” (1946); the break-the-fourth-wall humor of “The Story of Gerhard Shnobble” (1948). And in a rare feat, in 2007, artist-writer Darwyn Cooke took a character as closely identified with his creator as Sherlock Holmes was with Arthur Conan Doyle and did an excellent job of reviving the character for DC Comics for a few years.

Cultural legacy: Conceived by artist-writer Will Eisner in the 1940s, The Spirit is one of the most groundbreaking, beautiful, and imaginative comics series ever. Eisner’s signature innovation was on the opening, or splash, page – he used the space to present the word “Spirit” in a vast variety of ways: The letters were formed from a series of lipstick kisses, or took the shape of a wall the Spirit climbed, or appeared as wrought-iron letters that built a fence in front of the hero; Eisner’s imagination seemed limitless. Eisner also employed other artists to draw the Spirit who went on to their own significant careers, including Jules Feiffer and Jack Cole (who created the superb, Spirit-indebited Plastic Man). And, oh yes: Let’s just forget the horrid, ignorant 2008 feature film written and directed by Frank Miller.—Ken Tucker

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