By EW Staff
August 09, 2012 at 04:38 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: Hulk vs. The Flash; Wolverine vs. Kitty Pryde; Captain America vs. Aquaman; and Iron Man vs. Green Arrow.

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 Four polls will close in exactly 48 hours, at 12:30 PM ET on August 11. Be sure to vote in our Day Three match-ups: Thor vs. Martian ManhunterGhost Rider vs. HellboyGreen Lantern vs. The Great Machine; and The Punisher vs. The Spirit.

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

Science Gone Wrong Showdown, Round One: Hulk vs. The Flash

DC Comics

Name: Hulk

Origin Story: Scientist Bruce Banner — confident in mind but emotionally withdrawn — was super-saturated with Gamma Bomb radiation during a test of the weapon while saving a kid who had strayed into the blast area. Consequently, Bruce “gained” the unwanted, stress-triggered “ability” to morph into a brawny behemoth, a hot, chaotically articulated seethe of repressed feelings transmuted into hard-bodied green flesh. Yes, green. When ragingly engorged, Banner is considered a menace to society, especially when he’s making a mess of America’s infrastructure. When properly cajoled and directed, this monstrous, spinach-hued Popeye can do some good. All things considered, though, Banner/Hulk — the Jekyll & Hyde of the Marvel universe — would rather be left alone.

Costume: Bah! Hulk needs no puny costume! When you have heaps of biceps and abs of adamantium, you flaunt that s—t, baby. In fact, we bet Hulk resents the shredded pair of (often purple) chinos with an extraordinary elastic waist foisted upon him by prudish pencilers. Hulk has no shame! Set Little Hulk Free! (Also: Purple?)

Coolest Power/Ability: Hulk smash. Anything. EVERYTHING! ‘Nuff said.

Defining Stories: Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks Vol. 1, which collects the first six Hulk stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; Incredible Hulk: Pardoned by writer Bill Mantlo and various artists, including Sal Buscema, and Incredible Hulk: Regression by Mantlo and various artists; Incredible Hulk Visionaries — Peter David, Vol. 1, by seminal Hulk scribe David and including art by a pre-Spawn Todd McFarlane.

Cultural Legacy: Inspired by monster-movie pop and science-gone-wrong horror lit, Hulk was unique among Silver Age superheroes for not really being a superhero at all, for representing something of an ironic subversion of genre tropes. As such, the misunderstood misfit gained a cult following with counter-culture kids of the sixties, and paved the way for the current anti-hero-palooza. Hulk’s thrashing violence and monosyllabic expressiveness makes for easy caricature, but the character’s fragmented psyche makes him one of the most complex personalities in all of comic books. Endlessly interesting for writers (surprisingly so), so much fun to draw for artists (for obvious reasons), Hulk — poignant and outrageous — ranks as one of the medium’s signature creations. —Jeff Jensen

Name: The Flash

Origin Story: Like Green Lantern, the fastest man in comics has had two distinctly different and successful lives. The Golden Age Flash, created in 1940, was Jay Garrick, a college student who gained the ability to move Mercury-quick after he fell asleep in a university laboratory and inhaled some hard water vapors. This Flash remains active in the larger DC Comics universe as denizen of a parallel world known as Earth 2. Our contest shall focus on the Silver Age reboot introduced in 1956: Barry Allen, a police scientist who got his powers after getting doused with electrically charged chemicals. (A lightening bolt struck his lab. It happens.)

Costume: Crimson tights with yellow lightening bolt accents and boots, all made from experimental, friction-resistant material. When Barry’s not wearing his snug-fitting togs, he keeps them balled up small and tight inside a ring he wears on his finger.

Cool power/abilities: How fast is Barry Allen? Faster than the speed of thought. Nay! The speed of light! Fast enough to vibrate between matter and dimensions. Fast enough to operate a cosmic treadmill and travel through time. More recent stories have established that Flash and other super-speedsters of his ilk tap into something called the “Speed Force.” If there are midi-chlorians involved, then they have not yet been discovered. Thankfully.

Defining stories: Showcase #4 by Robert Kanigher, John Broome, Carmine Infantino; “Flash of Two Worlds” (The Flash #123) by Gardner Fox and Infantino; “The Death of Iris Allen” (The Flash Nos. 275-284) by Cary Bates and multiple artists; Crisis On Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez; The Flash: Rebirth by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver.

Cultural Legacy: According to comic book historians, the superhero genre was all but dead and the medium itself was on the wane in the mid-fifties when — like the miraculous lightening strike in Barry Allen’s origin story — DC Comics revived The Flash to instant success, and provided the catalyst for the Silver Age creative renaissance that laid the foundation for contemporary superhero pop. Of course, The Flash is also the model for reboot mechanics that, yes, keeps the industry alive, but also (though not always) subverts meaningful storytelling: Barry Allen’s death in Crisis On Infinite Earths was a monumental dramatic event, on par with the death of Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men #137. He has since been resurrected. Whatever. Regardless, given a world hooked on speed and technology, The Flash — one of the premiere “science heroes” — should endure and become even more relevant in the years to come. —Jeff Jensen

Next Page: Wolverine vs. Kitty Pryde

Special X-Men Showdown, Round One: Wolverine vs. Kitty Pryde

Name: Wolverine

Origin Story: For many years, the history of this volatile, violent mutant was a mystery, even unto himself. He knew his name was Logan. He knew he was Canadian. He knew he had retractable claws, heightened senses, and a healing ability that slowed his aging process. But beyond that… only scant, fuzzy, disturbing memories. Over time, X-Men readers have come to learn Wolverine’s epic, tragic backstory, which dates back to the late 19th century and includes several lost loves and includes stints as a soldier, mercenary-adventurer, and black ops agent. During the sixties, the CIA wiped Logan’s memory, and during the seventies, a Canadian military unit known as Weapon X laced Logan’s bones with an indestructible metal known as adamantium. Since joining The X-Men, Logan has learned to master his berserker rage (though not without some notable relapses into feral madness), become a team leader, and distinguished himself as one of the key heroes of the Marvel Universe.

Costume: The classic Wolverine outfit is a yellow jumpsuit with tiger stripes, blue gloves and a mask with two pointy flaps around the eyes designed to contain Logan’s unruly hair… or have somehow made his hair unruly. Now there’s a Wolverine mystery that really needs to get explained.

Cool powers/abilities: Heightened senses, bloodhound sharp. Naturally retractable bones for claws, later reinforced with that aforementioned hoo-ha metal. Extraordinary healing powers. Also handy with a sword.

Defining stories: “Days of Future Past” (collection) by Chris Claremont and John Byrne;Wolverine by Claremont and Frank Miller; Weapon X by Barry Windsor-Smith; Origin by Paul Jenkins, Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada;Wolverine: Logan by Brian K. Vaughan and Eduardo Risso.

Cultural Legacy: Wolverine was the wildcard pick for the next-gen X-Men back in the mid-seventies, and with his anti-social, doesn’t-play-well-with-others persona, seemed destined to follow Thunderbird as X-Man Most Likely To Get Killed Off (Via Redemptive Sacrificial Death) Just To Prove Anything Can Happen In This Comic. But the more Claremont (and Byrne) played to Wolverine, the more he popped as the most dynamic, compelling character in a comic full of such characters. Remember Zachary Quinto’s star-making turn in Heroes, how his Sylar went from supporting player to the focal point of the series (and the only reason to watch)? That was Wolverine during his first 50 issues in Uncanny X-Men (except, fortunately, there were many other reasons to read the comic than just him). Yet it was the Claremont/Miller mini-series that expressed and clarified Wolverine’s game-changing significance: the emergence of the Byronic protagonist — proudly damaged, morally ambiguous, darkly romantic — as the defining heroic archetype of modern comics. —Jeff Jensen

Name: Kitty Pryde

Origin Story: Just about the time Wolverine was coming into his own, Claremont and Byrne added a strikingly different kind of heroto  the genre’s dominant superhero team: Kitty Pryde, a bright and plucky teenage girl, a mutant who could walk through walls and pass through floors like a ghost and not much more. She initially took the name Sprite — befitting her green and bubbly gee-whizishness — but as she matured and toughened she adopted the sobriquet Shadowcat.

Costume: Various and unremarkable.

Cool powers/abilities: What Kitty can do is called “phasing” in comic book lingo. Also see: “intangibility.” While phasing, Kitty can walk on air. If passing through mechanical objects, she can disrupt their electrical systems. She knows martial arts. Good with computers. Speaks many languages, plus dragon. Never mind.

Defining stories: “Days of Future Past” (collected edition) by Claremont and Byrne; Kitty Pryde and Wolverine by Claremont and Al Milgrom; Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.

Cultural Legacy: A longshot to best Wolverine and make it out of the first round, for sure, but Kitty Pryde — quite popular in her early days — has surprising weight. For starters: She was once a girl. Which made her unusual to the point of trailblazing in the landscape of eighties comics. It was novel and moving, watching this girl slowly and fitfully develop into a strong woman over time in the problematic boyland of superhero comics. Joss Whedon cites Kitty Pryde as an influence and inspiration for Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Top that one, Wolverine. —Jeff Jensen

Next Page: Captain America vs. Aquaman

Visiting Dignitary Showdown, Round One: Captain America vs. Aquaman

Marvel

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: Aquaman

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

Gallivanting Billionare Single-Elimination Championship Showdown: Iron Man vs. Green Arrow

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

Name: Green Arrow

Origin Story: Oliver Queen, billionaire archer with progressive leanings, and a quiver full of trick arrows. Became a great archer after being isolated on a deserted island; returned to civilization with determination to use his bow and his bucks for the forces of good.

Costume: Green, the better to blend into the forest a la Robin Hood. Speaking of hoods — has one, plus an eye mask.

Coolest Power/Ability: Deadly aim and a limitless imagination for special arrows, including a boxing-glove arrow, a buzz-saw arrow, and a grappling-hook arrow. (We won’t mention the bubble-gum arrow or the fountain-pen arrow, the latter a personal fave of EW scribes.)

Defining Stories: The brief but kinetic 1950s run drawn by Jack Kirby. The early-70s stories drawn by Neal Adams and written by Dennis O’Neal that paired Green Arrow with Green Lantern, explored GA’s liberal political leanings and featured then-daring storylines about social injustice and the heroin addiction of his boy-wonder pal Speedy. The 2006 Green Arrow: Year One series retold his origin and reemphasized GA’s roots as a wealthy social activist.

Cultural legacy: Did more to redeem archery as something more than a minor Olympics event than anyone since Robin Hood. And yes, we’re looking at you, Hawkeye. —Ken Tucker

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