Today, we begin Round 2 of our Superhero Showdown bracket game, moving one step closer to deciding which costumed crimefighter is the greatest superhero ever. The Round of 16 kicks off today with four agonizing big-ticket match-ups. Superman and Thor enter the arena, representing the dead planet Krypton and the heavenly realm of Asgard. Fresh from an upset victory over Ghost Rider, Hellboy will battle Captain Marvel for supernatural supremacy. Green Lantern and Invisible Woman will hurl energy at each other, some of it green, some of it invisible. And in the final bout, Marvel icons Spider-Man and the Hulk will decide once and for all whether it’s better to get your power from a radioactive spider or a gamma bomb.
Click on the image above for a printable bracket. Check out our pocket biographies of each superhero, and scroll to the bottom of each page to register your vote. Voting will conclude in exactly 48 hours, at 12:30 PM EST on August 15. Be sure to check back tomorrow for the other half of Round 2: Batman vs. The Punisher, Wolverine vs. Jean Grey, Wonder Woman vs. Captain America, and Iron Man vs. Deadpool.
Alien Showdown, Championship Bout: Superman vs. Thor
Origin Story: On a dying planet, a child is shot into space by his parents, given a chance at a new life on in a faraway place. The orphan’s ship crashlands in Kansas, where he’s discovered by a childless, utterly American couple. Oh, and when he grows up, he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive…
Costume: You could argue that all superhero costumes are just riffs on Superman’s iconic look: The bright colors, the cape, the color-matched boots and exterior underwear.
Coolest Power/Ability: Anything you can do, Superman can do a million times better. He’s superstrong. He’s superfast. He can fly. But Supes also has a whole array of more subtle powers, and of that bunch, it’s hard to argue against the eternal usefulness of heat vision.
Defining Stories: Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow,” and Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman” are both fantastic modern explorations of the Superman myth — at once playful, deconstructive, and tragic.
Cultural legacy: Superman is the foundation for pretty much the entire superhero genre. Many major characters that came after him directly riffed on his iconography. (Just look at the number of characters on our bracket who grew up as orphans.) Richard Donner’s 1978′s Superman movie established the basic template for the superhero-movie — a genre that has now conquered Hollywood. Superman is also one of the most famous fictional characters ever. In the last quarter decade, though, Superman’s actual cultural influence has been significantly eclipsed by his darker, grittier, less impenetrably invincible buddy Batman. Can next year’s Man of Steel return the character to his past prominence? —Darren Franich
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
Next Page: Hellboy vs. Captain Marvel
Supernatural Entity Championship Bout: Hellboy vs. Captain Marvel
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
Name: Captain Marvel
Origin Story: When orphaned newsboy Billy Batson wanders into a deep cavern, he meets an ancient wizard, who grants Billy a host of supernatural abilities. From then on, whenever the lad yells the wizard’s name — “Shazam!” — he’s transformed into a grown-up superhero named Captain Marvel.
Costume: Captain Marvel’s sharp red-and-yellow outfit suggests a Pharaonic riff on Superman’s outfit, complete with a glimmering white shoulder cape.
Coolest Power/Ability: We all know that “Shazam!” is actually an acronym for the hero’s seven magic abilities, which all derive from characters in Greek mythology. With one exception: the S stands for “the wisdom of Solomon.” And really, that seems like it could come in handy more frequently than his other powers. I mean, you can’t use the power of Zeus to make good investments in the stock market.
Defining Stories: The early Shazam! comics are hard to find nowadays, but Jeff Smith’s miniseries Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil is a great modern introduction to the character.
Cultural legacy: Captain Marvel was incredibly popular in his heyday, becoming the subject of a movie serial. In some ways he’s been overshadowed in recent decades, and unfairly maligned as a Superman clone. But it’s hard to match the elemental appeal of Captain Marvel’s boy-becoming-a-man origin. —Darren Franich
Next Page: Green Lantern vs. Invisible Woman
Transformed By Mysterious Space Magic Championship Bout: Green Lantern vs. The Invisible Woman
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
Name: The Invisible Woman
Origin Story: Susan Storm joined her boyfriend Reed Richards’ illegal space expedition. The expedition ran afoul of some nasty cosmic rays, and when they crash-landed, the four people onboard found themselves radically transformed into “the Fantastic Four.” Sue discovered that she could turn herself invisible.
Costume: Like her fellow teammates, Sue rocks a blue FF bodysuit, though recently the team started wearing all-white stormtrooper-chic outfits in the wake of a rebranding as the “Future Foundation.”
Coolest Power/Ability: Initially, Sue’s power was limited to making herself invisible. But as the character evolved, she developed the ability to cast massive invisible-energy fields. This has multiple uses, but the most fun is her tendency to construct frictionless slides, essentially allowing her to glide through the city.
Defining Stories: The character came into her own in a mid-’80s run by John Byrne, when she notably changed her codename from “The Invisible Girl” to “The Invisible Woman.” But Sue’s best showcase is arguably much more recent: Under the stewardship of current FF writer Jonathan Hickman, she’s become the group’s most interesting (and probably most powerful) member.
Cultural legacy: Marvel’s first female superhero has a problematic history — she spent her first couple of decades dithering in the background, often eerily concerned about clothes. (It didn’t help matters when, in the ’90s, she started modeling a Victoria’s Secret-worthy skin-baring costume.) But she has steadily evolved into a multifaceted character: A mother, a leader, and a powerful heroine. (Alas, none of that was really evident when Jessica Alba played her in two Fantastic Four movies.) —Darren Franich
Next Page: Spider-Man vs. Hulk
Science Gone Wrong Championship Bout: Spider-Man vs. Hulk
Origin Story: Gawky, geeky New York high schooler Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider (altered to a genetically modified spider in later reboots of the character), and overnight becomes imbued with the arachnid’s heightened strength, agility, perception, and velcro-like grip on practically any surface. But he’s still just a hot-headed kid: When Peter blithely neglects to stop a thief, the lowlife winds up murdering Peter’s Uncle Ben — the only father figure he’s known. Peter’s grief propels him into a life of crime fighting, driven by the principle that with great power comes great responsibility.
Costume: A red-and-blue unitard covered in webbing and with a stylized spider on the chest. Unlike almost every other A-list superhero costume, Spider-Man’s head (and therefore his identity) is completely covered, with two large arachnid-like eyes the only things delineating a face. It is simultaneously one of the silliest and most realistic superhero costumes ever, in so far as it actually protects Spidey’s secret identity.
Coolest Power/Ability: Hanging out on the ceiling is damn cool, and that hyper-sensitive “spidey sense” sure comes in handy. But what makes Peter more than just your average teenager is his keen engineering acumen, which enables him to conceive and fabricate the web shooters that allow Spider-Man to sling himself through the high-rise canyons of New York. (The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies made the web-shooters an innate function of Peter’s powers, a fanboy heresy rectified in this summer’s franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.)
Defining Stories: There have been so many variations on Spider-Man over the years, it’s hard to know where to begin. But “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” — the Green Goblin drops Spidey’s girlfriend from a Manhattan bridge; Spidey shoots his web to save her; but the whiplash from the sudden stop snaps her neck — remains one of the most shocking arcs in comic book history.
Cultural Legacy: As Superman defines the DC Comics universe, Spider-Man is at the center of the Marvel Comics ethos: A flawed, human-scaled hero, constantly struggling just to keep his head above water, let alone save the world. He remains one of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet, spawning several animated and live-action TV series and now two bazillion-dollar movie franchises. In fact, 2002’s Spider-Man — the first comic book movie in 13 years to top the box office for the year — arguably launched superhero cinema into its current cultural dominance. (Sorry, X-Men.) —Adam B. Vary
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