We are living in the age of superheroes. Caped crusaders have smashed the confines of their comic-book cages and now dominate almost every corner of global pop culture. But who among them truly rules?
To create this ranking of the 50 Most Powerful Superheroes, we devised a 100-point system that rated each character in nine categories: Cultural Impact, Bankability, Design, Modern Relevance, Mythology, Nemeses, Originality, Personality, and Powers. We gave each category a maximum score of 10 points, with one exception: Cultural Impact.
The power of a superhero is defined most by this quality, so we measured it on a 20-point scale to weigh the final list in favor of characters who have the deepest cultural footprints.
We then assembled a team of EW’s hardcore superhero experts and had them individually score 155 characters in each category. Those composite category scores were then added together to create an overall power total for each character. This determined our final 50 and each character’s position on the list.
The result, we believe, is the most precise and comprehensive superhero ranking ever created. We’ve already revealed Wonder Woman as our No. 1 pick, but now, we’re taking a look at the top 10. (To see the full rundown, pick up EW’s special double-issue on Friday.)
#10: THE FLASH
When Barry Allen took over the mantle of the Flash from Jay Garrick in 1956, he ushered in the silver age of heroes, and the Scarlet Speedster is still going strong 60 years later — not just in the comics but on TV and (next year) in the first Justice League movie. Struck by lightning and doused by various vials of chemicals, the former perpetually late Central City PD forensic scientist was turned into the fastest man alive, with the ability to run at near light speed and phase through objects, time, and other dimensions. Allen, whose wit is just as quick, helped found the Justice League, while taking on one of the most impressive and deadly Rogues galleries, ultimately giving his life to save the world and becoming the lightning bolt that created him in the first place. —Natalie Abrams
#9: BLACK PANTHER
As the historic first black superhero, Black Panther is for comic-book characters what Jackie Robinson was for baseball. (Interestingly, 42 actor Chadwick Boseman portrayed both men.) There’s zero question that T’Challa is a hallowed pop culture figure for people of color who felt (and still feel) underrepresented in genre storytelling. He’s also just stone-cold impressive, from his sleek, midnight-hued costume forged from indestructible vibranium to his meditative warrior wisdom and personal history — as Wakandan royalty, and also as a pioneering physicist and inventor. The character’s arrival on screen as a key figure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe further enhances his prominence, as the first black hero in this series to be the title character of a film. (Black Panther hits screens in 2018.)
No doubt people of many backgrounds love him, but T’Challa’s identity as a powerful man of color is integral to the character’s appeal. Not only did he battle hooded perpetrators of intimidation and racism in the 1970s, but Wakanda’s status as an African nation that resisted colonization is an inspiring alt-history for a continent whose natural resources — and people — were often cruelly plundered. Black Panther and his homeland stand apart. They stand for hope. But mostly, they stand for pride. —Anthony Breznican
#8: THE HULK
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby doubled down on the popularity of the Thing, the Fantastic Four’s brickhouse, by making this behemoth an introverted scientist whose repressed rage can transform him, Jekyll-and-Hyde-style, into an ogre of calcified id. The Hulk’s sharp, sudden jabs toward violence are a metaphor for itchy-trigger-finger militarism, but it’s Kirby’s brilliant design that strikes a chord in all of us. The big green guy intentionally resembles a baby in a diaper during a crying fit — and that hits on our capacity to feel infantile during emotional stress. In sensitive Mark Ruffalo (plus an army of CGI maestros), the hero finally has an onscreen ambassador worthy of this most psychologically trenchant Avenger. (Our Hulk here is by Sideshow Collectibles.) —Joe McGovern
#7: CAPTAIN AMERICA
Creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby considered Captain America a political statement: a red, white, and blue superhero version of Uncle Sam whose debut months before Pearl Harbor featured him socking old Adolf right in the kisser. Back then, Cap’s primary foe was fascism, but in recent years, as depicted in the 2006–07 Civil War comic-book series, he has championed civil liberties against the long arm of government overreach into citizens’ private lives, aware that even those institutions trusted with our defense can become threats. Like a true patriot, whether it’s in writer Ed Brubaker’s famous post-9/11 comics run or Chris Evans’ incarnation in the Marvel Studios films, Cap knows that defending America means fighting for its ideals, not following orders. —Anthony Breznican
#6: IRON MAN
Though Tony Stark existed as a founding member of the Avengers long before Robert Downey Jr. and the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along, it’s impossible in 2016 to separate the genius/billionaire/playboy/philanthropist from his big-screen iteration. After all, in terms of the company’s modern relevance, no character is more important. Downey’s spin on the cocksure capitalist with a heart of shrapnel laid the foundation — in terms of its snappy tone and good-natured characters — for the colossal Marvel brand we know today. From his earliest days, Iron Man was an unlikely hero. A ruthless businessman, profiting from death, Tony Stark was a far cry from sympathetic (and nerdy) heroes like Bruce Banner and Peter Parker. Created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby, Stark’s stories found the humanity in a Cold War-era arms dealer with a drinking problem, drawing strength from his weaknesses instead of letting them define him. He utilizes his intellect, strong moral compass, and billion-dollar fortune to protect a world full of others just like him — flawed people, always looking for the light inside of themselves. —Kevin P. Sullivan
NEXT: The top five…
There are those superheroes who run into flaming buildings, rescue civilians, and pose adoringly for their fans. Then there is Wolverine. Grumpy and anti-social, this member of the X-Men prefers isolation but will defend his fellow mutants to the death. Born in Canada in the late 1800s, his mutation — switchblade claws that grow out of his knuckles and the ability to heal — first appeared when he was a child. His unique gift — or curse — slowed his aging process, allowing Wolverine to experience various lives, including one as a World War II soldier. Eventually, he was forced into the Weapon X scientific program and had his bones fused with indestructible metal adamantium and his memories erased.
Plagued by visions and nightmares of his past, Wolverine constantly struggles to piece together his past even after he joins the X-Men. The latter affiliation has been the subject of eight big-screen adventures (including two solo films), with Hugh Jackman playing the gruff hero. The final Wolverine installment, Logan, is due in March, with Jackman donning the muttonchops and metal claws one last time. But who knows? Wolverine has come back from the dead on more than one occasion. —Tim Stack
So much about Superman — essentially America’s first superhero — feels quaint today. Truth, Justice, and the American Way were simple ideals for a simpler time, and his Boy Scout mentality may feel out of step with the darker, more tortured superheroes who fill our movie theaters and television screens today. But this alien from Krypton, armed with superstrength, superspeed, X-ray vision, and flight, is the superhero we all identified with first.
Today, as America grapples for what it stands for, Superman — charged with saving humans from themselves, even when he isn’t wanted — may have renewed relevance. In Zack Synder’s interpretation of the Man of Steel, his Achilles’ heel isn’t just a physical aversion to kryptonite. Turns out those broad shoulders are equipped to carry around a ton of emotional baggage, too — loneliness and guilt are formidable opponents. Maybe Superman’s quest for connection, the ultimate immigrant story, is more poignant now than ever. —Nicole Sperling
Drawing upon hard-boiled pulp and tough-guy mystery men like the Shadow, cartoonist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger fashioned a rival for Superman by exploiting their contrasts: a dark-knight detective to the white-knight demigod. An instant smash, Batman’s appeal broadened as his mythos grew—a kid sidekick, the greatest rogues’ gallery ever—and as the property became a multimedia entertainment franchise.
No figure has represented or influenced the cultural perception of superheroes more than Batman. The Pop-art Adam West TV series? Silly. Super Friends? Kids’ stuff. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns? A game changer that reframed the righteous vigilante as disturbed antihero, a complex makeover that captured Hollywood’s imagination and seeded contemporary pop. Christopher Nolan’s monstrous redeemer subversively mythologized post-9/11 America. TV’s Gotham is goofy gothic cynicism. Zack Snyder’s brutal avenger wallows in fanboy nihilism. Batman endures as a cautionary tale about how we respond to tragedy and evil, and as a mirror to our empowerment fantasies. What will he show us in the years to come? —Jeff Jensen
Just as a visual concept, Spider-Man was a boundary-bursting phenomenon in 1962. His powers are gross and grand: He spins gray webs (ewww!) to swing Tarzan-style through the urban jungle (whoa!). Most superheroes have big muscles and granite chins, but Spidey’s all long limbs and expressively oversize white eyes.
Yet the brilliant secret of Spider-Man is that he is his own greatest creation: a melancholy loner’s escapist fantasy—literally a boy pretending to be a (Spider-)man. In his origin story, all that grown-up fun goes to Peter Parker’s head—with tragic, Uncle Ben-killing consequences. So Spider-Man’s stories are less about super-cool power than relatable pressure: money problems, romantic problems, filial-piety problems (Aunt May, sick again!), laundry problems.
The Everyguy spirit transcends Spidey’s original alter ego. In 2011, Marvel introduced Miles Morales, a high schooler inspired by Peter’s example—and a cause célèbre in the internet’s crusade against #SuperheroesSoWhite. There’s a reason the character inspires such passion. He’s the superhero for people who love superheroes, a regular guy who saves the city but always struggles to pay the rent. So it makes sense that he’s No. 2 on our list. Most superheroes are aspirational. Spidey is the hero who aspires. —Darren Franich
#1: WONDER WOMAN
Find out why we picked Wonder Woman as our top choice right here.
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