It’s easy to look upon Marvel’s ranks and curate a personal list of favorites based on their abilities and personality. However, Marvel’s portfolio of characters is too complicated to judge along that basis. Rather than an array of personal inclinations (mine would see the likes of Fatomex among the top 5), we must treat these fictional characters as you would any character in a book, film, or television series and scale their greatness in relation to their character development, significant accomplishments, and personal contribution. A certain trend you’ll notice is that this list reflects characters that are great for their imperfections rather than their feats.
The 25 Greatest Marvel Characters
25. Ghost Rider
What separates Johnny Blaze’s struggles as the Ghost Rider from the rest of his heroic brethren is the notion that the Rider is battling evil rather than just bad men. Empowered by the ambition to save his dying father, Blaze gave his soul to Mesphisto and in return served him as the Rider. As he would later use the power to resist the devil himself and protect Heaven, Ghost Rider’s crusade reflected salvation and saw the earthly matters at hand to be of little significance; until he saw the destruction during World War Hulk and challenged the Green Goliath in the midst of preventing a Satan resurrection.
24. Black Widow
Natasha Romanoff’s career as a soldier/spy/assassin tragically started at a young age. Despite the skeletons in her closet she found a home within the Avengers ranks, even fulfilled as leader on certain occasions. While she has faced intergalactic foes like Thanos, Romanoff has carried our various covert duties for SHIELD and the government, even at times manipulated by her officials.
23. Nick Fury
Director Fury realized long ago that the human race was helplessly outmatched. In a world filled with gods, heroes, and monsters, Fury had to do what was needed to preserve the continuation of the human race. This led to him coordinating many black ops missions that resulted in devastating consequences, much like a reflection on contemporary worldly matters. Soon after an attack on New York that led to heavy casualties, he resigned from his position. Later during Secret Invasion his presence was severely missed; even so much that one of his greatest critics (Marie Hill) famously confessed, “Fury was right.”
22. Dr. Doom
A true villain matches a hero’s attributes, almost contrasting them perfectly as the righteous inversion of the protagonist. Victor Von Doom does this with one of Marvel’s post powerful minds, Mr. Fantastic. Doom completes the perfect villain persona with justified motive as he is a child born from a hunted gypsy tribe who sought power for crimes committed against his race. With sorcery that matches Dr. Strange, Doom’s greatest battle is not with the Fantastic Four or Mesphisto (who holds his mother’s soul), but rather his own self-consciousness.
21. Dr. Strange
Stephen Strange in his early years was not the protagonist we expected. Vain, materialistic, and selfish would better define the once successful surgeon until an accident that rendered his hands useless. As he sought magic to cure his disability, he was reformed and applied his powers to good use, even though recently his old arrogance resurfaces from time to time. As Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange has made controversial decisions as a member of the Illuminati but has come to acknowledge them.
Over the past few years, Loki with the help of Tom Hiddleston’s charm has been elevated to a crowd favorite. In the comics, however, Loki’s a bit complicated. Often at ends with his brother Thor and his Avengers, Loki on many times has outsmarted not only them but also manipulated the collected supervillains (Red Skull, Magneto). Despite his mischief, Loki wants what’s best for Asgard, so much that he gave his life empowering the heroes in their fight against the Sentry’s alter ego, the Void.
19. Scarlet Witch
Daughter of Magneto, Wanda Maximoff was pretty much destined to be a villain with her father’s hatred clouding her mind. Yet, despite her affiliation with the Brotherhood she became an Avenger, committing her life to the service of others. Though her Chaos magic has proven to be a severe threat, the Scarlet Witch has proven to be a worthy ally and instrumental in defeating the Dark Phoenix Force.
18. The Thing
Along with others on this list, Ben Grimm is a character of misfortune. Poor and alone after the murder of his brother, Grimm made the most out of life by earning a scholarship from his athletics. After that fateful exposure to cosmic waves in space, Grimm again remained true to heart and turned his monstrous appearance into a force of good.
Showcasing that Marvel has a unique way of diversifying their heroes, Matt Murdock, the Man Without Fear, is the blind and devout Catholic crime fighter to fear on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Though he’s made his share of mistakes in the past, he stands as a moral compass leading other street level heroes such as Punisher and Elektra.
Despite being the arch nemesis of our friendly neighborhood Spiderman, Eddie Brock’s Venom has been a real crowd favorite, so much that now Sony is looking to bank on the character for a solo future movie. In the comic realm, Venom’s time in the spotlight has been a roller coaster of mixed emotions. His life encompassed battling Spiderman for years, being sanctioned by the government as a counter-terrorism agent, and finally making amends as a cancer stricken reformed villain, Venom is a nice reminder that it’s ok to be imperfect, maybe a little bad.
Leader of the X-Men, Cyclops for many years fulfilled Xavier’s wishes for a unified coalition between humans and mutants. But soon after heavy casualties and near extinction Scott Summers was pushed to his limits and became enchanted with the power of the Dark Phoenix. With the raw power in hand he sought to change the world for the betterment of mutants and consequently perverting Xavier’s dream. From boring hero to passionate villain, Cyclops’s development over the years saw drastic changes.
14. Professor X
It’s been rewarding on Marvel’s behalf empowering a paraplegic with limitless telepathic abilities. Charles Xavier, despite his disability, has proven that you don’t need speed or strength to overcome obstacles but rather noble intentions. As the frontrunner of a human and mutant coalition and avid believer in harmony, he’s relatable to true heroic historical figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Though he’s not on the frontlines, Xavier carries on the good fight from the confines of his seat and continues to represent the face of progression.
Remy LeBeau is the charismatic cult favorite of the X-Men. Aside from his persistent romantic adventure with Rogue most are drawn to his smooth mannerisms and witty persona, yet beneath the appeal is a very dark and troubled past. Though he was disgraced by his comrades for his involvement in the Morlock massacre, and many times afterwards in battles against the X-Men, Gambit still labors to serve the mutant race and his one true love, Rogue.
Though the God of Thunder doesn’t make it to the top ten, he stands proud behind them (considering who beat him out). Thor, the mythical Norse God, found his way to Marvel in 1962’s Journey Into Mystery. As one of the founding members of the Avengers, Thor has since been instrumental in key victories such as Secret Invasion and Siege. Despite his godly status Thor is as flawed as his mortal allies, and in effect makes him more human and relatable.
Possibly one of the greatest rips ever, Wade Wilson’s popularity rivals that of those higher on this list and for good reason. He’s layered with multiple personalities and is doomed to live an eternal life in constant physical misery; and consequently is a challenge to work with or fight against, though ironically he was the voice of reason in his latest affiliation X-Force. In the hands of the right writer he could be the funniest and wittiest hero to grace comic history and is due his share in pivotal roles.
No one else in the Marvel universe can do so much with so little. Frank Castle was subject to unspeakable tragedy when he decided that you didn’t have to be super powered to be a superhero. Armed with a handful of weapons and a strategic mindset, Castle represents the inner anger and hatred for injustice that burrows in us all. As a former Marine, loving father, and a devoted husband, he’s a man among gods. But that never stops him on his quest not for vengeance, but a reckoning.
Laura Kinney was destined for a life of violence. Trained from birth to kill, X-23 had a body count higher than most heroes and villains before she hit puberty. Her life as a skilled mercenary made her subject to brutal training regimes, dangerous operations, resentful program directors, and ultimately her innocence lost. Laura had not only undergone physical stress, but emotional as she was manipulated to kill her own mother during her liberation. Even after she found a home with the X-Men she was again used as a weapon by Cyclops, thus continuing the bloodshed. Her origin probably stands as one of the best stories ever told.
For most mutants, the line is drawn as assimilation or supremacy. Nathan Summers isn’t fighting for mutant rights however, but the future of all mankind. As a time traveler Cable’s seen the horrors of the reality to come and intervenes to delay it, though he can never prevent it. The price of which always brings him to near death, yet somehow he survives each time to carry on the fight.
7. Black Panther
Predating heroes like Falcon and Luke Cage and even the forming of the Black Panther Party, Black Panther is widely known as the first Black superhero in mainstream comics. Created in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he was Marvel’s reflection of the era of diversity. Combining might with mind, T’Challa is king of the impenetrable kingdom of Wakanda, a member of the Avengers, has led the Fantastic Four following the aftermath of Civil War, and even bested Captain America in a bout. His popularity has grown enormously over the years, so much that the devoted fan base is pressuring Marvel for his own solo movie.
6. Iron Man
Created in an era where America was in an arms race against Communist Russia, Tony Stark has since then transitioned to adhere to the issues of corporate crime and terrorism in modernity. As a symbol of America’s industrial and entrepreneurial identity, Iron Man is a flawed individual combating personal demons while trying to remedy the problems in the world. Though he’s made a handful of grave mistakes, seen in the consequences of Civil War, he relies not on the suit but the ambition to atone for his sins.
It’s easy to follow a hero, the embodiment of core values and the societal archetype we were destined to fulfill upon reading comics at an early age. Yet, in reality we know everything is a matter of perspective and the lines that dictate right and wrong are blurred. Magneto is the true representation of what’s complicated with worldly issues. As a Holocaust survivor he’s aware of the cruelty of man and the hatred it spawns. Though on many occasions Magneto has been on opposite ends with the X-Men and Avengers, even as much as holding the world hostage in Ultimatum, Magneto is the most feared villain because often he’s right in his motive. He’s truly among the greatest characters because he’s been the most trusted ally or worst enemy. We may love a hero for their goodness, but we can relate to a villain for their flaws.
The World Breaker. The Green Goliath. Ousted for his anger issues, Hulk is often the center of conflict with Marvel heroes and villains. As a reserved physicist one moment and an emotional wreck the next, Hulk is the troubled Jade Giant we can’t help but love and empathize for, even relate to as he finds it difficult to find a place along the heroic ranks. He’s had to battle his allies over the span of his series, from Captain America, Wolverine, and Spiderman to the almighty Thor and Sentry. Despite being at opposite ends Hulk has been a pivotal part in battles seen in Avengers V.S. X-Men and continues to prove himself to his comrades. Hulk is among the greatest not only because he can stand toe to toe with them, but as well as beside them.
For years Spiderman reigned as the most popular comic hero, outselling all others until Batman’s recent rise in popularity from the Nolan franchise unseated him in numbers. Spiderman’s popularity however is not dependent on a dark and edgy thematic focus, but the classic superhero feel good atmosphere that defines the genre. Much of his enigma is owed to the initial comparison we all shared with Spiderman, which is the kid like vulnerability in a world filled with evil. Through all of his greatest challenges Spiderman stayed true to character with a whimsical outlook and a can-do attitude, defying all odds and pulling through each time we thought the Web Crawler has met his match. Spiderman sits at number 3 not because of his abilities and feats, but because he is an inspirational testament to the old Uncle Ben proverb, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
2. Captain America
Of course, the Sentinel of Liberty sits near the top not because he’s Marvel’s own poster boy but rather as the ultimate hero and leader of their universe. In essence, he’s America’s finest example of war propaganda (created in 1941). However, the character has since the end of World War II evolved from a symbol defending just America and her interests to an example of goodliness fighting for the citizens of the world and even intergalactic empires. He’s led campaigns in Nazi Germany, Secret Wars, Civil War, Siege, Fear Itself, and has allied with the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spiderman, and many others committed to a righteous cause. He’s the defender of the oppressed and while his superhero brethren are equipped with energy projectiles, rapid healing factors, flight, a godly hammer, and high tech gadgets or armor, he’s never short of that Good Samaritan ambition or disregard for self-safety soldier mentality that defines him. Like his iconic shield, he’s both a protector and a weapon.
It may seem that all things led to this. Let’s forget the film X-Men Origins that did no justice to Wolverine. Instead, to find out why the greatest character in Marvel may be Wolverine we must look at his resume. He’s held a place is most premier teams to include X-Men, Avengers, X-Force, Fantastic Four, and Alpha Flight and has been on the front lines in numerous significant battles that include House of M, Secret Invasion, Messiah Complex, and more. His past is rich with history spanning over numerous major wars. He’s a survivor to misfortune, cursed with near immortality. He’s even had to drown his own son in a shallow puddle because he knows that some people can’t be saved. He does the things that no one else could; the things that our true blue heroes like Captain America and Spiderman can never do because ultimately he’s not trying to be heroic, but necessary. With his signature beer and cigar in hand, he’s the best there is at what he does and what he does is needed.