And the countdown to my favorite fictional hero continues. In today’s post, we have 10 characters who for the third time are all male, although three of them are not human beings. Another two were born on earth, but mostly work in outer space.
20. Bilbo Baggins
Most of the characters on this list from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga have made their impact upon me through Peter Jackson’s movies from the early years of the millennium. Indeed, I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings. But I have read The Hobbit, and loved it—and that’s how Bilbo Baggins, that story’s protagonist, gets his position here. Bilbo is cut from the same general cloth as his nephew Frodo—the unassuming Hobbit, recruited by a band of dwarves to help burgle a treasure away from a dragon. Along the way, he contends with trolls, goblins, giant spiders and belligerent elves, not to mention grumpy dwarves. He faces everything with a sense of mischief which belies (at least a bit) all his protestations of not wanting to be involved in any adventure. One of his great moments comes in facing down Smaug the dragon himself, where he hides his accomplishments in a series of riddles: “I am he that walks unseen….I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for my lucky number….I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me….I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringbearer and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-Rider.” Bilbo was of course played by both Ian Holm and Martin Freeman in the recent movies, but I remember him first as voiced by Orson Bean in the animated TV movie of The Hobbit (and, inexplicably, in the immediate follow-up, The Return of the King). The first copy of the The Hobbit that I read (or rather, that was read to me) used stills from that TV movie as illustrations, so it’s forever colored my image of the character.
19. Mister Miracle (Scott Free)
As most long-term comic fans know, Jack Kirby, the co-creator of most of the Marvel Universe, left his long term professional home and went to work for DC in the early 1970’s. He started his time there working on four titles that were loosely connected as his Fourth World” saga, telling the story of a war happening amongst celestial beings with the earth caught in the crossfire. The narrative centre of this epic was a book called the New Gods, but the emotional heart of the saga was found in another book, known as Mister Miracle.
The story here, as we eventually discovered, was that the leaders of the two warring worlds—the evil Darkseid and the good Highfather—established a truce between their factions by trading their sons. Each one gave their son to the other, as a guarantee that neither would attack. The son of Darkseid was Orion, who was raised by Highfather himself. But the son of Highfather was a young boy who came to be known as Scott Free, who was abused and raised to be one of Darkseid’s soldiers on the hellish world of Apokolips. But, in an act of defiance rarely seen, he escaped and went to earth. There, Scott Free came to take on the identity of Mister Miracle, an acrobat and showman who performed death-defying escapes for a living. Of course, he also fought villains and pushed back against the forces of Apokolips itself.
Mr. Miracle is a great character, a unique take on the whole superhero genre with a well-developed thematic consistency. He’s an optimist, who has legitimately faced the worst that the universe could throw at him without losing hope. He’s also a devoted husband, and maybe the king of “marrying up” (as his wife, Big Barda, is a former elite warrior who looks like an Amazon supermodel).
18. Colonel Rick Flag jr.
Rick Flag was originally created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru as the leader of a special missions military group, the Suicide Squad. But Flag, and the whole Suicide Squad concept, was reimagined in the late 1980’s by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell, along with Bob Greenberger, so it’s really there that I look to get a feel for the character. Flag was a dedicated military man who was in a bit of an impossible situation. He was assigned to be the field commander for the new Suicide Squad, a team largely populated with ruthless but expendable super-criminals who were working off their prison sentences. But he was given this assignment, which he didn’t like, over the objections of the program’s designer, the ruthless Amanda Waller. So Flag found himself at odds on every end of the assignment—with the criminals, with his boss and ultimately with himself. And yet he served tirelessly and with dedication, doing everything he could to do right by the people under his command, including just bringing them home alive (no mean feat). In a bold move, writer Ostrander had Flag eventually succumb to and crack under the psychological pressures of what he was doing, leading him to cross of pretty big lines in his efforts to “protect” the Squad. He later attempted to redeem himself by going on one last suicide mission, taking out a group of super-powered terrorists with his final act. (Although, as is common in comics, Flag later was revived, and in fact revealed to have some completely surprising secret backstory, but as I haven’t read that story I don’t know the details). Flag was also portrayed in the Suicide Squad movie by Joel Kinnaman, but the less said about that disaster of a film, the better.
17. Silver Agent
I’m not as much a fan of Silver Agent as I am of Jack-in-the-Box (see here) but it’s not surprising that the character gets such a high ranking on this list. Silver Agent was set up from the first issue to represent that universe’s ultimate heroic ideal. When introduced, Silver Agent was already dead—simply a statue that reminded the citizens of the city of his valor while also testifying to the collective guilt that the whole city bore for his death. However, the details behind these hints were not revealed for years. Instead, we had oblique hints and flashbacks that built the picture of Astro City’s stand-in for Captain America—a fearsome fighter who stood for the values of the country, often punching above his weight class because he was the sort of guy who would let nothing stand in the way of doing the right thing.
When we finally did discover the story of his death, it only heightened his reputation. It turned out that Silver Agent had been unjustly executed by the city during an extremely dark period. More than that, we learned that the Silver Agent had been transported to the future beforehand, where he fought to free humanity, knowing full well that returning to his own time would lead to his ultimate fate. He chose to do so anyway, along the way assisting humanity at various key points through time. He even fought his final battle right as his future self was being executed. The people of Astro City realized their error just as it was too late to do anything about it.
Like the rest of Astro City, Silver Agent was created by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross, and though he only appeared in a handful of issues, he is portrayed as one of the greatest heroes of them all.
16. The Flash (Barry Allen)
Speaking of the greatest heroes of them all, Barry Allen is the second but most famous of all the characters in DC Comics to take on the mantle of the Flash, and for years he was positioned in the DC Universe in exactly the same way that Silver Agent was for Astro City—a dead hero who served as an inspiration to every live on. The difference of course is that Barry didn’t die until after he’d been published for nearly 30 years. Barry was a police scientist became the Flash after being struck by chemically-infused lightning (or lightning infused chemicals), and during his active years fought against all sorts of criminals with a combination of his powers and his scientific smarts (even if much of the science was nonsense). These qualities have stood him in good stead, whether he was dealing with mind-controlling music, evil mirror dimensions, or being turned into a big piece of glass!
Barry has also endured his share of tragedies, especially with the death of his wife Iris, as well as a criminal trial over killing the man who was about to murder his second fiancee. Years after Barry’s own death (in Crisis on Infinite Earths), first Iris and then he were both brought back to life, and then had their entire histories rewritten so they weren’t even dating anymore. I’m actually not 100% sure of their status quo anymore, but both are back and Barry is busy being DC’s main Flash again, and thus one of its main heroes. There was a pretty gross story a few years ago called Blackest Night, which had a great endorsement of the Flash. In the absence of other heroes, some second-stringers had to rise up and basically “be” Superman and Wonder Woman. “What about him?” one of them asks, referring to Barry. The answer? “He’s the Flash.”
Barry was created by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino, and has of course been played by Grant Gustin on TV and Ezra Miller on film. Both performances have had enjoyable qualities, but neither of them really look anything like any Barry Allen I know, aside from the fact that they run really fast.
15. Mr. Dawson
Dunkirk, by director Christopher Nolan, is of course based on real events: the evacuation of allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. Over several days in 1940, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were successfully saved from a terrible position. Hundreds of ships participated in this operation, including many civilian vessels. The movie Dunkirk makes use of fictional characters to tell its story, and in it Mr. Dawson opts to use his personal boat himself to help rescue people rather than let the navy take it instead. Over the course of the story, he becomes instrumental in saving the lives of many soldiers, including the pilot Collins, who surely would have drowned otherwise. There are other heroes in Dunkirk, but most of them are military men. Dawson, on the other hand, is just a civilian sailor and father who demonstrates incredible courage and seafaring savviness to accomplish incredible deeds. Actor Mark Rylance does a great job brining a steady dignity to the character. I’d never heard of Rylance before his role in Bridge of Spies but since then he’s emerging as one of the best and most interesting actors out there.
14. Green Lantern (John Stewart)
Coming in 9 positions higher than Hal Jordan to be this list’s top-ranked Green Lantern is John Stewart, originally created by Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams, but reimagined by Steve Englehart, Gerard Jones, Geoff Johns, and a whole lot of other people. John Stewart was introduced as part of the socially conscious O’Neill / Adams run of Green Lantern in the 1970 as a new back-up Green Lantern to Hal Jordan, who offered a fresh challenge to the title character related to his racial and social prejudices. He started off as a bit of an “angry black man” stereotype who turned out to be more intelligent then he first seemed (and also, an architect). Later, his characterization was expanded upon, and John Stewart became the most morally and emotionally rich of all the main Green Lantern characters. He was depicted as someone who wasn’t just fearless or self confident, but was able to consider things from different points of view, and had the complexity necessary to do something like manage the Mosaic world (see this post for a bit more about what that was). He was also at times implied to be the Green Lantern with the greatest will power, with it at least once exceeding the capacities of his ring. John carried a fair share of guilt and tragedies in his life, but continued to endure as a character and a hero, remaining a major figure in the Green Lantern mythos—really far more so than his initial creation would have suggested.
13. Ethan Hunt
Mission Impossible movie franchise
Ethan Hunt is played by Tom Cruise, and is the lead character of six (so far) Mission Impossible movies that have been produced over the last 22 years. He is an insanely capable spy who is well versed in all things espionage—combat, tactics, driving, flying, interrogation, disguise, stealth, and much more. Ethan starts out as a “point man” for a team of agents under someone else’s command, but when he is betrayed and his team is killed, he becomes a team leader himself. But whether he is trying to deal with his clearing his own name of false charges, or trying to stop an arms dealer with releasing a deadly weapon, Ethan retains a strong moral code, refusing to allow innocents to come to harm in the pursuit of his goals.
Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt in all six movies, and brings a lot of visceral presence to the role. Cruise cops some flack from some friends of mine, but I think he’s one of the best actors out there to make you feel like you’re in the middle of the stunt-filled action. Doing lots of his own stunts helps, of course, but he also plays Ethan’s mixture of uncertainty and confidence in those moments really well.
In Mission Impossible III, we see Ethan as a husband to Julia and a figurative older brother to another young agent, Lindsay. Over that story, we see Ethan wrestle with the deception inherent in his job. As he comes to terms with those dynamics, we connect with him more deeply as a human being, as the decent man that he is. Frankly, this basic quality of kindness is why Ethan Hunt shows up on this list (and so highly) whereas a more popular figure like James Bond does not.
12. Captain / Admiral James T. Kirk
Jim Kirk was the captain of a spaceship on a little known TV series that ran in the late 1960’s for three seasons, but failed to find at the time any sort of real mainstream success. Still, it was popular enough to get a lot of viewership in repeats, so much so that there as an animated version that ran for a year in the 1970’s, and even a feature film that came out in 1978. Then there were more movies, more spin-off TV shows, some comics, some video games, some reboots…and of course somewhere along the way Star Trek became a cultural phenomenon. And as far as viewers were concerned, it all began with Captain Kirk and his crew on the Starship Enterprise.
Kirk defined for all of us everything that a Star Trek captain is—brave, heroic, supremely devoted to his ship and his crew, and willing to sacrifice everything for the mission of exploration, diplomacy, and establishing relationships. Kirk is often represented in popular culture as a womanizer who thought with his fists and his phasers, but this isn’t really accurate. Rather, Kirk was a committed negotiator who didn’t resort quickly to violence, even if he was more than capable in a fight when that was needed. He knew how to receive input from the skilled specialists around him, but how to make a decision and take responsibility for it when the time came for action.
Kirk has been played recently by Chris Pine, as well as by a bunch of other actors in fan-made productions. But of course, he is best known as being played by William Shatner, whose performance has as much oddness spoken about it as Kirk’s character does. But truthfully, Shatner has had a lot of effective moments as Kirk over the years (check out Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, especially), and it seems unlikely that Star Trek would have become what it did if someone less dynamic was sitting in the captain’s chair.
11. Samwise Gamgee
Lord of the Rings
This list started with a Hobbit, and it ends with a Hobbit. Samwise Gamgee is one of the main characters of the three Lord of the Rings movies, though he is not who you’d normally consider to be the main Hobbit of the story. That would be Frodo, the ring-bearer, who is tasked with carrying the embodiment of the evil power of Sauron and destroying it in deadly volcano. But taking on the role of the one who sees himself tasked with carrying Frodo himself is his friend, Sam. Sam is a simple guy with little world-experience, but one abiding quality: loyalty. No matter what the danger or what the foe, Sam sticks by Frodo, even when Frodo himself sends him away. There’s something really inspirational about this guy, who doesn’t have to make the journey to Mount Doom, but can’t imagine not making it when his friend Mr. Frodo is going. Sam is played by Sean Astin, who I once enjoyed sharing some of his stories at a convention. He took great delight in sharing with the audience (and one eager young fan) one of Sam’s most memorable speeches, which was added to the film in the wake of the real life tragedy of 9/11.
By rights, we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. And I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turnin’ back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holdin’ onto something…that there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.