And the countdown to my favorite fictional hero continues. In today’s post, we have focus on just 6 characters, rather than 10, just to slow it down a bit as we approach the top. Of these 6, 1 is female, and 5 are male. 4 are considered to be especially formidable hand-to-hand combatants. 2 were on the same superhero team together for years, and 2 were on another superhero team together for years. One of each of those pairs is the same character, and his two teammates were also partners with each other for years. Got all that? Good, let’s go…
The second highest character from Doctor Who on this list (guess whose first?) is Leela, the Doctor’s companion back in the late 1970’s. Leela was played by Louise Jameson, who had the onerous task of following the very popular Sarah Jane Smith as the show’s co-star. The producers wisely created a character who was quite different than her predecessor, who blended fierce warrior savagery with child-like curiosity. Leela was incredibly loyal to the Doctor, often providing protection even as the Doctor himself seemed to resent her presence.
Leela was, let’s admit, most often dressed in a leather swimsuit-shaped outfit, but it actually sounds far more out there than it actually was. Really, she was pretty conservative compared to a lot of sci fantasy characters, and also really intelligently performed by Jameson as an intelligent woman, albeit an uneducated one.
Leela appeared in a total of nine Doctor Who stories over 40 episodes, and some of them were absolute classics (eg. Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Robots of Death), and she had a great on-screen rapport with the Fourth Doctor as played by Tom Baker. She sadly had one of the worst departures of any companion from the show, but fortunately she’s also appeared in a bunch of recent Big Finish Doctor Who audios, where the older Jameson brings as much energy to Leela as she ever did.
9. Nightwing / Robin / Batman (Dick Grayson)
Dick Grayson is one of the longest-running continuously published superhero characters ever. He debuted in Detective Comics #38, in a story by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, published April 1940. For context, that’s a bit after the Sub-Mariner, Captain Marvel or Jay Garrick, but before Alan Scott, Wonder Woman, or Captain America. Dick Grayson spent the first 40+ years as Robin, the boy (later teen) wonder, Batman’s partner and the second half of the dynamic duo. As Robin, Grayson had tons of spirit and personality, bringing the lightness to the tales of the Dark Knight. He became a founding member of the Teen Titans, and he co-starred on my favorite TV show as a kid, Batman. Later, thanks to the creative team of Marv Wolfman and George Perez, he grew out of his Robin persona and became Nightwing—his main “adult” superhero identity—and at different times even became Batman. And then there’s another stint a while ago where stopped being a superhero altogether and became a spy instead.
All along the way, Nightwing (which I think is now his core identity), has demonstrated the intelligence and dedication of Bruce Wayne, but with the agility of a circus acrobat and a capacity for enjoyment and hopefulness that his mentor rarely displays. As a result, he is, in-universe, one of the most trusted and respected members of the DC Universe superhero community, as well as an experienced leader.
Dick Grayson has shown up in a number of live action TV shows and movies. Some of those performances have been memorable (especially Burt Ward from the 1960’s TV show) but none really capture the combination of daring and intelligence that is what I like about the character.
Lord of the Rings
If you’ve been reading this list, you know that I’ve never read J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings (I feel like I should apologize or something, but whatever), so my impression of Aragorn comes almost entirely from Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal in the three Peter Jackson films from the beginning of the current millennium. But man, it’s hard to imagine being given a higher opinion by expanding my knowledge base. There are some heroes who make this list regardless of, or even in spite of, their combat ability. Someone like Samwise Gamgee, to keep with the same source material, is here because of their commitment and loyalty, and not because he’s an especially tough combatant. With Aragorn, I’m not ashamed to admit that a big part of it is how incredibly awesome a fighter the dude is. I’ll always remember him showing up just before the vile orcs finish striking down Boromir (a guy who himself kept fighting with two arrows in his body), how dramatically he goes on to take down the boss orc. But beyond his toughness, Aragorn also has that romantic sensitivity to him that makes him kind of the ultimate fantasy-adventure hero. He goes on to lead various makeshift armies in genuinely meaningful defences against overwhelming forces, constantly acting as a beacon of hope that inspires people to fight more passionately.
Apparently, Stewart Townsend was originally cast in the role of Aragorn, which is hard to imagine. Viggo Mortensen is outstanding in the role, and according to some behind-the-scenes reports, is just a step or two below Aragorn in terms of absolute coolness.
7. Flash (Wally West)
He’s not the highest ranked on this list, but Wally West is my favorite superhero character. He debuted back in 1959, created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, as spunky kid who gained the same powers as his hero, the Flash, in a freak repeat of a freak accident. He became the Flash’s sidekick and partner, Kid Flash. Later, he became a charter member of the Teen Titans, and was there when the team was reformed as the New Teen Titans. He even gave up being a superhero for a while when he discovered that his powers were harming his health. But then, in Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC comics shook things up in a big way by killing Barry Allen off, and declaring that Wally West was no longer Kid Flash, but the Flash proper (even if he was severely depowered compared to before)…and it’s here that Wally really took off as a character for me.
Mike Baron starting writing Wally’s comic and made him into a womanizing jerk. William Messner-Loebs came along a short while later and softened him up again, finding some rationale for his previous personality shift. But then Mark Waid came onto the scene and he had Wally genuinely grow up. Wally confronted the limits of his powers, realizing they were psychological—he ran slower than Barry Allen because he didn’t want to replace Barry Allen. He fully embraced his identity as the Flash, discovering that he could honor his predecessor even while surpassing him. He fully matured from Baron’s selfish jerk into someone willing to both live and die for the sake of the woman he loved. He even confronted fatherhood—first on a symbolic level with the teenaged Bart Allen (Impulse) and then with his own children, Iris and Jai.
Through all this, Wally was of course consistently heroic—always fighting bad guys and putting himself in harm’s way for others. But he was also intelligent and clever—finding new ways to use his speed powers and to save people and to stop villains, and always willing to confront his own limitations to be able to go further and faster.
After a good run as DC Comic’s main Flash, Wally was sidelined for other versions of the character, especially when Barry Allen made his proper return a few years ago. But I’ll always remember how relatable Wally was under the pen of Mark Waid (and later to a lesser degree, Geoff Johns). Those years of Wally West-led Flash stories made him one of the greatest superhero characters of all time.
Farrier is a Spitfire pilot on a mission to help with the evacuation of hundreds and thousands of allied soldiers off the beach in Dunkirk during World War II. He flies with two other planes, and from the get-go knows that his fuel gauge is unreliable. When his commander is shot down, he takes command and determines to complete their mission of providing cover for the evacuating ships. And with confrontation after confrontation, he does not veer from this goal, proving himself to be a skilled pilot nd fighter. Even when he is the loan remaining Spitfire, he stays on target, and eventually knowingly pushes past the point of no return for him, and continues to protect those who are escaping to the best of his ability. Some of the final images of the film are Ferrier gliding his plane down onto the beach where formerly so many were trapped, setting his plane on fire, and then being taken prisoner. The images have haunting quality and serve as a testimony to his sacrifice.
Farrier, of course, does not just represent a single character, but also many pilots and soldiers who performed his sort of role in the real battle of Dunkirk. The fact that even though he is played by a famous movie star like Tom Hardy, he is through most of the film hidden behind his airman goggles, helps to highlight the archetypal quality of the character.
5. Batman (Bruce Wayne)
DC Comics, Batman Begins & its sequels
Batman is not my favorite DC character (see #7, above), but without a doubt he’s one of the coolest and most enduring superheroes ever created. Batman is, of course, Bruce Wayne, a rich and pampered playboy by day, a dark avenger and scourge of criminals everywhere by night. As a child, witnessing his parents brutal but senseless murder during a mugging permanently transformed the boy, driving him to become a one-man army by excelling at just about everything a human being can do: hand to hand combat, acrobatics, detection, engineering, stealth…everything. The idea of course is that Batman has no actual superpowers, but just by his physical and mental accomplishments, as well as his determination, he is able to stand alongside heroes like Superman and Green Lantern in combating evil and championing justice.
One thing that is both inspirational and tragic about Batman is the unending quality of his mission. Deep in his psyche is the need to protect the innocent from ever suffering like he did, but time and time again he fails at this mission. He stops the psychotic murderer or the crime boss, but only after they have terrorized and victimized a whole bunch of innocent people first. But he does not let those failures prevent him from carrying on—because that next victim is still worth saving.
Considering how much of a loner vibe Batman usually gives off, and how much of an uncaring jerk that DC comics often make him out to be, he still inspires a lot of trust and courage in the rest of his comic book universe. There seems to be a neverending string of like-minded crime fighters who are willing to follow Bruce into his calling.
Batman has appeared in so many stories that it’d be kind of impossible to list all of his major creative contributors. He was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, but my favorite depiction is by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli, who told one of the best stories with the character in Batman: Year One. But I’m also a fan of how Grant Morrison portrayed him in his run on JLA. That’s the series that up-played his competency and deductive abilities so greatly that we buy it when he is the one who figures out that the Hyperclan are really the White Martians or who is able to defeat and impersonate Desaad in an alternate future.
But it’s got to be said that a big part of Batman’s appeal is the visuals of the character. Batman’s classic design is near perfect–the colors are fitting for a Dark Knight, and the little individual touches on what is really a minimalist sort of design–things like his cowl’s ears, the fins on his gloves, and especially the cape–give the artists so much to work with when it comes to light and shadows, the hero’s movements, and his silhouette. It makes a well-done Batman comic a treat to look at even if the story is just average–far more so than other major characters like Superman or Spider-Man.
Batman has featured in lots of DC film and TV projects. Kevin Conroy is the voice actor most associated with the character, and is considered by many to be the definitive take on Batman. But when it comes to live action, I find it hard to look past Christian Bale’s performance in three movies directed by Christopher Nolan. In Batman Begins, especially, Bale and Nolan explore Bruce Wayne as a character more convincingly than any movie has before or since.