Are there tiers of superheroes? It’s a pretty common theory, and it’s hard to dispute. People regularly refer to the big names as A-listers, while Guardians of the Galaxy was constantly referred to as a bunch of C- or D-listers when describing how risky the project was (which is partly what inspired me to examine this more closely).
Where you tend to get the real discussion, though, is when you try and categorize the non-obvious ones. No one will argue that Batman is a big name, or that Star Lord isn’t. But what about characters like Iron Man and Thor, pre-movies? Is there a way to be a little more hard-and-fast with the rankings?
Well, I decided to try it either way. What follows is my attempt to define a superhero notoriety. I’ll start by looking at it from circa-2000, to make it interesting. The recent boom in comic book movies has made the landscape very different, but once I have my framework laid out, it becomes very easy to re-apply it 2014.
My rankings are very heavily based on presence in media. That may seem a little weird on the surface, to be basing how famous a comic book character is without any reference to the comics themselves. But it makes a lot of sense if you think about it; comics, while popular, are hardly a good way to get a sense of how much a character permeates the public consciousness, given how little of the public consciousness in turn comes from comics.
A+ List: This is basically just Batman and Superman. It may seem like cheating that I created a new tier above “A-List”, but I think it makes sense. Let’s be honest, Batman and Superman are not on the same level as the other superheroes of pop culture. They are cultural icons; everyone not only knows them but has opinions on what they should be even without exposure to comics, thanks to dozens of movies, TV shows, animated programs, radio serials (going further back), and so on.
I think this was part of the reason people argue about notoriety. Batman and Superman are clearly the most famous superheroes. But when you’re trying to debate where everyone else falls, they’re a horrible point of comparison. For as famous as Captain America, or Thor, or Flash, or whoever is, they just aren’t on the level of those two, and using them as the basis of “A List” just doesn’t cut it.
A List: These are the ones where non-comics fans could recognize them easily, and probably knew a little of their backstory heading in, or at least something extra about them. Pre-movies, I'd probably put Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wolverine here for sure. They all had multiple appearances on TV shows and such, and would have been readily recognizable to most people.
There are a bunch who are debatable, too. Aquaman, Flash and Green Lantern are a part of the national conscious as the Justice League (and, relatedly, Super Friends), although it’s debatable how much people would know about each on a granular level. I’m a little less of a DC person, admittedly, but I think people knew the jokes about Aquaman, and would have at least known that there were multiple Green Lanterns thanks to there being both the black John Stewart and the white Hal Reynolds. Robin and Batgirl also almost certainly fall here.
On Marvel’s side, there’s the Fantastic Four and Captain America, all of whom are pretty iconic. Several of the more famous non-Wolverine X-Men might make it as well. People would recognize them and their powers, probably, and could probably give you a snippet about each. Most had multiple representations in non-comics media. That’s more or less what I’m using as my criteria; there was a definite non-comics presence to these characters.
B List: People, comic fans or not, would probably recognize them and might know their powers, but that's about it. Iron Man is debatable, but I’d probably put him here here. He definitely wasn't on a level with, say, Spider-Man or Hulk, let alone Batman and Superman. I’m not sure people could have said more about him offhand than he had a robot suit and maybe that he was rich. Similarly, I think I would have placed Thor here, since people would have probably known more about the character through mythology.
I’m not sure where to put the Marvel heroes who got movies that didn’t stick early in the 2000s, like Daredevil, Punisher, and Ghost Rider. The latter two are almost certainly B List, despite my misgivings about their movies; Daredevil, I’m a little less certain on. I’d still probably err on the side of caution and put them here.
As mentioned, I’m less of a DC fan, but I’d say the less well-known-but-still-core members of the Justice League fall here (Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Green Arrow; maybe Martian Manhunter, but he’s a weird case, thanks to not being in Justice League non-comics media until the new millennium while being a founding member in the comics).
C List: It’s a pretty logical progression from here. C List characters are the next step down, the ones big in the comic world but with little-to-no outside comics presence. I’ll just stick with Marvel from here, since it’s more my forte; here, I’d say this is where you’d find the Marvel heroes who weren’t big pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe but still had a major presence in-comic, people like Ant Man, Wasp, Luke Cage, Dr. Strange, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, and Black Panther
D List: Here is where you’d find the characters that aren’t even that big a deal in the comics. I’m not really sure how much you’d want to subdivide this, but you could probably list the Guardians of the Galaxy here, pre-movie. No one would no them outside of comics, for sure. If you want to make an E List below this, for characters even most comics fans wouldn’t know, then you could probably even put them there.
Now that we’ve established all of that, how does the landscape look today? Well, I’d say that Batman and Superman are still the A+ tier. Neither has really done anything to lose their place as icons, as evidenced by the buzz for their blockbuster showdown in 2016. The A-List has seen quite a bit of shake-up, though. Thor and Iron Man have graduated to it without a doubt, thanks to Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Hemsworth’s silver screen portrayals. Also, if you were of the opinion that Green Lantern wasn’t an A-lister at the turn of the millennium (which I might be able to see, although it’s a bit of a stretch), he definitely is now. Even though the Ryan Reynolds movie was a disappointment, it still happened.
Hawkeye and Black Widow are probably there too, even without films as the stars. People are asking for/anticipating a Black Widow movie after her roles in Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Captain America 2 (heck, she could have been in the title of that one given her importance). Hawkeye is definitely a step below her, but people could at least place him as the arrow guy on the Avengers. Speaking of team members, any X-Man with significant movie time is almost certainly an A-Lister as well.
The Guardians of the Galaxy are an interesting case, with a smash hit and little comics history to their name. But with almost $500 million in box office draws to their name (and counting), I think you kind of have to call them at least B-Listers, if not full-on A-listers.
The tougher calls, in my opinion, are the future projects. Ant Man, with the first film following Avengers 2, is at least a B List now. Now that Marvel is starting to delve a little deeper into their catalogues, I regularly see people requesting Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel (the former Ms. Marvel) movies, and we know all of those are in various development. Like with Ant-Man, That might bump them all up to B List, with a good chance at rising to A-List soon.
Anyway, that’s my non-scientific take on the subject.
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