What makes a superhero, well, super? Many people would say it’s the power to do things that go far beyond the skills of normal humans. But that discounts an entire category of heroes – those without ingrained powers.
And while one could argue that makes those heroes less than “super,” there are plenty of characters that fit into that category that might surprise you – characters no one could say don’t stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Superman or Thor.
When we set out to make a list of the best non-powered superheroes, we set out a few criteria. For example, while Superman doesn’t have any powers that go beyond those of any Kryptonian under a yellow sun, he has abilities that no baseline human could achieve. Likewise, characters like Black Widow, Black Panther, and Dr. Strange have been permanently altered by outside means, disqualifying them. We also elected not to include villains, limiting the field to heroes.
So with all that in mind, this is our list of the top ten non-powered superheroes.
1. The Bat family
Gotham has a veritable army of skilled, human protectors roaming its streets, so how do you narrow it down to just one? The simple answer is – you don’t. With Batman’s legacy providing inspiration for Robins, Batgirls, Batwomen, and even vigilantes that don’t share his iconography, the Bat-Family is the most impressive collection of human heroes ever assembled.
From Dick Grayson’s high-flying acrobatics, to Tim Drake’s detective skills, and Catwoman’s stealth and cunning, there’s not a hero in Gotham who doesn’t have a skill or specialty – and to top it all off, they’re all non-powered, relying only on their training and instinct to fight crime.
9. The Punisher (Frank Castle)
It’s hard to call Frank Castle a hero – at best he’s an anti-hero or vigilante – but while his methods may be questionable, his motives are anything but. After witnessing his family killed by mob enforcers, Castle declared a one man war on crime – a war he wages with only his own grit, his military training, and an ever growing pile of spent bullet shells.
Punisher is arguably one of Marvel’s most impressive humans. He’s taken (and dished out) more pain than almost anyone, and his ability to survive and to overcome obstacles that would make most men shake in their boots place him squarely in the ranks of the greatest human heroes of all time.
8. Adam Strange
Adam Strange’s greatest quality may not be his scientific prowess – which is not inconsiderable – but his unparalleled daring and determination. Transported to the alien world of Rann by the mysterious Zeta Beam, the human Strange became Rann’s greatest hero, and one of Earth’s cosmic guardians.
But Strange is also emblematic of an entire archetype, the human hero in a brave new world. Embodied by characters like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, these are heroes who find themselves in extraordinary situations and manage to not only adapt, but thrive.
7. Lex Luthor
You may think we’re breaking our own rules here by including one of the most notorious and powerful villains in all of DC lore, but ever since Forever Evil, when he saved the world from the Crime Syndicate, Luthor’s actually been a hero – at least nominally – as a member of the Justice League.
In fact, in "Rebirth," Luthor has once again donned powered armor to be one of the heroes of Metropolis. While he's still be at odds with Superman, for the time being, Luthor is using his vast wealth and considerable genius on the side of the angels. Luthor may be cocky, but he almost always backs up his hubris with a level of cunning and ingenuity that few characters can match.
OK, Batgirl should arguably be on this list, since she’s cut from the same cloth as the rest of the Bat-Family, but instead we’re going to go back a few years and include the identity that some will still argue was Barbara Gordon’s best and most powerful self – Oracle.
As the information hub of Batman’s network, Barbara Gordon proved that it takes a lot more than the loss of her legs to rob her of her ability to be a superhero. Her intellect and determination are arguably unparalleled in the DC Universe. And the fact that she’s possessed multiple superhero identities with different skillsets – and no powers to boot – mean she’s got an unquestioned place on this list.
5. Hawkeye and Green Arrow
Archery may seem like a strange archetype for a hero, but when you get down to it, the speed and accuracy of wielding a bow and arrow is one of the most ancient tests of skill for human warriors. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense that both the Avengers and the Justice League would have an iconic archer in their ranks.
And if their skills with archery weren’t enough to earn Hawkeye and Green Arrow a spot on their respective teams, both Clint Barton and Oliver Queen posses a never-say-die attitude and unbelievable confidence that put them right at the heart of the Avengers and JLA.
4. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
We know what you’re thinking – Green Lantern has some of the most incredible super powers around. Able to craft anything he can envision out of sheer willpower, Hal Jordan’s power ring is one of the greatest weapons in the universe.
But that’s the thing – it’s just a weapon. Without it, Hal’s just a normal guy. He may have more bravery, more gumption, and more strength of will than just about anyone else on the planet, but he’s still mortal. In fact, in the old days when he was still a test pilot moonlighting as a space cop, he’d leave his ring behind on test flights. He’s just that confident in his own natural, inborn skill.
3. Thor (Jane Foster)
This is another case of someone who you might forget is powerless. Of course Thor has powers – but Jane Foster does not. Yes, when she’s Thor she can fly, lift hundreds of tons, and throw bolts of lightning, just like her predecessor, but unlike her predecessor – an immortal Asgardian with powers in his own right – Jane’s superhuman abilities all come from mighty Mjolnir.
Without Mjolnir, she’s just plain old Jane Foster – a capable physician and a strong survivor to be sure, but hardly the Goddess of Thunder. Of course, Jane’s actual, human accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at, nor is her willingness to put her body on the line and risk death of cancer in order to wield Mjolnir.
A superhuman sacrifice, indeed.
2. Iron Man (Tony Stark)
Tony Stark may accomplish things that no normal man could hope to achieve, but he does it all on the back of his own genius. Hal Jordan may wield the ultimate weapon, but Tony Stark is the ultimate inventor, and all his weapons are straight off his own drawing board.
Having an invincible suit of armor and an incredible intellect may set Tony Stark apart from other people (something Stark is all too keen to remind them of) but he still doesn’t accomplish anything outside the bounds of humanity - at least not in comic books where fantastical super-science is a fact of life.
Could anyone argue that the man who goes toe-to-toe with Superman isn’t the greatest non-powered superhero of all time? While there were masked mystery men before Batman, such as Green Hornet and the Phantom, DC’s caped crusader truly defined the archetype of the mortal who stands among gods.
Relying only on his own ingenuity, physical discipline, and uncanny preparedness, Batman is the ultimate human-level hero. Sure, he’s got his fair share of gadgets, wealth, and allies to bolster his own considerable ability, but at the end of the day, Bruce Wayne might just be the ultimate human.