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The best powerless superheroes

image of Batman and Robin (Damian Wayne)
(Image credit: DC)

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 who might surprise you – characters no one could say don't stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Superman or Thor (maybe even some versions of Thor, to boot).

Two non-powered heroes - Damian Wayne and Connor Hawke - are taking center stage in writer Joshua Williamson and artist Gleb Melnikov's upcoming Robin title, putting us in mind of ranking superheroes who don't have superpowers (at least not without special weapons or suits).

When we set out to make a list of the best non-powered superheroes, we identified 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.

That said, we also retain the right to stretch or bend these rules in the name of a good read.

So with all that in mind, this is our list of the top non-powered superheroes.

10. The Bat family

(Image credit: DC)

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.

The Bat-family - Batman not included - will be the stars of the upcoming Gotham Knights video game.

9. The Punisher (Frank Castle)

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

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.

Though - again - that depends a little bit on how gray your definition of 'hero' gets.

8. Adam Strange

(Image credit: DC)

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.

Adam Strange is the subject of the current Strange Adventures limited series by writer Tom King with artists Mitch Gerads and Evan 'Doc' Shaner, which explores Strange's complex legacy as the war hero of an alien world.

7. Lex Luthor

(Image credit: DC Comics)

Lex Luthor may have a decades-old reputation as one of the DC Universe's foremost supervillains – and believe us, he's earned that reputation even in 2020 – but in recent years, he's also spent time operating as a hero, even as a member of the Justice League as part of 'The New 52' era's 'Darkseid War.'

That heroic change carried over into the subsequent Rebirth era in which Luthor operated as an armored protector of Metropolis, competing with Superman despite his apparent face turn.

Though Luthor later went back to his villainous roots – way, way back – founding a version of the Legion of Doom, he's also now part of the Totality, a sort of Multiversal overwatch comprised of heroes, villains, and those in between, dedicated to protecting the newly minted Omniverse from destruction.

6. Oracle

(Image credit: DC)

OK, Batgirl should arguably be on this list (and some may argue she is, as part of the Bat-family), 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 now dormant 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, who used a wheelchair for years due to injuries from an assault by the Joker, proved being disabled doesn't get in the way of being a superhero. 

Her intellect and determination are arguably unparalleled in the DC Universe - and she remained a fierce physical combatant through her time as Oracle as well. And the fact that she's possessed multiple superhero identities with different skillsets – and no powers to boot – means that, above all, Barbara Gordon's got an unquestioned place on this list.

5. Hawkeye and Green Arrow

(Image credit: Marvel)

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 possess a never-say-die attitude and unbelievable confidence that put them right at the heart of the Avengers and JLA.

There are also multiple other characters who have used the names 'Green Arrow' and 'Hawkeye' over the years - including Oliver Queen's son Connor Hawke, and Clint Barton's protege Kate Bishop, who will star alongside Clint in the upcoming Disney Plus Hawkeye series.

4. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)

(Image credit: DC)

We know what you're thinking – Green Lantern has some of the most incredible superpowers 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 tool. 

Without it, Hal (and many of the other Green Lanterns, including John Stewart and Kyle Rayner) is 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.

So call it a technicality, call it a loophole - and maybe that in itself is a superpower - but we're arguing many GLs would be heroes even without their vaunted rings.

3. Valkyrie (Jane Foster)

(Image credit: Marvel)

This is another case of someone who you might forget is powerless - though she has wielded weapons that, themselves, carry great power. 

For most of her history, Jane Foster was simply a human physician, hanging out with Thor and experiencing the wonder of Asgard through a mortal's eyes. But when Thor Odinson became unworthy of the power of his hammer Mjolnir, Jane Foster picked it up, and traded her mortal body for the power of Thor.

But without it, Jane remained all too human - suffering of cancer, which returned with a vengeance every time she switched back to Jane from being Thor.

Now, she's Valkyrie, having actually died and left her mortal body behind entirely (some would say transcending that 'non-powered' qualifier). But even still, her power is now derived from the mystical Undrajarn, a weapon that can take any form Jane wishes.

2. Iron Man (Tony Stark)

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

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.

In fact, in his relaunched solo title, he's gone back to basics as an engineer, getting his hands dirty with his armor and tech.

1. Batman

(Image credit: DC Comics)

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.

Newsarama staff writer who learned to read from comic books and hasn’t shut up about them since.