We often hear that a supervillain makes a superhero. While this is true from a certain point of view, we’d like to add that superhuman powers and abilities make someone a superhero. Superpowers allow us to witness the Hulk’s planet-busting fights, Scarlet Witch’s time-warping skills, or a bunch of Superman villains destroying Metropolis over and over again.
As you might guess, this level of destruction can become tiresome, so we turn to the other superheroes who possess no superpowers, but rely on superior intellect and good training. These basic humans are at the peak of physical and intellectual condition. They function as superheroes without the aid of made-up godly history, manufactured genetic conditions, super-serums, lab accidents, and so on. So this list won’t feature any god-like beings like Thor and Wonder Woman, aliens like Superman and Gladiator, mutants of any kind, or even the likes of Ant-Man (who uses Pym Particles to gain his powers) and Green Lantern (what is a Green Lantern without a ring?) on this list. There won’t be any practitioners of magic, either.
So read on for a list of heroes who prove that a great story’s premise requires nothing other than being human.
Hit Girl and Big Daddy
We think Big Daddy should be at the top of this list. He lives in the real world and doesn't have time for fancy moves or resources for intricately designed weapons. He doesn't devise absurd plans to exact revenge. He’s just comic book nerd who’s had enough (he was also kind of bored with his life).
You might argue that his plan is absurd, and it might be absurd within the confines of our modern world, in which even kids can become living weapons via martial arts training. And here comes Hit-Girl, who’s one of the most bad-ass superheroines ever. She’s brutal and an expert in hand-to-hand combat and weaponry. At the same time, she’s fun and cute! Big Daddy raised her to help him fight crime, and she makes the most of what she is, so don't let her apparent innocence fool you!
Comic books can be inspiring, but it’s too bad that they were just wearing hockey pads (so to speak) and not some fancy suits made from unobtanium-like materials.
The characters on this list are in no particular order, so we might as well move forward with Hawkeye. He’s a cool character in the comic books, but kind of lame in the movies. In his interesting comic book backstory, he trains with a group of villains and becomes very skilled with a blade.
But he’s better known for his unparalleled skill with a bow and arrow, which he uses for various purposes (we guess it helps to have all sorts of trick arrows in your quiver).
Hawkeye has no superpowers of his own (except for that one time when he became Goliath). He trained hard from a young age, and even learned hand-to-hand combat from Captain America.He also gained proficiency in the use of melee weapons.
We guess he deserves his Earth's Mightiest Marksman title, and then some!
That's Bruce Lee for you…Kato, a martial artist and an excellent mechanic, is the Green Hornet’s partner. Wait, did we say partner? Well, we didn't really mean it, since Kato is supposed to be the Green Hornet’s sidekick or assistant. But we all know better than that.
Like just about everyone else on this list, Kato has trained all his life and is in top physical condition. He’s expert at hand-to-hand combat and adept at fighting with various melee weapons. Additionally, he’s talented at using items in his surroundings as weapons as needed.
We know that Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet version was lame. But that’s not the fault of the characters, so maybe they deserve another shot.
Here’s another comic book character who was ruined in the movies. In an extended and lame Suicide Squad cameo, Katana was assigned to be Rick Flag’s bodyguard. And then director David Ayer apparently forgot to introduce her.
In common with numerous other superheroes, Katana has a tragic origin story. Her entire family was killed, and in response she became a vigilante. In addition to being highly skilled at fighting with her trusty katana, as a Samurai she became proficient with a bow and arrow, shuriken, caltrop, and just about any other projectile weapon.
It can be said that her katana sword, The Soultaker, is a mystical weapon that imparts various attributes to its wielder, including enlightenment and immortality. But, as Green Arrow said, these gifts shouldn't be taken literally.
In any event, Katana is awesome, even without the Soultaker.
As one of our oldest heroes, the Phantom was the first to wear skintight suits and have eyes with no visible pupils, so we consider him to be a model for the superheroes who followed. Yeah, his costume is purple, but does that really matter?
As a kid, he witnessed his father’s death at the hands of pirates who attacked their ship. He was the sole survivor, and swore to have his vengeance and destroy all evil-doers. For more than 400 years, he, his sons, his nephews, and other family members carried out that mission.
A perfect example of a human at his best, the Phantom (in all iterations) was trained in hand-to-hand combat and facing down an enemy at an early age. Above all, he is an expert marksman.
Billy Zane starred in a 1996 Phantom movie, but it wasn't a great success. Since that time, we’ve seen reports suggesting that reboots are in consideration, but nothing’s happened. Maybe the Phantom’s time is now, right?
We've already covered Hawkeye, so let's talk Green Arrow, the other big comic book publisher’s archer. Before you say anything, both characters are based on yet another fictional character.
Green Arrow’s origin story differs from Hawkeye’s. Green Arrow was basically Batman with a bow and arrow. Left stranded on a deserted island, he had to learn how to survive, and he became the DC Comic Book Universe’s Number One archer (given his early life, we have no idea how he acquired this skill).
He’s skilled at hand-to-hand combat and weaponry, but these secondary skills pale in comparison with his almost metahuman ability with a bow and arrow.
Green Arrow is one cool dude, whose fan base has grown since CW created the Arrowverse.
The Watchmen are numerous, and we don't want to pick just one. Of course, there’s no place for Dr. Manhattan on this list, since he’s a literal God in the Watchmen universe. However, all of the other Watchmen are simple humans who are skilled athletes, excellent fighters, and brilliant strategists.
Everyone knows Rorschach, who is probably the coolest character out there, even with his black and white vision of life. And the Comedian’s perspective on life and the symbolism of the American Dream also makes him a fan favorite.
But none of them has anything on Ozymandias, the story’s villain. He’s the most intelligent being on the planet, the most skilled fighter, and the most brilliant strategist. He can even manipulate the nigh-omniscient Dr. Manhattan.
There’s truly no one like him on this list.
The Master of Kung-Fu, Shang-Chi was the son of villain Fu Manchu, who raised his son in deceit in order to train him as the perfect assassin. From an early age, Shang-Chi’s father brainwashed him, while also teaching him all types of martial arts.
When he later realized his father’s deceit, Shang-Chi became a superhero, and he excelled at being one. Despite his lack of superpowers, he was able to go toe-to-toe with superpowered beings. Although he was just a normal guy, he actually taught his fellow superheroes to fight, including Spider-Man, whose training complemented his special powers.
Shang-Chi developed the ability to create duplicates of himself, but that happened later in his history, which dates back to 1973. His position as one of the best martial artists of the Marvel Comic Book Universe alone is enough reason for him to be a part of this list.
While he may not be a main DC character, Richard Dragon is actually a top-tier martial artist in the DC Comic Book Universe. He used his skills to train quite a few superheroes to be better at…well, superhero-ing…including Batman.
But what’s most interesting about Richard Dragon is that he’s a philosopher. He doesn't fight unless he has no alternative, and always prefers to use words rather than fists to make a point. He’s helped a number of characters find their paths in life, most notably Wonder Woman.
Basically, he’s a pacifist, although he knows that peace must sometimes be won.
In her most recent iterations, Black Widow has been enhanced via technology and super-serums, which really should make her ineligible for this list. However, she’s been around since 1964, and certainly deserves a mention.
Originally a spy and Iron Man’s enemy, Black Widow defected to join S.H.I.E.L.D. An excellent tactician, she led the team on several occasions, which says a lot about her skills at martial arts, marksmanship, and even ballet.
But she’s much better known for her ability to psychologically manipulate others for many purposes, including the extraction of information. We guess this comes in handy for her as a spy"¦
Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D"¦
Like that of Black Widow, Nick Fury's history has been retconned a couple of times. We’ve learned that he stays young (so to speak) through the use of a super-serum known as the Infinity Formula. However, he’s earned a place on this list because of his other skills, which don't involve mumbo-jumbo science.
Fury is a war veteran who served in WW II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and a number of other conflicts. He became a Green Beret, a paratrooper, a demolitions expert, and a Ranger, picking up a number of skills and abilities along the way.
In addition, Fury is a heavyweight boxer, a versatile martial arts expert, and a marksman. It’s no wonder he’s led S.H.I.E.L.D. for such a long time. He's changed his appearance over the years, but he’s one awesome character!
If you know The Spirit from the movie alone (which features Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson, among others), then you don't know The Spirit. With a history dating back to 1940, this iconic comic book character has consistently been among the top-rated heroes of all time.
Like others on this list, The Spirit is in no way at the top of his physical game, although he’s a skilled fighter. Instead, he makes the most of knowledge he gathered as a detective to defeat his enemies.
Some might say that he shouldn't be on this list because he came back from the dead, but he was only believed to be dead due to the machinations of his archenemy, Octopus. As other heroes have created their villains, Octopus' plan gave birth to the Spirit. The former detective saw his “death” as an opportunity, and donned a costume to exert justice on evildoers.
What can we say about The Punisher that you don't already know? He’s probably one of the greatest characters ever, despite his obviously flawed sense of morality. Currently played by Jon Bernthal in the Netflix/MCU series, he’s become extremely popular.
The Punisher has no superhuman abilities or powers, but he’s highly resilient and able to withstand tremendous amounts of pain. Pair this with his military training, and you have a most awesome vigilante.
He may be viewed as more of an anti-hero than a straight-up superhero due to his sense of morality, but that’s what makes him so effective. It’s been said that those he hits never get up again.
This list could have been easily populated with just the numerous Bat Family members, starting with The Batman. Instead, we’ve included the whole bunch of them within a single list item.
Over the years, quite a few characters have joined this extended team, including James Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth. Then we had the Robins; Bat Woman and Bat Girl; antagonists such as Red Hood; and even Ace the Bat Hound and Bat-Mite.
With a couple of exceptions, the one thing they all have in common is that although they have no superpowers, they’re the best at what they do.
Here’s another blast from the past! The Rocketeer was basically the Iron Man of the 1930s. As the story goes, racing and stunt pilot Cliff Secord found a package left behind by gangsters who were being chased by the police. To his surprise, the package contained a rocket backpack. When he used the gadget, Secord became the Rocketeer and began fighting crime.
Sure, he wasn't a household name as many others on this list are. However, the Rocketeer is a font of references that literally transport the reader to other eras. Blame it on nostalgia or be grateful, but this character's adventures (some of which reference other pop culture heroes, such as Indiana Jones) are among our favorites.
The Rocketeer may not be a superhero, but he has all the traits necessary to be one. Plus, Alex Ross’ artwork is exceptional!
Since we mentioned him earlier, we can argue that Tony Stark's Iron Man should be on this list, despite of the fact that he ranks among the most over-powered superheroes. But even as he goes toe-to-toe with The Hulk, he does it by using his own human abilities. As one of the most brilliant minds in the Marvel Comic Book Universe, he builds armors to suit all occasions.
Of course, you could say that his armor is made predominantly from non-existent materials and is able to do impossible things. However, Stark has consistently demonstrated that he’s more human than the others on this list.
We should add that James Rhodes, who becomes War Machine with Stark's technology, deserves a spot here, as well. As his name implies, War Machine is a war-ready version of Stark's friendlier armor.
Lastly, we have The Question, a character so cool that Alan Moore wanted to use him in the Watchmen series. However, when DC didn't approve of the character's fate, Moore developed Rorschach, who was based on The Question.
Among all of the heroes on this list, he’s the worst when it comes to fighting, although he was trained by Richard Dragon. Furthermore, while he is a skilled investigative reporter, he’s definitely not one of the most brilliant minds in the DC Comic Book Universe.
So why is he on this list? Like Big Daddy (who isn't the most brilliant guy, either), he knows what he wants. And his own paranoid convictions help him achieve his goals most of the time.
So what does that mean? Well, it means that the Question might be among us and we wouldn't even know! And this makes him one of our favorite non-superpowered comic book heroes!