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A Formula for the Perfect Superhero

Iron Man’s suit, Wolverine’s claws, Jean Grey’s brain — we’re building the best-ever comic book movie character

(Marvel Comics/DC Comics)
(Marvel Comics/DC Comics)

By Jason Concepcion and Shea Serrano

Jason Concepcion: My first favorite comic book character was Wolverine. I am, like so many of my generation, utterly basic that way. He was every teen’s ill-advised role model. Wolverine was the best there was at what he did: eviscerating bad guys with the razor-sharp claws embedded in his hands and being depressed about everything. Ninjas, Hellfire Club guards, various alien species, cyborgs, giant mutant-killing robots, human-size mutant-killing robots, nano-robots programmed to kill mutants, demons, ancient evils of all shapes and sizes, interdimensional beings, his own clones, and so on: They all got sliced and diced in cathartic and stylish fashion. Which was great.

But the thing that really made Logan interesting was that he also felt very bad about being so good at killing people, so he spent a lot of time in Asia generally and Japan specifically, lounging around in kimonos and meditating. His superpower is to rapidly, nearly spontaneously, heal from any injury no matter how grievous. He once got all the skin burnt off his adamantium-laced skeleton. But, because there were, like, a few intact cells inside his cooked skull, he survived. Regenerated his entire body. This makes him essentially immortal. Which, I think we all agree, is great. The downside is he’s always experiencing tremendous physical pain without even the sweet release of death to look forward to. You could torture Wolverine, as many of his enemies have done, forever and he wouldn’t die. Nick Fury once kept Logan’s decapitated head under a cake display in his office just to see what would happen.

Everyone Wolverine has ever loved has died, either from old age or as collateral damage from ninja battles. All of this makes Logan depressed. And, when you’re barreling on a rickety track into the pitiless maw of puberty, the idea of being tragically wounded in life and love BUT also capable of rage-fueled acts of snazzy super-violence which you would later feel guilty for, is tremendously attractive. Wolverine was the hero and the victim of his own story.

Thing is, Wolverine hasn’t been terribly well served by his film depictions. It’s pretty tough to maintain a PG-13 rating when your main hero regularly leaves a trail of arms, legs, and heads in his wake. (Which, not coincidentally, is why Logan is rated R and being talked about as perhaps the best comic book film ever.) What we should do, Shea, is build the perfect movie superhero.

So, how do we do it?

Shea Serrano: I like this question, Jason. It’s trickier than it initially seems, which is my favorite kind of question to answer. I think the way to go about it is identifying the main parts of being a superhero and then address each of them individually. So what are the most important parts of being a superhero? Let’s go with five categories. The first one has to be “origin story,” right? That’s definitely one of them?

Concepcion: Wrong. Disagree.

Serrano: What the fuck? Jason, we literally just started. We can’t be disagreeing already.

Concepcion: It brings me no joy, Shea. But superheroes are weird. Some of the best characters don’t have an origin story.

Serrano: Like who?

Concepcion: Wolverine didn’t have an origin story for three X-Men movies. He didn’t have an origin story for almost 30 years in the comic books! He was a man of mystery; that’s what made Logan cool.

Serrano: Right. But he definitely has one. And there have been movies since those that mentioned it, including one in which they went over it in depth. But, I mean, we can both be correct here. That’s fine. We can just flip it and say that not having an origin story is its own origin story.

Concepcion: The origin story is no one knows the story.

Serrano: Right. Bang. OK, so origin story is definitely one of the five categories we have to fill in. What are the other four? Your superhero definitely has to have a superpower, right? So that’s another one. We have “origin story” and “superpower.” What else?

Concepcion: A hero is only as good as his or her allies and foils. So let’s add “friends” and “nemesis.” And finally, what ranking of heros would be complete without weaknesses? There’s some pretty wack weaknesses out there.

Serrano: Bang. We’re each going to build our ideal, perfect, flawless, diamond-sharp superhero, and to do so we’re going to fill in the Origin Story, the Superpower, the Nemesis, the Friends, and the Weakness. And, I’m assuming, we’re going to do it like a part and parcel thing, right? We’re just shoplifting pieces away from superheroes that already exist in movies. For example, we can take Mystique’s camouflage ability as the “superpower,” Wolverine’s mysterious backstory as the origin story, so on and so on.

Concepcion: Cool.

Serrano: Great. The next question is obvious: What’s to keep one of us from just being like, “Give me Superman’s laser eyes for the superpower, give me Superman’s alien background as the origin story, give me Superman’s kryptonite as the weakness …”? There’s gotta be a thing in place that prevents that. We have to separate all the superheroes into different levels somehow to keep it so that we don’t just load up on all the very best pieces of the very best ones, because that would be decidedly uninteresting. How do we do that?

Concepcion: With The Ringer’s Five-Tier Movie Superhero Rating System, or RAIN.

Serrano: RAIN?

Concepcion: It’s not an acronym. It just sounds cool.

Serrano: Got it.

Concepcion: RAIN is a destruction-based power rating system. There are five different levels. Each is a measure of pure destructive power. There’s the Omega level, and at this power level a superhero, if unchecked, could destroy the Earth in less than a 24-hour period using only his or her superpowers. There’s the Delta level, and at this power level a superhero, if unchecked, could destroy an entire major city in a 24-hour period. There’s the Gamma level, and at this power level a superhero, if unchecked, could destroy an average New York City block in a 24-hour period. There’s the Beta level, and at this power level a superhero, if unchecked, could destroy one six-story building in a 24-hour period.

And there’s the Alpha level. Superheroes on this level have the normal human strength of a person their size but who works out a lot and takes the best PEDs money can by. There are two subgroups of Alphas, those with superpowers and those without. The superpowered Alphas mostly have passive abilities (Rogue, Mystique). The unpowered Alphas are either super-smart, insanely rich, really good with weapons, or all of the above.

Serrano: This is easily the nerdiest shit I have ever been a part of.

Concepcion: Damn right. As a matter of convenience, I’ve organized 50-plus superheroes into those five tiers. You are allowed to pick only one person from each tier. So, say you pick Superman’s laser eyes as your superhero’s superpower. He’s an Omega level person. That means you’re not allowed to pick Superman for anything else, and you’re also not allowed to pick any other Omega level people for anything else.

Serrano: OK. I think I understand.

Concepcion: Here’s where all of the superheroes got organized into:

  • Omega level: The Hulk, Superman, Zod, Magneto (if you want to argue about this one, we can), Apocalypse, Charles Xavier, Ultron, the Vision, Phoenix (Jean Grey), Odin (Thor’s dad), Reed Richards (physically probably a beta, but IMO his true superpower is his intelligence. Reed could definitely build a machine in 24 hours capable of destroying Earth and a good portion of the solar system).
  • Delta level: Thor, Loki, Frigga, Tony Stark (as Iron Man), Storm, Abomination, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, The Thing, Johnny Storm, Sebastian Shaw, Wonder Woman, Doctor Strange.
  • Gamma level: Quicksilver (X-Men and Avengers version), Emma Frost, Iceman, Pyro, various inhabitants of Asgard, Susan Storm, non-Phoenix Jean Grey, Cyclops, Havok, El Diablo, Groot.
  • Beta level: Captain America, Bucky (Winter Soldier), Black Panther, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Spider-Man (possibly a Gamma), Killa Croc, Deadpool, Wolverine, Sabretooth, Gamora, Drax, Kitty Pryde.
  • Alpha level: Batman, Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Mystique, Katana, Rick Flag, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Rocket Raccoon, Star Lord, Rogue, Tony Stark (out of armor).

Any disagreements about the rankings?

Serrano: I’m almost certain you’re just making some of these names up to mess with me, Jason. Are we doing that now? That’s what we’re doing? Because if so, I’d like to offer up Wind Man (he’s super-good at wind), the Neutralizer (his nemesis is Mr. Acid), Marcus Tornadoes (he’s a regional superhero), the duo Hammertime and Nail Boy, Dr. Pasta, Captain Tweetstorm (whenever he’s about to fight someone he shouts, “Thread!”), and Brown Mischief (actually just a little Mexican kid).

Concepcion: I can’t respond to this without knowing which names, specifically, you find ridiculous. Because, let’s be real, they are all ridiculous. The difference between a weird sounding superhero name and a normal sounding one is basically just reps. Like: Spider-Man. That’s an extremely weird name. Right? Most superhero names are just a random seeming noun followed by a pronoun. Batgirl. What? Aquaman. Mr. Fantastic. She-Hulk. Squirrel Girl. Wonder Woman. These are all stupid names. But, over time, we’ve gotten used to them.

Serrano: I actually do have a disagreement with where one of these people landed. I’m going to argue that Magneto shouldn’t be an Omega-level superhero. Could he really, actually, truly destroy the whole world in 24 hours? Because I seem to remember them putting him in a glass box and he was just in there like, “Well … shit.” That doesn’t seem like an Omega-level person to me. That seems like a guy who has trouble with glass. You know who else has trouble with glass? Pigeons. Crows. Birds. All birds, in fact. It’s birds and Magneto.

Concepcion: I think he’s on the bubble — high Delta, low Omega. I mean, he did do this:

I bet he could destroy several cities in 24 hours. Maybe even a continent’s worth of cities, assuming no sleep and a few cups of strong espresso. In the comics, he’s tapped into the earth’s magnetic field a few times and even created a personal wormhole. He could probably cause America’s nukes to launch if he really wanted to, but I guess that’s kind of a cheat.

Serrano: I forgot about the magnetic field thing. He’s an Omega. Everything else here looks good. Let’s build, fam.

(DC)
(DC)

Category 1: Origin Story

Concepcion: I’m going with Alpha-level Tony Stark, without armor.

Serrano: That’s such a great pick.

Concepcion: I just think he has a really chill origin story and relatively (for a comics character) stable upbringing. I want my hero to be well-adjusted. Stark grew up rich and by 15 had entered an MIT program. Except for the time a Russian deep-cover agent (later revealed to be Bucky Barnes [See: Captain America: Civil War]) killed his parents. But that wasn’t until he was a teenager; not much childhood left to ruin by then. Later on, he got injured in Afghanistan, and escaped from a terrorist camp by building his first suit of Iron Man armor. That’s better than getting bitten by a radioactive spider or falling into a vat of chemicals or your parents being gunned down in front of you when you’re 9.

Serrano: I agree with you and I’m also upset with you because this was my pick as well, mostly for the same well-adjusted reason. I just don’t understand why so many superheroes have to come from such terrible backgrounds and circumstances. I mean, yeah, I GET it, but I don’t get it, you know what I’m saying? Why do the parents always have to die? Why’s that always the motivation? Why can’t someone just be motivated on their own? (Motivation Man, perhaps?) I’m very sad about all of this.

I definitely don’t want to waste one of my upper-level picks by chasing a good origin story (like, say, Thor’s origin story is cool, but he’s a Delta-level person and I got different plans for my Delta-level pick), so I’m also going with an Alpha: Give my superhero Harley Quinn’s origin story. She, like Tony Stark, was a smart and capable young person (medical student, accomplished gymnast, nice teeth), so I’m assuming neither of her parents died in a car crash and neither of her grandparents were shot by muggers. She went sideways after she met the Joker, but that hardly seems like an indictment. She was just in love. That’s a thing I GET.

(Marvel)
(Marvel)

Category 2: Superpower

Concepcion: I’m going straight to the top shelf of superpowers with Phoenix Jean Grey from X-Men: The Last Stand, arguably the most powerful hero in all of comic book movies. She can reshape reality, bring people back to life, stop time, travel through space at faster than light speeds. In the comics she once recharged her powers by devouring a sun. In the movies, Jean wasn’t able to access her full powers because Charles Xavier had placed psychic blocks in her subconscious to keep her from losing control. He felt her power level was too godlike for a person to wield responsibly without going insane. But, since we’re building the perfect superhero with the ideal upbringing and support system, I think I can balance that danger out.

Serrano: I’m playing the long game here, Jason. This is what I’m thinking: You and I are building these perfect superheroes, right? Given what I know about superheroes (and superhero movies), that means the two of them are eventually going to have to fight each other. And if the two of them are going to fight, and if you’ve chosen the all-time most powerful power as your superhero’s power, then that leaves me with only one choice: Give me Charles Xavier’s mind control for my superhero’s power. You said it yourself: That superpower was able to trump Jean Grey’s. That’s the one I want here to counterbalance yours. If your superhero starts in on Jean Grey–ing up the world, Batman is fucked, you know what I’m saying? You’re forcing my hand. I don’t truly want Charles Xavier here, but it’s what I need to keep my guy the safest.

(Marvel)
(Marvel)

Category 3: Nemesis

Serrano: I think there are two ways to play this one. On the one hand, I definitely want for my superhero to not be killed, so part of me wants to just line him up against the wackest nemesis so as to ensure victory when they finally meet at the end of the movie. On the other hand, it’s always exciting when the nemesis is actually terrifying and powerful and intimidating and legit capable of destroying the protagonist. I think that’s why — and I’m almost embarrassed to say this — I liked that fight at the end of Man of Steel between Zod and Superman. It was really like, “Yo. Whoa. This guy could actually kill Superman.” I never felt that way about any of the other people that Superman had to battle, you know what I’m saying?

Concepcion: I totally agree. Gotta have a well-matched nemesis. Without that, your hero and story are boring. No one wants to watch Superman beating up shoplifters or the Hulk ripping jaywalkers in half. The villain has to be capable of credibly threatening the hero but not be so dangerous that they might possibly win. That’s why my choice is Loki, Thor’s half-brother. He’s a Norse god, first of all. Not some human with a grudge. That makes him about the highest-quality nemesis possible. He’s from a different plane of reality where magic and science are one. And he messes with Thor and heroes in general just because he wants to. Because he likes chaos. He’s an immortal troll. That’s pretty dope. Though Asgardians are much stronger than normal humans, Loki is not super-duper strong. He mostly likes playing elaborate pranks using his illusion powers which, unfortunately, often result in the deaths of thousands. He’s dangerous and cunning, and he’s caused a lot of property to be destroyed. But he’s not that big a deal. Loki will put on a good show but you don’t have to sweat him that hard. In the comics he’s been consistently getting his face pushed back on his skull for six decades.

Serrano: Loki is a perfect pick as a nemesis. Since you’re nabbing him, though, and since I don’t want my superhero to have the same nemesis as yours, I’m going for a curveball here: I’m taking Emma Frost. Do you remember her in X-Men: First Class? Everyone was excited going into it because she was finally going to have a proper role and proper amount of screen time (she had a cameo in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but she mostly just ended up being a person who wore a bikini and stood still. I’m bringing her back. I’m giving her the full strength of her powers (and also the full strength of a credit card so she can buy some clothes so she doesn’t have to be naked all the time). She’s fucking everyone up. She’s crawling inside everyone’s brain and just destroying everything. It’s really going down. Emma Frost will have her day. Emma Frost will have her vengeance.

(Also, and I definitely think this helps out, but Emma Frost was played by Betty Draper from Mad Men. Her real name is January Jones. She’s the only person who’s played a superhero who has a real name that’s better than the superhero name.)

(Marvel)
(Marvel)

Category 4: Friends

Concepcion: Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers. As one of the key members of the Avengers, he’s widely respected by his superhero peers. As one of the most famous figures from World War II, he’s a bona fide American hero with allies in the government, the military, and the intelligence services. He’s popular with the people. I mean, his name is Captain America. His code name is just excellent messaging. No one can be like, “I disagree with Captain America,” without sounding like a dick. And Steve Rogers is the ultimate friend. He stuck by his childhood friend Bucky even after Barnes spent six decades as a mind-wiped Russian assassin responsible for an unknown number of murders including the deaths of Tony Stark’s parents. That’s a bro. That’s a homie. That’s the best friend a person could ever have. Would you stand by me if it turned out I was an assassin? Steve would. Homie never leaves anyone behind. He’s also probably a virgin.

Serrano: I’m torn here. On the one hand, Captain America seems like he’d definitely be Trump’s favorite superhero, if only because his name is Captain America, which I’m almost certain is what Trump calls himself in private moments. On the other hand, is Captain America Trump’s least favorite superhero, what with him advocating against the Superhero Registration Act, which was basically a first cousin of Trump’s travel ban? I don’t know, man. I’m stuck.

I guess I have to make this decision based on the decisions I’ve already made. I used my Omega-level character for the superpower, and I used my Alpha-level character for the origin story, and I used my Gamma-level character for the nemesis. That leaves me with a Beta-level pick and a Delta-level pick. Because of that, I’m going to take Black Panther’s friends here. Even if we use only his friends from Captain America: Civil War, that means I get Spider-Man (the most wholesome superhero), Iron Man (the funniest superhero), Black Widow (the slickest superhero), War Machine (the superhero with the most intimidating name), and Vision (secretly the most devastating superhero). I like that group. Give my superhero that group.

(Marvel)
(Marvel)

Category 5: Weaknesses

Concepcion: You know what the best weakness is? The normal kind. Same as the origin story. No need for weird alien soils or a fear of enclosed spaces. I think, especially since my hero is based on the Phoenix Force and its intoxicating and potentially galaxy-destroying powers, a grounded, normal human frailty is important. How about this weakness: Loving your family too much. That’s why I’m going with Sue Storm, a.k.a. the Invisible Woman, the matriarch, heart, and soul of the Fantastic Four. Her weakness is that she’s a good person and who really, really loves her kids.

Serrano: Solid hustle. I, once again, will lean the opposite direction. For a superhero to be truly perfect, he or she needs to have at least one thing that doesn’t make any sense and is completely stupid. For that reason, give my superhero Johnny Storm’s weakness, which, best I can tell, is basically anything that can put out a fire. Imagine that.

Imagine you’re a civilian caught in the middle of some gigantic monster invasion and you’re just there terrified, broken, cowering, praying that Superman shows up or Thor shows up or Iron Man shows up or the Hulk shows up or even Batman shows up, and it’s Johnny Storm who shows up. “Don’t worry,” says Storm. “I’ll handle this,” he continues, and then he flames himself up. Then the bad guy is like, “Nah,” and he just turns on a water hose. What a dork.

Serrano: So, to recap, my superhero has Harley Quinn’s origin story, Charles Xavier’s superpower, the perpetually disrespected but now fully-formed Emma Frost as his nemesis, Black Panther’s friends, and Johnny Storm’s weakness.

Jason, I’m looking at all my superhero’s attributes bundled together right now and have some very bad news: I think my superhero might actually be wack as fuck. I’m so disappointed. It all was sounding so cool as I was building him. Do we need names for our superheroes? I kind of don’t even want to name him since he’s so wack.

Goddamnit.

I can’t believe this.

Concepcion: My hero was born into enormous wealth. When she was a teenager and already a genius inventor and engineer, her parents died in a car accident. She acquires the Phoenix Force in her late 30s, when she has the maturity to deal with it and becomes basically a god on earth and a force for good. By this time she has a family that she loves almost too much and tons of friends and contacts throughout the world. The Norse God Loki takes an interest in this powerful inhabitant of Midgard. He plays various pranks and magical tricks on her, enough to fill a movie, two sequels, and maybe a team-up tie-in film. She’s the hero we need and also the one we deserve.

Serrano: I already lost, smh. I’m going with that as my superhero’s name. His name is I Already Lost Man.

Concepcion: I’m naming my hero Devastron the Uniter.