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DC Comics boasts a massive pantheon of superheroes, dating back to the 1940s and with new DC heroes arriving each year. While Marvel currently reigns supreme at the box office, DC’s top three heroes—Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman—are still the most famous, acting as genre-defining icons. They set the stage for decades of heroes to come.
Most of us are at least passingly familiar with DC’s A-list, but what about the rest? To get you started with the publisher’s best and most popular characters, we’ve put together a list of the top DC superheroes—including, we hope, some unexpected choices.
DC heroes: A definitive top 20 list
We’re excited for the upcoming Shazam movie to bring this character to a wider audience, because oh boy, Shazam is fun. Originating as a sincere and kid-friendly superhero called Captain Marvel (no relation to that Captain Marvel), he’s now more of a tongue-in-cheek comedy character: a colorful Superman type whose human alter-ego is a young boy named Billy Batson. Gifted with superpowers by a wizard, Billy transforms into Shazam by shouting a magic word, immediately gaining superpowers that include strength, speed, and the ability to control lightning.
Tuxedo-wearing magician Zatanna has the capacity to be funny, weird, and deeply charming, and while she mostly exists as a team player, she definitely deserves more solo comics. She’s a stage magician with real magical powers, and she’s appeared in an impressively diverse range of DC material since her creation in the 1960s: Justice League team comics, Batman: The Animated Series, and Neil Gaiman‘s Books of Magic series, to name a few.
Arguably the most famous gay superhero, Midnighter is an intentional parody of Batman, created for the adult-rated Wildstorm comic Stormwatch. When Wildstorm became an imprint of DC, he officially joined the DC universe, creating a rather unexpected overlap with the character who inspired him. In recent years, he’s even teamed up with Batman’s #1 sidekick Nightwing.
Armed with the ability to predict combat moves in advance, Midnighter is a hyper-violent action hero with no compunctions about killing his enemies. While recent comics portray him as a character, he started off as a member of the Authority team, which is led by his husband Apollo—a blond Superman analog.
Until recently, people saw Watchman as a separate entity from the main DC universe. But ever since the sequel comics began in 2016, Watchmen characters have become fair game for DC crossovers. Each of the main characters satirizes or criticizes mainstream superheroes in a different way, but Rorschach is perhaps the most cutting and memorable. As a street-level vigilante, he’s driven by an obsessive moral code to mete out retribution on anyone he decides is a criminal. And while he’s explicitly portrayed as a dangerous, bigoted figure, he still has an unironic fanbase in certain sections of superhero fandom. Did Watchmen’s social commentary backfire, or was this an inevitable outcome all along?
16) Big Barda
After Warner Bros. revealed that Ava DuVernay is developing a New Gods movie, everyone suddenly remembered how much they love Big Barda. Super-strong and ostentatiously costumed, she’s an alien from the planet Apokolips. She’s a key character in the New Gods space fantasy comics and is married to Mister Miracle. Her weapon, the Mega-Rod, provides endless source material for punchlines.
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15) Green Arrow
Best described as “What if Batman, but an archer?” Green Arrow found surprising success with the CW show Arrow, one of the longest-running superhero series on TV. Taking obvious cues from Robin Hood, he’s a vigilante hero who uses a bow and arrow to fight crime, helped along by the fact that his alter-ego, Oliver Queen, is a wealthy playboy.
While not exactly gifted with the most imaginative name, Cyborg is a beloved character thanks to his role as a core member of the Teen Titans and Justice League. His super-strength and cybernetic weapons have a tragic origin story, though: He only became a cyborg after surviving a terrible accident, forcing his scientist father to save him using prosthetic limbs and implants.
As a cat burglar and femme fatale, Catwoman is one of Batman’s most famous antagonists—and an occasional love-interest. Although she’s generally portrayed as a villain, she’s not actually evil, and she sometimes steps across the line to become one of Batman’s allies.
Superhero comics being what they are, most female characters wear skin-tight costumes and get drawn in weirdly sexualized poses. However, Catwoman is one of the few for whom performative sexuality is an intentional aspect of her role. This sometimes leads to insultingly exploitative depictions (shout out to the Halle Berry movie), but plenty of creators get the balance right. Michelle Pfeiffer and Eartha Kitt created iconic depictions onscreen, and Catwoman maintains a timeless appeal as a woman who takes what she wants and doesn’t care what other people think.
Supergirl’s role overlaps a lot with Superman, and that’s just fine. She represents a kind of cheerful, optimistic heroism that’s rare in modern superhero media, and her ongoing TV show celebrates that legacy. It may actually be a better adaptation of the Superman mythos than the Justice League movie franchise, benefiting from a healthy dose of family-friendly feminist themes. As for her role in the comics, Supergirl’s vintage back-catalog includes some delightfully wacky storylines, like that one storyline where her horse turns into a dude and they fall in love.
11) Swamp Thing
While he isn’t exactly a spandex-and-superpowers kind of character, Swamp Thing definitely qualifies as a hero. Appearing as a sentient creature made from swamp-matter, he exists in the middle of a Venn diagram between classic monster movies, environmental commentary, and the fantasy side of the DC universe. If that sounds intriguing, we recommend starting with the 1980s Swamp Thing Vol. 2, when Alan Moore revitalized the character with a new origin story and a darker tone. Oh, and there’s a live-action TV show on the way at the DC Universe streaming service!
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10) Batgirl/Barbara Gordon
As the daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon and protégé of Bruce Wayne, Barbara Gordon is one of the most influential members of the Bat-family. She was the original Batgirl, changing her callsign to Oracle after the Joker infamously broke her spine in The Killing Joke. It’s a dark and controversial moment in Batman canon, but it led to a unique recovery arc for Barbara, as she forged a new role for herself as the information center of Batman’s team. Since she’s one of the only superheroes to use a wheelchair, fans weren’t universally happy when DC rebooted her to her pre-Killing Joke state as Batgirl in 2011.
9) Dick Grayson/Nightwing
Dick Grayson began his life as the original Robin, a young orphan who grew up in a family of circus acrobats. As the quintessential sidekick, his early years were characterized by the Boy Wonder moniker and “Holy smokes!” one-liners in the 1960s Batman show. Then, his role went in a decidedly unexpected direction. After the influential Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline of the mid-1980s, Dick Grayson struck out alone as the superhero Nightwing, a charming vigilante who evolved into a senior member of the Bat-family. And, let’s be real, he became a sex symbol for many DC fans. Dick also replaced Bruce Wayne as Batman for a while, but for the most part, he’s now known as Nightwing.
8) The Flash
Gifted with super-speed, we’ve seen four Flashes so far, with Barry Allen and Wally West as the most well-known. Often playing a comedic role in contrast to the more serious members of the Justice League, the Flash isn’t necessarily the coolest DC hero, but he’s certainly got staying power. And thanks to the TV show on the CW, Barry Allen is now a familiar face outside his original audience of comics fans.
7) Batwoman/Kate Kane
Batwoman has a rather ironic origin story, given her later role in the comics. She first appeared as Batman’s love interest in the 1950s, shortly after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, a book that accused Batman of homosexual propaganda. In recent years she was rewritten to be gay herself, a controversial decision that led to some problems of its own. While her comic’s creators wanted her to marry her girlfriend, DC nixed the decision by saying heroes “shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” a dubious statement that sounds pretty ridiculous in the context of, say, Superman. Despite all this, she’s undoubtedly the most high-profile lesbian superhero around, with a key role in the Bat-family. She’ll also make her live-action TV debut in December 2018, played by Ruby Rose.
As a dude who can talk to fish and hangs out in the lost city of Atlantis, Aquaman is one of the goofier members of the Justice League. Introduced in 1941 as the son of a human explorer who discovers Atlantis, he’s an old-school fantasy/action hero whose early years are undeniably silly by modern standards—not exactly an unusual trait for a Silver Age superhero. In recent years his comics have taken a more serious tone, setting the scene Jason Momoa’s role in the Justice League movie franchise.
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5) Harley Quinn
OK, so it’s a little sneaky to put Harley on a list of heroes rather than villains, but isn’t that just her style? Originally written in as the Joker’s long-suffering girlfriend in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has since become one of DC’s most popular characters—perhaps the most popular behind Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. With a devil-may-care attitude and a quirky sense of humor, she’s DC’s answer to Deadpool. And yes, she does sometimes act as a hero, albeit a morally ambiguous one.
4) Green Lantern
Which Green Lantern, you might well ask? Several characters have used the pseudonym since Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern, arrived in 1940. Not to mention all the supporting members of the intergalactic police force known as the Green Lantern Corps.
For the purposes of this list, we’re declaring it a tie between Hal Jordan (perhaps the best-known Lantern) and John Stewart. Hal is a fighter pilot turned superhero, imbued with superpowers thanks to the quasi-magical Green Lantern ring. He has the dubious honor of appearing in the terrible Green Lantern movie starring Ryan Reynolds, while John Stewart (arguably DC’s first Black superhero) is a military veteran, initially introduced as a backup Green Lantern before taking center stage in his own comics.
Suave detective, gothic hero, lovable dad, gritty action star, this guy has done it all. Batman gets revamped every few years, meaning that (much like Captain America) he means different things to different people. For some, he’s a hypermasculine antihero. For others, he’s the charming father-figure of the animated series or the awkward romantic lead of Tim Burton’s Batman. This flexibility is the key to his longevity, coupled with his unforgettable Bat-inspired style, that is.
2) Wonder Woman
A literal goddess. A feminist icon, to the extent that when her solo movie came out in 2017, people debated whether it somehow “failed” because she couldn’t represent every feminist viewpoint on Earth. (She obviously can’t, but that’s kind of the point.) Created in 1941 as a unique combination of utopian hero and fetish character, her long career covers everything from Greek mythology to political allegory to conventional superhero team adventures. She’s also canonically queer—something it took DC Comics several decades to admit out loud.
The one, the only, the ultimate. Look, do you seriously think we’d publish a list of DC superheroes and not put Superman up top? There are definite arguments to be made for the other two members of DC’s Big Three, but Superman remains the quintessential superhero, inspiring countless later additions to the genre.
While Batman is the king of reinvention, Superman has remained surprisingly close to his original schtick from 1938: a wholesome hero with an indefatigable moral core and a goofy sense of humor. He’s a symbol of hope and heroism worldwide, with no sign of losing popularity as the years wear on.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor