Narrowing down a list of the best Marvel characters ever from the comic book publisher’s always expanding universe of over 8,000 unique characters is a tough job.
And though such a list may always come down to a matter of opinion, perhaps the toughest part of ranking the best Marvel Comics characters of all time is establishing a set of criteria that transcends taste to include a given character’s importance to the Marvel Universe, their popularity among fans as well as creators, and perhaps most importantly, the stories they’ve been featured in.
What follows is Newsarama’s ranking of the best Marvel Comics characters ever – including some who will likely be your personal favorites, and some who may surprise you.
Ultimately, this is merely Newsarama’s opinion – and we look forward to you sharing your own list of the best Marvel Comics characters of all time with us on Twitter (opens in new tab) and Facebook (opens in new tab).
10. Black Panther
First appearance: Fantastic Four #52 (opens in new tab) (1966)
Recommended reading: Best Black Panther comics
The Black Panther is a different brand of superhero than most because he not only wears a heroic mantle, but also a crown; a crown that carries with it the weight of an entire nation. And, we’re not being colorblind here – he’s not white like most comic book heroes then (and now).
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in what later Marvel staffers said was an effort to feature Black superheroes in an era in which that was rare, the Black Panther was also an outsider to the Fantastic Four (and even the Avengers) and carried a dignified exoticism and connections to a near-mythical country that was refined and more technologically advanced than modern humanity at the time.
But through works like recent stories by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and John Ridley with artists including Brian Stelfreeze, the Black Panther has grown into a complex, multi-faceted hero who struggles to be a better version of himself – and it’s T’Challa’s willingness to embrace and learn from his failures that sets him apart from many other ultra-competent heroes with all the resources in the world.
The Black Panther sits in a unique place at Marvel – as the king of a nation who has recently realized that his own monarchy is at odds with democracy and the equal rights of his subjects, but who is still trying to find better ways to contribute to his home nation and Marvel’s world at large.
First appearance: The Incredible Hulk #180 (opens in new tab) (1974)
Recommended reading: Best Wolverine comics
Wolverine is the ultimate brooding loner. Combine that with a gritty tenacity and knives on (and in!) his hands, and you have a unique superhero cut from a very different cloth than those who came before him – who has carved himself a niche that countless characters have since tried to occupy.
Wolverine entered the Marvel Universe like a classic Clint Eastwood western character – as a mysterious stranger who rides into town; short on words, long on violence. That profile has propagated an intense mystery about his past that continues to deepen even as creators try to fill in the blank pages of his history.
And again, he’s got knives on his hands – and it’s actually cool, despite how silly the idea sounds on its face.
Wolverine’s catchphrase is ‘The best there is at what he does.’ And that’s proven to be true, over and over again as imitators, variants, and clones (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally) come and go.
First appearance: The Savage She-Hulk #1 (opens in new tab) (1980)
Recommended reading: She-Hulk by Soule & Pulido: The Complete Collection (opens in new tab)
She-Hulk began comic book life as a way for Marvel to protect its turf. Originally a female knockoff of her famous cousin Bruce Banner AKA the Hulk, Jennifer Walters was created by Marvel to establish ownership of a female Hulk before CBS could create their own version as part of its then-contemporary Incredible Hulk TV show.
But she quickly became more than a way to establish ownership of the concept in-house, eventually surpassing many of the most intrinsic qualities that make the original Hulk a great character himself – the juxtaposition of strength, anger, and the duality between the human being and rampaging monster.
She-Hulk was also Deadpool before there was a Deadpool – a hyper-aware, sometimes metatextual, fourth-wall-breaking character who can fit in alongside other mainstream heroes without skipping a beat.
From the novel idea of a lawyer specializing in superhero law to a successful businesswoman dealing with the realities (and fiction) of controlling (or not controlling) her anger issues, She-Hulk isn’t a cliché or an archetype, which makes her one of top (eighth-best, actually) characters in the Marvel U.
7. The Thing
First appearance: The Fantastic Four #1 (opens in new tab) (1961)
Recommended reading: Fantastic Four #51 (opens in new tab) (1966)
The Thing is the heart of the Marvel Universe. That’s right, beneath that orange, craggy exterior and gruff demeanor lies a wounded, underdog soul that was emblematic of the Marvel Universe in its earliest years. Unlike the Marvel we all know today, in the early ’60s it was a more upstart publisher with dogged perseverance and individualistic spirit that made it stand out in the crowd. Yup, just like Big ‘ol Ben.
Unlike many powerhouses like Thor, Captain Marvel, and DC’s Superman who are also easy on the eye, the superhuman strength that allows the Thing to trade punches with gods like Galactic comes with the price of a giant, lumbering, monster-like appearance. And that steep price has driven some of the greatest Marvel stories of all time like the classic ‘This Man, This Monster.’
But underneath his literally gruff exterior, Ben has the proverbial heart of gold, and it’s the display of his human qualities – like playing pranks on Johnny Storm or his fierce loyalty to best friend Reed Richards – that contrast with his appearance and makes the Thing so endearing and enduring.
Ben fits in the tapestry of the Marvel Universe like one of those patchwork pieces of his rock-like skin. And readers who were alive during the ’70s know he along with Spider-Man were the face of Marvel during that decade. But even today the Thing is a keystone – the one piece in the proverbial arch that is the Marvel Universe that makes everything and everyone else around him work better.
First appearance: Invincible Iron Man #55 (opens in new tab) (1973)
Recommended reading: The Infinity Gauntlet (opens in new tab) (1991)
Thanos is the kind of character that can be (and probably is) a case study in a college psychology class. Inspired by the Greek god Thanatos and a heaping helping of Jack Kirby’s New Gods (particularly Metron and Darkseid), Thanos’ beginnings were humble (a throwaway Iron Man villain on a janky helicopter) but he developed and grew in stature through stories in Captain Marvel, Warlock, and Silver Surfer series to eventually reach his ultimate destiny in the seminal 1991 Marvel Comics event The Infinity Gauntlet.
Birthed of regret and raised with animosity, the grown-up Thanos has an obsession with death (both the lower-case death and the actual Marvel entity Death) which has led him on a single-minded crusade for order – his order – in the Marvel Universe, often leading to body counts in the millions.
All that power, it fits like a glove … or gauntlet … in this case.
Since then, Thanos has been Marvel’s ultimate bad guy. Creator Jim Starlin and subsequent writers like Jonathan Hickman, Jason Aaron, Donny Cates, and Kieron Gillen have made him more than just a Jaws-like force of nature, adding depth and pathos — while still keeping his proverbial teeth sharp and menacing.
With his MCU role culminating in Avengers: Endgame, Thanos has reached an even higher level of stature to become one of the most iconic villains, and even, we daresay characters – good or evil – in all of popular fiction.
First appearance: Giant-Size X-Men #1 (opens in new tab) (1975)
Recommended reading: X-Men: Lifedeath (opens in new tab)
Strong women have been a mainstay of Marvel Comics – particularly in the X-Men – and Storm, without a doubt, is one of the strongest and hardest to break. Born in Harlem but forced to raise herself as a street thief in Egypt after becoming an orphan, she made a path for herself that included titles like a goddess, X-Men member, X-Men leader, queen of Wakanda, and now the ruler of Mars.
While her mutant ability to control the weather is a pivotal part of her, thanks to the writers and artists that have added layers to her character, it’s Storm the woman and her often dueling qualities of tenacity, anger, forgiveness, and compassion that have forged her into a titan of modern fiction and cemented her into the bedrock foundation of Marvel Comics most important characters.
4. Captain America
First appearance: Captain America Comics #1 (opens in new tab) (1941)
Recommended reading: Best Captain America comics
Captain America is a quintessential part of the Marvel Universe, but it took decades for him to reach that potential.
One of the dozens of flag-waving patriotic superheroes created during the early ’40s during Second World War, it wasn’t until the early 60s when he was thawed from an icy tomb in a story by Stan Lee and his co-creator Jack Kirby in an Avengers story that he started on the path to become who he is today.
In that era he became an anachronistic version of Americana, battling the dark turns America can take. He wasn’t the first US patriotic hero that carried a shield, but it’s those more modern stories that made everyone forget who the other guy was (Archie Comics’ The Shield, by the way, created months before Captain America).
Although not a founding member of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, he quickly became the face of the team which for many readers added to his profile as the classical heroic ideal for Marvel’s brand of superheroes.
Chris Evans’ portrayal of Cap in MCU films over 60 years after the character’s creation only raised his stature further. While comic book Captain America is still as young and vital as always, Evan’s live-action Cap will cast a shadow over the MCU for years to come, as evidenced by 2021’s The Falcon & Winter Soldier Disney Plus streaming series and lingering rumors of Evan’s return in some form or another.
Captain America is not just a flagbearer for the United States, but for Marvel Comics as well – and that’s something even fans that aren’t from the US can (and do) appreciate.
3. Kitty Pryde
First appearance: Uncanny X-Men #129 (opens in new tab) (1980)
Recommended reading: Uncanny X-Men #143 (opens in new tab) (1981)
The X-Men are amazing – uncanny, even – but it wasn’t until Kitty Pryde entered the picture that readers gained a real perspective of how uncanny. Created as a ‘girl next door’/grounded character in the original Chris Claremont/John Byrne era, Shadowcat was a hit character from the start – and she only got better over the years.
The secret? Unlike many young comic book heroes, she was allowed to grow up, and all of us readers could grow up with her.
Kitty Pryde is one of the few characters that have significantly grown, matured, and evolved over the years – from a fresh-faced early teens student to a full-on adult team leader today. Even while she was in her teens and early adulthood, readers met hardened versions of her such as ‘Days of Future Past (opens in new tab)‘s Kate Pryde and Excalibur’s Widget. But she also grew up for real in such touchstone series as Kitty Pryde: Agent of SHIELD, Mechanix, and especially the current Marauders ongoing.
Of all the mutant characters, Kitty Pryde has proven to be the most human when it comes to evolution and growth, And that doesn’t just make it stand out among her fellow X-Men, but among the entire Marvel Comics pantheon as well.
2. Doctor Doom
First appearance: Fantastic Four #5 (opens in new tab) (1962)
Recommended reading: Doctor Doom: The Book of Doom omnibus (opens in new tab)
There’s a common adage in fiction writing that also applies to life that villains think of themselves as the hero of their own story. That their motivations are noble and just even if the world sees them as misguided or evil.
For Marvel Comics, there’s no better example of the nobility of villainy than Doctor Doom.
Like most of Marvel’s greatest characters, Victor Von Doom has a tragic origin story – but whereas so many of Marvel’s best characters overcame their tragedies to become superheroes, Doom took a different route.
While his descent into supervillainy is a thorn in the side of most of the Marvel Universe, Doom is not without a sense of honor and watching a complex, flawed, but at times noble and sometimes even regal character evolve, grow, and become steeled like the armor he wears is one of Marvel’s greatest literary achievements.
Whether it’s fighting the Fantastic Four, Luke Cage, or the entire Marvel Multiverse, Doom is always the star (if not hero) of his own story – no matter whose logo is on the cover.
First appearance: Amazing Fantasy #15 (opens in new tab) (1962)
Recommended reading: Best Spider-Man comics
Spider-Man redefined what a superhero could be, and although many have followed in his footsteps, he’s still number one, definitively at Marvel and arguably anywhere else.
Spider-Man works because he’s the plucky undersized street-level teen underdog with a heart of gold – burdened with great regrets but gifted with an eternal desire to do better, for himself and others. In a world of mostly adult superheroes who seemingly have their life all figured out, Peter Parker works because whether as a teen or young adult, he’s both who we all are and some of us want to be – flawed but trying, always punching upward and reaching a hand to help those who need it.
Add to it his quirky but mesmerizing costume design by Steve Ditko and the nearly-trademark ways he and his powers are visually depicted in comic books (and later in television, film, and video games), what you have is not just one of the world’s most famous superheroes, but one of the most unique characters in modern fiction of any medium.
So why is Spider-Man deserving of being not just on a list of Marvel’s best characters but alone on the top spot?
Because what Ditko and Stan Lee created back in 1962 is constantly being fine-tuned, revisited, and remade in a way that keeps him current yet classic. Today you can still tell a Spider-Man story about the awkward teen learning to exist in a world of adult superheroes and villains, while also telling a story about the Peter Parker who’s been married and a father, or a corporate CEO, or in the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the MCU’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, a mentor to a younger Spider-Man.
Spidey is Marvel’s best character because he was, and is, and probably always will be the most interesting character in any supervillain battle or superhero team-up, and his stories speak to the generations of comic readers who have grown up with him – and a generation that is growing up with him now.