Since the Golden Age of comics, the art form has imitated life. In January 1940, mere months after World War II began, Pep Comics debuted their first character: The Shield. The superhero, clad in red, white and blue, served as the predecessor to Captain America (Timely/Marvel Comics), Minute-Man (Fawcett/DC Comics) and Captain Battle (Silver Streak Comics). The art/life dynamic continued throughout the Silver Age, with the introduction of working-class superhero Spider-Man in 1963. Peter Parker earning an honest day’s pay at The Daily Bugle was a reflection of the economic expansion that occurred in the U.S. following the recession of 1960–1961. With their rise to the highest echelons of Hollywood, today’s superheroes have reached new heights of humaneness, complexity and ambiguity.
So to celebrate the release of the DC/Warner Bros. blockbuster Suicide Squad—where the bad guys are kinda good, but not really—here are nine characters (one for each member of the ‘Squad, not including the Joker) who embody one or more, or all, of these qualities.
When DC Comics introduced Superman to the world in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), it was the start of a long-standing love affair. As the archetypal superhero, the last son of Krypton has been heralded as the people’s champ for the majority of his 78-year existence. But in 2013’s Man of Steel, the character saw a change of pace when his good nature was called into question after the destruction of Metropolis. While the polarization is enough to land him on the list, it pales in comparison to the others on this list.
8. GREEN LANTERN
The original Green Lantern, Alan Scott, debuted in All-American Comics #16 in 1940 as a mystical ring-toting crime-fighter. Since then, the Green Lantern Corps has grown to over 7,200 members; most notably Hal Jordan in 1959, John Stewart—DC Comics’ first black superhero—in 1971 and Jessica Cruz in 2013. And while the eclectic blend of intergalactic police has a little something for everyone, the overcomplicated influx of superheroes makes way for an impersonal experience for the intimate reader.
7. JEAN GREY
There’s several dimensions to Jean Grey: There’s Marvel Girl, there’s Phoenix and there’s Dark Phoenix. In the X-Men film adaptations, she’s portrayed by Famke Janssen as a shy mutant with powers that exceed even those of Professor X. In the comic, she goes from the X-Men’s weakest member in her debut (The X-Men #1) to its most powerful during her transformation in the mid to late ’70s. She’s a woman who’s torn between her unstable temperament and her love for the nice guy and the bad boy.
6. THE HULK
The name speaks for itself. The larger-than-life figure, debuting in Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962), can grow up to eight feet tall and gain up to1,400 pounds of muscle. But underneath the green gun show is a man who is desperately trying to rid himself of his explosive alter ego. Whether it’s Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner seeking a cure for his gamma radiation exposure in The Incredible Hulk (2008) or Mark Ruffalo’s Banner confessing to a suicide attempt in The Avengers (2012), the jarring green giant poses the biggest threat to himself.
5. THE RED HOOD
In a perfect DC Universe, 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood would’ve been a tale of the maturation of Jason Todd. In reality, it’s a story of the second Robin’s rite of passage gone wrong. Turned into a murderous antihero by the Joker, Todd’s take on The Red Hood exemplifies DC’s nature of blurring the lines between good and evil.
4. IRON MAN
At a glance, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man seems like a one-note joke. Tony Stark, the pompous, promiscuous second-generation rich kid with a knack for engineering. But take a closer look and you realize that all the attitude is merely a coping mechanism for his missing family structure. This sentiment is introduced while Stark was being held captive with Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub) in a cave in Afghanistan in 2008’s Iron Man but doesn’t come full circle until 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. There is a story behind every mask. Even the iron ones.
Wolverine’s story is almost paradoxical: an immortal mutant who’s dying to make peace with his past. Hugh Jackman’s on-screen portrayal of Wolverine perfectly embodies the character’s catch phrase: “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.” And while Jackman is gearing up for his final go-round as James “Logan” Howlett in the upcoming Wolverine 3, much like the mutant himself, the inner torment of Wolverine will live on forever.
2. THE JOKER
The Joker is the archetypal supervillain. The quintessential evil genius. The yin to Batman’s yang. He made his debut in Batman #1 in 1940, but it wasn’t until Heath Ledger’s brilliant depiction in 2008’s The Dark Knight that the Clown Prince of Crime’s twisted sense of morality started to appeal to even the most loyal of Batman fans (myself included). Joker’s perverse logic comes in hot streaks like this one: “To them you’re just a freak—like me. They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out.” As the meme states: “Childhood is when you idolize Batman, adulthood is when you realize The Joker makes more sense.”
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Those words have served as Batman’s unofficial mission statement long before Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) uttered them to him (or Bruce Wayne, rather) in The Dark Knight. As a vigilante who was never fully embraced by the people he protects, Batman is the most multifaceted and controversial character in the history of comics. To some, he isn’t even a superhero. When Christian Bale’s Batman voluntarily takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s death in The Dark Knight, he tells Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman): “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.”