DC’s 23 finest characters

As heroes and villains flock to London for an exhibition at The O2, here's one writer's choice of DC's finest character...

DC Comics has given us many great characters over the years. And since their humble beginnings amongst those primary coloured panels and pages, these loveable heroes and loathe-able villains have grown to gargantuan levels of cultural significance. They’ve spread their (sometimes literal) wings to conquer TV sets, multiplexes, games consoles and toy boxes the world over.

And now, with these iconic characters in residence at The O2 in London until September 9 for a massive exhibition (you can find ticket details right here), one nerdy journalist has been tasked with picking 23 of his favourites. Read on to see which characters I chose, and feel free to head to the comments afterwards to share your personal rundown of favourite DC characters…

23. Deathstroke

Deathstroke, aka Slade Wilson, first showed up in comic book form in The New Teen Titans, way back in 1980. He’s a villainous mercenary who loves a big sword. Despite originally being intended as the archenemy of the Titans, he went on cause trouble for Batman and Green Arrow as well.

Over the last few years, Deathstroke has slashed and shot his way into other forms of media in a big bad way. He had significant roles to play in two of the Arkham games, transitioned from villain to antihero in Arrow (played by Manu Bennett), and popped up very briefly at the end of the Justice League movie (played by Joe Manganiello).

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22. Black Canary

Dating all the way back to an issue of Flash Comics from 1947, Black Canary was one of the first female superheroes to grace the pages of DC Comics. She’s been a member of the Justice League and a love interest for Green Arrow, as well as being an ass-kicking vigilante in her own right – complete with sonic screaming powers.

Black Canary has become a major part of the Arrow TV series over the last few years, with numerous characters (played by Caity Lotz, Katie Cassidy and Juliana Harkavy) taking up the mantle at different points. Black Canary has also showed up in numerous animated shows and the videogame Injustice 2.

21. Martian Manhunter

Martian Manhunter (aka J’onn J’onzz) is a big deal in DC Comics lore. He date back to 1955, and was one of the original founder members of the Justice League of America. He heralds from Mars, as you might have guessed, and has natty shape-shifting powers.

He may not have the household name factor of the other founding Justice League members, but live-action TV appearances (he’s played by David Harewood in Supergirl and Phil Morris in Smallville) have kept J’onn on the geek radar. And here’s a fun fact for you: Martian Manhunter would have appeared in George Miller’s Justice League film, played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, if that movie had ever been made.

20. The Riddler

Batman has more awesome adversaries than the rest of DC’s heroes – even if they combined their rogue’s galleries, they wouldn’t get close. Edward Nygma, aka The Riddler, is a prime example of the colourful kind of nut-job that makes Bruce Wayne’s life in Gotham a living hell. His indecipherable clues, garish outfits and flair for theatrical combine to make a truly iconic menace.

Countless iterations of the Riddler have appeared on our screens over the years, including Frank Gorshin and Cory Michael Smith’s TV versions and Jim Carrey’s flamboyant film translation from Batman Forever. Riddler’s infuriating appearances in the Arkham games also live long in the memory.

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19. John Constantine

The John-Constantine-starring Hellblazer series was the longest-running and most successful title on DC’s darker Vertigo imprint, which proves just how popular this Liverpudlian occult detective has become since his debut in 1984. An expert in the mystic arts, Constantine is often seen mixing with Swamp Thing, Deadman and Zatanna as a member of the Justice League Dark.

Keanu Reeves played the character in 2005’s Constantine movie, but in more recent years Matt Ryan has become synonymous with the role. Ryan played the lead in NBC’s short-lived Constantine series, before pivoting onto The CW for appearances on Arrow and Legends Of Tomorrow. If that DCEU Justice League Dark movie ever happens, though, we’d expect another recasting.

18. Two-Face

Here’s another truly iconic character from Batman’s laundry list of enemies. His origin story is a classic: Harvey Dent was a well-respect district attorney before he received horrific scarring and suffered a serious mental break, which transformed him into the conflicted crook Two-Face. Since his debut in 1942, this character has returned countless times to plague Gotham’s Dark Knight with his unpredictable villainy.

Fittingly enough, the character can be read in two ways when it comes to adaptations: you can either go silly with it (see: Tommy Lee-Jones in Batman Forever or Billy Dee Williams in The LEGO Batman Movie) or take it very seriously indeed (see: Aaron Eckhart’s incredible performance in The Dark Knight, or the gripping downfall explored in Batman: The Telltale Series).

17. Jason Todd

Sometimes in comics, it can feel like characters never really progress after their origin stories. An exception to that rule is Jason Todd, who was introduced as a replacement Robin in 1983, only to be killed off by a reader poll in 1988. He returned with a vengeance in 2005, reborn as the Red Hood, a brutal antihero that doesn’t share in Batman’s ‘no killing’ rule.

Thanks to this tumultuous tale, which veers away from the clichéd routes of comic book heroes, Jason Todd has become one of the most memorable DC characters. His death was alluded to in Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, and explored in detail in the animated film Under The Red Hood and the videogame Arkham Knight.

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16. Bane

It’s rare that a villain mixes incredible strength and genius-level smarts without feeling over-powered, but Bane is one of the few that can pull it off. Having first appeared in 1993, Bane is one of the newer characters on this list – but due his unmistakable frame and that memorable ‘break the bat’ moment, he has risen to iconic levels regardless of his relative newness.

Of course, Tom Hardy’s endlessly impersonated turn in The Dark Knight Rises did a lot to make Bane a household name. Some strong imagery and a unique raised-in-prison origin story helped, as well. Thanks to all of that, it’s easy to forget that a naff version of Bane – played by Robert Swenson – appeared in Batman & Robin back in 1997.

15. Aquaman

Another founder member of the Justice League, Aquaman (aka Arthur Curry), first splashed onto the pages of DC Comics in 1941. Although he has often been the butt of jokes, this oceanic icon is still a favourite among many fans. Aquaman uses telepathy to control aquatic life, and he also has super strength and wields a powerful trident.

Adaptations can go either way. Some lean into the laughs (see: the singing Aquaman from Batman: The Brave & The Bold), while others attempt to make Arthur Curry more edgy. Currently, the tattooed Jason Momoa iteration of the character is popping up all over the DCEU: he cameo-debuted in Batman V Superman before appearing properly in Justice League. A solo movie helmed by James Wan is coming soon.

14. Green Arrow

A founder Justice League member who debuted in 1941, the Green Arrow (aka Oliver Queen) is one of DC’s oldest icons. It’s a testament to the character’s longevity that Stephen Amell is six seasons into playing him on The CW’s Arrow series, and shows no signs of slowing down. That’s not bad going for a hero whose only superpower is some top-notch archery skills.

The simplicity of the character makes him very easy to adapt. The one-armed, washed-up Oliver seen in The Dark Knight Returns comics springs instantly to mind, as does Amell’s ever-versatile iteration, and Justin Hartley’s teen-skewed Smallville version. The character has yet to grace a live-action movie, although David S. Goyer did attempt to get one made back in 2008 – it would’ve had a prison setting, and the title Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max.

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13. Catwoman

Speaking of versatile characters, here’s one that can be a superhero, a supervillain or a super-love-interest – or, quite often, a combination of all three. Catwoman (real name Selina Kyle) dates back to 1940, and is one of the most enduring characters in the DC mythos. She began as a simple cat burglar, but went on to have one of the most complex on-going relationships in comics.

Catwoman became an iconic in the 1960s, thanks in no small part to Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt – who played the role alongside Adam West’s Batman. Michelle Pfeiffer embodied an edgier version in Batman Returns in 1992, before Halle Berry portrayed an oddly-unlike-the-comics iteration in 2004’s Catwoman. Anne Hathaway restored the character’s respectability in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, and Camren Bicondova is doing fine work as a young Selina over on Gotham right now. The Arkham and Telltale games have also told fun Catwoman stories recently.

12. Dick Grayson

Much like Jason Todd, Dick Grayson is a great example of one of those rare comic book characters that is actually allowed to grow. He may have started out as a circus orphan/Boy Wonder upon his debut in 1940, but he went on to become a vigilante in his own right. He took on the name Nightwing in 1984 and moved out of Batman’s shadow, relocating from Gotham to Blüdhaven.

The Robin version of the character has been seen plenty of times on screen, most memorably played by Burt Ward (alongside Adam West), Chris O’Donnell (alongside Val Kilmer and George Clooney) and Michael Cera (alongside Will Arnett’s LEGO Batman). Thanks to his colourful cape, scrappy personality and close proximity to Batman, the Dick Grayson Robin has become one of the great icons of the DC brand.

However, outside of the animated realm, we’ve yet to see Nightwing on screen. That will hopefully change soon, though: Brenton Thwaites will play Dick Grayson in a Titans live-action series for DC’s upcoming streaming service, and The LEGO Batman Movie’s Chris McKay is working on a live-action Nightwing movie.

11. Lex Luthor

One of the finest villains ever invented, Lex Luthor first graced the pages of DC Comics in 1940. The shiny-headed archenemy of Superman is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable comic book characters in DC’s impressive arsenal. And he has achieved that status without a single superpower. He’s rich, and he hates Supes – what more do you need?

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Manifold actors have played the role of Lex across movies, TV shows and videogames, but Gene Hackman’s real-estate-obsessed version from the Christopher Reeve movies remains the most iconic. Jesse Eisenberg tried his best in Batman V Superman, but really he needs to be in a better movie if he wants to stake the claim of being the definitive Lex Luthor.

Michael Rosenbaum’s Smallville version lives long in the memory, as well. And, interestingly, across those three live-action adaptations, none have worn the green ‘war suit’ that Lex regularly dons in the comics. Go figure!

10. Green Lantern

Hal Jordan, the most famous character to hold the title of Green Lantern, is another founder member of the comic book Justice League. Hal dates back to 1959, although the concept of Green Lanterns first appeared in 1940. Hal is an aircraft pilot who gained a Green Lantern ring, and all the powers that come with it. He usually protects the sector of space that houses Earth.

Hal Jordan’s Green Latnern is one of the most popular comic book heroes ever created, but he’s struggled to break into the live-action blockbuster realm. Ryan Reynolds played the role in the 2011 Green Lantern movie, but poor reviews and underwhelming box office returns put paid to its planned sequels. Years later, Reynolds would mock his Green Lantern days in Fox/Marvel’s Deadpool.

But still, there is hope that Hal Jordan can make a comeback on the big screen. A Green Lantern Corps movie has been part of the DCEU slate for years, with a 2020 release date that’s inching ever closer. Last year’s Justice League movie included a brief cameo from an unknown Lantern, which might be enough to tide fans over.

9. Barbara Gordon

To go back to the idea of characters that develop and grow, few have done that in the DC Comics universe quite as much as Barbara Gordon. The daughter of Gotham’s iconic Commissioner Gordon started out as a minor supporting character, before becoming Batgirl. But in The Killing Joke, she was crippled by a shot from The Joker. She went on to become Oracle, Batman’s behind-the-scenes tech genius. In recent years, she was healed and returned to active duty as Batgirl.

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Barbara’s journey, particularly the Killing Joke bit, has translated from comics into various other media. There was an animated movie in 2016, and a subplot in the Arkham Knight videogame. And in terms of live action, Dina Meyer played Barbara in Birds Of Prey and Yvonne Craig played her in the Adam West series.

Last year, it was announced that Joss Whedon is writing and directing a Batgirl movie. Who will star in it, and which piece of the story it will tell, remains to be seen.

8. General Zod

General Zod works so wonderfully as villain because he is the utter antithesis of Superman. Both men were born of Krypton, but their views couldn’t be further apart. While Supes strives to protect Earth, Zod yearns to rule it. Zod first appeared in the comics in 1961, and he went on to become a true cultural icon.

Terrence Stamp’s performance from Superman and Superman II, and the unforgettable ‘kneel before Zod’ line, ensured that this villain will be a part of the cultural conversation of pop culture for all time. As much as we love Gene Hackman’s Lex, we’d argue that Stamp’s Zod is just that smidge more memorable.

Other actors have tried to follow in Stamp’s footsteps – Michael Shannon played the role in Man Of Steel, Callum Blue appeared as Major Zod in Smallville, and Mark Gibbon played a hallucinated vision of Zod in Supergirl season 2. However, Stamp’s iteration remains definitive.

7. Supergirl

Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl, first appeared in the comics in 1959. She had an iconic death in Crisis On Infinite Earths in 1985, but came back again in 2004. As the cousin of Superman, she has all the same powers: flight, heat vision, freeze breath, and X-ray vision. She also has the same weaknesses: Kryptonite, and suns that aren’t yellow.

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Helen Slater portrayed Supergirl in a 1984 film of the same name, and Laura Vandervoort played the role in Smallville. However, it is Melissa Benoist’s take on the character – from the Supergirl series on The CW – that has boosted Kara to a huge position in global pop culture.

Benoist’s performance embodies the hope that comes with that blue and red costume, acting as a beacon of light in an ever-more-gritty TV landscape. If you’re not watching that show, you really should!

6. Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn is a cultural phenomenon. Margot Robbie’s performance in Suicide Squad sent the already-popular character into supernova, with talk of solo movies, spinoffs and sequels rapidly following the film’s release. Interestingly enough, though, Harley is one of the newest characters on this list.

She made her debut in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, and the comics soon followed suit. Seeing the popularity of the character that Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created for the animated realm, DC introduced a comic book version of Harley in 1993. But what makes this character so great?

Perhaps Harley is so popular because she is the sort of deranged psychopath comic book character that is normally reserved for the male gender. Or maybe it’s something to do with her sweet-yet-sinister infatuation with the Joker. Either way, Harley is here to stay.

5. The Flash

His name is Barry Allen, and he is the fastest man alive. Although he wasn’t the first DC character to go by the moniker The Flash (that would be Jay Garrick), Barry Allen is by far the most iconic incarnation of the scarlet speedster. He debuted in 1956 and was a founder member of the Justice League. He was involved in numerous massive storylines, including Crisis On Infinite Earths and Flashpoint.

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John Wesley Shipp played Barry Allen in CBS’ 1990 TV series The Flash. Grant Gustin then played Barry Allen in The CW’s 2014 TV series, also called The Flash, with Shipp in the cast as his dad. And in Batman V Superman and Justice League, Ezra Miller was established as the DCEU’s version of Barry Allen. Gustin’s series is still going (with the current season moving away, finally, from the ‘speedster villain’ formula) and Miller is getting a solo movie soon (although it’s yet to nail down a director).

Barry Allen works well as a character for numerous reasons. His day job as a forensic scientist means he’s always close to the action, and his super-speedy skillset creates all manner of storytelling possibilities (including time travel and alternate dimensions). Geoff Johns’ 2009 run in the comics also set some vital new groundwork, establishing a tragic backstory involving Barry’s mother.

4. Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, aka Princess Diana of Themyscira, has been a huge part of pop culture since her debut in the comics in 1941. As a founder member Justice League member and one of the first female superheroes, there is no doubting her credentials. And in terms of cool stuff, she has her Amazon heritage, her Lasso of Truth, those bullet-deflecting bracelets, a shiny shield, and sometimes an invisible jet.

Also, Wonder Woman has been hugely successful outside of the comics. Lynda Carter’s portrayal in the 1970s TV show put the character on the global pop culture map. After that, there were a few failed attempts to relaunch the character in live-action: Adrianne Palicki had a TV pilot, and Megan Gale was cast in Miller’s later-ditched Justice League Mortal movie.

And then came Gal Gadot. Bursting onto the scene as Diana would smash through a wall, with that scene-stealing debut in Batman V Superman. The Wonder Woman solo movie that followed earned critical praise and loads of dosh, cementing Gadot’s Diana as the crown jewel of the DCEU. She even managed to make Justice League watchable.

3. Superman

Call him Superman. Call him Clark Kent. Call him Kal-El. Just don’t call him late for dinner! The Big Blue Boy Scout was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster back in 1933. They sold the character to DC in 1938, and a truly global pop culture icon was born. That crest – whether it means ‘hope’ or just ‘S’ – is recognised everywhere. You know his powers. You know his backstory. Everybody does.

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In terms of representation on screen, Christopher Reeve’s performance is held in the highest regard. He’s so pure and perfect in the role that it’s easy to look past some of the less-than-perfect films he was in. Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill and Tyler Hoechlin all have their moments in their respective performances, but Reeve is still the man you think of when you try to picture Supes.

Superman has such a stronghold on his position in our culture that even a shoddy movie, with a dodgy spot of CGI moustache-removal, can’t hold him down. Here’s hoping for another standalone Superman movie in the next few years.

2. Batman

The Last Son Of Krypton is just as famous as any other character ever invented, but he doesn’t have the angst-fuelled cool that defines Gotham’s Dark Knight. Batman lives in the shadows, he sleeps upside down, and his silhouette strikes fear into the hearts of even the most hardened criminals. He has wonderful toys, he has a put-upon butler, and he has a car that chicks dig.

The ‘who’s the best Batman?’ question isn’t an easy one to answer. Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Adam West and Ben Affleck have all done good work in the role, and even George Clooney and Val Kilmer didn’t manage to completely kill the character. And then there’s Kevin Conroy, whose voice was the perfect match for Batman and Bruce Wayne in countless animated productions and a handful of brilliant videogames. And young David Mazouz has done some great stuff on Gotham. No single actor defines Batman the way Reeve does Superman.

That’s why, at this stage, it isn’t even important whether Ben Affleck is sticking around for The Batman, or if director Matt Reeves is bringing in someone new for his upcoming solo movie. Either way, the Bat-symbol will live on, and we’ll keep showing up at the cinema to buy our tickets.

1. The Joker

The Joker is truly unique among DC characters. While everyone else on this list has an origin story you can look up – a simple history that you can find on Google – this chap doesn’t. His past is multiple choice. If you wanna know how he got those scars, he’ll spin you a tale that may or may not have some truth in it.

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The madcap nature of the Joker allows him to be read in totally disparate ways. Jack Nicholson played him as a vengeful mob member who liked to dance around galleries and improve the paintings. Heath Ledger portrayed a true wildcard, who would kill his entire crew and burn a stack of money because he wanted to watch the world burn. And Jared Leto gave us a glittery gangster covered in tattoos, with a sadistic streak and an obsessive other half. From the costume to the personality, every inch of this character – save a bit of makeup – can be rewritten to suit the story being told.

This is how it works in the comics, too: one week the Joker could be crippling a young woman to try and drive her cop dad insane, on another, he might be wielding laughing fish as a weapon. His actions are unpredictable. He is an agent of chaos unlike any other tool in the box. And, I’d argue, that’s why he’s the best DC character. Feel free to leave your own thoughts below…