Not all heroes wear capes – and not all of them even have superpowers. In fact, some of the most well-known superheroes are technically powerless when it comes to their own physiology.
Okay, so what do we mean by “powerless”?
Do we mean a team like Batman and Robin (who just got wrapped up in a deadly mystery in the now launched ‘Shadow War’ event) both of whom are peak physical and mental specimens, but who possess no supernatural abilities?
Or do we mean a normal human (or even alien) like Iron Man that only exhibits extraordinary abilities by possessing special weapons, armor, or objects?
Both of these types of heroes made our list of the best powerless superheroes of all time.
Now, we don’t pretend the definition of powerless will be agreed upon by all, or that the inclusion of heroes like Iron Man and Green Lantern, both of whom can go toe-to-toe with any alien, god, monster, mutant, or human being physically altered by exposure to exotic radiation, won’t be subject to criticism or debate.
But we bet nobody can disagree with the character who tops the list as the greatest powerless superhero of all time.
Need a hint?
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10. The Bat-Family
Gotham has a veritable army of skilled, human protectors roaming its streets, so how do you narrow it down to just one? The simple answer is – you don’t.
With Batman’s legacy inspiring multiple Robins and Batgirls, a Batwoman, and even vigilantes that don’t share his iconography, the Bat-Family is the most impressive collection of human heroes ever assembled.
From Dick Grayson’s high-flying acrobatics to Tim Drake’s detective skills, and Catwoman’s stealth and cunning, there’s not a hero in Gotham who doesn’t have a skill or specialty – and to top it all off, they’re all non-powered, relying only on their training and instinct to fight crime.
The Bat-Family – Batman not included – will be the stars of the upcoming Gotham Knights video game.
9. The Punisher (Frank Castle)
It’s hard to call Frank Castle a hero – at best he’s an anti-hero or vigilante – but while his methods may be questionable, his motives are anything but.
After witnessing his family killed by mob enforcers, Castle declared a one-man war on crime – a war he wages with only his own grit, his military training, and an ever-growing pile of spent bullet shells.
Punisher is arguably one of Marvel’s most impressive humans. He’s taken (and dished out) more pain than almost anyone, and his ability to survive and to overcome obstacles that would make most men shake in their boots place him squarely in the ranks of the greatest human heroes of all time.
Though – again – that depends a little bit on how gray your definition of ‘hero’ gets.
8. Adam Strange
Adam Strange’s greatest quality may not be his scientific prowess – which is not inconsiderable – but his unparalleled daring and determination.
Transported to the alien world of Rann by the mysterious Zeta Beam, the human Strange became Rann’s greatest hero, and one of Earth’s cosmic guardians.
But Strange is also emblematic of an entire archetype, the human hero in a brave new world. Embodied by characters like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, these are heroes who find themselves in extraordinary situations and manage to not only adapt, but thrive.
Adam Strange is the subject of the now concluded critically acclaimed Strange Adventures limited series by writer Tom King with artists Mitch Gerads and Evan ‘Doc’ Shaner, which explores Strange’s complex legacy as the war hero of an alien world.
7. Lex Luthor
Lex Luthor may have a decades-old reputation as one of the DC Universe’s foremost supervillains – and believe us, he’s earned that reputation even in 2020 – but in recent years, he’s also spent time operating as a hero, even as a member of the Justice League as part of ‘The New 52’ era’s ‘Darkseid War.’
That heroic change carried over into the subsequent Rebirth era in which Luthor operated as an armored protector of Metropolis, competing with Superman despite his apparent face turn.
Though Luthor later went back to his villainous roots – way, way back – founding a version of the Legion of Doom, he’s also now part of the Totality, a sort of Multiversal overwatch comprised of heroes, villains, and those in between, dedicated to protecting the newly minted Omniverse from destruction.
OK, Batgirl should arguably be on this list (and some may argue she is, as part of the Bat-Family), since she’s cut from the same cloth as the rest of the Bat-Family.
But Babs (to her friends) is currently increasingly returning to her post-Killing Joke-pre-New 52 identity that some will still argue was Barbara Gordon’s best and most powerful self – Oracle, and becoming a mentor to a new generation of Batgirls.
As the information hub of Batman’s network, Barbara Gordon, who used a wheelchair for years due to injuries from the assault by the Joker, proved being disabled doesn’t get in the way of being a superhero.
Her intellect and determination are arguably unparalleled in the DC Universe – and she remained a fierce physical combatant through her time as Oracle as well. And the fact that she’s possessed multiple superhero identities with different skillsets – and no powers to boot – means that, above all, Barbara Gordon’s got an unquestioned place on this list.
5. Hawkeye and Green Arrow
Archery may seem like a strange archetype for a hero, but when you get down to it, the speed and accuracy of wielding a bow and arrow is one of the most ancient tests of skill for human warriors.
Keeping that in mind, it makes sense that both the Avengers and the Justice League would have an iconic archer in their ranks.
And if their skills with archery weren’t enough to earn Hawkeye and Green Arrow a spot on their respective teams, both Clint Barton and Oliver Queen possess a never-say-die attitude and unbelievable confidence that put them right at the heart of the Avengers and JLA.
There are also multiple other characters who have used the names ‘Green Arrow’ and ‘Hawkeye’ over the years – including Oliver Queen’s son Connor Hawke, and Clint Barton’s protégé Kate Bishop (who is gunning for a place on this list as the co-star of Disney Plus’ Hawkeye series).
4. Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
We know what you’re thinking – Green Lantern has some of the most incredible superpowers around. Able to craft anything he can envision out of sheer willpower, Hal Jordan’s power ring is one of the greatest weapons in the universe.
But that’s the thing – it’s just a tool.
Without it, Hal (and many of the other Green Lanterns, including John Stewart and Kyle Rayner) is just a normal guy. He may have more bravery, more gumption, and more strength of will than just about anyone else on the planet, but he’s still mortal.
In fact, in the old days when he was still a test pilot moonlighting as a space cop, he’d leave his ring behind on test flights. He’s just that confident in his own natural, inborn skill.
So call it a technicality, call it a loophole – and maybe that in itself is a superpower – but we’re arguing many GLs would be heroes even without their vaunted rings.
3. Valkyrie (Jane Foster)
This is another case of someone who you might forget is powerless – though she has wielded weapons that, themselves, carry great power.
For most of her history, Jane Foster was simply a human physician, hanging out with Thor and experiencing the wonder of Asgard through a mortal’s eyes. But when Thor Odinson became unworthy of the power of his hammer Mjolnir, Jane Foster picked it up and traded her mortal body for the power of Thor.
But without it, Jane remained all too human – suffering from cancer, which returned with a vengeance every time she switched back to Jane from being Thor.
Now, she’s Valkyrie, having actually died and left her mortal body behind entirely (some would say transcending that ‘non-powered’ qualifier) – though it seems she’ll return to the mantle of Thor in the coming months, perhaps with the return of her own mortal body as well.
2. Iron Man (Tony Stark)
Tony Stark may accomplish things that no normal man could hope to achieve, but he does it all on the back of his own genius.
Hal Jordan may wield the ultimate weapon, but Tony Stark is the ultimate inventor, and all his weapons are straight off his own drawing board.
Having an invincible suit of armor and an incredible intellect may set Tony Stark apart from other people (something Stark is all too keen to remind them of) but he still doesn’t accomplish anything outside the bounds of humanity – at least not in comic books where fantastical super-science is a fact of life.
In fact, more recently he’s gone back to basics as an engineer, getting his hands dirty with his armor and tech. However, he’s also grappled with unprecedented ramifications in his life from being temporarily dosed with the Power Cosmic, meaning at the current moment in Marvel Comics continuity, he actually does have powers – though we already know that won’t last.
Could anyone argue that the man who goes toe-to-toe with Superman isn’t the greatest non-powered superhero of all time?
While there were masked mystery men before Batman, such as Green Hornet and the Phantom, DC’s caped crusader truly defined the archetype of the mortal who stands among gods.
Relying only on his own ingenuity, physical discipline, and uncanny preparedness, Batman is the ultimate human-level hero.
Sure, he’s got his fair share of gadgets, wealth (although that’s not what it once was), and allies (see above) to bolster his own considerable ability, but at the end of the day, Bruce Wayne might just be the ultimate human.