The hero has been the most popular archetype of human-storytelling for as long as stories have been told. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Odyssey to comic books to the epic film franchises that bring in billions of dollars in revenue, superhero stories are here to stay.
Superheroes all have origin stories, which tell how they gained their powers and chose to fight against evil.
But some heroes felt the call to serve before being recruited by special agencies — some even before having heightened abilities.
Get ready because this is your SPOILER WARNING: we’ll be discussing plots from comics and films — both released and upcoming — from the DC and Marvel universes.
“You might remember that ‘annoyed’ is my natural state.”
10. Logan aka James Howlett (Wolverine)
Wolverine’s mutations — accelerated healing powers and longevity; heightened senses, speed, and stamina; and retractable bone claws which were later plated with nearly indestructible adamantium — render him a powerful fighting machine.
According to the film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Logan was born in the 1800s. He fled his childhood home and fought as a soldier in the American Civil War, both World Wars, and the Vietnam War. That’s a century of combat, by the way.
When he was discovered by Maj. William Stryker — a military scientist biased against mutants and intent on destroying them — Wolverine’s military career came to an end, leading him on a path towards the X-Men.
In the comics, Wolverine has many storylines, including a journey to hell, but we’ll stick with the cinematic telling of his life. He can never fully escape his painful past, and even when he’s fighting for the good guys, he’s got a bad attitude. He’s like the Senior NCO who doesn’t have any more f*cks to give but is so great at his job that everyone just lets him do his thing.
Nonetheless, his moral compass remains true until the end.
“I’m more of a soldier than a spy.”
9. Sam Wilson (Falcon)
Sam Wilson is a former Air Force Pararescue Jumper, which made him a great candidate for the superhero with a tendency to jump into the middle of a combat situation to ice evildoers and save lives.
Wilson is important for many reasons. Created in 1969 by Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan, he was the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics, making his mark on the civil rights movement of the 60s.
In the comics, Wilson has a telepathic link to his bird, Redwing, which allows him to see through the bird’s eyes. He’s also skilled in hand-to-hand combat and operating the Falcon Flight Harness.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the powers are gone, but the harness remains. It was actually a secret military asset, which Wilson somehow stole… and, somehow, there were never consequences levied by the U.S. government for that, but okay…
Most importantly, Wilson counsels veterans with post-traumatic stress issues, embodying the ideal of service after service and the value of supporting our fellow brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
“But being the best you can be…that’s doable. That’s possible for anybody if they put their mind to it.”
8. Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel)
Major Carol Danvers is a trained military intelligence officer and erstwhile spy. She’s one of the most distinguished officers in the superhero universe and a graduate of the Air Force Academy, where Nick Fury recruited her for the CIA.
In the comics, she retired from the Air Force as a Colonel to be Chief of Security at NASA before becoming half-Kree (a militaristic, alien race in the Marvel Universe). She became Captain Marvel after meeting a Kree alien named Mar-Vell, but she acquired superpowers after an explosion merged her DNA with the first Captain Marvel… well, it’s complicated.
Danvers is an author and feminist and her powers include flight, enhanced strength and durability, shooting energy bursts from her hands, and being able to verbally judo one Tony Stark.
Her upcoming film, set in the 90s, will be about Danvers’ origin story. It will also explain where the superhero has been since then but, most importantly, we know that Captain Marvel will play into Avengers 4, given her post-credit paging at the end of Infinity War.
“The future of air combat… is it manned or unmanned? I’ll tell you, in my experience, no unmanned aerial vehicle will ever trump a pilot’s instinct.”
7. James Rhodes (War Machine)
There’s a bit of a discrepancy here. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, James Rhodes is an airman. In the comic books, he’s always been a Marine. If I told you that a hero was named “War Machine” and had little understanding of ammo consumption, would you think he was an airman or a Marine?
Screw it — let’s dive into both!
First, the comics: A former pilot in the Marine Corps, Rhodes met Tony Stark aka Iron Man while he was still deployed in Vietnam. Rhodes was shot down behind enemy lines when he encountered Stark in the prototype Iron Man suit. The two teamed up and became best friends. Rhodes conducts himself according to military honor codes, which often contrasts with Tony Stark’s relativistic heroism, and even assumes the mantle of Iron Man when Stark struggles with alcohol addiction.
In the MCU, Rhodes becomes War Machine and struggles to balance his loyalty to the Avengers with the legal obligations of the military and the Sokovia Accords. This tension eventually earns him a court-martial, when he’s forced to disobey the Accords to help Captain America travel to Wakanda.
But hey, is a military infraction even that big a deal when half of the universe is being wiped out?
“Three minutes and twenty seconds, really? If you were my agents, it wouldn’t be for long.”
6. Maria Hill
Maria Hill commissioned in the Marine Corps before joining S.H.I.E.L.D. She quickly rose through its ranks and was appointed Deputy Director under Nick Fury. She possesses normal human strength, which makes her participation in supernatural phenomenon even more impressive.
As a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, she is experienced in espionage, hand-to-hand combat, weapons expertise, and tactical vehicle operation.
In the comics, Hill served under Fury until after Marvel’s Civil War, when she assassinated Captain America. But that’s okay because she was only evil because she was controlled by Red Skull — and no one stays dead in comics anyway (except Uncle Ben).
In the MCU, Hill provides intel and support for the Avengers and remains the one person Nick Fury can trust.
“Daddy needs to express some rage.”
5. Wade Wilson (Deadpool)
Deadpool is the guy in your unit that just won’t take anything seriously. That’s true for his character, both in the comics and on-screen, but it’s also true for the actual creators of Deadpool, who break convention in more ways than one. For example, he knows that he is a fictional character and he commonly breaks the fourth wall. Most antiheroes are dark and tortured, and Deadpool certainly is that… but he’s also… just… uncouth and rather undignified, which is what makes him so unique.
His origins are rather vague and are subject to change. Stories have been retconned, conveniently forgotten, or just ignored (like what we’re going to do with Deadpool’s appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine…). Nonetheless, there seems to be a consensus that Wade Wilson (if that’s even his name) served in the U.S. Army Special Forces before he was dishonorably discharged.
In the film, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and undergoes an experiment where he is injected with a serum meant to activate his mutant genes. After prolonged stress and torture, the experiment works. Cancer continues to consume his body, but his superhuman healing allows him to cure it simultaneously, leaving him disfigured, but unkillable.
He becomes a mercenary who continues to fight the chaotic-good fight.
“I’m all out of wiseass answers.”
4. Jonah Hex
Though he initially joined the United States Army as a cavalry scout, Jonah Hex‘s story really began during the Civil War. As a southerner, he fought for the Confederacy, but he found himself increasingly uncomfortable with slavery. Unwilling to betray his fellow soldiers, but loathe to fight for the South, Hex surrendered himself to the Union.
Tried for treason and exiled to the wild west, Hex would later be branded with the mark of the demon and be forced to walk the land as a supernatural bounty hunter. At some point, he’d also travel time (because comic logic) and fight alongside other superheroes.
He also fought alongside Yosemite Sam. Yeah, the Looney Toons’ Yosemite Sam.
Hex didn’t have supernatural abilities, but he was an outstanding marksman, a quick draw, and an expert fighter in the wild west.
“I still believe in heroes.”
3. Nick Fury
As with many comic book heroes, whose stories continue for decades, Nick Fury has a sliding history that keeps him current in conflicts. His first appearance was in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1, which took place during World War II.
Fury served as a colonel during the Cold War before becoming the director for S.H.I.E.L.D. (then known as “Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division”). His skills and experience with espionage were put to use against the Soviet Union and primed him for his position at S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative.
From leading his Howling Commandos to becoming the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. to transforming into the silent observer of Earth, Nick Fury has done it all without any actual abilities — and with only one eye. He obtained the Infinity Formula, which kept him from aging, but it was his mind and skill on the battlefield that allowed him to take down nearly every superhero in the Marvel universe.
“I can do this all day.”
2. Steve Rogers (Captain America)
Steve Rogers is the ultimate example of patriotism, bravery, and sense of duty. In fact, that’s why he was chosen for the Super Soldier Serum project in the first place.
During World War II, Rogers made multiple attempts to enlist, but failed to meet the physical requirements. But his tenacity caught the eye of a scientist who recognized that Rogers’ attitude made him the perfect Project Rebirth candidate.
Rogers began his career doing propaganda to support the war effort, but he would eventually be unleashed in Europe in the fight against the Nazi faction, HYDRA.
His military service ended when he sacrificed himself to save the United States from a HYDRA-coordinated WMD attack. He was suspended in ice until he was revived by S.H.I.E.L.D. in the modern day.
Rogers later joined the Avengers, but his sense of duty and his compulsion to act in the face of injustice — no matter what the laws are — pitted him against other Avengers after creation of the Sokovia Accords, which established U.N. oversight of the team.
“If you want peace, prepare for war.”
1. Frank Castle (Punisher)
The Punisher is a psychologically troubled antihero, which makes his story both unsettling and, in many ways, very familiar for combat-veterans. He is a vigilante who fights crime by any means necessary, no matter how brutal those means might be.
Frank Castle joined the Marines after dropping out of Priest school when he was asked if he could ever forgive a murderer. Because of Marvel’s sliding timeline, through which they avoid putting firm dates on characters, Castle’s story changes every now and then to reflect modern, real-world events.
Hands down, the most “Marine” story in The Punisher canon goes to Punisher: Born. Set in Vietnam, it is essentially the origin story of how Castle goes from being the gun-slinging badass that Marines think they are to actually being the gun-slinging badass Marines know they are.
Fan theories speculate the narrator of the story is actually Ares, the Greek God of War, who makes an unsuspecting Castle his avatar.
Editor’s Note: Parts of this article have appeared previously on We Are The Mighty.