For a group of characters born out of what was colloquially called the “funny pages,” today superheroes are taken gravely seriously. Gone are the days of Batman and Superman waterskiing, or when Wolverine was grilling hot dogs on his claws. Today, if there’s any fun in a comic, it’s some “cool,” self-aware snark-slinger like Howard the Duck or the ubiquitous Deadpool, going to great lengths to point out the absurdity of the very tropes their fellow heroes are servants to. You either have to go super-dark and gritty or break down the fourth wall and snark your way to sales. Wear your heart on your sleeve, and you’ll wind up with your pants pulled down by the Merc with a Mouth.
Today we’re going to take a look at some once-serious superheroes and villains who wound up in that middle ground. Some of these meta-humans have made meta-textual moves in-universe to become more humorous. Others have had their “joke” status placed upon them by outside commentary and public consensus. Yet, still a select few have actually been so transformed by some sarcastic rebranding as to be better known as a comedic persona than they ever were as a serious crimefighter.
King of Atlantis. Commander of the sea. Founding member of the Justice League. Perpetual joke. Sad is the fate of Aquaman, one of DC’s most iconic heroes, and every casual comic book consumer’s answer for “lamest hero.”
Though DC never traded in Aquaman’s earnestness for dopiness, the general public has been subject to a slew of “Aquaman talks to fish” riffs, in everything from Saturday Night Live to Robot Chicken and The State, each beating the same tired drum. The public perception of the aquatic crime fighter was even addressed in Geoff Johns' brilliant re-introduction to Aquaman in DC’s New 52 initiative.
For a certain generation, the heroes of Hanna-Barbera could stand toe to toe with the most powerful pugilists in the pages of DC and Marvel. Yet, once those corduroy-sporting Baby Boomers grew up and had babies of their own, the exploits of heroes like Birdman had drifted into obscurity.
Thankfully, when a team of young, high-minded animators got their hands on the Hanna-Barbera collection, they would recut Birdman into a legal drama spoof called Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law. Giving the winged warrior a second life as the straight man to an ever more absurd array of hand-drawn defendants, audiences may not be able to watch Birdman with a straight face anymore, but at least they’re still watching.
18 TEEN TITANS
The Teen Titans have had a fascinating trajectory into the realm of “joke” heroes. The shift from gritty tales of gloom on the page to zany misadventures on the airwaves wasn’t predicated by some widespread public dismissal, nor the edgy reimagining of a later generation of animators. Instead, this change came from the very people who own them, and to great success.
Some could trace the turn towards the comedic back to the original animated Teen Titans, who infused humorous teen antics and anime-inspired outbursts into an animated universe best known for Bruce Timm’s realism. By the time we reached Teen Titans Go!, the action elements of the original series were jettisoned for more goof-offs from the now lovable teen quintet.
17 WONDER MAN
For a character who has been present in Avengers lore since 1964, Simon Williams, aka Wonder Man, is little more than a punchline these days, tossed off whenever writers need to invoke an in-universe celebrity. But Wonder Man was once a fierce villain, powered by ionic energy, killed and revived to become a powerful and important member of the Avengers.
His camaraderie with Beast, including their love of the night life, was a popular form of comedic relief for fans. Soon Wonder Man was sent off to the West Coast Avengers, reestablished as a prominent comedic character in the Marvel universe, and now better known as an actor than his almost-former life of vigilantism.
Was Bane ever a good character? Don’t @ us just yet. It’s an important question to ask when considering the cultural legacy of this ever-changing character. Knightfall, though remembered fondly, is a massive two-volume tome riddled with every piece of '90s “kewl” we now loathe about that era of comics, including, some could argue, its primary villain.
By the time the infamously campy Batman & Robin decided to adapt the character, the hulking monstrosity went from a criminal mastermind to a non-communicative behemoth played for laughs. Revived in the public eye for Christopher Nolan’s ”too cool for you” Dark Knight Rises, he now sounded like a smothered Mrs. Doubtfire spouting freshman year philosophy. Each was considered cool in its day, but none hold up now.
Nobody knows what to do with MODOK. It’s conventional wisdom among comic fans that MODOK is one of the most fearsome foes in the Marvel universe, but it’s getting harder and harder for any but the most hardcore devotees to make a strong case as to why.
Sadly, it’s not as though MODOK can’t be made monstrous with the right writer, as evidenced by his terrifying turn in World War Hulk. It’s that too often people get distracted by MODOK's goofy design -- the giant head and tiny hands -- and decide they can have the hot take “Haha, MODOK looks funny.” After all, it’s not like the comic book industry can be expected to make an iconic villain out of someone who looks like a clown, right?
Not every case of a superhero getting the “joke” treatment is for the worse. There’s perhaps no finer example of this than Baymax, who went from an obscure comic book character in the late ‘90s to a beloved modern day Disney icon from an Oscar-winning film.
The basic idea of Baymax remains the same: he’s a robot sidekick to young inventor Hiro. However, unlike his brutal comic book counterpart’s various forms like “Battle Dragon” or “Action-Mecha,” the Baymax of the big screen is a perpetually pudgy marshmallow man, voiced brilliantly by Scott Adsit at his most gently befuddled. The result is one of comic book cinema’s most delightful kids characters.
13 APACHE CHIEF
Apache Chief was part of an attempt by Hanna-Barbera to diversify the Super Friends lineup with characters whose identities were all uncomfortably ethnically based when compared to their white counterparts. Nobody ever thought Batman should be called the Country Club Crusader, after all.
Though characters like El Dorado and Samurai have faded from memory completely, Apache Chief had another moment in the spotlight, and it changed his public perception among Adult Swim viewers. Yes, Apache Chief, famous for his ability to grow by reciting “inuk chuk,” appeared on Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, after a hot coffee spill in his lap robbed him of his ability to “enlarge.”
12 THE GREEN HORNET
Britt Reid, the millionaire playboy who masquerades as a criminal in order to snuff out crime. Grandnephew of the Lone Ranger. Saturday morning idol of the Baby Boomer era. For decades, efforts were made to bring the debonair masked hero to the big screen, with stars like George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg attached to don the famous green fedora.
Finally, in 2011, The Green Hornet hit the big screen starring… Seth Rogen. Yes, by the time we hit the most recent decade, madcap auteur Michel Gondry had taken the reins and steered the once swashbuckling story to a comedic riff, and the stoner icon Rogen bumbled his way through the role as directed, making the once beloved hero a laughingstock… well, to the few who saw it.
11 PLASTIC MAN
One could argue that a man who is able to stretch and distort himself in all manner of ways and shapes was always inherently silly, but no more so than any other hero of his era. And while the stories of Patrick “Eel” O’Brien always had some element of whimsy, the goofball elements of Plastic Man really came to the forefront once he became a part of the DC family.
Perhaps it was due to how fun it was to watch “serious” characters Batman interact with someone so cartoonish. Perhaps it was to help further differentiate Plastic Man from DC’s own stretchy superhero Elongated Man. Whatever the reason, Plastic Man went from a whimsical hero to the ultimate irreverent hero of the DC universe.
10 SPACE GHOST
Space Ghost is a fascinating figure in American popular culture. If you’re a Baby Boomer, Space Ghost is a valiant hero who fought alongside the Herculoids on a Saturday morning. If you’re a millennial, he’s the jovial host of Cartoon Planet or the alt-comedy icon who helmed Space Ghost: Coast To Coast.
The change happened when Cartoon Network, desperate for content, asked some of its most creative and deranged minds to recut the Hanna-Barbera content it had access to into some fun little bumpers. Instead, the end result was the birth of Adult Swim and an animation revolution thanks to irreverent works like Sealab 2021 and the aforementioned Space Ghost.
Piotr Nikolayevich Rasputin, better known as Colossus, is one of the most memorable characters to come out of the legendary Giant-Size X-Men #1, for his glistening look, his unquestionable integrity and, for at least some of us, his deliciously tight t-shirts. A fierce and imposing figure for generations of fans, Colossus’ reputation was undone, and you won’t be surprised by who.
Of course, when Deadpool made his big screen debut, he needed a super-powered foil. Naturally they settled on the mighty mutant who looked like he was made of foil. Though still possessing un-swaying morals, when played against the sarcastic killer, he just looked like a killjoy.
8 DOOM PATROL
One of the more memorable and effective changes from serious to “joke” characters, there are few people today who would suggest they prefer the original Doom Patrol to their later absurdist counterparts. Originally conceived by Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani as a proto-X-Men team of super-powered outcasts, Grant Morrison came in decades later and did, well, what he does.
The stories went from tales of angst and victory to dada-ist absurdity, pitch perfect parody and the kind of meta-textual musings we’ve come to expect from Grant Morrison. With new heroes like the “perfect man” spoof Flex Mentallo and the sentient street cleverly named Danny the Street, Morrison’s revision of Doom Patrol is a landmark moment for contemporary comics.
7 SQUIRREL GIRL
The enduring love for the most recent incarnation of Doreen Green is proof that clever humor, told with heart, can be just as popular with comic book fans as brooding epics and gritty noir. Originally conceived by Steve Ditko and Will Murray as a perpetually underestimated underdog, Squirrel Girl was eventually deployed for some moments of subversion, like Marvel’s “Who Killed Monkey Joe?” spoof of DC’s Identity Crisis.
However, when Erica Henderson and Ryan North reimagined the character in and out for The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a whole new generation of comic book fans latched on to Doreen’s new look and sweetly sincere ambitions. She was fierce, funny and fabulously dorky, and launched a line of comics, graphic novels and even YA books.
6 CAPTAIN MARVEL/SHAZAM
It’s hard to conceive of now, at a time where box-office prognosticators are wondering whether a Shazam movie will click for audiences, but there was a time where the hero once known as Captain Marvel was king of the comic book world. More popular than Superman, Captain Marvel had his own radio show, his own movie serials, and even served as the inspiration for the look of Elvis Presley.
Of course, once Captain Marvel was acquired by DC Comics, an effort had to be made to differentiate between him and DC’s own iconic Superman. The solution, it seemed, was to focus on the “kid in a grown man’s body” element of the Billy Batson/Shazam relationship, culminating in the zany, Big-esque film adaptation DC has lined up for 2019.
Of all the Hanna-Barbera characters reinvented by the Adult Swim crew, few have been as impactful as Brak. While Birdman and Space Ghost at least retain a modicum of dignity in their new roles, Space Ghost’s once-fierce villain Brak’s transformation was so massive and memorable, it’s impossible to conceive of a time before Brak had his buffoonish demeanor.
Part of a trio of villains incorporated into Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Brak was made into the Lenny to the beleaguered Zorak’s George, his wide-eyed confusion and delightful dopiness made him not only appeal to Adult Swim’s target audience, but kids as well, leading to gigs “hosting” Cartoon Network animation blocks and getting two different incarnations of The Brak Show.
4 KILLER CROC
In the pages of Batman, Killer Croc was a terrifying, vicious half-man/half-beast killer. On the iconic Batman: The Animated Series, Killer Croc was a terrifying, vicious half-man/half-beast killer. In the groundbreaking Arkham video games, Killer Croc was a terrifying, vicious half-man/half-beast killer. In Suicide Squad, he’s a swimmer who likes BET.
We’re not going to pretend Killer Croc is the only character Suicide Squad did a disservice to. Yet, the choices made in translating the monstrous mutant to the big screen seemed designed to garner laughs entirely at the expense of the character’s dignity. No shout-out in a Rick Ross song can undo the embarrassing way Croc was depicted in his first big screen endeavor.
Much like Aquaman over at DC, Marvel has never deliberately made a joke out of Dazzler, the epitome of the ‘80s distilled into a superhero. Yet, folks with a vague awareness of the character have made her the go-to punchline of the Marvel universe.
The shame is that Dazzler is more a character of her time than an inherently flawed member of the X-Men. Yes, she “makes sparkles,” yes she roller skates, yes she’s a rock star. But nobody seems to mind the glittery pop star Jem fighting crime in much the same fashion. We’re not expecting the X-Men equivalent of Momoa’s Aquaman, but it would be nice to see some film or comic give Dazzler her due.
2 THE WONDER TWINS
You know the joke even if you never saw a single episode of Super Friends. “Form of a bucket of water” has been mocked in everything from South Park to Family Guy. Even the version of the Wonder Twins that appeared on the otherwise serious Smallville seemed an attempt to portray the duo as inept screw-ups.
But to look back at the original source material, there wasn’t anything inherently absurd about the Wonder Twins compared to their more popular counterparts. Sure, they traveled by transforming into an eagle and a bucket of water, but that’s no less absurd than an invisible jet. However, wide-eyed kids grew into cynical teens, and the whimsical Wonder Twins were reduced to a punchline.
1 THE FANTASTIC FOUR
Marvel’s First Family, the Fantastic Four still maintain an esteemed reverence from hardcore comic book fans, but it’s been a long time since any new fans harbored an affection for the Fantastic Four. The iconic heroes have been the subject of lampoons like Venture Bros. The Impossibles to Warren Ellis’ Planetary.
Even the original Fantastic Four films served to reinforce the goofiness of the once beloved quartet, and a 2015 attempt to “take them seriously” backfired tremendously. Now returning to the Marvel comics universe, and back in the hands of Marvel Studios on the Hollywood side, one has to hope the opportunity to redeem the Fantastic Four’s reputation hasn’t already passed.