IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The smartest superheroes

Just because they look super in tights doesn’t mean some heroes don’t have super brains too
Kelsey Grammer as Beast in 20th Century Fox's X-Men: The Last Stand
Kelsey Grammer as Beast in 20th Century Fox's X-Men: The Last Stand20th Century Fox
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Although many casual observers may not believe it, intelligence goes a long way in the comic-book world. For many of the most popular characters, intellect is every bit as important as the ability to fly at the speed of sound or shoot flames from one's eyes. Creators of these comic-book heroes understand that great power unfettered by intelligence can often have terrible consequences. Many of the most popular heroes have not only learned how to harness their powers intelligently but also to use their super gray cells to help them better fight the forces of evil.

Accidental forcesOften it is their very genius that caused them to become superheroes, many times as a result of plans gone terribly wrong. Take, for example, the brilliant Reed Richards, aka Mister Fantastic. A child prodigy in mathematics, physics, and mechanics, Richards was taking college-level courses by age 14 and attended the California Institute of Technology, Harvard, and Columbia.

He developed his powers when the starship he financed, built, and piloted was bombarded by cosmic radiation, causing him, his fiancée Susan Storm, her younger brother Johnny, and his best friend and co-pilot Ben Grimm, to undergo mutagenic changes that transformed them, respectively, into Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing.

Another equally brilliant scientist, Bruce Banner, became the Hulk when a weapon he was testing for the U.S. military exploded and, instead of killing him, irradiated his body with gamma waves.

Some heroes used their genius to save their own lives. Wealthy industrialist Tony Stark created his Iron Man equipped with a pacemaker that would kept him from succumbing to a fatal heart condition. Blue-furred Hank McCoy, who as a member of the X Men is known as “Beast,” used his considerable intellect to, among other things, cure the Legacy Virus that plagued the mutant and human population for years.

Peter Parker enhanced his Spider-Man identity by creating devices that shot spiderwebs from his wrists. Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, uses his knowledge and resources to create his vast array of bat-gadgets and vehicles.

Female oracleA chance discovery allowed Ray Palmer to become the pint-sized Atom. Palmer created a lens that allowed him to shrink objects to microscopic size; however, the catch was that the object that was shrunk would eventually explode. While on a caving expedition with a large group of people, Palmer and his friends got trapped after a collapse covered the cave entrance.

Palmer decided to shrink himself — knowing that he would explode and die — to try and save his friends. The lens didn't work as expected; Palmer did not die, and so he decided to use his newfound invention to do good as a superhero.

Looking through the list, one is struck by the lack of female superheroes who landed a spot. The only female who made the list was DC Comic’s Barbara Gordon; the former Batgirl who, after being paralyzed by a gunshot, is now known as Oracle. Her librarian background, computer hacking skills, and tech wizardry earned her a place on the list.

But Oracle's talents don't make up for the dearth of female superheroes to rival the wits of, say, Mister Fantastic or Iron Man. Tom Brevoort, an executive editor at Marvel, a subsidiary of New York City-based Marvel Entertainment, believes the reason for this “is that the infrastructure for the Marvel cosmology was largely laid down in the early 1960s, and at that time, the notion of a supersmart woman was still threatening to the readership as a whole. We've advanced plenty in the subsequent 40-plus years, and there's always room for new characters. However, guys like Reed Richards and Tony Stark have become perennial pillars of the Marvel Universe, in the way any new latter-day character would be hard-pressed to match.”