Authors have used the hero’s journey as a template for thousands of years, through myth, epic poems, theater, to more modern mediums such as comics and television programs. Popular culture heroes resonate with fans who want to see the best of the world overcome evil, no matter what.
From Ulysses to Robin Hood to modern popular culture heroes like Superman, they all represent the best of humanity, and they often have to overcome their weaknesses to succeed in their adventure. Many iconic heroes have withstood the test of time, while other newcomers have already imprinted into the cultural consciousness. Many of them have made their way into our hearts and even on pop culture T-shirts, accessories, and more.
This list celebrates some of the heroes that have defied expectations and have been willing to sacrifice everything to protect the helpless and save the day in their adventure.
1. Wonder Woman
Diana has the heart of a human, full of compassion and wonder, but all the powers of a goddess. The young woman’s commitment to truth and love is far more hopeful and inspiring than her DC comic counterparts. To paraphrase the best Dark Knight film (sorry Christian Bale, we’re talking about Lego Batman), people are far too willing to accept an unsupervised adult karate-chopping poor person.
Diana is a natural-born leader willing to fight for the disadvantage without causing a bunch of collateral damage along the way. Her superhero character has broken boundaries and defied expectations for decades, and proved to the world that your gender doesn’t stop you from being a hero.
Wonder Woman’s journey from the comics to film took far too long, but when she finally arrived in a movie, fans were ready to make it an international success. Though Wonder Woman and Superman are known as one of the most famous pop culture duos, Diana proved you didn’t need a male hero to headline to keep fans happy, and every young girl in the audience took note of that in this young woman.
2. Harry Potter
Harry Potter may use plenty of well-worn archetypes, like the young child with epic responsibilities as a birthright, but the long novels are painted with incredible details and thoughtful character development throughout that keep fans coming back to revisit it, both in print and through movie marathons.
Harry may not be the most resourceful or intelligent wizard at Hogwarts, but that’s part of why he is so relatable.The fictional hero was an outcast orphan raised in a closet that went on to save the wizarding world. He’s not afraid to back down from a fight or confront his destiny, and his ability to forgive separates him from his enemies. He is wise enough to rely on his allies in times of need and brave enough to strike out on his own when the stakes are life and death.
While J.K. Rowling continues to try and control the cannon, fans have made the Harry Potter series their own with fan fiction and theories that paint the characters in a whole new light.
3. Han Solo
Armed with little but a blaster and his roguish charm, Han Solo is a formidable asset for the Alliance. He is a driving force in the original Star Wars trilogy, and without him, the Death Star would have ended the rebellion before the credits rolled on the first film. While he may be reluctant to lay down his life for someone else’s agenda, he’s always there for a friend in need, no matter the odds.
Han Solo is just as skilled at flying under the radar (or in some cases, literally on it) as he is quick on his feet, able to get the upper hand even with a gun to the head. His smuggling skills and piloting abilities help him get Luke and Leia wherever they need to go, and his charming confidence is always earned.
Even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominated the big screen, Spider-Man was one of the most recognizable costumed heroes. In every depiction, Spider-Man and his alter ego (whether it was Peter Parker or Miles Morales) was a young, relatable character who put everything on the line to stand up for everyone in his neighborhood. He was always willing to sacrifice his relationships, education, his job as a journalist, and even his life, to use his powers and his sense of humor to make a difference.
Other comic icons like Captain America may share his values, but Spider-Man is far more relatable. He didn’t volunteer to be a superhero, but he uses his powers for good regardless. His youth and inexperience often lead to mistakes, but he always holds himself accountable.
Unlike Superman, Spider-Man is far from bulletproof. Which makes it all the more inspiring when he’s coming up against a villain well above his weight class and has to rely on his wits and reflexes to save the day. He may take a pounding, but he will always do whatever it takes for the cause. His motto, “With great power comes great responsibility,” gives him a purpose that resonates far beyond other heroes from the funny pages.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an American-made animated series heavily influenced by anime. While the series is nearly 20 years old, it offers fans thought-provoking storylines that explore the consequences of imperialism and expansionism. Avid fans have watched every episode countless times, and are hungrily awaiting news of the live-action remake.
Aang is not the typical stoic hero. He is passionate, quick to anger, and equally quick to take action. Despite his age, he is observant and insightful, and always ready to support friends and strangers alike in times of need. He values equality in all living things and refuses to take an enemy’s life, focusing on other ways to save the day. His relationship with Katara was founded on friendship, and mutual respect before it evolved into a heartwarming romance.
Aang earns his place on this list not only because of his constant optimism but the hope he inspires in others and his commitment to creating a better world through kindness rather than violence. His willingness to accept his shortcomings and learn from others allows him to reach his full potential by the end of the series.
6. Benjamin Sisko
Captain Sisko may not have any superpowers, but he still manages to do the right thing even in the most stressful situations. Deep Space Nine is the most unique of the Star Trek series. Sisko doesn’t get from planet to planet, seducing aliens and violating the Prime Directive. He’s given a backwater post with a difficult task - welcoming the Bajorians into the federation after a long occupation from the Cardassians.
While Star Trek has always explored racism subtly, Sisko gave writers the opportunity to put it front and center on more than one occasion by exploring humanity’s dark past. Bottle episodes like Far Beyond the Stars
Many of the conflicts were centered on interpersonal difficulties with the people on the station, but Sisko proved to be the most inspiring leader of any of the Star Trek captains. When the conflict with the Dominion escalated, Sisko was willing to do whatever it took to make allies and eventually sacrificed everything to fulfill the prophecy and bring peace to the quadrant.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of those pop culture TV shows no one expected to succeed, but its influence on TV lives on to this day. The series spawned a TV spin-off and dozens of volumes of comic books that picked up the story right where the series left off. Part of what made Buffy so successful was the lack of dynamic female heroines on the screen at the time.
While there are plenty of powerful women that inspire fans, Willow is both the most powerful and most relatable. Not only because her story arc broke ground as one of the first mainstream lesbian relationships on American television, but because she was always down to earth, even when she was Hellmouth-Bent on destroying the world.
Willow is a geek from the get-go, but her intelligence and drive to help out her friends helped her harness magic so powerful she could go toe-to-toe with Buffy and not even break a sweat. After her brief turn to the dark side, she took a break from magic, but her bravery allowed her to take it back up to empower an entire generation of potential slayers, giving her friends the chance to defeat the First Evil and ultimately redeem herself.
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