The Marvels isn’t the only movie or piece of content that features Marvel’s cosmic heroes. In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics stood out from DC by introducing grounded and realistic characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. Unlike Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, Marvel’s heroes weren’t godlike or infallible. They were simply human. But it didn’t take too long before Marvel introduced some powerhouse cosmic heroes of their own. Giving these beings a greater sense of humanity was the key to making them work within the context of Marvel’s comic book universe. Some of them were even human before they were thrust into extraordinary circumstances across the galaxy.
When considering the seven best cosmic Marvel characters, we decided that it would be best to focus on the heroes. Galactus and Thanos are magnificent creations, but only as villains on a cosmic scale. It takes a truly special hero to go up against threats like that. Only a few of the characters below have appeared in Marvel’s comic book movies. But the Guardians of the Galaxy can’t hog the cosmic spotlight forever, and you’re likely to see many of these heroes on-screen within the next few years.
Would you believe that this guy used to be the Punisher? In Donny Cates and artist Geoff Shaw’s 2018 run on the Thanos comic book series, they introduced an alternate future for the Marvel Universe in which Thanos reigned supreme after killing everything and everyone in his path. Not even Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, was immune from Thanos’ rampage. But as one of the few Marvel heroes condemned to Hell for his life of violence, a deal with a demon gave Castle a second chance at revenge as the new Ghost Rider.
In the centuries that followed, Castle went crazy from the solitude of being the last person alive on Earth. When Galactus showed up looking for help against Thanos, all he found was a broken Ghost Rider who agreed to become his new herald with enhanced powers and abilities. That’s how Castle became Cosmic Ghost Rider. But in a cruel twist, Thanos easily defeated Galactus and made Cosmic Ghost Rider his servant.
Shortly after his initial appearance and his subsequent destruction, Cosmic Ghost Rider reemerged in the present-day Marvel Universe. However, Castle’s attempts to rewrite history have gone horribly wrong, and he’s so loopy that his current persona is more like Deadpool than the Punisher.
Three decades ago, all you really needed to be a cosmic Marvel hero was a brightly colored costume, a mullet, and a pair of Quantum Bands. That’s Wendell Vaughn in a nutshell. Marvel’s original Quasar was envisioned as an everyman hero, so he wasn’t always the bravest or the brightest of the bunch. But his heart was in the right place, and Quasar was a reliable cosmic Avenger in the ’90s who held down his own comic book series. Quasar was even among the heroes who confronted Thanos in The Infinity Guantlet, the comic book storyline that inspired the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Despite cheating death multiple times, Marvel has seemingly moved on from Wendell’s version of Quasar. One of Wendell’s successors was Phyla-Vell, the daughter of the original Captain Marvel. And we have to admit, her Quasar costume (below) is cooler than Wendell’s.
Carol Danvers was important to the Marvel Universe long before she became Captain Marvel. In fact, she’s only been Captain Marvel for just over a decade. Her first appearance came in 1968 as a supporting character in the adventures of Marvel’s original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell. Carol was simply an ordinary human at the time, although she was an accomplished officer in the Air Force. Carol befriended Mar-Vell when he was undercover as a human scientist named Walter Lawson. Mar-Vell also saved Carol’s life when she was exposed to an experimental machine.
That machine gave Carol powers like Mar-Vell’s abilities, including flight, strength, energy manipulation, super speed, and more. In the late ’70s, Carol became a heroine in her own right as Ms. Marvel, before becoming the cosmic-powered Binary in the ’80s. Carol was largely depowered in the ’90s before she rebranded herself as Warbird. She subsequently reclaimed the Ms. Marvel name before she encountered a temporarily resurrected Mar-Vell in 2012’s Avengers vs. X-Men event. Watching Mar-Vell sacrifice his life again inspired Carol to take his code name as her own. And since then, Carol has been Marvel’s most prominent female hero in the cosmos.
Superhero code names tend to get recycled a lot in the Marvel Universe. This is why there are multiple Ghost Riders, Quasars, and Captain Marvels. Novas are no exception. But in this case, we are not talking about the teenage Nova, Sam Alexander, or the former herald of Galactus, Frankie Raye (who became a different kind of Nova). Instead, our pick is Richard Rider, a young man who earned his place on this list for heroics that go back to the 1970s!
Legendary comic creator Marv Wolfman and artist John Romita Sr. created The Man Called Nova, an ongoing comic book series that introduced Richard as a working class hero who gained his powers after a chance encounter with a dying Nova Centurion named Rhomann Dey. If that name sounds familiar, it may be because Rhomann Dey was played by John C. Reilly in Guardians of the Galaxy. Admittedly, Richard’s origin kind of rips off DC’s Green Lantern. Marvel even shamelessly called the assembled Novas “the Nova Corps,” long after the Green Lantern Corps had been established.
Richard’s incarnation of Nova flamed out by the ’80s before he had a revival in the ’90s as a founding member of the New Warriors. But Richard didn’t earn his stripes as a leading hero until Marvel’s Annihilation and Annihilation: Conquest events in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Conquest was also the storyline that led to the creation of the modern Guardians of the Galaxy. And it’s only a matter of time before Richard joins his friends on the big screen.
Within the Marvel Universe, the original Captain Marvel, Mar-Vell, has been dead for over 40 years. So why does he rank higher on this list than his successor, Carol Danvers? Because Mar-Vell wasn’t just a typical hero. He was an outcast from his people, the Kree, who worked tirelessly to save everyone in the universe regardless of who and what they were. Mar-Vell was Marvel’s first true cosmic superhero who had adventures far beyond the confines of Earth. He was also the first and only major Marvel hero to die and stay dead. That makes him a martyr as well as a legend.
The Death of Captain Marvel was Marvel’s first original graphic novel in 1982, and writer/artist Jim Starlin crafted an end for Mar-Vell that was a worthy sendoff. Earth’s mightiest heroes came to pay tribute to Mar-Vell as his body succumbed to terminal cancer. Yet even in the face of his inevitable demise, Mar-Vell’s bravery didn’t falter. Years later, it was revealed that Mar-Vell had three children: Genis-Vell, Phyla-Vell, and Teddy Kaplan/Dorrek VIII. Genis and Phyla briefly assumed the Captain Marvel identity, while their half-brother, Teddy, established himself as the hero Hulkling in Young Avengers. Through his children, Mar-Vell’s legacy continues to this day.
Casual comic book movie fans recently got their first glimpse at Adam Warlock in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Fantastic Four creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up with the first version of Warlock in 1966, when he was simply called “Him,” an artificial being who was created by human scientists. Later creators including Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, and Jim Starlin gave Warlock his name and his messianic overtones. In terms of power, Warlock was also one of the few Marvel heroes who could stand up to the Mad Titan, Thanos. Not even Warlock’s death could keep him down, as he returned from beyond the grave to defeat Thanos.
Warlock returned several years later during the buildup to The Infinity Gauntlet, the storyline where Thanos used the Infinity Gems (or Infinity Stones, as they are called in the MCU) to wipe out half of the universe. As seen in the image above, Warlock emerged the victor, and he was briefly the supreme being in the Marvel Universe. Fortunately, Warlock gave up that power and resumed a more normal existence. Despite a constant cycle of death and rebirth, he remains one of Marvel’s most prominent cosmic heroes. So far, the MCU’s live-action version of Warlock hasn’t even scratched the surface of his true potential.
To non-comic book fans, Silver Surfer may initially appear somewhat goofy. He is, after all, traveling through space on a silver surfboard. But the Silver Surfer is easily the best cosmic character Marvel has ever created. Lee and Kirby created the Surfer for their initial Galactus storyline within the pages of Fantastic Four. The Surfer was Galactus’ herald, who led him to Earth so that the Devourer of Worlds could feed on the planet and sustain himself. However, the Surfer was befriended by Alicia Masters, the blind girlfriend of Ben Grimm/The Thing. And through that friendship, Silver Surfer was inspired to rebel against his master for the sake of humanity.
The Surfer’s redemption came at a high cost, as he was exiled on Earth for several years and unable to return to his home world, Zenn-La. In the first Silver Surfer comic book, readers learned that he was once a human-like scientist named Norrin Radd. To save his world, and his lover, Shalla-Bal, Norrin agreed to serve Galactus, who used the Power Cosmic to transform Norrin into the Silver Surfer. During his long period on Earth, Norrin struggled with the idea of whether he had made the right decision to turn against Galactus as he saw firsthand the depths of humanity’s capacity for evil. But he also saw the good in humanity, and fought to protect the planet when his power was needed.
During the ’80s, Silver Surfer was finally freed from the confines of Earth for cosmic adventures that paved the way for decades of comic book stories including The Infinity Gauntlet and Annihilation. So far, Silver Surfer has only made one live-action appearance on the big screen in 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. But given his importance to the Marvel Universe, it’s inevitable that the Silver Surfer will be reintroduced in the MCU. It’s only a matter of when.
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