The New York City of the Marvel universe is teeming with heroes, being home to everyone from Steve Rogers to Peter Parker. With four of those famous New Yorkers teaming up on the small screen today in The Defenders, we decided to rank the finest inhabits of the comic book Big Apple.
Given the vast number of heroes that operate on Earth-616's NYC—and we mean vast, we’re talking hundreds, if not thousands—we decided to lay some ground rules before forming our final list. First, these heroes have to spend the majority of their superhero careers actively in New York City. It’s not just that they live there, or have their headquarters there, but they actively fight bad guys there, instead of flinging their way around the world like the Avengers do. Second, they operate within the five boroughs of the city: Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, which rules out Kamala Khan in New Jersey (let’s be honest, she’d probably be pissed a being called a New Yorker), and the X-Men, whose mansion up until recently was based in Westchester, outside of the city.
So, without further ado, a comprehensive ranking on the best heroes swinging around in Marvel’s NYC, based on the very scientific notion of New-Yorkiness.
There is literally nothing more New York than a clan of misfits with strange abilities who find their chosen family after being rejected by the dominant culture and building their own society in the dark, dark tunnels of the MTA subway system. There are people who ride the subway because they have to, and then there are the Morlocks who are the the subway—not in form, but rather concept. They’re scrappy and downtrodden and broken, but also powerful and a reflection of both the good and the evil of the harsh world that lives above them.
The New Warriors’ most infamous moment might have occured outside of the five boroughs—that time their reality TV show lead to hundreds of lives being lost and the start of the superhero Civil War in Stamford, Conneticut—but for much of its time actively crimefighting, the team called Brooklyn and Manhattan their home, supporting the myriad other heroes who called the city home. Being known for blowing up part of another town dings your New York cred a bit though.
In-between bouts of being dead or being insane, Marc Spector has spent most of his second career in crimefighting on the streets of New York as Moon Knight (with some stints in LA for the West Coast Avengers) since settling down after a career as a mercenary. In fact, Spector built multiple personas, from a high-rising Manhattanite financier to a lowly cab driver, to help him fight crime on the streets of the city. So you might argue that he’s almost three times the New Yorker than everyone else! But that’s not how it works.
For the vast majority of their careers as heroes, the Fantastic Four lived in the Baxter Building, a gargantuan sky scraper ever-so-conveniently located on the corner of 42nd Street and Madison Avenue. The Foursome are “New Yorkers” in a sense that they own(ed) a ridiculously expensive piece of real estate that was more a statement about who they were as opposed to what they could do for the city. Add that to the fact that they spend almost as much time in outer space messing around with Galactus as they do actually enjoying all that NYC has to offer, they’re sort of low on the list. To their credit, though, they are responsible for having saved the world (and city by extension) more than a few times. Then again, who hasn’t?
Clint Barton’s early life might have been spent in a traveling circus, but once he quit that, joined the costumed villain game, quit that, and then joined the costumed heroes game (it’s a long story), Clint’s made a home for himself in and around NYC while working alongside Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Hell, in the excellent Matt Fraction/David Aja Hawkeye comic series, he even bought out his own apartment building to maintain rent levels for all the residents, so he’s technically a New York landlord who just also happens to be very good with a bow.
Silk is relatively new on the hero scene, having been introduced in the pages of Spider-Verse a few years ago as the alias of Cindy Moon, the other person bitten by Peter Parker’s radioactive spider. But she’s a life-long New Yorker. Outside of some parallel world Spider-adventures, Cindy hasn’t really left the city... although part of that is because she spent 13 years of her young life locked up in a bunker in Times Square, being protected from a race of interdimensional, Spider-Person-eating vampire monsters. In fact, it’s kind of impressive she managed to stay in the city and come to terms with her trauma over being trapped there after being freed.
There is no character in Marvel’s comics who better embodies the complicated, dark, and at-times terrifying id of New York City than Frank Castle. To flat out call the Punisher a hero, villain, or anti-hero is to misunderstand just what it is to be a person devastated by a loss so profound that their world falls apart on a fundamental level. Frank’s approach to justice is a dangerous and threatening one (even with his code), but at the same time, his feelings are understandable in undeniable ways. Frank is, quite literally, the product of what one very, very bad day in NYC can do to a person, which makes him both a tragic figure and a proof that even at a person’s lowest lows, there’s always a way to hang on.
Danny Rand’s spent a lot of time outside of NY thanks to years of training to become the Immortal Iron Fist in the magical city of K’un Lun. But when he’s not in the mystical world of living weapons and ancient dragons, he’s best known as one of Marvel’s premiere street-level heroes, both in the Defenders and as a Hero for Hire alongside his best friend, Luke Cage, keeping the streets of New York safe with his magical martial arts. Also, he runs a dojo.
At this point a lot of Spider-People call New York home, but Jessica Drew has lived in the city as both a costumed superhero and a private investigator, after the early days of her career saw her globe-trot across Europe and eventually move to San Francisco. Since then, though, Manhattan has been Jess’ home through thick and thin, from crime-fighting base to the hectic city where she’s currently raising her newborn son.
As Miles Morales has adjusted to his new life in Marvel’s primary comic book universe where Peter Parker is still alive, he’s proven that in many ways, he is the modern personification of all the things that Spider-Man once represented in his younger years. As Peter Parker’s grown up, gotten married, and had a kid (in certain continuities), Spider-Man’s trials and tribulations have gradually become textured by his adulthood and rightfully so. What Miles brings to the table, though, is a fresh take on the youthful wonder and heroism that Spider-Man always stood for, now updated to speak to a broader, more diverse audience like the melting pot that is the city he lives in.
It isn’t just that Miles is Afro-Puerto Rican himself, it’s that the world he lives in—his friends, family, and surroundings—is objectively more expansive and inclusive than Peter’s was when he was Miles’ age, and there’s an importance to that that can’t be understated. Also, Miles’ powers and costumes are cooler.
Patsy Walker may be responsible for having brought literal demons from hell to New York on more than one occasion, but honestly, the demons are the only people she should be apologizing to. Patsy’s spent her fair share of time living in a couple of the city’s boroughs, but in her most recent series, she really made a point of living like a real New Yorker (albeit in Brooklyn). The things that made Hellcat! A.k.a. Patsy Walker such a fun series to read weren’t just Patsy’s kooky, kick-ass shenanigans, but the way that she lived her civilian life—searching for a roommate, hanging out with friends, flirting with guys—all while taking full advantage of the city. Also, you’ve got to hand it to her for having a villain whose primary power was to summon bed bugs as part of her odd rogue’s gallery.
Misty Knight is the kind of NYPD officer that you want to show up when you need help. Not just because she’s got a badass vibranium arm, but because her sense of justice has been forged and tempered by her experience as a full-on superhero. Most city cops that you meet have a deep and abiding love for their cities and Misty does as well, but her perspective and understanding is immeasurably more expansive because of the life she’s led away from the force.
Although the movies have recast Steve as a Brooklyn boy, in the comics, he grew up in Manhattan—and although technically a good chuck of his life after becoming Captain America during the war saw him living outside the city (as a block of ice in the North Atlantic), when he returned to help found the Avengers, Steve found himself back in his beloved city soon enough, helping establish the team’s first headquarters right on Fifth Avenue. His time as an Avenger has seen Steve travel the world, but as the superpowered face of American liberty, his heart will always been in New York.
Shame about the fascism, though. Points off for that.
Janet van Dyne doesn’t get enough credit for the role that she played in helping the original Avengers become the team that they are today. Sure, Janet’s the one who came up with their name, but more importantly, she was the moral center of the team who helped it weather all manner of challenges that plagued them, be an attack from Ultron, or a family dispute from within the team. Even as her fellow Avengers dart all over the world, Janet still remains rooted in the city where it all began, starting her own business—and now looking after the next generation of the Wasp in the form of budding young scientist Nadia Pym.
Cloak and Dagger’s destinies were forged in New York, when the two runaways found each other and went through hell being forcefully put through a dangerous drug program that turned them into dark-and-light-powered superheroes. Since then, they’ve fought back against city’s illegal drug industry that gave them their powers, and otherwise teamed up with countless other heroes and teams in New York. This includes during Manhattan’s recent entrapment in the Darkforce Dimension in Secret Empire, throughout which Dagger painfully provided light to the city at the cost of nearly killing herself.
Sam Wilson grew up in Harlem, and a tragic upbringing in the borough that saw him lose both of his parents as a young man set him on a path that would ultimately see him collide with Steve Rogers and become his erstwhile companion, the Falcon. Years by Steve’s side ultimately lead Sam to take on the Captain America mantle himself—granted by an ailing, super-serum-drained Steve after Sam nearly sacrificed himself saving New York from being destroyed by a bomb. Sam decided to differentiate himself from Steve’s career as Cap by being a more socially-minded hero, starting in his home city.
Jessica Jones always knew that being superhero was for the birds and, like her partner Luke Cage, understood the importance of being able to capitalize on her god-given skills in order to pay her bills. As a private detective, Jessica’s used her powers to help the people of New York in immediate, appreciable ways that other heroes seldom do and that’s a very big deal.
Sure, the folks up in Avengers Tower have saved the world countless times, but there comes a point at which the adventures of heroes kind of lose their meaning for regular people on the ground. If you asked a random person on the subway in Marvel’s 616 universe who Ultron was, there’s a chance they might be aware of “that robot the Avengers are always scrapping with.” But if you were to check out Alias Investigation’s Yelp page, you’d probably see countless posts from people who were once in desperate need of help that neither the authorities or most well-known capes bothered to take seriously. That’s what makes Jessica a hero in the truest sense of the word.
Let’s say one day you suddenly developed superpowers after a freak chemical spill and decided to become a superhero. Let’s say that rather than spending time learning how to control your newfound ability to lift incredible amounts of weight with your breath, you threw yourself into the fray, stopped a bunch of criminals, and accidentally caused millions of dollars in property damage that the city council decides to sue you for. You know who’d have your back in court and probably be able to convince a jury to let you off with a warning and some community service? She-Hulk, that’s who. For all of the good that Jennifer Walters has done as hero fighting alongside the Avengers, it’s her work as an NYC lawyer that really makes her stand out as one of Marvel’s most versatile and giving heroes.
Howard the Duck is every single oddball you’ve ever bumped into in New York, made eye contact with, and had an immediate and tacit understanding that you’re both going through some shit. As a character, Howard’s whole schtick has always been about pulling back from the present events of one’s life and taking the time to appreciate how incredibly weird life can be. It’s an outlook on like that we could all stand to have more often than not and it makes him one of NYC’s better, uh, duck... people... things.
Hell’s Kitchen’s perennial defender, Matt Murdock and his home neighborhood are deeply intertwined in a way so few other heroes can claim. They can say they protect a city, but Hell’s Kitchen is Daredevil’s turf, and the Marvelverse knows it. Sure, he’s taken extended periods of time away from the city, most notably to live in San Francisco a few times, but eventually, Matt Murdock always returns to Hell’s Kitchen, whether it’s as a lawyer or as the man without fear.
Up until very recently, the entirety of New York City was trapped in the Darkforce dimension thanks to Hydra’s evil plan to divide and conquer the world’s heroes. Though there were many sacrifices made in an attempt to break through the Darkforce bubble and save millions of innocent people, none was quite as great as Dr. Stephen Strange offering to trade his New York brownstone to a demon in exchange for a powerful spell that almost managed to break through the barrier. Ultimately, it didn’t work out and Strange kept his home, but his willingness to part with it in the first place is telling. Like many of Marvel’s other heavy hitters, Strange spends a sizable amount of time away from NYC as his duties require him to, but Strange’s appreciation for the city, its people, and its real estate is admirable.
Remember when we said few heroes were so closely rooted to their home area like Daredevil is? Luke Cage is one of the few heroes who not only matches Matt, but trumps him. Luke’s connection to Harlem and its people, starting from his life as an ex-con trying to blend in to its protector as the Power-Man, is a bond that’s even stronger than his friendship with his fellow hero for hire, Danny Rand. In the Marvel universe, Luke is a symbol of Harlem’s spirit, a man who’s willing to do anything to help its people, a community he has always been fiercely protective of.
It’s hard to think of a more quintessentially New York hero than Peter Parker. From his early days in Forest Hills to today, where he runs his global megacorp from the Baxter Building itself, Peter Parker is rooted in the beating heart of New York City in a way almost no one else in Marvel’s vast pantheon of heroes ever has been, or really, ever will be—someone who knows it in and out like the back of his spandex-covered hand. In his entire superhero career he’s barely ever lived outside of the city, and his goal as a hero has always been to protect the civilians that call it home. Spider-Man is far more comfortable on the streets of New York than he is in any other environment, even if he’s mostly swinging above them—but he will always be New York’s finest champion.