On the surface, heroes are who we should aspire to be. When you examine specific ones closely, however, you’ll notice many are ill-suited for their duties. Are these flaws designed to humanize them, or do writers just not realize how terrible these modern day role models are? Just because they have a loftier than average vocation doesn’t mean they’re not incompetent. If your favorite hero has been around long enough, they’re bound to have off-days (not to mention days when they’re mind controlled into turning evil), so let’s try to focus on the ones that have chronically underperformed, have the wrong attitude for their profession, or massively screwed up. So yeah, there will be SPOILERS.
(This excludes characters that are intentionally satirical like Sterling Archer and the Tick. I’ll also avoid characters who failed into obscurity; you lucked out this time, Sir Denis Nayland Smith! Or should I say the destitute racist’s Sherlock Holmes?) So if you’ve ever gotten a lousy performance review at work, take comfort in knowing that your career could still be the basis for a popular hero one day!
10) James Bond, Secret Agent
James Bond’s job is being a secret agent. Emphasis on SECRET. What does he do at the start of just about every mission? He introduces himself somewhere high profile as “Bond. James Bond.” He doesn’t bother to change up his appearance either, aside from being periodically recast. His rare attempts at going incognito are cringe worthy. He’s so bad at keeping a low profile that SPECTRE and the megalomaniac billionaire du jour instantly figure out that he’s a spy, especially in the days before you could debunk someone’s cover story with Google-fu. How’d he pass the stealth section of his spy final exam? Imagine all the collateral damage that could be averted if he didn’t brazenly dare henchmen to assault him. This typically causes Bond to be put into elaborate death traps, although he balances it out by compelling his captors to monologue their nefarious master plans to him whilst momentarily imperiled. Surely he could glean the same information by actually doing some espionage legwork for once.
James Bond also feels compelled to seduce ever woman he meets, especially whilst on assignment. Given that he can’t even bother with aliases, is he also leaking state secrets during pillow talk? If so, he’s an even bigger security risk worthy of incarceration. His paramours are constantly replaced from one adventure to the next, so does Bond spend the bulk of his MI-6 expense account on hush money to make them disappear once he’s grown weary of them? Or does he keep his exes silent with his Walther PPK?
9) Dr. Dana Scully, Paranormal Investigator
I suspect I’ll be getting the most hate on this entry because Dr. Dana Scully is ostensibly a no-nonsense, crackshot FBI agent. While neither she nor Mulder were very effective FBI paranormal investigators, at least Mulder had the right outlook for the job. Being an ultra-skeptic makes sense for something like Scooby-Doo where the monsters are just guys in masks, but not for a world where real paranormal hijinks go down all the time. Although Mulder’s hypotheses weren’t always on the mark, the amount of X-Files cases that could be solved purely with rational explanations was statistically insignificant. So maybe spend less time crankily telling your partner he’s a crackpot when he’s at least in the right ballpark. Scully was originally partnered with Mulder to undermine his efforts to uncover spooky stuff (not giving him access to the X-Files at all would’ve been less of a hassle), so at least she must’ve been getting decent performance reviews from the alien conspirators at the outset.
She didn’t even get with the program after she was abducted and experimented upon by a bona fide alien conspiracy. (She was also prone to being kidnapped ny non-alien serial killers.) It was almost like she kept getting her mind wiped between episodes. She had to wait for Mulder to depart before her myopia was removed in order to drag the show on. Until then, she was only allowed to tune in for Catholic-themed capers, which maybe accounted for ten percent of their caseload. It’s not even like she used her forensic expertise to expand the laws of science to include all the weird stuff they encountered. Just like their cases, the majority of her lab reports were inconclusive. So Dana Scully is an awesome role model in theory, but a frustrating heroine to watch in practice.
8) Obi-Wan Kenobi, Jedi Knight
Obi-Wan Kenobi barely graduated from being a padawan when he took on the duty of training Anakin Skywalker the ways of the Jedi. In hindsight, he was a lousy teacher. After Anakin became a youngling-murderer for the Sith, Obi-Wan gave him a lecture about having the (moral or literal?) high ground, cut him off at the legs, and let the rest of him simmer in lava. Had Obi-Wan the decency to decapitate his old friend, the galaxy would’ve been spared Darth Vader. Instead he abandoned his pupil to a slow and agonizing death. Then Kenobi followed orders to go into exile on Darth Vader’s homeworld with his infant son, Luke Skywalker. He only bothered changing his first name, which means either Kenobi is the space equivalent of Smith or the Empire had terrible census takers.
He only starts training Luke to be a Jedi after young Skywalker delivers a hologram from Princess Leia he accidentally intercepted. So without this massive coincidence, the Rebel Alliance would’ve had no Jedi savior. Rather than keep a low profile, this hermit on a mission cavalierly amputates Ponda Baba’s arm with a very conspicuous lightsaber in front of a bar full of unsavory criminals, without even bothering to erase the witnesses’ minds with a simple wave of his hand. I doubt Garindan was the only one who called the Imperial tip line after that. Obi-Wan later let himself be slain by Darth Vader as a diversion rather than putting up a good enough fight to actually kill him this time. Finally, as a ghost, Obi-Wan finally admits that Leia is Luke’s sister and he lied about their dad because the Jedi value melodrama over truth. Had he been rooting for the twins to unknowingly spawn some incest younglings?
7) Elphaba, Oz Freedom Fighter
The Wicked Witch of the West ordinarily wouldn’t fit a list like this, but Wicked’s Elphala qualifies since she’s the protagonist you’re supposed to sympathize with. Gregory Maguire’s revisionist take on the Oz mythos paints Elphaba as a freedom fighter against the Wizard’s totalitarian, anti-Animal rule. Learning the story from the iconic villainess’ perspective is an awesome hook, but it’s undone when Elphaba turns out to be a terrible revolutionary who’s only infamous because she’s the victim of a smear campaign. Instead of seeing a competent and righteous “Wicked” Witch of the West uses the Gold Cap to command winged monkeys, conquer Winkie Country and expel the Wizard from the West like in the original book’s backstory (she looks like the movie version of the Wicked Witch, but Maguire still drew upon the Baum books), we get an incompetent sad sack whose fearsome feats are reduced to mere propaganda.
Her former teacher, Madame Morrible, is at the top of her hit list, but Elphaba always botches the assassination. She eventually finds her dead in an old-age home and has to settle for posthumously bashing her face in with a trophy. She does participate in one terror attack, but immediately falls into a yearlong coma upon returning to find her lover killed by Oz’s secret police, the Gale Force. This extinguishes her revolutionary spark. She’s invited to live with her dead paramour’s wife in Vinkus (Winkie Country), where she’s unable to save her adopted family from the Gale Force, and is still pathetic by the time she tries desperately to reclaim her late sister’s shoes from Dorothy Gale. It’s disappointing that a starring role came at the expense of her competence and electrifying personality. Fans of the book may dislike the musical being more conventional, but at least it has catchy songs and an Elphaba with agency.
6) Yoda, Jedi Grand Master
If Obi-Wan Kenobi is a bad Jedi, it’s because he was following in Yoda’s footsteps. Yoda is inexplicably referred to as being very wise just for harshly denying the phenomena of “trying.” He opposes Anakin Skywalker being trained as a Jedi due to his deep psychological scars. A lot of trouble could’ve been spared if he stuck to his gut, but he eventually caves to honor Qui-Gon Jinn’s dying wish. He neglects to take an active role in Anakin’s training despite sensing he’s huge powder keg, rashly putting it onto Obi-Wan’s rookie shoulders. Then he becomes actively embroiled in various campaigns of the Clone Wars rather than looking into the conspiracy he sensed was manipulating the war itself. After he’s defeated by Emperor Palpatine in their first duel, Yoda opts to permanently retire to the isolated swamp Dagobah. He also decides that Anakin’s kids should be separated but not receive Jedi training from an early age.
When Luke Skywalker is finally sent to train with Yoda on Dagobah, he doesn’t even want to train Luke. He wastes time pretending to be senile … or is more likely just senile. When Luke leaves prematurely, Yoda reassures Obi-Wan that “there is another.” So the wise Jedi’s brilliant strategy was to pin all his anti-Sith hope on one barely trained Jedi and only start training the back-up after he fails. Why not train both Luke and Leia together as younglings? Since Jedi are a dying sect and the Empire is so powerful, why not tutor as many padawans as possible rather than be a grouchy hermit? Some believe “another” refers to Darth Vader betraying Palpatine, but that longshot paying off still doesn’t excuse his terrible strategy. He’s crankily content not to actively aid the Rebel Alliance or ensure the survival of the Jedi order. Yoda also waited until he was dying to tell Luke he had a sister because needlessly withholding vital information is the Jedi way. Disney’s new canon may try to retcon Yoda’s exile into something heroic, but the Jedi order only survived in spite of Yoda’s poor management not because of it.
5) Iron Man, Industrialist Avenger of Defense
Robert Downey Jr. has made Iron Man the world’s most popular Avenger, but in the comics he may be its most terrible (why give Dr. Druid the satisfaction of being the Worst?) in addition to being a lousy entrepreneur and statesman. Tony Stark became an alcoholic, which is a major liability for someone wearing a weapon of mass destruction, and lost his company to the villainous Iron Monger. Once he sobered up, he went on a crusade to neutralize all of his stolen technology that was sold by business rival Justin Hammer. This was good idea when it came to villains wearing his armor technology, but that wasn’t far enough for him so he went after the Mandroid and Guardsmen armors he built for SHIELD and the US government too. He even beat up fellow Avenger Stingray, whom he was embarrassed to learn hadn’t been using Stark tech. Then he killed Titanium Man in Russia. This over zealotry didn’t sit well with his fellow Avengers of the world’s governments, so he had to fake his death until the heat died down. During “The Crossing,” he betrayed the Avengers to Kang the Conqueror and killed a few C-list Avengers allies. Sweeping this story under the rug may have been the the greatest accomplishment of “Heroes Reborn.”
Once Stark revealed his superhero identity to the public, the US government exploited a loophole to seize control of his unpatented Iron Man technology. Stark had to leave the private sector and become Secretary of Defense and Director of SHIELD to regain oversight of his inventions. In this official capacity, Iron Man championed the Super Human Registration Act, which was supposed to provide accountability and support for superheroes. Very little of that happened, as Iron Man devoted most of his time to hunting down any former comrades who disagreed with the SHRA and locking them up in a nightmarish Negative Zone prison without due process. (Marvel Studios is adapting “Civil War” into the next Captain America film, so even non-comics readers can be displeased to watch Iron Man become a fascist hypocrite!) During this period he also made Spider-Man an armor with only three extra robo-limbs because knowing basic arachnid facts is for plebs. Then the Skrulls and Norman Osborn (wearing yet another bootleg iron man armor for the occasion instead of his Green Goblin gear) exploited the SHRA. When Stark was inverted during “Axis” to be an Extremis dealer extorting San Francisco, nobody was surprised.
4) Professor Charles Xavier, Visionary Mutant Educator
Professor Charles Xavier has an excellent reputation as a humanitarian educator despite not knowing a damn thing about publicity. You’d think that a guy pushing for peaceful mutant-human integration would’ve alerted the public that mutants can be trained to be productive members of society. Instead he had his team of mutants beat up other teams of more militant mutants without so much as a press release, leaving humans to fear they could be killed in a mutant turf war for global domination. He also let the world think the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters was an exclusive prep school for normal humans, so countless frightened mutants that weren’t personally recruited didn’t realize his school was an invaluable (and apparently free) resource. It wasn’t until his body was possessed by his long-lost evil twin sister, Cassandra Nova, that he publicly unveiled his school’s true purpose. Nova’s attempt to destroy the X-Men backfired, but you’d think the world’s most powerful telepath would’ve sensed this was the right move years earlier.
Professor Xavier had a cavalier habit of erasing the minds of supervillains, superhero allies, and his students’ parents, but for some reason he drew the ethical line at mind-wiping politicians responsible for civil rights violations like Sentinels and the Mutant Registration Act. In order to rescue the original X-Men from Krakoa the Mutant Island, he sends a trainee X-team that promptly dies. He then uses telepathic ventriloquism to make Krakoa speak English (he thinks that it helps his cover-up somehow) rather than helping the next untrained international X-Men he sent in afterwards. To his ex- fianc?e, world class geneticist Dr. Moira MacTaggert, he grants the lofty position of school housekeeper. When he finds out an alien upgrade made the Danger Room sentient, he still forces it to torture his students in mock combat. Xavier once literally brain-raped student Dani Moonstar whilst he was conquering the Microverse dressed as a gladiator.
There’s more. Professor X is a deadbeat dad to his very unstable and very powerful son, Legion. Xavier gets Rogue to defect from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants by promising he’ll help her control her powers, but waits years to tell her what the quick fix is. He has the hubris to try to rehabilitate Sabretooth in the mansion against everyone’s better judgment, which gets Psylocke gutted. Xavier even had to spend an extended arc apologizing to everyone (except Moonstar) Twelve Steps style. Xavier met a fitting end when he was killed by his former star pupil, Cyclops, for being irrelevant.
3) Lord Eddard Stark, Hand of the King And Amateur Detective
Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (no relation to Tony) never should’ve accepted King Robert Baratheon’s request that he become the new Hand of the King. He was too honorable, tactless, and gullible to survive the political scheming of King’s Landing despite the advice of his fellow councilors. When not angering King Robert by objecting to all his plans, Ned played amateur detective to uncover who murdered his predecessor and father figure, Jon Arryn. So he got maimed by picking a duel with the Captain of the Kingsgaurd and Robert’s brother-in-law, Jamie Lannister. Ned eventually realized that all of the royal heirs are actually Lannister incest bastards, but his unsubtle snooping spurred the Lannisters to poison Robert. After Robert named him Protector of the Realm on his deathbed, Ned refused to either stage a surprise coup or pretend to support Joffrey Baratheon’s new reign. He was then undone by trusting Littlefinger, who had specifically warned Ned not to trust him.
Before his arrest, Ned sent a letter to Stannis Baratheon denouncing Joffrey as illegitimate with the hope of Stannis claiming the Iron Throne. This may have been the worst decision out of the many he’d recently made. Not only is Stannis an unlikeable, law-obsessed zealot who wants to burn anyone who won’t convert to his minority religion, this letter completely severed the fragile peace that Ned and Robert had fought for years ago. The current violent civil war (featuring Ned’s equally unwise son, Robb) raging through Westeros is Ned Stark’s fault, and it’s distracting the kingdom from unifying against the true threat of the Others. Furthermore, the Lannisters didn’t kill Jon Arryn, so all his sleuthing was for naught. He played right into the hands of the true mastermind like an utter buffoon. Ned losing his head was an appropriate punishment for his lack of candor and foresight. He got what was coming to him for what he did to Lady.
2) Cyclops, Mutant Rights Leader
Whereas movie Cyclops is terrible for not doing anything, comics Cyclops is terrible for what he does do. The mutant who had laser eyes before the Internet made it a meme is a great field leader, but a terrible husband because he’s a workaholic. When his wife, Madelyne Pryor, gave birth to the child who would eventually be Cable, Scott Summers decided he’d rather devote his full attention to leading the X-Men than spending time with them. A powerless Storm had to kick his ass in a leadership duel to stop him from being a heartless deadbeat. Once his former flame, Jean Grey, came back from the dead, he immediately ditched his family to reunite with her and the original X-Men. Together they recruited new mutants under the guise of the mutant-hunting X-Terminators. (This would prove as counterproductive as the NAACP trying to hand-deliver scholarships while dressed in KKK robes.) Abandoning his wife also spurred Madelyn to become the deranged Goblin Queen who caused the “Inferno” crossover, yet he was still considered a virtuous hero.
Years later, he convinced almost all the mutants that hadn’t been depowered by M-Day to move to San Francisco where the X-Men just built a brand new headquarters. He refused to use his de facto authority quell to help quell local mutant riots when asked politely, causing the government to turn to the Dark Avengers instead. Then he got all of the mutants to move onto the former Asteroid M in international waters so he could declare mutantkind a sovereign nation. Not only did this exodus put their expensive new SF digs to waste, Cyclops did not consider that his “Utopia” had even less infrastructure to support itself than Sealand. Unilaterally declaring himself an isolationist king somehow did not further Xavier’s dream of peaceful mutant-human coexistence. Unlike Magneto, he was a black hole of charisma.
He caused a major schism with Wolverine once he decided that being soldiers was the duty of every mutant, especially the teens. Cyclops briefly redeemed his cultish ways by fixing the world’s problems with the power of the Phoenix Force… which he promptly blew by going on a global Dark Phoenix rampage. Upon escaping prison, Cyclops formed a militant X-Men team dedicated to mutant revolution despite Wolverine’s “all heroics and no child soldiers” X-Men mostly fixing the mutant PR nightmare. He insists he saved the mutant race from extinction, but that was actually the glorified plot device Hope punching the Phoenix Force. At the end of Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men, Cyclops revealed to his team that he was bluffing about the whole mutant revolution thing and had no long term plans. (Though he’s still mum on how his new ruby quartz X-visor actually covers his lethal eyes.) Way to waste both your teammates’ and readers’ time! Maybe he thought his nickname was “Psych!” and not “Cyke.”
1) Batman, World’s Greatest Detective and Non-Lethal Protector of Gotham City (Nolan-Verse Version)
There’s certainly an argument to be made that various incarnations of Batman are ineffectual, but let’s focus on the version from Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. During his League of Shadows final exam, Bruce Wayne refuses to execute a criminal. Instead he burns down the temple with his fellow Leaguemates and the criminal inside it. When he finds out that “Ra’s al Ghul” has being supplying Scarecrow with exotic blue roses to mass produce fear gas, he does not use his vaunted detective skills to surmise that this must be the only other survivor, Henri Ducard – Ducard actually has to show up at his birthday party to tell him so. He has Gordon blow up the bridge to the Narrows so that a whole neighborhood struck by fear gas and escaped lunatics has to fend for itself. Then he personally crashes a monorail in midtown Gotham City. He blithely lets Ducard die with it, yet somehow gains a reputation as a staunch no-kill vigilante in the next two movies.
If you expected him to divert some of Wayne Enterprises’ coffers to rebuilding The Narrows and the monorail, nothing in the sequels supports this reasonable presumption. Instead Batman has his hands full fighting guard dogs and the no-frills Joker, which neither extensive ninjutsu skills nor state of the art crimefighting gear could prepare him for. He’s neither able to keep the Joker from crashing a VIP party at Lucius Fox’s penthouse nor apprehend him when he leaves despite already being on the street by then. Batman accidentally and anticlimactically kills insane Harvey Dent to save Gordon’s family, then rather than saving both their reputations by blaming Dent’s demise on of the Joker’s goons, he chooses to become Public Enemy #1 by taking full context-free responsibility. Not that having the police after him negatively affects his crimefighting since he immediately quits because his unrequited love, Rachel, got exploded by the Joker. Never mind that avenging the deaths of the innocent is a huge chunk of Batman’s motivation.
Fortunately, Batman doesn’t need to feel conflicted over his choice to retire because the GCPD are suddenly able to adequately handle all crime for the next eight years. When Bane hacks the stock market to bankrupt Bruce Wayne as an obvious component in a larger masterplan, he responds by…not contesting it. He doesn’t bother to do a background check on the too-good-to-be-true Miranda Tate and her suspicious scar either. No, the out-of-shape Batman brazenly decides to fight Bane without any strategy and promptly gets his back broken. When he’s miraculously healed and teleported into Gotham for the rematch, he uses the same playbook. Only Selina “don’t call me Catwoman” Kyle shooting Bane in the back saves him while undermining his “no pumping villains full of lead” rule. After faking his death, he leaves the Batman mantle to a cop he only met twice, John Robin Blake, but without any of the ninja training, tech support, or bottomless funding. Meanwhile, original Batman is off canoodling with Selina, who’s exactly the kind of amoral gun-toting thief who killed his parents. He also does this in public without changing his famous visage because he doubts the existence of Italian paparazzi.
The Dark Knight Trilogy films are considered by the public to be “the good Batman movies.” This makes me suspect that the general public does not actually like Batman.