Okay, so I started rambling about symbolism and iconic heroes… so let’s ramble some more.
I guess we have to start with what makes a character iconic? It seems like the simpler the better for iconic characters, and in many ways that is true. You want to be able to describe a character in one sentence, and have everyone get it. That’s great. However, I think that the reason iconic characters resonate and endure is because of something beyond simplicity. I think the answer is conflict.
The most iconic characters represent conflicts between opposing forces by their very natures. Superman endures in part because he was the first superhero. In part, he endures because his basic power set (without all of the extras) is pretty simple: he is strong, bulletproof, and can fly. Everything else is gravy; those are his powers. You take away heat vision and he’s still superman. You take away strength, and he’s something else. But, he’s also a character who embodies a wide range of conflicts. How can you be both impenetrable yet sensitive and caring? How can you be both a farmer and a big city slicker? How can you be both an alien and a human? You are immune to everything, but one green rock that glows makes you the weakest person in the world. You are brave and daring, but your alter ego is bumbling and awkward.
And this extends to your foil characters. These are part of the mix. Superman needs Batman to be in full balance. He is light, Batman is dark. Superman is hope, Batman is grim reality. Superman is above the dirty details; Batman makes that his wheelhouse. Superman relies on his own abilities; Batman has a veritable armory he carries into battle every day.
It’s his villains, too. Superman is strong; Luthor is smart. Superman pushes aside fame and glory; Luthor craves these.
So, you don’t create an iconic character like Superman by taking superman and filing off the serial numbers. You have to get to the heart of the matter.
For Marvel, this character is Captain America. And, we see a different but equally effective parallelism happening; Is Cap in the past or the present? He lives in the fringe between idealism and reality. His American dream comes directly against the tyranny of the Red Skull. His dogged belief in the good of the individual and trust in your own two fists comes directly into conflict with Iron Man’s need to keep tabs on everything and rely on increasingly powerful battle suits. Cap is a poor kid from the Bronx; Iron Man is one of the richest men in the world. Heck, they are born out of different wars: Cap comes from the World War that most clearly defined good and evil. Iron Man comes from the war that generated profound disagreement about what was good, and who would decide.
The first character needs to be designed with his or her primary foil. They need to balance. They are the first team up, and they need to set the gait. They are brothers in a very real sense (and maybe literally… we will see).