Saturday, February 7, 2015

Essay: The Many, Many Powers of Superman

Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Back in the day, this was pretty unique stuff. Nowadays, it's the standard. As such, Superman's power set has greatly expands over the years. In fact, at the time of this writing, he's set to get a new one: Super-Flare.

Who are you, the Human Torch now?
DC is touting this as Superman's first new power in decades. Yeah, no. At best, DC's exaggerating. At worst, they're outright lying.

Then again, DC seems to have a pretty short memory when it comes to certain things.

A-hem, DC.
Let's take a look at Superman's powers throughout the ages, from the start to the modern day.

Classic Superman Powers
Solar Energy Absorption

Superman gets his powers from the yellow sun of the Earth, as opposed to the red sun of Krypton. The general explanation is that yellow suns give off more energies, which Kryptonian cells absorb and convert into powers.

It's comic book science, don't question it.

Superman's bulletproof, which has been explained many ways, but the enduring one is that the solar energy in his cells create a very thin forcefield which also protects his costume, but not his cape.

This first appeared after the animators of the Fleisher superman cartoons thought it would look better than the character leaping tall buildings in a single bound. The eventual explanation is that he moves himself with his mind. I'll get into this further on, but at no point will it really make sense.

Super Strength

Super Speed
But not as fast as the Flash, seeing as how the Flash is not bound by the laws of physics. And your arguments over the Superman/Flash races will never convince me otherwise.

Heat Vision
Originally, Superman just turned his X-Ray all the way up before "Heat Vision" became a separate power in and of itself.

X-Ray Vision

Not only can Superman use his lungs as an air compressor, but he can also suck the heat out of the air in doing so, creating exhalations of sub-Arctic temperatures.

Super Senses
Smell, sight, touch, etc. They're all enhanced by the yellow sun of the Earth.

Golden Age Powers (30's-40's)
Originally, Superman's powers were explained by Kryptonians being super-evolved as well as gravity on Earth being lighter. Actually, originally, Superman didn't really have a "power set," per se. His abilities derived from the fact that he was a superman. A normal man can run at a few miles an hour, Superman can outrun a bullet. A normal man can lift a few hundred pounds, Superman tosses around cars, et cetera. The character quickly went from being vulnerable to a bomb to being invulnerable to anything but Kyptonite, and his other powers were similarly increased, like his super-leaps becoming true flight.

Facial Shapeshifting
At this time, the Clark Kent disguise was explained by Superman having the ability to change his facial features by flexing his facial muscles. It may sound silly, but it was a fairly standard disguise tactic in the days of Pulp Comics, when the writers didn't want their manly-men heroes to use something as effeminate as makeup, something that any actor then and now would probably have a good laugh at.

Going along with that whole "better than your average man at anything" idea, Superman had perfect control over his voice. He could change his voice, mimic sounds, and even throw his voice down to Earth from space. And broadcast his voice over radio bands.

Because science...?
Silver Age/Bronze Age Powers (50's-70's)This was when the whole "yellow sun" power source came into its own. Not only that, but it was the age when Superman's powers were increased to an insane degree. Now, he no longer had to breathe, could move planets around, and got a bunch of really weird powers.

He got eidetic memory as well as the occasional telepathic power whenever the writer needed to pull a solution out of his butt. This included the "Super-Hypnotism" he used to make people believe his Clark Kent disguise.

There was a metric buttload of one-issue powers, too, like the time he got the power to project a smaller version of himself from his fingertips....

What can I possibly say that would make this funnier?
Or manually change his appearance....

And his skin tone, somehow....
Time travel....

Well, you could always try again with Kennedy. ...Too dark?

No wonder she lost her memory in Superman II.
The Silver Age was weird.

80's Powers
John Byrne returned the character to lower power levels during his run on the book and explained that most of them came from "tactile telekinesis," which simply means that Superman's not flying, he's moving himself with his mind. This also explained why Superman could, say, lift a building by the corner and not have it break under its own weight. He also got super-healing, which rarely came into play and culminated in the character's ability to age slower than humans.

90's Powers
When the sun had some issues in the 90's, Superman got zappy powers. Then he split into two Supermen for a while, simply to reference a classic Superman imaginary tale where he became two people and ended crime.

Seen here fighting, because 90's.
00's Powers
Slowly, Superman returned to a more Silver Age-level powerset.

New 52 Powers
Superman got a buttload of retcons in the New 52, some of which apply to his powers. His eyes can now emit and detect any form of radiation, read USB drives (though he might just be looking at the individual physical bits of memory one by one), and the newest change, the Super Flare. But the Super Flare isn't a new power. It's a retcon to his Heat Vision. Now he can emit it from his entire body. So it's not really a "new" power, and it's only his first new one in decades if you don't count the New 52 retcons to his vision. Still, I doubt it'll be the last power the Man of Tomorrow will gain. Only time will tell.

Thanks for joining me. See you next time.


  1. The Super-Flare or, as I like to call it, the "I just ate a Taco Bell meal" power

    1. You have no idea how much your comment resonates with me right now....