He’s the last son of a doomed planet, and the world’s first superhero…but he’s so much more than that. He’s the ultimate protector of the downtrodden, the oppressed and the defenseless. He’s a symbol of hope in a world that’s becoming increasingly hopeless. He’s an enduring icon that transcends the barriers of language, race, religion and culture. He’s the ultimate immigrant success story and an inspirational figure both within and without the fictional universe in which he resides. He’s also quite possibly the ultimate figure of wish fulfillment. Since he was unleashed upon the world in Action Comics #1 in June 1938 he’s wowed audiences with his thrilling adventures and dazzling array of powers.
From his early years as a social crusader at a time of great economic depression to the science fantasy excess of the Silver Age to his inherently grittier Post-Crisis incarnation, The Man of Steel’s superpowers have gone through various incarnations. Although most fans will tell you Superman’s greatest power is his heart, keeping him on our side even at times when we deserve him the least (see Batman V Superman) Supes has nonetheless had some weird and wonderful powers throughout various media over the years. Here we’ve ranked some of his weirdest and most wonderful.
16. SUPER HEARING
Flying high above the bustling streets of Metropolis, Superman’s hearing alerts him to the cries of citizens in peril. It’s a tremendous boon for his crime fighting activities, but it’s not so great when someone has something less than flattering to say about Clark Kent when he’s just out of earshot. Not to mention the cries of all those victims who, despite his talents and efforts, Superman just wasn’t able to get to in time.
Thus, super hearing is not just a great super power, it’s a great narrative device for bringing vulnerability to an invulnerable character. Indeed, in some stories it’s inferred that Clark has used hypnosis to erect numerous mental barriers to screen out unwanted noise to keep himself sane and able to function in both his day job and his extra curricular activities.
Sneering critics who consider it a fundamental flaw of the mythology that Superman is able to disguise himself with just a pair of glasses and a change of hairstyle are really missing the point. In numerous incarnations including Mark Waid’s Birthright and John Byrne’s The Man of Steel Clark Kent is shown mastering the craft of acting, transforming his body language, posture and mannerisms in ways that make him a master of disguise.
Of course Clark Kent is not the only “character” in Supes’ repertoire. In an episode of Superman: The Animated Series called “Knight Time” Superman disguises himself as Batman, using his incredible control over his super powered vocal chords to do a spot-on imitation of The Dark Knight’s rasp (courtesy of a guest appearance by Kevin Conroy himself).
14. SUPER CELLOPHANE S POWER
Filmmaker Richard Donner had a mantra on the set of the first Superman movie…verisimilitude. It meant that despite the inherently fantastic nature of the subject matter, the film had to take itself absolutely seriously for audiences to buy into the appearance of Superman on the big screen. And it worked! In 1978 audiences believed a man could fly. During the back-to-back filming of Superman and Superman II, however, the producers decided to replace Donner with Richard Lester who was much more keen on embracing comic book camp than verisimilitude.
Thus, he and the film’s writers had a round table discussion on wacky powers with which they could imbue The Man of Steel. Among the most heavily derided yet weirdly compelling was his ability to detach the S shield from his costume and use it as a projectile to envelop the villainous General Zod.
13. ARCTIC BREATH
It’s one of the few Silver Age powers to survive the purge following his many reboots, and while it has its detractors, Superman’s arctic breath is a power that’s widely beloved by fans of “a certain age”. Over the years, Superman has used this power in a range of clever ways. He’s used it to subdue enemies, he’s blown out raging fires and he’s frozen water to save sinking ships.
In Superman: Unchained (one of the best stories to feature the much reviled New 52 Superman) he used his Arctic breath to freeze a spout of water so solidly that it supported a collapsing building. Fans who have long lamented this power’s absence in the DCEU were delighted to see its return in this year’s Justice League.
12. MASONRY VISION
While most of Superman’s more outlandish powers owe their existence to the inherent zaniness of the Silver Age, one of his most outright bonkers powers manifested in 1987; an era when, ironically, the market was emerging for grittier more adult comics. This power didn’t come from the comics, though. It came from Sidney J Furie’s “so bad it’s good” Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
In the film, Superman’s brawl with his mullet-sporting clone Nuclear Man destroys the Great Wall of China. Civic-minded Supes, however, later returns to repair the wall…with his eyes! Just by looking at the fallen rubble he’s able to restore the ancient structure to its former glory. Some of the more apologetic fans have hypothesized that this is some form of telekinesis, while others prefer the more glib moniker…masonry vision!
It’s rarely mentioned in the more recent comics, but Pre-Crisis Superman was a dab hand when it came to hypnotizing foes and friends alike. He’s used this power admirably in some cases. A Golden Age story from Action Comics #38 saw Superman use hypnotic suggestion against a wayward psychologist called Harold Morton (who has himself hypnotized the citizens of Metropolis over the radio to make them commit crimes for him). The Man of Steel used the criminal’s own greatest weapon against him; making him turn himself in to the authorities.
He also used the same power (perhaps less nobly) in both Superman II and Superman IV to erase Lois Lane’s memories of his dual identity with a hypnotic kiss… And you thought that the DCEU version of Superman was controversial!
10. TACTILE TELEKINESIS
When John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986 he set about trying to create scientifically plausible explanations for Superman’s powers to make the character more viable for the older, better educated and more enlightened audience that was growing among comic book readers. The writer explained away Superman’s seemingly unlimited strength, invulnerability and even his flight as a form of tactile telekinesis. It was reasoned that by touching objects he could move them telekinetically; thus explaining away any disagreements Superman’s exploits might have with the laws of physics.
He could also use this to manipulate his own gravitational field and even deflect speeding bullets. This aspect was later jettisoned although it was retained for the Kon El version of Superboy some years later. Superman and other Kryptonians have also used other forms of telekinesis in the movies, levitating objects and people by pointing or staring at them.
None of us are getting any younger, and with the advancing years we all start to see wrinkles emerge and certain parts of our anatomies getting wobblier…not so for The Man of Steel! Kryptonian cells do not deteriorate at the same rate as ours and resultant Superman has been shown to remain trim and youthful while his DC contemporaries have succumbed to old age.
This has occurred numerous times in the comics from “The Old Man of Metropolis” in Action Comics #270 to “DC One Million” but among the most memorable is his guest appearance in the Batman Beyond episode “The Call” which sees a Superman barely graying at the temples as Bruce Wayne hobbles on his walking cane. Even so, Superman concedes; “You’ll outlive us all, Bruce. You’re too stubborn to die!”
8. SUPER INTELLIGENCE
All the brawn in the world doesn’t amount to much if you haven’t the brains to back it up, and Superman’s is one of the finest minds in the DC Universe. The ability to read at super speed combined with an eidetic memory combined enable him to absorb, retain and recall information give him an encyclopedic knowledge that’s invaluable to him in the neverending battle against crime. In the comics, Superman’s intelligence has fluctuated considerably.
He was a genius level intellect in the golden age, professing to have invented the indestructible fabric from which his uniform was made, but even as recently as the animated film Superman: Doomsday Superman was shown working on a cure for cancer. Thus, it was galling for many fans to see him used so often as a blunt force instrument waiting around to receive his orders from Batman in the New 52 Justice League.
7. X-RAY VISION
If you commit a crime, there’s no corner of the Earth you won’t be able to hide from retributions at the hands of Krypton’s last son…unless it’s encased in lead, that is! Present in pretty much all of Superman’s various incarnations, his x-ray vision has been invaluable in the neverending battle against evil…and it’s a power that the scientific community has had a lot of fun trying to ascertain how it might actually work.
He’s used it to find people trapped in burning buildings, identify weaknesses in his adversaries, and even used it to identify the color of Lois Lane’s underwear (with her implicit consent, of course). In 2003’s Birthright, Mark Waid imbued Superman with the ability to see not just X-rays but a whole range of spectra beyond human vision, including being able to see the life force of living creatures.
6. HEAT VISION
The ability to project beams of intense heat from his eyes is among Superman’s most enduring and iconic powers. It was originally attributed as a byproduct of his x-ray vision but was reintroduced as a power in its own right in Action Comics #275. It’s not only an awesome visual but an extremely useful tool and weapon. In-universe Clark’s cells collect and store solar radiation through his skin and convert it into energy in a process much like photosynthesis.
When he uses his heat vision, he’s venting this energy in its rawest form. Scientists (real ones) concede that this makes sense in a “comic book science” kind of way, but it would take about an hour of energy absorption to be able to match the energy output of a high powered laser. This, combined with the massive risk of collateral damage, explains why he tends to use it sparingly.
5. SOLAR FLARE
After decades of absorbing solar radiation, it stands to reason (at least in terms of “comic book science”) that Superman would manifest new powers over time. Thus it was in Superman #38 that Geoff Johns concluded his excellent “Men of Tomorrow” storyline by gifting Superman with the ability to expel years of stored solar energy in one explosive blast, essentially turning him into a nuclear bomb.
This power was enough to take down even the mighty Ulysses but it came at a great cost. It not only knocked Clark unconscious but robbed him of his powers for around 24 hours while he recharged, rendering him completely human. Fun fact: It’s estimated that in real life, charging up enough energy to rival a nuclear explosion (around 63 trillion joules) would take Superman approximately 712 years.
Like all superheroes, Superman represents a wish fulfillment fantasy, and who among us hasn’t fantasized about being invulnerable to the slings and arrows of pain and injury? Superman’s invulnerability has varied wildly throughout his publication history. The Silver Age Superman could walk across the surface of the sun with no ill effect (a notion playfully alluded to in Grant Morrison’s superlative All-Star Superman).
In virtually all incarnations, however, he’s been able to bounce bullets off his chest and withstand forces that would turn human bodies into a giant smear of protoplasmic jelly. Although incredibly tough Superman is not strictly speaking indestructible. Even without the aid of Kryptonite, Superman’s invulnerability began to wan throughout his long and fabled fight with Doomsday in 1992. A fight which culminated in the deaths of both pugilists.
From Samson to Hercules, we’ve always demanded superhuman might from our mythic archetypes. Moreover, social groups who are downtrodden and oppressed often create wish fulfillment fantasies about characters who possess the power and agency that is denied them. So, it makes perfect sense that two Jewish kids growing up in depression-era New York would put strength pretty close to the top of their wish list when creating the Superman character.
While Superman’s strength has also varied somewhat throughout his publication history he’s consistently been able to change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands…or at the very least, able to remove lids from jars without making lame excuses about his hands being too sweaty. At his strongest he’s been able to push around entire planets. Even when nerfed by John Byrne in 1986 he was still able to carry a plane on his shoulders.
2. TIME TRAVEL
Although Supes has had some wacky and downright weird powers in his earlier years, time travel has to be one outlandish power that modern readers miss the most. After all, the notion has fascinated us for centuries and has been at the core of some of our greatest works of fiction from H.G Wells’ The Time Machine to… every third episode of the original Star Trek.
In one of his more famous races with The Flash (DC Comics Presents #1 in 1978), the duo’s speed ruptured the time barrier. Superman has also visited the future more than once thanks to his time-hopping friends The Legion of Superheroes. Most fans, however will likely remember the scene in 1978’s Superman where Big Blue flew around the Earth so fast that he turned back time.
Who among us hasn’t dreamed of defying gravity and soaring into the sky? All dreamers remember that feeling of freedom, empowerment and unbridled elation that comes with the feeling of flight just as vividly as they know the feeling of disappointment when they wake up Earth bound and confined to their beds. Thus, it’s no surprise that so many superheroes possess the ability to fly either under their own powers or with the aid of far-fetched technology.
But it’s Superman who’s the original and truest expression of our collective desire to soar above the confines of our mundane lives. Of course, in his early years he didn’t so much as fly as leap from skyscraper to skyscraper. It was actually the cartoons radio serial of the early ’40s. Nonetheless, it’s a big part of what makes him so enduring, powerful and iconic.
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