The powers of the DC Comics character Superman have changed a great deal since his introduction in the 1930s. As the character developed, his abilities were enhanced in order to maintain the interest of his audience. The extent of his powers peaked during the 1960s and - albeit to a lesser extent - the 1970s and 1980s, to the point where it became difficult to create suitable challenges for the character. As a result, his powers were significantly reduced when his story was rebooted by writer John Byrne after the Crisis on Infinite Earths series. After Byrne's departure, Superman's powers were gradually increased again, although he still remains weaker than his Pre-Crisis incarnation.
Golden Age Superman
As presented in the original 1930's comic strip, Superman's powers were innate to all Kryptonians, whose "physical structure was millions of years advanced of [humanity's] own." In the origin stories of the comic books and comic strip, Kryptonians were shown using the same powers that Superman would have on Earth. Later, Krypton's larger size and gravity was given as an explanation for the character's powers.
When introduced in the late 1930s, Superman had the following powers and limitations:
- Super Strength: The character was depicted as having the ability to move large vehicles, including cars, trains, and ships.
- Super Speed: Superman could run faster than an express train.
- Enhanced Leaping: could leap over an 8th of a mile or over a tall building.
- Super Durability: Superman was highly resistant to injury. However, he was not so invulnerable as in his modern depictions; although immune to conventional firearms, heavy artillery could injure and possibly kill him.
- Super Senses: Superman’s eyesight and hearing were far in excess of a human being’s.
Silver/Bronze Age (Pre-Crisis) Superman
Superman's powers were enhanced and added to from the 1940s until the mid-eighties. His powers were explained as a result of two factors: the comparatively weaker gravity of Earth, and the intensity of Earth's yellow sun. As such, Superman's powers were negated if he entered an environment similar to that of Krypton, such as the bottle city of Kandor, or if he was exposed to the solar energy of a red sun. In Silver Age stories, the powers and limitations of Superman were instantly possessed by any Kryptonians exposed to Earth or Earth-like conditions. Individuals from the planet Daxam, such as Mon-El, possessed identical powers, but were invulnerable to Kryptonite and highly susceptible to lead poisoning.
- Super Strength: Superman's strength was increased to the point where he could move entire planets.
- Flight: The character gained the power of true flight.
- Super Speed: Superman's speed increased to the point where he could travel faster than light. Several stories depict him traversing great distances through space to other solar systems and distant galaxies and even other universes. He could cross our own solar system in minutes. He could also use this power to travel through time, as shown in his boyhood visits to the 30th century as a member of the Legion of Superheroes. Superman can also swim at speeds approaching Aquaman's speed as well as run at speeds similar to that of the Flash. Superman is unable to beat Flash in a race.
- Invulnerability: By the 1970s, Superman became able to withstand an atomic explosion and even fly through the core of a star. He was also immune to non-Kryptonian diseases and all radiation except for that of a red sun or Kryptonite.
- Vision: In addition to X-ray vision and heat vision, Superman was also given telescopic and microscopic vision. The character could see across interstellar distances and observe events that occurred on a microscopic and even atomic level. He could also see across the full electromagnetic spectrum, including infra-red and ultraviolet light.
- Hearing: Superman could hear sound at almost any wavelength and at great distances. His hearing is use for people calling him for his help as for distress calls.
- Super Breath: Superman's breath was capable of freezing objects and generating hurricane-force winds. His super breath can extinguish fires or freeze things. He could also hold his breath indefinitely, allowing him to travel underwater or in space without breathing apparatus.
- Mental Powers: Superman possessed genius-level intelligence and an eidetic memory. These enhanced mental capabilities were a direct result of his exposure to a yellow sun, as evidenced by the depiction of Superman's dog, Krypto. While under a yellow sun, Krypto's intelligence was boosted to that of a typical human. Superman also possessed the mental ability to screen out the enormous amount of information received by his enhanced senses, and to focus on a single detail, such as a particular voice or location. As well, his speed reading abilities were much like that of the Flash. He was able to absorb large amounts of information quickly; whether it entered his short term or long term memory is hazy. Under a yellow sun, a Kryptonian gains the ability to speak and understand all languages.
- Super Ventriloquism: Superman could throw his voice across great distances. This power was used to confuse enemies or protect his secret identity by tricking others into believing that he (or Clark Kent) was in a different location.
- Super Hypnotism: This power enabled Superman to hypnotize anyone. He could make people forget incidents or obey his commands. This power was often used to safeguard his identity.
- Stamina: Superman could survive indefinitely without food, water, or rest due to the yellow sun's radiation sustaining him.
- Healing factor: Superman could regenerate physical damage to his body at an accelerated rate. He was able to regenerate when Wonder Woman slit his throat with her tiara in Wonder Woman #219. In the series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Superman regenerates his body after being reduced to near a skeleton by a special nuke that was designed to blot out sun light and disrupt energy. Superman's healing rate has been inconsistently portrayed, however. In the first issue of the "Superman/Batman" comic, Alfred is able to remove a Kryptonite bullet from Superman's body without fear of the wound closing (probably because the Kryptonite was affecting his ability to heal).
- Memory-wipe kiss: Superman could wipe people's memories by simply kissing them. This ability was first demonstrated in Action Comics #306.
- Other Powers: Writers of Superman would occasionally experiment with new powers for the character. In general, the abilities that proved popular and useful became part of his regular repertoire, while others would be discarded after a single use. In addition to his other super senses, Superman was occasionally shown as having highly-enhanced senses of touch and smell.
When the Superman character was revised by John Byrne shortly after Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was decided to place restrictions on his abilities. This was designed to make it easier for writers to come up with suitable challenges for the hero, and to eliminate or reduce those powers that had become too sensational or unbelievable for modern audiences. Emphasis was placed on yellow sun energy as a source for the character's powers. Superman's origin story was altered so that his powers developed gradually as his body absorbed yellow sunlight, and stories such as the Final Night series depicted the character gradually losing his powers when deprived of the sun's energy. When Superman's reserves of solar energy were depleted, as in Infinite Crisis or the Death of Superman story arcs, he required an extended period of time under a yellow sun, or some type of artificial solar enhancement in order to recharge.
Power Reduction Superman's strength was reduced to the point where he could still move tremendous amounts, but the character no longer had the ability to move planets. His speed was also reduced so that he could not exceed the speed of light. While still capable of surviving a nuclear explosion, such events would severely weaken him. Superman's sight, stamina and breath powers were also similarly reduced, and the character was also shown as requiring an oxygen mask for prolonged travel in space or underwater. His mental abilities were also curtailed to the point where intelligent humans, like geniuses Lex Luthor or Batman, could possibly outsmart him. The powers of super-ventriloquism and super-hypnosis were not generally used during this period, although it was never stated whether they had been eliminated or not.
Tactile Telekinesis An attempt was made to explain Superman's ability to fly with large objects through the introduction of tactile telekinesis. Objects that Superman touched were enveloped by an invisible telekinetic field that allowed him to move them with the force of his will. The ability also explained Superman's ability to fly. This power was the only ability originally duplicated in the Superboy clone, allowing him to emulate Superman's strength, speed, and flight capabilities, but none of his sensory powers. Over time, Superboy, or Kon-El as he came to be known, would eventually develop the same set of powers as the original.
After Byrne's departure from the series, Superman's powers and abilities were once again increased over time. He regained the ability to travel interstellar distances and to hold his breath for the amount of time required to make such journeys. His strength, speed, and sensory abilities were again increased, although not to Pre-Crisis levels. Superman's heat vision power has a variant use where he can project destructive heat energy from all over his body as a massive solar flare when an attack in all directions is needed. However, this use will drain Superman's internal solar energy reserves, leaving him powerless for the roughly 24 hour period necessary to recharge in a yellow sun environment.
The comparative weakness of the Superman character to his Pre-Crisis incarnation was definitively shown during Infinite Crisis. The Superboy-Prime character, endowed with nearly the same power levels as the Silver Age Superman, was capable of defeating large numbers of DC universe heroes, including the Teen Titans and many members of theGreen Lantern Corps. The Modern Era Superman and his Earth 2 counterpart were only able to defeat Superboy-Prime after plunging him through Krypton's red sun, thereby reducing his powers.
While Superman is frequently assumed to be the strongest hero in the DC universe, following the Byrne reboot, his strength tends to fluctuate depending on the amount of solar energy his cells have absorbed and the writer of the particular story. He has received a temporary boost in power after surviving a plunge into the Sun, and has had his powers depleted when deprived of such energy. The limits of how much energy Superman can absorb, and by extension the maximum limits of his power, has never been stated. Additionally, because of the solar energy that empowers him, he has often been depicted as being potentially immortal, as well as having a different ageing process, as seen in the Grant Morrison written series set in the far future of the DC Universe, DC One Million. The canonicity of this series is unknown.
Characters such as Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Martian Manhunter have been described variously over time as equals, at least equal (possibly superior), or, in the last case, even superior. Captain Marvel has been able to knock him out with 1-2 punches by taking him by surprise, and Superman has stated outright that the latter has the advantage in a fist-fight due to his magic-derived powers. When the Modern Era Supergirl was introduced, it was suspected that she was stronger than her cousin, but this was due to the fact that Superman had learned to restrain his strength through years of living with weaker individuals, an ability that Kara Zor-El had not yet learned.
It is important to note that while Superman is among the strongest DC heroes, there are many who match his strength, most notably Darkseid, Bizarro, Lobo, the Cyborg Superman, Eradicator, the original Mongul, General Zod and Black Adam, while Doomsday and Despero have occasionally been shown as stronger, the former being able to effortlessly stand his ground against the entire Justice League, and the latter defeating Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Power Girl at the same time. Heroes and villains with magical capabilities, like the Spectre, Zatanna, and Doctor Fate, have displayed cosmic level power vastly beyond Superman's capabilities. The Flash possesses the ability to travel at the speed of light, shunting his mass towards infinity, and enabling him to perform such feats as defeating a white martian with one punch, or almost overcoming the Anti-Monitor singlehandedly. Hal Jordan, with the will-fueled power of the Green Lantern ring, has also been cited as being a match for Superman, being able to lay him down with one punch while possessed by Parallax. The Guardians of the Universe allegedly possess abilities dwarfing those of regular Green Lantern Corps members. Kyle Rayner, inhabited by the benevolent symbiote "Ion", was recently touted as the most powerful of Earth's superheroes. Maxima, has many powers such as telepathy and psi-bolts that have knocked out Orion, who is on equal footing to Superman, effortlessly. She also possesses Matter Manipulation, Telekinesis, and possession abilities that would make her a threat to the entire Justice League. Maxima also can hold her own against Doomsday in strength and can increase her physicallity to infinite levels.
One villain that is often portrayed as vastly superior to Superman in every way is the five-dimensional entity Mr. Mxyzptlk. While the limits and nature of Mxyzptlk's powers is unclear, he is often portrayed as being, for all practical purposes, 'omnipotent,' and his encounters with Superman often amount to him simply toying with the Man of Steel.
Alternate versions and timelines
Over the years, many alternate versions of Superman have appeared, in Elseworlds books or other timelines. Many of these were limited series' and one shots, so the extent of Supermans abilities is not always explored in great detail.
The Dark Knight continuity
Frank Miller's Dark Knight continuity, which includes The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and All-Star Batman and Robin, has depicted Superman's powers in a variety of ways. All-Star Batman and Robin, for instance, depicts a younger Superman traveling from the U.S. to Paris by means of running fast enough to cross the ocean surface, possibly implying that he has not yet developed the power of flight. The Dark Knight Returns depicts him as having the usual super speed, heat vision, flight, and strength, but it also depicts him as being vulnerable to several things. Kryptonite still harms him, and he is nearly killed at one point by a massive nuclear detonation. Whether this was the result of the blast itself, radiation, or the bomb blocking out the sun, or a combination of those factors, is not made clear. He is also shown to be susceptible to a sound wave device, which causes him temporary pain. In some lines, Batman hints that these weaknesses may be related to him being older, although this is never substantiated.
Superman: Red Son
The Elseworlds book Superman: Red Son features a massively powerful Superman, akin to his Silver Age version. Flight, super speed, super intelligence, and massive strength, are all depicted, although other powers associated with the Silver Age, such as time travel, are not depicted, and no real limitations are placed on his powers themselves. He is unable to see through lead in this version, and his powers are affected by red sunlight radiation. He is never stated to be immmortal, but it is revealed that he lives for an extremely long period of time. Kryptonite is never mentioned in the story.
Superman's powers and weaknesses in Kingdom Come are similar to many of his other incarnations. Strength, flight, and heat vision are all depicted. He does not seem to any more or less intelligent than an average human in this continuity. His vision is portrayed as being able to easily scan a continent for signs of trouble in a matter of moments, from orbit. During the story, he is caught in a large nuclear blast, and while it does not state that he was unharmed, it does not seem to have affected him at all. He is not exposed to Kryptonite at any point in the story, but Lex Luthor says that it "does not pack the punch it used to", and that Superman is at "the height of his invulnerability." His speed seems somewhat limited, as he is shown speeding across the U.S., from Gotham to somewhere in the heartland, but it is depicted as taking him a few moments to arrive there, placing some potential limit on his speed. It is also worth nothing that Captain Marvel is regarded as equal to or more powerful than Superman, and a potential match for him in battle. Superman is shown as being susceptible to harm via Captain Marvel's magic lightning bolt. Another sequence in the story portrays Superman as accidentally cutting his finger on Wonder Woman's sword, to which she responds; "you always were a bit susceptible to magic."
All Star Superman
Grant Morrison's depiction of Superman in the All-Star Superman title portray his abilities as similar to that of Silver Age Superman.
Earth One Superman
In J. Michael Straczynski's Earth One trilogy, Superman is depicted as having the powers typically seen in most continuities. However, in this universe, Kal-El gained his powers almost immediately after arriving on Earth. As an infant, he is seen bending a tire iron in the Kents' car after being taken from his space craft; in the first issue, he experiences physical pain for the first time as an adult. As a result, Clark is very familiar and adept with his powers and has developed a fighting style that takes full advantage of them. Superman is showing fighting on par with Tyrell and General Zod, experienced military men with strength to his own.
However, this long experience with his powers burdens Clark psychologically. Unlike most depictions of the character, this Superman feels alienated from humanity, possibly suffering a form of depression. Clark was frequently bullied as a child and developed an introverted, isolationist personality, unable to get close to the people around him. This initially made him reluctant to publicly use his powers, as he believed it would doom him to permanent loneliness. Even after becoming Superman, Clark struggles trying to discover how best to use his powers, balancing his own ability to change the world without terrifying humanity at large or world leaders, at times failing at this to his detriment.
Unlike most incarnations, Kal-El seems to have inherited his father's genius. Clark is shown solving complex chemical equations at a glance and claims he can't watch mystery shows because he always solves the case within the first five minutes of viewing. Superman is capable of adapting to new threats quickly and discovering ways to deal with them as he did with his first encounter with kryptonite in the desert; he took advantage of an underground spring Zod hadn't realized they were standing on.
Like in most depictions, Superman is harmed and can possibly be killed by exposure to kryptonite. After his battle with Zod he was able to use his space craft to develop a skin suit theoretically capable of blocking kryptonite radiation, but it was never tested. Also like in most depictions, Superman's powers are dependent on the light of a yellow sun, and he loses his powers when exposed to light from a red sun. Stracyznski expandes on this in the Earth One continuity; Tyrell (a native from another planet in Krypton's solar system) claims that exposure to blue dwarfs or quazars would make himself and Superman godlike beings while proximity to a black hole would be fatal.
Film and Television
Adventures of Superman
On the TV series The Adventures of Superman, Superman also demonstrated some one-time-only powers; in the first season episode "Rescue", he develops the ability to split himself into two (slightly weaker) Supermen. In the sixth season's "The Mysterious Cube", Superman learns how to walk through solid matter. The source of Superman's powers was stated to be his dense molecular structure, a trait that was occasionally mentioned in the comics.
Superman Movie Series
The Superman depicted in films of the 1970s and 80's was based on the Silver Age incarnation and possessed nearly the same capabilities. He is shown performing such feats as stabilizing an earthquake fault line and (infamously) rewriting history by altering the rotation of the Earth. In Superman II, Superman and his Kryptonian counterparts are shown using telekinesis in the form of a blue ray emanating from their fingers. Superman also uses a cellophane-like substance from his S-insignia to trap a villain, although whether this was a power or a device was not made clear. All four Kryptonians in the film also displayed line-of-sight teleportation abilities, and Superman was able to materialize illusory duplicates of himself as well; however, these are potentially the result of moving at invisible super-speed, and leaving controlled after-images (a la the Flash). Superman also has a minor form of telepathy, which he uses to erase Lois' recent memories with a kiss. This ability first appeared in 1963 in Action Comics #306. In Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, he demonstrates a degree of telekinesis as he rebuilds the Great Wall of China by staring at it. Some movie critics dubbed this "Masonry Vision".
In the television series Smallville, most of Clark Kent's powers develop over his teenage years. In the first episode of the series, he is aware of his super-strength and superhuman speed, and first experiences his invulnerability when Lex Luthor hits him with a Porsche at 60 miles an hour. Clark's invulnerability undergoes a steady progression over the course of the series: his body is bruised (but not pierced) by bullets and does not immediately heal in early episodes, but by the fifth season episode 'Hidden', Clark is capable of falling from the Earth's atmosphere without sustaining any physical damage. Clark's super-strength also increased over the course of the series to the point where in the sixth season episode 'Combat', Clark exhibited the ability to set off powerful shockwaves with his punches in which he successfully dispatched an extremely powerful intergalactic foe and in the ninth season episode 'Salvation', Clark's punch was able to send Zod flying into the sky. By the season ten episode 'Finale', Clark was able to carry the planet Apokolips away from Earth, even while the planet rivaled Saturn in size.
Clark developed x-ray vision in the first season episode X-Ray, heat vision in the second season episode Heat and super hearing in the third season episode Whisper. Flight is developed very gradually over time. The first mention is in the first season episode Metamorphosis, where Clark first "defies gravity"; however, this is not really controlled. He is shown to be hovering over his bed while sleeping, but falls and destroys his bed once he wakes up. The first real controlled flight is in the second season episode Vortex, although this is with the help of a tornado. In the third season finale Covenant, his "floating" in the air is assisted by Kara, a dead human who has been empowered and brainwashed by Jor-El. In the fourth season episode Crusade, he flies properly, but only in his Kal-El persona. The limitation on this power is due to the "No Tights, No Flights" rule made by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar to make Smallville more believable. As long as the character had no Superboy costume, he would not be allowed to fly. He discovers super breath in the sixth season episode Sneeze. Clark's breath can create powerful winds, but only began demonstrating freezing capabilities after the season nine episodes 'Rabid' and 'Upgrade'.
Clark also exhibits a healing factor seen rarely in the comics. Any wound he suffers appears to heal within seconds. If he suffers injuries during a period of power loss, any wounds will heal up as soon as his powers return. This power doesn't appear to have limits; for example, in the sixth season episode "Wither," an alien plant impales him through the chest for an extended period of time, yet upon the plant's removal, he appeared recovered within seconds. Clark is also noted to have an exceptional sense of balance for he has never tripped without the use of Kryptonite or some form of mind control (stated in "Jinx"). His immune system also provides a defense against virtually all forms of Earth disease, which is broken very rarely (temporarily by an artificially created and fatal-to-humans virus in "Scare", and once again in "Sneeze", presumably due to Clark's loss of his powers during his time in the Phantom Zone).
In addition to these, Smallville also features a number of abilities not seen in other incarnations, not all of which find their source in Clark's Kryptonian origin, but rather some appear particular to Kal-El himself. The third season episode "Hereafter", explores Clark's immortality and his ability to alter the destiny of others. Later in Season 3, in the episode "Resurrection", it is said Clark's blood has the power to revive the dead. In addition, his spirit itself is accredited with special healing properties in season four's "Transference". He even affects the moral inclinations of others for an extended period of time. Clark has also shown to have limited defenses against psionic powers. One episode had a character unsuccessfully try to read Clark's mind. However, Clark's mind also seems to have differing vulnerabilities than a humans, as in the fourth season episode "Blank," another character inadvertently wiped out Clark's entire memory, while he was trying to merely erase the last few moments (and his powers were never seen to have any impact greater than that on humans).
In season 10 finale Clark finally gained the ability to fly after 10 years of trials by Jor-El.
In season 11, alongside his ability to fly, other dormant abilities like the full array of vision-related abilities and the classic ability to learn, speak and understand any language Superman comes in contact with, as well a considerable increase on his power levels.
In the animated series Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League and its sequel, Justice League Unlimited, Superman is depicted with power levels similar to those he possessed immediately following his 1986 reboot in the comics. Superman possesses the powers of flight, superhuman strength, x-ray vision, heat vision, cold breath, super-speed, enhanced hearing, and nigh-invulnerability. While Superman is immensely strong both in terms of muscle power and ability to take physical punishment, he is not all-powerful. He can be injured, bleed, and conceivably be killed, and sometimes he has been known to strain and sweat when performing superhuman feats of strength, as demonstrated in "Doomsday Sanction" when he is ambushed by Doomsday while catching his breath after using his own body to drill several holes in the ground to vent the magma from a volcano. In the Superman episode "Little Girl Lost", Superman was able to hurl a huge comet through space to stop it from hitting Earth. Superman killed a whole army of Parademons with a huge blast of his heat vision. Superman also has the ability to precisely control his muscles, which allows him to imitate any human voice.
Superman derives his power from the yellow sun of Earth. Forced under a red sun akin to the red sun of his homeworld, Krypton, or exposed to red sun radiation, Superman rapidly loses his powers, reverting to the stature of a normal human.
Aside from red sun radiation, Superman's main weakness is Kryptonite, radioactive shards of his former home planet. Exposure to Kryptonite will rob Superman of his power, and with prolonged exposure, will kill him.
Superman seems somewhat vulnerable to electricity. He is shown recoiling in pain from electrocution multiple times (such as from Dr. Gavler's electrified door and the device Deadshot attached to a manhole cover). Although it is unknown if he could be killed by such forces, the sensations clearly hurt enough to force him to look for alternative routes. Livewire is able to injure Superman with her electrical attacks, presumably enough to kill him, especially if he is otherwise weakened. This vulnerability may be related to why he is susceptible to Parasite's energy drain, which is depicted as electricity flowing from Rudy's victim into his own body.
Superman's only other known weakness is magic, which can injure him as easily as it can any other being. Magical beings are able to injure the man of steel easily.
However, at one time Superman said that he hasn't shown his full power because "he feels like like he lives in a world full of cardboard" and the risk he could kill someone in the Justice League Unlimited finale, "Destroyer". Seeing that Darkseid merged with Brainiac to become a more formidable villain, and Batman's perseverance, Superman decides to "cut loose", fighting Darkseid at full force virtually outclassing the villian in stature. At full force, Superman was shown to be either on even terms with Darkseid or superior.
- ↑ DC One Million
- ↑ JLA #84-89
- ↑ JLA #28
- ↑ Superman/Batman #4
- ↑ Superman/Doomsday: Hunter Prey; Superman: The Doomsday Wars
- ↑ JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice
- ↑ JLA #1–4
- ↑ The Flash vol. 2, #150
- ↑ Zero Hour
- ↑ S:TAS - The Main Man, Part II; S:TAS - Solar Power; S:TAS - Legacy, Part II
- ↑ S:TAS - A Little Piece of Home