Friday, May 15, 2015

Super-powers and Sociology

If you're reading this, the chances are that you have a superpower. You might not think it's much, but anyone who's color-blind marvels at your ability to simply look at a banana or apple from a distance and tell if it's ripe.

Realization of this got me thinking about superpowers in general, and the way they're depicted in comics, television, and the movies. Superman, for instance, is often involved in storylines where he loses his powers for one reason or another. It's as if they think that Superman has a bag of powers that he might accidentally leave at the bus stop.

Try this experiment. I want you to peer at a bunch of apples and use your "scarletvision" to find the ripe ones. Easy-peezy. Now shut off your scarletvision. No?

In modern fiction, Superman's powers can be turned on or off, and this just seems totally illogical to me. Why should Superman need to "turn on" his X-ray vision? X-rays are part of a continuous spectrum that includes visible light. In these enlightened times we surely realize that X-ray vision must work the same as any other vision: by detecting the ambient X-radiation in the environment.

Some suggest that Superman can simply ignore his X-ray vision. OK, try it yourself. Just ignore your scarletvision and see the world as your color-blind friends see it.

Didn't work? Imagine that.

When Superman was first introduced his powers were part of who he was. Today they're not; they're something that he has. He was super-strong; now he has super-strength. He was invulnerable; now he has invulnerability. He was super-fast; now he has super-speed, etc. And what he has can be taken from him. That just doesn't make a lot of sense. If, as in the Golden Age, Krypton were a heavy gravity world, then it accounts for both Superman's strength and remarkable resilience. But those things really can't be taken away, can they? This is no mere weakness; rather, an instant and temporary change the molecular structure of his muscular fibers. Sounds unlikely to me. If Superman sees through objects via the normal method of having some equivalent to rods or cones that are sensitive to X-rays, then what could make those temporarily disappear? It's sort of amazing that in many respects  the depiction of Superman was more plausible in the 1930s than it is now in the more "scientifically advanced" 21st century. Vision is an exception, really, as in early depictions Superman was known to ruin film with the X-rays coming from his eyes. So it wasn't perfect, but on the whole it was more rational. Comic-book science has never been exemplary, but this makes me wonder if this is a merely ignorance, or is something else at work?

This bit about having powers rather than being powerful isn't limited to Superman, of course. In a recent episode of The Flash, they used the old trope of a power-inhibiting field while transporting supervillains. The X-Men comics, of all places, is the very one where you'd expect this trope to be subverted, as mutants are by very definition what they are.  But... no joy. Not only are power dampeners commonplace, not only do they work on mutants; but there's even a mutant called Leech who is a living power dampener, whose very presence will un-grow fur instantly. Get that...? Fur is a 'power' that is maintained by whatever  magic permeates the comic-book aether:

From "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006)
Copyright by Marvel Entertainment and 20th Century Fox
Reproduced under Fair Use for the purpose of political commentary

So what gives? I haven't quite decided yet. But I expect that it has something to do with the social conditioning of the writers, combined with the onus of having to build a mythos on a topsy-turvy legacy foundation. The social aspect may be the assumption that people in positions of power got that way not through innate ability, but by the 'things' they were given. It seems to fit, at least in my initial pondering. Some supers (like Superman) have powers thrust upon them; some (like Spider-Man or The Flash) receive them through sheer luck; some (like the X-Men or Aquaman) are born into them. And some people deliberately reach for power. Typically, these are the villains, like Lex Luthor. Lex doesn't actually have any superpowers except his intellect; but he makes up for it with tech.  

In general, the less someone wants their extraordinary abilities, the more likely it is that they'll be heroic. Not even Tony Stark is an exception here. How was Iron Man born? As a life-saving portable power supply/magnet to keep the shrapnel away from Tony Stark's beating heart. To get to the tech, Stark had to undergo a Frankensteinian transformation (which is mostly forgotten in recent appearances). 

It's interesting to see the typical conditions in which heroes lose their powers and how they get them back. Typically, they're lost through selfishness, as in the movies Superman II and Spider-Man 2 (Both Clark Kent and Peter Parker wanted a normal romantic life) and The Fantastic Four (Ben Grimm wanted to regain normality). Thor lost his to hubris. How do they get them back...? Through selfless sacrifice. Always. It seems to me that the more this trope is used ("it wasn't you, it was your powers... now give something back.") then the more science and common sense must be flushed away to make it work. I personally am not fond of what I see as a trend in moral interpretation that undermines altruism (doing what's right simply because it's right) in favor of a moral imperative (serving the community because you owe society a debt). And as we see, over the years this subliminal message that "it's not yours" has escalated from those things that are clearly abstract (super powers) to those things that are clearly unalienable (even the hair follicles on a person's body!).

Certainly, heroic stories exist to communicate certain ideals of morality. Modern storytellers like to think they're weaving complex tales with multi-dimensional characters. Still, I can't help thinking that the underlying message is a lot simpler than even the authors believe.

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