Sunday, May 2, 2010

You Can Call Me Superman

All right, time to pull another question out of the Movie Tavern Mug.

"J.K., can you give us five examples of unexpected game breaking super powers?"

There are plenty of absurdly powerful superheroes and supervillains out there in the wide world of fiction. Take Superman, for instance. He's been known to take on physical gods, to fly through stars, and move planets. Or any of the Green Lanterns. While mostly what you see them do is create objects out of energy from their rings and shoot lasers, it's mentioned that they can do pretty much anything if they really put their minds to it. And don't get me started on anyone with the phrase "Reality Warping" in their power set!

But, some applications of powers are a little less straightforward. And sure, some of them might only work well in unusual circumstances, but others, with a little creativity, can be just as awesomely impressive as anything those living gods can throw.

1. Animal Powers, Animal Man

Compared to people who juggle planets, or who can run faster than the speed of light, a guy who can copy the powers of animals seems pretty lame. Sure, gorillas are strong, and cheetah are fast, but they can't do the things that other heroes do.

Well, sure, if you want to be straightforward about it. But then, who said the writer ever had to be straightforward? Meet Grant Morrison. He had an acclaimed run on JLA that is arguably what led to the Justice League cartoon, along with a controversial run on the X-Men. He's currently one of the major driving forces in the DC universe. But like all writers, he had to get his start somewhere. In his case, it was with a practically unknown, barely used character named Animal Man.

The result was a brilliant (if brief) run, considered to be a brilliant example of metafiction, and a landmark in the British Invasion of Comics (along with Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman's Sandman).

But of course, I'm not talking about the stories, now, am I? So, what cool things did Grant Morrison do to show off Animal Man's capabilities? Well, there are two main examples I can think of off the top of my head. First of all, at one point Animal Man had gotten his arm chopped off. He mimicked the talents of an earthworm in the ground beneath him and grew his arm back, in a level of healing that, at the time, even Wolverine would have been a little jealous of.

Secondly, there was a fight with a giant robot. Animal Man appeared to be outmatched. That is, until he mimicked the reflexes and perception of a fly. Suddenly, to him, the robot was moving in slow motion, and he could easily dismantle it.

And Animal Man's powers have only grown since. In the past couple years, his powers were enhanced so that he can now mimic not just terrestrial animals, but extraterrestrial ones as well. This makes the possibilities for his powers limitless. Not bad for a family man who became a hero by accident.

2. Stretchable Body, Plastic Man

Most people are familiar with stretchy powers, thanks to a member of a certain super family. They are less familiar with this guy, one of the earliest examples of this strechable paradigm of superhero, and I think that's a shame, because Plastic Man perhaps has the most imaginative uses of this type of power.

Most of the time when you see a character with this sort of power, you think, "Gee, they're going to stretch to punch that guy, or to reach that girl falling down a bridge, or wrap themselves around the bad guy to tie him up." One in a while, if you're real lucky, they'll flatten themselves out and act as a parachute, or as a net to catch debris.

Sure, Plastic Man COULD do all this, but why stop there? Plas happily stretches himself in such ways that he can mimic complex machines, and have them FUNCTION (as well as less complex objects). And half the times that he changes, it's largely for his own amusement! The only real limit to the amount he can change himself is the fact that he has trouble changing color!

And with his rubbery, mutable body, comes extreme durability. You hit him, he simply stretches along with your fist. Shoot him, his body stretches along with the bullets. He's been hammered, melted, turned to stone, turned into various animals, and even blown up, and he always manages to stretch back into his crazy old self.

These are just some of the reasons that, in an issue of the Justice League, when Superman-level hero Martian Manhunter went out of control (long story), they tapped this stretchy guy to fight him. Impressed by rubber powers now?

3. Mastery of Magnetism, Magneto

This example is one I was debating on not including, until I talked to some of my less geeky friends. Thanks to a cartoon in the nineties, and a certain movie franchise, pretty much everyone is familiar with this character. But most people I talk to, when they think of his powers, pretty much are of the mindset, "So he can move metal things around. Big deal." Aside from that iron in the blood trick he demonstrated in X-Men 2, most people I know weren't hugely impressed with him. But in reality, there is so much more to the scope of his powers.

Magnetism is not just a parlor trick used to move objects around; it's one of the things that dominates the way the universe runs. See, electromagnetism (as it is more properly called) is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, one of the simplest ways matter can interact. It's based upon the movement and existence of charge within objects. With the exception of gravity, it's pretty much the main force responsible for most of the things you'll run into in your daily life. Your inability to walk through walls is simply because of the interactions of the electromagnetic charge of the atoms that comprise your body and the atoms that comprise the wall. While it would be silly to give Magneto absolutely unlimited control over this force, you see now that there's more to his power than just throwing metal objects. Like what, you ask?

Well, one of his most basic tricks is his ability to create a force field out of charged particles. This gives him a great level of durability (beyond just stopping bullets, it can stop punches, lasers, and whatever the writer happens to find convenient), and if he put his mind to it, could be used as a deadly weapon. Additionally, he can manipulate various forms of radiation-


I am being serious. Look, radiation as we know it is simply an artifact of moving electromagnetic fields. So light, infrared, UV, gamma rays? When he really wants to, he can manipulate all of them. He is capable of microwaving parts of your anatomy that you didn't know you had. Suddenly, that helmet of his seems a lot less dorky, doesn't it?

And before I get chewed out by nerds, yes, I'm aware Cosmic Boy of the Legion of Superheroes came first, and did some of these tricks before he did.

4. Ice Powers, Iceman

Compared to the later members of the team, the five original X-Men seem a little lackluster by comparison. I mean, you've got Cyclops with eye lasers, fine. Marvel Girl is a telekinetic (a weak one at first), fine. But then you've got Angel, Beast, and Iceman. Angel just had a pair of wings and could fly, Beast was essentially as strong and as agile as an ape, and Iceman could shoot snow and ice beams. Sheesh, no wonder they decided to give four of the five original members upgrades. Of course, they did this in different ways: Marvel Girl/Jean Grey through training and a cosmic level being, Angel and Beast through some mad science, and Iceman partially through the logical physics of his powers, and partially through adding a power to him later.

When most people think of "cold" based powers, they think of it as some form of energy that the character throws at the target. In reality, what we perceive as "heat" is merely random kinetic energy within molecules, so a cold beam is the opposite of that: it's the sucking out or dispersal of random kinetic energy from a location. This is actually why one of the Flash's perennial villains, Captain Cold, has a cold gun. He had no interest in freezing anything, he merely wanted a weapon that would suck "speed" in the form of kinetic energy from the Flash; the icy effects were merely a side effect.

Now, take the concept of that weapon, and make it built into a being. Suddenly, you've got a character who can potentially cease all molecular motion within a system WHO CANNOT BE DISARMED. Suddenly, Iceman seems a lot scarier.

But, of course, that wasn't all they did to him. Up until the nineties, Iceman's "transformation" into superhero mode consisted of covering himself either with snow or with a thing, flexible layer of ice. I believe it was writer Mike Carey (of Lucifer fame) who decided that this was stupid, and gave Iceman an ongoing mutation. Instead of just covering himself with ice armor, he gained the ability to actually turn into a being made of ice. And while he is made of ice, he can still use his cold powers to make more ice, to add to his body, which gives him greater physical strength, to the point that he was able to take on (an albeit powered down) Juggernaut one on one and win.

"But wait, ice melts and evaporates," I hear a few of you skeptics in the audience say. Yes, that is true, but the writers thought of that as well. The few times Iceman has been liquified, he's simply reformed himself with his cold powers later. And at least once, when he was blown up in human form, his body reflexively changed into snow, evaporated, and then reformed at a later date. That's right: we potentially have a super strong, giant, invincible being capable of removing massive quantities of kinetic energy from a system. Who's the chump now?

5. Plant Control, Swamp Thing

Most of you are probably familiar with this character thanks to an awesomely bad movie or an extremely cheesy cartoon from the late eighties, early nineties. In fact, years ago, when my brother told me there was a Swamp Thing comic book series in the eighties, and that it was actually awesome, I flat out didn't believe him. I mean, seriously, what the Hell could a swamp monster d-HOLY CRAP!

To say nothing of the stories (which ranged from topics like the nature of good and evil to PMS Werewolves), Alan Moore took a previously lame character and showed off what you can REALLY do with plant powers when you are, in fact, made of plants. Even starting from the first issue of Alan Moore's run, with the line, "You can't kill a vegetable by shooting it in the head," we begin to see that there was way more potential for this being than just being a generic monster. And it only gets bigger from there. Whenever Swamp Thing needed to travel anywhere from then on, he would simply create a new body out of whatever plant material was available in the area he was going, and then abandon his old body. He even used this to travel from planet to planet. He also at least once caused the plant matter in a meal someone had eaten to cause uncontrollably from within them. And then there was the time he turned Gotham City into a jungle because they had jailed his girlfriend. Batman, the guy who knows how to defeat everybody, gave up in the face of Swamp Thing.

Thanks to Alan Moore, Swamp Thing went from a shambling plant zombie to an implacable, unstoppable force of nature, capable of wiping out civilization and replacing it with a giant, unkempt forest, and yet the stories were still interesting. Be glad Swampy's on our side, folks.


So you see, folks, just because your character doesn't throw mountains or punch comets, or fart moonbeams or whatever, doesn't mean they're any less of a hero than another character. Ultimately, heroism comes from the heart of the character, and a good story is based around some level of conflict and suspense. Still, doesn't mean we don't enjoy seeing creative applications of powers from time to time.

This is J. K. Lantern, signing off for now!

1 comment:

  1. because of that dress move, plastic man is my new favorite super hero.