For every great comic book superpower, there’s a support team of abilities that at least attempts to explain how people can use their powers without instantly killing themselves. It’s the reason you (almost) never see folks with super strength pulling a muscle because they forgot to lift with the knees.
Over the decades, plenty of these secondary superpowers have cropped up to explain away how physics seems to be repeatedly scrunched up and tossed out the window. Here are ten incredible secondary powers that often go completely ignored…but are actually astonishing abilities themselves.
Super Speed (with hyper-perception)
Power: Super Speed
Main Use: Speed that is super.
But actually… Super speed already comes with an impressive set of powers by itself, such as the power to not violently burst into flames due to friction and the ability to still breathe when moving at speeds exceeding Mach 5. Still, there’s one power that is criminally underused, which is that speedsters have the ability to think thousands of times faster than us regular folks.
Almost every speedster in existence has this ability; it’s what lets them run around streets without smacking into cars and ending up a smear every time they tried to turn a corner. It’s not just a sixth sense perception of where things are, either, as we see them burning through thick books in seconds and later retaining the knowledge.
If you have a decent amount of super speed, there’s no reason you should ever be taken by surprise, make the wrong decision or experience any panic whatsoever. With a thought, the entire world is suddenly moving in a slow-motion so extremely slow that they might as well have stopped, giving you unlimited time to figure things out, or learn German in the time it takes to brush your teeth.
What, Captain Cold is freezing the floor to make it slippery? Flash should’ve seen that and had the equivalent of about seven hours to figure out a counter-plan. Which would be “run around it.”
Why it’s Ignored: Because it would do to every story what Bane did to Batman’s spine that one time. It’s the reason that stories with speedsters are so inherently hard to write, because they have to be handed the idiot ball in every fight to stop them from ending things in a heartbeat, or just figuring out the solution to every problem with one second of real-time thought.
Shape-Shifting (with matter creation/destruction and superhuman senses)
Main Use: Replicating the appearance of a person down to their clothing and/or changing oneself into any animal.
But actually… Most shape-shifters use their powers for infiltration at some point. Mystique has made a habit of this, often transforming into someone to trick a retinal scan, or a thumbprint sensor, which if you think about it is absolutely nuts. She doesn’t just look like someone; she acquires their every tiniest intricacies, without having studied their retinas and thumbprints earlier. Either shape-shifters have massively enhanced senses that can copy and store details of a person from a quick glance, right down to their vocal chords and scent, or there’s some kind of magical shenanigans going on. This is without even going into the photographic memory you’d need to store all those faces and whip them out on a whim.
Animal transformation comes with an even greater ability: the creation (or destruction) of matter, which you might remember from science class as being physically impossible. Beast Boy can turn his frail, teenage body into that of a T-Rex, and it’s not like he’s just ‘unfolding’ himself. That would mean that the animal has the consistency of sugar-glass, and all that strength is worthless. Every time he (or Mystique, or anyone with this power) is shifting into a much larger or much smaller form, they’re completely re-writing the principles of matter by creating it from nothing, and then just folding it away by switching to a smaller form.
Why it’s Ignored: Because turning into a T-Rex is cool, and no one wants to sit through several pages of Mystique studying a retinal scan that she somehow acquired and transforming her eyeball 300 times until it’s just right.
Energy Blasts (with force redirection)
Power: Energy Blasts
Main Use: The blasting of energy, usually out of a person’s hands or eyes in a concussive beam (though there may also be heat involved).
But actually… Getting hit by an energy beam is usually enough to blast someone off their feet, if not clean through the nearest wall. That’s a whole lot of force, but it’s just so conveniently flashy and outwardly non-threatening that it’s become a comic book staple, particularly of those wielding technology.
If you’ve ever fired a gun, you’ll know first-hand the effects of recoil. There are videos of people using a machine gun for the first time and utterly failing due to the sheer power it produces, and even something as small as a handgun forces the barrel upwards every time it fires. Now imagine that you’re packing ten times the concussive force, but it’s coming right out of your face. According to the laws of physics, even a short laser burst should send you spinning across the room, if it doesn’t just snap your neck. The same goes for blasting energy out of your hands, which should really leave you flailing around like one of those stringy inflatable men outside car dealerships, except with more wanton destruction.
So people able to do this either have superhumanly strong arm/neck muscles that can withstand the force of the blast, or they’re able to disperse the force in some way, both of which are pretty powerful abilities in themselves. Force blasts don’t usually come with the ability to punch/headbutt your way through walls, so the manipulation of pure force is more likely. These people might as well be made of vibranium, able to divert damage to their bodies, if they could only harness this power to the full.
Why it’s Ignored: Because ‘PEW PEW LASERS’ is a comic book staple, and introducing actual physics would just spoil everyone’s fun. It has been addressed at times (Cyclops’ beams are actually coming from another dimension, as is the ‘push’ behind them) but otherwise, we can just chalk it up to the fact that we really don’t know how laser blasts would work when coming out of a person’s eyes. Because none of us have actually seen that.
Super Strength (with gravity manipulation)
Power: Super strength
Main Use: Strength at levels that may be described as ‘super’.
But actually… Super strength is just something we’ve come to accept, despite how many secondary powers have to be in play to make it work. For example, while superheroes are usually pretty buff, their muscle size doesn’t correspond to what they can actually lift. That’s why we’re okay with Krysten Ritter lifting up a car and not waking up with a hernia — we just assume that there are other forces at work.
But what about the object being lifted? Superman Returns showed us something closer to the real effects of trying to catch a falling plane, in that its own weight will tear itself apart regardless of how strong you are. In fact, the stronger a person is, the more likely they are to just rip through an object with their hands, or sink into the ground when they try to lift something massive.
The answer: either telekinesis or gravity manipulation. Several iterations of the Superman family have used the former explanation, with Superboy utilising “tactile telekinesis” in lieu of actual strength. This surrounds an object with telekinetic field that keeps it together, which is actually far more impressive than if he was just lifting it with his muscles. The second answer is even more powerful, since it assumes that all super-strength users are actually subtly manipulating gravity.
That’s why things don’t tear apart, the person doesn’t sink into the ground, they’re able to avoid the law of equal and opposite reaction, people without invulnerability don’t just snap all their bones when doing heavy lifting, and why you don’t need any real muscle-mass: the things they touch (or hit) are less affected by gravity, and can thus be tossed around like cardboard while avoiding most of the aforementioned problems. Less clear is, say, what happens when they arm wrestle with another super-strong person. Maybe they’d both end up just floating away?
Why it’s Ignored: Super strength might be even more prevalent than laser blasts. We know it doesn’t work, we’re okay with it anyway, and giving everyone gravity manipulation powers at this stage would just be exhausting.
Super Speed Again (with immense durability)
Power: Super speed, again
Main Use: See above
But Actually… We’ve already mentioned the slew of extra powers that most speedsters have to make them useful and keep them from dying in a number of horrible ways. One of these is glossed over with surprising regularity, given that it should be one of the most useful: durability, bordering on invulnerability.
Most speedsters have a reputation as fast-but-fragile. The Flash isn’t in the Justice League because he can take a beating, because that’s Superman’s job. It’s a rule that makes fighting a speedster fair: if you can actually hit him/her, they’re in trouble. That is, except if you’ve heard of something called “g-force.” Most humans can’t even approach moving at the speed of sound (Quicksilver’s usual speed) before g-forces start to deal permanent damage and even death. Even the likes of Quicksilver (whose powers are more grounded than those of The Flash) run faster than this out in the open. Speedsters therefore need ridiculously durable bodies to stop themselves being pulverized by their own speed. As for whomever they might be carrying…uh, something something Speed Force?
Why it’s Ignored: The aforementioned speedster rule. They’re overpowered enough as it is without being invulnerable, so they have to be reduced to zippy little glass cannons to give everyone a fighting chance.
Invisibility (with super vision)
Main Use: Making oneself invisible, which is usually explained by bending the light around themselves.
But actually… When you think of invisibility, it seems pretty simple. The person is just making themselves really see-through, right? Except mostly the above explanation is given, which would technically mean that the person using the power would be blind. They’re bending light around their whole body, which would technically divert all light away from their eyes and leave them permanently in the dark. Unless of course they wanted to fight crime as a floating pair of eyeballs.
Sue Storm has investigated this mystery, and she came up with the solution: her eyes can see through different light wavelengths. This is pretty cool in and of itself, but it should actually give herself a plethora of eye-related abilities. She should have perfect night vision, be able to see infrared wavelengths, pick up ultraviolet light, be completely immune to blinding flashes…and who knows where it stops? Maybe invisible people are able to see and comprehend more colors than a regular human, or perceive objects in much greater detail.
Flight (with a ton of bird powers)
Main Uses: Flying, sometimes with wings and other times under a person’s own power.
But actually… There are a number of very good reasons that humans can’t fly, and most of it is because we lack the supplementary equipment. For one thing, our wingspan would have to be both enormous and impractical; imagine lugging around a hang-glider on your back 24/7. Even if you can take to the air apropos of nothing like one of the many thousands of heroes who can do this, you’d still need a fully-comprehensive set of abilities, mostly the stuff that birds already have.
Avian species can survive up in the clouds due to their physiology granting them greatly increased lung capacity (the air up there is pretty thin), resistance against wind chill and velocity and eyes that actually work when 15,000 feet in the air and being buffeted by both wind and g-forces. Early versions of the Falcon had him just flying around without either superpowers or goggles. The writers eventually realized that he wouldn’t even be able to see and had to update his design.
Meanwhile, mutants like Angel have even more developed physiques, including a lack of body fat and a lighter bone structure to actually get you up there in the first place.
Why it’s Ignored: It’s not really “ignored,” as opposed to everyone just assuming that fliers have these abilities and leaving it at that. After all, you’re not going to fight crime with your air-resistant eyes and immunity to wind chill…except in very specific cases. And sure, these have come up in the past, but that’s no reason to insert Angel yelling “My lightweight bones will save the day!” into every issue.
Super Stretching (with invulnerability and super strength)
Power: Super Stretching/Elastication
Main Use: Being able to stretch to incredible lengths, and into any shape.
But actually… It can’t really be overstated how little these people resembles humans. Mr. Fantastic, Elongated Man, Plastic Man…unless their entire physiology changes from ordinary human to stretching superhero in an instant (and it doesn’t), then their bodies come with a stack of abilities that just keep them alive.
Most of those with stretching powers retain their strength, even when reaching around corners, under doors (which requires at least one part of them to be flat) and up to great heights. The bodily system that pumps blood to these elongated limbs must be at supercomputer levels of complexity, and their ability to retain the basic muscles to pick something up fifty feet away must mean that they’re incredibly strong in their base form; stretching just ‘dilutes’ that strength across distances.
Pumping blood is only one concern, however. What happens to Mr Fantastic’s organs when his body is five times as long as usual? Do they stretch as well? Is his voice changed when his neck is giraffe-sized? They presumably do (except for the voice thing), and they also exist in a state of constant fluidity that allows them to stretch at a moment’s notice. Stretchy people should be utterly resistant to damage, since trying to injure them at normal human size should be similar to trying to kill a wad of chewing gum. They’re also packing enough tissue to make themselves giant sized, so you’re essentially attacking a dense, nigh-impenetrable mass. And where did all of that mass even come from? It’s a deep rabbit hole.
Why it’s Ignored: Some of these abilities come and go, but having all of them at once is pretty rare. The Ultimate Mr Fantastic exists as a “bacterial stack” without any traditional organs, so presumably, they all do. It’s just kind of gross and best left unexplored.
Probability Manipulation (with reality warping/time travel)
Power: Probability manipulation
Main Use: Causing misfortune to people who try to harm you, and causing good fortune to you and your allies.
But actually… This one isn’t exactly right up there with super speed and strength, but a few characters have used this power over the years. Specific uses are causing guns to jam, bad guys to trip over things and stumbling across whatever the you’re trying to find. Or just making stuff explode. Because that’s…unfortunate?
But think about it for a second: why did the gun jam? Okay, that magic aura of misfortune, but actually, physically, it had to have happened some way. Someone didn’t load the bullet in the chamber correctly, the manufacturer cut corners, that henchman dropped the gun yesterday and this is the first time he’s used it since then…and what if someone was coming at you and tripped over a box? How did the box get there? If there hadn’t been a box, would they have tripped over their shoelaces, or been struck down by heart disease?
All of these are basically a mild form of time travel, with a bit of precognition thrown in. Your powers went forward in time, made sure that box would be there, messed up that gun barrel and made sure that henchman had a burrito for breakfast that morning so that he’d have a coronary. They didn’t just happen from nowhere, your powers just triggered them. In the future.
Even if these probability powers affected things in real time, that’s still amazing. There’s no invisible imp who zips around jamming guns and tying shoelaces together. These powers are physically changing the real world. In essence, it’s reality warping.
Why it’s Ignored: Most of the time, because probability powers have a vague magical element to them and can thus be explained away with “a wizard did it.” One notable exception: Scarlet Witch, who went from randomly making stuff explode to rewriting reality via temper tantrums. So basically, you either keep this power on the down low or you end up with that on your hands.
Telekinesis (with control over everything)
Main Use: Moving objects with the power of your mind
But actually… Telekinesis would be a pretty sweet power to have, if only because it’s a grab bag of loads of other powers. Included in the package is flight, power blasts, shockwaves, force-fields, being able to lift immensely heavy objects (usually a lot more than you would by using pure muscle power) and the all-important ability to retrieve objects from the other side of the room without getting up from your chair. Essentially, you have complete control over everything in your environment.
So…let’s think about that for a moment. Telekinesis isn’t just picking up objects. It’s utter control over anything and everything, which includes that which you can’t even see. Telekinetics have repeatedly shown the ability to ‘feel’ what they’re holding, so it’s not just like operating a forklift. Whatever they can see and feel, they have the power to manipulate in whichever way they choose. Telekinesis isn’t like using your fingers, either — psionic energy can fit into any space, so there’s nothing beyond their reach.
How far does this go? Well, Jean Grey has shown the ability to fuse pieces of diamond together through bonding them at the atomic level. The film version of Jean/Phoenix, regardless of what you may think of her depiction, is totally justified in ripping people and islands to nothing, because with a certain level of power, they can do what they like with atoms. With enough control, they could be reaching inside bodies and evaporating tumors.
But okay, sure, those things require massive power or incredibly fine-tuned control. Still, even a decent telekinetic (and we never really get to see any who aren’t this) should still reign supreme over their local area, due to the simple fact that their abilities are long-range and totally unblockable, due to being free-flowing psychic power. Faced with five angry guys with guns? Choose one of about fifteen different ways of taking them down. Trip them up, pin them to the floor, smack guns out of every hand, any way you like; if you can see it, it’s yours to play with. Faced with an angry Magneto? The fight should be over the moment Jean Grey gets him in her sights. Pin his arms to his sides, telekinetically punch his lights out and that’s the problem solved — he can’t do a thing to stop it. Or hey, just break his legs with a thought. Needs must.
Why it’s Ignored: Because like so many powers, telekinesis can break the story if its implications are explored. It’s much easier to show someone chucking heavy stuff around or just blasting someone with a predictable psychic ‘beam,’ rather than, say, them ripping the bad guys to atoms in an instant.
Along with every superpower, it’s all about the drama.
Which superpowers do you think are overlooked the most? Let us know in the comments.
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