When he was first introduced in Action Comics #1, back in April 1938 by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, Superman set the precedent for what comic book readers would come to expect from superheroes - planting early seeds that, over the course of 80 years, would grow into some of the biggest brands in pop culture history. Marvel Studios might have been the first to get a shared comic book movie universe off the ground but long before Stan Lee introduced the world to Avenger heroes like Iron Man and Spider-Man, Superman was wowing readers (and later TV viewers) with other-wordly abilities - and, above all else, a moral commitment to protecting human life.
Throughout the character's many comic book, TV, movie, and video game incarnations, the Man of Steel has faced numerous challenges (even death) but with a god-like set of superpowers, the hero usually comes out victorious. Now, thanks to Warner Bros., Superman is facing one of his toughest foes, this time on the big screen: Batman. In honor of the titular face-off in Batman V Superman, we're unpacking Kal-El's superpower arsenal, taking a look back at the coolest Superman abilities in comic books and movies - some of which are more canonized than others. As usual, our list is not all-inclusive, so make sure to share your favorite powers in the comment section.
16 Solar Energy Absorption
As the Superman character developed over the years, DC writers have attempted to provide real world-based explanations for the hero's super powers. Originally, the reason behind Superman's abilities was not detailed (beyond his extra-terrestrial heritage); however, the modern Superman receives his abilities from stored-up solar energy - via Earth's yellow sun. Superman's body metabolizes energy from the sun (similar to how humans metabolize energy from their food), then uses that energy to fuel his various super powers (with the added benefit of slowing the kryptonian's aging). Like most life forms, Superman can also store excess energy for later use and most versions of the character can access Kal-El's primary power set without intentional absorption of energy (since some yellow sun rays reach Earth naturally).
However, in certain situations Superman can choose to over-charge, granting him additional abilities - and, when needed, enhanced healing. Conversely, if the Kryptonian over-uses his super powers without the chance to recharge, he can exhaust his reserve energy - becoming weakened and even vulnerable to injury.
15 Superhuman Sensory
While Superman's ability to absorb solar energy grants him access to a wide-variety of supernatural abilities (more on those later), several of Kal-El's key powers are mostly heightened (read: solar power-enhanced) versions of normal human sensation - allowing the Kryptonian to see, hear, smell, and speak farther than a normal person, by comparison. Campy applications of superhuman sensory (such as animal-like smelling capability and cross-planet-ventriloquism) were abandoned in favor of highlighting Superman's enhanced vision and listening - allowing the hero to see as well as hear farther, and with more specificity, than local Earthlings.
Still, superhuman sensory is also depicted as a curse as much as a superpower (especially when exploring Superman's adolescence) - since Kal-El is, by default, inundated with sights and sounds that he cannot filter. Even as an adult, with a mastery of his abilities and finely-tuned skill in sifting through all the stimuli he receives, the sheer volume of people crying out for help at any given moment has, in many Superman stories, taken an emotional toll on the hero.
14 X-Ray Vision
An extension of Superman's enhanced sensory, X-Ray vision has been part of Kal-El's skill set since shortly after the character's debut. The exact mechanics of kryptonian X-Ray vision have varied over the years but the result is the same: Superman can see through objects - giving him tactical advantages in battle and allowing for swift response to crises. No single explanation for the power exists; though, the most "scientific" theory suggests the ability is a hyper-focused variation of Kal-El's super-sight - specifically that Superman can perceive the resonance of cosmic radiation as it bounces off of solid matter.
Of course, that theory falls short in explaining why Superman can't see through lead - a short-coming that makes sense only if the Man of Steel was actually sending out actual X-Rays (since regular use of radiation would be a danger to the people around him, especially the target of his X-Ray scan). Regardless of the science behind the ability, there's no doubt that X-Ray vision is one of Superman's more unique abilities - one that has provided plenty of fun (and badass) moments throughout comic book history.
An obscure Superman power, that has only been used in a few instances (and hasn't, so far, been included in modern Superman stories), Kryptonians have been shown to use telekinesis both in print and on film (Superboy in The New Adventures of Superboy and Zod in Superman II). Back when DC comic writers weren't particularly concerned with the longterm implications of a standalone story, the already over-powered Superman was, in isolated instances, teased to be telekinetic as well - especially depending on how fans interpret the idea of "tactile telekinesis." Tactile telekinesis attempted to explain why Superman could pick up a jetliner by the nose without the entire airplane buckling from the pull of gravity on the tail-end (for example) - asserting that the hero was surrounded by a telekinetic aura that engulfed anything he touched - resulting in both physical and electromagnetic field manipulation to evenly distribute force across an object through only one point of contact.
Eagle-eyed fans of Man of Steel will know that in Zack Snyder's reboot, both Kal-El and Zod are shown to cause the levitation of items around them when they, themselves, take flight; implying a similar power could be hinted at. Still, Superman's most apparent (albeit controversial) use of telekinesis occurs in the movie Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, when Kal-El repairs the Wall of China (which had been damaged by Nuclear Man) using only his eyes.
12 Freezing Breath
Another of Superman's more iconic super powers, freeze breath is an extension of Kal-El's heightened strength - which allows him to inhale and exhale high volumes of air. At multiple points in Superman canon, the kryptonian has inhaled airborne toxins and other dangers (including an entire tornado) - until he could safely exhale the contents of his lungs in an unpopulated area. Comic writers have, mostly, avoided any attempt to explain how Superman could pack a full-blown storm system inside his body; however, freeze breath is, by comparison, relatively easy to explain - thanks to the real-life Joule–Thomson effect.
The effect shows that compressed air, rapidly pushed through a restricted opening rapidly reduces the overall temperature of the burst. This means Superman, who can forcefully exhale at high velocity and pressure, could turn the burst into an arctic blast - by intentionally directing the air through pursed lips.
11 Super Speed
For decades Superman's speed was identified as "faster than a speeding bullet"; however, measurement of the hero's top speed has varied significantly over the years. Definition of "faster than a speeding bullet" would differ by gun and ammunition type but roughly 450 meters per second - much slower than later iterations of the character (who is fast as the Flash). As mentioned before, Superman's powers come from stored solar energy - with the ability to over-charge his powers. For that reason, certain tests of his speed, moving faster than the speed of light (186,000 miles a second), for example, could be considered outliers - rather than an average measurement. A more conservative but still impressive estimate clocks modern versions of the character at roughly 2,000 miles a second.
That said, super speed isn't just about max distance covered in minimal time - as Superman also possesses enhanced reflexes and a relative perception of time - making him a dangerous hand-to-hand combatant. This means that the Man of Steel can quickly react to the actions of others as well as assess his environment much quicker than humans. This isn't to say that Superman necessarily slows time or perceives normal time differently than humans by default but, at the very least, the hero is capable of heightened in-the-moment focus, allowing him to rapidly process and react to external stimuli.
Given Superman's arch nemesis is an evil-genius, many comic enthusiasts often frame the ongoing battle between Kal-El and Lex Luthor as a story of brawn versus brains. Similarly, altercations between Batman and Superman feature a similar setup - as the Dark Knight must outsmart the Man of Steel with various Bat-gadgets, strategy, and kryptonite traps in order to stand a chance. However, while brains have certainly been one way that opponents attempted to out-maneuver Superman's god-like power set, most versions of Kal-El also depict the hero with genius-level intellect (not to mention access to Krypton's advanced library of knowledge). Without question, versions of Superman have been blunt instruments; yet, others present the hero as an inventive and wise scientist with a thirst to solve as many of the world's problems through peace and knowledge (rather than super powers).
Thanks to his kryptonian genetics, Kal-El was already predisposed to a high IQ but, like many of Kal-El's other abilities in modern incarnations, the yellow sun has further enhanced the Man of Steel's ability to process information - affording him an eidetic memory and, as suggested in our super speed entry, the ability to arrive at inventive solutions to problems - even mid-battle.
Possibly the Man of Steel's most iconic power, and a key part of the marketing campaign for Superman: The Movie, flight has been essential to the hero ever since his creation. Still, the explantation behind, and limitations of, the character's gravity-defying power differ - depending on which version of the character. Originally, Superman's "flight" was an extension of his strength - as the super-strong hero could leap higher and farther than humans. Later, it was explained that Kryptonians had evolved under harsher conditions (a red sun) - developing anatomy that, by nature, pushed-back against gravity. As a result, with a lower gravitational force on Earth, Superman would enjoy increased freedom from gravity's restrictions.
Still, other Superman writers have provided a more straightforward explantation: Superman can simply manipulate his personal gravitational field, allowing him to outright defy gravity - e.g. hovering in mid-air and pushing heavy objects away from Earth's surface. Viewers who watched Man of Steel will see that jumping alone isn't enough to keep Superman airborne (at least in the modern movie universe) and that actual flight requires practice; instead, Superman is shown lifting and spinning ice particles before erupting into the sky - implying that he isn't just pushing off or jumping, he's consciously manipulating his surrounding gravitational force.
Like telekinesis, Kal-El has only used telepathy on a few isolated occasions; still, however obscure, the hero has communicated telepathically and/or altered a person's memories. Nevertheless, of all the powers on this list, mind-control and telepathic communication are the least likely to return in a modern Superman story or film installment. Telepathic mind-control is relegated to 1940s Man of Steel (example: Superman #45 - March 1947) - a time when comic book writers were gifting the hero with loads of bizarre abilities that were suited for standalone issues rather than building a consistent mythology.
Similarly, examples of Kal-El communicating with or altering the mind of another person are limited to live-action - with Superman II offering the most famous example: manipulating Lois Lane's memories, specifically knowledge that Clark Kent is Superman, with a mind-erasing kiss. Similarly, the TV show Lois and Clark suggested kryptonians could communicate telepathically - a mostly 0ne-off idea and not a canonized element of core Superman canon. While almost any power is possible within Superman mythology, and there's always a chance that telepathy and mind-control could be re-introduced, for now it's safe to assume that most DC writers do not consider the niche power to be a standard pillar of Superman's power set.
7 Clark Kent
A mild-mannered alter-ego might not seem like a cool super power but there's no question that Superman wouldn't be the man he is without the time he spends living among humanity. Not only did John and Martha Kent instill Kal-El with humility as well as a longing to serve and protect mankind, the pair also helped their adopted son develop a disguise that he could wear in public: Clark Kent.
The mask of bumbling and awkward Clark Kent only works in contrast to Superman's god-like persona. Meaning that it is Superman's unwavering commitment to living as a "normal" man, playing off expectations and enduring humiliation as a clumsy oaf, that makes his camouflage so believable. Blending in as Clark Kent might not be Superman's most impressive trait but it is one of the hero's most important traits. Like other aspects of the character (super speed and strength, etc), Clark Kent is an example of Kal-El actively holding back - putting on an act and working to not use his powers, to live as a member of the human race (and protect those he loves from the dangers of his secrets).
6 Heat Vision
Many of Superman's powers are derived by absorbing and metabolizing solar energy from Earth's yellow sun - then using that energy to fuel super strength, speed, and other enhanced abilities. One of the more literal examples of this process is Superman's heat vision - which allows the hero to emit stored solar energy as directed beams of focused heat through his eyes. The beams have varied in precision and strength throughout the years but have been shown to reach objects over a hundred feet away and, conversely, feature surgical accuracy - down to microscopic levels. Depending on the situation and intensity of the emission, Superman's heat vision can be invisible to the naked eye - allowing the hero to use the power, albeit sparingly, even when disguised as Clark Kent.
In modern versions of the character, a new evolution of heat vision was introduced to the Man of Steel: the "super flare." Using the same mechanics as heat vision, Superman can unleash a devastating attack on his surrounding environment - by venting the stored solar energy in every single one of his cells. The super flare is possibly the hero's most powerful ability but comes with a downside - expelling all of his stored up solar energy leaves Kal-El vulnerable and without powers, essentially human, for nearly 24 hours (the time it takes him to recharge his solar stores).
5 Kryptonian Technology
Technically not a natural power, Superman's use of kryptonian technology is still an essential part of his repertoire. The Man of Steel has utilized a wide range of kryptonian (and other alien) technologies over his eighty years in print but many of the hero's most interesting tech is housed inside the Fortress of Solitude. The exact contents of Superman's home-away-from-home differs between comic series and across a variety of mediums, but the Fortress has played a pivotal role in many of the hero's greatest storylines. In particular, The Death of Superman saw Kal-El's critically injured body returned to the Fortress of Solitude and placed inside the regeneration matrix to be rejuvenated - a feat that required both the hero's inherent regenerative power coupled with advanced technology.
The Fortress contains a lot of intriguing things (including the bottle world of Kandor) but access to an expansive library of kryptonian knowledge and artificial intelligence programs have supplied Kal-El's genius-level intellect with limitless learning opportunities and Earth-saving resources. At the most basic level, Superman has even co-opted Kryptonian technologies to develop one of the hero's most iconic features: the supersuit. Some stories have posited that "Ma" Kent's hand-stitched supersuit was resistant to normal wear and tear because Superman's solar-charged cells emit a protective bio-electrical aura (more on that soon), but other comic writers have, conversely, delivered stories in which the cape and suit itself are derived from Kryptonian biotech - near-indestructible extra-terrestrial fabrics and chemical compounds from Kal-El's home planet.
Like many Superman abilities, the justifications behind kryptonian invulnerability vary; however, the most common explanation is a combination of solar absorption and natural kryptonian physiology. As previously detailed, Krypton's red sun caused the kryptonians to evolve under extremely harsh conditions, in comparison to Earth, affording the extra-terrestrial race with an extremely dense molecular structure - including near-unbreakable cellular bonds (that also slow the hero's aging process). As a result, the Man of Steel is invulnerable to injury - be it piercing, puncture, impact, and incineration. Still, absorbing yellow sun is necessary for Superman to maintain this invulnerability - as metabolized solar energy fuels and strengthens those near-unbreakable cellular bonds. If Kal-El depletes his solar stores or is exposed to kryptonite materials, he becomes increasingly vulnerable to attack and injury as well.
Certain versions of Superman also feature a "bio-electric aura" that contributes to the hero's invulnerability as well as, depending on the writer, explanations for Kal-El's "tactile telekinesis" and/or flight (not to mention the durability of the supersuit). The bio-electric aura surrounds objects and organisms in Superman's immediate vicinity, making it possible for Kal-El to protect Lois Lane, for example, from a deadly explosion without having to cover every square inch of her body. The strength and range of Superman's bio-electric aura varies but, in an extreme case, enabled the hero to survive a supernova.
Even though Superman has retired "the American way" in his "never ending battle for truth and justice," it cannot be understated that virtue and a longing to protect innocent life through peace (rather than conflict) is essential to Superman mythology. Borrowing words from another superhero, "With great power, comes great responsibility," god-like super powers, in the wrong hands, could spell supervillainy rather than superheroism. In spite of his powers, the Man of Steel has rarely strayed from lessons of honor and virtue that were instilled in young Clark Kent by his adoptive parents. Darker other-verse Superman stories (Red Son and Injustice: Gods Among Us) have explored what Earth would be like under the rule of a malevolent Man of Steel. Injustice, especially, features a one-time honorable Superman that has abandoned virtue in favor of tyranny - believing that oppressing humanity and stamping out conflict at any cost is the only way to achieve peace.
The danger of kryptonian power in the hands of a Superman who might not have humanity's best interest at heart makes it clear that while virtue isn't Superman's most exciting ability, it may be the most important. Superman's Justice League partners, Batman and Wonder Woman, have often reflected on the importance of Kal-El's virtue, summed up by the following exchange between Batman and Wonder Woman: Batman - "For all his abilities, he never abuses his power." Wonder Woman - "And that's what makes him Superman."
2 Super Strength
Initially described as "more powerful than a locomotive," Kal-El's super strength has increased significantly over the years. While no exact measurement of the hero's strength exists, Superman has, on multiple occasions, moved or destroyed entire planets. As previously explained, Superman's strength (as well as endurance) are derived from stored solar energy - which provide fuel to his inherently dense molecular structure and bio-electric aura, allowing Kal-El to move with superhuman force (all without injury to himself). For that reason, Superman's raw power is incalculable - since his strength is not a uniform benchmark and can be diminished or amplified by other conditions and external factors. Still, for those looking for an estimated measurement, modern depictions suggest the kryptonian is capable of lifting nearly six sextillion metric tons (read: at least 5.972 sextillion metric tons).
While it's easy to list-off Superman's various (and numerous) feats of strength, the hero has often asserted that super strength is easy for him - whereas super restraint is the real challenge. Superman describes the difficulty of living in a world where his kryptonian strength is almost unbearably hard to manage (much less hide) - especially considering the hero's no-killing policy. Conversely, Kal-El revels in opportunities to unleash his full strength (fighting super villains like Darkseid) who challenge him physically and can endure the unchecked force of his attacks.
1 Honorable Mentions
We covered a few of Superman's more obscure powers but telepathy and telekinesis aren't the only examples of wacky abilities that comic book, TV, and movie writers have gifted the Man of Steel in his eighty-year history. For that reason, we're including a few of Superman's weirdest and/or mythology-breaking abilities below.
- Self-Double - Adventures of Superman (1953) Season 1, Episode 9 "Rescue": When Lois Lane is trapped underground after attempting to rescue a local miner, Superman does not have time to save them both. Instead of leaving the miner to die, so that Lois can live, Superman miraculously splits into two separate Supermen - allowing him/them to rescue Lois and the miner.
- Shapeshifting - Superman #45 (1947): When aliens trap Superman, the hero manages to escape by contorting (twisting and turning) all of the muscles in his body - until he resembles one of the alien guards.
- Reverse Time - Superman: The Movie (1978): While Superman has, in the comics, managed to travel back in time (by flying faster than light), Superman has only "reversed" time in Superman: The Movie - in order to prevent Lois Lane's death.
With countless versions of Superman across a wide variety of entertainment mediums, our list is not definitive, leaving plenty of room for our commenters to weigh-in!
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice will be in theaters on March 25th, 2016; Suicide Squad on August 5th, 2016; Wonder Woman – June 23rd, 2017; Justice League – November 17th, 2017; The Flash – March 23rd, 2018; Aquaman – July 27th, 2018; Shazam – April 5th, 2019; Justice League 2 – June 14th, 2019; Cyborg – April 3rd, 2020; Green Lantern – June 19th, 2020.
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