Superheroes are only as strong as their weaknesses. Without limitations, the legends of Marvel and Detective Comics would be about as exciting as watching reruns of The Golden Girls. It’s the element of surprise that keeps things fresh. Many superhero weaknesses have evolved over the years, not simply to rejuvenate the characters, but to fix certain vulnerabilities that have become the laughing stock of the comics world.
Superman is crippled by Kryptonite, we all know that one. This list is targeted at the truly absurd weaknesses that plague heroes and villains across the galaxy. From tree bark to cigarette lighters, asbestos minerals to bondage, and the color yellow to organic goods, some superheroes were cursed with patently ridiculous limitations. These aren’t just forgotten characters or second-rate good guys and bad guys, either. No, they’re the best of the best, like Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, The Riddler, and more.
Here are the 15 Most Embarassing Superhero Weaknesses.
15 Martian Manhunter: Matches
He’s one of the most fearsome and powerful superheroes in the galaxy. Nearly every imaginable power is within his grasp, and he can even beat Superman. Despite all of these claims to fame, Martian Manhunter is totally humbled by flames. According to Batman in Justice League: The New Frontier, he doesn’t need a blowtorch – just a book of matches to get the party started. Yes, fire is J’onn J’onzz undoing, and in addition to scalding his exterior, it scrambles his most prized weapon of all: his masterful mind. So intense is the Manhunter’s fear of fire that when he is exposed to flame, he has the capacity to self-destruct, either combusting into bits or dissolving into rivers of Martian liquid.
Long before Martian Manhunter and his ilk existed, a vile race of aliens called “the Burning” caused great conflagrations to propagate their species. After the Guardians of the Universe separated the offspring into the White Martians and Green Martians, they imbued them with a congenital pyrophobia.
14 Captain Marvel Jr: Saying His Name Out Loud
You know what they say: Freddy Freeman is just a name away! That’s right, Captain Marvel Jr., the boy who inspired Elvis Presley’s wardrobe, can’t say his own name without losing his superpowers. On the one hand, Freddy the cripple only needs to say “Captain Marvel” to activate, but if he says the name mid-fight, he immediately goes back to his Tiny Tim self, courtesy of lightning bolts from the wizard Shazam. From joining superhero teams under an alias to not being able to introduce himself at frat parties, Captain Marvel Jr. is forced to use a nome de plume and suffer from one of the most embarrassing weaknesses of all.
Though this might have initially seemed like a clever limitation, it presented a bevy of problems for the writers of Captain Marvel Jr. In the mid-‘90s, Jerry Ordway went out on a limb to avoid this conundrum, having boy wonder call himself “CM3” in Teen Titans. Unsurprisingly, this new alias didn’t last very long.
13 Daredevil: "Loud Noises!"
Many superheroes have the capacity to become enfeebled by the same powers that give them strength. For Matt Murdock, his loss of vision took away the natural gift of eyesight and replaced it with echolocation, a uncanny radar sense that allows him to practically see via sound. By the same token, however, Murdock has an incredible sensitivity to unexpected noises, deafening sounds, and even malodorous scents. Though his alter-ego, Daredevil, could go toe-to-toe with anyone in a fight, he will get utterly emasculated by a stink bomb or a cacophony of supersonic sound. As has happened numerous times, the repeated reverberations of a high-pitched sound will render him unconscious.
In Daredevil, Volume 2: West-Case Scenario, he is subjected to a high-decibel (120, to be exact) ultrasound by the dastardly Purple Man, who knows his weapon “is excruciating for a man of [Daredevil’s] gifts.” Daredevil’s head spins and he looks like a man under a sorcerer’s spell, leaving him completely vulnerable to a follow-up attack.
12 The Flash: Excessive Speed
The death of Barry Allen was hugely significant. As he followed through with his self-sacrifice and ran to the point of dissolution in his fight against the Anti-Monitor, most readers were too absorbed in his shocking death to notice much else. It was dramatic, devastating, and heroic, ranking among the most important deaths in comics history.
Then again, over thirty years have passed since Barry Allen got stranded in the Speed Force. Time heals all wounds, and as we look back at the reason for The Flash’s death, the mechanisms for that plot point appear less convincing. In essence, Barry basically ran so fast that he atomized himself. Where was the heads up on this? Even in the moment, the Flash complains about the pain of running so fast like he’d never experienced it before: “Lord it hurts so much…but I have no choice.” None of Barry’s mentors or cohorts warned him that speed was his Achilles heel, leaving him to find out for himself in the thick of battle.
11 Superman: Pink Kryptonite
Say what you will about the emerald rocks from outer space; they’re simultaneously the most famous superhero weakness of all time as well one of the most arbitrary and bizarre. Leaving the green stuff for another conversation, Superman has faced an even stranger vulnerability: pink kryptonite. In Supergirl Vol. 4 #79, Superman becomes particularly flamboyant in an alternate Earth One timeline. After getting exposed to pink kryptonite, the Man of Steel gets more excited about Jimmy Olsen’s apparel than ever before. As if he’s at New York Fashion Week, Superman looks haughtily down at the resident photographer and observes, “Did I ever tell you how smashing you look in bowties, Jimmy?”
But that’s not all. Fundamentally altered from the pink kryptonite, Superman also takes in the sights and sounds of the office, complimenting Jimmy on the “fabulous window treatment [you’ve] put together.” Jimmy looks deeply concerned by the whole incident, and Lois is clearly taken aback by her man’s overnight evolution. When she asks her colleague what happened, her friend replies, “Lois, you so don’t want to know.”
10 The Riddler: Wanting to Get Caught
From the Adam West days to the present, Batman has been consistently foiling the Riddler’s most devious plans. Everything about Edward Nygma hinges on narcissism, inspiring him to marvel at his own genius and lay the groundwork for getting caught. From one of his earliest comic appearances all the way to the present, the Riddler has seldom been able to complete a crime without leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in his wake. It’s an obsessive compulsive disorder that makes him a good fit for Batman, but a relatively weak threat in the Rogues Gallery as a whole.
Whether he relies on linguistics, pictures, or something more perverse, the Riddler’s best paradoxes are almost always solvable. There’s a reason his villainy was best played in the 1960s TV show, when the campy tone and destined victory of Batman and Robin merited such silly puzzles. Like the majority of his riddles, Edward Nygma’s primary weakness has prevented him from becoming a truly malevolent villain.
9 Johnny Storm: Asbestos
In the 1960s, asbestos had yet to become the demonized mineral that it is today. Considering the writers for the Human Torch needed a worthwhile villain to snuff out his flame, and because asbestos was the ideal fire retardant (seen for centuries as a "magical" property), it made sense to stay literal and put the Asbestos Man in the ring.
In Strange Tales #111, Asbestos Man dials up Johnny Storm and arranges a showdown. Though the Human Torch wasn’t terribly excited, he agreed to the fight and showed up totally underprepared. The Asbestos Man used his carcinogenic strengths to humble his opponent. Armed with a super-asbestos suit, a fire-retardant shield and a fisherman’s net, the Asbestos man wreaked havoc on the Human Torch until he developed mesothelioma and needed an oxygen tank to keep alive. Seriously. In 2012, the California Asbestos Legal Center actually applauded the villain for helping draw attention to the dangerous mineral, lauding him as “a lasting reminder of the significant cover-up perpetrated by the asbestos industry.”
Though a weak villain for Johnny Flame, Asbestos Man was a hero for America at large.
8 Venom: A Cigarette Lighter
Martian Manhunter isn’t the only one vulnerable to a book of matches. Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis, Venom, will go from predator mode to pansy in two seconds at the sight of a flame. In the 2000 edition of Spider-Man #16, our web-slinging hero is stuck between the pavement and Venom’s shark mouth with no escape. Though he’s stuck in the villain's arms, a random Stan Lee-doppelganger businessman storms onto the scene and flips a cigarette lighter to the impending victim: “Spider-Man! Catch!” Talk about a deus ex machina.
Venom balks at the sight of the two-inch flame, shouting, “Argh! Fire! You know my symbiotic other cannot tolerate fire!” After briefly reminding readers why he’s about to lose his mind (and his black suit), Venom jumps off Spider-Man and screams. Spidey then declares, “Yes, I know. Because every other time I beat you the same way!” You’d think after a near-death experience like this, Spider-Man would keep a zippo or two in his suit for the unexpected Venom showdown.
7 Gladiator: No Confidence
He can shatter a planet, freeze one with his breath, and melt one with his eyes. He can keep up with the Flash, fly at warp speed, and survive the death of a star. What’s more, he ages at only a fraction of the average superhero, but there’s much more to him than being really, really ridiculously good looking. Despite all of these feats, Gladiator is only as good as his self-esteem. When he’s pumped up and feeling good, the world (and universe) is his oyster. When he sinks into the doldrums of depression, however, he has all of the superhero strength of a dust mite.
Get him to doubt himself or bring up an ex-girlfriend, and Gladiator gets a thumbs-down in the arena. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can kill the Gladiator. In War of Kings, Rocket Raccoon harassed Gladiator, pulled a Christmas Story and basically told him “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” With Gladiator feeling even shorter than his furry opponent, Rocket KO’d him and said, “Never doubt a raccoon.”
6 Green Lantern: The Color Yellow
There’s nothing quite as demeaning as Batman, painted the color of your weakness, drinking a glass of lemonade, and judging you. This is where we find the Dark Knight and Hal Jordan in Frank Miller’s loved and despised All-Star Batman & Robin. Being the militant hero that he is, Batman ordered Robin to paint an entire room (and themselves) yellow to taunt the Green Lantern. In addition to freely calling the yellow weakness one of the dumbest he’s ever heard of, Batman will enjoy exploiting it to the maximum effect.
Due to an inherent impurity in the Green Lanterns’ rings, they have no effect on anything with the color yellow. Because this weakness proved so remarkably lame, the writers retconned it to say that the real impurity was Parallax, who had been trapped in the Lantern Corps’ Central Power Battery. However you slice it, Green Lantern’s weakness to a color is forever etched into his comics history. Green Lantern has been mocked by Barry Allen with a yellow umbrella, stalled by a yellow lamp, and even beaten by an “invisible yellow aura.”
5 Wonder Woman: Getting Tied Up By A Man
Proto-feminist that he was, William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman to be a “feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.” Outfitted with incredible strengths and powers, Wonder Woman seemed nearly unbeatable, if it weren’t for her weakness to being bound by men. Though none of these weaknesses apply to her any longer (and certainly not in the DCEU), Golden Age Wonder Woman could be rendered effete if her “Bracelets of Submission” were tied together by a man. With tears in her eyes and a chain around her neck, Wonder Woman exclaims, “It is Aphrodite’s Law! When an Amazon Girl permits a man to chain her bracelets of submission together she becomes weak as other women in a man-ruled world!”
This quote is a quiet rebuke of patriarchal norms of the mid-20th century. Despite her enslavement, Wonder Woman cries not because she was assaulted, but because she allowed a man to chain her. This weakness is less literal than metaphorical, meant to demonstrate Marston’s argument that women are only vulnerable to men when they choose to be.
4 Thor: 60 Seconds Without His Hammer
If you’ve never heard of “the sixty-second rule,” you’re not alone. Walter Simonson did everyone a favor and banned Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s original limitation for the God of Thunder. Way back when, villains simply had to distract Thor for a single minute and convince him to let go of his dear hammer, Mjolnir. After sixty seconds had passed, it became a free-for-all of heroes and villains lunging at the hammer. As the rule stated, anyone who the claimed the hammer would therefore inherit Thor’s natural powers while the demigod returned to his lowly human state as Donald Blake, the medical student.
Until Walter Simonson did away with the rule in 1984, Thor had lost his hammer many times over. It’s no wonder the Marvel Cinematic Universe decided to keep the purity of Thor Odinson, rather than introduce Donald Blake and the loathsome 60-second rule that accompanies him.
3 Power Girl: “Raw, Unprocessed Natural Material”
Call her the "anti-organic" superhero. In one of the most awkward discussions about a personal setback, Power Girl forgoes subtlety to blatantly name what can kill her. After getting impaled by a tree branch, Supergirl helps yank out the weaponized bark (albeit in a fairly messy manner). With a weirdly sociopathic smile on her face, she asks Karen, “What are you vulnerable to wood?” Clearly anyone getting speared by a three-foot-long branch would have a problem with the injury, but rather than get snippy, Karen chooses the high road.
No longer in pain from the crudely run surgical operation, Karen replies, “Worse – to any raw, unprocessed natural material. So sticks and stone really can break my…” We get it. It’s not just the wood that gets her down, but anything that comes from terra firma unadulterated. This is a truly unfortunate weakness that probably explains why Power Girl is stuck on the Superhero C-list.
2 Mr. Mxyzptlk: Saying His Name Backwards
Calling someone an “imp” isn’t a description, it’s an attack. Mr. Mxyzptlk deserves every ounce of acrimony he receives, for he is a devilish, impish little fifth-dimensional man who does nothing else but harass Superman and other leading heroes of the Justice League. Not unlike the Brothers Grimm character, Rumpelstiltskin, Mr. Mxyzptlk thrives on attacks of the mind, so it’s only fitting that his greatest weakness is his name itself.
Though his name is already sorely in need of a vowel, the primary way to defeat him is to get him to say his name backwards. This limits the ways Mr. Mxyzptlk can properly be fooled, like that time Superman set up the attack with a knock-knock joke. When the trick works, however, it banishes Mr. Mxyzptlk back to his native dimension for three months at a time. Ultimately, it’s not so much the name that keeps Mr. Mxyzptlk at bay, but the fact that he’s remarkably gullible and never learns from the errors of his ways.
1 Green Lantern (Again): Wood
Wood is the most primitive material man has ever wielded. Since our prehistoric days, we’ve moved on to all manner of metals and minerals (see: asbestos) fashioned into just about anything we please. It is with great sadness, then, that we report on the Green Lantern’s second debilitating weakness: wood. This fact hails from the Golden and Silver Age comics of Alan Ladd Wellington Scott, the first superhero to bear the title of Green Lantern.
Armed with a magical ring and a spectrum of limitless powers, Scott was the bees knees of the superhero world…except when he got bludgeoned in the face with a wooden log. After a series of wins and victory laps, Scott is stunned the first time he realized tree bark might be his potential undoing. After struggling to beat him via conventional tactics, Green Lantern’s enemies lob the wood at him and wonder, “Maybe it’ll take out Green Lantern, and – well, whadda ya know!” The only people more shocked than the bad guys were the readers of the comic in 1940s America, who were secretly hoping for a retcon (even though the term wouldn't be invented for 30 years).
What other superhero vulnerabilities deserve to be mocked? Tell us in the comments!