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Entry updated 5 April 2024. Tagged: Theme.

This thematic term is chiefly associated with Comics, but the concept is widespread in general sf. Numerous Superheroes are effectively defined by their superpowers and, very often, corresponding weaknesses. Superman, a major twentieth-century archetype, has a large (though varying with character rewrites) assortment of special powers supposedly resulting from his Alien origin, the lesser Gravity of Earth compared to his homeworld Krypton, and the differing radiation of our Sun: the usual catalogue includes vast strength, incredible speed (which with some doubletalk about Relativity may allow Time Travel), unaided flight, near- or total invulnerability, X-ray vision and the ability to project heat rays from his eyes. His main weaknesses are kryptonite radiation and (in the frequent Science and Sorcery crossovers of comics) Magic.

Many further Superheroes possess some subset of Superman's powers: super-strength is common, as with The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982), the Thing of the Fantastic Four, and Mr Incredible in The Incredibles (2004); the Flash has the super-speed, Cyclops of the X-Men has the eye-generated rays, and so on. Other popular superpowers include the entire range of ESP and Psi Powers (Spider-Man has a convenient sixth "spider sense" and the blind martial-arts expert Daredevil has a compensating "radar sense"), Invisibility as in The Invisible Man (1975-1976), Matter Penetration, Shapeshifting, Transmutation of elements, elasticity (Mr Fantastic of the Fantastic Four; Plastic Man; Mrs Incredible), the generation of Force Fields, Weather Control, and so on almost without end. Teams with complementary abilities are frequently encountered: television versions of this trope include Heroes (2006-2010). The best known text-based Shared World with a superpowers theme is that of Wild Cards. Andy Briggs's conjoined HERO.COM and VILLAIN.NET sequences pit against each other teams of good and not-good heroes and villains.

A significant fraction of the superhero fraternity lacks outright superpowers but excels in martial arts and exotic gadgetry, like Batman, the Blue Beetle, and both the elder and the younger Nite Owl of Watchmen. Some rely heavily on Weapons, like the Comedian in (again) Watchmen. But the dividing line between device-assisted abilities and superpowers is regularly blurred by the deployment of far-fetched Technology. The Cyborg enhancements of The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) and The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978), Iron Man's extraordinary prosthetics, the Atom's special clothing which allows him to shrink to microscopic size (see Miniaturization), and the power ring with which Green Lantern translates sheer will-power into physical effect, are all examples of device/user gestalts not readily distinguishable from superpowered beings. Roger Zelazny explores various aspects of this synergy in Lord of Light (1967), whose "gods" deploy both Psi Powers and fantastic gadgetry designed to support or amplify their talents. [DRL]

see also: Chess; The Man from Atlantis; Sapphire and Steel; Superboy; Wonder Woman.

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