Superpower is a popular culture term for a fictional superhuman ability. When a character possesses multiple such abilities, the terms super powers or simply powers are used. It is most frequently used in pulp magazines, comic books, science fiction, television shows and film as the key attribute of a superhero.
There is no rigid definition of a "superpower". In popular culture, it may be used to describe anything from minimal exaggeration of normal human traits, magic, to near-godlike abilities including flight, superstrength, projection of destructive energy beams and force fields, invulnerability, telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, super-speed or control of the weather.
Generally speaking, exceptional-but-not-superhuman fictional characters like Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow and The Punisher may be classified as superheroes although they do not have any actual superpowers.
Similarly, characters who derive their abilities from artificial, external sources—the Six Million Dollar Man and his bionic limbs, Green Lantern and his power ring, and Tony Stark and his Iron Man armor may be fairly described as having superpowers, but are not necessarily superhuman.
Explanations in fiction
In fiction, seemingly impossible superpowers of superheroes are sometimes given scientific, quasi-scientific, pseudo-scientific or outright supernatural explanations by writers. Most, however, are impossible with current technology and physical laws.
Superpowers based on possible current or future technology, such as machine suits, rockets, bionics and genetic manipulation for example, have their roots in science and science fiction. Superpowers based on Psychic and paranormal powers, for example have their roots in pseudo-science. Other superpowers may be explained using mythology.
In the Golden Age of Comic Books, beginning in the late 1930s, a large number of comic titles were produced by a large number of publishing houses. However, as the 1940s were coming to a close, so was comics golden age. Many struggling titles were cancelled and those that survived were frequently those that concerned horror, crime and romance. The high horror and crime content worried people and in 1954, publishers responded by implementing the Comics Code Authority. As a result, characters would be limited in the kinds of activities they could get into but they could, perhaps, still have some variety in the powers they possessed.
As the years have passed and more superhero characters were created and a variety of abilities have been invented. Certain single characters have also become more complex with an example of this being the development of the powers and abilities of Superman. However, it may be argued that, in an age of scientific discovery in which new options are continually coming to light, this diversification should be expected.
The development of Superhero teams like DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes and Justice League of America and Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, Avengers and X-Men thrust super powered individuals together with varying effects. Various themes could also be expanded upon such as: the vetting and choice of potential team mates; team mate frictions; team mate expectations and accountability and education and training. The X-Men's school was even developed as a base for the training of mutants.
Characters with multiple powers, often copied or stolen from others, such as the Composite Superman, who gained the combined powers of the Legion of Superheroes, and the Super-Skrull, who had a version of all the Fantastic Four's superpowers, also appeared. Neither of these characters are amongst their houses highest sellers.
The 1970s brought the development of role-playing games. These games allowed hero characters to development far beyond their initial levels of ability. Superhero themed games soon followed but within the game mechanics of role-playing game systems issues such as the name or visible effects of a form of attack didn't mean very much. The Champions role-playing game took to describing powers by their effects rather than their causes; for example a laser and a lightning bolt were both considered to be forms of Ranged Attack. Another fact they realized is that some powers were simply more useful than others in game terms; to represent this, each power was given a "value" in a point system, with the more powerful abilities costing more to "buy". In addition, players were given options to modify their powers so each character's abilities would be unique. This system has since then influenced many other similar games.
In the 1980s, Marvel Comics began publishing their Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe series, in which the powers of their characters were explained in great detail, often using scientific and pseudo-scientific terms.
Issues of persecution in relation to the possession of superpowers have also been expanded upon. Individuals like Spider-Man have always had antagonists like John Jonah Jameson and exploration of the effects of the use of superpowers in society have continued. An example of this is the persecution of mutants in the X-Men series.
In general the Superhero genre has developed in a way that centrally encompasses great diversity. This contrasts strongly to certain facets of science fiction which are known to portray superpowered minorities as having mainly the same kind of powers, one example being the telepathics in A. E. van Vogt's Slan.
- Superpower List - A growing list of user-submitted superpowers.
- Superhero Database: Superpowers
- 8 Super Powers, an online Wired Magazine article on how certain superpowers might work
- The Physics of Superheroes, by James Kakalios- a book examining how the powers of several comic book characters would work if they were real.