Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Whose Superpowers Are Best?

Ah, the eternal question! For shadowy reasons of my own, I just did a Google search for the phrase "Why puny humans not leave Hulk alone?" and travelled backwards in time-- "Impossible!" scoffs Dr. Stephen Hawking-- to the World Wide Web circa 1997, where I found some long-dead comic geek's attempt at grading the powers of various Marvel characters. Some of which I'm pretty sure he made up, or hallucinated. Apocalypse? Mr. Sinister? SPIDER-Man?

What outrageous lengths these comic book fans will go to in order to prove their points! You, sir (or madam), are a scoundrel! Should we meet at the public house, I shall be forced to subject you to such a snubbing, perhaps even with upturned nose! Then you will perhaps see the error of your ways and correct them forthwith and posthaste. Indeed.

But I'm left wondering who has the ideal superpowers. I suppose for overall effectiveness, it would have to be the practically god-like Superman. While I think his initial portrayal was powerful enough-- able to lift a car, capable of mile-long leaps, largely impervious to small arms fire and perhaps cannon shells-- the guy is off the scale now. While I seem to remember John Byrne as having dialed him down a notch back in the 1980s, Superman continues to set the standards-- which are then all but impossible to equal, much less surpass. Making them useless as standards, I suppose. Fortunately, Superman balances this out with his very human decency. Kryptonite? Magic? Forget that crapola. Superman's vulnerability is his heart.

Wonder Woman has pretty sweet powers. I'm not really sure what they are, but she seems to be a bit like Superman Lite. In DC's universe, Superman would represent the pinnacle of superpowerly perfection. There can only be one, or else you have two or more with equal abilities who fulfill the same role and they become redundant. It could just as easily be Wonder Woman, but Superman was there first. So Wonder Woman takes a lesser position, at least in terms of power levels. She's incredibly strong, largely impervious to harm and can fly-- I think. She also has those bullet-deflecting bracelets and her Lasso of Truth. But what makes her truly formidable is she's mentally tougher than Superman.

Brief foray into unfair dichotomies: If I had to choose between them, I'd pick Big Barda over Wonder Woman. Barda is a more interesting character. She's a fierce warrior who finds she loves the delicate Scott Free. I've always admired the way Jack Kirby inverted or subverted the traditional gender roles in their relationship. More than that, I love the idea of someone as rough-hewn and edgy as Big Barda also having a tender side so slight you might miss it unless you're her Mother Box or Mr. Miracle himself; but it's there. She loves and appreciates things both beautiful and soft, but is self-aware enough to know this is partially because she herself is neither. Kirby was a great storyteller not because he threw in a lot of cosmic vistas into his art or had a lot of cool stylistic flourishes or even created or co-created entire modern mythologies-- but because the man knew and understood human character as thoroughly as any of our most lauded prose novelists. In that respect, he blew his erstwhile collaborator Stan "the Man" Lee away. Kirby's Big Barda is one of Kirby's finest, most fully fleshed creations. Just perfect from the get go, sprung from his imagination like a new Athena.

Meanwhile, it's been nearly 70 years and DC still can't figure out what Wonder Woman is about.

Green Lantern. He has a ring. It's a good ring, but it's not intrinsic to his person. And he's some sort of galactic cop. Well, I fought the law and the law won. I probably shouldn't have been robbing people with a six-gun, but there you have it, mistakes of the past. So I have mixed feelings about this guy.

The Flash. He can run extremely fast. This would seem to make him something of a specialist. But writers have given him the ability to vibrate and for some reason this allows him to do all sorts of crazy things, making him a bit more useful than he might otherwise be. "Vibrate between the molecules of that unlockable door," his friends tell him. "It's the only way into the room where the Legion of Doom have hidden their Doomsday device." "Why can't Superman just rip the door off its hinges?" the Flash wants to know. "Don't ask so many questions!" they shout back at him.

Aquaman. Not to be confused with Aqua Velvaman, who smells nice and gets lots of dates. Aquaman is the go-to guy hack, would-be comedians (like me) rely on for easy mockery. But I always liked Aquaman. Our planet's surface is mostly sea, so he commands the largest realm of any earthly ruler; he's also an absolute monarch. This is a guy you don't want to piss off.

The Hulk. I've always wondered how the Hulk feels about his name, the Hulk. Does he realize it carries the superlative "The Incredible?" Doubtful. Poor Hulk seems fine with being called the Hulk, and uses it to refer to himself in the third person, like a common egotist, or illeistic reality show participant; hmm... I just decried redundancy. Sorry. I think the Hulk simply too stupid to realize his appellation is actually an insult, no doubt foisted on him by the press. So it's poignant when he uses it. The Hulk is simply strong. Not as strong as Superman, no doubt, but all of the Hulk's abilities proceed from this simple thesis-- the stronger you are, the more shit you can do.

Spider-Man. Spidey's got a nice spread of powers. He's strong, fast, acrobatic, tough enough to survive beatings that would kill ten Mickey Rourkes and a battalion of Bruce Willises. Plus he's got that funky spider-sense. I'm referring to the pre-organic webshooters Spidey. I'm pretty sure the organic webs would come out of his nose, his mouth, his penis or his anus rather than from his wrists, Marvel.

Wolverine. I used to like Wolverine when he was mysterious. Now we know all about him and he's a ludicrous, walking self-parody. Wolverine has his healing power and when that wasn't good enough, the dastardly Canadian government-- when will the tyranny end?-- covered his bones with a crazy, made-up metal. At first it seemed they also equipped him with his claws, but they were eventually proven to be a natural part of his power and could slice through things nicely enough before they were covered with the imaginary metal. Which once again, seems to suggest redundancy, since obviously his bones were already pretty dense and strong, not particularly in need of embellishment. Bone claws, however, are disgusting-looking, so I'm in favor of this modification for aesthetic reasons. But Wolverine comes a bit too close to fanboy wet dream, the kind of ostentatious character some kid would invent for an online role play which ruins it for everyone else.

While we're on the subject of mutants-- don't you think Marvel has taken this power source to ridiculous extremes, even for a fictional universe where a giant purple and magenta guy shows up from time to time to eat the earth? I mean, Wolverine's healing powers as a mutation are somewhat plausible, as are some psionics or telepathy, as well as the Beast's super agility. I'm not so sure I buy Nightcrawler's teleportation, but his deformed appearance might result from some recessive genes or something. We can work with that. Then we have Cannonball who shoots fire and smoke out of either his ass or feet and can fly through the air. Now any made up bullshit power a writer is too lazy to think of an excuse for is attributed to the mutant gene or factor or whatever. Why not just call it "magic?" We've got these people with bone blades coming out of their bodies and faces of energy, kids that resemble specific animals, teens with magical armor that has a specific, mechanically-inspired shape as if it were real, practical armor, rather than a more likely free-form, organic appearance, people who turn to water or smoke or ghosts.

Where does it end? A guy who vomits solid gold Cadillacs and has a flat-screen high definition television instead of eyes? Oh, it's okay; he has the X-gene. I'd accuse myself of reductio ad absurdum here, but we're already discussing absurdities in an absurd way.

And on that note, what superpowers would you most like to have?

Just to show what kind of loser geek I am, I'll tell you the nitpicking way in which I used to answer this question, asked of myself by myself on an almost daily basis during my eighth and ninth grade years, the height of my Uncanny X-Men/New Mutants fandom. I may have been a freak, but I wasn't stupid enough to voice any of this junk. Or even write it down before now.

If I'd been bombarded by cosmic rays, Gamma radiation, born under a red sun and rocketed to earth, created from clay and infused with magic by Aphrodite or bitten by a radioactive spider, I would have had no choice in the matter. My powers would have been simply received. So how could an ordinary kid possibly achieve the dream of comic book-obsessed dumbasses everywhere?

Well, short of some kind of scientific intervention, I used to imagine having three wishes. One of them, I decided, I would use to wish for a set of superpowers in order to help the world and be cool for a change. The other two wishes: one, to speak and understand all the world's languages with native-speaker fluency and two, to be able to play any musical instrument perfectly so I could actually perform or record the songs I was always writing in my mind.

Because I'd read W.W. Jacobs's 1902 short story "The Monkey's Paw" (and once adapted it, in horror comic EC-style, for an English Lit assignment), I knew wishes could easily go awry and needed to be worded carefully.

I imagined I'd wish for Superman's powers-- why waste a wish on anything but the best? But I'd also try to explain the wish in such a way that I wouldn't end up causing more damage with them than good. For example, "But I'd be able to exact enough physical control over my super-strength that I could, for all intents and purposes, do all the things a normal human being could do without having to worry about squashing people accidentally."