Thoughts on super powers and flaws

I love comics, always have, but mostly I love super powers.  When it comes to character creation, nothing makes a character more interesting than having some kind of ability or quality that no one else has (or at least very few).

There has to be a kind of balance, though.  You can’t have your characters (main or otherwise) so completely broken that they overcome their obstacles too easily.  An interesting story is propelled by conflict, remember.

Rachel isn’t perfect.

Think about Rachel in “Middle of Nowhere“.  She has a super power in that she doesn’t age.  She has a more resilient body system and she seems to heal better and faster than others.  However, she’s also something of a product of her environment.  She was only 10 years old when civilization fell.  While she has the benefit of remembering the world before, she doesn’t remember much.  All of the really useful things like how to build a car or intensive biology studies were impossible for her to learn.

Now, in her story, we know that her family and their friends tried hard to preserve those piece of knowledge, but we don’t know what kinds of gaps in information Rachel has.  We see little pieces of it, but we find that her super power is both a blessing and a bit of a curse.  How do you fill in the gaps for what you don’t know when that entire world is gone?  What does she really understand about her technology?  How do you educate a child in a world where survival is more immediate than learning?

Superman’s a jerk.

Similarly, we can look back at a more popular example, DC’s Superman, and see a trend there.  As time has marched on, they’ve stacked Kal-El’s powers like cord wood.  He’s got heat vision, super strength, super speed, x-ray vision, and some kind of weird mind control thing.  (That’s the excuse for Lois Lane not being able to see through the glasses disguise of Clark Kent.  Seriously.)  There was no enemy he couldn’t defeat, no threat he couldn’t pummel to a greasy stain.

Readers didn’t really like him.  He was way too Boy Scout, and not enough Hero.

Somewhere around the mid-90s, a few writers started playing with this imbalance.  There was a Superman-Xenomorph crossover where Kal-El is on a planet without the yellow sun and gets impregnated by the Xenomorphs.  (That’s the “real name” of the monsters in the Alien/Aliens franchise.)  It’s one of the rare times that we see Kal-El in real danger, and additionally presenting an even bigger problem.  Can you imagine a Xenomorph with Kryptonian attributes on Earth?!  It would be beyond catastrophic.

More recently, writers have been acknowledging this “infallible” aspect of Mr. Kent by including notable personality flaws.  In both “Superman Returns” and “Man of Steel“, Kal-El is kind of an arrogant jerk, but why not?  He’s literally the most powerful man on the planet.  The only reason he hasn’t razed our entire civilization to the ground is that he was raised by Kansas farmers.

Our gods need flaws.

Grant Morrison observes that our modern-day superheroes are filling our cultural need for relatable gods, as he describes in Supergods. The Big Three monotheistic religions try to depict the One God as being perfect and ineffable, but that doesn’t speak to our need for experiential truth.  If you compare Jehovian persona against, say, the Greek pantheon, which do you think is going to give you more usable advice?  It’s a chaste and guilt-driven story versus “Zeus put his dick in it, lol” story.  Who are you going to relate to more?  (Hint: dicks.)

Those stories don’t speak to our current modern imaginations.  We need super heroes (or at least characters with super powers) that we can relate to so that we can find our own super powers.  And beyond that, we need to see how those characters cope with the flaws and trouble that their super powers can bring.

Hands down, one of my favorite superhero movies is Hancock.  Here’s a guy who has powers, but he doesn’t know what to do with them.  He uses them to try to be a good guy because he doesn’t have it in him to be a villain, but that’s not enough.  He has to really work hard to use those powers and not accidentally hurt people – but still try to be something of a real person.

Another really good one (that got cancelled, dammit) is Powers.  (Here’s Season 2, and you can get the comics as well.)  It asks the questions about the line between heroes and villains, about what is an acceptable boundary for those flaws.  How human is a hero allowed to be?

I love writing about super powers because I firmly believe that we all have them.  We each have a genius that we can do better than anything else, but it has to be nurtured, explored.  We have to find the flaws and maybe not necessarily fix them, but certainly understand them.

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