Superpower (ability)

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Comic book superhero Captain Marvel uses his superpowers to apprehend criminals (left) and fly over pedestrians (right) in Shazam: Power of Hope (November 2000); art by Alex Ross.

Superpower is a popular culture term for a fictional superhuman ability, most commonly used in the American comic book genre.

When a character possesses multiple such abilities, the terms super powers or simply powers are used.[1] It is most frequently used in pulp magazines, comic books, science fiction, television programs, and film as the key attribute of a superhero.

The concept originated in American comic books and pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, and has gradually worked its way into other genres and media.


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 current understanding of natural laws.

Superpowers based on possible current or future technology, such as machine suits, rockets, bionics and genetic manipulation, are typically explained using science and science fiction. Superpowers based on psychic and paranormal phenomena, for example, are typically explained using pseudo-science. Other superpowers may be explained using mythology.

Superpower diversification

The 1970s brought the development of role-playing games. These games allowed hero characters to develop 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.[2] 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. An example of this is the persecution of mutants in the X-Men series.


Superpowers are a commonly used concept in anime. They are often featured in popular anime such as Attack on Titan, One Piece and Code Geass. The types of powers featured varies from anime to anime. Some anime, such as Dragon Ball Z, feature many characters who have the same type of power; others, such as Naruto, feature characters with a wide range of different powers, with many powers being unique to only one or a few characters.[3]

See also


  1. ^ "Google". Retrieved 2016-07-22. 
  2. ^ "RPG History Part One". Retrieved 2016-07-22. 
  3. ^ "Superpowers Characters | Anime-Planet". Retrieved 2016-07-13. 

External links

  • 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.
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