Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Hero Power Levels

Marvel recently put up a batch of early Golden Age comics on the digital site. Reading these got me to thinking about relative power levels.

Superman quickly comes to mind. Ever wonder why someone who flies would ever need to "leap tall buildings in a single bound"? It's because he couldn't fly when that line was written. He could run very fast (faster than a speeding bullet) and leap great distances but he could not fly. That came a few months later. Captain Marvel made the same transition. Early on he needed a space ship to travel to Mars (or Venus - I'm doing this from memory). Later he could make the trip under his own power.

Superman gained some powers along the way. He didn't have heat vision at first but it occurred to someone that strong x-rays heat things. Later writers explained that he actually projected heat from his eyes. Somewhere along the lines he also developed telescopic vision and super hearing. He could even throw his voice to a location hundreds of miles away (through solid objects) using super ventriloquism.

Given the world's strongest lungs, it made sense that he could blow harder than others. This turned into super breath. Superman was able to store huge quantities of air in his lungs and expel it at hurricane force. He could even provide an atmosphere for an earth-like planet with a few trips from a gas giant.

Until I read the Human Torch's early appearances I hadn't realized that he had made the same power gain. In his first few appearances his flames made him lighter than normal which allowed him to ran fast. He could outrun a fast car or a train. But he could not fly. His second appearance was fighting someone with an airplane who kept leaving the Torch behind.

Power levels can go both ways. The Sub-Mariner started out as Timely's strongest (anti-)hero but he got weaker. Eventually there wa a story where he was summoned by Atlantis's Emperor who pointed out that Namor was barely stronger than an ordinary Atlantean. Atlantis's scientists had devised a treatment that returned him to his original strength level.

By the Silver Age, Superman had unlimited power. You name it and he could do it. The same was true for Supergirl and Mon-el. They could move planets or re-light suns. In Superman's world, super-strength was a binary value. You either had it or you didn't. If you had it then it was a waste of time trying to overpower someone else who was super. It would cause too much collateral damage.

Marvel was much more restrained. Originally the Thing could only lift a few tons and falling from a great height would hurt him. He kept getting stronger until the Marvel Universe Handbook topped him out at 80 tons. At the same time he got a lot tougher. You could knock him through several buildings followed by a fall and he would get up again.

The Hulk was always the strongest there was but that didn't mean that much at first. He could be imprisoned in a cave. When they were first created both the original Abomination and the Red Hulk were stronger than the Hulk but both were eventually beaten.

Spider-Man started out pretty strong but seemed to get weaker in the 1970s. It got to the point where a thug with a fancy name (such as Man-Mountain Marco) could give him a fight. A change in writers and artists fixed that and by the 1980s he could hold his own against Mr. Hyde or Firelord. His webbing also got weaker and this was fixed by mixing a stronger batch.

When DC rebooted the DC Universe they weakened Superman. He could be hurt if you hit him hard enough. He needed oxygen. He could no longer fly faster than the speed of light or travel through time. Super ventriloquism was never spoken of again. This lasted for some time but writers kept stretching his powers a bit at a time until he was close to his original power levels.

Some heroes had their power levels changed as plot points. At first Ghost Rider could create solid objects out of flame including his motorcycle. He lost most of those powers and could only project flame. This started increasing again. Apparently it was tied to the strength that his inner demon had. The more control it had the stronger his powers were.

Then there are the heroes whose power levels constantly change. Originally the Dazzler could turn sound into light. She could use this as a light show while performing or she could distract an opponent with it. If she had enough sound she could turn it into a laser. At first she could not store energy so she had to find sources of sound. One time she made Spider-Woman sing (badly) in order to cut them out of a trap. A few issues later she absorbed Klaw who was made of solid sound and gained enough power to be recognized as a peer by Galactus. That changed her and she was able to store sound but she used up the energy she got from Klaw.

With Daredevil, it wasn't enough that he was blind. He kept running into situations that interfered with his radar sense. He got over that around the time he changed from his yellow and black outfit to his red one.

Similarly, Iron Man's transistors kept running down in the middle of a fight. This is one place where a hero gaining power over time makes sense. As technology improved, Iron Man got stronger.

There is an art to keeping heroes weak enough to build suspense. Often a hero got too strong and an artificial weakness had to be introduced. Superman had kryptonite, Thor had to keep hold of his hammer. Green Lantern had to avoid yellow. While these can make an interesting story, they are easy to overuse.

The same is true for villains. A villain may start out as powerful but each time he is defeated he becomes less menacing. The writers in Dr. Who decided to retire the Daleks. They started out as the ultimate killing machines but they have appeared more often than any other Dr. Who villain which means they have been defeated more often. I'll talk about villains later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alas, the Daleks are back... but they are the skittles Daleks now... Rainbow colored, just in time for Christmas shopping for toys!