What Are Superman’s Powers?
Superman. The Man of Steel. The Last Son of Krypton. Everyone knows him, and everyone knows his powers: flight, super strength, heat vision, the works.
But do you know all his canonical powers? Or the non-canonical ones he used to have but doesn’t anymore? Spoiler: one of them is super disco. Just saying.
Let’s run through what he can do, what he used to be able to do, and what he couldn’t do for a while but now can again!
“You will believe a man can fly,” the 1978 movie promised, and they were right. Flight, even more than super strength, is probably Clark’s most iconic power, so it’s a little surprising that it wasn’t there right from the get-go. But Superman didn’t fly until a couple of years after his 1938 debut. At first, he could only jump about an eighth of a mile, hence the classic “leap tall buildings in a single bound” line.
Clark first flew in 1940 on the Adventures of Superman radio show, mostly because a “WHOOSH” sound effect sounded way cooler than a “BOING” one. He first flew in the comics in Superman #10 in 1941, but that was an error by an artist who was new to the book. It wasn’t until after the Fleischer Studios cartoons of 1941–1943 also depicted Superman flying (because it was easier to draw a dude hanging out in the sky than to draw him jumping around) that the comics bequeathed him the ability permanently.
Superman’s other most famous power is that he’s strong. Super strong. But how strong is he? Well, it depends on what year it is.
Initially, Clark was strong enough to lift a car, as seen on the iconic cover of Action Comics #1. His strength gradually increased until by the Silver Age (1956–1970ish) he was capable of moving planets with his bare hands. This made telling stories with him considerably trickier, so DC seriously downgraded his powers in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Nowadays his strength is somewhat dependent on how much yellow sun radiation he’s sucked up recently (the source of his powers). He definitely can’t move planets, but he can catch a plane or space shuttle, no sweat. There are also no DC characters who can consistently outpunch him with sheer muscle alone (as opposed to magic). Even fights with heavy hitters like Shazam or Darkseid could go either way, placing him among the strongest characters in the DCU, if not necessarily as the sole strongest.
Superman can survive a nuclear blast, so, yeah, he’s pretty tough. He can swim through the sun—it’s actually good for him. Even his hair is invulnerable, which is why he shaves by bouncing his heat vision off his bathroom mirror.
For a while post-Crisis he had something of a force field, too—his bio-electric field, which surrounded him and kept his costume from being shredded in fights or simply by the wind (but still allowed the artists to draw his cape looking cool and tattered if they wanted). This also explained how he could catch an object much larger and heavier than him, like a plane, and not have it crumple, or carry a human around at top speeds without them, um, also crumpling—the field would surround whatever he was touching, protecting it too. This was called “tactile telekinesis” and is most strongly associated with Superboy (the Kon-El version) in the ’90s. It’s since been retconned away and Clark’s costume stays intact simply because it’s from Krypton and Kryptonian fabric don’t quit. (Kon still has TKK, somehow. Comics!)
Superman did not need to eat, sleep, or breathe in the Silver Age, which meant that he could survive indefinitely underwater or in space. (At least one Bronze Age story references Kryptonian “nose gills” (see above), but let’s leave that in the Bronze Age, shall we?) In Superman: The Animated Series he was depowered enough to need a space suit to survive out of a planet’s atmosphere, but these days he can hang out in space pretty much as long as he needs, though interplanetary travel is inefficient without a ship.
Superman may actually be so durable that he is effectively immortal, a concept that has been explored in a number of extremely sad stories over the years.
The Flash is the Fastest Man Alive, as Grant Gustin reminds us every Tuesday on the CW. But can he beat Superman in a race?
Superman first raced the Flash in 1967 and he and the various Flashes (Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West) have continued the tradition of racing one another regularly over the years, usually either for charity or because of some contrived plot by aliens. The results have never been conclusive: usually they tie, or whoever wins does so by a hair and/or thanks to external interference.
Personally, I like to think the Flashes are a little faster than the Supers, because come on, it’s their one thing. Just let them have it. But even if Superman is always second across the finish line, the Flashes get their speed from the Speed Force, the literal source of all speed in the DCU, and can travel at the speed of light. Second place is still pretty dang impressive.
X-Ray and Heat Vision
I’ve combined these because they were originally the same thing. Superman had vague eyeball-related powers almost from the beginning, but the word “X-ray” started coming up more and more frequently. By the late ’40s he could melt things with “the heat of his X-ray vision,” which sounds more like a forgotten Marvel villain from the Atomic Age than a Superman ability.
By the early ’60s, presumably in part because the dangers of X-rays were becoming more widely known (and because Superman is supposed to be your friend and not a radioactive horror show), his heat vision and X-ray vision became two separate things. “Look-through-stuff vision” would be a better name for the latter, since there’s nothing radioactive about it (even though it can be blocked by lead); it’s not harmful to whatever he’s looking at, and gives a much more precise picture than real X-rays would.
His heat vision is more like lasers, although he can control the intensity. Back in the Silver Age, he could burn through the planet if he wanted. Not so much now (phew!), but he can still melt steel if he feels like it. Also, he can make his eyes go all red and glowy without actually unleashing the zappy part of the heat vision, which is a very effective intimidation tactic.
Telescopic and Microscopic Vision
Superman has always been able to see things that are really far away, and things that are really small. In the Silver Age, this meant watching conversations on distant planets, like a creep. Now it’s more earthbound, but he can still pretty much see as far as the story needs him to see, especially with the X-ray vision to make sure nothing gets in the way. On the microscopic side, he can definitely perceive things at the molecular level. Helpful if a villain has planted nanites in a loved one’s bloodstream, which happens basically every other Wednesday.
Superman can also see things on spectrums humans can’t, mostly as the story requires, meaning things like tech-based invisibility don’t work on him. In some stories he can trace radio waves to their source, which is delightfully silly and should come up more frequently, I think.
Unsurprisingly, Superman also has very good hearing! Like the vision powers, the limits to his hearing are usually “whatever serves the story best.” But if you’re ever falling out a window or a helicopter, definitely call his name and he’ll be there.
The sight and hearing begs the question of whether his other senses are also enhanced, and the answer is…probably? Touch and taste don’t come into it often, but rest assured that Superman can smell whatever you don’t want him to smell.
Freeze Breath/Super Breath
The opposite of heat vision! Superman can freeze things with a breath, or simply blow out an enormous gust of air—enough to, say, help a sailing ship on its way or put out a fire quickly. He also has tremendous lung capacity: he can inhale all the smoke or poison gas in a room before it affects the humans around him, then hold that breath until he’s somewhere it can be safely expelled.
In 2015, Superman developed a new power, which a) hadn’t happened in like 30 years and b) sounded hilariously like a new Pokemon attack. (Also, Supergirl had been using this power since 2011, but no one noticed. And she’s better at it. Not that I’m bitter.)
Basically, since Kryptonians are powered by yellow sun energy, they can choose to release it in one explosive blast that incinerates everything within a quarter mile, but it leaves them essentially powerless for about a day after. Also, usually our friends from outer space don’t want to blow up everything within a quarter mile, so this is very much a sometimes food kind of power. But it’s super effective!
Superman can no longer travel through time unaided, but in the Silver Age he could easily “fly through the time barrier,” whatever that means, and arrive when and where he chose. And of course, he infamously reversed time in the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie by flying around the Earth so fast he caused it to spin backwards. (It could be argued that this was just a visual representation of Superman flying through the time barrier rather than reversing time for the entire planet, but in that case he probably would have encountered his past self at some point.) He has never done this in any other medium, but as we’ll see, the directors of the Reeve franchise weren’t overly concerned with whether the abilities they were giving their Superman were canonical or not.
Superman used to count “super intelligence” as one of his powers, back in—you guessed it—the Silver Age. Now he’s just, like, a regular smart reporter, because it’s easier to like a character because they’re smart on their own than because a yellow sun makes them brain better than you.
As you’re probably guessing, Superman could do basically whatever in the Silver Age as long as they put the word “super” in front of it. Most frequent was his use of “super ventriloquism,” because he spent like 85% of the Silver Age tricking his friends and coworkers in order to preserve his secret identity, and that’s easier to do if you can make Clark Kent’s voice sound like it’s coming from another room while Superman is standing right there.
This power doesn’t have an official name, but in very early Superman stories, Clark could literally push the features of his face around until he looked like other people. It was weird and gross and they should bring it back.
Turning Diamonds Into Coal
Superman frequently turned coal into diamonds in the Silver Age simply by rubbing coal until it calcified into a diamond, because science. This is an understandable use of super strength/speed, for when you need ready cash and you don’t have time to go find sunken pirate treasure (his other go-to). But one time he was fighting an alien made out of a diamond so he. Um. Killed it by turning it into coal? By “rubbing it the wrong way”? Yeah.
Other Movie Powers
As mentioned, the Christopher Reeve movies have a number of non-canonical powers in them. Most infamous after the time travel is the amnesia kiss Clark uses to make Lois forget his secret identity at the end of Superman II. This actually is canonical—he had long had super hypnotism by that point, of which this is a natural (I guess) off-shoot, and had first deployed the amnesia kiss in the comics in 1963. But if director Richard Lester knew that power was canonical, I’ll eat Clark’s fedora. Anyway it’s extremely gross and violate-y and is now thankfully thoroughly non-canonical.
In Superman II he also develops the ability to briefly duplicate himself. This is arguably just a visual effect caused by moving at super speed, but again, I think we can lump it in with the amnesia kiss as Lester not giving a damn, especially since Clark also takes the S off his chest, turns it into a cellophane blanket, and throws it at an adversary during that fight.
In Superman IV he rebuilds the Great Wall of China with his masonry vision. So, that’s a thing.
GO, CLARK, GO!! SHAKE YOUR BOOTIE!
So those are Superman’s powers, past and present! We all want flight and super strength, but if you could pick a different Superman power, what would it be? Personally, I like masonry vision.