Thursday, June 28, 2018

Superpower Pros and Cons

A new Marvel superhero TV series recently premiered, CLOAK AND DAGGER. Tandy ("dagger") can materialize a knife out of light. Tyrone ("cloak"), associated with shadow and darkness, can teleport. So far, the powers of both protagonists pop up spontaneously, with little or no control. Also, each can read minds, sort of, in a limited sense. With skin contact, Tandy sees visions of people's hopes; Tyrone sees people's fears. My initial thought upon watching the first few episodes (although I do like the series so far) was that these aren't terribly impressive superpowers. Teleportation does have versatile possibilities—once he learns how to control it instead of leaping from place to place at random when confronted with danger. Materializing light daggers, however, seems of limited benefit unless the character gets into a lot of knife fights or aspires to become an assassin. Moreover, her magical knives wouldn't do her much good in combat without training and practice in using them. The latest episode demonstrates, though, that the conjured blade can cut through anything, a potentially versatile feature. She would be even better off if she would develop an ability to create other kinds of objects, too. As for the empathic visions, because they transmit images of people's hopes and fears, they can't be counted on to convey factual information. It's an appealing facet of the story, actually, that discovering their paranormal gifts doesn't automatically and immediately make the heroes invincible.

As I see it, many superpowers that seem cool at first glance wouldn't, by themselves, turn their bearers into superheroes. There was a TV series I never watched (so I may be misjudging it) whose protagonist couldn't feel pain. I got the impression that this trait was presented as a gift. No, it would be a handicap. In real life, people with defective pain perception live in constant danger of getting badly injured. Immortals in the "Highlander" series come back to life within minutes of getting killed unless they're decapitated. Living for centuries has its appeal, and if you work in a dangerous occupation or devote yourself to rescuing victims and protecting the innocent, immunity to most modes of death would confer a definite advantage. The gift has downsides, though. Like vampires, Highlander immortals are frozen at the age they'd reached at the time of their first death, so there are a few children and adolescents stuck with centuries of life in which they never grow up. Immortals aren't necessarily any more intelligent or ethical than ordinary mortals; whether they learn anything over the course of their extended lives depends on their individual characters. And even though they heal fast and can survive horrible injuries, getting killed still hurts. Furthermore, an immortal trapped at the bottom of the ocean or locked in a dungeon with no drinking water will die and revive over and over indefinitely.

Flying would be impressive but wouldn't make a hero invincible by itself. He or she could get to the scene of a crisis in a hurry, especially if the power included being able to fly faster than normal human running speed. But once the flying hero got to the site of the trouble, if he or she didn't have any other paranormal gifts, the success of the ensuing fight or rescue would come down to ordinary human strengths. Super-strength alone would seem pretty useful, once the hero learned to use it efficiently, but if that were his only power, he could be wounded or killed like anybody else. Flying and super-strength together would make a better combination, yet the hero could still get hurt—unless he or she were also invulnerable. Now you're approaching the qualities of a multi-gifted superhuman such as Superman himself. Spider-Man, with his leaping, climbing, and web-spinning, also has the capacity to travel quickly to otherwise inaccessible places; however, his ability to trap villains in webs probably needed to be honed through practice.

What about invisibility? An invisible character can sneak into places, explore without getting caught, and (if so inclined) steal small objects. Unless his or her powers include walking through walls and closed doors, though, the invisible man or woman still needs to access enclosed areas in the normal, physical way. Furthermore, invisibility in the strictest sense has obvious drawbacks. Do your clothes disappear with you? If not, you have to endure the discomforts of nudity. In H. G. Wells's classic novel, anything eaten by the invisible man remains visible until digested, so the time periods during which he can be truly unseen are limited. More effective might be a gift for clouding the minds of observers, like the Shadow; in that case, cameras would still reveal the hero's presence.

The most versatile type of superpower might be a multifaceted psychic talent such as the ability to read and control people's minds (provided you could shield against the thoughts and emotions of others at will). There we get into some deeper ethical problems, though.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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