1. Super-control over his facial features
The standard complaint against Superman is that he has too many super-powers, and that it’s hard to get invested in a hero who’s basically a god because of all the amazing things he can do. People who say this are, of course, dead wrong — but they have a point about the whole “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men” thing. In fact, we should probably count ourselves lucky he hasn’t retained every super-power ascribed to him over the years, because that would make him one pretty unbelievable character (at least as far as flying super-strong aliens with X-ray vision go). Take this one, a power he employed often during the first decade or so of his adventures. By using his absolute control over his facial muscles, Superman was able to alter his appearance — a handy talent for the kinds of undercover assignments he tended to take on in those early days. “As simple as that,” indeed.
2. Super-heartbeat control
If Superman has total control over his muscles, and the heart is just a big muscle, then it only makes sense he can control his heartbeat, right? That must have been the logic behind this seldom-seen super-power, which the Man of Steel pulled out whenever he wanted to trick someone into believing he was dead. It’s not a power he employs in these more modern times, and no wonder; after a guy goes from “slightly stronger and can jump really high” to “flying through suns and surviving nuclear explosions,” it takes more than a missing heartbeat for people to believe he’s dead. Plus it’s hard to imagine the bad guys continuing to get fooled by Superman playing possum after the first couple of times he pulled that party trick. Also: In what possible scenario would having a louder heartbeat be remotely useful to the Man of Steel? Hosting a haunted Halloween party? Doing the sound effects for a special performance of The Telltale Heart?
In the 1998 Superman: TAS episode “Knight Time,” Superman offers his help to Robin when he learns that Batman’s disappearance has caused a spike in Gotham’s crime rate. Superman eagerly (almost too eagerly, if you ask me) jumps at the chance to take on the mantle of the Dark Knight, even demonstrating his uncanny ability, courtesy of “precise muscle control,” to mimic anyone’s voice, even Robin’s. “Don’t do that again,” the Boy Wonder grouses, in one of his less effective moments of bravado.
4. Super-face vibration
When John Byrne was given the task of rebooting the Superman franchise in the 1980s, he was given an almost impossible task: figuring out how to preserve Superman’s secret identity in an era of surveillance cameras, facial-recognition software and other tools to detect a person’s identity. The idea he hit upon was fairly novel — no one even considers the idea of him leading a double life because they just assume he spends all his time as Superman — but there was still the small matter of one particular nosy billionaire to deal with. In one scene, a flying surveillance drone sent out by Lex Luthor tries to get a picture of Superman, but a clear picture is impossible because Superman super-vibrates his face. This makes Luthor think he has something to hide, but in the end it matters not: by the end of the story, Luthor is convinced that no one with Superman’s awesome array of powers would ever pretend to be a normal person, and he fires the scientist whose computer program concludes Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same. Superman? Pose as a mere reporter? Utterly preposterous!
5. Super-subliminal hypnosis
As it turns out, Byrne didn’t need to come up with any convoluted explanation for why no one suspects Clark and Superman are the same person, because we already had one: Superman had unwittingly been using super-hypnosis for years to keep anyone from seeing him as Clark Kent. That’s right, Superman’s subconscious is so powerful that he can hypnotize the entire world into believing Clark Kent looks completely different from Superman without being aware he’s doing it. In “The Master Mesmerizer of Metropolis!” (Superman #330, 12/78), Superman makes a startling discovery: for years, his eyes have been emitting a low-level hypnotic suggestion magnified by the super-lenses in his glasses (yeah, I know) that makes everyone see Clark Kent as “frailer… and not terribly handsome” in comparison to Superman. Strangely enough, this particular plot point is never mentioned again, and it’s just as well — I prefer the “everyone is Metropolis is just plain stupid” explanation better.
6. Super-telepathic domination
You don’t get to be Superman without having a strong will to go with all that super-strength — but does that translate into “telepathic well-control” over others? Why the hell not? In “The Case of the Living Trophies” (Superman #45, 03/47) Superman is captured by an dimension-hopping alien and turned into a living trophy. With a numbing gas paralyzing his body, Superman hatches an escape plan that involves him mentally commanding the alien to do what he commands. All-powerful, super-intelligent and can mentally turn us mere mortals into his puppets? Yeah, nothing creepy about that.
7. Super-shape shifting
Speaking of creepy. In that same issue, we get another example of a super-power that Superman has never shown again: the power to completely alter his physical appearance. This goes beyond the “control over facial muscles” crap he pulled earlier in his career to pass as someone else; this is him changing his entire appearance, right down to somehow growing in height, hiding his hair, molding his ears into points, and changing the color of his skin. No surprise, this was the first and last time it was ever mentioned that Superman had this ability or the ability to mentally dominate others; make him strong and super-fast, yes, but these kinds of weird abilities were a bit too much for the fans to accept. (The Martian Manhunter, on the other hand…)
So you know those ads in the back of the comic books that promise hours of fun fooling your friends with the magic of ventriloquism? Imagine that, times a million. Forget about throwing your voice across the room; Superman could throw his around the world, making someone think he was standing right next to them while he was off gallivanting through Lapland, or wherever. And if you think this would be the kind of power he might use just once or twice, then you’ve clearly never read any Silver Age comics. Need to make one of your Superman robots speak? BAM! Throw your voice. Need to get an urgent message to someone across the country and living in the 30th century? BAM! Throw your voice. Need a way to humiliate Lois Lane for getting too uppity? BAM! Throw your voice. And nobody questioned it. What I’m saying is, the ’60s were a confusing time.
Yes, Superman, it’s obvious just by looking at those biceps how you’re just wasting away. Superman’s writers have often waved away questions about where Superman gets all his energy with talk about how his body is a natural solar-energy collector, which makes this super-power even odder. I mean, why would a super-stomach even be among his powers? If he never has need for food, why bother to eat at all? But he can pack it away when he needs to, as fans saw in a 1959 story where Clark covered for a kryptonite-induced fainting spell by telling Lois and Perry he fainted from hunger… and then proceeded to wolf down a five-pound steak while thinking about how he could easily “consume every scrap of food in the kitchen and ask for more!” Years later, in Action Comics #454 (12/75), Superman experiences an energy crisis of his own that leaves him exhausted and starving after performing the most minor of super-tasks. Let’s just agree his super-metabolism prevents him from experiencing any super-side effects of consuming millions of calories’ worth of food and move on.
First off, I find it hard to believe the highway workers’ union would be okay with Superman hiring himself out for construction projects. And it really says something about this story that that’s the least improbable thing happening in these panels. “Superman’s Day of Truth” (Superman #176, 04/65) opens up with our hero playing the celebrity judge at a baby contest and proclaiming them the “worst collection of misbehaved brats I’ve ever seen.” And it only gets zanier from there, folks. Turns out that day is a special holiday for all Kryptonians where everyone has to tell the truth, no matter how blunt or brutal it may be, so Lois and Lana decide it’s the perfect time to find out which one of them Superman really loves. As seen here, he weasels out of the situation by yelling his answer “so loud we can’t understand it!” No, don’t bother asking any silly questions like how is it remotely possible he could shout loud enough for them not to hear his answer, or how he didn’t blow out their eardrums blasting that many decibels in their direction. Let’s just come up with some fun ways to replace the “ROARRRR ROARRR” in that sentence. My suggestion? “I LOVE WATCHING YOU TWO VACUOUS TWITS FIGHT AND SCHEME OVER A BIG MANLY STUD-MUFFIN LIKE MEEEEEEEE…”
11. Super-total recall
As if being the strongest man in the world wasn’t enough, Superman has also (with varying degrees) been portrayed over the years as one of the smartest, with speed-reading, complex mental calculations and the ability to instantly understand any language among his amazing mental feats. Add to that bucket his super-eidetic memory — that is, his ability to recall with extreme precision sounds and images from his past, even memories from before he arrived on Earth and developed his super-powers. In “The Last Days of Superman” (Superman #156, 10/62), our hero contracts what he believes is Virus X, a deadly virus that somehow made its way from Krypton to Earth and for which there’s no known cure. And as luck would have it, his toddler self just happened to be playing in Daddy Jor-El’s lab one day when his father and another scientist were chatting about the virus. As handy as this super-power was for inserting exposition into Superman stories, you have to wonder how much Superman recalled about his childhood, and how far back his memory went. Because I’m sure we’ve all experienced events we’re grateful we can’t remember.
12. Super-radio voice
In “A Modern Robin Hood!” (Superman #22, 05/43), our hero is on the hunt for members of “Beetle Brow” Macklin’s criminal gang when he pulls out one of his weirdest super-powers. “Broadcasting his voice with the aid of his super-powers so that it materializes in police radio sets,” he gets word out to police about the whereabouts of the gang. How exactly do his super-powers enable him to communicate through radio waves, and at a specific frequency used only by the police? Great question! Moving right along…
In the old days, it was simple enough to explain how Superman’s costume never disintegrated from the air friction and other stresses put upon it; he was clothed in indestructible fabrics that came with him from Krypton. Sure, why not? But when Byrne pulled his Superman reboot, young Kal-El was technically “born” on Earth in the ship that brought him, and there were no baby blankets or anything else inside for him to turn into a functional wardrobe. So how does he fight crime and obey local anti-nudity ordinances in this new reality? By means of an aura generated by his body that protects the skintight portions of his costume and also prevents dirt and grime from sticking to his flesh (a bit of an inconvenience when he has to lay low in filthy places, as seen here). Hey, if the Flash can get a magic aura that protects him from friction, why not Superman? It’s not a power that gets a lot of attention in the books these days, but it comes in handy if, say, you’re ever in an online discussion about how Superman was able to dive into molten magma underneath Luthor’s landmass in Superman Returns and not come out of it with all his clothing burned off.
14. Super-antiquing breath
Superman’s super-breath has been used in many a dicey situation where a good gust of wind or a freezing blast of cold was just what the super-doctor ordered. But did you know his breath could also create fantastic forgeries of priceless antiques? In “The Truth Mirror!” (Action Comics #269, 10/60), Superman has to (again) prevent Lois from discovering his secret identity when a magical “truth mirror” reveals his reflection to be Clark Kent. He does this by quickly inscribing a disclaimer on the back of the mirror with his super-fingernail, then using his super-breath to “create an artificial agent effect” that makes it look as if the writing was put there a long time ago. Of course, it doesn’t make sense that a blast of air could chemically age wood to look centuries old, but what other alternative is there? Super-acidic saliva?
So it’s come to this, people: “rubbing stuff really hard and fast” apparently now counts as a super-power. Hey, Superman: if you’re in that big a rush to do some emergency welding, wouldn’t it help to have a heat source to speed things along? Something like, oh, I don’t know, HEAT VISION?
I guess “super-mathematics” isn’t just regular mathematics that’s done in your head, but also completed incorrectly. (Hint: multiply 20 x 16 x 10 with an old-fashioned calculator and see what you get.) I’m more impressed by his ability to guess the weight of items by just holding them in his hand — the local carnival lost a great guess-your-weight booth attendant when Mama Kent’s boy decided to go into crimefighting.
17. Super-wall repair vision
Try as I might to deny the existence of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, this one is just too stupid not to include on the list. Anyone who watched this turkey will remember the scene where Superman and Nuclear Man have a round-the-world fight that makes a stop at the Great Wall of China, where the bad guy uses his nuclear blasts to blow up sections of the wall. Superman then takes a pause from the battle to… look the bricks back into place? Seriously, that’s what happens. Legend has it (and this is backed by DC’s official comic adaptation of the film, which went to print before the movie’s final edit) that Superman was supposed to replace all the bricks at super-speed, but a studio-mandated cut to the film’s special-effects budget meant they couldn’t show Superman doing all that work manually. So why not give Superman a totally new power that looks a lot like running film of an exploding wall backwards? That certainly won’t look like someone is making a film on the cheap!
No, not the super-amnesia kiss at the end of Superman II that magically erases Lois Lane’s memory of Clark’s other identity, but yeah, that was a damned odd way to get those two back to the status quo. No, I’m talking about the super-kiss Clark bestowed on Lois way back in Action Comics #306 (11/63), a kiss that leaves Lois dizzy, flushed and sweating if I know my comic-book iconography. What’s troubling about this episode is… well, what “lesson” is Clark teaching “this minx” by smooching the daylight out of her? That she shouldn’t assume Clark is a lousy kisser compared to Superman? Isn’t that the whole point of him pretending to be a mild-mannered reporter, so that people like Lois don’t suspect who he really is? And he jeopardizes all that with the kind of super-kiss that only Superman could deliver? And don’t get me started on the “now who’s your daddy?” look he’s giving her in the last panel. Suddenly, I’m thinking it’s a really good thing he’s forgotten about his mental-domination powers…