Everybody has a superpower they'd love to have. Some dream of telepathy or the ability to read minds, while others long for super strength and indestructibility. Whatever your preferred power may be, the thought of gaining supernatural abilities almost always sounds like a great deal. However, comic books have often proven that these wishes are more complicated than they seem – as all powers come with a price.
Professor Chris Gavaler, author of On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1., had an interesting take on the fundamental superhero dilemma, stating that each power is simultaneously a gift and a curse.
“The notion that a superhero’s powers are also a curse has been a standard of the genre since the early 60s. I don’t believe it applies to Superman or most other WWII-era heroes, but Marvel Comics popularized the idea with characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. Often the curse is more psychological–the moral obligation that, as Stan Lee phrased it, “with great power there must also come–great responsibility!” The self-sacrificing curse comes in other forms too. The Thing, for example, routinely saves the world, but his powers also make him look like a grotesque monster.”
In comics like The Boys and movies like Man of Steel, the writers have done an amazing job at exploring what would really happen if people developed superpowers in real life. It's not as easy as getting an ability and immediately knowing how to use it, which was actually one of the key issues seen in Marvel's Civil War. There are also realistic physical changes that have to be made in order to have and use these powers.
If you're the Human Torch, you'd hope that your skin would be flame retardant. If you're Iceman, you'd hope that you could still dehydrate on a hot day without evaporating. With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the most popular superhero powers and how the likes of Marvel and DC have explored these abilities as potentially negative attributes.
Notable Character: Professor Xavier
The ability to read minds and control people is useful regardless of your position in life. In Marvel's X-Factor, there was a character named the Isolationist who had the powers of all the remaining mutants in the world after M-Day – and he's a great example of how this seemingly positive mutation can also be a curse.
Above all else, the power he felt was the biggest burden was telepathy. This is because, no matter what he did, he couldn't silence the voices. It got so bad that he had to move to a remote part of the world and take medication in order to shut the voices out of his head. In the end, this immense power ironically limited his ability to put any of his powers to good use.
Notable Characters: Angel, Wonder Woman
The gift of flight has always been admired by humans. The ideal way to go would be to have flight like Wonder Woman, when it's possible to elevate mentally. Flying like Angel is where we start to see problems.
If your wings are retractable, you're all set. But if they don't, you're either going have to walk around topless or spend a fortune at a tailor to let your wings out through your clothes. I've also always wondered how annoying it would be to lay on your back with giant wings. Fortunately, Warren Worthington the third (Angel) is lucky enough to be a billionaire and not have these problems.
Power: Super Strength
Notable Characters: Superman, The Thing
Like Superman points out in Justice League Unlimited, super strength means always worrying about breaking something. You're never able to forget about your strength for a second. This becomes even more significant as a 'curse' when you consider that this could be accidentally someone.
Luke Cage and Jessica Jones can be intimate with each other without hurting one another because they both have super strength. In fact, when they first hooked up, they looked at each other with relief. For once, they didn't have to hold back or worry about breaking their mate in half. Although this shows a happy ending for Cage and Jones, the ability is still a ticking time bomb - something that Zack Snyder's DCEU entries have conveyed throughout.
Power: Super Speed
Notable Characters: The Flash, Quicksilver
Traditionally in comic books, super speed comes with more than just fast feet. You can also read and understand things faster than normal people, and enjoy the benefits of an accelerated metabolism.
While super metabolism sounds great, some characters have found that their change in pace causes frustration. Quicksilver laments how annoying it is talking to people and walking, when he would rather be running. He may be an arrogant jerk, but it makes sense. In his world, unless you're moving at super speed, everything is at a snail's pace.
Notable Characters: Nightcrawler, Blink
While Nightcrawler can only teleport certain distances, characters like Blink and Illyana Rasputin can go miles upon miles. The problem with this particular power is that you could teleport yourself into something. In X2: X-Men United, Nightcrawler was hesitant was to teleport Storm blind, knowing this could happen. Luckily, they appeared in an empty area – but it's still a constant concern for Marvel and DC's teleporters.
Notable Characters: Jean Grey, Nathan Summers (Cable)
Who wouldn't want to move things with their mind? Never having to get up to get the remote when it's just out of reach, becoming so strong that you could lift yourself and fly, or even learning to be so precise that you can move molecules. This is the luxury that characters like Jean Grey and Cable enjoy on a day-to-day basis. However, mental powers take a delicate touch.
During X2: X-Men United, Cyclops said that Jean's telekinetic powers were causing her to move things around the room while she was sleeping – and we all know how that turned out for the ill-fated Scott Summers.
In New X-Men, Hellion's powers were upgraded. While he was once a mutant with great control, he could no longer manipulate smaller objects. He could fly at super speeds or create a wall strong enough to stop a charging rhino, but things that required a delicate touch proved difficult. Telekinesis is a power that takes constant practice, or you'll never really get the hang of it.
Power: Time Travel
Notable Characters: Booster Gold, Cable
What would you do if you had the chance to go back in time and fix your mistakes? Just like we saw in X-Men: Days of the Future Past, time travel can be a great tool. However, it rarely works with such success. Anybody who watches The CW's series focusing on Grant Gustin's Barry Allen will know the dangers of messing up a timeline. When it comes to time travel, we could all learn a thing or two from The Flash. Leave that time stream alone, Barry!
Power: Shape Shifting
Notable Characters: Mystique, Copycat
On some level, we all have things we'd like to change about ourselves. Being a metamorph gives you the ability to morph your physical appearance, and if you don't like the life you're living, you can just be someone else. The best way to describe the issue here is what happened to Sylar in Heroes.
Sylar gained shapeshifting powers and started having issues remembering who he was. He would randomly wake up as someone else he previously imitated, becoming a different person at the drop of a hat. Another example would be Deadpool's ex-girlfriend and former Weapon X soldier Vanessa a.k.a. Copycat. Copycat changed her body and identity so many times she started having a hard time remembering who she was in the first place. She even started having issues keeping her normal face intact, causing her face to droop unless she held her concentration.
Notable Character: James Madrox The Multiple Man
We've all been in situations where we wanted to be in two places at once. Well, the power of self-duplication takes care of that problem. Just create another person, send them out, and reabsorb them afterwards. You'd never have to miss a moment! Jamie Madrox the Multiple Man used to send duplicates all over the world to learn various skills, making him a master of many fields.
However, Multiple Man was plagued with two major problems. One of them was his duplicates gaining lives of their own and disappearing, leaving Madrox feeling like pieces of him were missing. The other problem was his memory. After reabsorbing a duplicate, Madrox couldn't remember if the memories were his or those of the duplicates he absorbed. Things would just start to blend in, causing the character intense confusion and getting him into a lot of trouble with his loved ones.
Power: Healing Factor
Notable Character: Wolverine, Deadpool
With Wolverine's abilities, you'd never have to go to a hospital ever again! Old Man Logan is over 200 years old, and is still spry and looks like he's 50. If that wasn't enough, a healing factor also comes with a speedy metabolism – but this great power comes a lot of issues.
Look no further than the lives of two hugely popular comic books characters to see how this power becomes a curse. They may be beloved by fans, but Wolverine and Deadpool live tragic lives where they still endure excruciating pain – and even after they've healed, there's still phantom pain.
In some ways, long life is a curse in itself, because it means living long enough to see your friends and family die. Wolverine has fought in two world wars and has seen more death than almost anyone else on Earth. He may live to see greater things, but it's incredibly demanding on the character's mental stability.
So, it seems that when it comes to superpowers, there's no escaping the negatives. These shortcomings vary in intensity, but it's great storytelling to ensure that no comic book character has an easy ride – and to acknowledge their struggle throughout their individual stories.