You might want to stretch before we talk about this one.
Not only is shapeshifting a fairly common power, but it’s pretty common to only give a superhero/villain the shapeshifting ability. Superman can have superspeed, superhearing, laser sight, but it’s only in fanfiction that he can shapeshift.
I mean, other than when he does that complete transformation into Clark Kent, because that transformation is flawless.
There are a decent amount of heroes who have shapeshifting powers, but I’d be willing to say that, on average, shapeshifting is something more commonly give to supervillains. It really fits into the idea that villains will lie and be anyone they have to be in order to further their own seedy goals. So, we’ll be talking about two villains.
Mystique and Clayface. Beauty and the Beast.
Mystique is a Marvel character, usually shown as an enemy in the X-Men universe. Her first appearance as Mystique was in 1978, but her origin story hasn’t been fully revealed as of now. Still, it’s very likely that she was born with her powers. She can make herself look like any humanoid, right down to the vocal cords. As a result of this, she can essentially get rid of signs of aging, which has some interesting implications.
In contrast, Clayface is a DC villain. There have been a lot of ‘Clayfaces’ over the years, and they all have the power of shapeshifting, but let’s talk about the original: Basil Karlo. He was first introduced as an enemy to Batman in 1940. He killed the cast and crew of a film after being rejected for a part, but was eventually stopped by Batman and Robin. Much later, he received his ‘Clayface’ powers by injecting the powers of other Clayface villains. Thus, made of clay, he has the power to transform himself into anything at will.
What do we need to be able to shapeshift? When in doubt, try to find an animal that does a similar thing. Animals are pretty cool.
The best shapeshifter we’ve got right now? Say hello to Thaumoctopus mimicus. A lion fish. Or, wait, is it a sea snake? Or maybe it’s a jellyfish.
The mimic octopus generally lives in the Indo-Pacific region, and as you can see, it’s not a bad mimic. It can change its color and texture, but the most astounding thing about this little guy is how he mimics more than one animal. He usually mimics poisonous/predatory creatures to get his prey (or otherwise escape from being the prey). Right now, he’s the only critter we know of that mimics multiple creatures. What’s even more remarkable is that he can even mimic specific predators to fish – he was attacked by a damselfish and turned into a banded sea snake, a damselfish predator, to ward it off.
So, that’s an animal that does it, but what does that mean? What would we need, as humans, to become a shapeshifter?
Remember what I said about stretching?
Elasticity would be a vital component for any shapeshifter. Specifically, inelasticity would be very important. Guess what’s plenty inelastic? Clay. So, what is elasticity exactly, and where can I get the opposite of it?
Technically, elasticity is an object’s tendency to revert back to its original shape after being changed somehow. It’s why you can’t mold your skin like Silly Putty – it always snaps back. Maybe a little slower as you get older.
This was made official by Hooke’s law (the one you probably learned using a spring in Calculus). Generally, it states that the amount of strain of an object (the amount the object bends, twists, transforms, etc) is proportional to the amount of stress (squeezing it, bopping it, etc).
So, inelasticity is pretty important, and that octopus is pretty cool, but that’s only a very small part of a very large problem. If Mystique or Clayface only had inelasticity, they could stretch out their faces to painful proportions – but it would still be Mystique’s face, or Clayface’s … clay. Let’s back up and focus on the big picture.
I messed that up.
Right now, it’s just a theory, but illusion optics is essentially all about making one object look like another object. In some cases, that ‘other object’ could be nothing at all – making one object appear to be invisible. The invisibility part’s already been done. Enter the Rochester Cloak.
In layman’s terms, the Rochester Cloak is four lens placed specific distances apart. Place an object at the end of these lenses and peer through the other end – it will appear invisible. It isn’t perfect, as it has a bit of a donut effect wherein things in the middle of the lens will appear visible, but it works.
Basically, the idea behind these things is to have light travel around the object. If light doesn’t hit something, light can’t reflect off the thing and hit your eyeballs. Some people have written a theory that, instead of the light not hitting the object, that the light can be transformed into the object they want you to see. Thus, you look through the device and you see a mug where there’s really only a spoon.
Although we have a few superheroes that break the trend, the superpower of shapeshiftery tends to be given to villains. Why is that? Well, there’s a reason that ‘two-faced’ is an insult (and a supervillain!). Being able to change your form at will doesn’t strike anyone as a particularly good, heroic thing to do – it’s tantamount to lying and a very literal form of identity theft. Not exactly heroism. It’s cowardice and tricky, two other things we associate with supervillainy. That’s why Mystique is our femme fatale and Clayface is our giant lump of performance art gone wrong.
Still, that supervillainy doesn’t translate to the real word, and we actually have very cool ideas concerning shapeshifting – or, as close as we can get! Our little octopus friend tries his hardest to change his shape to avoid being eaten (or, alternatively, to do the eating). Already having made our invisibility cloak, our next challenge is to disprove ‘seeing is believing’ by tricking our eyes into seeing something that isn’t there.
Marvel History, marvel.com
Visual History, WatchMojo
DC History, comicvine.com
Super Cool Octopus:
Mimic Octopus Footage, Beyond the Water
Observations of Mimic Octopus, adavancedaquarist.com
Elasticity Definition, howstuffworks.com
Why is Steel More Elastic Than Rubber?, physics.knoji.com
Rochester Cloak, Rochester.edu
The Optical Transformation of an Object into another Object, journals.aps.org
More Illusory than Invisible, physics.aps.org
Experimental Demonstration of Illusion Optics with “Exeternal Cloaking” Effects, scitation.aip.org
Optical Cloaking with Metamaterials, researchgate.net
What are Metamaterials?, iop.org