Flight is an incredibly, incredibly, incredibly common superpower. So much that I can’t talk about all of flying in one post, especially since there are different kinds of flying. I’m separating it into three parts: organic flying (flying with wings, basically), mechanical flying (flying with machinery), and gravity-manipulation (Superman stuff).
But why is flying such a common power? Superheroes and supervillains alike have the ability, with all sorts of personalities between them. It seems like a power you can tack on to a long list of powers just because it seems like the type of thing a superhero out to have.
In the end, it could have something to do with human nature. Flight is something we’ve seen millions of years (through animals) and something we’ve always wanted and imagined, but haven’t been able to until relatively recently (in the grand scheme of things). It’s an expression of freedom. Ultimately, it’s also an expression of power – power to go wherever without hassle.
So, without further ado, we’re going to be talking about everyone’s favorites: bugs and bats.
Janet van Dyne, alias Wasp, was introduced in 1963. She recently had a small part in the film Ant-Man, and is associated with Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man). In the comics, she was also one of the founding members of the Avengers, along with Hank. Her powers are similar to that of Ant-Man – she can grow to enormous sizes or shrink to the size of an ant (or a wasp!). However, at very small sizes, she also has a pair of wasp wings that can support her weight and allow her to fly relatively quickly (40 mph!).
On the other side of the morality spectrum, Kirk Langstrom, alias Man-Bat, was introduced a little later in 1970. Dr. Langstrom is a scientist who was attempting to create a serum that would allow humans to use sonar. In a Jekyll-and-Hyde twist, taking the serum transformed him into a rampaging bat … man. Along with other powers you might expect of a bat (sonar, agility, endurance), his batwings also enable him to fly.
Wings seem intuitively simple. Flap your arms a little and you’re off the ground, right?
It’s actually a little more complex and, thankfully, a little more interesting than that.
Insects actually have two pairs of wings, which you can see if you squint a little. They’re made of a material called chitin. Chitin has the benefit of both being incredibly light and being incredibly tough. Almost everything that flies keeps a similar shape for the ‘wings’ – curved on top and flat on the bottom, which has a lot to do with aerodynamics. When these wings flap, it helps in boosting things up.
You might’ve heard in a little movie called the Bee Movie that bees defy the laws of aerodynamics when it comes to flight. Insects, in general, have very big bodies and very tiny wings. It’d be like you hoping to get off the ground just be flapping your arms really hard.
But insects definitely do fly – how? The reason is twofold. For one, insects can flap their wings very fast. Wasps can go up to 1000 times per second due to very, very strong muscles in their abdomen. So, Wasp could probably take down the Hulk, right?
Secondly, it’s the way they flap their wings. For most creatures/objects, they only move up on the downstroke of the flap because they’re flapping in a general up-down motion. For insects, it’s a little different. During every flap (the ones that are happening 1000 times a second), the wing rotates, manipulating the air so it can move faster. It’s absolutely incredible to think about: not only are they moving 1000 times a second, but they’re also moving their wings in a figure-8 every time.
Okay, so that’s how insects do their thing, and it’s pretty complicated. Bats, hopefully, are a little simpler.
Even if it’s generally simpler than the insect flight, bats are still very cool. They’re the only mammals that can fly and they’re more efficient at flying than birds.
Their wings are thin, leathery membranes. Bats actually have ‘hands’ in a certain sense – their thumbs are mostly used for climbing and the rest of the fingers have fused into the wing, which would be super annoying if you were Man-Bat. So, in a sense, a bat’s entire wing is its hand. What’s even cooler is that they have more joints in their ‘hand’ than we have in ours, meaning that they can make finer adjustments, especially during flight. These extra joints are vital in a bat’s flight, along with one more ability.
Most animals’ wings are stiff – an insect’s or bird’s wing can’t be bent, but a bat’s can. This goes along with the extra joints. Imagine if you didn’t have any joints in your elbow or hand, and you just had the joint in your shoulder. Imagine moving your arm. That’s the equivalent of an insect wing’s maneuverability. Now, add back all the other joints in your arm and add an extra few. Could you see how many ways a bat could move its wing? During flight, the bat can move its wings more freely depending on where the air needs to travel in order to sustain lift.
So they’re both ‘super’ in their own way – insects with their insane abdomen muscles and flaps-per-second, and bats with their uber-dexterity and flexible wings.
Wasp and Man-Bat both have the power of organic flight – that is, flight not powered by machinery or gravity. Wasp’s a pretty important figure in Marvel comics, especially considering she was one of the founding figures of the Avengers. It doesn’t seem quite fit to call Man-Bat a villain because he doesn’t have any particularly evil intentions. He’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, a man who meant to improve humanity but fell monstrously short.
So we explored how insects and bats fly, which are a lot cooler than you’d expect. Insects have very strong and very light wings that they flap very fast in order to sustain flight, as well as unique figure-8 wing movements to keep them moving. Bats’ wings are incredibly flexible, which enables them to move their wing however they need to in order to sustain flight.
Could we somehow use this knowledge to give humanity the power of organic flight? Probably not. You might have noticed that humans are much bigger than your average insect or bat, and just the sheer wing muscle you’d need is incredible. However, we’ve already taken a page from the bats and bugs to improve our flight and manipulate aerodynamics to get us on our way.
Marvel History, marvel.com
Visual History, Watch Mojo
DCU History, dcuguide.com
Insect Flight –
How do Insects Fly?, Softpedia
How Insects Fly, Teacher Scholastic
Robots & Insects, i09
Flight Mechanisms, andrewmountcastle.org
Bat Flight –
How do Bats Fly?, Orkin
Why Bats Are More Efficient Flyers Than Birds, Livescience
Chiropteran Flight, Berkeley