Saturday, August 16, 2008

Was Superman So Super?

The universe of Superman has always been a mystery to me. I enjoy watching his exploits as much as anyone else (yes, I say watching - I don't read comic books), and I'm sure the problem of how to make an invulnerable superhero vulnerable is always an interesting experience for writers. Inevitably, it comes down multiple, mutually exclusive crises.

But Superman's superpowers baffle even basic levels of intuitive science.

The heat vision or super-cold breath aren't so bad. The former seems to require an internal light/heat source, while the latter must require a hyper-compression/decompression function in his lungs, or some sort of atmospheric coolant/retardant.

His ability to fly is so enviable that you really don't mind it being scientifically anathema. (Although if he's truly weightless, why does he not, in terms relative to the earth, fly off into space the instant he becomes weightless? After all, the planet is hurtling through the galaxy at thousands of miles an hour. Anything truly independent of the earth's gravitational field should be left in the wake.)

"You offend reason, sir. [Beat] I should like very much to offend it with you!" John Darling, 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan

His near-invulnerability raises questions. In the first Superman movie, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) attributes his virtual invulnerability to his dense molecular structure. If that density corresponds to known physical and elemental properties, why then isn't he heavier than the weight of 225 pounds (about average for his height/build) he quoted Lois Lane in the same film? Additionally, flying at his intense speeds, he has to stand up to atmospheric pressure and kinetic friction. (We already know he can stand up to heat from the movies also.)

If a bullet flattens itself up against Superman's eyeball (going even so far as to shape itself around his eyelashes) without even making him blink, as was the case in Superman Returns, then why does Superman even need eyelids? Evidently, his eyes are less sensitive to foreign objects, and therefore impervious to, say, such annoyances as getting an eyelash stuck in your eye or a speck of dust. Why does he even need lachrymal ducts and tears? (At last check, scientists still don't understand why human beings shed tears when they are sad.)

But all Superman fans know his one bane is kryptonite - radioactive pieces of Krypton, or the Kryptonian sun. Superman becomes weak and useless under its effects. Radiation certainly makes people weak and kills cellular growth. Prolonged exposure is deadly. But how can kryptonite alter Superman's molecular density simply upon exposure? Sure, it may radiate and kill his cells, but that wouldn't instantly make him vulnerable, or weak. And he wouldn't be back to normal after its presence was removed, either.

Clark Kent obviously eats, and Superman said in his first interview that he does eat, when he is hungry. This raises the question, why couldn't Superman be poisoned? If his biological systems of consumption and digestion are similar, poisons should be able to exploit those functions in the same way they work on normal human beings.

So, if Superman's skin is so impervious to elements, intrusions and penetration (even of a small-gauge needle, such as the one that bent on his skin in Superman Returns), if his body can withstand the friction of high-speed flight and the pressure of outer space, how could it still be sensitive to things like human touch, heat or debris?

Okay, so I'm dissecting a fantasy world too closely. At this point, if not long before, a true fan would throw arms up and exclaim that it's just fantasy.

My overarching point in all this is, aren't these sensitivities and vulnerabilities what make us human? The same skin that can tear and bleed so easily can also sense tiny objects (ever been tickled by the tip of a human hair, or felt a minuscule insect crawling on you?) including human touch.

Humans who acquired Superman's near-invulnerability would doubtless find it nearly as much a curse as it is a gift.
"There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell." - C.S. Lewis

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