Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote an article. Hope you people enjoy it!
You know the typical comic book scenario: an average John or Jane gets hit by a lightning bolt (or something) and suddenly gains powers beyond those of normal humans! He or she then immediately swears to use them for the good of mankind (or their own, if a villain) and proceed to create a secret identity, complete with odd code name and an ever odder costume.
But is this how things would happen in the real world?
I’m of course hardly the first person to ask this question. There have been numerous explorations of the idea, in comics, television, novels etc. However, I’ve never seen any that I feel quite explores all the aspects of the situation… even the HEROES TV show is pretty much a comic book where the heroes and villains just don’t use costumes. So, I’m going to give it a try now. Comments and corrections, as usual, are welcome.
Let’s start by setting up some parameters. In the vast majority of “superhero universes” the following facts apply:
-The existence of superpowers is publicly known, but only for the past few decades.
- Only a small number of people have powers; say, one in every million.
- Powers are random; you never know if you would get a really powerful, useful ability or a crappy one.
OK, now let’s start studying the premises in the scenario above. First of all: if superpowers were real, would people actually become super heroes and villains?
The answer is: Yes.
After all, there ARE heroes in this world. They hardly ever get any press, but people around us do struggle every day to protect and help their fellow men. Policemen, firefighters, and doctors save lives in a daily basis, and not all just because they get paid to. Having abilities that make doing it easier or safer would only encourage them more.
And of course, criminals would also use their new powers for crime. In fact, like in the comics, there would likely be more villains than heroes, because, let’s face it, having an ability that would allow one to get away with something illegal is a big temptation. Imagine, for example, that you gain the ability to control computers, making it VERY easy to get money when you need it, just by telling computers to give it to you. Even many people who normally would never consider doing something illegal might find themselves in a situation where they may feel they may have no choice, such as suddenly going bankrupt. And nobody gets hurt, and it’s just once, right? Except, you always find another justification later. That’s human nature.
However, there’s also another option, one that you rarely see in comics: people using their powers for personal gain in entirely legal ways. This is perfectly okay- after all, in real life, most people use their skills to make a living, and, with a little imagination, most powers could be used constructively. Even purely destructive ones could be used for demolition. Being resistant to dangerous things would get you hired for dangerous jobs, like toxic waste disposal. Going places where others cannot easily go would also be very valuable- imagine all the money governments would save if people could just fly into space instead of needing multi-billion dollar spaceships to do it! Then there are super-senses that could get information of all kinds, even by reading minds or observing the past or future… even relatively silly powers like speaking with squirrels could have their uses. And since most people don’t feel like risking their lives or defying the law, “super normals” would be far more common than heroes or villains.
And let’s not forget the linchpin of modern culture: entertainment! Just the very fact that you can do things others can’t would get you money simply by performing them in public. Of course, like in the real world, just how famous you would get would depend on both your abilities AND your skill to appeal to the audience. Beautiful and/or charming supers would probably get most of the publicity.
Of course, just BECAUSE you have powers doesn’t mean you would HAVE to use them. Some people don’t want to attract attention to themselves. And since powers are random, you could have people with abilities entirely unsuited to them. What would an old lady do with heat vision, for example, other than warm up her tea?
And there are powers that some people just would NOT want. Maybe having claws like Wolverine’s might look cool in the comics, but would you show them off, at the risk of people thinking you’re a freak? In fact, some powers just couldn’t be hidden -say, having your body covered with protective scales- people with those abilities would hide themselves away. Though surely, "accept the super-physically-different " movements would spring up, thanks to the more socially active people we have today.
OK, now, next question: Would people use secret identities?
The answer is: some would, but not exactly like in the comics.
First of all, most people who want to exploit their abilities legally or to help others, would have no reason to hide who they are, and in fact might want to attract as much as attention to themselves as they could (especially in the case of super-entertainers.) Even most supercriminals would just try to use their abilities unnoticed rather than create a secret identity. Still, some people WOULD want one, because they might not want publicity but their powers would not be easy to hide.
There’s also the fact that, in the real world, secret identities are VERY hard to keep. As police shows have taught the modern public, we leave evidence of who we are EVERYWHERE, from fingerprints to cell samples. Unless you’re very savvy, or have powers such as shapeshifting, it’s likely that sooner or later, you’ll be identified. And that’s not even taking powers such as the ability to see the past in consideration!
Of course, plenty of people in reality DO use false identities, without actually hiding who they are: mostly celebrities who feel they need a catchier name. How many people bother to call Madonna or Prince by their real names, for example? Some people might even end up with nicknames just because they might prefer your powers to your real name. For example, if you’re the one guy in your neighborhood who can breathe fire, people might start calling you “The Firebreather” whether you wanted it or not. Even then, most super-names would probably be more practical than in the comics: “The Flash” works pretty well for a super-fast guy. “Green Lantern” only makes sense if people know you get your powers from a green lantern. And why in Hell would you name yourself “Hour-Man” thus informing your enemies that your powers only last for an hour!?
How about costumes? Well, most costumes in the comics are rather weird, not to mention impractical (as the gag with capes in The Incredibles proved.) Still, some people would wear costumes, for two reasons. The first is recognition; this is mostly for super-celebrities (like Michael Jackson and his jeweled glove). Special supers groups (like super-SWAT teams) might also wear special uniforms.
The second reason is because many powers would affect your clothing, requiring you to wear something specialized: stretchable clothes for people who change size, heat-resistant materials for those with fire powers, etc. Even things like flying too fast, staying underwater too long, etc. would require something other than regular clothes. Note that, except in the case of uniforms, people would not likely wear the SAME super-suits all the time, just as ordinary people like to change their looks regularly. They might still prefer certain regular themes, though, like certain fashions or colors.
There are many other ways that the existence of superpowers would affect the world. Just the fact some people had powers would get scientists around the globe scrambling to study them, legally or otherwise, in order to learn how those powers work (and how to exploit them.) This is something you rarely see in the comics, despite making perfect sense (I guess they want to avoid giving the public too much supertechnology, because then the Supers wouldn’t look so special.) The very existence of powers would disrupt history: imagine how many disasters and world-shaking crimes (like 9-11) could have been foreseen or prevented! Of course they might also CAUSE them, bringing a social outrage against those with powers (like in Marvel’s Civil War.) Powers like precognition would bring up questions abut predestination. And are faith healers given their abilities by God or their genes? As you can see, there are ample story possibilities in a setting with superpowers beyond the simple “let’s put on a costume and fight!”
To sum up: yes, superheroes and supervillains would exist in the real world if superpowers were real, but they would not often be like in the comics- in fact, the most comic book-like Supers would be the ones hanging around Hollywood rather than stopping crime. And there would be even more people who would just happen to be “normal” except for having superabilities they would likely use openly for fame and fortune.