'Man of Steel' Countdown: Fitting Superman’s Powers into a Realistic Movie

'Man of Steel' Countdown: Fitting Superman’s Powers into a Realistic Movie

Nov 27, 2012

Welcome to our Man of Steel Countdown column, a biweekly look at the upcoming Superman movie along with an exploration of the character's past, present and future. In this edition we break down some of the most recent news items.

How can Superman be as realistic as Batman from the Dark Knight trilogy? If Batman is just a man with a mission and resources, how can the same formula work for Man of Steel with a man who can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes?

Many versions of Batman have tried to explain where he could have made something like the Batwing by himself or where he might order the parts from. What sold the idea in Batman Begins was that Bruce Wayne had trained himself extensively in combat and as a sort of ninja. His suit and car came from previous research and development from his own business. The creators even explained how he could plausibly use his cape to fly/glide through the city. Sure there were a few discrepancies, but many in the audience were happy to ignore those because the initial plausibility had been set up.

Many people forget that despite Superman’s place in history as the first superhero, he has always been a science fiction character. The best sci-fi usually employs some level of real science in order to give the circumstances credibility in the real world. In Star Trek, warp drive and transporters are theoretically possible with the biggest question remaining: how. So “dilithium crystals,” which don’t exist, are used as a power source. If the audience can wrap its head around warp drive as a concept, an otherwise unknown futuristic fuel source is simple enough to accept as well.

The Beginning

There have been a number of ways to scientifically justify Superman’s powers. Some are rooted in real science and others are simply neat ideas. When Superman first appeared in the comics of the 1930s, his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, endeavored to give Superman’s abilities a real explanation. Instead of flight, Superman could jump one-eighth of a mile, which is about as high as the tallest buildings of the time.  He also had great speed and strength. And how was this possible? Simple.


Krypton was larger and/or had a denser core than Earth. James Kakalios, in his book The Physics of Superheroes, used basic math and laws of physics and compared how high a human could jump to show high Superman could jump. He worked out that Krypton’s gravity would have to have been approximately 15 times greater than the gravity on Earth. In the same way that a human could have a hard time lifting an object with high mass on Earth, but be able to do it easily on the Moon, Superman had strength and speed here that he would not have had on Krypton.  Everything down to his molecules was denser, which made him invulnerable to fire, knives or bullets. This also means that no human could possibly visit Krypton before it exploded because they would flatten like a pancake. Those were Superman’s only major abilities at first, and so everything he did had an explanation.


Yellow Sunlight

As time went on, his powers changed. Soon he could fly and had vision abilities, which couldn’t be explained by a difference of gravity. Instead, Superman soaked up light from Earth’s yellow Sun, which was younger than Krypton’s red star. The red sunlight soon became one of Superman’s weaknesses and made him as powerless as an ordinary man.  It’s slightly plausible because humans create Vitamin D using sunlight and plants photosynthesize water and carbon dioxide into food and oxygen.

According to scientists interviewed for the 2006 Science of Superman documentary, this is unlikely to work. The difference between the light emitted from a red star is not significantly different from a yellow one. It’s a stretch, yet it’s still a simple explanation that works for many fans. Without a serious understanding of the nature of light wavelengths, it just sounds right. That’s why it works. There is a very good chance that Man of Steel will employ this same idea.


Super Hearing

The ability to hear well is easy enough for anyone to believe, but it provides its own problems that may or may not be addressed in the upcoming film. He may be able to train himself to zone out certain sounds or to listen for specific things. If he is able to zero in on a given direction instead of always hearing sound from everywhere, that would be a difficult ability to explain scientifically, or even moreso if it’s something he can turn on or off at will.

The other problem is that sound travels at 768 miles per hour (or thereabouts depending on details like temperature and moisture), so if you need help and see Superman flying overhead faster than the speed of sound and you yell out, he wouldn’t hear you until he reached his destination and stopped. And that’s assuming you could see him at that speed.


Telescopic/Microscopic Vision

Much like hearing, the ability to see microscopically or telescopically makes sense for just about anyone. Humans have stereoscopic vision which allows us to use both eyes to focus on objects that are far away or close up. When we look at something close, distant objects go out of focus and vice versa. In order to look far or close, Superman only needs really good eyes. In fact, this should be a specifically physical power that he shouldn’t lose when depowered by red sunlight.


X-ray Vision

X-ray vision would not work the same way as the X-ray machines in your doctor or dentist offices because those require a photo material behind the subject being looked at in order to create the X-ray scans we’re all familiar with. So in this case, Superman couldn’t learn anything from generating the X-rays, but rather by being the photo material and seeing the ambient X-rays generated by stars like our Sun. There’s a lot to buy into for this power.

The simplest version is that Superman’s eyes are so sensitive that they can see other wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum than humans, including X-rays. Much like telescopic and microscopic vision, this should be a simple issue of focus. Just like in real life, X-rays don’t pass through lead, which is why Superman can’t see through it either.


Heat Vision

Different writers have had a number of explanations for Superman’s heat vision. Originally, it was a byproduct of a more intense version of the radiation from his X-ray vision until it finally became its own separate power. In the 1980s, John Byrne tried to introduce the idea that Superman’s heat vision was actually a way that he drew the existing heat out of an object, which could cause it to combust. At that point, there were no red beams coming from his eyes, but that changed again over time. For TV’s Smallville, Clark’s heat vision came from his eyes like normal, but rather than creating red laser-like beams, they were clear and seemed to roast the air around them.

Writer Mark Waid attempted a number of changes for “Superman: Birthright” in 2003. Here, Lex Luthor proposed that Superman could emit infrared from his eyes because of the light conditions on Krypton. Therefore it’s just another evolutionary offshoot of his alien heritage.

My only request of the filmmakers is to please skip that insipid "I'm angry so my eyes are red now" thing that's overused in comics and animation from the past decade.


Superbreath/Freeze Breath

These powers are closely related because in order for a person to make his or her breath colder, one needs only to purse one’s lips more closely and breathe out. The problem is that for Superman to exhale a single breath with force, it would only last a fraction of a second. Even if his entire body was a glorified lung, he could only take in a limited amount of air. In live action, he can often he can do it for several seconds or even up to a minute.

The only alternative is that his lungs are so powerful that he can compress the air he inhales like a helium tank. That way when he exhales with force it can last as long as the compressed air lasts. If the super-breath power is in Man of Steel, it doesn’t actually require this much explanation unless a character like Emil Hamilton is quickly running through a series of explanations as plot exposition.



Superman’s ability to defy gravity without apparent propulsion in a real world is probably the hardest one for even the biggest fans to believe. There will absolutely need to be a very good explanation for it in Man of Steel, or the audience won’t buy into the reality of the character. It would be one thing to explain that his lift is equal to his weight, but then how could he soar straight up at great speed or catch large objects while in the air? When Clark flew on TV’s Smallville, he appeared to be manipulating the air or molecules around him to create thrust. In the George Reeves Adventures of Superman show, he would get a running start and bounce himself into the air, which still didn’t explain how he could remain there and steer.

Mark Wolverton, author of The Science of Superman, supposed that a theoretical force called “gravitons” that Superman might be able to create in his body, could provide the force necessary to fly. To understand gravitons, we need to understand advanced concepts of elemental particles of quantum field theory… which I don’t. If this explanation is used in the film, it would probably be complicated enough that most audience members would have to simply accept it despite a lack of real science.

If I had to wager a guess as to how Man of Steel would handle this problem, I would go with something complicated to do with magnetism. I’m sure Emil Hamilton will explain it at some point in the film. It could also be a simple “He can manipulate his gravitational field.”

The film likely won’t stop to explain every one of these powers, but director Zack Snyder has said in several interviews that one of the biggest goals of this film is to create a realistic version of the character. The only way to do that is to give some slightly plausible explanation for why this alien can do the things he can do. Which powers do you think make the most or least sense?

What am I looking forward to the most?  I can’t wait to see how the physics on Krypton differ to Earth.

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