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In DC Comics' DC Universe, a metahuman is a superhuman. The term is roughly synonymous with both mutant and mutate in the Marvel Universe and posthuman in the Wildstorm and Ultimate Marvel Universes. In DC Comics, the term is used loosely in most instances to refer to any human-like being with extranormal powers and abilities, be they technological, alien, mutant, or magical in nature. A significant portion of these are normal human beings born with a genetic variant called the "metagene", which causes them to gain powers and abilities during freak accidents or times of intense psychological distress.
The term was first used by a fictitious race of extraterrestrials known as the Dominators when they appeared in DC Comics' Invasion! mini-series. The Dominators use this term to refer to any human native of the planet Earth with "fictional superhuman abilities". The prefix "meta-" simply means "beyond", denoting persons and abilities beyond human limits. Metahuman may also relate to an individual who has exceeded what is known as "The Current Potential", meaning one's ability to move matter with mind. (See Telekinesis).
Before the White Martians arrived on Earth, Lord Vimana, the Vimanian overlord from the Xenobrood mini-series, claimed credit for the creation of the human race both normal and metahuman, due to their introduction of superpowered alien genetic matter into human germline DNA. The Vimanians in the series forced their super powered worker drones to mate with humanity's ancestors Australopithecus afarensis (3 million years ago), and later Homo erectus (1.5 million years ago) in order to create a race of superpowered slaves.
The Invasion! mini-series provided a concept for why humans in the DC Universe would survive catastrophic events and develop superpowers. One of the Dominators discovered that select members of the human race had a "biological variant," which he called the meta-gene (also spelled "metagene"). This gene often lay dormant until an instant of extraordinary physical and emotional stress activates it. A "spontaneous chromosomal combustion" then takes place, as the metagene takes the source of the biostress – be it chemical, radioactive or whatever – and turns the potential catastrophe into a catalyst for "genetic change," resulting in metahuman abilities. It should also be noted that DC does not use the "metagene concept" as a solid editorial rule, and few writers explicitly reference the metagene when explaining a character's origin.
DC also has characters born with superhuman abilities, suggesting the metagene can activate spontaneously and without any prior appearance in the ancestry. One well-known example involves Dinah Laurel Lance, the second Black Canary. Although her mother (Dinah Drake Lance, the original Black Canary) was a superhero, neither she nor her husband Larry Lance were born with any known metagenes. However, Dinah Laurel was born with a metagene, the infamous ultrasonic scream known as the Canary Cry.
The prefix meta-, in this context, simply means "beyond"—as in metastable, which is beyond regular stability and ready to collapse at the slightest disruption, or metamorphosis, which is the state of going beyond a single shape. In the DC comic mini-series Invasion!, the Dominators point out that the Meta-gene is contained inside every cell of the human body.
In the DC Comics universe, metahuman criminals are incarcerated in special metahuman prisons, like the prison built on Alcatraz Island, which is outfitted not only with provisions to hold criminals whose powers are science and technology-based, but even mystical dampeners to hold villains (including Homo magi) whose powers are magic based. Prisoners in this facility are tagged with nanobyte tracers injected into their bloodstream that allow them to be located wherever they are.
It is possible for individuals skilled in science and biology to manipulate, dampen or modify the activities of the metagene. During the Final Crisis while the Dominators were devised a Gene Bomb able to accelerate the metagene activity to the point of cellular and physical instabilities, an anti-metagene virus was spread as a last-ditch weapon in the invaded Checkmate quarters. This metavirus has the opposite effects of the Gene Bomb, curbing and shutting down the metagene and stripping the metahumans of their powers for an unspecified amount of time.
According to the storyline in JLA vol. 1 #4 by Grant Morrison, the storylines in Martian Manhunter #25-27 by John Ostrander, and Son of Vulcan #5 by Scott Beatty, the genetic potential for a future metagene was discovered in ancient Homo sapien's DNA (500,000 - 250,000 years ago) by the White Martian race. The White Martians performed experiments on these primitive humans, changing how the metahuman phenotype was expressed by the metagene.
Due to their experiments, they altered the destiny of the human race. Whereas before, evolution would have eventually made mankind into a race of superhumans similar to the Daxamites and Kryptonians, now only a select few humans would develop metahuman powers. As punishment for this, the group of renegades known as the Hyperclan was exiled to the Still Zone, a version of the Phantom Zone.
The White Martians also created a metavirus, a metagene that could be passed from host to host via touch. This metavirus was responsible for the empowerment of the very first Son of Vulcan. From that time onwards, the Sons of Vulcan passed the metavirus down in an unbroken line, sworn to hunt and kill White Martians.
The terms "meta" and "metahuman" do not refer only to humans born with biological variants. Superman and Martian Manhunter (aliens) as well as Wonder Woman (a near-goddess) and Aquaman (an Atlantean) are referred to in many instances as "metahumans." It can refer to anyone with extraordinary powers, no matter the origins and including those not born with such power. According to Countdown to Infinite Crisis, roughly 1.3 billion metahumans live on Earth, 99.5% of whom are considered "nuisance-level" (such as kids who can bend spoons with their mind and the old lady "who keeps hitting at Powerball"). The other 0.5% are what Checkmate and the OMACs consider alpha, beta and gamma level threats. For example, Superman and Wonder Woman are categorized as alpha level, while Metamorpho is considered a beta level and Ratcatcher is considered a gamma level.
The 52 mini-series introduced a toxic mutagen called the Exo-gene (also referred to as the Exogene). It is a toxic gene therapy treatment created by LexCorp for the Everyman Project which creates metahuman abilities in compatible non-metahumans. It first appeared in 52 #4 with the first announcement of the Everyman Project in 52 #8. The project was controversial, creating unstable heroes that gave Luthor an "off switch" for their powers, creating countless mid-flight deaths.
In the short-lived DC/Marvel Comics crossover "Amalgam Comics" event, in the JLX series (combining Justice League and Marvel's X-Men), metahumans are replaced with metamutants (a portmanteau of metahumans and Marvel's mutants) who are said to carry a 'metamutant gene'.
On the television series Birds of Prey, metahumans included heroines Huntress and Dinah Lance. New Gotham has a thriving metahuman underground, mostly made of metahumans who are trying to live their own lives, although a self-hating metahuman, Claude Morton (Joe Flanigan), tries to convince the police that all metahumans are evil. In Birds of Prey, metahumans are treated seemingly as a race or species; the Huntress is described as being "half-metahuman" on her mother's side.
On the television series Smallville, metahumans can occur naturally. However, the majority are the result of exposure to kryptonite, which in the Smallville universe can turn people into superpowered "meteor freaks", often with psychotic side effects. For many seasons of Smallville, all superpowered people other than Kryptonians were so-called meteor freaks, but as the show went on it began to explore further corners of the DC universe. Non-kryptonite metahumans include the Smallville versions of Aquaman, the Flash and Zatanna.
On the animated series Young Justice, the alien antagonists known as the Kroloteans have frequently used the term and have even researched into the discovery of a "metagene" by abducting and testing on random humans. The alien reach conduct similar experiments and kidnap a cadre of teen runaways to test for the metagene, leading several of these individuals to develop superpowers. In the episode "Runaways," a S.T.A.R. Labs scientist surmises that the gene is "opportunistic" in as much as it causes its user to develop powers seemingly based on their personal experiences or surroundings.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Lex Luthor is stated to be a supporter of the "metahuman thesis". Secretly, he is already conducting studies on them, with particular interest on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg, all of whom he classifies as metahumans. Also, metahumans appear in the movie Suicide Squad as Amanda Waller talks about their abilities when forming the squad. El Diablo, Killer Croc and Enchantress appear in the film.