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The powers of DC Comics character Superman have changed since his introduction in the 1930s. Many other DC Comics characters have Superman's abilities from Kryptonian DNA, such as Zod, Kara Zor-El, and even the hybrid Superboy. The extent of Superman's powers peaked during the 1970s and 1980s to the point where various writers found it difficult to create suitable challenges for the character. Lex Luthor described Superman as a "living god" on Earth. As a result, his powers were significantly reduced when his story was rebooted by writer John Byrne after the Crisis on Infinite Earths series. After Byrne's departure, Superman's powers were gradually increased again, though with greater in-story explanation than his Pre-Crisis incarnation.
His powers include flight, super strength, x-ray vision, invulnerability, speed, heat vision, freezing breath, super flare (a recently added massive, omnidirectional heat blast that obliterates anything within a quarter mile radius), and superhuman senses. Superman can travel at the speed of light on par with the Flash. The limits of these abilities vary depending on the writer. However, as his name suggests, Superman has frequently been depicted achieving feats of immeasurable magnitude.
Over the course of the character's existence of 75 years, Superman has, at one point or another, had various combinations of the following powers and abilities. The levels of those individual powers and abilities have also changed in intensity, from "merely" enhanced above that of normal humans to truly god-like. Some added as the character evolved, others toned down and restricted in later eras.
Superman gets the majority of his powers from Earth's yellow sun, effectively making him a giant solar battery; when he uses Super Flare he expels that stored up energy in the form of a giant blast of energy.
Superman's powers rely on his cells' ability to absorb and metabolize solar energy from yellow stars like Earth's sun or a blue star. His Kryptonian body is a living "solar battery" that absorbs solar energies and converts them to fuel for vast superhuman abilities that wouldn't otherwise be afforded under Rao, Krypton's red supergiant. His cells also store yellow sun energy so he can use his powers under objects, at night, in dark places, and in space.
Pre-Crisis, yellow stars were said to emit "ultra solar rays" which enabled Kryptonians' superpowers; penetrating the Earth itself, said rays also enabled Kryptonians to stay super-powered at night. Post-Crisis, it is the overall high intensity of yellow solar radiation that is shown as causing Kryptonians' superpowers.
Superman's heat vision is the ability to emit solar energy from his eyes. Heat vision was initially introduced as "the heat of his x-ray vision" (a byproduct of his existing x-ray vision powers) in Superman (vol. 1) #59 (July 1949); heat vision as a separate power first appeared in Action Comics #275 (April 1961). In September 2011, The New 52 rebooted DC's continuity. In this new timeline, Superman #38 reveals that Superman's heat vision is a precursor to a power called "super flare". This power utilizes all the solar energy stored within Superman's cells, allowing him to resort to an all-out attack. However, Superman cannot use it more than occasionally, as it drains him of all the solar energy he has stored up until he can recharge his cells with solar energy which takes him about 24 hours. During this time frame, he is essentially human in his abilities.
Immunity to almost all forms of harm and ailments, including extreme force and extremely high temperatures. Effectiveness has ranged from nothing less than a "bursting shell" being able to pierce his skin (in the beginning of the mythos), to surviving being struck by the electromagnetic waves of a star going supernova with 50 times the force of Kepler's Supernova (after Superman was already weakened by red sunlight radiation), to withstanding the collapse of universes. Explanations for this ability have ranged from Kryptonians having a molecular structure with a density superior to that of titanium and having strong bonds within the cells of his body that cannot be pulled apart. His invulnerability has enabled him to withstand Darkseid's omega beams, a feat originally thought to be impossible. In the rare instances, however, that Superman has required medical attention, this resistance to injuries has complicated necessary procedures such as surgery. For instance, when a criminal shot him with a kryptonite bullet, a surgeon was forced to give Superman a controlled exposure to the mineral, thereby temporarily weakening his skin enough to make the incisions necessary to remove internal fragments of the bullet. Superman can also withstand kryptonite in certain circumstances, but prolonged exposure will eventually be fatal. Superman's invulnerability is further increased by his bio-electric aura, which protects him from some attacks and can be extended to protect others like in All Star Superman. In some versions, this power greatly retards his aging and increases as he gets older, sometimes rendering him effectively immortal. The epilogue to the Justice Society of America storyline "Thy Kingdom Come" (a sequel of sorts to the Kingdom Come limited series) showing Superman surviving 1,000 years into the future, albeit as a very elderly, hunched-over man. Another version in DC One Million lives through the 853rd Century, some 83,200 years from now, though he was living inside the sun for thousands of years before coming out, making him godlike in his abilities. Superman is frequently depicted as being virtually indestructible, however his solar aura will drain away if he takes too much damage. Normally this isn't an issue since exposure to sunlight will instantly refuel the aura, but as seen with his duel against Doomsday, if Superman is out of sunlight for too long his defensive abilities will deteriorate. Also, even under constant sunlight, it is possible for Superman to be injured by enemies comparable to his strength like other Kryptonians like Bizzaro, Zod, Superboy-Prime and Doomsday.
Because Earth and the Sun exhibits less gravitational pull than that of Krypton, and also due to his solar-powered body, the Man of Steel can also alter his personal mono-directional gravity field to propel himself through the air at will. Originally, he only had the power to jump great distances, as stated by the 1940s Superman cartoons slogan "Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." This was also shown in the movie Man of Steel. His power of flight has ranged from simply being able to jump great distances using his vast strength, to beginning in late 1941 being able to accelerate, float in midair, and change direction while traveling. Later he became able to traverse interstellar distances without stopping.
Enhanced physical strength far above that of a human and even most superhumans, making him "more powerful than a locomotive", is one of Superman's signature powers and has often been described as chief among his other abilities. Depictions of the upper limit of how much weight he can lift have ranged from being able to do the work of several laborers in half the time, crush diamonds in his grasp, lift objects hundreds of times his own weight including any sized vehicle over his head, bend steel with his bare hands, lifting mountains, and all the way up to in the Silver Age and Modern Age where he is seen moving entire planets. This makes him one of the strongest beings in the DC Universe. After being saturated with yellow solar energy in All-Star Superman, his strength was tested, and demonstrated to be sufficient to support over 200 quintillion tons (or 2x1020 tons in scientific notation, i.e., two hundred billion billion tons); he held this much with one hand and he even said he feels like he can pick up more, enough to pull Earth away from the sun. As of 2011's The New 52 reboot, his strength now exceeds 5.972 sextillion metric tons, and he managed to do it in the absence of a sun for five consecutive days with only a single drop of sweat, leaving Superman asking for more, although this has been done before by the New Earth/Infinite Crisis Superman, when he moved the Earth away from the Sun against Starbreaker's force. On this occasion, he did have the assistance of the Green Lantern, however, it should be noted that Green Lantern only made a chain out of willpower and connected it to Earth, with Superman alone providing the actual pulling strength. It should also be noted that Superman from the Post-Crisis era can lift even heavier items like Mageddon (a mechanism that dwarfs the Sun)[volume & issue needed] and the Book of Infinite Pages with the assistance of Shazam. Explanations include being adapted to the heavier gravity of Krypton, and his muscles using the power of the solar energy which fuels all his abilities. While in direct yellow sunlight, his strength can be augmented to incalculable and limitless levels. He has strength necessary to shatter entire worlds.
Another one of Superman's abilities is his superhuman speed, allowing him to move, react, run and fly faster than the human eye can perceive. It was originally classified as being "faster than a speeding bullet", allowing him to catch bullets in mid-air before they hit him, or anyone else. His top speeds have ranged from nearly a hundred miles per hour when he was first created in the 1930s to those surpassing the speed of light. He flies from the Sun to the Earth in seconds multiple times (once to punch Wonder Woman unconscious and a second time to fly Darkseid straight from Apokolips back to Earth.
Superman is often shown to have a flawless, eidetic memory of everything he has ever seen, read, heard, or otherwise experienced. In most portrayals, Superman is capable of multilingualism, enabling him to learn, speak and understand any language he comes in contact with. Superman possesses intellect that surpasses genius-level. In Superman #5 (Summer 1940) he proclaimed that he had invented the cloth (immune to the most powerful forces) of which his uniform is made. People from Krypton already had genius-level intellect, being a society thousands of years ahead of Earth in technology. In the presence of a yellow sun, Superman's intelligence is further enhanced, literally to super-humanoid levels, giving him super intelligence and allowing his brain to operate faster than a supercomputer. His intelligence has enabled him to create effective strategies and tactics when engaging enemies during situations from which his powers alone cannot save him.
The ability to inhale and exhale huge volumes of air with great force, capable of extinguishing large fires and moving heavy objects such as cars. Super-breath also allows Superman to hold his breath for extended periods in airless environments. In one 1970s-era Superman comic,[volume & issue needed] he saved a town from a tornado by inhaling the twister into his lungs. He then flew just above Earth's atmosphere, with his chest looking somewhat distended, and exhaled the tornado into space. In another 1970s comic,[volume & issue needed] Superman was inflicted with a condition whereby if he stepped in the ground or otherwise came in physical contact with the surface of the Earth, explosive energy orbs would begin to rise from the area immediately near him, endangering anyone nearby. When Superman realized he was causing the orbs to appear, he resolved always to remain in flight until he could find a solution to the problem. Since, however, as Clark Kent, he could not be seen flying, instead, Clark walked around constantly expelling a jet of air straight down from his nostrils to keep his body just millimeters from his walking surface. The release (exhalation) of highly compressed air through a valve (such as pursed lips) causes it to drop radically in temperature. This is known as the Joule–Thomson effect, and when Superman does this, it is usually referred to as Freeze Breath, Freezing Breath, Arctic Breath, or Ice Breath, and can cool almost anything to sub-zero temperatures and freeze air moisture solid, effectively creating ice.
Initially Superman was frequently depicted as being nigh undefeatable due to his incredible abilities. As time went on, writers introduced Superman to weaknesses capable of challenging his power:
During a New 52 storyline Superman fell victim to a complex plot by Vandal Savage that saw him being contaminated with a rare form of radiation that inhibited his body's ability to process solar radiation, gradually depriving him of his powers as he exhausted his solar energy reserves. He was eventually able to overcome this handicap by exposing himself to kryptonite as a form of chemotherapy, but this killed him shortly afterwards, Superman surviving just long enough to stop Vandal Savage's plan, say goodbye to his allies and friends, and pass on his role as Superman to his 'predecessor' from the pre-"Flashpoint" universe, shortly before turning to ash upon death.
As presented in Action Comics #1 and the 1939 Superman newspaper comic strip, Superman's powers are inherent in all indigenous Kryptonians because of their advanced evolution. Thus, all Kryptonians were shown using the same powers that Superman would have on Earth.
Starting in mid 1939 newspaper daily strips, the notion of Krypton having a greater gravitational pull was introduced as a reason for Superman's great strength. After this, most stories in the 1940s and 1950s would indicate that Superman (and other Kryptonians) would only gain superpowers when free of Krypton's heavy gravity (and in some stories, also its "unique atmosphere"), or when not under Krypton-like environmental conditions.
Superman's original powers mainly consisted of super-strength, super-speed, super-senses, and invulnerability. As described in Action Comics #1 (June 1938): "When maturity was reached, he discovered he could easily: Leap 1/8th of a mile [200 meters]; hurdle a twenty-story building...raise tremendous weights...run faster than an express train... and that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!"
Within the years afterwards, many of Superman's other superpowers were also introduced, including his visual powers (such as x-ray vision) and super-hearing. (Siegel and Shuster, in their initial development of the character, did equip Superman with telescopic vision and super hearing, at least in their earliest draft weeklies.) Golden Age Superman's super-sensitive ears could pick up radio waves Superman #7 (Nov. Dec. 1940).
Writers of Superman experimented with new powers for the character. The abilities that proved popular became part of his regular repertoire, while others were discarded after a single use. One power introduced in Superman #5 (Summer 1940) was soon discarded, an ability for Superman to reshape his face muscles to change his appearance. Another power that appeared at least once was an ability to perform telepathic mind control, as seen in Superman (Vol. 1) #45 (March–April 1947).
Superman's power levels also grew throughout the 1940s; by 1947, he is able to use his super-speed to break the time barrier for the first time. By Superman (Vol. 1) #38 (January–February 1946), he is able to withstand the blast of an atomic bomb; Superman (Vol. 1) #43 (November–December 1946) shows Superman able to withstand the heat of the Earth's core.
Superman's vocal abilities were occasionally used in 1930s-1940s stories. In Superman (Vol. 1) #13 (November–December 1941), he used simple ventriloquism to distract a pair of criminals holding Lois Lane hostage. The ability to raise his voice to an extremely loud level was introduced in 1939 newspaper dailies, when he warned Tarryville residents of a dam burst, shouting from miles away.
In 1950, Superman meets fellow Kryptonians for the first time, a trio of criminals exiled into space before Krypton exploded. The Kryptonian criminals (named Kizo, U-Ban, and Mala) mention Kryptonians having had x-ray vision, super-strength, and super-speed on Krypton, but not other powers, including flight.
During the 2005–2006 "Infinite Crisis" storyline, the Golden Age Superman, now known as Kal-L, managed to pummel through entire dimensions of universal proportions with ease in order to free himself. His fight with both Superman from the Post-Crisis continuity and Superboy-Prime also threatened to not only destroy the space-time continuum, but the entirety of the DC Multiverse.[volume & issue needed]
Superman's powers were subject to expansion and revision during the 1940s and 1950s. Shortly after Supergirl's introduction, the origin of Kryptonians' super-powers was revised. With Action Comics #262 (March 1960) (and expanded upon in Superman (Vol. 1) #146 in July 1961, Superboy (Vol. 1) #113 in June 1964, and in subsequent comics), it is explained that Superman's powers are derived primarily from the "ultra solar rays" of a yellow sun (like Earth's) that penetrate Earth day and night. Under a red sun (like Krypton's, or the artificial red sun in the bottle city of Kandor), Kryptonians lack superpowers, regardless of the difference in gravity. The powers and limitations of Superman are instantly possessed by all Kryptonians (including animals, such as Krypto) exposed to a yellow sun.
Superman's late Golden Age powers were expanded upon during the late 1950s and 1960s, where they reached their peak. Some stories would show Superman as capable of moving a planet. Said increased power levels were also retroactively assigned to his younger self, Superboy; one story showed the Boy of Steel towing a dozen worlds tied together on a chain.
Stories also show Superman capable of traveling across interstellar space under his own power. In one story (in an attempt to rescue an unconscious Supergirl from being hurled out of the universe at a tremendous speed), Superman traveled faster than he'd ever moved before, managing to break through multiple dimensions and barriers before being stopped by the Spectre, who stated Superman was passing "toward realms no mortal eye may be permitted to behold." Superman had also surpassed the concept of infinity in the process, being shocked over what he had done. Beginning with Superman (Vol. 1) #199 (August 1967), an occasional series of races between Superman and the Flash also were published, with Superman's super-speed shown to be at or slightly below that of the Flash's.
Like his late Golden Age self, Superman retains the ability to break the time barrier through the use of his super-speed, as shown in various stories, including one of the Superman-Flash races. However, this ability also comes with limitations. Superman is unable to change the past through the use of time travel. Additionally, if Superman or another Kryptonian travels to a point in the past or future during which they're alive, the time-traveller becomes an invisible phantom, undetectable to anyone and unable to interact with their surroundings. Superman's ability to time-travel allowed him to become a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes while he was Superboy.
Superman's vulnerability to kryptonite (introduced in comics in 1949) is also retained, along with greater emphasis on the newer weaknesses of exposure to a red sun and to magic, such as the fifth dimensional magical abilities of Mr. Mxyzptlk. Also, unlike later Supermen, the Pre-Crisis incarnation of Superman does not have limitless stamina, even under a yellow sun, at least, until he gains access to Excalibur.
Superman's overall strength is increased to immeasurable levels, as seen when he sneezed away an entire Solar System in a distant galaxy by accident, forcing him to evacuate to another distant galaxy whose Solar System and all signs of life had vanished eons ago due to a horrendous plague. Superman was also capable of effortlessly pulling Jupiter-sized planets weighing at sextillions of tons with just a chain connecting them, pulling them from a dying galaxy to a new one in order to save the inhabitants of said planets. After this, he merged with the Sword of Superman, which tied him to the entire Universe he was in.
Superman also possesses super genius-level intelligence and an eidetic memory. Average people from Krypton already had genius-level intelligence, being a society thousands of years ahead of Earth in technology. They learned calculus as children, and possessed the ability to read by age one. These enhanced mental capabilities are a direct result of his exposure to a yellow sun. Superman also possesses the mental ability to screen out the enormous amount of information received by his enhanced senses and to focus on a single detail such as a particular voice or location. Some occasionally used powers, such as super-ventriloquism (the ability of Superman to throw his voice across great distances) or super-hypnosis (an enhanced ability to hypnotize others) also were seen in Silver and Bronze Age stories.
In the early 1970s, Superman's power levels (particularly his strength and invulnerability) are reduced as the result of a storyline involving an accident that renders most of Earth's kryptonite inert, as well as creating a sand creature that drains 35% of Superman's powers. This leaves Superman lamenting about the fact that he was reduced to the point where he could not even push around an entire continent.
However, In Superman Annual Vol. 1 #10, he gains access to the Excalibur, a sword made in the aftermath of the Big Bang, granting him limitless power, making him one with the universe and nearly making him omnipotent, until he decides to discard it, regaining his original strength.
When the Superman character was revised by John Byrne shortly after Crisis on Infinite Earths, it was decided to place restrictions on his abilities. This was designed to make it easier for writers to come up with suitable challenges for the hero, and to eliminate or reduce those powers that had become too sensational or unbelievable for modern audiences. Emphasis was placed on yellow sun energy as a source for the character's powers. Superman's origin story was altered so that his powers developed gradually as his body absorbed yellow sunlight, and stories such as the "Final Night" miniseries depicted the character gradually losing his powers when deprived of the sun's energy. When Superman's reserves of solar energy were depleted, as in Infinite Crisis or the Death of Superman story arcs, he required an extended period of time under a yellow sun, or some type of artificial solar enhancement in order to recharge.
Superman's strength was reduced to the point where he could still move tremendous amounts, but the character no longer had the ability to move planets. His speed was also reduced so that he could not exceed the speed of light. While still capable of surviving a nuclear explosion, such events would severely weaken him. Superman's sight, stamina and breath powers were also similarly reduced, and the character was also shown as requiring an oxygen mask for prolonged travel in space or underwater. Unlike previous incarnations, Superman's facial hair grows at a normal rate, which requires regular grooming by firing his heat vision off a reflective surface onto his own face to burn it off.
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