As far as DC comics go, and comics in general, Superman has always been a gold standard for strength and durability, as it’s hard to find another superhero that is specifically so immune to most dangers as Clark Kent. We’ve seen him survive impossible attacks, tank unimaginable punches, survive the destruction of entire planets, and survive in extremely inhospitable environments. And speaking of inhospitable environments, Superman can often be seen frolicking in outer space, flying completely unaffected without any kind of special gear with built-in life-support systems. This leads us to ask, can Superman breathe underwater and in space?
Superman’s breathing abilities in space have been inconsistent historically and across different types of media
Superman marked his first appearance in 1938, and since then, his character has gone through several retcons, overhauls, continuity changes, and whatnot. He received several powerups, lost some of his powers, gained new powers, and nearly all of the aspects of his character were in some way or another updated or overhauled.
But the whole principle upon which Superman’s power lies remained unchanged. We know that Superman got his powers because he was exposed to Earth’s yellow sun, and as such, his amazing biological potential was unveiled.
His Kryptonian physiology back on Krypton wouldn’t be anything special since Krypton is orbiting a red sun; however, once on Earth, he gained his core abilities such as super-strength, super-durability, super-breathing, special types of vision etc. But, one aspect of his character was always described as inconsistent: his breathing or lack thereof.
At the character’s inception, it was thought that Superman could hold his breath for a long time due to his superior lung capacity, but at some point, when his air supply runs out, he would succumb to similar effects as humans.
Some versions of the character were shown to have a specialized breathing apparatus. This breathing apparatus is made out of special material and is highly durable. The device also allows harmful gasses that Superman’s body expels to be filtered out, and it comes equipped with an oxygen tank.
In several instances, Superman showed up in space in Emil Hamilton made STAR Labs spacesuit.
But all of these versions of the character aside, what is the current canon? Clearly, we’ve seen Superman plenty of times in space without breathing apparatus or space suit or without holding his breath, so what’s up with that?
There’s no air in space, but Superman doesn’t need air to breathe
First, Superman can’t breathe oxygen in space because there is no oxygen up there. It lacks pretty much everything except for cosmic and solar radiation and celestial bodies, and this is where the answer to Superman’s breathing in space comes from.
Superman has a different biomolecular structure than humans. His primary source of energy is yellow solar radiation that later gets converted in his cells into pure energy that he uses for a variety of effects. Some of that yellow solar radiation is also stored for later use, and this is why Superman doesn’t lose access to his powers when he is not directly exposed to sunlight.
This radiation that gets converted fuels every part of Superman’s body and his every ability, and it seems that part of it also fuels his “breathing.” Currently, Superman doesn’t need oxygen at all since his cells use solar radiation to fuel his bodily processes and muscles and oxygenate his brain. So to speak.
So strangely, even though Superman obviously can’t breathe oxygen in outer space, he can still breathe through his solar energy absorption. This is not limited to his breathing, however, as Superman has self-sustenance in almost every other aspect. He doesn’t need to sleep and can also replace his food and water intake with solar radiation.
So, what happens when Superman runs out of solar radiation?
Superman’s cells are like batteries; they absorb as much radiation as they can, and some of it is converted to readily available energy right away, and some of it is stored for later use.
If Superman is to venture somewhere where a different type of sun is orbiting a planet or finds himself in a completely dark part of space, he will always have his reserves to fall back on. Except those reserves are not eternal, and he is bound to run out of them eventually.
One of Superman’s most recent abilities is a solar flare, which is able to totally drain out his solar radiation reserves for some time. Solar Flare is basically Superman detonating all of his stored energy in a massive explosion.
The thing with Solar Flare is after he uses it, Superman is almost human in a biological sense since he gets affected by general weakness. Following Solar Flare, he is also susceptible to the effects of alcohol. So, in case Superman’s solar reserves run out, his breathing supply runs out as well. He would be in serious danger, but it’s unclear whether he would physically die or merely shut down.
Can Superman breathe underwater?
Superman can’t breathe underwater because he doesn’t have gills, which are needed to separate the oxygen from water. Instead, Superman relies on the good ol’ principle of converting yellow solar radiation into something that oxygenates his blood, or he simply holds his breath for a long time. And this principle is also valid for other Kryptonians as well since they all share almost the same physiology.
Would Superman drown if his reserves were to run out? Again, it’s debatable since his immortality was often rewritten, almost as much as his oxygen dependence.
To summarize everything, Superman doesn’t really need oxygen to survive, and this is what allows him to “breathe” in space and underwater. Instead of relying on oxygen, he uses yellow solar energy, which gets converted inside his body into something that performs the same role as oxygen has in our body.
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