Superman is one of – if not the most – popular and beloved superheroes of all time. The guy can do it all – he’s strong, agile, invincible, can fly, has x-ray vision, freeze breath – you name it. But do you actually know how he got his amazing superpowers?
The premise of Superman’s powers changed over the decades, but now, there’s a general consensus and explanation about how he got his powers and how they can progressively get more or less potent. Let’s not waste any more time explaining how exactly Superman got his powers and how they work.
Was Superman born with his superpowers?
The answer to this question, actually, is both yes, and no. Don’t worry, it’s not something abstract, and there is a clear answer. Let’s start from the beginning.
Kal-El was born on the distant planet of Krypton, where his alien race – the Kryptonians – lived for centuries. They have an almost identical appearance to Earth’s humans, and on their planet, their physiology and physical traits – in terms of strength, speed, stamina, etc. – aren’t that much different from regular humans.
The difference is, however, that their physiology was actually eons ahead of humankind on Earth, evolution-wise. Their cells worked on a completely different level and system, but I’ll get to that point in a second.
Anyways, Jor-El, Kal-El’s father, was the leading scientist on Krypton. Through research, he predicted a cataclysmic earthquake that would shatter their planet into pieces – but nobody seemed to believe him. Seeing that Jor-El and his wife just had a baby boy, they developed a small spaceship, big enough to carry Kal-El and some Krypton memorabilia off the planet to safety.
That safety was found on Earth. But did Kal-El already have his superpowers when he was an infant on Krypton? Well, that’s where we turn back to the Kryptonian advanced physiology.
All Kryptonians actually have superpower potential when they are born. Their cells have the ability to absorb the radiation of a yellow sun – ‘supercharging’ their cells with energy that they can manifest in countless ways – which we later see as superhuman strength, speed, flight, and other Superman powers.
The problem is, Krypton didn’t orbit around a yellow sun, but rather, a red sun, which hindered the development of superpowers in Kryptonians. Absorbing the radiation of a red sun ‘discharged’ their cells, essentially reverting them back to a ‘normal human’ type of physiology with no superpowers.
If Krypton were revolving around a yellow sun, then you’d have an entire civilization of Supermen and Superwomen.
How did Superman’s superpowers grow?
To answer this question, it’s important to note that the answer depends on what you’re referring to when asking it. Are you referring to Superman’s powers growing over the decades since the character was first introduced in 1938 up until now, or Superman’s powers growing as he spent more time on Earth? To be sure, let’s answer both.
First, how did Superman’s powers grow – or rather, how did he gain new Superpowers – as the decades of his existence in DC Comics went by?
When Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster first created Superman, he had superhuman strength, speed, and durability, and although he couldn’t fly, he could leap over buildings with a single step. It wasn’t because of a yellow sun but rather because of his alien physiology.
As they explained, the physical structure of Krypton inhabitants was millions of years advanced compared to humans. Upon reaching adulthood, Kryptonians were almost automatically gifted with ‘titanic strength’, which was why Supes was so strong on Earth.
A few years later, however, it was expanded, stating that Superman got his powers on Earth due to the differences between Krypton and Earth itself. Krypton was much larger, so it had a much stronger gravity.
When Kal-El came to Earth, its weak gravity was nothing compared to what his physiology was accustomed to, which is why he could perform such incredible feats of strength, speed, and durability. It’s kind of like having a human walk on the Moon, leaping effortlessly into the air.
However, Superman gained more and more powers over the years, which is where the story of the yellow sun was implemented. He had superhuman strength as soon as he came to Earth due to the differences in gravity and planet properties, but as he stayed on Earth and absorbed the yellow sun radiation, his powers grew exponentially.
Due to the new ‘radiation-based’ explanation of his powers, Superman gained new awesome powers like heat vision, freeze breath, flight (instead of leaping very high), etc.
Now, we get to the second part of the answer – how did Superman’s powers grow as he spent time on Earth?
Well, the longer he stayed around a yellow sun, the more ‘supercharged’ his cells became, enhancing his powers. Meaning if Superman spent decades absorbing the yellow sun’s radiation, he’d become exponentially more powerful. There’s a very cool book that DC Comics published years ago called Anatomy of a Metahuman.
In it, solar radiation absorption was explained with pseudo-scientific principles, similar to photosynthesis.
They didn’t stop there, though, as it wouldn’t explain why he’d gain such unfathomable powers as, for instance, his heat vision. If his cells got charged with solar radiation, it makes sense that he’d be stronger. But why would he have lasers in his eyes? Well, the book explained that too.
They also explained other Superman powers, like his freeze breath.
There are other superpowers and stuff about Superman’s physiology explained in the book, but generally, the premise remains the same. Superman’s powers grow the longer he can absorb the yellow sun.
Should he be exposed to a red sun, the powers would diminish over time before he loses them completely and becomes an ‘ordinary’ Kryptonian once again. Should he be exposed to Kryptonite, however – the radioactive chunks of his old planet, supercharged with the red sun’s radiation and other alien radioactive substances, Supes would become weak, vulnerable, or even die.
The same goes for all other Kryptonians, not just Superman. Whichever Kryptonian absorbs the yellow sun’s radiation, they’d become as powerful as Superman. That’s why Earth was lucky that it was Kal-El – the kind, gentle soul – who got to Earth first and not some douchebag like General Zod.
Would Superman have superpowers anywhere in the universe?
The clear answer is – no. If Kal-El had landed on a planet that doesn’t revolve around a yellow sun, he wouldn’t gain the same superpowers he did on Earth.
If it were a planet smaller than Krypton – like Earth – he’d likely have superhuman strength, speed, and durability proportionate to the difference between the gravitational pull of Krypton and the said planet, but wouldn’t gain additional powers such as flight, freeze breath, etc.
In short, he needs the yellow sun to become the Superman we know. Without absorbing that radiation, he’d be a stronger version of a human being.
Can Superman’s powers change?
Absolutely, they can. Not in a sense where he’d, for instance, become invisible or something if he were on another planet, but in a sense that the potency of his powers would change, depending on how much solar radiation he can absorb, how close to Kryptonite he is, is he absorbing the red sun, etc.
Just take a look at DC’s Superman Prime, aka Superman One Million. He had spent thousands of years charging at the very core of our yellow sun. When he got out, his powers were so powerful that they were essentially infinite. His strength was immeasurable; he could fly much faster than the speed of light.
Superman One Million was also impervious to any damage, and due to his unfathomable speed, he could time travel by going faster than the speed of light. Now, if that isn’t impressive, I don’t know what is.
I hope this gave you all the answers about Superman’s powers, but note that there are countless different versions of Supes from different universes and different periods of DC Comics.
This article was based entirely on the mainstream DC version of Clark Kent, so the answers may vary for other versions, such as Bizarro, Cosmic Armor Superman, the DC(E)U Superman, Superman X, Superboy, Ultraman, etc.
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