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Superhero Vulnerabilities


Without adversity or weakness—or the supreme ordeal, as myth-master Joseph Campbell contends in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)—a hero cannot truly be challenged.

Kryptonite! Oh getting weak (Gasp!) murmurs the Man of Steel as his routine rescue of a collapsed train trestle is upended by vengeful criminals who drop a glowing green meteor on him in Superman #123 (1958). This is just one of the hero's numerous encounters with kryptonite, radioactive fragments from the hero's home planet Krypton. Over the years Superman has writhed in pain from kryptonite exposure, turned tail and run from kryptonite meteor showers (actually, he flew), and shielded himself from it with lead, the only substance that can impede kryptonite radiation.

Superman is also vulnerable to magic, and foes like the mischievous Mr. Myxzptlk have used incantations and sorcery to plague the Man of Steel. Kryptonian technology and otherworldly science have harmed Superman: The supervillain Brainiac's shrinking ray made the hero a tiny titan, and weapons from Darkseid's planet of Apokolips have pummeled and even enslaved him. Alien diseases, particularly the Kryptonian Virus X, can kill Superman: In Superman #156 (1962), the hero thinks he has contracted the illness, but on his death bed his pal Jimmy Olsen discovers a tiny speck of kryptonite is actually the culprit for his malady. When Superman actually does contract Virus X, in a serialized tale in Action Comics #363–#366 (1968), his skin turns green and mummifies. Fortunately, his funeral pyre, the sun, is his salvation, as its radiation kills the virus. A later exposure to a meteor-borne Kryptonian fungus almost did the Man of Steel in again in DC Comics Presents #85 (1985), before the plant-sensitive Swamp Thing was able to defeat the source of Superman's sickness. The rays of Earth's yellow sun feed Superman's powers, and once he ventures from this energy source he weakens. In Superman #164 (1963), his arch nemesis Lex Luthor goads the Man of Steel into hand-to-hand combat on a world with a red sun, where Superman is mortal. In the revision of Superman's mythos beginning with the miniseries The Man of Steel (1986), Superman, slightly de-powered from previous decades, requires a breathing apparatus when flying through space.

Superman's greatest weakness is also his most admirable virtue: his compassion. The Man of Steel's enemies have captured his beloved Lois Lane, his foster parents Jonathan and Martha Kent, and his friends Lana Lang, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White to lure the hero into traps.

While a lifesaver when blocking kryptonite rays, lead exposes a frailty of Superman's: His X-ray vision cannot see through it. This weakness is minor when compared to Mon-El's reaction to lead. This member of DC Comics' Legion of Super-Heroes becomes deathly ill when exposed to the ore. Mon-El spent one thousand years in ghostly exile to protect himself from the common substance, until Legionnaire Brainiac 5 created an antidote for Mon-El's vulnerability. Another member of the Legion, Ultra Boy, has a peculiar weakness: He possesses ultra-strength, ultra-vision, ultra-speed, and invulnerability, but can only use one power at a time.

Wonder Woman commands two amazing superweapons: her magic lasso, which forces captives to tell the truth, and her bracelets, with which she repels bullets. Those weapons can work against her: Wonder Woman can be bound by her own lasso, and she is robbed of her Amazonian strength if her bracelets are linked by chains. Green Lantern's miraculous power ring can fly him through space, protect him from harm, and create anything its wearer can imagine, but it has one major imperfection: It is ineffective against anything made of the color yellow. In Justice League of America #21 (1963), supervillain Chronos stops GL merely by spraying him with a golden mist. The power ring wielded by the original Green Lantern, who appeared during comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), had an equally unusual flaw: It wouldn't work against wood. The Justice League's Martian Manhunter is vulnerable to fire, while the Flash's weakness with food extends far beyond the waistline woes of the average person: His hyper-fast metabolism burns calories so quickly, Flash must eat frequently to maintain his energy.

Aquaman, DC's Sea King, can only breathe out of water for an hour. On the cover of Aquaman #44 (1969), the hero is tied to a pier by gangsters, who sneer that the tide will be up in about an hour! Wide-eyed Aquaman shrieks, But but if I don't have water I die in two minutes!! This Sea King is not the only superhero who is a sixty-minute man: Witness the Golden Age hero Hourman, whose Miraclo Pill imbued him with enhanced strength and stamina—but only for an hour, as his name suggests.

Billy Batson transforms into Captain Marvel at his mere utterance of the magic word Shazam! Once his foe Dr. Sivana realized this, however, he frequently bound and gagged young Batson, thereby keeping the World's Mightiest Mortal from materializing. In the Golden Age, Captain Marvel was often joined in action by Captain Marvel Jr. (later called CM3) and Mary Marvel—the Marvel Family—with each superhero relatively equal in power. Since being revamped by writer Jerry Ordway in DC's The Power of Shazam! series (1995–1999), Junior and Mary now borrow superpowers from Cap when they say their magic words, making teamwork more important given their diminished abilities.

Batman is, like many superheroes, mortal—a serious vulnerability for a superhero constantly in the line of fire. His flesh is a mass of scar tissue, from years of gunshots, stab wounds, and burns sustained in the line of duty. This Dark Knight has been preoccupied with justice since his childhood after witnessing the murder of his parents. This obsession has often embittered him, straining his relationship with his inner circle (his protégé Nightwing, his sidekick Robin, and his butler Alfred). Still, he is vehemently opposed to using guns, which constantly endangers him as he swoops into action on Gotham City's mean streets.

Many superheroes in the Marvel universe wrestle with a variety of vulnerabilities. Daredevil is blind, but the Man without Fear does not regard this as a handicap. He is gifted with a radar sense that enables him to see objects around him. Spider-Man's spider sense affords him a warning of impending danger, but it isn't infallible: In The Amazing Spider-Man #39 (1966), the villainous Green Goblin penetrates Spidey's line of defense when a common cold blunts the hero's unique perceptive power. The arrogant Sub-Mariner has been vanquished by fire, and the Human Torch's flame-based powers can be snuffed out with water or a lack of oxygen. The stretching ability of the Torch's teammate, Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, has its limits, as does the resiliency of his pliable body. Richards' wife, the Invisible Woman, can project force fields, a defense mechanism that cannot endure repeated or enormous blasts. The Incredible Hulk's gamma-spawned strength increases with his rage, and the destruction caused by his rampages often torment his alter ego, Bruce Banner. Iron Man is plagued by his weakened heart, which requires energizing from his armor. His alter ego, industrialist Tony Stark, once struggled with another weakness: alcoholism. After excessive drinking led Stark to several mishaps while in armor, he confronted his problem in the classic tale Demon in a Bottle in Iron Man #128 (1979).

The uncanny X-Men may be the world's mightiest mutants, but they are not without their vulnerabilities. Cyclops' optic blasts are so formidable he cannot control them without his ruby quartz visor. Rogue can siphon the abilities and memories of those she touches, denying her human contact with her loved ones, and Iceman is endangered by heat. Wolverine's feral impulses must be tempered with self-control so that he does not kill his opponents, but maintaining this focus sometimes lessens his effectiveness in combat. Wrote Les Daniels in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (1991): (Wolverine) must walk forever on a razor's edge.

A common weakness among superheroes is electricity—Spider-Man has been zapped by Electro and the Shocker, and the Electrocutioner has tried to fry Batman. Archie Comics' Jaguar, who communicates telepathically with wildlife and appropriates their attributes, can be stunned by a serious jolt of electricity. Cybernetic heroes like the Teen Titans' Cyborg and Marvel's Deathlok can be short-circuited, and they and armored characters including Iron Man, the X-Men member Colossus, and Steel are in danger during encounters with villains with magnetic powers like Magneto and Dr. Polaris.

A familiar vulnerability among many superheroes, particularly Marvel's, is self-absorption. Contemplating his personal problems—from his Aunt May's failing health to family financial difficulties—has often impeded Peter Parker in his battles as Spider-Man. Reed Richards boasts remarkable intellect, and an ego to match, which is his greatest weakness: In Fantastic Four #500 (2003), it impedes the master scientist from learning the magic spells needed to free his teammates. Elektra may be the world's deadliest assassin, but her love for Matt (Daredevil) Murdock has softened her edge. While their superpowers and motivations make superheroes awe-inspiring, their jealousies, animosities, and other foibles make them human. —ME

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