Thursday, April 19, 2012

What's the Best Superpower? part I: It's Not Just About the Powers

Thanks to this article on Comicvine, I've spent the last couple of days thinking of my own consistent answer to the question all comic book geeks ask, debate, and fight over.  Put succinctly, which comic book power is the best?

Of course, with the question phrased in such an open-ended manner, it's very easy to argue endlessly about which power is better than that power, and why it would trump or be trumped by that power over there.  It's one of the things that make superhero comics such a joy to read and discuss with others, since the possibilities are virtually endless.  Some powers work better under particular conditions than others, and various settings and environments can make a huge difference.

"I'm kind of useless on a hot, dry day!"
Let's use Bobby Drake, the Iceman, as an example.  He has the mutant ability to pull moisture from the surrounding air, convert it to frozen solid water (you know, ice), and utilize ice in various ways: armor, projectiles, ice slides, and so on.  It's a pretty cool power--pun intended--but what happens in less than ideal conditions?

I'm sure Bobby will be fine for battle on a cold day or a during the regular span of temperatures, but what happens when things get abnormally hot?  What if he has to do battle in Hell, or the Stygian abyss of Mephisto's realm (arguably the same as Hell) or Houston, Texas in August (also arguably the same as Hell).  I don't know if it's purely psychological, or if there is a temperature threshold at which Bobby's ice powers simply start to impair, but it's an issue that's caused him more than one moment of doubt as an X-Man over the years.

So, we know ice powers aren't flawless.  Technically, no power is.  It's all in how you use them, and how smart you are about it.

Avatar: the Last Airbender supported this theory by showing that no bending element was superior to another.  It all depended on the bender's particular mastery of their element, how smart they were about fighting with it, and the skill of the opposing bender.

"Power in firebending comes from the breath,
not the muscle!"
Prince Zuko, who turned out to be an excellent firebender by the series' end, is a prime example of this.  He was not a smart fighter when we see him at the beginning of season one: he wastes energy on over-large movements, doesn't focus on his breath control, and expends energy by depending on his temper.  Eventually he becomes a more efficient fighter, learning the value of hitting an opponent's weak points with a relatively little energy.  By the time he takes on Aang as a firebending pupil, he's learned a good deal of control, both internal and external, over his abilities, and truly is one of the better firebenders out there.

I make these points to illustrate that, oftentimes, powers alone aren't going to decide the outcome of a battle.  It's simply not going to be the only factor, nor even necessarily the most important one.  Environment, opponent awareness and your own resourcefulness are going to have huge, and often decisive effects on any super-powered brawl.

Which is why I must respectfully disagree with G-Man's answer in the article linked above.  Super-intellect, which is his choice for best power, does not necessarily cover sound tactical and strategic thinking.  It covers science smarts, amassed knowledge, and ability to apply those things in a practical way to aid in a fight.  Is it useful?  Very definitely, but it certainly does not guarantee that whoever has it will always be a smart fighter.  I would posit that what G-Man actually means to be a power is actually a learnable skill, one that many people with lower IQs than Reed Richards or Hank Pym have learned and used against them in combat.

Captain America has this skill.  Emma Frost has this skill.  Hell, we've recently seen Spider-Man take this skill and use it in conjunction with his own high intellect to whip up armor, tech, and gadgets to combat the Sinister Six, but he also regularly applies it in combat as well.

I think this particular skill--we'll call it tactical cognition--is something that is learnable by all super-powered individuals, usually through direct combat experience.  Furthermore, it is something that is virtually indispensable to a hero's continued survival.  This is a skill that is needed by all superheroes no matter what other powers and abilities they have, though to what degree they would need it would often depend on their role in a given situation.  I definitely don't consider it the same as super-intellect.

Hmm.  I've started out asking one question, and seem to have veered into a multi-part answer.  Next time I address this, I'll set some ground rules for selecting a power.  For now, just keep in mind that the powers themselves aren't the only part of the equation, and not even necessarily the most important factor.  Smarts, environment, resourcefulness, and probably a lot of other factors I've failed to mention can influence or even decide a battle.  

It isn't just about what powers you're packin', True Believers.  That point, to me, is probably the most important part of the answer to this question.

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