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What If Everyone Had Superpowers?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Invisibility. Telepathy. Telekinesis. We've all seen the movies, read the comics, and watched the TV shows. But what if superpowers were a real world thing? What if everyone was allowed just one ability? Would planet Earth be a better place if it were more like Marvel and DC? Or would a super-powered society be a bad thing?

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What If Everyone Had One Superpower?

Every kid growing up has wished that one day they’ll discover they have superpowers. And a fairly high number of adults still hope for that same thing. We’ve all daydreamed about being a powerful superhero, saving people while maintaining our secret identities, trying to lead an ordinary life with extraordinary abilities, and defeating our supervillain nemesis who pops up on occasion. But how realistic is our typically romantic view of super-heroism? Superpowers like we see in comic books and movies obviously don’t exist – but despite all the good deeds they enable, should they really be something we should wish for? What kind of a world would it be if everyone was bestowed with one of these miraculous abilities? Would everybody really be a superhero?

The first question is; have these powers always existed in our hypothetical world, or were they granted spontaneously overnight? Depending on the answer, two very different worlds are created. If we were granted powers all together at a particular moment, the fallout would probably be catastrophic, with everybody abandoning their responsibilities in order to learn the ropes of their new capabilities. Of course, there’d be some people, perhaps even most people, who’d use their newfound gifts to help those in need. But, there are bound to be those who instantly exploit them, too – every superhero needs a supervillain, after all. Regardless of the initial onslaught, however, society would eventually recover and settle into a superpowered rhythm of its own.

In “The Incredibles”, Syndrome makes the point that, “when everyone’s super, no one will be,” to explain his plan of distributing advanced weaponry to the public – which would render superheroes superfluous. While Syndrome is the bad guy, in a world where everybody really is granted superpowers they really would become pretty meaningless, as simple traits that some people have, and some people don’t. Most superheroes only become “super” when moved from one context to another; DC’s Martian Manhunter possesses the exact same abilities as every other Green Martian, and only when he flees the genocide of his people to come to Earth is he viewed as exceptional. Granting everybody superpowers would effectively remove the “super” prefix, rendering them simply “powers”, or genetic behaviours – like how some people can roll their tongue while others are double-jointed. Only, some people would be able to fly, while others have telepathy. We obviously don’t think of double-jointed people as having a superpower – so the once-amazing flyers and mind-readers would soon feel fairly standard, too. The “Top 10” comics explore this exact theme. They’re set in the city of Neopolis, where everybody is a caped crusader of some sort, following the police force as their investigations take a surprisingly familiar turn. In this particular world, crimes like drug dealing, murder, and prostitution are still rife and need investigating, regardless of the presence of powers.

A power hierarchy would almost certainly form itself in any powered-up society. We all know that some superpowers are way cooler than others, an idea explored in the episode of “Misfits” where superpowers are discovered by the media. One guy has “lactokinesis”, the ability to control dairy products with his mind, while other characters have A-list powers like immortality or invisibility. While the dairy chap does prove his formidable nature by killing everyone, it doesn’t make the power to control milk and cheese any cooler. Some people would win the “superpower lottery” and become god-like entities, like Dr. Manhattan in “Watchmen.” Dr. Manhattan’s mere presence nearly ends the world as it intensifies Cold War tensions so significantly, leaving humanity in fear of him and what he can do. One “Watchmen” character even says, “God exists, and he’s American”. The anxiety over the god-like abilities of superheroes is also a driving force behind “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”, as Bruce Wayne despises and fears the existence of Superman, as so many others do. Beings like Dr. Manhattan are vastly more powerful than anybody else on the planet, meaning that superpowers would eventually become a new system of “wealth”, able to be exploited.

The elitism that superpowers would create is shown in friendlier terms in “Sky High,” where everybody has one power each. Only the main character, Will – who’s the son of two especially famous superheroes – has more than one. He’s shown to be an exceptional hero because of this. But the school is divided into a binary system of “heroes” and “sidekicks”, with students separated and forced to take different classes. While this collapses by the end of the movie and it’s proven that even the “sidekicks” can save the world, it still initially shows the bias that there’d be. In a world where not everybody has abilities that they can even really use to defend themselves – maybe you’re simply able to create ice cream out of thin air – the horrors of supervillain versus superhero battles would be realized, and many semi-ordinary people would understand why Superman is feared, why the X-Men are feared, and why heroes like Batman and Spider-Man are often blamed for creating the very villains they fight against.

All of these factors combined mean that a world where everybody is granted a superpower would most likely be a bleak dystopia. In all superhero or superpower-centric media, it’s the non-powered or lesser-powered people who are still at constant risk from almighty supervillains like Ultron, Thanos, or Nekron. Superhero dystopias are proven through characters like the X-Men, where their only perceived crimes are being born mutants, and all of them face the same fear and revulsion as the actual villains like Magneto. If we do believe that a world of superheroes wouldn’t be an ideal one, but one where world-obliterating threats crawl out of the woodwork every other week causing mass destruction before the apparently dwindling numbers of decent folk put an end to it, then perhaps it’s a world we should stop imagining.

Instead, it may be more fruitful and fulfilling to take a look at the world we live in now, and the way technology can effectively afford people “super” powers. After all, Batman and Iron Man don’t have any actual powers, but they’re no less heroic than the divinely gifted Wonder Woman or Thor. There are many superpowers that just wouldn’t work within our universe’s laws of physics, and one academic named Johnly Cummings argues that we should look to what can be reasonably achieved with technology before trying to scientifically analyse comic books. He more than likely has a point. Specifically, Cummings highlights Cyborg, first envisioned in comic-form in 1980. Cyborg’s powers are his technological enhancements, done to repair him after an accident. But cybernetics like this had barely been explored when Cyborg came about. Putting the real development of science into this context creates the interesting question of, what about now? Or in ten years? Or in another forty? In 2060, perhaps, people like Cyborg could well exist, depending on how the development of bionics and prosthetics plays out.

In this way, it’s not the powers that make the hero. Syndrome says, “when everyone is super, no one will be,” but Mr. Incredible counters with that very point, that it takes more than abilities to truly make somebody into a superhero. Perhaps the question we ask shouldn’t be, “What if everyone had a superpower?” but, “What if everyone was a superhero?” If there’s anything that comic books, movies and TV shows have taught us, it’s that everybody has the potential to be a hero, powers or otherwise. And a world of genuine heroes is far superior to a world of genuine powers.

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