You know the scenario: a normal person is hit by radiation, or a chemical, etc. and somehow gains superpowers from it. Immediately, he or she swears to use the powers to fight crime (or commit them) and makes a secret identity complete with costume and code-name.
But is that how things would really go?
This is actually a question that has been asked for decades now, thought it is only in relatively recent times, with all the superhero adaptations to more ‘realistic’ media like movies or TV, that it has become truly popular. Mainly you see it in the way superpowers are downplayed and costumes made to look more like current fashions.
Today, we’ll apply some “real world” logic to the scenario above, and see what we come up with.
First, let set some parameters:
-We’re not going to worry how superpowers could possibly exist (not in this article anyway.) We’ll be focusing on the social effects of superpowers.
-We’ll assume that powers are a rare thing- say, about one person in a million gets them. That seems to be the default in most settings- large cities have several “supers” but most other places have only a few.
-All kind of powers exist, from extremely dangerous ones to seemingly useless ones. Who gets what seems to be a random thing too.
Ok, now let’s ask some questions:
Would there be superheroes? Of course there would be. Many modern works like to cynically claim that people with powers would never be unselfish, but I don’t agree, at least not completely. There are heroes in real life: policemen, firefighters, rescue operatives, medics, etc. Lives are saved all the time and not just for money, it takes real courage to so. Superpowers (some of them, anyway) would make their jobs even easier: invulnerability to get into dangerous areas, supersenses to find victims or criminals, healing to cure anyone who’s been hurt, etc. In fact large cities might even have super-SWAT teams.
Would there be super-villains? Sadly, yes, and in greater numbers than heroes, as in the comics. As the saying goes, “Power corrupts” so if having something as mundane as a gun can drive a criminal crazy, imagine what wielding the powers of bazookas would get them to do! Which is why super-crime handling units would be necessary.
Not all crimes would need to be violent, thought. Many powers can be easily abused: mind control, mind-reading, shape-shifting (to impersonate people), electronic control over computers, etc. These would also be harder to trace (and prove) making them all the more alluring.
There would also, however, be a third group, which I call “super-neutrals”: people who use their powers for profit in perfectly legal ways. After all, that’s what most of us do: use our natural skills and talents to make a living. And there would be many, many ways to use powers legally. In my opinion, this would be the largest kind of “supers”.
They would fall into two categories: those who use their powers for work, and those who use it for entertainment. Things like super-strength or super-speed have obvious uses: one person could do the work of dozens. (Although that could bring its own problems, with unions protesting that supers take away jobs from “normals” not unlike the anti-machinery protests of the 19th century.)
Super-entertainers would be similar except they would use their powers for either live performances (like creating their own fireworks) or providing special effects for movies or television (which would save producers a lot of money.) Invulnerable stuntmen would also be in high demand.
One area were Supers would definitely not be allowed in would be sports. After all, the point is fair competition, and even the most unseeming power could be used to cheat (for example, imagine a telepath who wins a race by reading the minds of the other runners so as to plan when to slow down and when to sprint.) Of course Supers could be paired off against each other, though given how random their effects and levels tend to be that might not be practical (except maybe in ‘Reality Shows’.)
There’s also scientific research: imagine how much easier exploring the mysteries of Earth, or even the stars, could be with the help of people with the right powers: flying into orbit, diving into the depths of the ocean, examining the Earth with X-ray vision, etc. In fact, you can guaranteed that the Supers themselves would be extensively studied to find out how they “tick”. This could be controversial, but I believe it would inevitably happen somewhere. And those discoveries could lead to anything from wonderful cures to terrible new weapons.
What about secret identities? Some would exist, but not many. Most people have no reason to hide who they are, unless they are doing something illegal. And we have already established that most supers would use their powers openly. Besides, keeping your identity a secret is very difficult these days, what with all the investigation techniques that exist today. Though certain abilities –like shape shifting or invisibility- might help.
Also most people would not wear costumes except in the case that their powers made normal clothing impractical: a flaming super might need a fireproof suit, a very large one could use spandex, etc. And of course, those working in Show Business would be the ones with the really flashy outfits (think Super Lady Gaga!)
In conclusion: a realistic world with superpowers in it would be more like an enhanced version of our own then the bombastic one we see in the comics. Though there would still be important differences, especially (eventually) in the areas of science.
(all art Co. their current owners)