This is not an argument I would like to have to joined but I am consistently asked by those who know me…who is the most powerful superhero? Given this pressure and a sudden realisation that I am unconvinced you can call yourself a real comic book superhero fan until you have settled on one character or another. I now wish to throw my hat in the ring and put my money where my mouth is…so to speak, and have gone with the boy in blue that is Superman.
A common choice I know but the reasons are probably more important than the choice itself so let me elaborate. Initially, let me outline my issues with the question itself, because that is where most of the problems lie for me. Primarily, the question itself is relatively futile and is actually quite difficult to word in such a way so as to provide an answer to what fans really want to discuss. This is for several reasons, firstly, because no character is unbeatable. This has been proven over decades of comic book history; there is no singular character that succeeds in every endeavour they ever set out to achieve, and this is important to why we love these characters and why they are so successful. If they were unbeatable, what are they risking? What do they stand for apart from a totalitarian will above all others? How are they being heroes? So every character must lose at some point which blunts the intended edge of the question. This can then be extended to the obvious concept that no single character can beat every other character every time they were to face each other. There have been countless interactions between characters and sometimes the “underdog”, let alone a character of perceived equal measure, can triumph over his opponent. Therefore, there are no characters who are truly powerful above all others and this diminishes the pedestal we wish to place this singular character upon further as we realise that the concept of truly powerful does not exist in its truest sense.
Secondly, from the actual comic book writer’s standpoint, very few characters have had their absolute limits actually set in stone on the page. The Hulk’s strength is incalculable, the speed of the Flash is potentially limitless and can amount to omnipresence. This is because comic book writers do not want their characters to be outshone, and this debate between fans generates interest. If the Hulk was shown to only be able to lift 100 planets at his absolute maximum, then DC could release an issue of Superman soon after showing him lifting the weight of 101 planets, and thus the argument dies with a whimper. This is exacerbated even more when we consider that certain “roles” are not limited to one specific character. For example, the mantle of The Flash has been carried by Wally West and Barry Allen amongst others, several characters have possessed the power of the Juggernaut in Marvel comics, same applies to the Phoenix Force, so which one are we truly comparing? We can lay out the comparisons for all to see but will the argument ever be fully satisfied? We would have to wait and see.
By extension we could also consider what are we actually comparing? Are we comparing characters or their weapons? Or the forces that possess or channel through them? Some characters may better encapsulate their powers, meaning that it is a part of them like the X-Men mutants to a large extent, whereas other such as The Flash or Green Lantern are only powerful because of the weapons they possess or an accident, which can be replicated, leading to a use of a natural force, like the Power Cosmic or the Phoenix Force. However, these powers and forces can be nothing without an appropriate conduit to use them, but where do we draw the line here? As a point of comparison, Batman, given time to prepare, is largely considered capable of taking down any foe he comes across but this is mainly because of the tools and weapons he is able to use, as well as a strategy he is adopts in battles he controls. What is the playing field here? Can we just move the goalposts for different characters?
Finally, there is the role of weaknesses and strategy itself. Are we allowing characters to have plans going in to these battles we want to see them have or are they going in cold and rely on quick thinking and intellect to win the day? This relates to my previous point that if a character has a plan then they can beat anybody because nobody is unbeatable, that is the nature of the genre. This lack of clarity and consistency never allows this argument to be settled and therefore makes it futile to really ask the question at all. In regards to weakness, some characters such as Superman have a very famous weakness, Kryptonite, if any character possess some then they stand a very good chance at beating Supes, some characters are even famous for carrying some in their utility belt just in case of emergencies. If we take a broader view some characters would have an easy time of defeating other characters who would otherwise be a match for nearly anybody. If Iron Man was to fight Magneto for example, it may get a little one-sided, the clue is in both their names. My Superman also has a minor vulnerability to magic that impacts his durability, and against masters of wielding magical forces, such as Doctor’s Fate and Strange, he would severely struggle although these sorcerers may struggle against characters that Superman would be favourite to overwhelm. So does it mean that because these characters can so obviously defeat a very powerful character that they are immediately more powerful than any other? Again this may be a point that will never be agreed upon, but is still immensely fun.
My other problems stem from the question itself…who is the most powerful hero? This is a problem for me because heroes fight villains that are more powerful than them all the time, it’s part of the struggle, it’s part of the heroic nature of characters to not back down and to stop villainy in all its forms. So if we establish that one character is more powerful than any other, what really is stopping other characters from beating them, because they do it on a regular basis from issue to issue? Are we asking who is the most powerful, or are we really asking who can beat who? This is important because one question does not necessarily mean the other is satisfied as well. The question is not specific on this point, and I query what people are truly asking when they seek an answer. Then again the question can hardly be worded much better without getting extremely complex and long winded. This means that there is confusion as to what we are asking and leaves it open for more debate over any answer’s accuracy whether it is well founded or not.
Finally, and this is where we get into the specifics of the question a little as well as controversial territory, is the wording of the question as it identifies “hero”. This is important because many of our favourite characters can be defined as individuals who are not precisely heroes, they could be anti-heroes or heroes with reputation for often being an enemy to other, more recognisable, heroes. This means that we are narrowing the field from which to choose the most powerful character and, in my mind, we are actually ruling out a lot of key choices before we even compare power levels. On this basis, and I know it will be controversial, I rule out several notable characters from future proceedings. Such as Deadpool, as an anti-hero, Hyperion, as a character with a history and original story of fighting the Avengers in his Squadron Sinister, Hulk and Sentry as characters with great power but who often cannot control it and then turn on their fellow heroes. That last one I know will be controversial as many people would consider either of those two to be more powerful than Superman, and especially as the great expression goes “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and given how their power corrupts them entirely it would suggest they have absolute power. I would also like to admit at this point that those exclusions are all Marvel characters and makes me seem like a DC fanatic, I admit I do fall on the DC side of the line but I believe these characters are far more interesting but my reasons for exclusions still hold merit.
This leads me past the exclusionary approach to the main reason why I think Superman is the most powerful hero in comic books and it is simply because of what he stands for, what he epitomises, what he personifies and this is beyond any mere comparison over strength, speed, energy blasts etc. This goes to the root of the character and I do not believe that any other character in comics symbolises hope and overcoming tyranny better than Superman. He never gives up, he always finds a way, he is intent on fighting back against those who prey on the innocent and those unable to fight for themselves. He is earth’s great protector and nobody radiates positivity or shits sunlight like this guy and for that reason I cannot see anybody being able to compete when it is in the very nature of a character to be the best hero that there can be, being able to do whatever the people need him to do and overcoming any obstacle no matter what it is; on this basis nobody else compares and leaves him standing alone as the most powerful symbol in comics.
If we were to take a more individual approach, others have written about how characters have defeated Superman in the past and, as mentioned previously, this is no surprise because nobody is unbeatable. I mean the Atom beat Superman by stabbing him in the brain with Kryptonite, but that is not the Atom defeating Superman it’s the Kryptonite defeating Superman. Wonder Woman is incredibly powerful and possess magical weapons that can injure Superman, but then where do we draw the line at holding weapons? Wonder Woman’s weapons are almost symbolic as part of her nature as a warrior and Amazonian as she carries them with her always, but then Batman readily carries Kryptonite around with him so does regularity count for that too? Firestorm can even create Kryptonite using his powers, however, this does take an incredible amount of concentration and so would need to go under the category of “preparation” and brings about the question of whether they are allowed to prepare for such a contest. Captain Marvel or Shazam has incredible power which is based in magic and can easily provide a match for Supes, but he is still a boy in a man’s body and this inexperience and often naivety is not enough to say he would reliably defeat the Man of Steel. Superman has iterated that the Martian Manhunter is the most powerful being on the planet and would be scared to fight him which is a noteworthy claim too, however, I go back to my argument about different incarnations of the same characters, as in previous editions Martian Manhunter has claimed that Kryptonians are immune to psychic attacks and the Martian himself has shown vulnerability to energy blasts and energy based attacks, even in his phasing form, and then there’s the fire vulnerability thing, and against a guy with heat vision it probably is not a weaknesses that cannot be exploited by Supes. I guess in, my brief analysis of some of the DC characters that have been courted to take on the Man of Steel, I have searched for a reliable victor. I do not believe that any of these characters, outside of the Masters of Magic, have the power necessary to reliably defeat Superman on a regular basis, I would always give the edge to Supes if we were to mark a likely victor out of ten or one hundred fights.
On the Marvel side of the fence, besides the masters of magic such as Doctor Strange other major contenders, to my mind would include Silver Surfer, Gladiator and Thor. To start, I am going to rule out Gladiator for the primary reason that he is widely considered a copy of the Superman character. It is even argued that his name ‘Kallark” is derived from combing the first names of Superman’s Kryptonian and Earth forenames, Kal and Clark, to form the name Kallark. He also shares tremendous similarities in his powers, as do characters such as Hyperion, who was intended as a copy, and Sentry who even wears a big ‘S’ on is outfit. The reason why I am discounting copies is because, firstly, it is too easy and secondly because of the impact of time. Regarding the former, it is simply too easy for anyone to take an already existing character, alter their appearance and their name, give them a slightly altered origin story but most importantly, give them one or two extra powers and then say that they are a better or, at least, a more powerful character. It requires little effort in this regard and this is important because at the root of all stories and characters in all genres is the creativity and the sense of identity. By simply creating a character that at least shares its identity, if not is the same character as another, stifles that creativity and somewhat cheapens the genre itself as the character does not feel real. It is actually quite insulting to the creators of the original character, and this is outside of the Superman debate and so to speak generally, that someone could take all your work and effort and creativity and simply copy it for their own gains and have your character be diminished even though you did all the work.
To address the latter, the impact of time is incredibly significant in regards to comics as they have been so consistent and abundant over decades. Whilst these comics have been released our understanding of science, space and society has changed and developed massively and I would expect this to be reflected in the powers, abilities and understanding of characters in the comics as they operate in the world as it changes. For example, I do not expect the Bat computer in the eyes of the comics from twenty or thirty years ago to be as powerful as the computers we have today. This point is limited in practice as characters have been rebooted, or whole planets or even universes have been reset, but the point still stands that as the world changes I would not expect any character to be stuck in the year they were created whilst newer character are created and we consider the older ones weaker because of how we saw them back in the day. This is important for a character such as Superman as he was created in 1938 which was before the invention of nuclear weapons, this is immediately significant because it contributes to how we measure his durability and what he is able to survive. This example is merely illustrative and is not significant in the wider scope of the argument.
So my two top guns from Marvel to face off against Supes would be Thor and the Silver Surfer, two immensely powerful characters. However, I stick by my original reasoning that neither of these two epitomise the concept of hope and being a hero as much as Superman does. We could discuss and argue and call names regarding the abilities and achievements of all three of these characters but nothing is as clean nor as close to the foundation of the genre as heroism and overcoming evil.
In summary, I believe the argument is futile but Superman is my pick for the most powerful superhero in comic books. Characters are still evolving and their abilities are developing, characters have changed a lot over time, certain characters have weaknesses that are better exploited by some enemies than others, power has proven not to hold as much importance in the genre as the argument attaches to it given the strength of the villains and most importantly no character is unbeatable. All that being said I do believe that the genre is defined by a few key themes, especially in the formation of their characters, most notably hope and heroism. To my mind, and I believe history has shown, no character epitomises this better than the Man of Steel, whether it be his willingness to face all evil, his courage to find a way and his strength to do the right thing. So all other entirely subjective and inconclusive arguments aside, for this primary reason I hand the most powerful superhero accolade over to Clark Kent/Kal-El otherwise known as Superman.