What Are the Most Realistic Super Powers?

Photo: Rhett Allain

You’ve already had this conversation 1000 times. I know. It happens when you are sitting around with your friends and debating about a battle between Darth Vader and Spider-Man. Don’t worry, we all do this. It’s what makes science fiction and fantasy so much fun.

So, here’s the question. Which superheroes have the most realistic powers? Yes, there are many that are just complete fantasy (but that doesn’t make them less fun). Magic users and shape shifters are pretty difficult to explain with science — maybe that’s why they are so cool. However, some stuff can have a scientific explanation.

Here are the ones I consider the most realistic.

Pure Fighters (Hawk Eye, Shang-Chi, Power Fist — except for the power fist, Kick Ass, Moon Knight)

Illustration: Rhett Allain

I mean, there’s really not much to explain here. There are a bunch of superheroes that are either ACTUAL NORMAL HUMANS or slightly modified. Heck, you could even include Batman in this group. They just fight like very skilled humans.

The fun thing here is to argue about heroes like Captain America. Is he just the best a human can be or is he something more? Does Moon Knight have any special abilities or does he just look super awesome? You decide.

Gadget Hero (Batman of course, Hawk Eye — again)

Illustration: Rhett Allain. This is supposed be Batman

Batman’s not just a detective and a fighter, he has all this cool stuff. Just think of his grappling gun, batarangs, even his gliding cape. Most of these are either real life things or at least plausible. OK, I don’t think there is a material that can go from cloth to rigid — but it’s not crazy impossible.

Check out this real grappling gun.

But what about Bat-shark repellent? Come on. I think you could probably make that stuff, right?

Exoskeleton (Iron Man)

Illustration: Rhett Allain

It’s wasn’t too long ago that Iron Man would just be completely impossible. But that day is not today. There are currently two parts of Iron Man’s suit that are basically real life — flying and the strength thing.

For the flying part, check out Gravity Industries.

I mean, it doesn’t fly half way around the Earth like Iron Man does — but it’s still real. Real flying. Here is some bonus physics on how you would have to hold your arms to get this to work.

What about super strength? Yup. Got that too. Here is an example of an exoskeleton suit.


Underwater Swimming and Communication With Sea Stuff (Aquaman, Sub-Mariner)

I’m not talking about their super strength. Let’s first just look at their ability to breath underwater.

Both mammals (like humans and Aquaman) as well as fish (like that lost fish named Nemo) use oxygen to function. Humans do this by extracting oxygen from the air (which is 21 percent oxygen) using lungs. Fish basically do the same thing. They get oxygen from the water by passing stuff over their gills. I mean, I’m not really a biologist but those two things are kind of the same.

Could a human get oxygen out of the water? I think it’s at least plausible. Imagine that there was some type of large external gill that would extract the O2 out of the water and then feed that to the human’s lungs — or maybe even straight to the blood. It might be weird, but it’s not impossible.

What about talking to fish? That’s not really going to happen. However, you could talk to sea mammals like dolphins and whales. It seems like in the near future we could indeed communicate with dolphins — like a real life Aquaman.

Invisibility (Susan Storm, Translucent)

Illustration: Rhett Allain. No, it’s not a polar bear in a snow storm, it’s Translucent.

Susan Storm (aka Invisible Woman) has many powers — but right there in her title, it says it all: “invisible”.

We actually know how to make things invisible. The problem is that it’s very difficult to make something appear invisible from all directions. The best way for Susan Storm to do this is to get light from background objects to bend around her. That would make it appear that she’s not even there. Like this.

Diagram: Rhett Allain

If we want humans to make light move something like this, there are two ways it could work. The first is to just use something like a computer display and a camera to project stuff from behind you to the front of you. But again, that would only work for certain viewing angles.

The most plausible way to a human invisible is to use a negative index of refraction material. This could actually do the trick.

Here are some other ways you could get it to work.

Honorable Mentions

If you want to keep talking about super heroes (who doesn’t), how about genetic engineering with Captain America or super hearing with Daredevil.

Physics faculty, science blogger of all things geek. Technical Consultant for CBS MacGyver and MythBusters. Former WIRED blogger.

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