Famous Superpowers That Don't Work The Way You Think They Do

Superheroes have never been more mainstream, but some costumed crusaders are so ubiquitous they were household names long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. Characters like Superman, Spider-Man, and the Incredible Hulk are all recognizable worldwide, but casual fans might be surprised to learn that even some of the most famous superpowers may be a lot more complicated than they appear on the surface.

Longtime fans are well aware that comic book continuity is complex and difficult to parse; they have made peace with the fact that not every detail in these superhero mythologies will end up making it to the big screen. Regardless, fans of all stripes would probably claim to understand the full story behind some of the more popular superpowers, like flight or wall-crawling - but they’d be wrong.


  • What You Think Their Superpower Does: Scott Summers has bright red lasers pouring out of his eyeballs. The mutant known as Cyclops can’t open his eyes without discharging a crimson beam that presumably incinerates everything in its path.

    What Their Superpower Actually Does: Cyclops’s optic blast is best described as a concussive force, which means he’s basically punching people with his eyes. He metabolizes energy from the sun and releases it via ruby-colored beams that exert brute force - not heat. A childhood brain issue prevents Summers from controlling his abilities; otherwise, he’d be able to store all that energy indefinitely and blast it out whenever someone needed concussing.

  • Superman Doesn’t Fly, He Manipulates Gravity
    Photo: DC Comics

    What You Think Their Superpower Does: Back in the day, Superman was said to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Over time, it’s come to be generally accepted that Clark Kent's alter ego can straight-up fly. In fact, there are few comic book images more seminal than the Man of Steel soaring through the sky with his cape flapping behind him.

    What Their Superpower Actually Does: As is often the case in comic books, the full story of Superman’s flight is far more complicated than it appears on the surface. Part of Kal-El’s Kryptonian physiology allows him to manipulate the graviton particles around him to ignore the forces of gravity and propel himself in any direction he chooses. Superman can indeed fly, but the whole process has its feet planted on scientific ground.

  • Aquaman Mentally Commands All Sea Life
    Photo: DC Comics

    What You Think Their Superpower Does: The notion that Aquaman talks to fish isn’t just a common misconception, it’s a frequent punchline aimed at one of the most-mocked characters in all of comics. It’s hard not to at least chuckle at the thought of Arthur Curry sharing a deep conversation with a cod.

    What Their Superpower Actually Does: As he’s often asserted in multiple mediums, Aquaman does not talk to fish. Rather, he’s telepathically connected to the ocean itself and all life within it - which as it turns out, has some pretty spectacular implications. Curry can more or less mentally command all sea life. In fact, on more than one occasion he's even used this ability to have legions of sharks devour his enemies.

  • What You Think Their Superpower Does: Among his many spider-like abilities, Spider-Man can cling to walls. The wall-crawler presumably sticks to surfaces because his hands and feet are sticky, though some depictions of his powers have included tiny hairs on his palms that serve an adhesive purpose.

    What Their Superpower Actually Does: The actual explanation for Spider-Man’s wall-crawling is ridiculously complex and involves some pretty serious science. Peter Parker’s altered brain allows him to manipulate the electrostatic force and the attraction between molecular boundary layers. While electrons would normally repel one another, Spidey’s abilities reverse the process, making his skin attract foreign surfaces like a magnet at his mental command.