Superhero fiction is defined by its characters having superpowers, or being exceptional in other ways. TV Tropes jokingly has cataloged what it calls the Most Common Super Power: that Western superheroines almost always have large breasts. But this got me thinking: what is actually the most common superpower? A gut-check suggests superhuman strength (the better to punch bad guys with) or possibly superhuman toughness, invulnerability, or exceptional resistance to injury (the better to be punched with), both likely due to superhero fiction following in the footsteps of its codifiers Superman and Captain Marvel (now called “Shazam”). But is there a way to know what’s most common, or gain some more objective measure? Some way to answer the question: when a superpower is in play during a work of superhero fiction, which one is mostly commonly present – i.e. what is the most common superpower?
The Short Answer
Okay, fine, your TL;DR version! The short answer is that the top five most common superpowers are, indeed, largely fistfight-based abilities:
- superhuman strength
- invulnerability/superhuman toughness and/or superhuman stamina
- expertise at martial arts or use of a weapon(s)
- superhuman speed
- superhuman agility and reflexes
… but …
The Long Answer
The long answer provides way more in-depth information, rationale explaining why, a longer list, some math, a few caveats, and some interesting insights. First, consider the methodology.
First I had to figure out, “Since superpowers are things superheroes and supervillains do/have, which characters have appeared the most?” This question will help us understand which powers are getting used more frequently. For example, we can probably guess with a fair degree of certainty that Wolverine has had more exposure in media than someone like Matter-Eater Lad, and thus the superpower of having an accelerated healing factor likely shows up more often in superhero fiction than the ability to bite through and consume all forms of matter. But what about comparing Spider-Man and his wall-crawling and danger-sensing powers? How do Superman and Storm match up? It would be helpful if there were some numbers.
Here are some numbers. Although the title suggests popularity, each character has listed a “Number of appearances: _____ issues” statistic. It doesn’t seem to specify what counts as an appearance, which I suspect could range anywhere from, “stars as the main character of their own ongoing series,” down to, “shows up once in the back of a crowd scene and has no speaking lines”; this, of course, denies us much context except for comparison. The linked article’s numbers may not be perfectly accurate, up-to-date, or representative, but I felt that most comic book fans would probably admit that, with limited other sources, this is acceptable for getting a sample size we can use for comparisons (especially among the characters that are at the top of the list). All 98 characters are from DC Comics and Marvel Comics; for the purposes of this analysis, Judge Dread and the Phantom are omitted from the math that follows, if for no other reason (besides personal choice) that they didn’t seem to fit into the genre idea of “superhero fiction”.
Okay, so if we accept the data from this list, we know that supposedly Batman has beaten out Superman in terms of the number of issues he’s appeared in. What does that tell us about superpowers? If you add up the number of appearances for our sample size of these 98 characters, it adds up to 368,035 total appearances of 98 various characters. Batman, and the abilities he displays (martial arts mastery, skill as a detective, peak human physical condition, etc.), show up in 14,358 of those appearances (about 3.9% of the time). For Superman and his (numerous) powers: 13,164 appearances at 3.6% of the time. And so on. This tells us the frequency of each character, but so far not the frequency nor commonness of each superpower – which is our actual question.
To do that, we have now list each superpower (or “ability”, for those who don’t have superpowers) that a character has. I used the Wikipedia page of each character (specifically, their “Abilities” list in their sidebar) rather than DC’s or Marvel’s databases to avoid terms that might get too technical (especially for some of the more exotic abilities). So, for example, the X-Men’s Storm would have in her list:
- weather manipulation
- tactics and strategy
(In Storm’s case she also receives a “busty (the ‘most common super power’)” entry; obviously not listed on the Wikipedia sidebar and largely subjective on my part, but it will be illustrative for comparisons later.)
Each of the above-mentioned Abilities, like Storm herself, is weighted as having appeared the same number of times she did (“weather manipulation”, “flight”, “tactics and strategy”, and even, “busty” each receive 7,777 appearances/about 2.1% of the total sample) – even if the ability wasn’t used in the story or shown on panel, because the superpower could be considered present in the world or story (“in-play,” if you will). After doing this for each power, sourced from each superhero or supervillain that has that power, we now have data for the number of times the power appears. Now it’s simply a matter of adding all the appearances of the powers that are the same together to determine how often a given power appears. For example, flight as a superpower has a number of appearances equal to the number of times the characters who have it as an ability have appeared out of our sample size. Adding together Superman’s alien 13,146, Iron Man’s technological 8,697, Storm’s mutant 7,777, and so, gives us a total of 114,299; this means that, out of our sample size of 368,035 total appearances flight, as a superpower, appears about 31.1% of the time. This percentage is what we can compare to other Abilities’ percentages to determine, finally, what the most common superpowers are.
The Long List
|Number of Appearances||Percentage||Abilities|
|160,051||43.5%||invulnerability/superhuman toughness and stamina|
|116,370||31.6%||superhuman agility and reflexes|
|114,299||31.1%||flight (without wings)|
|83,633*||22.7%*||busty (the “most common super power”)|
|56,308||15.3%||longevity (though not immortal)|
|45,417||12.3%||tactics and strategy|
|38,205||10.4%||special weapon, any (shield, lasso, hammer, ring, etc.)|
|35,868||9.7%||peak human physical condition|
|26,931||7.3%||travel and survive in outer space|
|22,691||6.2%||elemental form (ice armor, metal skin, fire aura, rock/diamond body, etc.)|
|18,994||5.2%||commands some kind of (thematic) animal (sea life, birds, ants, etc.)|
|17,461||4.7%||blades (claws, swords, daggers, etc.)|
|17,143||4.7%||thinks fast/accelerated cognition|
|16,668||4.5%||immunity to mind manipulation|
|15,957||4.3%||flight (relies on wings)|
|15,789||4.3%||“magic” (which, to me, could mean almost anything)|
|13,556||3.7%||creates energy constructs of varied shapes|
|10,982||3.0%||language translation (picks up languages quickly, omni-lingualism, etc.)|
|8,991||2.4%||planes-walking/move through other dimensions|
|8,670||2.4%||expert archer and trick arrows|
|7,601||2.1%||size change – shrink smaller|
|7,130||1.9%||aquatic physiology (breathe underwater, good at swimming, etc.)|
|6,242||1.7%||ice and cold powers|
|5,636||1.5%||elasticity (“We don’t need two stretchy guys.”)|
|5,254||1.4%||absorb superpowers and personal essence|
|3,993||1.1%||hidden from telepathy|
|3,891||1.1%||disguise (via hologram)|
|3,263||0.9%||size change – grow larger|
|2,063||0.6%||lycanthropy (of all things)|
*Again, subjectively assigned at times.
A Couple Things of Note:
Unrelated to the commonness of superpowers specifically: Although a couple of Golden Age superheroes like Superman and Captain America remain very popular, most of the characters on this list are from the later Silver Age, which was sillier (and dumber) but also more experimental in some ways. And most of the characters on this list are Marvel Comics characters rather than DC Comics characters, namely because the characters in the X-Men and the Fantastic Four rarely appear solo; in fact, other than Batman and Superman, almost everyone else likely attributes their frequency of appearances to being in a team like the Justice League or the Avengers (and even Batman and Superman benefit from that too). Almost all of the characters on this list are superheroes and not supervillains: similar to the above point Magneto, Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Sabretooth, and the Joker appear as often as they do because they are recurring foils for the X-Men, Superman, the Fantastic Four, Wolverine, and Batman respectively, each of whom ranks highly on this list.
Regarding TV Tropes’ Most Common Super Power: 29 of the 98 characters used from this list are female, leaving a strong majority of 69 male characters; despite this, “busty” (originally our “most common super power”) ranks 7th overall (at 22.7%), and appears more often in our sample of superhero fiction appearances than the abilities of being skilled in tactics and strategy, regular use of advanced technology, or being an inventor or scientist. Large-breasted women appear out of proportion in superhero comics.
What’s interesting (to me) is that if you tweak these values, you of course get not just different kinds of characters, but different kinds of stories and settings. For comparison’s sake, let’s consider another setting that loves fights: in Naruto, for example, it’s stated early on in one of the first few chapters that to graduate as a basic ninja, all cadets must demonstrate not only mundane mastery of martial arts and espionage techniques, but also three specific jutsu/spells: those of transformation, body replication, and body substitution. In a superhero universe you might expect any random superhuman to be strong enough to lift cars, tough enough to shrug off gunfire, and/or fast enough to dodge bullets. Instead we can infer that in the Naruto world you instead expect that any random ninja is capable of assuming the form of any person, creature or object they can think of; appear to be in at least 2-3 places simultaneously (with at least one likely acting from hiding); and to be able to get out of harm’s way in a split second while also distracting you. This makes Naruto (potentially) a setting that invites a lot more espionage and misdirection in conflicts compared to the much simpler-minded and more strait-forward fistfights we often see in comics like X-Men or even a detective series like Batman.
The worlds you create (or the world of your main characters, at least) can be strongly and even purposefully shaped by the abilities that are shown or not shown. Consider how gory and horrific a setting might be with common super-strength but everyone has normal levels of durability and no healing factor? A setting based around fire-wreathed sword-fights is a very different one than a setting based around clever uses of low-strength telekinesis. Imagine a superhero setting that didn’t have superhuman strength and toughness being that common, but nearly every character had superhuman senses and could think at incredible speeds, or could sense danger coming and teleport short distances? Instead of fistfights, how would heroes and villains oppose each other, and what might a comic like that look like? Just making flight a rare superpower greatly changes how a lot of superheroes get to where the action is.
I don’t think this guide is definitive, even given the (perhaps excessive) amount of time I’ve devoted to this (rather irrelevant) question, especially if the source data is at all faulty or eventually out-of-date. But I feel that I have a solid enough answer in strength and toughness, which illustrates a lot about the superhero genre (and about genres in general) and how they relate to the characters’ abilities.
What do you think?