Sep 19 2011

Problems Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 2

Published by at 2:12 am under Realism,Superhero Stories

1. Most superheroes commit crimes fairly frequently.  In real life, some crimes that superheroes would probably be charged with include:

  • assault and battery (preemptively attacking criminals in cases where an immediate threat to the public did not exist).
  • reckless endangerment (using superpowers in a way that unintentionally injured bystanders–it’s implausible that most superheroes would be close to 100% accurate with superpowers, particularly if they’ve only recently developed them).
  • child endangerment (using children as sidekicks).
  • evidence tampering (altering/destroying evidence or convincing witnesses to protect the hero’s secret identity).
  • plotting to make and/or possession of weapons of mass destruction (such as a space station with a death ray and probably adamantium claws).


2. A superhero’s ability to collect human intelligence would probably be somewhat limited.  Solving cases more complex than a crime-in-open-view usually requires a lot of time tracking down leads, talking to people and evaluating evidence. In particular, superheroes would probably be at a major disadvantage in convincing reluctant witnesses to come forward because they can’t offer as many incentives for cooperation (like witness protection or legal cooperation in other matters) as the police can.  Also, wearing brightly-colored spandex can make it harder to earn the trust of strangers facing life-or-death situations.  (Fact!)

  • What, if anything, makes your superheroes more effective at solving crimes than the police?  Do they have anything going on besides just getting lucky with stumbling onto crimes in progress?
  • If your criminals are geniuses, do they actually act like geniuses?  (Hint: if they’re committing crimes in open view, probably not).  Does it take any skill to find them?


3. It’s probably implausible that so few superheroes (permanently) die over time.  So many superheroes survive close calls because supervillains that have previously been psychotic and/or brilliant suddenly get really nonviolent and dumb as soon as they defeat the hero.  For example, Dr. Octopus once defeated Spider-Man (who had been ravaged by an illness), unmasked him, and then assumed that Peter Parker was impersonating Spider-Man because the real Spider-Man should have been tougher.  (Why does Dr. Octopus suddenly get uneasy about killing a civilian?  Doesn’t he wonder where Parker got the suit or why it fits perfectly? If he does let Parker go, why not check up later on the possibility that Parker is Spider-Man?)

  • If your superheroes get defeated by a supervillain, why doesn’t he kill them?  If he lets them go, is there a good reason?
  • If your story has had many superheroes for decades, have any died or been severely injured in the line of duty? If not, why not?  (If there’s no chance that the heroes can lose, will there be any suspense when they get into a fight?)


4. Most people are neither total idiots nor totally blind to incredibly strange things happening around them. For example, if a student in a local high school went from being a weakling to being an Olympic-grade athlete overnight and suddenly does a double backflip or sends someone sprawling 20+ feet with a punch, don’t you think someone watching would start to wonder?

  • If your superhero’s superpowers are secret, what does he do to conceal them?  (For example, in Parker’s case, it might have been more prudent to play down his athletic ability in public and then confront the aggressor later in private.  Or at least stick to just one backflip and a leap that wouldn’t make most NBA players jealous).
  • If people have learned enough to arouse their suspicions, how do they respond?  I don’t think most people would naturally leap from “Peter’s suddenly incredibly athletic!” to “He’s probably developed superpowers.”  That’s probably not the first thing that comes to mind, particularly if people in your story aren’t used to superpowers.  Do characters in the story respond in a way that makes sense for them?  (For example, if you saw your really scrawny, normally quiet friend get in a fight with someone much larger, taunt him confidently, and then win with moves out of the Matrix, you might plausibly wonder whether your friend was on drugs).


5. DNA evidence would make it pretty hard to keep up a secret identity for long.  It’s hard to imagine that a superhero could get in a lot of fights without leaving at least a bit of blood or a piece of skintight clothing behind.  The police (or perhaps a villain) could search the scene of the fight and recover this DNA evidence.  DNA wouldn’t identify the hero right away (unless he was already in a DNA database, which is unlikely unless he has a criminal background or perhaps a security clearance), but it’d make it easier to winnow out possibilities.  For example, you could get the subject’s race and gender from DNA and his height from any footage of him in action.  With race, height, gender and a pretty good idea that he appears athletic based on how he looks in his suit, that’d give you a pretty good chance of winnowing down a suspect pool if you had some idea where to start.  For example, if Batman responded unusually quickly to a crime at a WayneCorp event, it might help to take a DNA sample of everybody that fits Batman’s physical profile that was at the event.  The police can bring in each suspect for questioning, ostensibly for help identifying the criminals, but really to get a DNA sample.  For example, the police could offer each suspect a can of soda, wait for the suspect to finish the soda and throw away the can, and then extract DNA from the saliva on the lid.  (If the police were unusually certain about a particular suspect, they could get a warrant forcing him to submit to a blood test).

  • If your hero has a lot of well-equipped people looking for his identity, what does he do to throw them off?  (For example, planting somebody else’s DNA evidence or having another superhero don his uniform for a day or two might create some false leads and at least delay the discovery).  Alternately, a more scientifically-inclined superhero might surreptitiously sabotage the test.
  • Does your character have a day job or regular school commitments?  If so, he’s probably in the same place more or less every weekday morning, right?  If so, a supervillain might be able to get a rough idea of where the hero worked by staging several really major incidents across town.  How long does it take the superhero to arrive and which direction does he come from?  Alternately, police could look at how long it took him to respond to past incidents.

17 responses so far

17 Responses to “Problems Superheroes Would Face in the Real World, Part 2”

  1. Goaton 19 Sep 2011 at 7:23 pm

    Oh and you forgot mocking and humiliation due to superheroes interesting wardrobe choices.

  2. Loysquaredon 10 Oct 2011 at 8:12 pm

    Thought you, B. Mac, might find this interesting/hilarious:

  3. Castilleon 10 Oct 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Interesting article… but I find it hard to believe that he just hung around to be arrested.

  4. Tesson 27 May 2012 at 11:20 pm

    I’m fairly certain that merely being a melee weapon, (essentially indestructable knives), and that it is a part of his biology would prevent him from being charged with anything WMDs. A knife isn’t a WMD, even if said wielder can’t be killed (easily).

  5. B. Macon 28 May 2012 at 2:10 am

    “A knife isn’t a WMD…” Under U.S. law, a LOT of things that aren’t terribly destructive count as weapons of mass destruction. For example, sawed-off shotguns, land-mines, and any sort of explosive which is intended as a weapon. However, weapons of mass destruction “shall not include any device which is neither designed nor redesigned for use as a weapon,” so some internal superpowers would probably be safe from WMD charges. However, if the implanted weapons were explosive (e.g. an on-board rocket launcher or a plasma cannon), then I assume it would count as a weapon of mass destruction even though it is internal.

    In Wolverine’s case, I’m guessing his lawyer could beat any such charges on entrapment and/or ex post facto grounds–the claws came from the government and were obviously not illegal at the time he received them, and it’s not clear it’d be possible to have them removed.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that most superheroes would eventually be able to beat such charges on the grounds that they did not intend to acquire superpowers and had little (if any) control over it. For example, there’s no way that a prosecutor could argue that Peter Parker could have foreseen that going to a science exhibit would result in him developing illegal superpowers. And, obviously, Superman obviously could not control that he was born as a superpowered Kryptonian rather than a human*.

    *However, if he hasn’t cleared up his immigration status at some point, I’m guessing he could be deported (even though he never intended to violate immigration law).

  6. Konradon 03 Feb 2013 at 5:31 pm

    I would add property damage to the list. Hero’s seem to repeatedly cause a lot of property damage, and in the real world they would be getting sued for this damage constantly.

    More broadly the costs of constantly repairing the damage caused in super battles would rapidly cripple the local economy. And for the normal people why would you choose to Live there, let alone pursue a career in law enforcement. As a real world example look at the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. It had one serious earthquake. Two years later they are still rebuilding, and since that time something like 10% of the cities population has moved out permanently. In real life cities that host constant super battles would look like the war zones they are, and anyone who could afford to leave would have done so.

    I suspect things would be a little different for super villains as well. It is quite a curious thing that in the cartoons, almost exclusively set in the US, yet the Villains always get sent to jail. Meanwhile the real US is the only Western nation that still has capital punishment. If Super villains where operating in the the Real World US, quite a few of them would be facing the death penalty., if they weren’t killed while resisting arrest.

  7. B. McKenzieon 03 Feb 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Hello, Konrad. Yeah, I’ve noticed that the death penalty never seems to get used against criminals… see #27 and #28 here.

  8. B. McKenzieon 03 Feb 2013 at 9:49 pm

    “As a real world example look at the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. It had one serious earthquake. Two years later they are still rebuilding, and since that time something like 10% of the cities population has moved out permanently.” If an author were grasping for an explanation about how a city with superheroes rebuilt quickly, it’s possible that having superpowered labor and/or skills available (e.g. alien technology and/or nanotech building pods) would speed up the reconstruction substantially. Also, I think a substantial portion of people will stick around no matter how bad it gets (e.g. Detroit’s population dropped from 1.85 million in 1950 to .71 million today), and only a few superhero settings are noticeably worse than a real-life Detroit which somehow retained 38% of its population over decades.*

    *For example, I’d rather live in the New York City in the Spider-Man movies than in actual Detroit or in The Wire’s Baltimore (i.e. real life Baltimore). Across ~6 Spider-Man movies, Spider-Man’s villains have killed fewer than 25 civilians between them. Baltimore probably has some public housing projects more lethal than that.

  9. Aj of Earthon 05 Feb 2013 at 4:10 pm

    Baltimore, hon! Represent!

  10. B. McKenzieon 06 Feb 2013 at 6:03 am

    (Briefly) Bethesda!

  11. Aj of Earthon 06 Feb 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Heh, nice.

  12. Tyleenia Tayloron 06 Mar 2016 at 1:46 pm

    *If your superheroes get defeated by a supervillain, why doesn’t he kill them? If he lets them go, is there a good reason?*
    In one of my tales, well, it’s like a forever battle of good and evil. Also, if the hero dies, the villain dies soon after, and vice versa. That likely means that they wouldn’t be willing to kill eavhother, right, bm?

  13. (o_n')on 05 Nov 2016 at 9:54 am

    Also in major City, there would be plenty of surveillance cameras, it would be hard to maintance any identity(hero or villian).Police can tell age, height, race from a single picture. It would be harder to tell if you’re wearing a black burkalike ghost costume, but you also get all the stares from a dozen eyewitnesses.

  14. B. McKenzieon 06 Nov 2016 at 12:37 am

    “Also in a major city, there would be plenty of surveillance cameras, so it would be hard to maintain any identity (hero or villain).” There’s also traffic. Batman Begins had a scene where Batman evades police by driving from roof to roof, but unless he’s doing that all the time, I’m guessing that his really cool car would be stuck driving less than 50 mph (75 kph) most of the time because there are too many cars for too little space. (Although, if you’re someone like Bruce Wayne who can influence the design of the city, maybe you’re pushing hard for a city that more closely resembles the Hollywood style where there’s very little if any traffic during most car chases).

  15. (o_n')on 06 Nov 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Some cities, especially if they are historical, would be impossible to drive on the roof, tile roof is very heavy so adding extra weight would be insane. Where I live, you are usually not allowed to drive more than 50km/h in urban area, unless something else is specified.
    A speeding ticket would not be so cool for a hero, I am very sure the police are satisfied with not seeing Batman’s driving license, secondly they possible take him into station for talk. They could walk or take a bike, but unless they are the Flash, they possible get a lot of weird stares. A fancy racing bike and short tricot would get “not another Tour de France-freak…”

  16. Anonymouson 17 Apr 2020 at 6:21 pm

    so… lets say someone finds out out that they were born with very mild superpowers.
    and are being pressured to fight crime but are extremely clumsy and non athletic and cant defend themselves and are pressured by people to fight crime because people think superpowers mean fighting crime. what shuold they do

  17. Anonymouson 18 Apr 2020 at 4:49 am

    In the words of JRR Tolkien:
    We all know the world is full of chance and anarchy,
    So, yes, it’s true to life for characters to die randomly,
    But news flash: the genre’s called fantasy!
    It’s meant to be unrealistic, you myopic manatee!

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