In a recent interview, the rapper Kanye West said being bipolar is his “superpower.”
He is not the only capeless person to recently make such a claim. The following statements were made this month:
- An article in the New Bern (North Carolina) Sun Journal declared, “Losing Things Is My Superpower.”
- A hockey writer suggested that the Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerald Griffin’s “secret superpower” is not holding players accountable for their mistakes.
- A Utah elementary-school principal told students, “Reading is a superpower for your life.”
- The director of a new movie about Fred Rogers said, “I think his superpower was this penetrative emotional honesty that disarmed people.”
The word superpower (sometimes rendered as two words) has two different sorts of meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary defines one of them as “A nation or state with dominant power and influence in world politics; spec. the United States of America and (formerly) the Soviet Union.” Then there’s the comic-book one. The OED again: “A fictional superhuman power, esp. as possessed by a superhero; a fictional ability beyond what is possible based on scientific laws.” Thus Superman’s super strength, Spiderman’s Spidey sense, Batman’s … what’s Batman’s superpower again? I think it has something to do with brooding. Anyway, it’s this sort of power that, more and more frequently, is being metaphorically claimed by the Kanyes of the world.
The trend isn’t surprising, because comic-book heroes dominate the culture — not so much in comic books themselves as in movies based on them. The three highest-grossing films of the year feature superheroes: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Deadpool 2. A fourth, the animated Incredibles 2, grossed $182 million last weekend, its opener, and will probably end up in at least the No. 3 spot. This glut has added to the active lexicon a new meaning for a particular cosmological word. Most of the movies involve characters from one of the two major comic-book publishers, and so one speaks of them as taking place in the DC or Marvel universe. There are other important cinematic universes as well, notably the Star Wars universe and the Harry Potter universe.
Long before this movie glut, in 1996, Seinfeld based an episode on the concept of Superman’s “Bizarro World,” where everything is parallel yet opposite to the real world. In the episode, Elaine befriended Jerry, George, and Kramer’s Bizarro counterparts — Kevin, Gene, and Feldman.
Today, superpower is hardly the only comic-book term being appropriated by the world at large. Journalists apparently can’t write “Achilles heel” anymore; they have to invoke “kryptonite,” for the one substance that could bring Superman to his knees. Especially if they are sports journalists. From a Google News search:
Comic books have always used a particular phrase for how-the-leopard-got-its-spots-type accounts of how particular superheroes got their superpowers. I’ve been encountering this a fair amount lately in noncomic contexts, including a New York Times dance review (“And some of what he’s saying is important, wisps of an origin story for hip-hop dance”) and a headline in the Toledo Blade (“Addiction origin story? Examine the Purdue [Pharma] connection on opioid abuse”).
There are plenty of other comic-book words and phrases that are ripe for the picking. I would not be at all surprised if we start hearing about regular people’s “arch-enemy,” “secret identity,” or “Fortress of Solitude.”
As for me, I don’t have an arch-enemy or a secret identity. I do, however, have three superpowers: spelling, simple arithmetic, and noticing superficial language trends. What are yours?