Thursday, January 02, 2020

Could the Terminator Kill the Road Runner?

Typical question about superheroes. Who's the strongest, or, who's the most powerful, or, who would win in a fight. The correct answer, of course, is that it depends on who's writing the story and how they want it to come out. That's entirely true, but a) it's not interesting, and b) there's more than that to be said about it.

I propose to spend some time applying this question to the Legion of Super-Heroes. I already know where I'm going with it, but as I type this I don't know all the places I'm going to hit on the way there.

Anyway, one of the aspects of this question that affects what kind of answer you get is just how you frame it. Let's take the common example of Batman and Superman. Is Batman stronger than Superman? Clearly he is not. Is Batman more powerful than Superman? In the senses of the world "powerful" that we are most likely to be talking about, no, he is not. Could Batman beat Superman in a fight? Now, here, we finally have something that some people would answer "yes" to.

So: who's the strongest Legionnaire?

There are a lot of Legionnaires with super-strength, but they're not all equal; nobody's going to put Colossal Boy, Timber Wolf, Blok and Kent Shakespeare up against the really big guns. No, the ones in the conversation here are Superboy, Supergirl, Mon-El, Ultra Boy, Laurel Gand, Kon-El, Thunder, and Superman-X. And I think Thunder, Ultra Boy and Kon-El are generally seen as a notch below the rest of them in sheer strength. (I do think that!) For the other five, we could probably find rationales to parse it out, but the specific details probably wouldn't be particularly satisfying or persuasive. Bottom line: the strongest Legionnaire is Superboy, or Supergirl, or Mon-El, or Laurel, or Kell-El.

The most powerful Legionnaire might be the same person! It's certainly not a dumb thing to say, that Superboy is the most powerful Legionnaire. But this is where a lot of people will point to Mon-El, saying that Superboy is vulnerable to Kryptonite, which Mon-El isn't, while Mon has his serum to protect him from lead; therefore Mon-El is more powerful. Point taken. I'd like to mention a couple of other Legionnaires in this context, though: Wildfire can certainly command an amount of raw power comparable to the Kryptonians/Daxamites, for one. The White Witch also. The new Dr. Fate character? Maybe!

When it comes to "who would win in a fight", things get really complicated. Because a lot of Legionnaires have powers that allow them to command a lot of power under certain circumstances, or that can be used in a versatile way, or a way that allows them to trump a lot of their opponents' abilities. Let's run through some of them:

- the White Witch, if she had enough prep time, could come up with some kind of spell that could handle any or all opponents
- Chemical King and Chemical Kid could defeat any opponent by stopping the chemical reactions that allow their physical bodies to operate (although, now that I think of it, that wouldn't work on Quislet or, during much of the threeboot, Dream Girl)
- Earth-Man, depending on who he's been hanging out with, might be incandescently powerful, to the point where he'd be a match for anybody
- Element Lad, during his time as the Progenitor, showed how powerful he could theoretically become
- what if Infectious Lass researched a bunch of, like, Kryptonian diseases, and...
- a couple of different times, Paul Levitz used Polar Boy as the Legion's ultimate weapon, showing how his cold-projection powers, if pushed to their maximum, could shut any opponent down
- it isn't so much that Saturn Girl is more powerful than the other Legionnaires as it is that none of the others are as good as she is at fighting in her particular arena. The only other one worth mentioning is Tellus, and I think it's canon that she's a better telepath than he is

But all of this is particularly theoretical. It's not just arguments for how things would play out; it's arguments for how things maybe could play out, if all went well. It's more obviously in the hands of the writer at the time.

One other Legionnaire I'd like to mention this time is Dawnstar. Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Dawnstar is a world-beater like some Legionnaires are. She's a tracker, not a stomper. But do you realize how fast she is? In space, she can fly faster than light. If I remember her DC Comics RPG stats right, she can fly a lot faster than light*, and she doesn't really have to exert herself to do so. It's just a thing she can do. This puts her, as far as raw speed alone is concerned, ahead of all DC's other speed-based characters, including her teammates Superboy and Supergirl and XS... although, of course, they can do speed-related tricks that she can't do, like time travel and phasing through walls.

But you see my point, right? Dawny has a thing she can do that puts her way out in front of everyone else in one category. Superboy, strong as he is, doesn't: with all of his powers he doesn't have anything that separates him from a lot of similarly super characters. Most of what makes him special when comparing him to other Kryptonian-type characters is a kind of privilege. If we say he'd be the one to win in a fight, it's because, you know, he's Superboy; who the flip else are you going to pick?

Still: we could imagine someone who could fly faster than Dawny. There wouldn't necessarily be a point in such a character, but we could do it. Superboy's strong, but we could imagine someone stronger. Dawnstar's fast, but we could imagine someone faster. Star Boy can make things heavy, but we can imagine someone who could make them heavier. But there's one Legionnaire that we can't do this with. There's one Legionnaire, and it's someone we haven't mentioned yet, whose power is absolute.

(And I don't mean Polar Boy, who can strain himself to project coldness of absolute zero. Just because the universe provides him with his limit doesn't mean he doesn't have a limit.)

I'm talking, of course, of Matter-Eater Lad.

He can eat anything.


(Any thing, that is; he can't eat energy. He's not Energy-Eater Lad. Also, we're talking about original M-E Lad here; reboot M-E Lad had his powers nerfed down to having strong acids in his mouth, and we didn't get to see enough of threeboot M-E Lad.)

The most famous example of this was the Miracle Machine, an ancient indestructible artifact that granted wishes. It could do anything. The Legionnaires, who were guarding it against those who would misuse it, tried lots of things to destroy it, because it was obviously insanely dangerous to have around. Nothing worked, because it's an ancient indestructible artifact. Then Matter-Eater Lad ate it, because Matter-Eater Lad can eat anything.

So that's where I was going with this: there is a narrow sense in which Matter-Eater Lad is the most powerful Legionnaire. No wonder they wanted him on the team! Everyone else's powers top out at one point or another... but not his.


* I know that this makes no actual sense when you consider things like "physics". Just go with it

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Blogger Douglas K. said...

Although Legion stories rarely dealt with this, the "most powerful" in any fight would be whoever has super-speed, since they could put down every non-speedster in the room before anyone even has a chance to react to the situation. (See any of the Quicksilver scenes in the X-Men films for examples.) That means Superboy, Mon-El, Supergirl, and Laurel, all of whom have Flash-level speed. Ultra Boy and XS can move that fast, but without the broad suite of Kryptonian/Daxamite powers. As you noted, Earth-Man could at least temporarily join that class, depending on who he'd hanging with just before the fight.

I always assumed Chemical King could neutralize almost anyone's superpower by damping down whatever biochemical reactions produced it. He could also render nearly anyone unconscious with a thought. But he still needs to get in the first move.

I assume Brainiac 5 could have a dozen contingency plans at the ready to take down anyone, if he had the inclination to do so. But "preparing to defeat anyone he's ever heard of" doesn't seem to be one of his interests.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Taking your points in order...

Never mind Legion stories, *Flash* stories rarely dealt with that. Super-speed really is amazingly powerful, and is hardly ever treated as such. I mean, Superman vs Doomsday? Should have been over in seconds. Doomsday is fast, but not that fast, and also has no other mobility superpowers. It should have been the work of an instant for Superman to whip around behind him, grab him by the back spikes, and throw him into space, at which point he's basically harmless. But comics gonna comics.

I agree that Chemical King could shut down most people's systems easily. I'm not as sure that he could shut down their superpowers the same way. If he could figure out how to stop the brain chemistry linked to the intentions of specific actions, like "using superpowers", sure, but that seems like finer work than Chemical King ought to be capable of. Unless he coordinates with Saturn Girl or something.

Now there is the famous example of how he worked with Invisible Kid to shut down the Invisible Invader's invisibility. But there were a couple of conditions that held there: a) that invisibility power was canonically controlled by a chemical reaction, and b) the inventor of that reaction (Lyle Norg) was available to tell Chemical King exactly how it worked. You can't count on either of those things being true of all superpowers. Look at Ultra Boy or Wildfire; I wouldn't expect either of their powers to have any kind of chemical manifestation.

Similarly, I think you said it right when you said he could render "nearly anyone" unconscious with a thought. Who's not included in that "nearly anyone", I wonder? Wildfire again, Quislet, possibly Blok, Dream Girl while she's incorporeal in the threeboot, Phantom Girl while she's phasing...

Brainy may actually have such plans, but he's limited in his ability to carry them out, in a way Batman (who's our obvious comparison) is not. Brainy's a team player! When written properly.

6:22 PM  

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