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Flight vs Invisibility vs Status

Some tweets from Fred Hicks & Rob Donoghue regarding the Marvel RPG, the X-Men character Storm, and powers sparked this thought in my mind. Take note: I’m gonna ramble a bit.

What is the purpose of the superpower we all know and love as “Flight”?

Since it tends to be a fast-moving power, at least at car speeds, it’s a power of mobility. And that, in comic book stories, is really about either the tale of the race (can you stop Lex Luthor in time!) or a way to go from one set piece to a radically different one.

And since often flight-enabled supers have flight-enabled foes, it allows for badass aerial fights, which is yet another great set piece.

So, if flight’s really about the ability for a comic writer & artist to vary set pieces, let’s look at who tends to have flight. Superman, of course. Wonder Woman in various forms. Green Lantern. Storm. So on and so forth.

These are high-status characters. To have flight is to say “I am free of gravity when others aren’t”, and puts you in an arena of physical conflict that few can reach. And it’s majestic & awe-inspiring; by being literally above mankind, you are figuratively above them. These characters are capital-H Heros, superbeings that do not hide from the world.

That leads me to think of the golden age-old question: Would you pick Flight or Invisibility?

Heads up, I always pick invisibility. I have practical thoughts about that. And of course, there are the “what about clothes?” or “how much can you carry when flying?” sub-questions, but I now realize those are irrelevant.

Invisibility is a much more street-level power. It’s a power to alter a situation in the moment, and in an underhanded way. Thus, invisibility is a low-status power. It’s the effect that muggers have in dark alleys, or that horrors have in other fiction. Unlike those with flight, these are superbeings whose very power is that of hiding.

So, the question really is: “If you were a superhero, would you be a high-status or low-status one?” Or “Would you be global or local?”, which is maybe how one would define high & low status in a comic world. And another way: “Would you be a source of inspiration & majesty or fear & dread?” (Note: the question isn’t about supervillains, who when they’re done right always produce fear & dread.)

Suddenly, I’m rethinking other powers in the light of status. There are probably some status-neutral ones, but man, now I’m seriously thinking about what it means to pick a power beyond what effects it has.

Because really, no one *needs* to fly in a comic book story. The writers can just have closer set pieces and make races against time local in scale. And no one *needs* invisibility to solve impossible situations, as the writers can change how that impossible situation is solved with a different power–ones that don’t tap into primal fears of the unseen. Powers don’t enable comic characters, they define them. So those powers really are, from a writing standpoint, about status in the world at large.

– Ryan

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40 Responses to Flight vs Invisibility vs Status

  1. Rob Donoghue says:

    But if that’s true, how can we assign them point values?!?!?!

    More seriously, this kind of deeper thinking about the nature and role of powers is a big part of what I’m kicking around in my thinking about how to explain that just making up your superhero without points may be totally unintuitive to a power nerd, but really comes closer to the point.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rob,

      Yeah. Though at that point, you might as well just play Primetime Adventures (or a comic book drift of that), since that’s a game focusing on character definition wholly and character ability not at all.

      Most of the comic games are focused around character ability as the driver of story, so you end up having to stat out how many powers work at different levels. And then that leads to character creation balance issues for a sense of fairness among all players.

      – Ryan

  2. Ben. says:

    To never sleep.

    Unless you never sleep, there’s a time when you lay there. Vulnerable.

    -Ben.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Unless you’re talking about status & classic superpowers in stories, just saying “I would pick X random power” is off-topic.

      Note to all: I’ll delete any that are similarly off-topic.

      – Ryan

  3. Joshua says:

    I would pick flight, but that’s because I believe it would be fun, in a really visceral way. Dreams of flying are much more interesting to me than dreams where I’m observing a scene unnoticed.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And sometimes we see stories where the characters either express freedom (flight) or loneliness (invisibility). However, that doesn’t change how their status is in the greater world. (And you get some neat juxtaposition when the flight-character is lonely and the invisibility-character is free.)

      – Ryan

  4. Narretei says:

    First off: great analysis. I never thought of superpowers in whatever genre that way; their meaning for a protagonist or character. Fascinating.
    I think of it in a way of “pick your battles wisely”. It’s a good example for something that on the surface might just be cool and pretty rad but beneath that lingers the question of what role / function a trait of character (which a superpower kind of tends to be) has in the long run. In an RPG it can also say a lot about how a player perceives himself or herself in my experience.

    The dichotomy of status made me think about what happens in a game of Apocalypse World: first off you choose a character for whatever reason. But to some degree you also choose his or her status in the world when you choose Moves. Or (to me) more importantly: the proportions and scales in which they operate and.. well.. “do stuff”. On one hand you got a character that can handle him- oder herself against dozens of people / enemies with certain Moves. On the other hand you’ve got someone who needs to be perfectly in private, secluded and intimate with someone to get things done. And they tend to be helpless when faced with the other’s situations.

  5. Steven says:

    It occurs to me that in the real world, flight and “invisibility” (camouflage) evolved for rather non-heroic reasons. Camouflage is primarily defensive, and I think flight is mostly defensive as well (although bats and raptors use it offensively).
    The “hero” who uses his powers solely to avoid being attacked (by disappearing, or flying away) would be pretty funny, but would not make for a great RPG character.. Well, not a great PC anyway, but perhaps an amusing NPC. “Stop that, Inviso-boy! It was just a passing truck!”

  6. Jim Kiley says:

    So, to pick something out of the air, this suggests that “invincibility” as a power really means “this is a character whose primary struggles should be mental and emotional.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jim,

      Yes! And it suggests foes that are cerebral rather than physical. Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor is that. (Darkseid is an interesting case, because he’s cerebral and he’s at Supe’s level, so he’s a cosmic threat.)

      – Ryan

    • Ryan,

      Your reply to Jim got me thinking. Superman – Lex is an interesting match-up, as it’s strength vs intellect. Might be interesting to see if there’s a pattern there.

  7. John Powell says:

    Flight – way more fun. Loads of ways to monetize it legally. Invisibility invites creepy voyeurism, and cowardly action.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      John,

      Your comments about invisibility highlight why it would be seen as low-status in the eyes of the public.

      That said, that’s not accurate. Plenty of ways to legally and illegally make money with both, and it’s as cowardly to act while unseen as it is to act outside of reach. But that’s not the point: that you bring up those arguments is. Fascinating.

      – Ryan

  8. Kit says:

    So, this makes me think about Batman. He’s got some occasional swinging action that looks a little flight-like at first, but then you realize, especially in this framework, that it’s not. But he sure does lurk in the shadows and appear out of nowhere.

    And he’s all about the fear and dread.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Kit,

      Batman & Spider-man are similar in this regard. They’re both low status heroes, but very different ones.

      Batman is low status like Capone was: he’s the king of low status heroes, and characters of all statuses feel his effects. The swing, the motion, is about claiming higher status solely among those with low, not about higher status in the world overall. Look at where it’s used to see how that happens. Most flight heroes use flight all the time, because it saves on gas. Batman uses it only when fighting scum.

      Batman owns being low status.

      Spider-man, on the other hand, is the reluctant low status character. His struggles are that of the hometown kid trying to make it in a big world, so he’s inherently lower status — only the world isn’t just NYC but the greater world of supers overall. This is why Jameson is so crucial to the character of Peter Parker/Spider-man — he is the constant reminder that no matter how high Spidey can soar with his web slingers, he is someone to be looked down upon. His powers of swinging represent those brief moments of feeling on top of the world before you come back down.

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Yes! Exactly. I hadn’t thought about Spidey’s role in this, but you’re quite right to bring it up.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Also, consider that Batman has the invisibility power, since he blends into the night. But that just feeds into “Batman is the king of low status” thing.

      – Ryan

    • Kit says:

      Well, yeah—that’s what I meant by saying he “lurks in the shadows and appears out of nowhere”. That’s basically invisibility.

  9. Wonder if this also says something about not giving a character BOTH flight and invisibility. I bet this would spark some really interesting pairings. For example, what would you pair with super-speed? Heightened perception?

  10. Rasmus says:

    I got to the end of your post, and my first thought was: teleportation is the bastard child of flight (it’s fast and enables you to go where others can’t) and invibility (it’s instant and can definitely be used in underhanded ways). So that’s my pick. Though I’m not sure where that puts me, status-wise.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ras,

      Honestly, teleportation would be my pick, too. It rocks!

      Status-wise, I think it might be something akin to the poor kid who is trying to front as being well-off. He can go where the fliers go, yes, but he’s also disconnected from them because he cannot travel with them, just be at the same place. He can go ahead of them, since his is instant, but he is still the unwitting outcast.

      Perhaps it’s the most alien of powers. Every other being is somehow hindered by physicality. (If not, it’s pretty up there.)

      – Ryan

    • Rasmus says:

      Ryan – your description is perfect. Now I definitely have to pick teleportation.

  11. TheMainEvent says:

    I’m curious about having flight alone as a power as opposed to those heroes that include flight as part as an impressive array.

    For instance Angel, in his classic form, had wings that let him fly (but presumably without greater effort than say, Superman). His name certainly connotes high status, his ‘wealthy’ background speaks to status as well, but as the X-Men have evolved his simple powerset (winged flight) was left in the dust. From my personal experience, he is a bit of a joke in terms of power level (flight without anything else makes you a bit lame in today’s superheroics). As time passed, he has had different iterations that include a more impressive array of powers. I wonder if this was this in response to needing his ‘high’ status to be fulfilled with more powers?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ohh! That’s some thought there. Awesome!

      Let’s look at the X-Men. This is a world that has a twist on the old-school premise, in that all supers are low status characters in the world. They’re all to be looked down upon, to be seen with disgust. And since Angel’s mutation is visible, he’s even lower in status than those who have invisible mutations.

      The decision to give so many X-Men flight was likely the story decision to put characters easily in many different places, and to create higher & lower status among those characters. (This is key to Cyclops’ ordeal, because he’s both the squad leader and he’s nearly the lowest status character in the core group, but tries not to be. Like the high school quarterback who got injured and passed up for someone else.)

      But yeah, because Angel’s special thing was tossed away thanks to socialized flight[1], he had to be buffed up to reflect the need for the character to be still different. Power inflation, in other words.

      But that ends up being more about writers changing stories over years due to fashion than it is about status.

      – Ryan

      [1] The people will control the means of awesome.

    • Can I make a bad joke here about the guy whose superpower is laser-eyes being pretty short-sighted character-wise?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Off topic ;P

      (And if you have to ask…)

      – Ryan

  12. High Status or Low Status.

    Tough. I’ve usually played relatively high-status heroes, but as Spidey says, with great power comes great responsibility. Do I want to be responsible for a large chunk of the world, or just the Twin Cities metro area?

    Can you ever have a low status hero that is “big time”, or does “big time” responsibility mandate High status?

    • Honestly, I think it depends on how it’s framed. Could be either.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      While I’m throwing around “low status” and “high status” as terms, it’s best to keep in mind that status is relative. One could be low on the totem pole among the Justice League (like Aquaman is typically portrayed in geek culture) or the highest of low status characters (like Batman).

      As to your questions, I think you can, and I think there’s great story juice there because that’s friction: a character that has a status contrary to her role in the world/society/whatever.

      – Ryan

    • I think the best example of this that I have seen – in my limited experience – is when Arthur (Aquaman) in Kingdom Come says that his responsibility is greater than Superman’s because he watches over the Earth’s oceans.

      There’s an interesting point being made there about “true” status vs. perceived status, methinks.

  13. Dave T. Game says:

    You can flip it around too, which has some implications on acceptability: invisibility is sometimes shown as being a curse, especially if it’s uncontrollable. Flight, not so much.

    John Hodgman’s piece on invisibility vs. flight is excellent btw if you’ve never heard it: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/178/superpowers

    • Kit says:

      Hodgman clearly wasn’t asking gamers. Austin and I are listening to it now, and as soon as he specified that you could fly at over Mach 1, it was clear that there were some ways you could hack the use of that power.

  14. Alan says:

    I absolutely agree with the flight as high status and invisibility as low status. It may be my own assumptions, but I also associate flight with being a relatively ineffective power, while invisibility is a tool well suited to defeating major corruption and toppling people in power. No individual superhero can defeat a large criminal enterprise or corruption by the powerful. The criminals at the top aren’t waving guns at people and stuffing bags of drugs in their pockets, instead they sit in offices and talk to people. That’s the realm of evidence collection leading to media coverage or large scale stings. Flight isn’t going to help much, but invisibility is ideal.

    Perhaps this is a side effect of flight being the more physical power, while invisibility being the more mental one. The real big problems of the world are ones that need mental answers, and those aren’t glamorous. Thus, back to high status and low status.

  15. Justin says:

    So, a couple other powers. Let’s see if I have my class-consiousness cap on right… er… correctly. Also: a bit rambly, bear with me.
    Phasing isn’t status neutral, but it can be either high or low status. On one end there is The Vision, who uses it in a very high-status way: your bullets, your knives, your steel-vibrainum alloy cages, all of it is beneath me. Note, also, that Vision’s phasing also grants him flight, compounding his status. On the other end there is Kitty Pryde who’s low status has made her one of the most accessable and popular X-Men (according to Marvel, at least.) Her phasing is low-status: I’m so insignificant I’m not even there. Note, she also gets flight out of the deal, but it’s a faint mockery of real flight, being able to walk on air; she doesn’t soar, she jogs.

    Size changing, as featured by Hank Pym and others, is inherently low-status. While shrinking will always convey connotations of low status–shrinking size parallells shrinking importance or relevance–growth does not convey the opposite. Hank Pym is an interesting character: his very-high status Super-Inteligence is balanced by his low-status size-shifting. His pacifist tendancies and desire to see things from all sides only reinforce the impression of a foot in both worlds.
    Worth noting is the Marvel-verse’s Microverse, where someone can shrink so far that they enter another universe entirely. Becoming low status allowing access to another world screams upstairs-downstairs.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Justin,

      Nice. I’m glad you had some time to comment. You always have good things to share.

      Thinking about power blends that sort of equalize, status-wise, brings to mind Beast. High intelligence is, like you say, higher status, but the unmistakable, unhid able mutation he’s forced to wear keeps me inside, literally and metaphorically, bringing him back down to low status.

      It’s also probably worth noting that the greatest leaders of mutantkind, Xavier & Magneto, don’t show any outward signs of mutation even when using their powers, which is in and of itself high status. (That Magento’s power is overt doesn’t really change things, as he can do something without you knowing that he is, unlike many other mutants whose power use ties physically to them.)

      This also makes Wolverine as the rebel character interesting, because he’s rebelling against his status as much as anything.

      – Ryan

  16. Matthew says:

    Have you seen the British show Misfits?

    In it, the characters get powers based on either their predominant emotional state, or what they were feeling at the time of the event, or what they most desired at the time of event/in their lives

    In it, there are explicitly characters who have powers that are either always on (the telepath), or have a trigger – one (non-main) character has a trigger any time he sees a Jack Russel, for instance, one character can travel through time, but only when he feels regret/current sadness – I forget how they phrase it exactly (so if he sees someone die in front of him, he in fact *involuntarily* travels, but if he comes accross someone who’s dead, he can’t since he just feels sadness/upset).

    The first season is excellent (and short at 6 episodes), the second season is pretty damn good (at 6 and a christmas special, I think), the third is good compared to a lot of other TV, but a step down overall.

    The second season has the best use of a minor power I’ve seen in TV, though.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Matthew,

      I’ve seen series 1. And yeah, it’s wicked interesting, especially as you see higher status characters with powers and how they decide to use them. Like the finale ep of series 1.

      – Ryan

  17. Garret Narjes says:

    Super-strength can be both high and low status.

    Superman as you’ve noted is already a high status character. He’s presented as a physically perfect specimen with high morals.

    Bruce Banner starts as an above average man who is brought down by his physical ability.

  18. Jess says:

    I’m glad someone mentioned Misfits. The show definitely has something to add to this conversation, especially in series 2 and 3. Bit of a spoiler here, but Simon goes from having the power of invisibility, to … well I won’t spoil it, but something perhaps not quite as low. The progression of powers is interesting, especially as the characters interact with them and power trading happens.

    Another thought, and one I’m surprised that someone hasn’t mentioned before now, Superman didn’t always have the power of flight. Granted in the scope of his time in comics he’s had flight longer than he hasn’t, but it was still a full decade until they started moving him in the direction. And even then, everyone knows that he can “leap tall buildings in a single bound.” He was originally more of a hero for the working class, coming out of the Depression-era needs of the time, very much a low-status character, but eventually began to change as America came out of the Depression and he moved towards high-status.