Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a guy with no wings and no visible propulsion system, somehow not only flying but slowing down and speeding up at will despite every law of physics saying that it’s impossible! Just how does Superman‘s ability to fly work anyway? Well, the answer is kind of complicated.
The comic book version of Superman started soaring through the clouds in 1943 and hasn’t stopped since…
Believe it or not, flight wasn’t a power Superman had when he was created in DC. When Superman first appeared in 1938’s Action Comics #1 he was able to leap ⅛ of a mile, and that was it. It wasn’t until the Max Fleischer cartoons in the early 1940s that Superman took to the sky and stayed there.
The reasoning? The animators decided that drawing Superman jumping everywhere looked “silly” so they decided that The Man of Steel could fly and the rest was history. The comic book version of Superman started soaring through the clouds in 1943 and hasn’t stopped since, but how does he do it?
The short, snarky answer is, “Um, because comic books, duh!” but the truth is both Marvel and DC have always tried to explain their hero’s powers in a pseudo-scientific way whenever possible.
Sometimes the explanations are rather flimsy—The Fantastic Four were hit with Space radiation, The Flash is fast because of a dimension called the Speed Force—but at least an effort was made. Superman is no different.
Flight has often been a go-to power fantasy for children and adults with children’s hearts. As such, the ability to fly is a popular superhero trait.
Some superheroes, like The X-Men‘s Angel, simply have wings and achieve flight the same way a bird does. Thor, on the other hand, flies by throwing Mjolnir and holding on to it as it flies through the air.
Superman’s power of flight operates a little differently. There are a lot of theories on how Superman propels himself, but most geeks agree his ability to stay up in the air once he’s there comes from his Kryptonian biology.
Superman’s home planet of Krypton had a much heavier gravity than Earth and a much older and duller red sun. That means that on our planet, Superman is much stronger thanks to the energy of our yellow sun and much lighter than he would be on Krypton thanks to our comparatively wimpy gravity.
Combine the two, and you have a guy strong enough and light enough to jump up and never come down. But how does he move around once he breaks the Earth’s gravitational pull? Would you believe…magnets?
The most prevalent theory as to how Superman seems to be able to accelerate in the air with nothing visible thrusting him forward is that the Kryptonian has a bio-electric aura. Simply put, Superman’s alien physiology generates a field of bio-electricity that he can manipulate in order to simulate flight.
When he goes fast, it’s because Earth’s electromagnetic field is repulsing his bio-electric field. It’s like how two magnets push each other away when you try to bring them closer together.
If Supes wants to slow down, he just reverses the polarity of his aura and lets the Earth’s electromagnetic field pull at him reducing his speed in the process. This bio-electric field can be pushed out beyond Superman’s own body and made to envelop someone, say in his arms protecting them from liquefying when he carries them through the air at high speeds.
It’s that field that keeps Lois Lane’s neck from snapping every time Clark Kent decides to take her for an airborne excursion.
Superman And Magneto
Some comic book enthusiasts have gone as far as to use the bio-electric aura theory to explain Superman’s other powers, like invulnerability and super strength, as well as his power to fly. Coincidentally, the manipulation of an electromagnetic field for flight and to create forcefields is also how Marvel’s Magneto gets around.
While it’s not a comparison most comic book fans would think of off the top of their head, Superman probably shares more in common with the Master of Magnetism than he does Thor or any other character people usually consider to be the Marvel version of Superman.
Flight has often been a go-to power fantasy for children and adults with children’s hearts.
While some writers have tried to explain Superman’s flight through other methods, such as graviton generation and gravity manipulation, the bio-electric aura theory remains the most popular way to justify Kal-El’s cry of “Up, up and away!”
Now if only they would come up with a plausible explanation for his disguise being nothing but a pair of glasses…