How does Superman fly?

I’m not much of a comic book reader, and most of what I know about Superman comes from the movies, and the George Reeves TV series which I watched in reruns as a small child. I read a few comics as a kid, but not really all that many, and I was more into Spidey than Supes, so I don’t know if there’s a canonical answer to this or not.
Is there a pseudoscience explanation for the mechanics of how Superman is able to fly? What exactly propels him? It can’t just be super strength. He can change or reverse direcction, and I’ve also seen him levitate in place, so there has to be some kind of anti-gravity thing going on, not just the ability to “leap in single bounds.”

Have the comics ever addressed this or come up with some kind of workable comic book science answer to the mechanics of Superman’s flying abilities?

And, as the man of steel, does he always have a hard-on?

I think it started with him just being able to jump great distances. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

The writers just kept pulling super powers out of their ass until Superman defied any internal logic that might have existed in the earlier stories.

Our whacky yellow sun is the most likely culprit.

John Byrne’s explanation was that Superman (a) is telekinetic but (b) doesn’t really think he’s telekinetic. By way of comparison, he’s actually levitating that car he’s picking up rather than just using his muscles, which explains why it doesn’t crumple around the hand-sized spot where all its weight would be concentrated otherwise – but the big guy can only convince himself to will that effect if he’s got a decent grip and really puts his back into it, sure as he only ever really works up a skintight forcefield instead of stopping bullets before they reach him.

Likewise, he’s been able to fly ever since that first time his foot came down when he genuinely thought there was going to be solid footing and there wasn’t; you’ve probably hesitated for a split second and stumbled a bit when you shifted your weight, but that’s when he first flew. He just doesn’t like it, is all; he thinks of himself as a super-MAN, and so thinks in terms of getting a running start before leaping tall buildings in a single bound even though he of course is doing nothing of the sort.

He throws himself at the ground.

You cool people know the rest. :wink:

Sorry, I missed it. :smiley:

Yeah, but that was more than 20 years ago, believe it or not. That version was closer in time to the tv Batman than to today. They’ve rebooted several times since then and I think rid themselves of every word Byrne ever said probably 20 years ago. Everybody hated what he did and they mostly pretend it never happened, though Supe can’t juggle planets any more.

Superman’s ability to fly once was close to unique. Only a very few other heroes could fly and supervillains basically didn’t exist. In the Silver Age, flying became a bit more the norm and Stan Lee especially started creating villains who were just as super as the heroes. (DC villains tended to have colorful costumes and props but no inherent super powers, though no general statement about comics is ever absolute.)

But both companies started playing “can you top this?” four decades ago. Today the lowliest villain has power enough to wipe humanity off the face of the globe. Lots of characters fly, both heroes and villains. They just do. There’s no good explanation for it.

And missed. Damn I’m a klutz.

At one point the explanation was the the gravity of Krypton was so great the Superman could fly on Earth.

No that doesn’t make any sense.

My reading of the Byrne explanation was the Superman’s invulnerability and flight were psionic and linked but it wasn’t out and out telekinesis. More of a stabilization thing but when you’re talking about stuff where the answer is effectively “It’s magic” then any explanation is just going to be fanwanking.


as noted above, Superman originally jumped really high (the way the Hulk does). The phrase “able to leap tall buildings at a single bound” (used originally in the cartoons and later in the 1950s TV show) somehow doesn’t sound very impressive if you can fly. The justification, again as noted above, was that Krypton was supposed to be more massive than Earth. Seigel and Schuster were thought to be heavily influenced by Philip Wylie’s Gladiator (where a super-powerful human can jump like that) and John Campbell’s “Aarn Munroe” stories (which used the heavy-gravity-planet explanation), so it seems reasonable.
But, as, I think, Jim Steranko argued in his “History of Comics”, although it looked pretty nifty in the comics, it looked kinda dumb in the cartoons, where Superman looked like an anthropomorphic kangaroo. Actually, I think he looks pretty graceful and balletic in the earliest cartoons, where he’s more jumping than flying. But, perhaps through the influence of those cartoons, which were already uin production, they started changing things in the comics (at least The Superman Encyclopedia says so), so that Supes started hovering, something you can’t do if all your ability is is jumping. Then he started changing direction and downright flying. (The Superman radio show probably played a part in this, too, but i never heard any of the episodes. But it’s easy to suggest flying with a “whistling wind” sound effect, and jumping is a bit more difficult)
In any event, the simple answer is that it’s a helluva lot simpler, in terms of depiction and the lack of detailed explanation required, to simply have your character fly than to try to explain it all as a series of complicated jumps. So Superman flew. No need to explain how or why, and, for the most part, the comics/radio/cartoons/serials/TV shows didn’t even try. It’s all basically wish fulfillment, anyway.

Me, I’ve always wondered about Superman’s combined x-ray vision at heat vision. Someone gave a lecture at MIT once about “Seeing the Universe with Superman’s eyes – seeing the X-ray world”, and it got me wondering about how it really worked. Superman always acts as if he can “turn off” his x-ray vision (and heat vision), but that makes about as much sense as me being able to turn off my “color vision” by will alone. More likely, Supes walks around seeing everyone as wa;lking skeletons and the like. Seeing Lois’ panties? hah! If only he were that lucky!

SUPER flatus, thank you very much.


There were 4 major explanations for the source of Superman’s powers.

  1. From 1938 - 1940 or so, there was a one or two panel origin story which explained that everyone on Krypton (unnamed, I think, at the time) was just really evolved. This was rapidly discarded (as Hitler’s ideas of eugenics became better known in America maybe? Spitballing here–no evidence)

  2. 1940-ish to ~1955 (give or take), the explanation whenever it was given (which was rare) was that the gravity on Krypton was a lot higher. No-one worried how he made turns in flight, etc. Note that Superman didn’t even know he was from another planet until Superman #61, circa 1950–apparently he never really worried about it.

  3. ~1955-1985, it was a combination. The lighter gravity of earth gave him some powers (jumping, strength, super-breath, super-speed)–mostly the muscle-based powers and the “yellow solar radiation” gave him his sensory powers (heat/x-ray/telescopic vision, super-hearing, etc.), invulnerability ('as the sun’s rays can tan our skin, the “yellow solar radiation” super-tans Superman’s skin, making it so strong, even bullets can’t pierce it!") and flight (u-turns at light-speed, etc). There was a Superboy story with a nifty chart that listed his powers in two columns: solar or gravity based. There were also a few stories where he was under a red sun or in a heavy gravity environment where only some of his powers worked. This was always my favorite version.

  4. 1985-1987, following a reboot of Superman, John Byrne took a “fanwank” theory of Superman’s powers (that had been around since the mid '70s-it wasn’t original to him) and said that the yellow sun made Superman psychic. So he wasn’t invulnerable, he just had a magic skin-tight psychic force field that was always on. He didn’t have heat vision, he had pyrokinesis. He didn’t fly, he levitated. Byrne’s “reasoning”? It was more scientifical and realistic. Because, yeah…psychic powers are much more “scientific” than gravity and more “realistic” in a comic book about cyborgs who were kryptonite powered, and magic imps from the 5[sup]th[/sup] dimension . Plus, on what planet are “psychic powers” realistic? This is akin to saying that Santa is more scientific than the Easter Bunny. The psychic crap lasted barely two years–with other writers deliberately ignoring it during the time Byrne was propounding it. The second Byrne left the book, the idea was jettisoned forever.

  5. Nowdays, he’s a “giant solar cell”–the yellow sunlight on his Kryptonian cells give him all sorts of powers.

Interesting. So there really isn’t a particularly consistent answer.

The psi stuff at least has a superficial appearance of being internally logical and explaining everything until you realize that it really just shunts everything back to another unexplainable, magical ability. I think that was actually a fairly decent try, but it sounds like no one else liked it much.

The origin of Superman flying was the radio show. As pointed out before, he was leaping originally in the comics. However, in the radio show, he began flying. Why did he fly? Simply to progress the story from one scene to another in a short period of time.

Interestingly, it was the radio show that gave him the power of flight, and kryptonite for that matter.


I was unaware of the existence of these stories, but it ads an interesting note to the character that replaced the Earth-2 Superman in the All-Star Squadron post-Crisis - Arn ‘Iron’ Munro.

DC comics often acknowledge their roots. If you look on Hollis Mason’s* bookshelf in Watchman, he’s got a copy of Philip Wylie’s Gladiator right next to Under the Hood.

*Night Owl I. I don’t recall seeing it there in the movie version.

In general, this applies to every question about comics.

Of course it does – it’s a story about a guy who can fly. Guys can’t really fly, so it’s always going to be a simple fiat whether it’s dressed up in babble or not.