The Paradox of Power Levels

For reasons known only to folks like Ron Richards, I have found myself ensconced in the Abnett and Lanning Nova series from a few years back. I tend to go through cosmic phases, so it’s possible this is just part of my normal cycle, but this go around has me thinking about power levels. Cosmic characters usually need to be more beefed up than the typical super Terran, because space being bigger than earth, so too are the threats and thus a capable hero simply needs to be more capable. But seeing as how the Marvel movie-verse is gearing up to tackle their own foray into the full on cosmic side of things, it seems worth considering the power differential when expanding heroics outside the atmosphere.

Genis-vell's "actual" power ratings, not the ones just made up "fans."

My first real foray into cosmic was Captain Marvel. Not the noble and heroic one we all think of, but the crazed clone penned by Peter David. Genis-Vell’s power cosmic drove him mad. He had a literal sense of the happenings of the entire cosmos, and omniscience is literally one of the three powers supposedly possessed by an all-powerful superbeing that shall remain unnamed. Combined with Genis’ ability to actually traverse galactic distances to confront the problems his awareness alerted him to, I naturally assumed this version of Captain Marvel had to be one of the heaviest hitters of the 616 universe. Imagine my dismay when I used the internet, the very same tool you are using to read this now, to look up his power ratings. For those unfamiliar, there is actually a quantified system for assessing various aspects of a superheroes prowess. While I am typically a fan of using numbers to make things more scientific, as fellow iFanwriter Josh Christie and I have lamented, not everything can be broken down into a series of numbers. How silly that a hero I had admired suddenly felt lessened because of how his supposed ‘stats’ compared to Iron Man or the Hulk. At what point did I forget that this was about the story not the stats?

But perhaps that’s the problem with the cosmic comics: context. To date, only 12 human beings have ever set foot on another planetary body, yet it seems a great deal of us quite enjoy the outer space adventure. Done well, it’s a wonderful blurring of the line between the science fiction and fantasy genres. The ultimate “what if?” coupled with unbridled imagination. The problem seems to arise when these fantastical tales are suddenly compared with the trials and tribulations of all the goings on within our standard earth-bound comics.

As I mentioned previously, I’m reading some Nova comics, and the series begins with Long Island boy Richard Rider (can’t imagine why Ron Richards likes this guy so much) is given the entirety of the Nova force, making him about as powerful as the aforementioned Genis-Vell, and thus capable of responding immediately to threats all around the cosmos, including fighting in the Annihilation War, which was kind of a big deal. Then he returns to earth. On earth, another war had just finished, that of the Civil variety between superheroes. Tony Stark was running shield, so when Nova showed up on earth all his sensors went a-tingle. Iron Man, who just laid a serious smack down on one Captain Steven Rogers, confronts Nova about joining the now-forgotten Imitative and it just seems all so very silly. Rich Rider rightly looks at a man in a self-made suit the equivalent of a walking thermonuclear arsenal and stifles a laugh. How could he not? In context, Iron Man can’t do much against a human rocket, let alone one juiced on the entirety of the Nova force.

Then a few issues later we see that Nova, however powerful, can be easily whooped by Silver Surfer and is beneath the very notice of a being like Galactcus. Context. Then you remember that Galactcus has been personally intimidated by Reed Richards (aka. the smart guy who stretches sometimes) and the illusion shatters into pieces all around you.

I get that a big part of all of this is to make characters as powerful as need be to keep the story interesting. Not so powerful that they never lose, not so weak that they can’t get by. It’s about finding the golden mean where a character has to struggle but can still ultimately win. I don’t envy writers trying to find that sweet spot for characters less limited in their theoretical skill sets. There’s a reason for a while Superman could push around planets and has since been downgraded to a more reasonable all-powerful level.

Then I remember that the cosmic team about to grace our screens includes a raccoon with a gun and a less than articulate tree and I just shrug and hope it will all work out. I think  consistency in story telling is important, but recognize that it’s tilting at windmills to think that a plethora of writers throughout the decades would ever be able to achieve something even approaching consistency. I just hope that as long as consistency can be maintained within the events of a single story that my cold dead heart will still be able to find joy in the exploits of over-powered heroes. Even those that might not be that way tomorrow.


Ryan Haupt at times feels like he has infinite cosmic powers and an itty bitty living space. Hear recordings from that space when you tune into the podcast Science… sort of.


  1. I was thinking of this when I was watching the Superman cartoon from the 1940s with my 3 year old. He’s really depowered and that was pretty great.

    I also think part of this is seeing the person beneath the powers. We just saw how much characterization Dan Slott got from Peter Parker in Amazing Spiderman 699 and we see what Batman truly is when he beats Superman in Dark Knight Returns. Its about the force of personality and the character that matters more than the powerset sometimes.

  2. I never got into the “power rankings” thing. That whole cataloging of things is not something I enjoy.

    However – its got to be about the story. How awesome was it in Planet Hulk when Hulk beat down the Surfer?

  3. I’ve never cared too much for power levels. I find the character’s method of handling a situation was far more important. Like in the aforementioned Reed Richards vs Galactus is a very different fight than Nova vs Galacus. The fight or lack thereof will happen differently for anyone fighting him. Which I guess is why he’s such a great villain.

  4. Power levels crack me up. It feels so out of place when the actual level names are verbalized by characters. Last time I recall seeing an example was in The Annihilators. It was something like Omega vs. Omega Plus.

  5. I can see why breaking “power levels” down into specific numbers could be construed as a bit silly, considering the ultimately relative nature of these things in the context of the needs of a story.

    Personally though, I was actually quite into the whole “power levels” thing when I was younger. It satisfies the whole fanboy “who would win in a fight” pastime.

    Additionally, it is a slightly more numeric version of our real world fighter evaluations. I mean in terms of boxing and such, we have different weight classes and levels of professionalism. The rankings are still not gospel though. I think of Rocky. Apollo Creed’s “official” power level would be much higher than Rocky’s “official” power level was, and by “official” I mean how they were rated by the press, boxing officials, and bookies. Of course Rocky performed well above his power level listings for “story purposes,” even moreso in Rocky II. We could also go Rocky IV and the machines that measured Drago’s punch strength. The ratings for comic characters are not so different.