My best friend growing up had a theory about people claiming to have special abilities like ESP, levitation, or astral projection. She had a babysitter who claimed she could levitate, but only when she was alone. My friend’s theory wasn’t that these things were impossible, but that realistically they wouldn’t be very cool. She figured that anyone who claimed they could astrally project to the Great Pyramids was probably lying, but someone who was willing to admit they could only astrally project an inch out of their body might well be telling the truth. Some powers are just useless and embarrassing enough to be real.
When ordinary people get superpowers, I often find myself wishing that someone would end up with an ability that isn’t very useful, or one that no one would actually want. The British series Misfits is a great combination of fantasy, humor, and realism, and it gave me some of the believability I’ve been looking for.
Misfits is about a group of young offenders who get struck by lightening during a freak storm while doing community service and end up with superpowers. If this was Heroes they’d probably start training to save the world, but it’s Britain and the kids are less influenced by the American superhero tradition. The show’s creator, Howard Overman, says: “It almost doesn’t feel right to have superheroes in Britain. Just like you can’t do a car chase movie in Britain, because the traffic is too bad … you could only go 30 miles per hour.” He compares his take on superheroes to Shaun of the Dead’s twist on zombie movies.
In a show like Heroes there’s a strong moral drive behind the narrative, a struggle within or amongst the characters to do the right thing, or an exploration of achieving redemption through their abilities. Misfits is a show about teenagers. The characters act like teenagers and cope like teenagers. Their powers come with an exponentially increased ability to get into trouble, for instance how they keep accidentally killing people. It’s people who are trying to hurt them, but as far as society is concerned they’re still just young offenders and superpowers don’t exist, so no one would believe them. They can’t afford to get caught, so they end up awkwardly disposing of the bodies, relying on how much no one cares what they do for cover.
The powers they get don’t really work out that well for them. They mostly seem to experience their abilities as an impediment to their everyday lives. They want to be able to do normal things, and although they’re clearly aware that their new problems aren’t normal, I think like most teenagers they already feel like such freaks that it’s just one more thing to deal with. Overman wanted their powers to be linked to their individual histories and fears rather than being arbitrary, like laser-eyes, or externally determined, like spidey-sense, so to some extent their experience of their abilities reads as an extension of how they understand themselves.
The most obvious example is Simon, who gains the power of invisibility because that’s how he’s always felt, but the gap between feeling invisible as a metaphor for being ignored, and the reality of people behaving as if you’re literally not in the room is actually pretty wide. When he first turns invisible, he doesn’t know that the others actually can’t see him, and it’s clearly a total nightmare for him.
Kelly’s power is telepathy, but as a rough, working class young offender with a thick Derby accent it’s not a good power to have. She gets to hear everything people are thinking about her and since pretty much everyone seems to think she’s a skank, that’s also basically a nightmare. She ends up breaking up with her fiancée as soon as she can hear what he’s thinking when he’s having sex with her.
Alisha’s power is to inspire uncontrollable lust in anyone who touches her skin, which the show does an excellent job of portraying as truly awful. If rape is a trigger for you, you should probably avoid this show. The responses she gets from people who touch her are scary and disturbing, and they emphasize the ever-present threat of sexual violence that women live with. Alisha’s power mirrors her fear that men are only interested in her for her body, and even when she touches someone who genuinely cares about her and wants to have sex with her, the loss of his ability to consent makes him feel violated. Being literally irresistible is not a good fantasy to realize.
The other thing I was really struck by in Misfits is how the powers function in conjunction with the narrative. Curtis can rewind time, but not on purpose and only at an extreme pitch of regret. His ability makes it possible to play out dramatic events without being committed to them. It gets a bit repetitive as a device, in the way that “oh, it was only a dream” has a limited shelf life before it feels like it’s been done to death, but it also gives the series a nonlinear quality that reminds me of the multiple versions of superheroes or characters that exist in comics or fanfic. Being able to hit rewind gives the writers the ability to wait for the next version, rewrite, reinvent, try something else.
In one episode, they use the rewind feature to introduce other people with powers, including a guy who has an affinity with milk. His is the first public superpower, which makes him seem cool to people at first, but then it starts to seem really uncool in comparison to other powers like healing or immortality. Sure, it’s only milk, but he can do really gross things with it once he goes over the edge. That pizza you ate for dinner? Yeah, milk boy can play snake charmer with it.
Fortunately, as far as I know, no one has been able to kill anyone astrally from one inch out of their own body.
alex MacFadyen suspects he would get a Hulk-like power, causing him to turn green and rend his clothes without actually growing any larger.
as you know, i had a friend who worked very hard on being able to astrally project. ultimately, he said, he could leave his body, but he could only travel around his house a foot off the ground. i found that more believable because it wasn’t cool.
In Sharon Shinn’s most recent book, STILL LIFE WITH SHAPESHIFTER, the characters discuss the idea that everyone has a superpower. A totally ordinary – but still super – power. One person can always find keys, for instance. Another can untangle any knot of jewellery. Another can always guess who the phone is for (though not who’s calling).
If this is true (and I love the idea that it is) my superpower would be giving directions in foreign cities.
Also, now I want to watch Misfits.
I remember having this conversation way long ago in the 90s about useless superpowers and my example at the time was being telepathic, but only ever knowing what William Shatner was thinking.