Nerd Factor: Winged Victory?

Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

Longtime readers of the Nerd Factor will no doubt recall that this column remains more than a little dubious on subject of superpowered flight.  Although people often name flying when asked to fantasize about having a superpower, the ability itself is fraught with potential problems. Ease of high altitude transportation, for example, has to reckon with the difficulties of navigating from high altitudes.  Of the many and various ways that superhero stories have presented flight, one of the most problematic subsets of this power is the possession of actual wings.

Make no mistake, under the right circumstances, wings are terrifying when possessed by villains.  Antagonists like the Vulture, Man-Bat and even the somewhat silly Owl, are considerable threats to heroes who don’t normally fly.  There is something undeniably cool about Spider-Man’s battles with the Vulture, as Spidey trails along behind the villain by a slender web.  “On Leather Wings,” one of the first episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, is a brutal lesson in the dangers of a winged opponent as Batman struggles against his mutated foe Man-Bat.  

The primary combat advantage of the winged villain is not physical.  It is moral . . . or rather, amoral. Baddies are willing to let people fall to their deaths.  This most effective of battle tricks is obviously unusable by the virtuous and true.

At best, a winged hero can quite literally only get the drop on their enemies.  This works well against villains until said villains remember to go inside. If the villains are smart enough to duck into something other than a warehouse or a stadium, then the winged hero loses the advantage.

In fact, under such circumstances, the winged wonder may be at a disadvantage.  Consider our closest real world analogy, the Victoria’s Secret supermodel. While able to strut confidently and quickly down the catwalk, these angels don’t seem particularly maneuverable.  You may recall that one of them almost clocked Ariana Grande a few years back. Defenders of the V.S. Angels would not point out that these wings are decorative, heavy and immobile. But I’m thinking the dexterity of winged folk must be pretty low if a (contrary to her name and big voice) little wisp of a pop star can’t be easily avoided.  

Many superheroes have such mechanical or technological wings too.  And those that don’t are probably worse off in tight corners as they would experience the uncomfortable physical side effects and claustrophobic sensations of confinement.  

Once inside and grounded, a winged person is at best just a person.  Some will be okay. Hawkman and Hawkgirl, for example, carry maces. In essence, the Hawks are really just people who clobber the bad guys with medieval weaponry.  They just fly over faster to do it. In the comics, the Falcon was originally a roof-running superhero with the advantage of learning combat moves from Captain America.  The wings came later, a gift from the Black Panther.

Others are in trouble.  Consider the Angel. I really don’t want to bust on the Angel.  He is a mainstay of three superhero teams I love—the X-Men, L.A.’s failed super-team the Champions and the Defenders.  But for all the decades he’s been around, he’s just been a winged guy. He’s got nothing else going for him. That’s why Marvel Comics had the evil Apocalypse tear his biological wings off and graft on deadly metallic ones.  At least then he’s dangerous.