Nerd Factor: Can Superman Sneeze?

When Superman Gets Sick – The Zebra Pit
Image from Lois and Clark (1993-1998)

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

For some, the arrival of autumn brings the anticipation of crisp air, brightly colored foliage, and tasty foods. For others, the same time of year brings dread of another barrage of seasonal allergies and respiratory system illness. This latter group gains our sympathies and benefits from our medicine, but their endurance of the season is often treated as an individual matter. However, we must begin to consider this on a broader level because of the threat posed by one particular person, the Man of Steel. We must ask ourselves a terrifying question. Can Superman sneeze?

After exposure to the light of our yellow sun, Kryptonians manifest an astonishing variety of superpowers. Super-breath is often regarded as a lower-tier power, useful mostly for the extinguishing of fires or the clearing of poisonous gases. Weaponized though, it is fearsomely dangerous. In Superman II, the villainous General Zod, Ursa, and Non used this ability to devastate downtown Metropolis.

Since his introduction, Superman’s power levels have varied wildly. The Last Son of Krypton is long past his days of being faster than bullets, more powerful than locomotives, and highly able to leap buildings. This superhero has developed a vast array of super abilities. At times he has been depicted as traveling faster than the speed of light and as moving planets around at will. No matter where Superman’s range of powers sit, the involuntary and violent expulsion of air from his lungs is a threat ranging from a local to a global scale. 

Close to the detonation site, organic or inorganic matter would be vaporized by the super sound waves emitting from an apocalyptic achoo. Farther out, powerful winds would knock down all they encountered. More terrifying, at the end of that blast could be hyper-accelerated nasal debris, invulnerable nose hairs and other solid or semi-solid discharges which would punch through anything along their trajectory. We ordinary mortals are currently advised to stand six feet from one another for safety. Depending upon his level of powers, six miles or sixty thousand miles might not be enough to avoid Superman.

Of course, to sneeze out one must breathe in and it has not always been clear that Superman needs to do so in order to survive. Still, Kryptonians must have mouths and noses for some reason. Superman’s intergalactic flights demonstrate the ability to hold his breath for long periods. Superman is a noble figure and given the danger of his sneezing, he might opt to never breathe again. This seems like a cruel option though because Superman must breathe at some point if only to speak. 

Perhaps our fears of lethal sternutations might be eased by acknowledging Superman’s legendary invulnerability. There is very little in this world that can harm Superman. Thus, it is difficult to imagine anything conventional in our atmosphere providing irritation enough to provoke a sneeze. 

Unfortunately, Superman has two noted weaknesses. The first is magic, which affects him as it would any ordinary person. It is not hard to imagine a foe using something as simple as magic sneezing powder against him. The second weakness is to things from Superman’s homeworld. Kryptonian allergens may exist. Trace materials may have arrived with any of the many Kryptonians who seem to regularly make it to Earth. Also, Superman’s father Jor-El sent several test animals ahead on spaceflights. Would Superman sneeze from the hair of his loyal friend Krypto the Superdog or his ally Beppo the Supermonkey? Can we take that risk?

Right now, the only defense against a super-sneeze is Superman himself. Like conventional mortals, Superman may get a moment to react before the sneeze. Given his superspeed, the Man of Steel could cover his mouth, sneeze into his elbow, or fly out of the atmosphere. Such healthy practices may not cover up everything though and sometimes sneezes sneak up on us.

Perhaps Batman, who has no doubt trained his willpower to suppress any noises that might affect his crime fighting stealth, could teach Superman anti-sneeze skills. Until that time though, the only option remaining is a mask, fashioned of course from the indestructible materials of his own costume. 

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