I recently saw the latest Captain America movie and it started me thinking about how strange that (and other superhero) worlds are. I thought an interesting thought exercise might be to consider exactly what rules I would require to come up with a “plausible” set of physics/laws in which such a place could exist.
The first thing I realised is that a lot of superheros have powers, but most of them are based in science. Some serum that makes you strong, or a type of robot suit, or a kind of radioactive spider. However almost universally these scientific innovations have gone nowhere aside from providing the hero with their powers and perhaps giving similar powers to one of the hero's arch enemies. That doesn't make sense, I think everybody would like the strength and resilience of Captain America or Spiderman, and I bet half of the items on Batman's utility belt have some very serious applications in general society. Making sense of that is problematic.
There is an example of this kind of technology though which I remember and love. The Warhammer 40k universe is set in the far distant future with amazing levels of technology and futuristic versions of Elves and Demons and Orcs. The problem faced by the creators had is that Orcs are historically stupid, and they wanted to preserve that, but they also needed to give them advanced enough technology that they wouldn't just get destroyed. What they came up with was Mekboyz (I'm sure they weren't called that back when I used to play) who are rare Orc mutation who have an unnatural aptitude for technology. Importantly though they don't know how it works, they can't explain it, they just hit it until it works and their hitting is guided by some greater instinct or psychic power that allows them to do it just right.
This idea works perfectly. I love the idea of a world where there is a strange kind of genius present in some humans, similar to autism, and individuals on this spectrum are like idiot savants. They are able to intuit very deeply into some form of technology (human augmentation, power shields, new elements) but they can't explain it or relate it to other technologies. As a result you could end up with situations like Spiderman being able to make enough web to provide for himself, but having no sense of exactly what goes into making it or how it might be mass produced. Also it could allow these people to advance far enough that even if a Government agency gets its hand on their technology, it would take them hundreds of years to understand and use it. Having this be a mental condition would also allow it to have a secondary effect of making these people prone to ethical extremes and to following them far further and more stubbornly than most other humans. That would allow for the stark division which exists between superheros and super villains.
One factor which this idea doesn't explain is the resilience of heroes in these worlds. For most of them all it would take is one stray bullet or explosion and they'd be dead or paralysed. In some sense this is fine, it's a conceit which has existed in almost every action story since guns became commonplace. I think it is a bit more problematic when it comes to superheros however, because they exist in a world. We don't just follow one hero, we follow many, and sometimes their paths intersect, but very rarely does one actually die. I don't know that my model can explain this, and actually I don't think I want to (I could assume that this type of person is tougher somehow, but that seems very cheap to me somehow). Honestly though, if I were to follow this idea further, I think this would lead me to an interesting conclusion, which is that within my version of this type of world, heroes would be extremely short lived and they'd constantly be appearing and dying. That doesn't make sense for a story about a hero and their exploits exactly, but perhaps it puts some interesting weight on a person who's related to a hero, or who realises that they might be becoming a hero.
If I were to push ahead with this and build the entire world around and about superheros then I think there are a number of further elements which I would want to explain. In most comic worlds there are some magical aspects and aliens or beings from other dimensions. Perhaps I leave all of that out, or there maybe a secondary explanation which provides for them. Honestly though, I like the simplicity of the idiot savantism and the fun world which it might give rise to. Thought experiments like this are what give rise to most of my writing ideas and, even if I don't take them any further, I think it is interesting to see what lines I draw. To me the idea of making being a hero linked to a form of basic difference in mental function is fun, but if it also includes a kind of physical difference which gives them more resilience then that suddenly bores me. I think that speaks to the type of stories which I, at the moment, am interested in telling *.
* - [you can see this in the X-men, who I didn't mention here because their abilities are all caused by a similar type of mutation. As a result however a lot of the early comics which they appeared in deal with issues like civil rights and discrimination. Things which are linked to their very explanation.]