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This is a quote from the Justice League Unlimited cartoon:

That man won't quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I've got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can't you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am.

Has Superman always been holding back, even in the comics?

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    I would be remiss if I didn't immediately link Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. Full (illustrated) copy at Penthouse Comix. – K-H-W Feb 27 '12 at 22:37
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    Having read that I'd much rather you stayed remiss... – AncientSwordRage Feb 27 '12 at 22:42
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    Well, despite the humor (and intentional titillation), Niven was engaging in Reductio ad absurdum, and he makes some very logical and valid points. By extension, the same points apply to a LOT of Superman's life, as the quote you used alludes to. – K-H-W Feb 27 '12 at 22:51
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    "Super or otherwise, you are meerly a man, while I am a god." - Darkseid. – Jack B Nimble Feb 27 '12 at 23:19
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    "What's a God to a non-believer?" - Kayne West(?) – Zibbobz Jul 15 '14 at 14:55

10 Answers 10

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Is he always holding back? I don't think so. What would his reason be to hold back against Doomsday? To hold back is to assure his own defeat. Certainly against normal humans he has to be delicate, because he could easily kill them.

The real issue is that Superman has always been plagued by the inconsistencies of his powers. Sometimes he struggles to lift a large car or bus, other times he is able to move an entire planet.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman#Powers_and_abilities

As originally conceived and presented in his early stories, Superman's powers were relatively limited, consisting of superhuman strength that allowed him to lift a car over his head, run at amazing speeds and leap one-eighth of a mile, as well as an incredibly dense body structure that could be pierced by nothing less than an exploding artillery shell. Siegel and Shuster compared his strength and leaping abilities to an ant and a grasshopper. When making the cartoons, the Fleischer Brothers found it difficult to keep animating him leaping and requested to DC to change his ability to flying; this was an especially convenient concept for short films, which would have otherwise had to waste precious running time moving earthbound Clark Kent from place to place.

As the super villians became more clever and more powerful Superman had to be changed in order to always win. And thus the great powers race was started:

Writers gradually increased his powers to larger extents during the Silver Age, in which Superman could fly to other worlds and galaxies and even across universes with relative ease. He would often fly across the solar system to stop meteors from hitting the Earth, or sometimes just to clear his head.

This created a problem of course. Eventually Superman is so powerful there isn't really compelling story to be told:

Writers found it increasingly difficult to write Superman stories in which the character was believably challenged, so DC made a series of attempts to rein the character in. The most significant attempt, John Byrne's 1986 rewrite, established several hard limits on his abilities: he barely survives a nuclear blast, and his space flights are limited by how long he can hold his breath.

And yet the great powers race continues...

Superman's power levels have again increased since then, with Superman currently possessing enough strength to hurl mountains, withstand nuclear blasts with ease, fly into the sun unharmed, and survive in the vacuum of outer space without oxygen.

In the animated Superman series he starts off relatively unpowerful, and seems to be come more powerful over time. It is possible that like a muscle, as Superman uses his powers and stretches himself to his limits, his powers grow to accomidate these experiences.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powers_and_abilities_of_Superman#After_John_Byrne

Though still largely invulnerable, Superman has been shown to be susceptible to damage from other yellow-sun powered Kryptonians such as Power Girl, Supergirl, General Zod, Non, and Ursa (as well as the Daxamite heroes Mon-El and Sodam Yat); and characters with powers comparable to those of Kryptonians—including the heroes Captain Marvel, Icon, Martian Manhunter, Orion, and Ultra Boy; and the villains Atlas, Bizarro, Black Adam, Cyborg Superman, Darkseid, Despero, Doomsday, Lobo, Monarch, Mongul, Ultraman, Validus, and the current version of Brainiac (when connected to his ship). Most notably, he has consistently been portrayed as weaker than Superboy-Prime, a character who possesses powers closer to those of the Silver Age version of Superboy.[22]

Superman would be a fool to hold back against the characters who are at the same power level as him.

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    The quote above is actually from when he is fighting Darkseid... :D – AncientSwordRage Feb 27 '12 at 23:23
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    This is spot on. The writers surely would start having trouble challenging Supes' when his power level went over 9000. – hexparrot Apr 18 '13 at 21:18
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    Superman DID hold back against Doomsday, at least at first. He even thinks about this during the comics & novelization, how he holds back less and less over the course of the fight. At the end, he wasn't holding anything back...but was so physically and mentally exhausted he put up a poor showing, and died (though he took Doomsday with him). – Jeff Apr 26 '13 at 13:48
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    Interesting to note that in at least one non-canon incarnation (Smallville), Clark explicitly has to "practice and train" to improve his abilities; in particular the speed at which he can run increases dramatically over the course of the series. – KutuluMike Apr 27 '13 at 18:11
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This is handled inconsistently within the Superman canon. Sometimes, Superman's strength and speed are treated as being similar to his heat/x-ray vision, and are abilities that he can "activate" and "deactivate" essentially at will. This implies that most of the time he has strength comparable to an average human's, and he only has Kryptonian super-strength when the situation calls for it.

Other times (as you describe above), his strength is always "on" and requires him to behave very carefully lest he inadvertently do some serious damage and/or give himself away as superhuman.

This is something that varies between different writers/artists who have portrayed Superman, as well as various periods of Superman's history and the associated scale of his powers. It's difficult to say that he has "always" been holding back, but there are times when he is definitely shown as having to be constantly vigilant.

  • Are any of those 'constant vigilance' moments in fighting bad guys? – AncientSwordRage Feb 27 '12 at 23:21
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    @Pureferret Remember that Superman swears not to kill anyone, under any circumstances. There are all manner of second-string DC villains that he could trivially kill if he ever truly let loose on them. Any time you've seen Superman physically engage Toyman, you've seen him holding back for fear of committing murder. – cmckendry Feb 28 '12 at 1:22
  • Aside from the Superman Red & Blue, there aren't really instances of him turning his physical powers [strength, durability, solar energy absorption, healing] "on & off"; they're always active, but something like his strength needs to be applied consciously at different levels. A good example comes from Smallville season 3, where a red-k infected Clark is sleeping and gets shot by thugs from Morgan Edge. Even sleeping, he's always invulnerable unless Kryptonite is involved. Powers like his senses need to be "focused on"; others like flight or heat vision are "activated" [usually]. – Russ Rainford Aug 27 at 20:54
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Yes he is always holding back. He has to. Writing inconsistency and gradual power increase over time can only account for so much. The problem is that it's rarely addressed in the comics. Superman does not fly at his full speed especially not on Earth or close to the ground level because he doesn't shatter windows or destroy anything. He is constantly adjusting his powers to keep from damaging the people and property around him. The result is that his powers seem to be inconsistent but really the effort he exerts to lift a car is mostly in not damaging the car or people inside.

As somewhat pointed out in the Story Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex if Superman really went around at full strength all the time he would destroy the planet just by going through a normal day.

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I refer to Superman 1 where Lois Lane dies because Supes was saving everyone else. Now, Superman being raised as human, had to learn to control everything, including emotion. I mention emotion because of anger and adrenaline. Superman lost control when Lois died, got pissed, and just let loose! Now when someone is angry, they tend to focus on one task. Meaning they don't analyze every option or think like a calm, level headed person. His main task in mind was to try and fly around the world to reverse the rotation and turn back time. Having said that, if he would have let loose in the first place, he would have caught both missiles without breaking a sweat. Imagine if that same adrenaline induced thought process was focused on his strength, sight, vocals, heat vision, and so-on. So my answer is yes, he is always holding back. Even humans during an intense moment have accomplished somewhat superhuman feats because of adrenaline. Now apply that to Superman. Superman was raised human, therefore deals with situations like humans. Only he has an obvious advantage in every type of situation.

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Superman won't use deadly force. He essentially has unlimited power. He just has to will it. His greatest weakness (strength) is that he is always conscious of collateral damage and of possibly killing his enemy. He does just enough to win. If he has to take some damage to figure out what "just enough" is, so be it. Really, let's face it... Even against his toughest enemies, all he has to do is hurl them into space or blow through their skull with heat vision or use super breath to blow a hole through them or fly around the earth and generate enough speed to rip through them on impact or... Well you get the idea. He IS strength. That is why he was created. He IS restraint. He IS the moral center. He is also painfully naive ant over trusting. Make your own decision, but that is my take on superman.

  • This is well thought out, I like that you point out he's not the kind of person to beat anyone to a pulp even though he could do that to everyone every time he gets into a fight. The law enforcement Use of Force Contiuum dictates you only use the amount of force needed to get compliance. Something I'm sure Clark takes to heart. – Monty129 Jul 22 '13 at 16:24
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This has been an established part of Superman's characterization since his earliest comics. The implication being he had to "learn" to manage his strength from the time of his boyhood, and apply only the barest fraction of it to function in every day life, let alone to dealing with mortals in any type of physical situation. There are several instances of this being alluded to....

In the short pre-Crisis tale Martha's Story , by Samuel Hawkins, a dying Martha Kent is recalling various aspects of raising baby Clark. Several instances are referenced where his inhuman powers were showcased as him being a "handful", mostly due to his young age and resulting lack of control. The full short story can be read here: http://superman.nu/superboy-lives/martha.php

Excerpts from it give detail....

"It would be nice to think that once we snatched Clark up out of that rocket, that everything was okay for him. But it wasn’t. Those first few months were rough. Being under our sun was quickly developing his powers, and adjusting to them was harder than you’d think. Suddenly, everything about him worked so much better that it was all happening too fast for him. We had to work very hard with him to slow him down. To teach him how to live at a human pace....

It continues [emphasis mine]...

"To say that Clark was a handful when he was a toddler would be an understatement. Most kids are, after all, but a child who hardly ever gets tired is something else all together. No naps for that boy. He was always on the go, hanging off the ceiling, or running around so fast that the wind he kicked up would pull things off the walls. Why, I didn’t think I would ever teach him to not use his super-speed in the house ..... I'm highlighting the next part to show how even from an early age, Clark's mental control was implied.

Of course, we would be kidding ourselves to believe that we could have ever made Clark do anything he didn’t want to do. No, him obeying us, allowing us to discipline him and parent him, always required his cooperation. He figured out that little fact pretty quickly, but he never took advantage of it. I guess his consent, unspoken though it was, was due to the good parenting Lara and Jor-El did in the time that they had him, and the fact that he was so smart, he somehow understood that he needed parents to teach him how to behave.

Of specific interest here is this part:

...He shot out of my lap and ran outside, and the next thing I knew, he had punched a hole in the little concrete pump house we used to have out back. Then he punched it again, and I could see that the whole thing was about to tumble down. I imagine it wasn’t the brightest thing I’ve ever done, but I ran up behind him, forgetting what someone as strong as him could do to me...I grabbed his arm before he could swing again, and he jerked it away from me so fast that I went down onto the ground. He didn’t mean to do it, but he flung me down like I was a rag doll. I looked up, and he was just standing there, this terribly angry look on his face, looking for all the world like he wanted to keep on hitting something. And with me being the closest thing at the time, I wasn’t all together sure that something wouldn’t be me....But then he saw me lying there, and saw what he had done. I’m pretty sure that was the first time he realized just what he could do to other people. And he just melted. He fell down on the ground beside me and sobbed and sobbed. "Not hurt Mommy," he kept saying. "Not hurt Mommy."The moment before, I’ll admit, I’d been afraid of him. After that, I never was again. He knew what he could do, but he was smart enough, and good enough, to never do it."

Another instance of Superman basically explaining that he had to spend "long hours in practice of pulling his punches" can be seen in a 1980s "recreation" of the original 1938 Action Comics story. You can see it here:

enter image description here

It should be noted that the Superman in this issue had power levels similar to that of the 1938 version; able to lift houses, jump an 1/8th of a mile and out-speed bullet trains, but nowhere near as powerful as even his Post-Crisis version which could actually fly and hold up tectonic plates.

A more recent example would be from the early 2000s Emperor Joker storyline. To nutshell this: Joker essentially steals Mr. Mxyzptlk's powers, becoming nigh-cosmic level and being able to manipulate reality. Consequently, he was also functionally un-killable. After turning giant and crushing Lois Lane [whom he had mind-wiped into being his Queen, Clark got pissed and literally plowed through the Joker's head in an attempt to stop him, as seen here....

enter image description here

But, he survived, of course, and made a joke about it here:

enter image description here

It's after this that Superman freely admits to himself that "I did hold back a bit".... even against a cosmic-level foe, simply because that's his nature. The implication here is that this control [and his vow to not kill] it's so ingrained in him that, even at that level, there is still always some form of restraint.

Even the animated series took note of this; it's the whole reason the "World Made of Cardboard" trope came into existence.

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WorldOfCardboardSpeech

In one of the most spectacular episodes of Justice League: Unlimited, Superman became the codifier for this trope, because he gave it to Darkseid before delivering a sweet beat down on the God. Again, this is one of the weakest versions of Superman, so his "unleashed power" [which to me, logically, should have been closer to only 3-5%] only sent him flying through a few buildings and spilled some blood instead of knocking him totally off planet and shattering bone and innards. Still, it was a prime example of him literally saying how he "holds back" pretty much all the time. You can see the actual clip here:

enter image description here

So yes, he pretty much is always holding back in some degree, especially when dealing with normal humans.

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    This is very well written... Looks like you didn't hold back – AncientSwordRage Aug 27 at 20:26
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    @AncientSwordRage Ahhhh, I see what you did there! ;-D But yes...sometimes I feel like I'm in an internet made of Speculation! Always having to curb my geek tendencies and nary in possession of concrete evidence to support my points! But this site can take it! – Russ Rainford Aug 27 at 20:35
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Well if superman did go all out on doomsday he would become the doomsday, in which he was trying to prevent from taking place.

In which this man will describe to you.

What If Superman Punched You, Aka What If Superman Punched All Out

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Yes superman holds back, because if he were not to hold back he could end up accidentally killing people. With Doomsday he was too concerned with saving people instead of killing Doomsday. Doomsday could have been easily thrown into space or the sun and killed. And all Superman had to do was fly into the sun and when he does that he gets unlimited power. If he wasn't always protecting people he might destroy the whole planet. Didn't you see what happened when he lost control in the illusion? Also, Superman does not like to kill his enemies so he holds back: for example, to kill people like Lex Luthor, Superman could easily use his super hearing to find out where he lives and kill him in his sleep.

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Superman holds back. I theorize that he even invented the weakness to kryptonite and magic in order to gain the trust of others. Without either, no one would ever trust him because he would be considered power, unlimited, and as the saying goes, "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely". Superman was meant to represent "good" in the sense that it pushes back against the darkness just by being present. In Smallville, hereafter, there is a boy who sees the death of anyone he touches but when he touches Clark, he sees that he never ends. And yet, when Clark saves 1 person, it changes that person's future death. And as to "What is a god to an unbeliever?" A virus still kills you even if you deny its existence. He has to calculate even putting on clothes as he doesn't notice the cold or heat.

Superman has to hold back and remain in control at all times. Lest "injustice" come to pass.

Just my 2 cents, pitiful as they may seem.

Smallville and Superman I, II, III, IV

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    You make an interesting point about him “inventing” hi weaknesses, do you have any sources to support this? Is this every discussed anywhere? It would really benefit your answers. – Edlothiad Nov 21 '17 at 6:24
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On another, but well related note, a very popular Web series, Because Science discussed exactly why having super strength and interacting with an everyday environment calibrated for regular strength would be difficult. Here, they used a base of about 100 times regular strength as a reference point, and pointed to Superman specifically as an example of how this could be exceptionally difficult. And on average, even the weakest version of Superman is stronger than 100 times a regular human.

It can be viewed here for a stronger comparison:

  • You know you can edit your other answer? Haven’t read either so not sure if an edit or another answer would work best. – TheLethalCarrot Aug 27 at 20:34
  • @TheLethalCarrot I'm aware, but considering all the others focused specifically on Superman, and this one is more of a general, science based reasoning as to why any type of super strength would require restraint in the real world, I thought it best to separate the two. This video can stand on its own. – Russ Rainford Aug 27 at 20:43
  • you should edit one or the other answer into the other – NKCampbell Aug 27 at 21:17
  • @NKCampbell The other answer already had a video link attached. Besides the difference in specifications, I thought it best not to let it run overlong. – Russ Rainford Aug 28 at 5:02

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