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In Dark Knight Returns part II, Superman stopped a nuclear missile from hitting an island off the coast of the USA. He experienced the blast full on and it showed that he was a shriveled up, almost-corpse who then killed a bunch of plants around him in order to get most of his strength back.

Why did this happen? I've never read or heard of Superman becoming disabled cause of a nuclear explosion.

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In the graphic novel, the blast from the nuclear missile blocked out the light of the sun.

Since superman draws his Kryptonian strength from the light of the sun, its absence apparently prevented him from resisting the damage of the blast fully, or healing afterwards, or possibly both.

However, he is somehow able to draw the stored energy from the sun out of the plant life nearby, which also draws upon solar energy for food (a very thin connection, I know).

The relevant panel is here:

enter image description here

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    That first panel makes it look like he pissed off Thor, too boot. – Jeff Jun 7 '13 at 14:56
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From the graphic novel:

They can split the very fabric of reality... blast a hundred thousand tons of sand into the sky... blotting out the source of all my power...

So the problem is the combination of massive damage and lack of sunlight.

It may not be consistent with other portrayals of Superman's powers, but consistency is weak across different writers anyway, and The Dark Knight Returns got its own universe because it deviated so much from Batman's canon history.

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  • You should also address the bit where Supes absorbs energy from the plants afterwards. – user1027 Feb 6 '13 at 22:20
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There is no good reason. Superman draws strength from the sun. The sun is a million billion megaton nuclear explosion. There is no radiation emitted from a nuclear bomb that isn't emitted from the sun x1000000. Even if the explosion blacked out the sun Superman would be none the worse for ware, he would even be energized. The writers of the dark knight returns just needed a plot devise other than the over used kryptonite, which they ended up using anyway, to even the odds for batman. Fans of the graphic novel will just have to imagine the nuke had magical properties that disabled Superman.

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  • Exactly. Whenever I find something that doesn't have a clear explanation, even in comic book rules, I always go by the statement: "because the script says so..." – Spandan Jan 16 '16 at 6:35
  • The radiation types are different, though. Ionizing radiation (think Beta, Gamma, Ultra Violet and X-Rays) can all cause varying levels of damage to most organic tissue by means of damaging cellular bonds; Non-ionizing radiation (photons, most light, heat, electricity, radio waves, infrared...basically all parts of the EM Spectrum) actually support life functions. The sun, at this distance, in the "Goldilocks Zone" of our planet...hell, even as close up as Mercury ... doesn't give off ionizing radiation besides UV rays. And even those, in too great an amount, can be damaging. – Russhiro Apr 5 '20 at 19:15
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I think they were also trying to imply that he had aged as well, along with everyone else in the story. I think that age coupled with damage from the blast and "blotting out the sun," was why it was supposed to have crippled him so severely. This is the only time I can remember Superman being shown to shrivel up and actually look withered after being cut off from his power supply, Earth's yellow sun. The way I interpreted it was Superman is retaining his youthful looks & strength because of the solar energy from the sun, so being cut off from this source, his body was no longer able to sustain this and shriveled up like a sun dried tomato. I did think this was a neat take on Superman, even if it doesn't fit in with Superman's official lore. It did make me laugh that he happened to fall into a patch of *SUN*flowers. Miller tried really hard to make sure you get that connection. I guess since they are asking the reader to accept Supes shriveling up like that, they don't want you to have to think to hard about him absorbing solar radiation from surrounding plant life or you'd be calling total BS by that panel.

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  • He's also shown as emaciated and weak in the Flashpoint Paradox alternate reality, because the US government had kept him immobilized and under red sun radiation his entire life. – Monty129 Sep 8 '13 at 18:42
  • But that was because he had been deprived of it his entire life, this happened in an instant. He literally withered up and lost all of his power instantly. – Brownstain Sep 9 '13 at 4:05
  • @Brownstain if he had "lost all of his power instantly"... he would have died. The fact that he could still move to actually get to the flowers and absorb their stored sunlight means he was still functioning and powerful, just injured and somewhat depleted. But that was a conceit Miller did just for that comic; as we have seen multiple times afterwards, even Post-Crisis Superman can tank several megatons of nuclear force and survive, if being knocked out or bruised up by it at the most. – Russhiro Apr 5 '20 at 19:19
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I just had this discussion with a friend at work. We both came to the conclusion that Kryptonians have the ability to absorb radiation and convert it to energy much like a plant. Given that Superman, Supergirl and Zod all draw their power from our yellow sun.

We then assumed that the ultra high levels of gamma radiation from the nuclear bomb would be directly absorbed into Superman's body and fed into the "extra organs" that Kryptonians use to store additional solar radiation. This would potentially cause an effect to Superman like cancer or maybe a similar (alien) condition.

As for "killing everything around him" I believe Superman gives off an amount radiation as well. Lois lane has said several times that Superman is "warm" next to him... I am assuming she means TEMPERATURE warm here guys... Thusly, if Superman is "poisoned" by this toxic gamma radiation, then the radiation he gives off would be toxic as well.

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  • RE: your last paragraph. I read that story once. Spider-man killed Mary Jane because 'all his bodily fluids' were radioactive. – Jeff Nov 1 '13 at 17:56
  • Superman "giving off" radiation [at least ionizing] is unlikely. Light, heat, electricity, microwaves, infrared...all of these are types of radiation, some of which we give off. Ionizing radiation is the poisonous/dangerous kind, and Superman, being a biological being, doesn't generate nuclear power [the ionizing kind]. Hell, the sun gives off radiation Constantly which we all, you know...need to live. Superman absorbs the non-ionizing radiation of the sun and metabolizes it into biological energy his cells use to fuel his powers. He may generate a bit more heat than us, but that's it – Russhiro Apr 5 '20 at 18:12
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All the above answers aren't incorrect, but seem to ignore some pertinent facts:

  1. The explosion didn't "cause" Superman to "absorb the life of living things"; the ionizing radiation (you know, the deadly kind that causes cellular mutations and damage by breaking the bonds between cells) overwhelmed him, and did some damage which brought him back to earth. Needing fuel to heal himself, but with the sun (the source of the non-ionizing radiation which feeds his powers) blocked, he ... somehow managed to "tap" into the raw solar energy stored in the flowers which their chlorophyll would use to convert the sunlight into bio-energy, effectively "Recharging" his own cells to a limited degree.

  2. This was the recently released, Post-Crisis, purely solar powered, "not unbeatable" Jon Byrne version of Superman. For YEARS it had been establish that a full on, ground 0 nuclear strike would not harm Superman in any way....

enter image description here

from the 40s....

to the 50s....

into the 60s..... enter image description here

All the way into the 80s, multiple megaton nuclear blast were something the guy could film casually, shrug off... or at the very least, walk away from intact and recover from in a short time.

enter image description here

Barring any very slim possibilities----- the presence of Kryptonite, him being affected by magic, his being severely weakened do to over exertion, or the radiation coming from some unique space element, for example---- most regular ionizing radiation, up to Gamma wave level, just doesn't slow down Superman for long. Now, part of the logic behind this was Superman's incredible molecular density; the radiation simply couldn't affect his molecular bonds because they were just too tightly compacted, on top of the regenerative powers the sun gave him.

Then came the Post-Crisis reboot, and all of Superman's powers came from the sun.

Consequently, his "indestructibility" wasn't just from his body and enhanced by yellow sun radiation any more, but totally supplied by it; his body was no longer composed of super dense tissue, but produced a "bio-electric aura" as a natural consequence of solar absorption which essentially acted like a "personal protective force field" which Superman could control nominally; this is why it was so common to see his skin-tight suit taking little damage, but rips and holes appearing often in his cape post-1986. Being so much weaker, it seemed logical, as well as useful, that Superman could take some damage from cell destroying radiation now, even if he recovered from it quickly.

But the only specific radiation which was supposed to totally negate his powers, and thus that field, was Kryptonite radiation...

However, this new version of Superman was also consequently weaker physically; he was no longer able to move planets with ease, and in fact struggled holding up continents. Byrne did this to make the hero "more human, flawed, and subject to injury", so that the stakes of his adventures would be higher, more "realistic" and engaging to the audience. This reboot happened in 1986, though; that's the same year that TDKR came out, so by this time, this "new" Superman's limits hadn't been explicitly tested yet. Miller---an avid Batman Super-fan and vocal dissident to Superman---- basically took advantage of this in his graphic novel, and used it as an opportunity to weaken Superman in-story enough so that Batman could make him look like a fool.

So on a meta level, the reason one dirty nuke explosion could affect this Superman so much was because the writer's hadn't yet established that he was immune (or at least highly resistant) to such harm. This writer in particular then used that loophole/ wiggle room to put Superman on "a more even footing" with a character he favored for a final showdown. That's also the reason Superman gained the ability to "absorb solar energy" from plants... a power he point blank did not have in either Post-Crisis, or Pre-Crisis canon; Miller could not outright kill the icon for his plot, so he settled for humiliating him in story, to some degree, and gave a heretofore unforeseen ability as the reason he survived.

  1. Superman , in the novel, never once thought to go to the Fortress to recharge, or just to fly up into space beyond the clouds and take in some sunlight to get his powers back to normal. The reason why such a common-sense approach wasn't taken was never addressed in the comic.

Now, to be fair, the Fortress didn't really exist at this time (it wouldn't be built in Byrne's stories til a year and a half later) ... but neither did the "plant absorption" ability! So there could have been a way around that to get Superman back to full power. The book never showed how "weakened" he was compared to his normal levels, and he was strong enough to fly (at super speeds, no less!) under his own power, take electrocution, keep fighting when kryptonite gas was shot at his face while dueling with Batman, and lift/toss a tank with ease.... but flying a few miles up into the upper atmosphere to absorb sunlight for the hour or so that he could hold his breath and get somewhere back to his normal levels seemed to be beyond him.

Again...this was likely done more for plot relevant reasons; in story, Batman himself said he'd never be able to take on Clark at his full strength. So in order to keep the stakes high in their fight, Clark still had to be recovering. The extent of the radiation poisoning had to be shown to be catastrophic in order for him to be a treat to Bruce, but not something this older Batman couldn't "reasonably" overcome. So him being "Shriveled up" is more a visual exhibition of how much damage he took. And because the skies were blotted out by the nuclear winter [which again isn't factual, as one 15-kiloton bomb would detonated in the upper atmosphere would not cause enough soot and ash to arise from the land to blot out the sun for So many days!]he was not able to get the direct sunlight he needed at ground level to fully recharge, and we have no idea how many fields, mountains, or oceans of plankton [some of the richest solar feeding plantlife] he would have had to absorb in order to get to even half strength.

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