In comic books all kinds of super hero technology comes up. Villains will use shrink rays, heroes will have super suits and an AI in their bat computer, and the government has flying helicarriers and super serum experiments.

Yet despite all this technology the every day citizen always seem stuck with the same technology we have in real life.

How can I justify this discrepancy? Between the fanciful technology I want to put in the hands of heroes and villains, and the more mundane technology the average citizen has? Why hasn't this technology been made available to others? Why aren't shrink rays revolutionizing shipping technology, why don't people pay to fly in a helicarrier instead of an airplane?

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    $\begingroup$ You don't have to justify it, it's a comic book, no one hopefully expects it to be real life, and it's written for kids. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Nov 11, 2019 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ Why do I not have a Bugatti Veyron, the latest & most expensive Apple phone, my own private helicopter, Alexia (or whatever those voice-operated snoopers are called), or many other examples of current technology? Because I either can't afford them or I have no use or desire for them. (Often both.) What's the use of a "super suit" if I'm not in the superhero business? (FTM, why do I only have 4 nodes in my compute cluster, and not 64K or more?) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Nov 12, 2019 at 4:10
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    $\begingroup$ Civilians using super tech either become super heroes or super villains themselves $\endgroup$
    – fat
    Nov 12, 2019 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf I'm sorry but this argument seems flawed. You don't have a Bugatti Veyron, but you do have a car, right? You don't have the latest Apple phone, but you do have a phone in your pocket, right? Do you need your own helicopter to benefit from powered flight? Your kid broke his back skateboarding, cries for hours. Broke his back like Batman did.. say... did he not fix that? You would not hit Bats up on twitter? Wait! How about they make a colony ship and you get on it? Spider Man has easily portable synthetic spider silk! With a variable range applicator! No use for that? Really? $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Nov 12, 2019 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ As Bernie Sanders said, "top 1% of the superheroes have 99% of the technologies, and 99% of citizens have 1% only." $\endgroup$
    – Bill Chen
    Nov 12, 2019 at 22:06

19 Answers 19


Super-physics are harder than normal physics (requires a super-genius to understand) but also more convenient (Tony Stark can design his reactor with Pure Genius rather than a massive team of engineers crossing all the i's, dotting all the t's). One of the really convenient thing about super-physics is that Stark can just find unobtanium lying around -- but it is really rare. Between the material requirements and the fact that only super-geniuses can figure out how to do the math, normal people have to just use normal physics and, as a result, produce normal technology.

There isn't enough unobtanium out there to do the socially responsible thing and use it to provide baseload power plants, but accelerating a single man-sized suit or robo-fist is not so energetically expensive, so Stark does the next best thing and flies around punching badguys. He might also try to use the tech where he can (maybe he adds some Super-tech peaking generators to the grid) but this just provides a little efficiency bonus. It can be mentioned in passing that everybody appreciates this but it doesn't change society so it isn't worth focusing too much on.

This pattern repeats everywhere, in a sort of generalized way. Super heroes don't provide (some sort of generalized idea of) "lots of energy." They provide very well placed injections of massive power. They can't sustain the energy requirements of everyone, so they use their power to remove the rare 1% catastrophes, because that's where they can remove the problems that waste lots of society's energy. And they're flawed people, so they don't always do it perfectly.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that Stark does indeed build a large scale arc-reactor to provide cheap power - it's one of the main features in his building in the first Iron Man movie. He doesn't do similar with the weapons, because... well, he decided to stop selling those. $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Nov 12, 2019 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Baldrickk: Pretty sure that "large scale arc-reactor" is always on the cusp of going live in every (don't take "every" literally, that's not the point) Iron Man movie/cartoon. Then it's invariably blown up, either by a super-villain, or to contain a super-villain, or something, and free energy gets pushed further out, again... $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2019 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Baldrickk and a valid explanation: It's always the villains! $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2019 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ Crossing i's and dotting t's would be a pointless exercise, wouldn't it? $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Nov 12, 2019 at 17:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Mast Maybe crossing their i's and dotting their t's is why they can't invent the same technology as a super genius. $\endgroup$ Nov 12, 2019 at 19:58

In Wildbow's "Worm" series (or more generally his "Parahumans" world) there is a categorization of powered individual called tinkers who create crazy technology like you describe (laserguns, hoverboards, freeze rays, etc).

The trick is that only the creators of the super-tech understand how it works, and it's usually so advanced that even if the creators tried to explain to a team of professional engineers, they wouldn't get far. Tinkers who decide to produce super-tech and sell it to the masses are really shooting themselves in the foot because:

  1. Only they understand and can make the super-tech

  2. Automation and assembly line processes would require tools and machines that don't exist (and would need to also be built and maintained by the creator)

  3. Super-tech is somewhat unstable and, just like any other performance tool, it requires regular maintenance which can only be performed by the creator

  4. If many people had the super-tech product, the creator would essentially be in customer support hell as they'd have to personally fix all problems and wouldn't be able to outsource it

Basically, it boils down to the fact that in order to produce something for the masses, you need a production line, thousands of employees, and legions of engineers and designers. One smart person just can't shoulder this whole burden. They may have super intelligence and pure genius but they don't have more than 24 hours in a day.

Still, "generic shadow world government" or SHIELD or whoever can equip all their agents with super-tech smartphones and laser pistols and fly around in cloaking jets but all at enormous cost: they need skilled tinkers to essentially devote their entire time to maintaining the small arsenal of tech and can't focus on R&D. Even then, getting a genius to sit down and maintain hundreds of identical laser pistols 40 hours a week takes a specific type of personality (and one the government is keen to snatch up quickly) and would drive most generic superheroes (high ego, etc) out of their minds with boredom.

Addendum: In Worm, powered individuals mostly gain their powers through trigger events which are often highly traumatic or threaten the person's life significantly. The popular belief is that the power which develops is somehow a response to the trigger event (like if you get stabbed, your new power would have you develop armored skin, immunity to metal, fast reflexes, or whatever). People who gain tinker powers are no exception and aren't necessarily genius or creative before they get them. Thus, people with stable engineering jobs, a well-rounded education, and a desire to make the world a better place through technology aren't as likely to trigger as a low-income junkie or other disadvantaged persons. This is also one of the reasons that there are in general, more super-powered villains than heroes because on average, the type of people who'd become villains are more likely to encounter a traumatic event.

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    $\begingroup$ "Even then, getting a genius to sit down and maintain hundreds of identical laser pistols 40 hours a week takes a specific type of personality (and one the government is keen to snatch up quickly) and would drive most generic superheroes (high ego, etc) out of their minds with boredom." $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Nov 12, 2019 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 spoilers, dude. $\endgroup$
    – Carcer
    Nov 12, 2019 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ “tinker” is a person who does a more specific job, as well as a verb of more general use. Thus a tinkerer is a person who tinkers on things that may or may not be within the skills of a tinker. $\endgroup$
    – WGroleau
    Nov 12, 2019 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @WGroleau it’s also one of that setting’s power classifications in their in-setting power classification scheme - for instance, a given cape might be rated “Tinker 7”. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Nov 13, 2019 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ I'm reading this right now (pretty far in, really good!) and thought of "tinkers" immediately. Nice answer! $\endgroup$
    – Sam Weaver
    Nov 13, 2019 at 20:11

It's quite simple... there are superheroes whose abilities lie in the area of being stronger, faster, tougher, or in some way physically superior to ordinary humans. Then there are those with magical powers, the wizards, the psionicists, those who can generate force fields or death-rays. These, we all understand.

However, there is another type of superhero, one that may potentially overlap onto the other types... the technomancer. They may (or may not) be ordinary, squishy humans, but they can produce super-powered technology. While these superheroes may typically be very smart (though they need not be), they are in fact as much superheroes as the next superhero... only their power is to make magical technology. In times past, they may have been called enchanters, and their work process may have involved mystical diagrams and chants over whatever item they were enchanting, but today, "magic" is achieved through technological means (who really understands every detail of the technology we use, or do we just accept it as 'magic', i.e. something we don't understand). So, naturally enough, todays enchanters or technomancers look like... engineers and scientists.

However... they're not. Really not. If a real, mundane scientist or engineer was to take a look at the technomancer's products, they'd just scratch their heads and say that they can see what it's doing... but they can't see how it should work. By rights, according to the laws of physics and chemistry, the things the super tech does ought not be possible... but they still do them. They could even duplicate the super tech down to the last discernible physical detail, but the duplicate would not work because it was not made by a technomancer. If they tried, it'd either blow up in their faces, or just sit there stubbornly useless.

If another technomancer was to look at a new piece of super-tech, it might be quite obvious to them, once they'd examined it properly, what it was and how it works, and they'd be able to duplicate or adapt it... but that's not because they're smarter than a mundane scientist or engineer, but because they have a superpower the mundane scientist or engineer doesn't have.

So... let's take a few familiar fictional superheroes.

  • Superman: Magical strength, flight, speed, breath, eye-beams... it's all about what he can do and how his body is tougher than ours.

  • Doctor Strange: Physically he is one of us... but he has magical powers.

So far, so good... all quite understandable... they can do things we can't.

  • Batman: Good at fighting and lots of cool technology.

Batman may be an edge case. He says that his super-power is having a whole lot of money, and he may be right. As depicted in some movies, Batman's tech is entirely achievable by our current military-industrial complex without requiring any super-powers, and Batman's combat abilities are merely those that someone who has the advantage of reasonably good genes and a whole lot of dedication - or obsession - with physical combat could train to achieve... however in other movies, Batman's technology exceeds real-tech, and his combat abilities - or at least his ability to withstand physical punishment - exceed that of a mundane human's. He may well be a superhuman with super-toughness, as well as some technomancy

  • Tony Stark: Can make cool gadgets, weapons and armour.

Tony Stark - away from his technology - is as squishy as the rest of us. However, his technology can do things decades or even centuries ahead of current real technology, things that may not actually be physically possible. Tony Stark - while intelligent - is not actually significantly smarter than many ordinary scientists and engineers. So what makes him so special? He is a technomancer. That's his only power. Unlike Superman or Doctor Strange, or even Batman, it's not something we can see. We can't pound on him and take note that he isn't getting injured (or as injured) as the next mundane victim. Without something to work on, he can't just snap his fingers or make a gesture and subdue his enemies as Doctor Strange might do. What Tony Stark needs to exercise his powers is raw materials and the trappings of technology... and what he achieves with them, for all that the process looks mundane, is no less magical than that achieved by any other superhero.

Tony Stark probably doesn't even realise that he is a superhero descended from another superhero (his father). Given his ego, and the inability of anyone else to duplicate his equipment, he appears to believe that he is just smarter than everyone else, but that is not the case. If Tony Stark was not present to make his equipment - or if he has mundane workers fabricate the parts for his larger inventions, if he was not present to supervise, then the equipment would be just so much junk. Without Tony Stark being present to enchant these otherwise mundane items, they'd be no different to something a mundane might make.

So... TL:DR Super-technology isn't technology... it is enchantment, i.e. magic.

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    $\begingroup$ That's exactly what I was thinking when looking at Ironman technology... excuse me, Ironman magic! (because comic book 'science' violates so many physics rules that it just can't be technology anymore...) $\endgroup$
    – subrunner
    Nov 12, 2019 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ @subrunner obigitory "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Nov 12, 2019 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ And that would also explain why Doctor Doom is so dangerous. He is a technomancer that also had formal education in sorcery, so he knows what he is doing and go much further then Iron Man has ever gone. $\endgroup$
    – Geronimo
    Nov 12, 2019 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Tony Stark tends to be presented as far smarter than the majority of scientists ("when did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?", "Last Night"). That is beyond what anyone can do in a brand new field in our world. It isn't superhero tech either, it is stuff that is at least partially understood today, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_astrophysics. I would argue he is significantly smarter than oridnary scientists as presented. Others are also shown to be able to figure out Iron Man style tech in the movies. $\endgroup$
    – Christy
    Nov 12, 2019 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ Kosinski from StarTrek:NextGen is a perfect example of this. He was a propulsion expert who truly believed he was a super genius who found a way to make warp engines better, but he was actually being gifted by a transcendent alien to violate the laws of nature. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 12, 2019 at 16:34

Citizens DO have super tech. Even in the real world, lots of consumer devices ARE super tech-- with the attached 10-30 year delay of making them suitable for consumers. But perhaps I should introduce myself.

Hello, I'm an embedded systems engineer who makes somewhat-advanced military prototypes. From your point of view, you can think of me as a crude approximation of Tony Stark with a lot less money and no degree.

There is a reason I do not sell things to the mass market (even though you would be quite surprised how few export controls actually impact my work).

I have, in fact, worked on a number of commercial applications, including products intended for end users. The three things that will put you out of business when doing mass-market consumer products are (1) returns, (2) support costs, and (3) product liability. This obviously assumes you are at least obtaining volumes and margins that yield a meaningful profit.

The number of people who return things that are CLEARLY not going to "just work out of the box" because they do not, in fact, just work out of the box, would blow your mind. There is a reason wireless routers ship with awful security and miserable defaults: those defaults tend to work for the average consumer as soon as they plug the device in. (California actually had to pass a law to deal with this problem.) Note that this problem exists regardless of whether or not you are in competition with an "easier to use" product, but if you are, it gets much worse.

If, and only if, the device at least does SOMETHING that looks promising "out-of-the-box", then the consumer will attempt to get it to do either (A) whatever they had in mind, if it was actually bought to solve a problem, or (B) something interesting, if they're a gadget fiend (or received it as a gift). At this point, things go wrong, and the consumer goes looking for support.

In the world of contracting, you have a direct and ongoing relationship with the manufacturer. More often than not, you can literally call somebody's cell phone. (The end user in the field calls their CO or manager, but somewhere in that chain, somebody calls the contractor.) You get an engineer quickly, and if something is REALLY hard to use, you stand a very good chance of getting it changed.

For obvious reasons, this doesn't happen in consumer devices. You can't give 40,000 people your cell number, and you also probably can't even afford to hire more than a handful of people for phone support-- and they'll probably be reading from a very limited flowchart. One need only look at the huge number of unofficial, third-party bulletin board systems users use to try and figure out how to make their routers, etc., do what they want. The idea of the pleading traffic one might see on the Frosty Fingerz Freeze-Ray Users Group subreddit is pretty amusing, but honestly, that's probably what you would get.

Finally, product liability. First, let's start with regulatory liability.

Most of the interesting super tech is a lot like interesting "professional" tech. It is an open secret that a lot of the world's "professional" technical gear can be used to bypass lots and lots of regulatory limits. As a real-world example, take the humble 1 watt 2.4GHz linear amplifier. This device, which is about half the size of a small coin, strongly amplifies incoming and outgoing wireless signals. It is inexpensive, reasonably robust, and easy to use.

You absolutely MAY NOT use one as Joe Random, Private Citizen.

The reason for this is that power levels in that frequency range are heavily regulated by government agencies (for example, in the United States, the FCC), and for a very good reason: when consumers can't figure out what's wrong with a wireless system, we have A LOT of data that proves the first thing they try to do is jack up the power. This is, in fact, rarely what's wrong, and taking this approach steps all over everybody else on the same band. That, in turn, allows a single user to significantly degrade a shared resource for everybody else.

If the relevant regulatory agency decides that your device has a significant incidence of misuse, they can yank your license, or demand that you mitigate and/or prevent that misuse through technical means. Along the way, they are likely to give you a Very Large Fine, just to make sure you can't comfortably use a chair for a while.

Now, let's look at the other kind of liability that's likely to come up: personal injury and property damage.

Remember Lawn Darts? You cannot buy a real set of Lawn Darts in the United States or Canada. They have been banned, un-banned, and re-banned because they are extremely attractive to, and extremely dangerous to, children. They have caused many thousands of accidents severe enough to require emergency medical services, and unlike most sports equipment, the average accident involving them tends to result in a serious injury.

And this is a static object with no moving parts, energy output, or active logic. It's basically just a sharp rock with fins.

If you made the Frosty Fingerz Freeze Ray in the form factor of, say, a Super-Soaker-- that is, a compact, lightweight, somewhat gun-like device-- every child on the planet would spend weeks figuring out how to defeat whatever safety interlocks you put on it. In the process of doing this, they are going to freeze their own eyeballs off, and each and every one of those is going to cause an immediate extinction-level lawsuit.

Of course, that assumes the device even has safety interlocks, and I have an example for you here, as well: the lithium polymer battery.

Lithium polymer batteries have been around longer than you probably think-- but not, initially, for consumers. Remember those occasional battery explosions or fires on aircraft? Those were originally not so occasional. However, they only happened in limited market usage, where people were somewhat aware that they needed careful handling.

To make them safe for the commercial market, the modern lithium polymer battery pack includes a surprising amount of electronics right in the battery, including: - temperature monitoring - current monitoring - over-current cutoff (both load and charge) - short-circuit protection - thermal fuses - reverse-polarity protection (kapow!)

All of this took a while to work out, and initially, significantly raised costs. Additionally, consumers demanded a larger number of charge cycles than the original offerings supplied. To some degree, the amount of available current and capacity is decreased to provide this extended device life. So, there was a significant delay between what you could get in the lab-- or out to the military-- and what you could get in your phone.

But honestly, you're using the best example of private super tech right now: a computer or smartphone. These devices combine technologies that were initially only available to people with significant resources, and each supporting technology, let alone the combined devices, required advanced training and knowledge to safely operate them.

As an example, quite a few early computers would blow literal, physical fuses if you divided by zero. It took decades to get your laptop, but you can divide by zero all day long and not smell smoke.

Finally, even in the real world, some technologies are just never going to be safe enough for private citizens to have direct control over, even if they can "use" them. Consider the flying car. Every flying car is a potential kinetic energy weapon, and if you have a lot of them, you have to ensure they don't slam into each other. Those two things virtually guarantee that, even if you do have flying cars, citizens aren't going to be flying them manually.

I'll leave you with one last thought. Visualize this billboard:

"Have YOU been injured by super tech? YOU may be entitled to TRIPLE DAMAGES!"

...and tell me who's going to make that gadget. At the very least, it would have to have a lobby the size of the NRA and the firearms industry-- which is what I would encourage you to create a parallel for, if you intend to actually add super tech to the consumer market in your works.

Good luck!

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    $\begingroup$ "...and might not smell smoke" (emphasis added) — I love it! BTW, this is a really awesome answer. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Nov 13, 2019 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ You can't actually divide by zero, but you can try without any of the Magic Smoke getting out. $\endgroup$ Nov 13, 2019 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ Every driving car is also a potential kinetic energy weapon, let we allow pretty much anyone to control them. I wouldn't be so sure flying cars are going to stay out of private hands. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Nov 14, 2019 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ This is what i was about to answer, just much better argumented and supported. Cutting-edge tech has always been available to elites \ military first, and to general public then, given enough time. $\endgroup$
    – Manzotin
    Nov 14, 2019 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik, in some sense flying cars have existed for decades. Four-seater Cessnas, microlights, and ultralights are small, privately owned, flying machines. $\endgroup$ Nov 14, 2019 at 15:45

Very strict (and possibly broken) intellectual property laws

This might lend more of a comedic angle but it could work as a reason. Normal people don't use batarangs and Spider-Man web fluid (as well as other similar tools) because these are considered proprietary ownership of the individual Batman and Spider-Man respectively. Mass producing these would be infringing on the intellectual rights of these individuals.

You could have the superheroes themselves apply for patent and trademark or perhaps a "superhero guild" of some sort could represent individuals with aim to help protect their real identities.

Alternatively, this could be a weird loophole in the law that grants the individuals automatic rights over their tech. And they can't waive these rights without some beaurocratic process that will expose their real identities. As such, mass production is still prohibited and there might be issues with reverse engineering the tech, too. A batarang is considered a trademark of Batman, while Spider-Man's web fluid is granted an automatic patent. The loophole could be that because these tools are deployed in public and documented, this serves as demonstration. If nobody else can prove prior work on similar tech, then full rights are recognised for the one who demonstrated it first.


Since none of the answers seem to directly address the elephant in the room...

It's expensive

Governments have money. Many, many super heroes whose power is at least partly technology, is either loaded (Reed Richards), has access to someone that is (Peter Parker, Hank Pym), has access to top secret military technology... or some combination of the above (Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne).

Some tech, like "super suits", is not only expensive, it isn't really useful unless you also have super powers. Shooting web? Better have the reflexes. Moving really fast? Who cares, unless you actually can move really fast.

Then, of course, there are the associated government organizations, which also, unlike the average civilian, can throw tons of money around. And supervillains, well, part of what makes them supervillains is probably coming up with tons of money (Lex Luthor, Harry Osborne), often without many sruples as to how they go about it.

Occasionally, of course, you get the more average nut-jobs that get their hands on "special" tech (Ivan Vanko, Adrian Toomes)... more often than not, by stealing it from, that's right, the government.


Because people are scared of it

This doesn't address all cases, but it's worth taking note of the Wakanda example. Here we have an entire nation that does have "super tech"... and keeps it to themselves, because they're afraid of what would happen if the rest of the world got its hands on it. There could well be a conspiracy (which may or may not involve the government) to do this with most super tech.

On the other hand...

...who's to say that all this super-tech isn't, eventually, making its way down to the general public? Where do you think we really got semiconductors? Or Velcro?

That said, I think the "final" answer is a combination of this, Monty Wild's answer, and Upper_Case's answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Stark, Wayne, Luthor: all rich AF. Pym: actively researching cutting edge technology; no explanation necessary. However... Wakanda? there's no excuse. Apparently they're a bunch of isolationist jerks which is the reason why we don't have nicer things.... $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Nov 13, 2019 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ This is specifically addressed in one of the Spider-man comics (and repeated in one of the anime series). Peter asks Tony why he doesn't build suits for all the Avengers, and Tony says sure, if they'll each chip in half of the 8 billion dollar price tag for a customized, top of the line, production version. $\endgroup$ Nov 13, 2019 at 5:38

Super Tech is Made from Supers

Super tech isn't actually tech, but rather a way to siphon a super's power into a device usable by anyone. So, that shrink ray? Well, Dr. Supervillain has Mr. Shrink locked away in a vat, and the ray is just an interface allowing others to hijack his powers. So there an only be one shrink ray.

This also has the added benefit of explaining why Dr. Supervillain can't just rebuild the device next time he escapes (because he would need to kidnap Mr. Shrink again) and why the villains decide to capture the heroes instead of kill them (to siphon their powers - supers are much more valuable alive then dead).

  • $\begingroup$ Haha, I like the way you think $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Nov 12, 2019 at 11:55

Because, on most of Earth, people with those technologies aren't civilians anymore.

The trope in comic books is that, when ordinary people gain access to super-abilities they are drawn into the world of super-drama and have a hard time remaining civilians. At least that's the common trend on Earth. That includes super-technologies, too.

The technology path to super-status seems to also be available to solitary geniuses or megacorporpate research groups with a plucky test subject. In the former case, that's often the goal-- to create technology to make life better. But then it goes wrong, or goes too far, or the technology's dangerous potential is too great, and so they don't tell anyone how it works. In the latter case, it's mostly the same for the researchers (plus you'll-be-assassinated-if-you-tell-about-it style confidentiality agreements). The plucky test subject doesn't know how it works, and so can't tell anyone about it.

There are some exceptions, but those seem to be about the relative level of technology. In Wakanda people enjoy lots of advanced technology, but it doesn't generally give one Wakandan an edge over another. And the really advanced technology is controlled... by the superhero-headed government. Other planets often have the same setup. The Kree have pretty fancy technology too.


This answer presents a counterpoint example.

In the Marvel cinematic universe, the citizens of Wakanda regularly use advanced technology made by their super scientists.

They are not shared outside of Wakanda, but citizens have access to hard light projections, flying vehicles (antigravity?), Advanced Healing and medical tech, Cloaking and optical illusion tech.

The technology seems easy to use and intuitive both to children and outsiders, with many devices working just by waving your hands at holographic interfaces or making gestures.


Economies of scale

Unfortunately, your chicken sandwich would cost somewhere around 6000 dollars (possibly more) if it weren't for the amazing ability to specialise and distribute the workload. Even at 6000 dollars, that sandwich would not be available every day.

Something more complex, say a phone, or a car, needs many many resources, and many many specialised skills, and infrastructure that takes many many years to construct. And they only make sense at scale when all of the supporting infrastructure is in place (cell towers, and road networks).

SuperTech is so much more complicated, requires so much more nuanced resources, and requires infrastructure that simply doesn't exist at a scale to make it feasible for mass production.

That flying carrier, probably costed more than the entire combined space industry of the entire world over a decade just to deploy it for that mission (let alone build and maintain it in readiness for deployment).

The last issue is that there is often a much cheaper, broadly, and already available option:

  • Spy Phone that works in Andromeda - use a mobile it works most places, otherwise get yourself a SatPhone.
  • Flight Suit - purchase a plane ticket
  • Advanced laser gun - get yourself accredit for a rifle, with a hunting licence, or sign up for the military.
  • Supersuit - local dept. store bargain bin shirt, and shorts. You can even get yourself some shoes, socks, underwear, and if its that cold, a jumper. Its not like your running into burning buildings.

Its not that any person couldn't have that super-tech, is just that most people have no need for it.

Not to mention owning it paints a very large set of cross-hairs on your own back. In neon green, shouting very loudly free money, just take X off me!


How can I justify this discrepancy? Between the fanciful technology I want to put in the hands of heroes and villains, and the more mundane technology the average citizen has? Why hasn't this technology been made available to others?

There is a deliberate policy that keeps this technology from your average citizen.

In most countries in the world, if you're just an average citizen, you might be able to sign up at a shooting range and use a handgun, or join a hunting club and use a rifle. But it's going to be tough to get your hands on any military-grade sniper rifles, machine guns, or silenced handguns. Even the police are restricted to simple handguns here in France.

So even if it would be useful for a shipping company to have access to a shrink ray, can you imagine if someone other than the shipping company stole it and used it for criminal purposes? They could probably take on a bank, unless the bank has amazing security, and even then you're just risking all-out war on the streets.

Most of this advanced tech would probably be completely hidden from public view. Once a superhero/villain uses it in the open and someone posts the video to TikTok or whatever, it's going to be hard to cover it up. But until then, there's no reason the shipping company should even think about using a shrinking ray for practical reasons, beyond employees daydreaming.


The villain who creates tech that he expects to use for grandiose purposes doesn’t want competition.

And the hero who creates something that powerful doesn’t want to risk villains getting the ability to use it.


You can probably replace "Superhero Technology" with "Alien Technology" for a decent analogy.

It rarely has any basis in more conventional technologies, it's fully-formed. miniaturised, high performance technology and the only examples anyone will get hold of will be damaged debris from Superhero/villain fights.

So the very first step will be figuring out how it works, what's needed in the design and what isn't. Then someone has to reproduce it and find a way to mass-produce it right?

That's fine for a competing superhero, they're not too worried and they're responsible for their own safety if they do it.
Captain Floater's anti-gravity belt has unknown safety margins, he's okay with it because he's super-strong and if it goes wrong he can probably survive the crash.

If I, an engineer wanting to use salvaged anti-gravity tech for my own projects want to make a commercial project, I have to be able to prove that it's safe for Joe-public.

That's going to take a lot of demonstration. The underlying principles of the technology will have to be well understood, I'll have to make redundancies and backups and implement safety features.

Then I have to put it past the FAA or similar agency and maybe I'll be able to put a working anti-gravity backpack on the market. It'll probably not be as compact as the fancy hover-belt I started with, it'll be insanely expensive and the preserve of only the very wealthy.

All of this assumes it doesn't run on some rare mineral or material that I can't reproduce without a particle accelerator...

At the very best case, super technology will be in use, but it'll be used by the very wealthy or by organisations with huge budgets and R&D departments. It will eventually filter down to the civilian market in myriad small ways, but that's decades from now at best.

  • $\begingroup$ So, basically the plot of Spiderman: Homecoming? Ordinary guy gets hold of alien tech and builds super-suit, only in your scenario he sells it to the world instead of becoming a super-villain... $\endgroup$ Nov 13, 2019 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ I meant more that if you want civilians to have access to super-technology based products, that tech has to go through a lot of work behind the scenes before it hits the market. Vulture's wing-suit was more of a custom prototype than a production product. It certainly didn't have all its problems worked out! $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Nov 14, 2019 at 8:29

These technologies are still experimental... that is, they are potentially very dangerous. In other words, the technology just isn't ready yet for the average Joe.

But your superheroes have two attributes that make this not matter so much for them:

  1. Being super, they can take a punch. If their super-jet explodes mid-air, they'll not only survive the explosion but also stick the landing at the end of the fall.
  2. They tend to get stuck in the middle of desperate fights making it worth the signficant risk of using this unstable tech.

Why do Third World countries not have the infrastructure that is prevalent in the First World?

Whilst the analogy is quite flawed, seeing that I'm referring to normal humans, but then again, the human mind is a super power on its own.

Truth be told, the entire triad world situation is more than black and white and a whole different ball game.

To answer your question with a question, why should a normal civilian drive a batmobile?


There are comics where the tech the superheroes produce is there and changes the world.

The obvious one would be Watchmen where lots of Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias's inventions are mass produced, but I can remember ?I think a Captain Britain comic?, where the SAS are in powered armour.


This exact question was addressed in the Aberrant (a Superhero themed RPG) universe. As a tabletop RPG, answers like scale, IP laws, unwillingness to share, and so on aren't good enough, because the players could choose to overcome whatever hurdles those pose. ("I release my arc reactor plans for free online, then spend the next six months finding all the unobtaniam I can and giving it to the power company!")

Instead, they broke super-tech down into three categories. This is discussed in a Kickstarter preview here. I've quoted the key parts:

Nova technological developments and inventions can be divided into three categories. The first, core-tech, is nova-designed technology that can be replicated, mass-produced, and mostly understood by baseline designers. This level of technology may incorporate peculiarities in the production method, or involve combining resources in previously unconsidered ways, but otherwise there’s nothing in the design that human ingenuity couldn’t have achieved given enough time and effort.

The second category of technical advancement is referred to as nova-tech. Nova-tech is somewhat more difficult to define than core-tech. Essentially, nova-tech relies on novas to exist. This isn’t limited to only being designed by novas but could include inventions that incorporate exotic materials produced by nova powers, or drawn from nova physiology. While a baseline could develop the theoretical design for a piece of nova-tech, they couldn’t build a prototype, much less move into mass production, without the required nova capabilities or samples.

Finally, quantum technology — Q-tech — requires a nova to be able to function. Q-tech interacts with a nova’s quantum imprint at a fundamental level to be able to function at all. Non-nova study of Q-tech can barely make any sense of how it works, even for apparently simple objects. In fact, some Q-tech simply shouldn’t work according to any known laws of physical science, but they still do.

In other words, some technology can be spread to the masses (which can justify any weird capabilities that common objects need to have, like a cell phone that never needs charging). Subject to money and other resources, of course, but if it can be mass produced, the price will eventually come down.

Other pieces of technology require superheroes to actively be involved, which requires their time and energy - if your miracle healing agent is derived from Wolverine's blood, you've actually got to get him to let you sit there and draw blood if you want to make it. (Good luck.)

And the third kind just works because it's part of that superhero's powers that it does, and so is useless for anyone else. This usually is described as magic of some sort, but could easily be a "technological" gadget that's anything but. (I can't think of any examples from traditional comics, but I'm sure that somewhere along the way someone discovered that the suit/device they were using wasn't actually needed after all.)

In any given universe, any combination of these three could be applicable, and your superheroes' mix of powers and origins could lean towards one of them more than the others.


What does it mean to be human?

In some sense the majority of sci-fi stories address this question. A super-hero is, by definition, super-human (except for the odd one like Batman). He is capable of mastering technology that, as of now, is unavailable to humanity on a mass scale. So what does it mean to be super-human, and what does that say about being human?

Oddly enough, there is technology under development today which cannot be deployed outside the research lab, at least not without unacceptable risks of unforeseen consequences. Examples are quantum computing, bionic brains, controlled fusion, and nearly universal anti cancer agents. Anybody who would grab this stuff out of the lab and deploy it for the purpose of expanding personal power, would either already be a villain, or become a villain in the course of events.

Almost all of today's technology was, at some time, so experimental that deploying it on a widespread scale would have been irresponsible, if not impossible. If we had attempted, for example, building a world wide energy grid using nuclear fusion in 1946, it almost certainly would have been disastrous. Yet Oak Ridge was a preview of just such a scenario.

Villains, by definition, are unconcerned with responsibility and lack humility in assessing their own whims and capabilities. What does it mean to be a villain? what does it mean to be a hero? what does it mean to be human?


You can't justify that

(disclaimer: this is a sort of an anti-answer)

In all sorts of comics this is just a plot device as well as a recognizeable characteristic of the genre.

Personally I always had lots of questions like that and I could not find any way to answer them rather than, when looking at a broader perspective, realizing that the author simply failed to actually create a coherent world. Or he simply did not care or it was not his aim from the start. And that's why the story ended up being a super hero comic.

As such, the worlds of any comics are deeply flawed from the logical point of view. Since the author fails to recognize the basics of social dynamics, interactions and values, nothing else in the lore and the plot comes together at all. What you see of civillian life or human psychology in super hero comics, is usually just pieces of a shallow shadow of it.

So, ultimately super hero comics are just a very low-quality writing with no realistic worldbuilding and strongly one-dimensional or very stereotypical characters. The plot does not make anything interesting of itself too, usually being very direct, steriotypical and illogical since most of the things just happen for the sake of the plot (since the world is highly incoherent, anything can be postulated or proven and a logical sequence of events is impossible).

So, as you might have guessed, super hero comics is not my favourite genre.

However, I must also point out that there are rather well-established structures that contribute to creating a characteristic super hero comics and at the same time prevent you doing what you wanted an answer or an advice for:

  1. The world is strongly polarized between usual human and super hero. There is never a heroic behavior that can be seen from the humans, or that behavior is always unsuccessful or laughed upon. Similarly there is rarely any human behavior from a super hero, or that behavior is unsuccessful or also made fun of. This contributes to the great divide between the civillian and super hero worlds and in part is what shatters the wholeness of the world into the pieces that don't connect in any ways except the ways facilitated by plot devices.

  2. The super heroes are strongly polarized between good and bad

  3. The focus of the story is never on the realism of the world or even characters. Rather the focus is made on abstract qualities of human nature and enforced depictions of the super heroes (or super villains) personas. But even there, due to what is said in point 1, the personas are very artificial and they could never really explain why don't they share the technology in terms of the "real" world of the lore.

Looking at this you can see that a super hero comics is basically the same form as some less elaborate fairy tales, and explanation for anything in a fairy tale can simply be "magic". The magic, or the "magical" technologies of the super heroes are extensions of their powers, their persona, and they are not the extensions of the world. The world can never have them because of the great divide as I described it above.

The world is merely a background for the central heroic conflict story, extremely highly contrasted to it, and this arrangement is pivotal.

Taking all this into account I can only conclude that it is not only impossible what you want to do, it would simply ruin any superhero-related feel to the story because your super heroes would have to be operating in an increasingly realistic world. And that would have to work in both directions. The world would take away all their super hero qualities because just as their qualities (technology) would bleed into the world, same the world qualities would bleed into them and make them not super heroes. You would end up with something like medium-hard sci-fi, probably.

So, my answer is that you can't, and my advise is don't. But I would be really thrilled to read your story or watch your movie if you would succeed in doing that! (not joking)

Other than that maybe you could rethink the question, since if you want the two worlds to come so much closer together, maybe what you're thinking of creating is not actually so much a super hero story?

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, downvoting without an explanation? Is there any example of logic that renders the answer as incorrect or irrelevant? $\endgroup$
    – noncom
    Nov 13, 2019 at 18:09

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