It is certainly true that, with few exceptions, "People don’t dress in funny costumes and run around on rooftops beating each other up — they don’t gain superpowers and devote themselves to the common good — they don’t form clubs and societies to combat evil scientists and giant purple starfish." But would they if they could? If people gained superpowers (our speculative extrapolation), would anybody dress up and fight on rooftops, devote themselves to the common good, or try to take over the world?

In "Gaudy Night", his essay analyzing comic books as moral fables, Jim Henley asks whether superheoes are so far removed from real experience as to be sheer fantasy:

It is certainly true that, with few exceptions, "People don’t dress in funny costumes and run around on rooftops beating each other up — they don’t gain superpowers and devote themselves to the common good — they don’t form clubs and societies to combat evil scientists and giant purple starfish." But would they if they could? If people gained superpowers (our speculative extrapolation), would anybody dress up and fight on rooftops, devote themselves to the common good, or try to take over the world?

Henley points to one woman who dressed up in a costume to fight evil, albeit the comparatively minor evil of people trying to take advantage of drunk women at bars. And there are others: Super Barrio, defending Mexico City’s poor from injustice, or Angle Grinder Man, striking a blow against police boots on London’s cars. But what of supervillains? The early twentieth century brought forth a malevolent man of steel. The late twentieth century brought forth a reclusive millionaire, dedicated to chaos and death, who worked through his mysterious network of criminals known as "the Base." Like everyone else, however, criminals follow Sturgeon’s Law. For every Kim Philby, cold of eye and steely of nerve, almost singlehandedly disabling America’s counterintelligence capabilities while moving among the highest corridors of power in London and Washington, there’s a greedy and disgruntled Aldrich Ames or a borderline head-case like Robert Hanssen that makes you wonder how they failed to get caught. For every clockwork-precise caper out of a Parker novel, there are five guys who manage to set themselves on fire. And for every Napoleon of crime, plotting a scheme years in the making and breathtaking in its scope, there are a hundred Nigerian spammers, sending out thousands of pieces of spam and desperately hoping to find a mark.

Criminal masterminds worthy of the name are few and far between. Adam Worth was the basis for Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and he bounced between high society and low society nicely, but he was only a few steps above being a mere sneakthief; his greatest theft netted him a painting ransomed (through the third party of Allan Pinkerton) for $25,000. Serious money for the beginning of the twentieth century, enough to buy him a new life in America, but not quite the stuff that dreams are made of. Gerald Bull was something of a genuine mad scientist, dedicated to new and visionary designs in ballistics and willing to work for mass murderers like Saddam Hussein to see his dream of a big, big gun realized. He even spent some time working in a complex of underground laboratories on the Canadian border before his contacts within the American and Canadian defense establishment fell through and he began his slow orbit of rogue states. But despite his work for Angola, Iraq, and apartheid-era South Africa, Bull mainly seems to have wanted to see his "supergun" built. A huge fixed cannon capable of launching satellites into orbit, the supergun might have enabled Iraq to become a space power almost overnight. He never attempted to blackmail the U.N. with global destruction, but the Israeli government was nonetheless concerned about his side research into multi-stage missiles. Bull was mysteriously murdered outside his apartment in 1990, presumably by someone with a license to kill. The murderer was never caught, British customs seized the components of Bull’s weapon, and Iraq’s missile program remained mired in relative futility. And despite being both a criminal and a chess grandmaster, Norman Tweed Whitaker was only a second-class criminal, a con man and disbarred lawyer whose greatest claim to fame was minor involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping. (His second greatest claim to fame was probably almost taking a match from José Capablanca, the world chess champion and one of the strongest players in the history of the game.) If Whitaker had been known for stroking a pure white cat during games, then disemboweling his defeated opponents with cunning deathtraps, he might have been on to something; beyond his criminal record and fondness for lying, however, his eccentricities were apparently limited to feuding with American chess federations and threatening to sue people who misspelled his name. For real cartoonish supervillainy, we must turn to brave amateurs like Marvin Heemeyer, who after four years of zoning disputes decided to armor-plate his bulldozer and level his hometown:

Among the structures destroyed or heavily damaged in a relentless 90-minute rampage were Granby’s town hall and library, a bank, the town’s newspaper, an electric cooperative building, Gambles Store, an excavating business and a house owned by the town’s former mayor, as well as a concrete plant adjacent to the business of the man believed responsible for the bizarre assault.

Police fired away during the frenzy of destruction, to no avail.

"He’s put armored plates all around it and it’s impenetrable," said business owner Terri Hertel, her voice trembling as gunfire rattled in the background. "Armor-piercing bullets won’t go through it. He’s destroying the town of Granby."

Someday — maybe a year from now, maybe a decade from now, but someday — there’s going to be a Martin Heemeyer who figures out how to go one step further and convert his bulldozer into a rampaging artificially intelligent deathbot, and then Smallville’s going to be in real trouble.