Super Hero Theory

Sep 1, 2007
Belgrade, Serbia
Jon Armstrong, the amazing card magician, has something that he calls a "Super Hero Theory". It's a formula for making a character for yourself (in magic).

In a nut shell, he says that every super hero (the actual comic ones) has a strength which is his super power, and a weakness. For example Spiderman can climb buildings and shoot spider web, but cannot shoot lasers from his eyes. Or Flash can run really fast, but is not very strong, etc. Even the Superman has Kryptonite.

So he relates this to magic. Basically, as a magician, your character should have SOME abilities, not ALL, and some weaknesses. Even the Superman, who probably has most of the super powers, couldn't freeze people or teleport.

Here is what Jon said about his magic character, and what he does and why:
"When I decided that I was going to do card magic exclusively about 10 years
ago, I felt that there should be rules about what I could do that I would rigidly
adhere to. I decided that my character would have no real super human powers.
Instead, he would just know more about cards than anyone really should. Not
that it would be all skill, but that he would have a higher awareness as well as
skill with playing cards because of being around them all the time. I thought of
this as kind of being like Batman, who doesn’t have any real powers, just an
incredible level of all human skills. The way I saw it, I could find a card and make it rise to the top, but I could not make it turn blue or rip it up and put it back
together again. There had to be limits to my gifts, even with cards. By doing
this, I knew that I gave my audience not just a show, but also a character that
they could relate to and care about. There was depth to his personality because
he couldn’t do everything, but what he could do was more amazing because of
this. .​

So when I started doing magic, and well into my magic career, I didn't really have this kind of thinking. I had a character, but I had all the superpowers, which when you think about it, makes little to no sense. I could change the color of the card, and also predict stuff, and make coins jump, and sponge bunnies multiply etc. So I guess I was coming off as "very skilled" guy who learned magic. Which is about every other magician. There was no ME in what I was doing, only with my presentation and personality. But that is only half a character.

I ventured into mentalism after that (while still doing magic, because old habits die hard), and I find it a bit more easier to have a super power in mentalism, as it is not about tricks, but about methods and systems.

So in mentalism, I can read people, influence them, read their body language, take educated guesses. But I cannot bend metal with my mind, I am not psychic, I cannot predict something but I can influence the outcome. Once you start doing this, your character will get new dimension and it will be easier to create "patter" for your effects, and it will be easier to choose effects that will suite your character and super power.
Even though my character is based around psychology and influence, I will still do one little effect, or one little bit within an effect that is totally unexplainable, even with psychology or influence, and leave them with that. So that they will still try to figure out was it real mind reading or was it influence.

So what are your super powers?
Oct 5, 2012
Really glad that you brought this up! I think this is a great article and a real challenge to answer. I am primarily a card guy, but I still go back and forth between having elegant control over the cards (Paul LePaul style) or being unbelievably sloppy/lucky (Lennart Green Style). Similarly, I am developing my capacity and repertoire with coins and also mentalism. I want to perform these things because I enjoy them...but they seem to run into a problem with the superhero theory. For my character, my focus is on having all sorts of obscure/esoteric knowledge, and using that knowledge to accomplish my effects. But that doesn't always apply to cards...thus, dilemma.

Then again, how does the superhero theory apply to most magicians? Juan Tamariz? Tommy Wonder? David Williamson? I think that Darwin Ortiz has a pretty clear answer (ultra-cardshark), but many of his effects break out of that model as well. Has anyone tried to apply superhero theory to some famous performers (Aside from Armstrong)?
Nov 8, 2007
Good article, Toby. About seven years ago I saw Garrett Thomas give a lecture in which he talked quite a bit about this.

think in addition to your character, it also depends on what you're trying to convey with what you're doing. If you don't claim to have any powers at all, limiting yourself in "powers" doesn't make sense. The same as in the "pick your super powers" philosophy though, if you go down this route you still have to be a lot more choosey with the effects you perform. There can't be any explicit claims to what you're doing in the context of an effect. You can't say you're making things invisible or psychically predicting an event, or making something vanish into thin air. You have to keep everything a lot more grounded and take yourself out of the spotlight.

In a way this approach takes you even further down the rabbit hole presented by John Armstrong, because you're not claiming to have any powers. Rather, you just share some interesting mysteries with people that make no claim that you--the magician--have any magic powers at all.

I personally like this approach when it comes to the performance of magic as it does away with the pandering concept of magic itself that many adults are turned off to, and keeps the focus on the experience of the astonishment. Paul Harris talks about how if you're a magician you are the method. While in a paid performance it will never be possible to completely get away from this predicament, I think in presentation the more distance you can create between yourself (the magician) and the mystery you're presenting, the more people will be open to experiencing astonishment rather than focusing on how you were able to fool them or trying to debunk your claims to special abilities.
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