The answer to the titular question is yes and no. However, in order to properly explain how I have come to this conclusion we first have to define the type of shape-shifter. There are the magical types who use spells to either create the illusion of changing forms or actually change appearance. A perfect example of this type is the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Loki. Next we have those who are literal gods. Again a perfect example of this is Loki, though this time from the Norse Pantheon. Next we have the limited shape-shifters such as DC’s Metamorpho, and Doctor Who’s Saibra. Finally there are the pseudoscience versions which include those like Plastic Man, Mystique, and Martian Manhunter.
Now of these types I feel only those that are like the three pseudo-science examples I gave are able to become god-like. The reasoning for not counting the literal gods is that they are already gods. While characters like Metamorpho and Saibra are respectively limited to element and touch based shapeshifting. Thus they cannot become things that are outside those restrictions. Finally spell-based characters like the MCU Loki are limited by the rules of the spells. In other words, they can be stopped from transforming or become trapped in a different form easily.
By this point I expect that some are conceiving detractions or thinking that there are holes in this theory. One being how I could lump in the natural shape-shifting ability of Martian Manhunter into the pseudoscience typing. That answer is easy due to the inconsistent nature of his powers and the fact that he is a fictional race of being. (Though I will not argue others on whether Martians ever did, will, or even do exist due to the lack of evidence either way.) Plus, there is the simple factor that his powers being natural makes them fall into the realm of science.
Another point readers such as yourself may raise is how I haven’t defined what I mean by god-like. In this case I would define it as someone who can exhibit long-life, has some form of heightened stamina, and the ability to be perceived as anything. Which reiterates my point that Plastic Man, Mystique, and Martian Manhunter are prime examples because each has exhibited these abilities. Plastic Man especially showcased these abilities during Joe Kelly’s run on JLA. While his son was shown to have a higher degree of control over things like color and density in one issue of said run.
Speaking of Joe Kelly’s run on JLA brings up the fact that Kelly made the Martian Manhunter unleash the character of Fernus. For those who have not read this run Fernus was a god-like ‘”true” Martian who did not suffer from J’onn’s weakness to fire. This also showcases the science aspect I mentioned earlier due to how Kelly presented the weaknesss to fire as a genetic block. While Plastic Man was shown to be the most god-like character due to how he, unlike J’onn, can adapt his shaping-shifting on a whim.
But “what about Mystique?” you might say. Well she has been shown to have some level of longevity based on several factors, but most obviously in the 1921 flashback from Wolverine #62 circa 2008. Also she has been able to change into other forms such as a Wendigo and the original version of the X-Men’s Angel. While she is a prime example of a shape-shifter having the potential to become a god-like being I feel that she is still limited by her imagination. (Also the conservation of matter seems to be more in play in the Marvel multiverse versus the DC multiverse.)
This brings us to how imagination factors into my belief that shape-shifters are helped and hindered. For example in JLA #88 (2003) Batman talks about how Martian Manhunter/Fernus has a method to his shape-shifting while Plastic Man just makes it up at random. Which is to say that some deities may play dice and some don’t. Or as it is relevant to this analysis the two at the time are being referred to as god-like beings with one being ordered chaos and the other being chaotic order.
For those wanting to point out that conservation of matter needs to play a role let me remind you: “Fictional stories have rules that establish the level of characters’ power.” Meaning for good or bad that the storytellers dictate the rules, and thus can decree whether our laws of science matter. In the case of characters from media products like Doctor Who the laws of science are more often than not bent but not broken. Which is why most shape-shifters like Mystique would need to amplify their power to reach the level of Fernus and/or Plastic Man. The less grounded in our rules characters are forced to live by the more powerful they become.
This brings us back to whether shape-shifters can change into god-like beings and again I have to tell you the reader “yes and no.” The simple fact is that yes Joe Kelly wrote Plastic Man and an evil version of Martian Manhunter as having the capability to be so. However, both had undergone experiences that Joe Kelly wrote in in order to heighten their abilities. Thus the answer is mostly no due to power boosts and the breaking of the rules of physics needing to be achieved. Yet there is a case of Martian Manhunter becoming god-like through longevity in the event comic DC One Million. In becoming a consciousness for a future version of Mars means he is literally and figuratively a celestial being. At least if he is given enough time and again proper circumstances.
In conclusion we may never see a shape-shifter become god-like in fiction without circumstances dictating a power boost or broken rule of science.
1. Thor: The Dark World. Dir. Alan Taylor. Perf. Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, and Anthony Hopkins. Marvel Studios, 2013. Film
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