When it comes to people getting powers from lethal doses of radiation, or aliens being able to fly because they were born under a different sun, it's probably best not to think too hard about how those powers work. But risk, gentlemen, risk is our business. I just can't help myself. And anyway, figuring out how a power works helps superhero writers (and role-players, which are a kind of writer) come up with new an interesting ways to use their characters' abilities. Truly, the bread and butter of the superhero form (look at the Flash, who does a lot more than run around, for example).
Here's one that's got me thinking entirely too much: Talking to the animals. Aquaman, the Hawks, Ant-Man, Dr. Doolittle... How do their powers work exactly? On the surface, you'd think it's simple enough. The hero can either interpret the animal's language (vocal and gestual) or read its thoughts (cue Aquaman's concentric circles, mwoomwoomwoomwoom). If the hero can "tell" an animal to do something, then it's mind control. And the most realistic portrayal of the power usually plays like that.
That explanation does not, however, cover everything we've seen animal talkers do. It doesn't explain how Topo can play the banjo.It doesn't explain how an animal can understand human concepts, or talk about them by name, how it can be sent to collect information or how we can be privy to a humorous conversation between two ants. In short, it can't explain how an animal can be smart enough to talk with and like a person.
Theory: The hero makes them smarter
In proximity to the hero, our little fish or insect suddenly finds its intellect enhanced, enough so that it can carry on a conversation, even carry out complex tasks outside of its instinctual set of behaviors. Since these animals often exhibit "humanized" personality traits and facility with idiom, the hero may in fact be imparting a part of his own intellect to the creature, projecting that personality onto the animal's psyche.
Has anyone checked if Aquaman himself can play the banjo?
Now, I'll believe a dolphin has its own language, especially in a superhero universe, but many of these target animals have very limited brain capacity. Birds? Fish? Ants? Not exactly Nature's highest order. So how can our hero transmit this heightened IQ to the animal? The DC Universe has an interesting answer in the morphogenic field, AKA the "Red" (akin to Swamp Thing's "Green"), a field that surrounds the Earth and links all of its animal life. It's how Animal Man can mimic animal abilities, and it could be how Aquaman talks to fish. If the field exists, it could link our hero's mind to that of marine animals (an eco-field that could resonate distinctly) allowing for the transmission of intelligence. If a fish's expanded mind is greater than its brain tissue would allow, it exists within the field, around the talking animal. Why around the animal rather than the hero? Because that would make Aquaman's potential range as large as the world if we go by this scene in which fish relay a message to the Sea King:
(It goes on for the rest of page, making it clear Aquaman is leagues away, though it's possible it's all the same ocean.) Which still begs the question: How did those fish communicate in Aquaman's absence? (Similarly, Ant-Man's ants get up to trouble while he's out of the house.) With or without the existence of a morphogenic field, it's possible creatures retain their high IQ for a time. It might degrade with time, or might be more or less permanent due to prolonged exposure (like Topo). And since each planet has its own field, it explains why Aquaman isn't usually able to speak to alien marine animals. The Hawks, for their part, seem to have no trouble talking to Earth birds despite being from Thanagar. Are all Thanagarians plugged into the morphogenic field and able to speak and direct "avians"?
Certainly, different heroes (or versions of heroes) have variant levels of ability. Sometimes the animals speak, sometimes they merely respond to commands. Some animals speak as well as any human, others appear to have the obsessions and dim wit of their kin.
If we accept this model for animal communication, a writer (or role-player) looking to use the power in a new and interesting way has a pretty good tool box. Might he be able to "push" another character's "lizard brain" to enhance human intellect? Could he reverse the morphogenic flux so that he gained an animal's instincts and mental abilities (like a pigeon's sense of direction)? How about a hero with multiple personalities all incarnated into animal companions? If a hero can enhance one ability through the field, can he perhaps enhance another? Aquaman making eels go stiff and turn into a pretty solid net mesh seems a pertinent example.
Give a power a limit (like "it basically reads animal body language") and you limit the character. Give the power an explanation, and you open doors for stretching into new and unusual ways. Agree/disagree?