"The Avatar State is a defence mechanism, designed to empower you with all the skills and knowledge of all the past Avatars."A character has a superpower that only works when they're threatened - they can't initiate it at will, and occasionally they can't stop it either. This kind of situation is a common cue for heretofore unknown powers to develop or for existing ones to undergo a dramatic boost in power, either temporarily or for keeps. A storyline in which the character tries to learn to use their power voluntarily is a likely result. If they are held back by a mental block of some kind, harnessing their abilities might be a matter of attaining Enlightenment Superpowers. Can be used in a similar way to Always a Bigger Fish, with a cowering hero looking up to discover their aggressor has mysteriously been blasted into dust, and muttering innocently "Did I do that?". Compare Desperation Attack, a similar trope in video games. Compare Die or Fly, in which a power is initially discovered in this way, but can be used freely thereafter. If the superpowers attained are related to the specific nature of the danger, it's an Adaptive Ability. May overlap with Heroic Safe Mode which is more about how existing powers are used than new powers. See also, Emotional Powers.
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Anime and Manga
- In A Certain Magical Index, Accelerator's Psychic Powers, named "Vector Change", make him basically untouchable: any kind of harmful object (fist, bullet, radiation, extreme heat, etc) that touches his body gets its vectors reversed and reflected away from him without doing him any harm. This is just its basic "setting" however. If he makes active use of his Vector Change, he can do many other things with it. Using Vector Change to the maximum extent possible can only be done by willingly shutting off this auto-defense, however; this fact was exploited by one villain to land a successful shot on Accelerator that left him with crippling brain damage (he recovered... sort of).
- Digimon Adventure: Digivolution is usually triggered when the Digimon's partners are in danger. In the episode "The Arrival of Skull Greymon," Tai exploited this by deliberately putting himself in harm's way to force Greymon to digivolve to the Ultimate level. It doesn't work out the way he hoped.
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion, if Shinji is in a particularly grave psychological threat, Eva-01 goes into "berserker mode" where it breaks off from its technological restraint and becomes a Super Robot which is actually an Eldritch Abomination that dismembers said threat in a quite savage manner. The basis of the Omniscient Council of Vagueness' conspiracy is about ritualistically using this defence mechanism's Reality Warper capabilities to trigger The End OF The World As We Know It In Their Own Image. Said defence mechanism is powered by the soul of Shinji's mother. Fitting, with how this series is based on Freud's theories about defence mechanisms and maternal relationships.
- Son Gohan from Dragon Ball starts out as a pampered child who can only access his hidden powers when properly threatened or angered.
- The famed Super Saiyan transformation in Dragon Ball Z requires the user to lose all mental and emotional restraint, to get an incredible boost of power.
- In the finale of Dragon Ball Super, Goku muses that this is how Ultra Instinct - Mastered seems to work. Unlike his various Super Saiyan forms, Goku can't activate the form at will. It's only when he's in a truly life or death situation, such as having his universe erased if he didn't win the tournament, is he able to tap into the form's power.
- InuYasha. When InuYasha feels death staring him in the face, his superhuman ancestry goes into a Super-Powered Evil Side, which would eventually consume his soul. His sword has a binding spell on it to prevent this.
- Happened to Kagome in the first episode, while Mistress Centipede is hauling her through the Bone Eater's Well.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure has a stand called "Achtung Baby" (yes, the entire series is music references). It activates its power of invisibility when scared. Of course, in a series where Heart Is an Awesome Power, this is incredibly useful.
- Since stands primarily protect their user from harm, it seems that it's not uncommon for stand users to learn of their power in this way. For example, in the first episode of the Stardust Crusaders series, Jotaro demonstrates by attempting to shoot himself in the head at point blank range; before he even learns how to control it properly, his stand, Star Platinum, responds autonomously by catching the bullet mid-flight.
- Naruto's Gaara qualifies as he is protected by the sand controlled by his inner demon, Shukaku. The ninja war arc reveals he is protected by his mother, not Shukaku.
- In One Piece, The Invincible Pearl could manifest flames when he felt threatened, i.e. whenever anyone managed to put a scratch on him through his supposedly invincible defense. While screaming "DANGER!! DANGER!!"
- Ranma ½, titular character has the Neko-Ken technique. His mind "learned" it as a way to briefly escape his crippling ailurophobia when he's absolutely surrounded by cats and is unable to flee from them, turning him into a cat. It happens more often than you might think. While it makes him immensely powerful, lightning-fast, and savage, he still thinks like a cat while in that state, making it an Useless Useful Spell that anyone with half a mind can thwart and defeat.
- Pacifica from Scrapped Princess is only seemingly able to use her scream attack when under extreme stress.
- Emergy Maxfell of Scryed can only conjure his alter when he feels threatened, and it gets more powerful the more hopeless the situation gets.
- In Soul Eater, Death the Kid has one of these, shown when he is in serious danger of being killed by Mosquito. The activation is involuntary, and appears to allow for a significant boost in power and healing serious injury. It was presumably a function Shinigami allowed for so that Kid would be able to defend himself if put in mortal danger while still a child. The fact that Mosquito knew what Kid really was - and mocks him for it - suggests he should have known better.
- Kayneth Archibald El-Melloi of Fate/Zero has this in the form of the Volumen Hydragyrum, an enormous bolus of mercury that (a) he manipulates at will and (b) automatically defends him against threats.
- Hana Asakura from Shaman King: Flowers posseses one of this. After a close encounter with death, Hana was given by Hao the same Oni summon ability his mother Anna used to have; they will be released whenever Hana's life is in danger.
- In Brave10, the villains don't seem to pick up very quickly that kidnapping Isanami and putting her friends in danger is a one-way street to getting unconsciously vaporized by her.
- In Fate/kaleid liner PRISMA☆ILLYA, Illya first awakens to her higher powers as a Grail Vessel in this manner. Facing down Saber Alter without the Magic Wand that usually gives her magic powers, suppressed memories unlock and she begins to activate her own native magic powers, which, when combined with the Archer card she had on her, prove enough to take down the rogue Servant.
- One of the Kudzu Plot elements of Countdown to Final Crisis was Jimmy Olsen suddenly getting all of his Silver Age powers at the same time thanks to getting the New Gods' souls jammed into him. One of them would activate when he was seriously threatened.
- Empowered's existing powers get much more effective when Ninjette is busy disproving the Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu, as well as in a couple of other situations of extreme danger. Possibly justified in that her powers work best when she isn't second-guessing herself or afflicted with low self-esteem: a situation so dangerous or scary that it can be her only focus is therefore a powerup.
- Darwin of X-Men/X-Factor sounds like the most literal example. His superpower is nothing but defense mechanisms, of any imaginable variety, for any and all situations, cranked up to the point of invincibility. It's just too bad he doesn't really have anything for offense. So while he can survive almost anything, he rarely has the ability to actually win a fight. On one notable occasion, his powers decided the best way for him to survive fighting the Hulk was to teleport him - to the next state over.
- However, in at least one what-if dealing with Vulcan, who was prepared to murder everyone in the X-Men to cover up how he'd killed all the X-Men trapped on Krakatoa in a Superboy-Prime kind of "No, I didn't mean to!" situation, Xavier guided Darwin into taking a more proactive, controlled use of his power as he fed it information on what was happening, resulting in Darwin's power forming the ability to destroy the part of Vulcan's brain that accessed his powers, rendering him permanently powerless.
- Before that, there was Lifeguard, a short-term member of the team whose powers were "whatever's necessary to get people out of harm's way." Under fire? Armored skin. Someone's falling from a building? Sprout wings. And so on. Like Darwin, this doesn't always translate into "beat the bad guy threatening everyone." Worse, if she's in danger, she's on her own.
- It could be said that the Hulk could qualify as having such a power, assuming that whatever's threatening Bruce Banner manages to anger him enough.
- Some stories have established that, had Bruce Banner been mortally wounded it would trigger the transformation regardless of whether he's angered or not.
- Any member of the Green Lantern Corp will be defended or kept alive by their ring when unconscious, regardless of the 24-hour limitations. This is usually with just a thin shield, but can be tapped to use real powers if conscious but trapped. Some Green Lanterns are even able to make their rings run solely on willpower from within. All other ringslingers share this power, and Sinestro corpsmen need to do this as a right of passage.
- Ringo in With Strings Attached. He automatically teleports to a safe location when he is badly startled. This can be inconvenient when he ends up somewhere hundreds of miles away from the others.
- In Child of the Storm, Harry's protection from his mother, which takes the form of a connection to the Phoenix, combined with Death-Activated Superpower - whenever he's in mortal danger, dying or dead, the Phoenix protects him, usually fairly subtly (relatively speaking). First by protecting him from Voldemort's killing curse as a baby, then by incinerating Quirrell, the by ensuring that Fawkes came to his aid in the Chamber of Secrets and then by giving his Psychic Powers the nudge they needed to activate and send a distress call, triggering the events of the story, and in chapter 58, scaring off Hera. And then, in chapter 71, subtlety is dispensed with by resurrecting him, possessing him, and going on a rampage that kills at least a couple of dozen HYDRA Agents and several hundred Dementors.
Films — Animated
- In The Incredibles, Violet Parr gets a boost to her force field powers (effectively permanent until she dissolves them, probably six feet in diameter) when she and her brother, Dash, are threatened by the villian's mooks. Inverted earlier in the movie: when requested by her mother to put a force field around a plane to stop them being blown out of the sky with ground-to-air missiles, she panics and is completely unable to concentrate and make one that's a) large enough to cover the plane or b) exists for more than a second.
- The title character in The Iron Giant is a massive alien war machine that, due to damage caused during the initial landing on earth, is completely unaware of its true purpose. Unfortunately, the Giant's weapons and more destructive mindset can be triggered against its will if it perceives a threat.
Films — Live-Action
- The Hulk in The Avengers takes this a step further, emerging not only when Banner is angry enough, but whenever his life is significantly threatened. As Banner learned the hard way, this includes self-inflicted injury.
- Dark City: Prior to getting an Exposition Beam explaining his powers, John Murdoch could only use them when his survival instincts kicked in.
- Minya from the Godzilla films can shoot a stream of thermonuclear breath, but only when his tail is stepped on.
- Teeth is a lovely film about a teen girl with Vagina Dentata. These teeth only chomp down when there's something up in there and she doesn't want it up in there... which happens quite frequently throughout the movie.
- It doesn't help that in the film's universe, All Men Are Perverts.
- Similar to the comic, Darwin's power in X-Men: First Class is this trope with some overlap in Adaptive Ability, borrowing inspiration from nature. Submerged in water? Grow gills. Getting bludgeoned? Grow chitinous skin plates.
- The Legendary Moonlight Sculptor: As a reward for completing an epic quest arc, the main character Weed unlocks a new class for players, the Necromancer, and is rewarded a high-level, as of yet unknown power from the class called The Power to Reject Death, allowing him, when he dies, to resurrect as a random Undead class of monster with new stats and powers until he either dies again, or until 24 hours have passed and he returns to being human. In addition, some of his revivals grant him full on control of necromancy skills, while his class type is normally locked out of any variety of sorcery.
- In Harry Potter, this is how young wizards first manifest their powers prior to learning to control them. In Harry's case for example, his first memory of using magic is apparating away from some pursuing bullies. Other manifestations include shrinking the incredibly ugly sweater he was forced to wear until it no longer fit him and growing all his hair back overnight when the Dursleys had shaved him bald.
Hagrid: Did you ever make anything happen? Anything you couldn't explain, when you were angry, or scared?
- Lots of wizard children are lucky enough to manifest by levitating a favorite toy that no one will pick up for them, or something—it's just unluckies like Harry and The Amazing Bouncing Neville who have good stories.
- The main character in Richard Sabia's short story I Was A Teen-Age Secret Weapon has a psychic power that causes anyone who displays hostility towards him to lose coordination and become accident-prone. He never really becomes aware that he has this power, and only the military scientists who have been studying him seem to know about it.
- In the Mistborn trilogy, Vin decides that she has this. When losing a fight, she is saved by doing something with her existing magic that nobody knew was even theoretically possible - specifically, she drew on the titular mists for a much-needed power boost. She later counts on this trope coming into play to save her. In the end, that doesn't work, because the ability isn't actually an example of this trope like she thought it was. Rather, something else had been blocking her most of the time.
- Bink, from the Xanth novels, had one of these; people incorrectly believed him to have no magical talent at all because no one had ever seen it activate. Turns out he cannot be harmed by magic, making it one of the most powerful talents ever—to the point where the talent, itself, will literally enact Gambit Roulettes in order to keep magic from harming him. The talent works in indirect ways in an effort to hide its own existence; after all, if somebody knew Bink's talent, they might find some non-magical rock to bash in his head with. Eventually the Evil Magician Trent figured it out because his powerful magic caused Bink's talents to generate increasingly implausible scenarios to protect him. Good thing it turned out Trent wasn't actually evil.
- In The Children Of Man, the blue magic of the Nikelan Oracles will generally protect them from harm. In one memorable case, an Oracle fell off a cliff, and her blue generated a force-field around her, causing her to bounce down the cliff unharmed.
- From time to time Tash Arranda of Galaxy of Fear forms a kind of bubble around herself while under attack, which can even push back attackers that are close enough. It doesn't always even appear, though.
Live Action TV
- Angel had an episode with a girl whose telekinetic powers were this way. They started as a result of sexual abuse by her father and kicked in when she got threatened.
- Piper from Charmed, who had the power to freeze time, activated by being startled or scared through most of the first season.
- Likewise for Phoebe's levitation, which activated during a fight with a demon, and Paige could only orb for a long time when startled or in immediate danger. Phoebe also mostly received premonitions to inform her that some innocent's life was in danger.
- "The Morgan", as demonstrated by Chuck, can cause heart attacks and slippage near very high and broken windows.
- Now we have Intersect 2, which is essentially a bucket full of one Defence Mechanism Superpower after another.
- 2.0 actually both subverts it and plays it straight. Chuck can only use it when he's not overly emotional, which means he can use it when he's not in danger. The moment things get stressful he can't use it, until he really needs to, at which point he emotionally either enters the eye of the storm (if somebody else is in danger) or has to use a calming mantra (if he's in danger).
- Possibly a bit different, but in Doctor Who, the Weeping Angels turn to stone when they are being looked at.
Tenth Doctor: They have survived this long because they have the most perfect defence system ever evolved.
- When they reappear in "The Time of Angels", it is clarified that they aren't just stone—you cannot, for example, break them with a hammer—but somehow out of phase with the universe in such a way that they cannot be damaged at all in stone mode. The word quantum may be involved.
- The Doctor himself has this, like all Time Lords, in the form of Regeneration.
- Maya on Heroes, who becomes a Poisonous Person when she gets scared, and could originally only counteract it in the presence of her twin brother.
- Also from Heroes, Elle surges with thus-far-unseen levels of electricity as a response to Sylar trying to slice her head open.
- The boy from the pilot episode of Sanctuary.
- The Procardians in Time Trax have a defense mechanism activated involuntarily under threat or extreme stress. They turn sideways (while still looking at the target/threat) and raise their fists with the farther fist being higher. They emit an energy blast that knocks the target into a coma.
- In The Sentinel, Jim Ellison's Super Senses awaken due to the stress of being isolated in the remote jungles of Peru. When he returns home, he forgets about it due to PTSD, but when he becomes solitary again as a cop on a stakeout, they reawaken. Power Incontinence and How Do I Shot Web? are major components of the show.
- GURPS has the limitation "Emergencies Only" to simulate this.
- This is a major shtick of white cards in Magic: The Gathering. In particular, Righteousness and Smite come to mind.
- From the Mutantsand Masterminds splat book Hero High we get the Holding Back drawback. If enough of your team is disabled or if an appreciable number of innocent lives are at stake (including your own) you switch into an overdrive mode that makes you several levels stronger than you normally are.
- In the Old World of Darkness, this was how a werewolf would first manifest his powers—shifting to Crinos form when threatened and leaving his would-be-tormentors as pink mist. At least one edition of the core book had a foreword that was written as an experienced werewolf talking down one who had changed for the first time, explaining to him that what just happened was okay and (relatively) normal.
- This carries over into Werewolf: The Forsaken, where it's noted that a significant chunk of Rahu (the warrior Auspice) undergo their First Change after some asshole tries to start something with lethal intent, usually resulting in said asshole ending up in pieces.
- In Golden Sun, adepts have forms of Psyenergy which unconsciously protect them when they need it. This is first demonstrated in a cutscene in the first game when they first enter Kolima or Kolima forest. They discover that some crystals are raining from the sky and turned the villagers into trees. They're knocked unconscious but are protected by a shield (which reappears in several other parts of the game to help avert Convection Schmonvection and the like). They vow to make an attempt to master this unconscious power, but never actually learn to willingly trigger it.
- Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story gives this to Bowser. Whenever he gets himself crushed by something massive, his "Rump Command" becomes active and requires the brothers to pump him full of energy. The end result is that Bowser grows to Godzilla-size, ready to Megaton Punch whatever just smashed him.
- In Diablo III, Leah's power acts like this in the first two acts, only unleashing when she is in serious danger. When she finds her mother Adria again, she starts learning to control it, becoming an able mage.
- In Valkyria Chronicles, the powers of the Valkyria are activated only in life threatening situations. The main Valkyria encountered through the game (as an enemy), Selvaria, was revealed to have stabbed herself to activate her powers. Later on, when a major character on the player's side is revealed to have been a Valkyria as well, this translates in gameplay into massively improved stats that only activate when the character's health drops below 50%.
- In The Longest Journey, April Ryan doesn't have conscious control over her Shifting (i.e. dimension-hopping) powers for most of the game, and muses bitterly in her diary on how she only seems to be able to open Shifts when running for her life. Subverted later on when she learns to trigger her powers with her painting skills. Inverted in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, where it turns out that losing her powers after TLJ was actually a defense mechanism that "protected" April from going back to Stark and confronting the mess she made of her and her friends' lives by going on her first adventure.
- Tower of God: At first, 25th Baam's powers are completely passive, resulting in magic resistance. And occasionally, for example when he and Michelle Light get curb-stomped by Hwa Ryun, they are a last defense and use Shinsoo to cut up faces. And eyeballs
- In Minion, the only time we've ever seen Gin in werewolf form was after a skeleton warrior KO'd him with a morningstar.
- El Goonish Shive: Nanase's angel spell functions as this along with some other restrictions.
- Rhoda's size changing spell was first triggered like this.
- It's hard to say for sure, but it seems like the Monster in the Darkness, from The Order of the Stick, might have some of these - at least whatever it was that happened in #661. In this case, it's not the MitD itself that is threatened - who knows what could do that - but those it has come to care about.
- Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers. Super Soldier Shane Gooseman of the Galaxy Rangers has the reflexive ability to adapt into a form that can withstand whatever hazardous environment or assault he's being exposed to.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Avatar State starts out as this, presumably for every avatar. With effort and meditation, though, he or she can go in and out of it at will.
- It should be noted that until they reach the level where they can control entering/exiting the Avatar State, the Avatar has very little direct control over their actions in the Avatar state at all. Aang unintentionally dished out some epic destruction on Earth Kingdom soldiers when a general provoked him into the transformation in an attempt to help/force him to master the state before he was ready. He also almost certainly killed more Fire Nation soldiers than he would ever be comfortable acknowledging, back when he fused with the Ocean Spirit.
- The entire reason Aang survived becoming a Human Popsicle for a hundred years is because he instinctively used the Avatar State and a combination of air and water bending. Spending the entire century trapped in the Avatar State kept him alive, but it also burnt up the extra vitality that being the Avatar normally grants, leading to a relatively early death in his sixties (technically 160's).
- In the Sequel Series The Legend of Korra, some villains try to exploit this: If the Avatar were to die in the Avatar State, the Avatar Cycle would be broken. So they capture and poison her.
- The Blowfish Avenger in The Tick.
- In Gargoyles, Fox is the daughter of Halcyon Renard and Titania. Despite that, for the whole series she shows no signs of being anything other than a normal human. That is, until Oberon tries to kidnap her newborn son, to which she screams and sends him through the wall with a blast of raw, magical force.
- Steven from Steven Universe is full of these: he inherited a lot of powers from his mother and has mastered none of them. He's not aided the the fact that they're even more unreliable than most. His shield has often totally failed to activate in dangerous situations and one time he found himself unable to deactivate it, trapping him and Connie inside for hours.
- The "fight-or-flight" emergency response state makes defence-mechanism "super strength" an occasional Truth in Television. When faced with life or death, the human body goes into survival at any cost mode. This includes producing adrenaline which boost muscle strength, shutting down strength restrictions that prevent muscles from tearing themselves apart and releasing endorphins to prevent the sensation of pain. Net result: you can lift a helicopter for several seconds. There is a reason why we can't activate the fight-or-fight reaction voluntarily and can only remain as a Defence Mechanism: The stress response halts or slows down various relaxed processes such as sexual responses and digestive systems to focus all energy on the stressor situation, which means that prolonged stress responses may actually result in long-term bodily damage, like digestive disorders and the suppression of the immune system. If you constantly have your muscles in maximum power due to adrenaline overload, your muscles will eventually tear themselves from the bone, rip themselves apart, or even start to liquefy. Of course, the severity of the damage depends on the intensity of the stressor, how far beyond the limits one goes, and for how long.