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Super Hero Speciation
"Plastic Man's already down there. We don't need two stretchy guys."
In a Five-Man Band
, Power Trio
or other ensemble, the characters have to complement each other. One side effect of this is that, in any group of superheroes, no two of them will have the same power.
When done well, this can be at best unobtrusive. But if the heroes got their powers from a common origin, or if their powers are granted by technology, it may seem very strange or even like a really dumb design decision. After all, The Power of Friendship
is nice and all, but it'd be a real shame if the world was destroyed by a fire demon because the hero with the power of Water was out sick that day
An unfortunate side effect is that if the ensemble is big enough, one of the heroes is going to get shafted, because What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?
Another unfortunate side effect is that if you have to replace someone with a Suspiciously Similar Substitute
, unlikely as it may seem, he may have to have the exact same powers as the character he replaces.
This might go no farther than each hero having a unique "special attack" or melee weapon. We aren't meant to worry about the fact that this is a kind of inefficient way to arm your heroes, or about the guy whose weapon sucks. Not many writers can come up with a set of five melee weapons which are all really different from each other, and which are all useful against an equal range of adversaries, after all.
Often results in a Plot Tailored to the Party
or a Thematic Rogues Gallery
so that everyone has something to do.
There are a few caveats:
- There can be a few common powers everyone has, in addition to their character-specific powers. Most of the Super Friends can fly, for example, and while a team will probably only have one Flying Brick, many Nigh Invulnerable characters at once can be useful.
- You are allowed to have "paired" heroes within the group with the same powers. They can be thought of as a single person for the purposes of speciation (e.g., the Wonder Twins).
- In some teams, the whole point is that every member has exactly the same power (e.g., the Green Lantern Corps in The DCU). Power speciation obviously doesn't apply in such cases; the focus is instead on personality differences. (Although this can still result in power speciation of kind, as different personality types apply the same powers differently.)
A big part of the reason that Superman did not work well
in an ensemble for most of his history.
(However, the comic book title Trinity
has managed to turn Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman into a combination Power Trio
and íThree Amigos!
A Sixth Ranger
is generally exempt.
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Anime & Manga
- Tokyo Mew Mew gave each girl both an elemental-themed attack and a special power attached to an emotion that could be used in civilian form (Ichigo could turn into a catgirl, Bu-ling could create giant boulders...), as well as the common power of speaking to their animal.
- In Corrector Yui, there are eight Corrector Programs, but only four basic Elemental Suits (not counting the specialized ones, which aren't tied to a specific program character but to the human characters). However, even though the ratio means two programs to a suit, depending which program Yui gets the suit from, she'll be able to do different things. In Asamiya Kia's remake of the manga, there are eight basic Elemental Suits.
- Naruto may be a special case. Each character has a rather unique special ability, (except Rock Lee) but all are trained in advanced level martial arts, and many of the lead cast (particularly Naruto and Sasuke) focus more on their martial arts powers than their special ability, so there's not much of a "only character X has the power to succeed here" issues. Also, most powers are passed down through families to make sure that the art isn't lost. In case that's not enough, it's a pretty safe bet that Kakashi (Copycat Ninja) or the Hokage knows the technique as well. Some of them are even inherited as a specific bloodline trait.
To put it a bit more simply: it's not a case of "everyone only has one power," but "except for a few inherited traits, there's nothing stopping anyone from learning everything but time, effort, and knowing how." Clans/schools/teams that seem to have a "specialty" is usually due to traditions teaching a particular style.
- A very odd aversion can be seen with the Six Paths of Pain: it gives the user control of six different bodies with their own special powers, but two of those bodies' powers are for interrogation and soul removal, but they work differently (one removes your soul to read your mind, the other removes the souls of people who give false or no information).
- One Piece has many kinds of power giving Devil Fruits, but there can never be two of the same fruit or people with the same power at the same time (a fruit's current user dying it what lets their fruit come back for someone else to use).
- Though Marine Scientist, Dr. Vegapunk found a way to copy the light based devil-fruit powers of one of the admirals, and give them to the goverment's Mecha-Mooks.
- The Marvel Family (The Shazam Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr.) in The DCU are an example of a team whose members have the exact same set of powers. They sometimes join other teams individually, however, usually fitting into this trope when they do. The problem with teaming them up with, say, Superman and not feeling redundant is addressed by emphasizing the magical, god-based nature of their powers. For instance, Superman is vulnerable to magic based attacks and is impressed how Captain Marvel is far more resistant.
- Back in the Silver Age, the Martian Manhunter's powers were very similar to Superman's, except that he had a much easier Kryptonite Factor (fire). Post-Crisis, they made him stand out more by stressing his once-rarely-seen shape-shifting and psychic abilities.
- Established as an official rule of the original Legion of Super-Heroes, which required all members to have an intrinsic and unique superpower. The speciation is not always enforced by the team - see particularly the cases of Lightning Lad and his twin sister Lightning Lass - but duplications do tend to result in the duplicate's powers getting either removed or changed to something else, as when Lightning Lass's electrical powers were changed to mass-reduction powers, turning her into Light Lass.
- They did try to work within the trope, though. Lightning Lass was added to the team when her brother was believed to be dead. (Since this was the mid-1960's, the modern cynical attitude of "wait a few months and he'll be back" hadn't caught on yet. Lightning Lad's resurrection may indeed be the FIRST character brought back from the grave.) It wasn't until his return that the issue of duplication came up, with the power switch mentioned above.
- Although the Legion's setting, in which many of the characters come from planets where the whole population shares their superpower, allows for the replacement of one character by another with the same powers in a way that most superteam books don't, such replacement characters seem to fare very badly in the Legion. See particularly the cases of Magno, who caught flak from both the characters of the comic and from its readers for having the same powers as Legion founder Cosmic Boy, and Dream Boy, the unwelcome replacement for Dream Girl.
- Everyone in the Legion gets a "flight ring" which allows them to fly, in addition to their unique powers. This comes in handy for obvious reasons.
- Strangely, the Legion broke its own rule several times for characters having the SAME powers as Superman, with no apparent explanation. Such members included: Superboy, Supergirl, Mon-El (who at least lacked Superman's weakness to Kryptonite- but then so do most people), Ultra Boy (who could use only one of his powers at a time- a limitation rather than a power) and Andromeda (same powers as Mon-El.)
- They did try to explain that, apparently- for example, Ultra Boy's "penetra-vision" could see through lead.
- In some incarnations, Superboy and/or Superman is the inspiration for the team. Hence the exception for him.
- X-Men originally suffered whenever Angel/Archangel was a member, because since his only power was flight, there couldn't be anyone in the team that could fly as well. It quickly went by the wayside as too limiting; Marvel Girl discovered she could levitate, and several of the "All-New All-Different" team could also fly: Polaris, Banshee, Sunfire, and Storm.
- Subverted in Wildguard were two of its five members have fire powers, but no one can fly — or, for that matter, has especially super strength. Cordelia Hardman even lampshades it. Of the fire-powerd members, Ignacia discovers the power to more-or-less fly shortly after joining the team, and has greater control over fire than Freezerburn. Freezerburn, meanwhile, also has ice projection powers.
- Jarringly averted in the Wildstorm comic The Monarchy. In the early issues it seemed that every character on the team had the power to fly and shoot energy blasts.
- In All Fall Down, the Pantheon enjoyed having a well-rounded team of heroes before they lost their powers. So did their nemeses, the Order of Despots.
- A variant in The DCU is Wonder Woman in terms of operating methods; while Superman will not kill on general principle and Batman is too worried about the Jumping Off the Slippery Slope if he does, Diana is a classically trained Greek warrior who does not feel bound by Thou Shalt Not Kill if the situation demands it.
- For a time there was an actual rule that the Justice League of America could not admit members with overlapping/similar powers. They abolished this when they finally allowed Hawkman's partner Hawkgirl to join.
- In the Wearing the Cape books, the Sentinels' power-sets are extremely diverse, and it is implied that most other Crisis Aid and Intervention teams are as well. The openly stated rationale is that superhuman combat is paper-scissors-rock, so you'd better have a mix on your team to cover any weaknesses. Also, power-duplication doesn't always play well in the media...
Fairy Tales and Mythology
- This actually predates superheroes: it can be seen in Fairy Tales such as The Six Soldiers of Fortune and The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship (or whatever they call the version of the story you might have read), as well as the book The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In these stories, a prince, a dim but lovable lad seeking his fortune, or a soldier who has no occupation now that peace has come, is on a journey and picks up a series of companions or servants, each of whom has one amazing talent. Using all their talents as a team, they enable their leader to make good, marry a princess, con a wicked king out of his fortune, or whatever.
- Used to a certain point in Jason and the Argonauts. Hercules — god-like strength; Nestor — superhuman vision; Orpheus — Magic Music; etc. The other 39 varied in individual skills and abilities.
- In polytheistic religions, gods actually fit this idea. Take the Greeks: There's Zeus, the god of screwing random chicks; Hera, the goddess of screwing over those same chicks; Hades, the god of being hated by everyone, etcetera etcetera.
- In With Strings Attached, the four have very different magic with only occasional overlap, but that's because they were (mostly) empowered by Jeft, who made sure they'd be a good mix.
- Both played straight AND averted in Sky High. Averted in that there are known types of power categories. Many are mentioned as they try to figure out what the main character's power will be. Played straight in that all of the important characters have different powers.
Live Action TV
- Mutant X: There were several broad categories of mutant power, and the team never consisted of more than one member in each category.
- Lexa and Brennan, both elementals, were briefly on the team at the same time, but most of the time, the trope held true. Their powers were also different enough to maintain the trope in spirit.
- One of the Big Bads was a Super Prototype with powers from all four categories (feral, elemental, molecular, psionic).
- Birds of Prey: We are explicitly told that no two metahumans ever have the same power. Despite the fact that Huntress inherits the same ones her mother had.
- Team Knight Rider: We're eventually told that the team was intentionally composed of complementary abilities, as an earlier attempt to just make one car with all the relevant abilities had ended badly.
- Possibly more reasonable when dealing with skills rather than powers, though it seems like over time, everyone on the team should get at least a little familiar with their teammates' skills. Visible in The A-Team, Mission: Impossible, etc.
- In Charmed, towards the end, several characters possessed the powers of telekinesis and teleportation.
- During the first season of Heroes, several characters in other media adaptations had powers the same or similar to primary characters, although no two characters were shown to have the same power yet in the television series. Except for Peter Petrelli, whose power is that he can manifest other's powers that he comes into contact with (which is virtually the entire cast), and Sylar, who has to
remove examine their brains to do it. In the second season, however, West has the same power as Nathan (flight) and Kensei/ Adam Monroe has the same power as Claire (Healing Factor).
- Even more are introduced in seasons three and four. Tracy has the ice power, which Sylar had stolen from guy offscreen. Flint has the power of fire like Meridith, though his flames are blue. Matt's father has the same power as his son. Season four had another time traveler, even though he was crippled, and it had a speedster like Daphne.
- Sylar is revealed to have inherited his power to know things from his own father. When we finally meet his father, it's revealed that he also managed to find a telekinetic (like Sylar) and take his power.
- Power Rangers and Super Sentai are odd about this, in that they Zig Zag the trope, both averting and playing it straight (Not counting the Law of Chromatic Superiority that gives the Red Ranger bonus gears). Often, all the rangers have the same powers, but with variations. So the red ranger might have a fire attack, blue a water attack, yellow and lightning, etc... But this difference rarely if ever comes into play - there almost never is a Monster of the Week more vulnerable to a specific ranger's powers. Some seasons skip this entirely and the only difference is in the ranger's color.
- Tabletop RPGs frequently dip into this trope for "niche protection" — that is, to try and ensure that no player's character gets overshadowed by another. Thus, duplication of classes/powers/skill sets is often deliberately avoided in a 'balanced' group and an effort may be made to make sure that similar characters are still mechanically different in some meaningful fashion. This is not so much part of the rules of a given game as common practice in actual play.
- In Sentinels Of The Multiverse, this is a deliberate design decision; every hero brings something unique to the table, even when characters fit within particular roles (i.e. Tempest, Ra, and Expatriette are all damage dealers, but each deals damage in a particular way). One villain, Citizen Dawn, also does this, as each of her minions is a unique superhuman with unique effects. That being said, it is entirely possible for the heroes to field an entire team of Legacy, who has the standard issue Flying Brick powerset: Regular Legacy, his daughter Young Legacy, and his father Greatest Legacy. And just to round it out, have them all fight Iron Legacy!
- The comic book Super Hero MMORPG City of Heroes even shows some of this with the different Character Archetypes- ideal teams generally have at least one of each, although team structure is flexible enough that that does not always have to be the case by a long shot. One compares typical MMORPG class roles with superhero team roles...
- Interestingly, this can be subverted as each Archetype can take powersets that use the same power concepts, but with different effects; for instance, a Tanker, Blaster and Controller can all take fire, ice, lightning, etc powers, but they'll each use them in very different ways.
- Also subverted in that while the Hero and Villian archetypes overlap they still have inherent modifiers that affect their play style and team roles. For example:
- Defenders and Corruptors have mostly the same powers with the main difference being that Defenders have stronger enemy debuffing and team buffing/healing powers while Corruptors have stronger damage output that scales up as enemy health gets lower.
- Controllers and Dominators both have the same primary ability to control enemies via status effects, however the Controller has enemy debuffing and team buffing/healing as their secondary ability while Dominators have their entire secondary devoted to dealing damage.
- On the surface Brutes and Tankers may look very much the same, but Tankers have higher base and maximum HP while also being better at holding enemy aggro. On the other hand the Brute, while having the same powers as the Tanker, has the highest maximum damage output of any other archetype.
- Stalkers and Scrappers are superficially the same, except that Scrappers are straight up melee skirmishers while all Stalkers come with the best stealth ability in the game and the assassination attack. Scrappers also have more HP to compensate.
- In Mega Man X7, after X has a 10-Minute Retirement, Axl takes his place; however, after the right requirements are met, the former can be unlocked for play again. All skills that Axl learns from the Boss are exactly the same set as that of X's, and, seeing as the latter was a complete gamebreaker in that installment, it makes Axl rather useless. X8 rectifies this by having Axl have a different Mega Manning skillset from X, some of which are even more useful than X's equivalents (for example, Bound Blaster over Crystal Wall, respectively).
- In World of Warcraft this appears in terms of raid buffs. Practically class has some sort of buff they can give everyone else, but many are functionally the same one, and they don't stack. This means that people try to get as many different classes into the same raid in order to maximize the number of different buffs, and avoid duplicating classes where possible. It's most notable with shamans, who have an extremely powerful spell no other class possesses, to the extent that groups will wait for a very long time searching for a shaman solely to get that buff. The exception to this is paladins, who can give as many as 3 or 4 different buffs, but only one type per paladin. Blizzard is attempting to avert this in the Cataclysm expansion by giving more classes duplicate buffs, and by giving many hunter pets one of these buffs, so that the hunter can simply bring the appropriate pet instead of everyone waiting around.
- Still played straight in Player Versus Player, where bringing 5 people who all use stun is far less effective than having one guy that stuns, one that fears, one the freezes, etc etc. Or just bring a mage and watch him do all of the above.
- Just about every character in the Touhou series has a special ability, almost universally summarized in their Character Profiles as "Manipulation of X", yet out of all the games (since the move to Windows, at least), the value of X has yet to repeat.
- Although the original wording is simply "capable of", so sometimes it's unclear whether the "ability" is their own unique superpower, a species-wide power, or just something that they can do and not a superpower at all. Made even worse in Symposium of Post-Mysticism, where it's revealed that abilities are self-reported by the characters, so they might not be accurate at all. This is evident with several characters, like Mokou, whose stated ability is immortality, but can use fire-based attacks, or Seiga, whose power is "passing through walls", which actually is the power of her hairpin, not herself.
- Also, groups occasionally have the same ability. And all of the magicians have the same ability (use of magic), differing only in specialty. Then there's the matter of some abilities being functionally the same...
- Averted in Freedom Force due to the sheer number of heroes (and the fact that you can design your own and use them in the game). It starts out this way, though. At first, we only have Minuteman (a Captain America Expy), a Genius Bruiser (he is a nuclear physicist). He is joined by a psychic alien Mentor. Then a fiery Latino named El Diablo joins them with flying and flame-throwing powers. Rounding out the original core team is Man-Bot who is a slow brick. By the end of the game, a good number of heroes can (or can learn to) fly or, at least, hover. Nearly all can do ranged damage of various types. Many have Super Strength, allowing them to pick up and throw heavy objects. The sequel only increases the number of heroes.
- It should be noted that Freedom Force also creates speciation by having different damage types. Man-O-War and Microwave both have ranged attacks, but Man-O-War's is an electrical one that has greater effect on electrically-vulnerable foes like robots, while Microwave's radiation beam is most effective on ordinary people. And some characters are resistant to fire or cold damage, etc. It is prohibitively expensive to create a character who is resistant to everything. And there are different types of ranged attack - projectile (what range? propelled straight like an arrow or thrown like a grenade? homing or not? how fast does it move?) and defence (needs to be activated and maintained like a forcefield or always on?). In practice all the supplied Freedom Force characters bring something unique to the table, and it's pretty difficult to design a character who doesn't.
- PvP had the Christmas based superteam "The Jingle Force Five" where Jack Frost and Snowman both had cold powers. This leads to them fighting over whose shot took out the evil Kringus.
- Somewhat averted in PS238, where characters with superman-like powers (flight, super strength, near invulnerability) are overlooked because there are so many of them, to the point that they are occasionally referred to as numbers. Of course, the main characters mostly have different powers from one another.
- Team Kimba, in the Whateley Universe. They're a pack of high schoolers, rather than an established super-team, but they fit this model. Like the Justice League, they also have a wide range of power levels, ranging from Tennyo (so powerful there's a school rule against attacking her) down to Generator (can animate stuff, and now has regeneration too) and Bladedancer (Badass Normal with magic sword). The team has blasters, a PK superboy, a powerful mage, a Vision-like density-changer, healers, martial artists, and a fake deviser. And there's only seven of them.
- While Team Kimba has a fairly diverse lineup more or less by "chance," most of the teams in the Whateleyverse—both the school training teams and the professional super teams—are constructed this way intentionally. The philosophy seems to be that you want enough members to have a wide range of powers, but not so many that the group can't be fairly close-knit. Team Kimba is actually the biggest team in Team Tactics, with eight members counting Shroud. Whateleyverse policy on team lineup seems to be at least a brick, a blaster, and a gadgeteer or devisor, with maybe a speedster and a PDP to round things out, plus a couple more. And the more flyers, the better, of course.
- Captain Planet and the Planeteers: Each Planeteer had a unique power, and some were decidedly more useful than others in certain situations.
- Ben from Ben 10 is a one-man example of this, with each of his alien forms having a different power (Fourarms is strong, XLR8 is fast and so on).
- Ben 10: Alien Force follows this in that even which aliens he has change around and some have the same abilities, they are never on the same set.
- Justice League averted this when, in one episode, the Elongated Man complained bitterly that, although he had exactly the same powers as Plastic Man and was even an accredited detective, he was still treated as a second-stringer to Plastic Man (who used to be a petty criminal, no less). The quote at the top of this article is what sets off his rant. Interestingly, later in the episode he proved himself when Plastic Man was taken out of action. On the other hand, if Plastic Man was as powerful as he is in the comics, this would have been petty whining.
- Averted more generally as Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Martian Manhunters were all flying bricks.
- On the other hand, in a clear example of this trope, Martian Manhunter's Martian-vision and super-speed were removed, and his super strength was downplayed. His more unique powers - telepathy, shape-shifting, and phasing through matter - were emphasized instead.
- Most of the speciation didn't have to do with super-powers. Hawkgirl was used instead of Hawkman to balance out the gender ratio, the Green Lantern John Stewart was used to add some "color" to the team, and the Flash used was the playful Wally West instead of his more traditionally-heroic predecessors.
- Similarly, Batman: The Brave and the Bold has one Cold Opening that featured Plastic Man and Elongated Man going after a criminal while arguing over which one Batman prefers to work with (Elongated Man also makes the "I'm even a detective" argument here).
- At the end of the segment, Batman gives his opinion: "Between the two of you, I prefer to work alone."
- Subverted on Young Justice—Red Arrow is annoyed that he's been "replaced" with Artemis on the team, even though he turned down their invitation to join. Aqualad points out that they "don't have a quota on archers," however, and he's still free to join whenever he wants.
- For that matter, this show's version of the Justice League includes Hawkman and Hawkwoman, plus two Green Lanterns (Hal and John)! Guy also joins in the second season. They also have four Flying Bricks (Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Icon- five if you count Martian Manhunter, whose shapeshifting and telepathic abilities are emphasized over strength as in Justice League).
- Played straight with Miss Martian, who acquires the new power of telekinesis which she uses over super-strength. She does still have super-strength (more than a human, but less than an Atlantean or a Kryptonian), but that's only according to Word of God - it never really shows up in the show.
- The second season has Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl (Smart Guy Badass Normals with gadgets) all on the team, plus Superboy and Wonder Girl in the Flying Brick category.
- However, it should be noted that they tend to split up into groups and those groups typically include a variety of archetypes.
- Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths has Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and Flash Wally West face their Crime Syndicate counterparts. Martian Manhunter, thinking President Wilson's daughter, Rose, would be targeted, follows her, and foils an attempt on her life. In a light mind-meld we see Rose's mom had in flashback been killed by Ultraman's heat vision. So he fills the need for two heroes (Superman for his Flying Brick role, Batman for his Detective role).
- Owlman even snarks to Batman for the final battle that Batman couldn't trust anyone else to fight it (though Batman knew how dirty and low he might have to go—and that the others might not—to beat Owlman).