Many people feel that the Super Hero is an inherently silly concept. And certainly, many of the genre's conventions — such as the use of strange, skintight costumes — might look silly in Real Life. However, within their own setting, superheroes are usually accepted and admired.
Most of the time.
Certain characters are so obtuse that even other superheroes view them as — well, dumb. Some people tend to use the derisive name "Super Zeroes" for these.
Most of these characters are intentionally created to be that way. Others end up that way due to later Alternative Character Interpretation. Their purpose is mostly to serve as Plucky Comic Relief, although they can be used in other ways.
There are several types of "super zeroes". There's the character who might actually make a good superhero... if he had anything resembling useful powers or skills. Often their powers will also be (or make them) bizarre or disgusting in appearance. Real heroes will try to dissuade them from fighting crime, but usually they insist on trying anyway, getting themselves (and others) in danger. They usually end up scolded by other heroes and retiring after causing a particularly bad mess, though other times they continue being a thorn on an established hero's side, especially by trying to become that hero's sidekick. Often they inspire pity in fans, and might even become an Ensemble Darkhorse. In such a case, they might actually get better with time, evolving into true heroes. DC Comics's Legion Of Substitute Heroes is an example of this type.
Then there's the character who does possess great powers — but happens to personally be such an idiot — or even insane — that he causes trouble anyway. They might even be considered dangerous sometimes. An example would be Marvel's Impossible Man, who can transform into anything and even the Fantastic Four couldn't beat him — but he had the personality of a hyperactive child!
Of course, some characters are both stupid and helpless, just to drive home how wrong it its for them to even attempt to be a hero.
Super Zeroes usually (but not always) look pretty ridiculous too — either their costumes are poorly designed, or they themselves lack the kind of body that makes spandex-wearing superheroes look good. Or both. They are usually the result of a geek trying to live up his heroic ideals.
A common cliche is to feature a story where the "Zero" ends up saving the day despite (or precisely because of) his absurd abilities. Another one is where a proud villain refuses to fight the "hero" for considering him an unworthy foe. If the 'zero beats him anyway, his shame is even greater.
Yet another cliche, though a rarer one, is where the zero gets mistaken for a competent hero by a clueless person. This either ends disastrously, or the zero actually succeeds for once — but with none of his friends at hand to see it happen.
Note that superheroes featured in humorous cartoons or comics do not really fit this trope, as every other character in those is also silly to some degree (though they might think that the superhero characters are dumber than they are.)
Note also that this trope applies to many supervillains, especially a Harmless Villain.
Not to be confused with My Hero Zero.
Compare Blessed with Suck. Contrast Super Loser, who are characters who gain superpowers... but none of the cool you'd expect comes with the package.
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Anime & Manga
The Majestic Twelve from Zatch Bell!. They actually do have some pretty cool powers (or at least, some of them do), but they're never seen to do anything particularly useful unless you count Big Boing being funny.
Radar Man from Paranoia Agent is a tragic subversion. Admittedly, he was doing pretty well up until the point he tried attacking Shonen Bat head-on.
Mister Satan from Dragon Ball Z is a variation; he's not a superhero, but the series stresses how the main characters all outclass him(up to and including a six-year-old kid and his own daughter). And he does get the plot about saving the day against Buu.
The Inferior Five from The DCU, who were forced to become heroes by their Stage Parents. Team leader Merryman comes from a long line of Badass Normals, but is a weakling and a fatalist. The Blimp shares his father's ability to fly but didn't inherit his super speed, giving him the ability to fly about as fast as he can walk, and as he's rather fat, that's not very fast. Awkwardman has incredible strength and can survive indefinitely underwater, but is so clumsy he's more a danger to friend than foe. Dumb Bunny is even more powerful than Awkwardman but is so lackingin intelligence she's usually even less helpful. Finally, the White Feather is an ace marksman and glamour photographer... when he's alone, at least; Whenever he even thinks someone else might be around, his skills go to crap and his cowardly streak emerges. When trouble arrives, Police Chief Geronimo will call them on the Lukewarm Line and they'll be there to make it worse; they never fail to fail.
The Legion of Substitute Heroes from The DCU consists of this, all of them being rejects from the Legion of Super-Heroes. Considering that the Legion contains people like Matter Eater Lad, this is saying something. The Subs have varied in terms of effectiveness across continuities, and most of them were rejected on the grounds that they needed more training in order to control their abilities more than because their abilities themselves were useless. Two members, Polar Boy and Night Girl, have since become Legionnaires, though some other members opted to stay in the Subs because they think of each other as a quirky family. Their most recent portrayal in what is referred to as the Johnsboot Legion sort of meshes together their previous incarnations by casting them as a team of superhero fan boys and girls who see each other as family and, while they may not have the greatest powers or the greatest control, and may in fact be a little legitimately crazy, are exceedingly reckless enough that you should not underestimate them.
Then there's the Legion of Substitute Heroes Auxiliary, made of those "not yet ready for membership in the Substitute Legion". So far, the only members of this group have been Antennae Lad (who picks up radio signals, not all of them from this universe or time period) and Double Header (whose power is that he has two heads and will eventually split into two full people. His heads hate each other.)
Beyond the Subs, the Legion has always operated on this pretense by introducing numerous reject applicants with ridiculously weak abilities. The Mess was a walking dirt cloud, Eyeful Ethel could just grow extra eyes, and Plaid Lad could just change fabric against his will. Basically, if you're in the 31st Century and you've got what you consider a superpower, you'll have tried out for the Legion at least once.
The Great Lakes Initiative from Marvel Universe. Most of the members have incredibly lame powers, like Mr. Immortal (immortal but has no other superpowers or any real combat training), Big Bertha (supermodel who can turn into a super-strong but incredibly obese version of herself), Doorman (who can become a living hole in any wall), and Squirrel Girl (talks to squirrels). Mind, Squirrel Girl is either the most dangerous character in The Verseor a Running Gagtaken too far. Or both. To be fair to the team, Big Bertha's power isn't useless, just disturbing — she's actually really quite strong (at least strong enough to stop a speeding truck with ease), and Immune to Bullets. And they did genuinely save the universe once, although they did it by convincing the villain to commit suicide.
Aquaman and Blue Beetle are examples of perfectly good superheroes who gained a reputation as losers with time. When your own sidekick turns out to be a cooler hero than you are, that's a bad sign.
The self-proclaimed Revenge Squad, otherwise known as the Legion of Losers. Mind you, one of them was the Spot, who is often considered a loser but had the ability to create portals that could take him anywhere, which is a pretty dangerous power if he ever figured out how not to be an idiot. Which he did in Amazing Spider-Man #589, where he managed to fight Spider-Man to a stand-still.
The Fabulous Frog-Man, sometime-ally of Spider-Man. A pudgy, idealistic young man wearing the super frog suit that originally belonged to his father (the villainous Leap-Frog), he has yet to succeed in his mission to stop crime... on purpose, at least.
Inept as he is, Frog-Man still ranks above his (and Spider-Man's) enemies The Walrus and The White Rabbit. The former is a rather dumb, fat minor villain with the proportional strength, speed and agility of a walrus (which would actually make him less able than a normal human) who can be knocked out by a single finger flick from Spider-Man. The latter is a deranged lunatic obsessed with the works of Lewis Carroll who has a bunch of rabbit- and carrot-themed equipment and vehicles.
In the same vein, there was the Spectacular Spider-Kid (now the Steel Spider), a pudgy preteen genius who wears a Spider-Man costume under his (functional) Dr. Octopus work-a-like tentacles. As Steel Spider, he grew up to be legitimately badass, but still distinctly C-list.
In Amazing Spider-Man #247, The Toad, Frog-Man, and The Spectacular Spider-Kid were all vying to become Spider-Man's partner, much to his consternation. In the end the three Super Zeroes form their own super-team, the Misfits.
Another Marvel team, The League of Losers, made up of heroes not killed off by the Big Bad because their comics were not successful enough for him to know about them. Then again, this is probably more of a subversion, since the "losers" in question were in fact perfectly competent heroes in their own right. What they lacked was Popularity Power, not actual power. NFL Superpro is notable in this regard: He was too lame to even be a member of the Legion of Losers. Well, okay, it was actually a copyright dispute (since the character was co-owned by the NFL and all).
The Killer Moth was defeated by Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) on her first outing.
Batman villain Catman. When he was created, he was a campy male version of Catwoman played for laughs. His incompetence led to him becoming a washed-up drunkard Post-Crisis. It was a major embarrassment to the newest ultra-villain team up that was trying to recruit all the world's villains that he refused. By this point though, he'd become a Badass Normal living with a pride of lions.
The First American, a notably useless and stupid costumed hero created by Alan Moore for his America's Best Comics imprint. As The Other Wikisays, "Given his incompetence, he demonstrates below average physical abilities." Which is to say, he can perform multiple backflips in rapid succession and knows how to pop a bad guy in the face — he's just really bad at it.
Bob Phantom from DC's short-lived Impact Comics line. Not even a hero as such, just a bumbling reporter who figured that dressing up as one would help him get a scoop on the real thing (the Comet, if memory serves) and quite by accident ended up helping save the day.
Section 8 from Hitman. The names say it all: Sixpack, Bueno Excellente, the Defenestrator, Dogwelder, Friendly Fire, Jean de Baton-Baton, Phlegmgem and Shakes. There's a reason their team is named after the clause for leaving the Army due to insanity. Dogwelder deserves special mention. Garth Ennis and his friends were in a bar one night and decided to come up with the worst possible superhero. Dogwelder was the first suggestion, and nobody could top it. Well, Bueno Excellente (whose name was inspired by the Spanish subtitles in a PORN FILM, we kid you not) and who owns the "power of perversion" can be pretty scary in fact. GivenThe Main Man himself once was the victim of his indignities, and chose to leave rather than kill him... Though that have might have something to do with the fact it was all filmed. For the galaxy'sviewing pleasure.
DC's Kid Devil was a straight-up super zero way back when he first appeared and tried to become Blue Devil's sidekick. Although being incredibly smart enough at the age of 12 to create a powersuit, he lacked experience and tended to get into trouble (he was pudgy too, like some examples mentioned). Even after being upgraded to a real devil and joining the Teen Titans, it still took him some time to grow out of his super zero reputation, and his issues over his competence and confidence was a major part of his character arc. Kid Devil's super zero status had more or less ended by he changed his codename to Red Devil.
Marshal Law features Sorry, the Nearly Man. He was nearly a superhero, you know. A pudgy, fearful moron whose only power is having a short prehensile tail... He starts out as one of the few "heroes" Marshal Law tolerates, primarily because at least Sorry knows he never actually helps anyone. Eventually, though, he becomes a twisted serial killer after being driven mad by his obsession with superheroes.
The Golden AgeRed Tornado can be considered a subversion. While her costume design (long underwear "tights", saucepan "helmet" and blanket "cape") are obviously intended as a joke, within the context of her original appearances in Sheldon Meyer's Scribbly, she was a very competent Badass Normal hero(ine), highly effective against the street-level racketeers and hoodlums that were her usual opponents. Indeed, a latter-day Justice Society of America adventure has none less than Wonder Woman declaring her "a true Amazon."
While the vast majority of (contemporary) heroes from The Tick comics have elements of this, special mention must be made of Hand Grenade Man. "Super-powers? Bah! Who needs 'em? I've got a hand grenade!" He never actually uses it because it's the only one he's got.
In-universe, Empowered is seen as this by the public at large, despite having several major victories to her credit.
When Garth Ennis is the writer, all superheroes are like this due to his unending dislike of superhero comics. Even Superman, the one superhero he likes, isn't completely immune.
Ambush Bug lives and breathes this. Considering he might as well be the Ur Example for Meta Guys...
Mind-Grabber Kid (who is in his 30s) is The DCU's premiere super-zero. His only real accomplishment is mildly annoying the Justice League by trying to discredit them due to his jealousy. After that, he's been showing up at superhero fan conventions and doing little else of note. He was one of Booster Gold's pallbearers in 52, though, among such other luminaries as Beefeater, Odd-Man, and the Blimp.
At one point, Doom Patrol member Fever ran into the Purple Purposeless, a superhero who has made it his mission to refuse help to anyone in need. His origin involves serving in Vietnam and receiving hay fever from Agent Orange exposure.
The eponymous protagonist of Rat-Man is an almost totally useless cretin and coward, whose attempts at being a superhero tend to end with his total humiliation. Keyword: almost. Once in a while he'll pull something worth of actual superheroes, like jumping on the head of a Shadow-possessed villain while being forced on an electric wheelchair (apparently there's the right sequence of commands for that) or summoning freakin'Chuck Norris on a killer robot designed specifically to kill superheroes.
The Trapsters, despite being a recurring member of the Frightful Four, he is considered a laughing stock by everyone. It all started when he first named himself Paste-Pot-Pete. Breaking in Four Freedoms Plaza in the absence of the Fantastic Four, he got easily captured by their receptionist.
Avengers The Initiative introduced Butterball, a character who is physically invulnerable and has unlimited stamina, but is stuck with the body of an overweight teenager. This meant that he can never grow stronger or faster no matter how much he trains.
Many of the heroes in DC One Million who gained superpowers through something a hero or villain from the past DC Universe wore at some point were ineffectual wannabees. In fact, there was one group that explicitly called themselves the "Justice Legion Wanna Bes". Notable examples include Aqua Fresh, Negative Gorilla Queen, and Gunfire One Million who accidentally turned his ass into an explosive and killed himself.
Rainbow Raider is a member of The Flash's Rogues Gallery who dates back to the The Silver Age of Comic Books. His gimmick? He's a color-blind would-be artist who uses goggles that, somehow, let him shoot colored beams of light. He was so ridiculous that even Geoff Johns, a self-professed Silver Age Ascended Fanboy who brought back and revamped many of the Flash's other rogues from that era (like The Turtle), couldn't think of anything better to do with him than have him be killed off by a new villain for "being so obnoxious".
Later, a team found and divided his gear. They were even more pathetic now they each had a single color to wield. Eventually, during the Blackest Night, they had the brilliant idea of killing themselves to allow the black rings to possess them and thus gain a measure of revenge. However, the black rings only choose people with close attachments to those who have cheated death (heroes, mostly). Ergo, they died for, well, nothing.
PS238 is largely a subversion — no matter what powers a meta-prodigy has, the school tries to find some useful way to employ those powers, and they largely succeed. A possible case of this trope being played straight appeared in an early strip, when a mother was trying to pick out a costume for her superpowered son, who turned out to have the ability to animate balloon animals.
Films — Animation
Rod Rescueman, the bungling novice superhero from the animated film Twice Upon a Time.
Kick-Ass starts off as this, being some overly idealistic teen with a stupid costume who managed to gain fame via in-universe Memetic Mutation. However, he eventually is able to Take a Level in Badass with the help of Hit-Girl and ends up a true hero by the end (if still utterly useless in an actual fight).
The Pharaoh from Soon I Will Be Invincible is a dumb and unambitious supervillain who is constantly mocked for his cheesy costume and lack of knowledge of topics relating to his supposed origin. However, if he put his mind to it he could be one of the most dangerous villains in the world, as his magic hammer makes him completely invincible.
The Projectionist was very much one of these, to the point of calling himself a "deuce," in reference to superheroes being called "Aces". This was back when he was a throwaway character; later on he Took a Level in Badass, changing his name to Mr. Nobody.
This seems to be the point (or one of them, anyway) of Jonathan Lethem's story "Super Goat Man".
Many of the characters on No Heroics, but especially Alex.
Seriously, Batman from the '60s TV show, which has become a sort of non-canon Dork Age for the deadly-serious comic books and movies of today. He may be just a Badass Normal, but in truth, Batman's superpower is to have the single greatest example of Campever and still be taken seriously enough to help kick offThe Dark Age of Comic Books.
In the live-action version of The Tick: Arthur (even more so than in the comic or cartoon); Fishboy, Lost Prince of Atlantis; Friendly Fire (not to be confused with the one from The DCU); Tiny Man (kicked out of the League of Super Heroes for not being tiny enough); and Metcalf. Metcalf deserves special mention: like Arthur, he was a DIY superhero, who bought himself a suit and a jetpack. He then got himself curbstomped (literally, according to the pilot), and now needs a machine to poop. Also, arguably Batmanuel.
One episode features the L.A.M.O.S., a group of superheroes all residing in this trope. There's a guy who can shoot lasers from his fingers that have the intensity of laser pointers, an old guy whose power is being old and a toddler whose power is to toddle.
Also from the show, one episode features a mayor auditioning for superheroes for her city only to find a series of this. The one exception is a Flying Brick who is almost chosen, were it not for the fact that he's called "Superty-Duper Man". At the end, she decides to just do the job herself and proceeds to put on a cape and fly through the roof.
That Mitchell and Webb Look features "Angel Summoner and the BMX Bandit"... no points for guessing which one of the pair falls into right this trope.
A short-lived sketch in the first season of Harry Enfield and Chums, titled "The Palace of Righteous Justice", revolved around four heroes who had fairly adequate superpowers, but were absolutely useless at their jobs. Lawman used his "Sword of Dobber" to mindlessly slice things in half, Kometh the Iceman froze anything he could, Fireman set everything around him on fire, and She-Woman-Cat-Type-Thing (Supposedly the most powerful of them all) just did ordinary cat stuff, like lick herself.
This is the premise of the French series Hero Corp, which begins in a village where retired superheroes with fading or useless powers are sent. For instance, a superhero with the power to project acid with his hands becomes unable to project anything but shampoo, or a mutant who, being half-man half-chicken, has the "power" of having feathers growing from his backside.
The parody RPG Stuper Powers allows you to play a superhero with any of nearly a hundred ridiculous powers, from the weird but useful, like acid blood or the power to channel the strength (and poor command of English) of Swedish pro-wrestler and B-Movie actor Tor Johnson, to the merely weird, like the power to make any band play "Freebird" or the power to turn things plaid. Also the FridgeSquick power that is (are?) prehensile nipples. Weird and creepy when you first hear about it, more and more disturbing the more you think of it...
Wario-Man from WarioWare and Super Smash Bros. Already Played for Laughs in all versions, it comes more under this in Touched where after a rather silly theme song, flying an inch off the ground and what not, he tries to stop a train and fails miserably (A Twinkle in the Sky). Heck, it's even called "Super Zero" in game! And now the top example of this on the page: in DIY Showcase, he has to open jammed toilet doors for people and fly about an inch off the ground. Though somewhat subverted/averted in Super Smash Bros. Brawl where he is a legitimate FinalSmash for Wario, with massively increased power and speed, invulnerability, Elemental Powers and what have you.
Superhero League of Hoboken uses this as a premise, featuring the likes of The Crimson Tape (power to create org charts), Tropical Oil Man (raises cholesterol of his opponents), Captain Excitement (puts enemies to sleep) and Mademoiselle Pepperoni (clairvoyance into closed pizza boxes). Subverted in that they actually put those powers to good use: several can be used in combat (putting enemies to sleep or raising their cholesterol levels into the health hazard range, for example) or have beneficial uses outside of combat (Mademoiselle Pepperoni can easily determine of the pizza box contains anything of value or if it's a trap, and Treader Man's ability to tread water really well will open up additional areas). Several quests can only be dealt with by a particular hero. ("A warehouse full of genetically engineered super-spicy jalapeño peppers? This looks like a job for The Iron Tummy!")
Fallout 3 has The AntAgonizer and The Mechanist, two crazy losers who are constantly battling with each other. While the former is hardly anything to worry about since her power is the ability to control Goddamned Bats in a society where everyone is armed to some extent, the latter is a skilled engineer capable of making Mecha-Mooks that are a bit more troublesome to deal with.
A subversion occasionally comes up in the more roleplay-oriented crowd in City of Heroes. While it's hard to design a truly useless character from the standpoint of game mechanics, and actual incompetence usually reflects badly on the player, there are a few people clearly trying for the appearance of this trope. Deliberately campy or lame designs, inane, naive or stupid characters, characters bossed around by their minions, and "fake dysfunctional" groups, can in the hands of skilled players make both entertaining company and be impressive to watch.
Illumina of Sidekick Girl. She can float and glow, but she looks the part and in her Verse, that's what matters. Her boyfriend, Malestrom, is just as bad. But when Val takes over her body via "Freaky Friday" Flip, she shows what Illumina's powers can do in the hands of someone competent. (i.e. Use her floating powers as a "feather fall" spell and glow bright enough to stun a crowd of mooks into helplessness.)
Literally, the Amazing Super Zeroes (unfortunately, no longer updating). A new team of second-rate superheroes is selected on a reality TV show.
Channel Ate has a few of these show up from time to time.
The Knifeketeer from Basic Instructions suffers from this. His power is his skill with knives, which doesn't sit too well with the other heroes and their Thou Shall Not Kill philosophy, and his sanity and intelligence have been called into question several times.
The entire cast of League of Super Redundant Heroes. Particular mention must be made of Lazer Pony, who can fire powerful Frickin' Laser Beams from behind his eyes. Yes — behind. His first use of his powers resulted in permanent blindness. His hero uniform features a set of handlebars on his helmet so that others can aim his beams.
Zeroes, NBC's parody of its own Heroes show, is all about hero wannabes with utterly useless talents, who manage only to creep each other out.
The French Web series Flander's Company is at the beginning focused on the human resources manager of a society hiring wanabee supervillains. Many of the candidates fall square into this. At best, the not-utterly-inept ones are fit for the Mooks squad (with a low life expectancy). Some highlights:
Lose-Man, whose superpower is to be... extermely unlucky. Although absorbing enough of the ambient bad luck allows him to fire a powerful energy beam... about once a month.
The eponymous duck himself. Both underpowered and underbrained (most of the time). Justified in that the cartoon is a parody of the superhero genre. Though Darkwing Duck is only underpowered when badly written (but unlucky often).
However, even by the standards of this series, there's Comet Guy. He's won the Super Power Lottery, but with those brains it only makes him more dangerously useless. Everyone else on his planet turns out to be the same, except of course Ordinary Guy.
And then there's the mutants from the episode "Mutantcy on the Bouncy". The Rubber Chicken was essentially made of stretchy rubber, which is a pretty useful power and is used to defeat the nearly unstoppable villain of the episode by flinging him away like a slingshot, but is in the hands of someone too neurotic to properly use them. The others include a newscaster capable of displaying cold symptoms at will, a cashier with glue powers, and a secretary with the power to turn himself into a banana. The fact that all of them minus the Rubber Chicken get taken out of the final battle within about two seconds (and by themselves, no less) should say something.
Voltar, Doktor Frogg and the Red Menace from The League of Super Evil are all villainous Super Zeroes.
Killer Moth is a Super-Zero villain in The Batman.
Likewise, the Toilenator from Codename: Kids Next Door. Subverted a few times, when he snaps and makes it apparent that he can stomp colons just as well as wiping them.
LeBlanc lasted all of five seconds. That certainly didn't stop his boasting in prison.
In the same episode, Control Freak is angry at "not being on the list" of villains to watch out for (even the Puppet King got on it!). But he's most certainly not a super zero!
The Other Heroes Beast Boy managed to find in "Titans Together" seemed to be these, but they managed to win anyway.
The Mighty Heroes all seem to fit this bill, always winding up tangled up in a big mess.
The Wild CATS had a resident Super Zero in the form of Voodoo, whose ability to spot people possessed by the evil aliens was actually pretty useful, but countered by her lack of the most basic combat skills. She was such a load that she was briefly kicked off the team before a convenient Plot Tailored to the Party reminded everyone that they needed her.
Arthur seems to fit this trope, although this is more evident in the Live-Action, as noted above.
Also, there is a super team called the "Civic-Minded Five", who definitely fit, particularly The Carpeted Man, and another the "Decency Squad", especially Johnny Polite. The Decency Squad was apparently formidable... back in the 1940's. Now they're a bunch of mostly washed-up Old Superheroes stuck in a retirement home. It's a good thing their Arch-Enemy has aged just as badly as them and is only slightly more effective.
Caped Chameleon; Fishbor, Lost Prince of Atlantis; Human Bullet; Captain Lemming, and a number of others.
And the Batmanexpy Fledermaus, who spends most of his time making failed passes at superheroines.
An episode with this trope title has the girls decide to portray the superheroes in their favorite comics. Blossom becomes Liberty Belle, but as she now drives the Freedom Mobile, she gets stuck in traffic. Bubble becomes Harmony Bunny who attacks the monster by placing stickers on him. Buttercup as Mange won't do anything because of the sunlight. The monster eventually gets fed up and tells them to lose the identities.
Another episode had a legendary supervillain group come out of retirement, and the girls convincing the heroes who opposed them to do likewise and save the day. The problem being that they're just a bunch of geriatric old men (which is why they got involved in the first place; Blossom refused to attack the elderly villains), and the hero and ex-sidekick spend most of the time arguing with each other. The whole affair ends with all the old characters in the hospital, and everyone glaring at Blossom for her part.