"Clearly this is a superpower that buggers you about a bit. Like an invisibility power that only works when you are playing a trombone."
The characters normally have access to powerful abilities, which could greatly help them in their current situation, but are currently unable to use them for one reason or another.
Common in series like Bewitched
, where the characters are given almost unlimited powers at the beginning, and the writers have to come up with more and more arcane limitations to create a new conflict each week
Often involves a Fantastic Aesop
about how using powers
to avoid hard work
A form of Holding Back the Phlebotinum
. Compare Coconut Superpowers
and Cool, but Inefficient
. For superpowers
that are actually useless in and of themeselves see What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?
or Blessed with Suck
. When the depowerment happens just when it would've been necessary, then it's Plot-Driven Breakdown
, and when the useless superpower turns useful, This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman
Anime and Manga
- At the start of Cardcaptor Sakura, Keroberos is unable to use most of his powers because they are sealed away due to being stuck in his Sleep Mode Size until all the Clow Cards are captured. Unsurprisingly, he is quick to reassure Sakura that once he can return to his normal form, he will be very powerful and 'cool' (and so he is!). But...even after he is freed to be his Mega Neko self whenever he wishes in the second season, invariably one barrier, spell, or complication after another crops up that renders his powers fairly useless—or they just plain don't have much of an effect. Of course, this is usually because in most cases he's unknowingly trying to combat his own creator's powers, but still... Awesome look, sadly lame powers. (Except for when he blocks attacks with a shield of fire!)
- Miroku from Inuyasha is cursed with a black hole in the palm of his hand. While it will one day consume him, and even if he has children the curse will only be passed on to them, it can also suck in anything into an inescapable abyss. So what keeps this from being a story-breaking power? The Big Bad's minions all have the ability to produce poisonous miasma, which does affect Miroku if he sucks it inside his hand. It doesn't take long for him to go from a super-powerful Person of Mass Destruction to mere Combat Commentator.
- Although on several occasions when there truly is no other choice, Miroku will go ahead and use it and deal with being poisoned. The Wind Tunnel also grows as he uses it, and can be caused to grow more quickly by damage to his hand. Mostly the presence of poison is to prevent him from always using it rather than having the titular character be useful.
- In the Dragon Ball movie 'Bardock: Father of Goku', the titular character is granted precognitive powers by the last of a race he was slaughtering. You'd think being able to see the future would be useful, but in this case, the power comes in the forms of random, uncontrolled visions of the future, which mostly consist of his youngest son's life on Earth and Freeza wiping out the saiyan planet and all of its people. Which was the point. The alien gave Bardock the visions as a form of vengeance, hoping to punish the saiyan with dreams of a future that can't be stopped. The only consolation is the knowledge that his son will be the one to defeat Freeza.
- The Silver Age version of Superman was so all-powerful that making any problem last longer than three panels took some doing. As such, Kryptonite Is Everywhere, with just about everyone having some Superman-nerfing... something.
- Worth noting that during the Silver Age, it's more-or-less accepted that Superman has solved traditional crime, and many stories deal with him doing strange publicity stunts instead of fighting crime.
- Green Lantern stories from the same era. The fully-unleashed power of a Green Lantern is such that for a time even the yellow weakness wasn't enough: there had to be "invisible yellow" or "infra-yellow" or a "yellow compound" around when GL needed to attack enemies or manipulate objects that were so completely non-yellow. A little Techno Babble to make a green-clad bad guy count as yellow meant you didn't even need a #2 pencil to seriously ruin Hal's day.
- The Flash and other speedsters can be very difficult to write well, since they can solve many problems before the bad guys can blink. Good writers find tougher problems (impenetrable force-fields, not knowing where the bomb is, things that require flight, ice rinks, high-altitude air too thin to support their metabolism, etc.). Bad writers fall into this trope.
- Witchcraft and wizardry on the Discworld. Magic itself is not that difficult: learning when it's a good idea to use it is, because wizards' magic either causes massive wanton property damage, attracts the attention of Ghastly Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, or both. Meanwhile, overuse of witchcraft's more showy elements leads to cackling, gingerbread cottages and seriously dirty fingernails.
- In Thud!!, a Discworld novel, after government inspector A.E. Pessimal is dragged along to observe the Watch quelling a riot, he asks Commander Vimes why they couldn't recruit the wizards to help stop a potential riot by magicking away the weapons. Vimes indicates that they could, but crap would happen, like missing fingers... to say the least.
- It's been outright stated that most of the education in Wizard Universities is learning how not to use magic.
- Of course it may not be much of a problem, since it's also been stated that, dangerous magics aside, wizard universities work just like regular universities: They understand the futility of trying to actually teach young people anything, so they just put them near a lot of books in the hopes that things will pass from one to the other, while the young people themselves put themselves near bars, pubs, and taverns for exactly the same reason.
- The Last Continent further clarifies that the University is less about education and more about giving the wizards a framework where their natural viciousness and ambition can be focused into academic feuds and gaining titles instead of magical warfare.
- Though it could also be a case of Power Incontinence, as it is often very difficult for a wizard to refrain from using magic.
- Of course, in Sourcery, Pratchett shows just what happens when wizards use magic freely and have an abundance of power available to them. The results are... not pretty. It's strongly implied that the historical wars between wizards were even worse. Not surprising that not using magic has become more important than the magic itself.
- At least one Discworld book points out that in nine out of ten situations there's just no point to using magic. Doing anything by magic takes the same amount of effort as doing it by not-magic. So you could create a loaf of bread out of sheer nothingness, but it'll just disappear again in a few seconds on the energy reserves of the average wizard. Better to just bake your own damn bread.
- Additionally, Mustrum Ridcully once observed that there's not usually much point in conjuring up fireballs if monsters show up, since anything that isn't fazed by being whacked with six feet of solid oak staff is probably immune to magic as well.
- In a minor, non-spellcasting example, in Hogfather the UU wizards realize that every imaginary creature they mention that might be responsible for a mundane process (e.g. the Hair Loss Fairy) is popping into existence. The Dean immediately tries to exploit this new phenomenon by invoking the Give The Dean A Huge Bag Of Money Goblin; this fails, because he doesn't normally receive large bags of money for no visible reason, but it was presumably worth a try.
- Larry Niven averted this by ending his Known Space series after Ringworld, because he had introduced too much Phlebotinum, like the Teela Brown gene, to continue writing without invoking increasingly circuitous barriers to the use of said Phlebotinum. Of course, then he went and made Ringworld Engineers, and Ringworld Throne, and...
- Harry Potter's Restriction on Underage Wizardry prevents the main cast from using magic outside of the school. Even without that, one has to contend with Potterverse magic being pretty much worthless because all of the major antagonists can also use magic with equal or greater skill.
- By book 3 Harry starts to evade these problems. He inflates his aunt like a balloon (she gets better and has her memory wiped by a third party) and is excused because everyone is just glad he's safe after he ran away, and then goes to a wizarding friend's house where he can cast supervised magic. In book 4, his abusive guardians are afraid of his godfather coming to get revenge on them, so they leave him alone from then on, and later in the series he often goes to wizarding friends' houses. The author got bored of the restrictions.
- In the later Callahans Crosstime Saloon novels (the ones set in Jake's Place), Spider Robinson has introduced so much Applied Phlebotinum that he has to jump through some pretty ridiculous narrative hoops to justify why the regulars can't easily use it to solve whatever problem they currently face (Callahan's Con is particularly egregious in this regard).
- Richard from The Sword of Truth is said to have more magical ability than anyone else living, but he has to be emotionally charged to do jack. Occasionally he'll destroy an entire regiment with nothing more than a thought, but otherwise can't light a candle without flint. Richard's powers are often noted to be inversely proportional to the number of pages are left.
- In L.E Modesitt's The Saga Of Recluce, mages have the power to reshape land, permanently alter weather, and wreak unholy destruction on those around them. However, the more powerful the magic, the greater the price. Using Order magic to cause death always results in a backlash against the mage, typically blindness. Improving the weather in one place can cause major and catastrophic climate shifts (in one book, changing one land from desert into productive land by moving weather systems creates a much larger desert elsewhere). Using Chaos magic prematurely ages the user, and turns one into walking entropy — food spoils more quickly, clothing and furniture wear out much faster than normal, and machines break down constantly. Using either one to heal injury or kill disease can weaken the person it's used on. The Balance pretty much limits uses of magic to small, subtle things; or results in greatly shortened lifespans.
- It also appears to cause some substantial changes to the characters of the users. Habitual users of Chaos magic become chaotic themselves, power-hungry, backstabbing, untrustworthy, unstable, and conflict-prone. Order users can become passive, hidebound, rules-obsessed, excessively conservative, even reactionary.
- Even invisibility is nearly useless as a power. It's done in a very realistic manner, by bending the light around the mage; but this means that the mage has no light to see by, and is stuck in pitch darkness the entire time he's invisible. And, of course, he can still be heard just fine.
- Lucretia from Bystander has won the Superpower Lottery. However, books and street signs don't take into account thermal vision, and its only because her temperature sight only activates in areas of significant fluctuation (like outside) that she can read at all. Likewise, her ability to see electricity makes computers, cell phones and TVs more or less useless for her. Finally, she has such a pathetic level of fighting skill that normal people had only a little difficulty handling her despite her strength and actual trained soldiers easily take her down. It's no wonder that she puts most of her faith in her skills as a street rat and manipulator. Even then, her sloppily executed Batman Gambit is what causes things to spin out of control plot-wise.
- Interestingly, because of the way the book was designed, it is a pleasure to read, and a good proof that Tropes Are Not Bad.
- In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, galactic Chessmaster R. Daneel Olivaw's Telepathy and Mind Control, along with the fact that he is almost The Ageless due to being a robot, should make him virtually a Physical God. However, due to being Three-Laws Compliant, he cannot effectively use his immense powers in any way that could be construed as "harming" an individual human. In theory the Zeroth Law Rebellion principle should allow him to bypass this, but in practice it is impossible to judge whether messing with somebody's head will benefit humanity as a whole or not. Thus, even though he technically possesses the power necessary to halt the collapse of the Galactic Empire, he cannot actually do so because of the restrictions on his actions. He is thus forced to pursue other options such as the Seldon Plan and Gaia.
- All characters in the RPG game Paranoia have mutant superpowers. They have two problems. First, using your mutant superpower proves you are a mutant, which is treason, which is punished by summary execution. Second, they are extremely undependable - not only do they often not work, they often backfire as well.
- The bumbling eponymous character in Captain Amnesia, a 1980s radio series, has "1,001 superpowers but can't remember one of them."
- It is never explained why Mega Man teleports to the start of the Death Course instead of the boss's lair. Jamming stations?
- There is a bit of a Hand Wave established in the supporting documentation issued by Capcom. In fact, there are two: either Mega Man has to travel through the various areas to stop the robots that are causing havoc (the Mooks), or the boss's room is protected against teleportation. Both are plausible.
- Fridge Logic applies on the first one, particularly with Mega Man X. In that game, even if you've defeated that board's boss already, you still have to fight the mooks if you teleport there!
- And on that note, Mega Man Battle Network as well. It seems Mega Man is the only navi that can't choose where he jacks in. Once you fight through all the viruses, everyone else just pops in.
- Touhou, and it's limitless broken superpowers occasionally creates powers that simply never really get used.
- Remilia is a prime candidate. Her power of "Fate manipulation" is basically never even spoken of. Since manipulating fate would have no apparent effect, except that Remilia somehow benefits from everything, setting up a "just as planned" ending. Since people tend to prefer "Charisma Break" Remilia, she usually doesn't even get this much in most fanon, and even canon works like Silent Sinner In Blue give only hints that she is purposefully allowing herself to be "manipulated" for her own benefit while using Obfuscating Stupidity (which itself is trying to hide behind being an Ojou).
- Keine's superpower is theoretically unstoppable - she can consume history, and rewrite it at her whim, theoretically making her capable of consuming a person's ever being born. In-game, it seems she can't even make characters forget that the human village existed, much to her chagrin, and, due to its lack of flashiness, is generally ignored in fanon, for her much more visceral, but far less dignified head-butting of opponents.
- Rumia is given a far more humiliating reason for her power's uselessness - her "darkness" superpower was meant to sound scary, but is actually completely useless, because it's also her own Weaksauce Weakness - using her power blinds her, and she is canonically recorded to fly into trees whenever she uses it.
- Yuyuko Saigyouji has the power to kill humans. Of course, she is trapped in the underworld, where everyone is already dead. When she does encounter the living, they are One-Hit-Point Wonder humans that are easily dispatched by the same bullets everyone can use without special powers. Or aren't humans. Or are immortal.
- There's more to it than just that. Anything that enters the Netherworld is counted as dead for the duration of their stay, hence Yuyuko's own home is a Restraining Bolt on her power.
- Also, Yuyuko actually doesn't like her power very much (the reason she's a ghost in the first place is that she committed suicide due to the fear of her own power), so she uses it very sparingly.
- Yuyuko's secondary power, to control ghosts, is the opposite despite sounding less impressive. Since every single thing in the Netherworld is a ghost or phantom or some sort, she has absolute control over the entirety of the Netherworld. Gensokyo itself has no shortage of spirits either, making it effective there too.
- Sam and Max: The Devil's Playhouse sets Max up with some incredibly useful toys of power, has the player rely on them throughout the whole episode, then strips them all away for the boss fight. Half the time you even lose the ability to walk.
- In Casey and Andy Satan herself is Andy's girlfriend. Author had to come up with reasons she doesn't want to use superpowers to resolve story arcs immediately.
- Quite often it ends up being "I'm evil and your suffering amuses me". Well she is Satan...
- In the Whateley Universe, Tennyo tends to suffer from this. While her powers are ridiculously helpful at killing things dead, she has a BIT of a problem with the whole 'holding back' deal. Also, Nikki, a powerful sorceress, tends to have trouble with sneezing in the middle of incantations, prompting surprisingly useful mayhem!
- Of course, her secondary power of 'everyone crushes on her fiercely' helps when she gets hit...
- And we now know that she has access to ancient Sidhe magics which require so much Essence that she has unknowingly destroyed several ecosystems. So she can't use those guys anymore.
- Hey, what about Folder? S/he can fold anything, including air. Effectively a one-hit-kill power... but s/he's a pacifist.
- Folder's a pacifist because it's a one-hit-kill power...and s/he has anger management issues that are very well hidden under that pacifism. S/he doesn't dare use his/her powers in anger, for fear that s/he would kill someone if provoked.
- Most of the powers in SOTF: Evolution.
- TREE POWERS, ACTIVATE!
- Bardock: Useless-ass psychic powers!
- USELESS SUPERPOWERS
- Jeannette of Funny Business is a full-on Reality Warper. The only reason this isn't a Story Breaker Power is because she can't use her powers to fix her emotional problems, which make up most of the conflict.
- Used constantly on The Fairly OddParents. This series mostly avoids the problems Bewitched had, however, by explaining the rules the fairies work by at the beginning and then sticking to them. And yet, despite the exaggeratedly large size of the rule book, it only contains about 20 or so rules, with a new one popping up whenever the plot calls for it. Then again, half the time they simply give Timmy the Idiot Ball, and in many episodes he probably could've found a way around a restriction if he really thought it out. In this specific example, the Idiot Ball is named Cosmo.
- Ben 10 shows fairly early on that the hero is absolutely clueless about how his Imported Alien Phlebotinum works.
- Also, the thing doesn't like to let him use his most powerful transformations, in any series. If he tries to turn into a bug that sprays sticky gunk, it'll work every time. If he tries to turn into the Ultraman pastiche, he'll probably get... the bug that sprays sticky gunk.
- In the second season finale of Justice League Unlimited, Martian Manhunter wants to teleport all available Leaguers to battle the Luthor-Brainiac combination, but it is damaged. He comments that it's damaged so often, he wonders why they even bother with it anyway.
- Heck, the Martian Manhunter is the biggest example of this, even moreso than Superman. He uses his shapeshifting three or four times in the entire show's run. He uses his mind reading powers to cry out in pain at how powerful the Monster of the Week is. His density shifting powers are rarely used to their full extent (He'll stare at oncoming projectiles rather than, well, become intangible and let them pass through him harmlessly) and only once did he bother to actually shift his density to become super hard and heavy in the entire show.
- This is applied a lot in Justice League, given that if the Flash, Superman, and Martian Manhunter were allowed to apply their powers to their full extents, each one would probably be able to get more done alone than the entire unlimited league.
- In the animated version of Beetlejuice, the title character can do pretty much whatever he wants once Lydia calls him into the living world. However, he developed all of his powers solely for his "bio-exorcist" profession; they are only good for "juicing" (pranking) people. Any and all attempts to use them for more constructive purposes backfire or have ridiculous drawbacks, or he literally interprets a wish or underestimates the penalties involved.
- Example: Lydia is busy baking cookies for the Girl Scouts Cookie Sale. Beetlejuice gets bored and instantly conjures some cookies from the underworld. Lydia doesn't trust them, but she's woefully undersupplied so she sells them. The last line of the recipe? "Do not dunk." When Beetlejuice finally decides to test what happens, the cookie grows lifesized and goes on a rampage. So do all the other cookies he sold. Oops.
- There's an episode of Superfriends involving a damaged nuclear submarine. You'd think This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman, but he's acting even more useless then normal just to let the other star of the episode, Black Vulcan (who has electricity powers) do most of the work.
- Homestar Runner has an example of this when pointed out by Strong Bad in this e-mail , involving shape-shifting.
Strong Bad: "...if comic books, cartoons, and Sci-Fi Original Movies have taught me anything, it's that shapeshifting comes with a bunch of boring rules and restrictions that limit its potential Turn-Into-A-Bulldozer-Whenever-I-Wantity. You can turn into a machine gun but not bullets, contemporary jazz turns you back to normal, you can only turn into presents your grandma's knitted for you. Crap like that."
- On The Magic School Bus, said "magic" was frequently unreliable and the bus was prone to Phlebotinum Breakdowns, typically in the name of having plots which couldn't be resolved in three seconds.
- Not quite. Most of the time, all problems were made on purpose so that the kids could solve the problems by themselves and learn. It's the Frizzle's catch phrase.
- The Powerpuff Girls episode "Nuthin' Special" has Buttercup looking for a special power (like Blossom's ice breath and Bubbles' Omniglot abilities), but every time she demonstrates one, her sisters duplicate it. Out of contempt, she sticks her tongue out at them, curling it in the process. To Buttercup's surprise and delight, Blossom and Bubbles cannot duplicate it. The narrator even lampshades how pointless it is.note