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Beware the Superman

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Fighting for his truth, his justice, and his way.
"I never said 'The superman exists and he's American.' What I said was 'God exists and he's American.' If that statement starts to chill you after a couple of moments' consideration, then don't be alarmed. A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane."
Prof. Milton Glass, "Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers," Watchmen

Superhero settings, like any other setting, end up somewhere on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. On the more idealistic end, you have settings like mainstream comic books, where there's a sense of wonder and basic decency about the superhuman. While there are villains, they will usually get caught or their plans will be thwarted, and while the setting may take dark turns, it will inevitably right itself. Somewhere in the middle, you have settings that look at superpowers a bit more realistically. While the government may have supers, so will despotic regimes, organized crime, and terrorist groups. The good guys may win, but victories will be hard fought and likely to have their share of losses.

And then you have these settings. The world's not better for having superhumans. It's worse. The government has no safety net to deal with rogue supers, and it seems like there ain't nothing but rogue supers terrorizing Muggles or freaks on leashes. And that's just the so-called heroes, who are usually anything but, being all-too-aware of their superiority over the rest of the human race and are a little too keen on arrogantly flaunting it. Maybe the crisis hasn't happened yet, but the way that supers seem to be developing, it's only a matter of time until one of them blows up Pittsburgh and the rest go absolutely nuts. Not that they're exactly mentally-stable to begin with; many will gleefully screw the rules with their powers, but it's almost guaranteed that at least one of them will become a full-fledged Super Supremacist and develop a God-complex as a result of their powers, and that they're only one bad day away from trying to enslave or wipe out all of humanity (which they could easily do within an afternoon). Any hope for even a Hope Spot in such a dire scenario may involve calling the Cape Busters, but even then, that's not a guarantee.

Sometimes, a good version of this character will meet them (usually through some dimension-hopping shenanigans) and will be completely horrified over who they might've become. They may either defeat that version of themselves or be forced to simply escape that world.

These are often Darker and Edgier versions of more traditional Super Hero fare, and often use Take Thats against popular characters like Superman or Spider-Man (or that particular writer's perception of them). If based on those existing characters, it is a Corrupted Character Copy. Other times, these are stories or articles involving The Singularity and forth the idea that in Real Life, enhanced humans may cause this situation.

A milder version of this trope is Smug Super, in which the superpowered being in question isn't exactly malevolent or evil, but is still something of a jerk. If both Beware the Superman and Fantastic Racism are prevalent in a 'verse, expect things to get very ugly.

Trope title is a spin on the famous Nietzsche quote, "Behold the superman" (as in "Behold the Übermensch")note . Superdickery is a milder version of this trope. See also With Great Power Comes Great Insanity, Crapsack World, The Magocracy, Muggle Power, Transhuman Treachery. Contrast with Tall Poppy Syndrome, as the two are more-or-less ideological opposites. This is a common feature of stories following the Cape Punk model of storytelling.

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    Fan Works 
  • Child of the Storm is broadly optimistic about heroes who, even if they are sometimes ruthless, keep to the Thou Shalt Not Kill rule whilst acting as superheroes, fight selflessly and inspire hope. However, there is a consistent thread that there is a reason to fear the superman. While there are true heroes, there are truly evil beings of immense power - their slugging matches tend to be immensely destructive, and all but the best-prepared ordinary people can easily feel that they don't have much control over their own destiny. Even people who aren't trying to hurt anyone can do immense damage when they're trying to control newly discovered vast powers.
    • Harry might finally snap and become this, thanks to multiple Trauma Conga Lines (dying is a relatively mild example), the vast amount of poorly-controlled power dumped on him, and the fact that he's a potential Apocalypse Maiden via the Phoenix. He veers very close on a couple of occasions but ends up emerging more heroic than before (eventually). However, even after, a lot of his fellow Hogwarts students consider him to be Good is Not Nice at best, and live in fear of him snapping again.
    • The concerns of the likes Victor von Doom that the Avengers might just decide to depose him one day because they don't like him (which they have done before In-Universe) are treated as at least logical, and Peter Wisdom a.k.a. Regulus Black is depicted as a Well-Intentioned Extremist (if leaning towards Token Evil Teammate territory) rather than simply a ruthless Hunter of His Own Kind when leading MI13 with the intent of usurping the Ministry.
    • Magneto is The Dreaded to almost everyone who has ever heard of him, despite being thoroughly reformed and repentant of his Super Supremacist ways, to the point where he shrugs off a potential alliance with Namor in response to Fantastic Racism... but if someone starts the fight, he'll finish it as brutally as necessary. Given that he is most certainly not tamed, entirely willing to let his inner monster off the leash, and well into the Physical God weight-class, capable of crumpling vibranium helicarriers like tinfoil and once stealthily conquered an entire country (Madripoor) with nothing more than his Brotherhood before crushing a Soviet battlegroup and an American nuclear sub as statements of intent, this is a valid fear.
    • Oh, and then there's the fact that Doctor Strange casually makes and breaks people, empires, even gods, to fit his own plans, and has absolutely no accountability to anyone whatsoever. As Lt. Murphy says when she's told of the sheer scale of his manipulations (they go back millennia, and if something doesn't have his fingerprints on it, it's directly affected by something that did), that kind of power is "terrifying."
  • Cras Vivere Para Bellum has Izuku (here a reincarnated John Wick) refuse One for All out of fear of becoming the world's most dangerous villain if he slips back into the ways of killing.
  • Contract Labor: In chapter 17, Tsuruko bemoans the fact that the skills of the Shinmei-ryū school, which have been passed down for generations in order to protect others, have been abused by an "angry petulant little girl" like Motoko.
  • In A Force of Four Superman was the Earth's protector for forty-seven years and Power Girl is his heiress. The two of them are decent people. Badra, Mala, Kizo and U-Ban… are not. They’re confident that their powers allow them to get away with anything: Killing, raping, destroying…
  • In-Universe in Service with a Smile, there is a bit of a social barrier between civilians and Huntsmen. As Jaune's business gains popularity among Huntsmen, many of his civilian customers start abandoning it. As Roman points out, Hunstmen have super strength and can cause accidents without meaning too.
  • In Supergirl story Hellsister Trilogy, Satan Girl shows how dangerous and terrifying it'd be a Pre-Crisis Kryptonian with nonexistent morals. She’ll head-butt a planetoid out of orbit only for amusement.
    Kryptonians could survive in space without a suit. Was that not a pleasure? It certainly was. She could live her life between the stars, and never once need to breathe.
    She could devastate planets, wipe them clean of life. Rebuild them at her whim.
    She could tyrannize worlds, whole systems of planets, make them bow to her mighty hand, instantly execute anyone who dared protest—or just anybody she wanted to kill.
    She could explore pleasures of the body that Kara never would have dared to, satisfy lusts that the blonde beast never even knew she had. She could force herself upon any suitor, male or female or whatever, and destroy them after their job was done. Or perhaps just maim them, so that they could never again do such a job for anyone else. Satan Girl smiled. Now that was being imaginative...
    She could have children from those couplings, or kill them in the womb.
    She could become a goddess to an unsophisticated planet's people. Drinking in their worship, demanding sacrifice.
    All of this she could do, she would do, and more.
    For Kryptonians and Daxamites were gods, off their homeworlds. They really were. What a pity their morality forced them not to realize that fact.
    She clasped her bent knees to her chest and thought. The problem was, in this time, she was hardly unique. Billions of Kryptonians existed on Rokyn. Billions more Daxamites, with the same power, existed on Daxam. Luckily, there was only one prisoner still left in the Phantom Zone, that old poop Gazor, so there wasn't much competition there.
    But, somehow, she'd have to do something about both planets. Daxam would be easy. A shower of leaden hail across its surface, and the dead would litter the ground in heaps beyond Hitler's and Stalin's dreams.
    That world would stink of corpses for eons to come.
    She laughed soundlessly.
  • In Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Supergirl crossover The Vampire of Steel, Zol-Am was an evil asshole long before being turned. Now he's an evil asshole of a vampire with powers greater than a regular Kryptonian. And he's hungry.
  • Reconstructed in the Teen Titans fanfic Transition. Out of four metahumans affected by the Swirly Energy Thingy, only Beast Boy plays it straight when his attempts to find Raven result in him Slowly Slipping Into Evil. By contrast, Terra starts blaming herself for Raven's disappearance and becomes suicidal, but ultimately stays good, while Raven and Jinx develop Enlightenment Superpowers (which was what the Swirly Energy Thingy was supposed to do) but people's paranoia that they'll play it straight (mostly the police and Batman) inadvertently cause them to wreak havoc before the situation is cleared up and they can fix everything.
  • In Stupor Heroics, the Loud siblings, minus Lincoln, gain superpowers. The already immature Loud siblings just become incredibly dangerous to be around. Even Lori, the most responsible of her siblings, accidentally injures Lincoln and damages his property while trying to help him. Despite Stella being a benign superhero, Lori still tries to get rid of her because of the threat she could pose to her younger brother.
  • The Boys: Real Justice

  • KMFDM's 'Son of a Gun' is, at least on the surface, a song about a jerk-ass superman with a dollar sign on his chest.
    Forged from steel, iron will
    Shit for brains, born to kill
    All are equal, no discrimination
    Son of a Gun, a simple equation
    Son of a gun, master of fate
    Bows to no god, kingdom or state
    Watch out!
    Son of a Gun, superhero number one!
  • Spiritus Mortis' 'The Man of Steel'
    Ultimate in body and soul
    Every cell hard as diamond
    Every thought crystal clear
    March with the man of steel
    Rejoice with the man of steel
    Die for the man of steel
    Obey every command given by the man of steel
  • GWAR is made of this trope, but less focused on taking over the world and more focused on drugs and violence.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The first edition of the superhero RPG Aberrant details the sudden emergence of superpowered humans in 1998; however, Aberrant came as a prequel to the futuristic sci-fi RPG Trinity, which reveals that many of the superhumans (named "aberrants" in the far future) became tainted by their powers, went mad, declared war on Earth, and caused all manners of destruction before taking off for the vast reaches of space. There are some sane "aberrants," but most of them went crazy nuts. Part of the drama of Aberrant comes from either trying to escape the fate of the future aberrants or making sure it never comes to pass.
  • Exalted has the Great Curse, an infliction launched by the Primordials after being defeated by the Exalted that drives Solars and Lunars to states of ever-mounting insanity once they start to defy their core virtues. The books make clear that, for all the shiny transhuman fantasy of the First Age, it could also be a very scary time to live in if you were a mere mortal.
    • To put this in perspective: In Dreams of the First Age, it is revealed that there was a political movement in the Solar Deliberative to literally dismantle the universe and reshape it to their specifications. What's more, they had more than enough power to pull this off. Imagine three hundred beings with all that power and confidence, in absolute control of the world...and slowly but surely going completely crazy.
    • Another specific example in the second edition is in the description of the Charm "Lawgiver's Parable Defense," which allows a Solar to pre-emptively find signs of a crime to be committed against their loved ones. "... a growing number of Solars have stopped using this Charm, suspecting some defect in its design—surely Lawgiver’s Parable Defense must be in error when it points to the Solars themselves as the threats that menace the things they love."
    • On the other hand, Exalted also features the Alchemical Exalted, who were created after the Great Curse was cast and thus aren't subject to the same bouts of insanity as the other Exalted. The Alchemicals are often explicitly compared to traditional modern superheroes in contrast to the Solars and others who bear more resemblance to the heroes and god-kings of mythology.
  • In case you didn't notice the theme in White Wolf's other works, the Old World of Darkness often hints at these matters. The werewolves might be necessary to keep the universe's fundamental aspects of law, chaos, and corruption in order, the mages might be the last chance humanity has for real inspiration and survival After the End, but there's a reason Hunters want to take them down. At best, creatures of the Old World of Darkness are a slow, unavoidable slide down the slippery slope toward the complete destruction of their virtues into complete insanity, and not particularly disposed to think of people as people until then. At worst...
    • In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the Garou are dealing with the far-reaching consequences of their ancestors' cruelty and arrogance. The Garou of ancient times declared themselves masters over humans, then decided to cull the human population through the Impergium. The Impergium afflicted humanity with the Delirium and made it dangerous for Garou to reveal themselves to non-kinfolk humans, driving them underground. Unfortunately, if the tribebooks are anything to go by, many Garou still haven't learned from the mistakes of their predecessors.
    • In Vampire: The Masquerade, Caine and the other ancient vampires ruled over humans in the First City, which wasn't exactly an urban paradise for their human subjects. Several Gehenna scenarios place humanity at the mercy of powerful antedeluvian vampires.
    • Then we get the New World of Darkness. Here things are more or less as before, but without the same drive to The End of the World as We Know It. Half of any given race is on the high road, and the other half give the race a bad name.
  • In Unknown Armies, the incredibly powerful beings that hide amongst humanity are, on average, less concerned with human life and ethics and more concerned with collecting even more power. This doesn't necessarily make them evil, but it does lead to erratic, antisocial behavior that puts everyone around them at risk. And since power directly correlates to how much of yourself you're willing to spend to get it, the most powerful beings that humanity's ever produced often don't map well to any moral compass. They might help you, and they might save the day, but their assistance rarely comes without complications or cost.
  • Horus from Warhammer 40,000 was said to be afraid and resent The Emperor creating the High Lords of Terra because he thought it would mean he and the other Primarchs were to be subordinated to a body composed of normal humans. Horus wanted to guide and protect mankind but he refused to be beholden and accountable to them. Ironically, most loyalist Marines agree.
    • What's worse is that it's heavily implied that the Emperor planned to destroy Primarchs and Space Marines once they had outlived their usefulness. He did destroy their predecessors, the Thunder Warriors.
  • Even though there are no actual superpowers in the BattleTech universe, at their worst, MechWarriors can exhibit much the same drunkenness off the power that comes with driving a 12-meter-tall war machine with enough firepower to potentially level a city block in one salvo. Apart from pirates or too-big-for-their-britches mercenaries, noble-born MechWarriors have also been known to grossly abuse their powers. Perhaps the most egregious example were the various "MechWarrior Brotherhoods" that sprang up where nobles began extorting or worse the residents of planets they were stationed on. Since said residents were not piloting 12-meter-tall war machines with enough firepower to potentially level a city block in one salvo, they really didn't have much choice but to acquiesce, at least until other groups of MechWarriors got fed up with their shenanigans and began opposing them.
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse has Iron Legacy. Originally, Legacy was a hero... up until Baron Blade, his nemesis, killed him in a climactic duel on the Wagner Mars Base. In an alternate timeline, however, Legacy survived at the cost of his daughter's life. In his grief, Legacy killed Blade and took over the world. Oh, and if this is sounding slightly familiar, you're not wrong.

    Web Animation 
  • Discussed in the Overly Sarcastic Productions video "Satirizing Superman." Red and Blue generally don't like this trope, in part because it's actually the obvious answer to what a Nietzschean Ubermensch would be like—superheroes are a subversion of that idea, not the other way around. As a result, "in real life Superman would be evil" isn't a clever observation unless you add something more thoughtful to the story.

  • The Bouletcorp gives us a graphic depiction of life as a normal human in a world with superheroes and villains. In the alt-text he says that it would be pretty much the same for a normal human in a movie like Man of Steel.
  • On close inspection, Girl Genius probably fits this. While Sparks are not explicitly superheroes, they are certainly more physically imposing than your average human, and high-level ones can go toe-to-toe with any gadgeteer. The negative impact on the world is much less arguable; Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is forced to maintain a despotic empire just to keep society from collapsing whenever some Spark decides to get uppity. The Other has come close to achieving The End of the World as We Know It at least once, and Othar's quest to wipe out all the world's Sparks is painted as hopeless and misguided.
  • In Errant Story, the elves decided breeding with the humans was a good idea because of the birthrate being much higher than elf-elf matings, and also to "uplift" humanity. Only half-elves tend to be a lot stronger magically than humans, and many also have either birth defects or a predisposition toward madness. After a lengthy civil war, only one elven city and one-quarter of the population remained.
  • The protagonists of Keychain of Creation are certainly Good, but as Exalted (see above), are very aware of their superiority, and the bad guys are even worse.
  • In Project Außerdem, US government brainwashes a Nazi superhuman with Superman-esque abilities into becoming Premium, America's greatest hero. This worked well enough until a time-traveling villain restored his memories and all the world's heroes realized just how lucky they were to have him on their side.
  • Mountain Time's Surf Rat, though a powerful force against evil, is strongly implied to amass lots of collateral damage. For example...
  • In To Prevent World Peace, Chronos predicts that at some point — if they are not stopped — the Magical Girls will kill all the villains and decide to conquer the world, for its own good, of course. It’s thankfully averted when Chronos shows Kendra her visions, thus ridding this revolution of its future leader. This trope has already happened on a much smaller scale in Brazil, where magical girls led the creation of a separate country, Terra de Liberdade e Mágic, built around their magical system. Word of God claims that the world revolution is bound to happen sooner or later because magical girls become more aware of their power and less content with the social pressure to let things go once they reach adulthood. It’s up to the heroes whether these changes will be peaceful or bloody.
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons webcomic Our Little Adventure, there doesn't seem to be that many high levelled people living on Manjulias. Those who are powerful end up in leadership positions, good or evil. Brian and Angelo are high levelled spellcasters, and though those who serve them regard them as a boon to their race, others are terrified of them and all their followers.
  • In Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, one Running Gag is Superman abusing his powers. This can range from setting fire to brothels so he can save the sex workers, to threatening to smash the moon into the Earth if he isn't granted access to Earth's women, to demanding the key to the city because "I just stopped Superman from killing everyone", to running for president and then threatening to kill everyone with lasers if forced to abide by term limits.
    • Inverted hard in one strip. Decades ago, the people of Krypton sent dozens of babies into space, so that when they grew up they would use their powers to conquer whatever planet they landed on. When the remorseful Kryptonians go to Earth to overthrow him, they are horrified to learn that Superman is the only Kryptonian who didn't take over his adopted homeworld, because humanity produces a steady stream of violent sociopaths to fight him.
  • American Barbarian author Tom Scioli made a surreal story called "Soldier", about a Superman pastiche going crazy and wreaking destruction on the world, universe, and eventually multiverse. What started out as him using lethal force against villains who trying to destroy his hometown developed into paranoia, sadism, and full-on madness.
  • In Strong Female Protagonist, the heroine lives in a world where superheroes cause more harm than good. She retired from (full-time) superheroics as a teenager when she realized this and instead enrolled in college so she can better find non-violent solutions to the world's problems. She struggles with trying to make the world a better place while accepting that she can't just use her incredible powers to force systemic change lest she become this trope.
  • In Captain Stupendous, superheroes are arrogant assholes at best and dangerous psychotics at worst. Even the nicest ones have an obvious superiority complex and refer to normal people as "mortals". They also refuse to submit themselves to the rule of law and police themselves through a parallel court system when normal people can be sued but aren't even allowed to testify in their own defence. The eponymous Superman Substitute is a lecherous, elitist, homophobic douchebag.
  • Hero Killer has the entire goverment as this. They rose as the winning side of a large war, and now rule most of the world with an iron fist. Sure, they employ powered heroes that fight crime, but they mostly focus on subduing remnants of the defeated side, and maintaining their power at any cost. Only a few of them care about civilian casualties along the way. The titular main heroine's tale of vengeance was spurned by some of their clandestine operations murdering her sister.

    Web Original 
  • In Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Doctor Horrible's nemesis Captain Hammer is an anti-intellectual ass who shoves the people he rescues into garbage and whose only use for women is sex. A prequel comic has Dr. Horrible get a sample of Hammer's DNA to create a Super Serum to give himself Hammer's Super-Strength, claiming that his superior intellect will give him an edge. Unfortunately, a side effect of the serum is that Horrible's intellect drops to Hammer's level, turning the fight into a slugfest without a clear winner.
  • In Destine Enormity, the superpowered villains rule Arcadia with an iron fist and force the Normals to live in the Slums.
  • Shades of this occur in Worm:
    • In a setting where superpowers emerge after a Trigger Event, it's been stated that there are more Super Villains than heroes, and even the heroes aren't always what they claim to be.
    • Taken to its logical conclusion on a parallel Earth (Earth Shin), in which a supervillain known as "The Woman in Blue" or simply as "Goddess" used a Mind Control superpower to enslave every other superpowered person in that reality and rules the planet with an iron fist.
    • The obvious example is Scion. Considered the saviour of humanity, he's a strange golden man with powers beyond any parahuman who almost never speaks but instead flies around Earth endlessly helping people. It's later revealed that he's an alien who lost his purpose for living and only helped people because he thought it would fill the emptiness inside him. When he's convinced to start destroying things instead, he finds he likes the feeling, and goes with that instead.
  • Whateley Universe:
    • The Dark Phoenix series of simulations, which pit one supposedly insane teammate against the others, is intended to drive home this point to would-be heroes. Unfortunately, even this is a watered-down version of the potential threats, especially from Tennyo. During preparation for this, Phase at one point rattles off a long list of heroes who, for various reasons, went evil, and the horrific rampages they went on.
    • When Stygian, intent on Suicide by Cop, confronts Tennyo with the (literal) ghosts of the Star Stalker's past, she is horrified to learn the being she's bound to has destroyed entire star systems as casually as one might swat a fly - over her eight billion year existence, whole galaxies have fallen to the Destroyer, and the only emotion she seems to have experienced was mild frustration. Rather than driving her into a murderous rage, Billie goes catatonic. She still doesn't know the full truth, however: that the Star Stalker's primary purpose was to destroy the entire multiverse in case the Great Old Ones couldn't be stopped by any other means.
    • A lighter version of this trope is the hero known as the Flying Bulldozer. At one point in his ongoing battle against his nemesis, Doctor Debt, the Flying Bulldozer tried to stop him by throwing cars at him. He stopped the Doctor, and also caused millions of dollars in property damage and put dozens of innocent bystanders in hospital.
    • Imp, as a villain who's been in the business for decades, has a lot of things to say about superheroes. She'll readily admit that there are many who genuinely want to do the right thing, but there's also far too many who got into it because they want people to look up to them, not because they care. Those 'heroes' — and others who are self-righteous — inevitably become convinced that because they are heroes, anything they do is justified. She doesn't agree.
  • Red Panda Adventures supervillain the Crimson Death was given Combo Platter Powers in a project that experimented on low-level supervillains to pass their powers to him. While his creation is stated to be intended as a check against lone wolves like the Red Panda who answer to no one, the Crimson Death himself states his creators really just wanted a superhero they controlled. This backfires as the Crimson Death's debut episode features him killing everyone who knew his identity.
  • Done jokingly on Superdickery, which takes out-of-context images (mostly from the Silver Age) and uses them to paint genuine heroes and heroines like Superman as complete and utter dicks.
  • In Magic, Metahumans, Martians and Mushroom Clouds: An Alternate Cold War, several mentions are made of metahumans turning to lives of crime with their powers. The most prominent example so far, however, is Sabhas Bose, whose telekinetic and flight abilities lead to him declaring himself chosen by the gods (and later viewing himself as an incarnation of Shiva), leading an ultranationalist takeover of India, and going to war with Pakistan.

    Real Life 
  • Debates over transhumanism and genetic modification occasionally bring this up, the concern being that, someday, the rich would be able to buy their way into becoming physically and intellectually superior to the masses (on top of the social and economic advantages they already have), leading to a society that is even more stratified than our own.
  • Surprisingly, some experiments and studies indicate that this trope would actually be either averted in Real Life or depend heavily on what kind of powers the person gets. People who simulated being a Flying Brick in the vein of Superman were found to act more benevolent and polite to the researchers, as if the very thought of being like Superman caused them to feel the need to be altruistic. Ironically when offered powers on the opposite end of the spectrum like invisibility or mind reading, most refused the idea out of explicit fear that this trope would come into effect; one man, when offered flight or invisibility, chose invisibility only to then change his answer after some thinking. He expressed the fear that being invisible would tempt him to indulge in morally dodgy behavior.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Tyrannical Superhero, Knight Templar Superhero, Rogue Super


Not All Supermen are Good

Lois finally unlocks the orb file she retrieved from the League's headquarters and begins watching a holo-recording of another Superman. Who suddenly devastates the Metropolis he's in. She watches more Supermen turn violent and realizes not all Clarks are good.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / WhamShot

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