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Defence Mechanism Superpower
aka: Defense Mechanism Superpower

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"The Avatar State is a defence mechanism, designed to empower you with all the skills and knowledge of all the past Avatars."

A character has a superpower that only works when they're threatened — they can't initiate it at will, and occasionally they can't stop it either. This kind of situation is a common cue for heretofore unknown powers to develop or for existing ones to undergo a dramatic boost in power, either temporarily or for keeps. A storyline in which the character tries to learn to use their power voluntarily is a likely result.

If they are held back by a mental block of some kind, harnessing their abilities might be a matter of attaining Enlightenment Superpowers.

Can be used in a similar way to Always a Bigger Fish, with a cowering hero looking up to discover their aggressor has mysteriously been blasted into dust and muttering innocently "Did I do that?".

Villains may have better control of their defence mechanism superpower, if they have one: not only they will display less incontinence, they don't have to put much thought to defend themselves — as their Powers Do the Fighting.

In video games, this may come in form of a passive ability that activates when you get hit by an attack, or when the enemy's attacking you. Compare Critical Status Buff and Desperation Attack, where having low health/getting attacked a lot either gives you a buff or allows you to perform a powerful attack. Video-game bosses tend to Turn Red when sufficiently injured. This is seldom explained in story terms, but in cases where it is, one common explanation is this trope. Contrast Status Effect-Powered Ability, an offensive version of this trope.

Counter-Attack is a Sub-Trope, since you need to be attacked first. Compare Die or Fly and some cases of Traumatic Superpower Awakening, in which a power is initially discovered in this way, but can be used freely thereafter. If the superpowers attained are related to the specific nature of the danger, it's an Adaptive Ability.

May overlap with Heroic Safe Mode which is more about how existing powers are used than new powers. May also overlap with Berserk Button or The Berserker if they can't stop once they start.

Also see Emotional Powers.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Brave10, the villains don't seem to pick up very quickly that kidnapping Isanami and putting her friends in danger is a one-way street to getting unconsciously vaporized by her.
  • In Code Geass, Lelouch accidentally gives Suzaku one such power when he uses his Geass to compel Suzaku to "live" in response to his attempting to pull a Heroic Sacrifice to apprehend him as Zero. Since then, the effect of the Geass activates in Suzaku when his life is imperiled, allowing him to escape from practically any deadly situation. Late in R2, Suzaku learns how to harness the effects of Geass on him to improve his fighting prowess, allowing him to even overcome a rival pilot's Combat Clairvoyance: his will to "live" overcomes his enemy's power.
  • Digimon Adventure: Digivolution is usually triggered when the Digimon's partners are in danger. In the episode "The Arrival of SkullGreymon", Tai exploits this by deliberately putting himself in harm's way to force Greymon to digivolve to the Ultimate level. It doesn't work out the way he hoped.
  • Dragon Ball:
    • As a child, Gohan could only access his hidden powers when properly threatened or angered.
    • Unlocking the famed Super Saiyan transformation in Dragon Ball Z requires the user to lose all mental and emotional restraint, to get an incredible boost of power. This usually involves life-or-death stakes and/or a great personal loss.
    • In the finale of Dragon Ball Super, Goku muses that this is how Ultra Instinct — Mastered seems to work. Unlike his various Super Saiyan forms, Goku can't activate the form at will. It's only when he's in a truly life-or-death situation, such as having his universe erased if he didn't win the tournament, that he's able to tap into the form's power.
  • In Fate/kaleid liner PRISMA☆ILLYA, Illya first awakens to her higher powers as a Grail Vessel in this manner. Facing down Saber Alter without the Magic Wand that usually gives her magic powers, suppressed memories unlock and she begins to activate her own native magic powers, which, when combined with the Archer card she had on her, prove enough to take down the rogue Servant.
  • Inuyasha:
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure:
    • A Stand called "Achtung Baby" (yes, the entire series consists of music references) activates its power of invisibility when its infant user is scared. Of course, in a series where Heart Is an Awesome Power, this is incredibly useful.
    • Since Stands primarily protect their user from harm, it seems that it's not uncommon for Stand Users to learn of their power in this way. For example, in Stardust Crusaders, Jotaro demonstrates by attempting to shoot himself in the head at point-blank range; before he even learns how to control it properly, his Stand, Star Platinum, responds autonomously by catching the bullet mid-flight.
  • Naruto: Gaara qualifies, as he is protected by the sand controlled by his inner demon, Shukaku. The ninja war arc reveals that he is protected by his mother, not Shukaku.
  • In Neon Genesis Evangelion, if Shinji is in a particularly grave psychological threat, Eva-01 goes into "berserker mode" where it breaks off from its technological restraint and becomes a Super Robot which is actually an Eldritch Abomination that savagely dismembers said threat. The basis of the Omniscient Council of Vagueness' conspiracy is about ritualistically using this defence mechanism's Reality Warper capabilities to trigger The End of the World as We Know It In Their Own Image. Said defence mechanism is powered by the soul of Shinji's mother. Fitting, with how this series is based on Sigmund Freud's theories about defence mechanisms and maternal relationships.
  • One Piece: The Invincible Pearl can manifest flames when he felt threatened — i.e. whenever anyone manages to put a scratch on him through his supposedly invincible defense — while screaming "DANGER!! DANGER!!" While he does this through entirely mundane means (building and lighting a fire), he had a severe phobia of fire, making it still Power Born of Madness.
  • Ranma ½: The titular character has the Neko-Ken technique. His mind "learned" it as a way to briefly escape his crippling ailurophobia when he's absolutely surrounded by cats and is unable to flee from them, turning him into a cat. It happens more often than you might think. While it makes him immensely powerful, lightning-fast, and savage, he still thinks like a cat while in that state, making it an Useless Useful Spell that anyone with half a mind can thwart and defeat.
  • Emergy Maxfell of s-CRY-ed can only conjure his alter when he feels threatened, and it gets more powerful the more hopeless the situation gets.
  • Hana Asakura from Shaman King: Flowers possesses one of this. After a close encounter with death, Hana was given by Hao the same Oni summon ability his mother Anna used to have; they will be released whenever Hana's life is in danger.
  • In Soul Eater, Death the Kid has one of these, shown when he is in serious danger of being killed by Mosquito. The activation is involuntary and appears to allow for a significant boost in power and healing serious injury. It was presumably a function Shinigami allowed for so that Kid would be able to defend himself if put in mortal danger while still a child. The fact that Mosquito knew what Kid really was — and mocks him for it — suggests that he should have known better.

    Comic Books 
  • One of the Kudzu Plot elements of Countdown to Final Crisis is Jimmy Olsen suddenly getting all of his Silver Age powers at the same time thanks to getting the New Gods' souls jammed into him. One of them activates when he's seriously threatened.
  • Empowered: Empowered's existing powers get much more effective when Ninjette is busy disproving the Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu, as well as in a couple of other situations of extreme danger. Possibly justified in that her powers work best when she isn't second-guessing herself or afflicted with low self-esteem: a situation so dangerous or scary that it can be her only focus is therefore a powerup.
  • Green Lantern: Any member of the Green Lantern Corps will be defended or kept alive by their ring when unconscious, regardless of the 24-hour limitations. This is usually with just a thin shield but can be tapped to use real powers if conscious but trapped. Some Green Lanterns are even able to make their rings run solely on willpower from within. All other ringslingers share this power, and Sinestro corpsmen need to do this as a rite of passage.
  • The Incredible Hulk: It could be said that the Hulk could qualify as having such a power, assuming that whatever's threatening Bruce Banner manages to anger him enough. Some of the Hulks certainly see part of their purpose being to deal with anything that threatens Bruce. Some stories have established that, if Bruce has been mortally wounded, it triggers the transformation regardless of whether he's angered or not.
  • X-Men:
    • Lifeguard was a short-term member of the team whose powers were "whatever's necessary to get people out of harm's way." Under fire? Armored skin. Someone's falling from a building? Sprout wings. Like Darwin, this doesn't always translate into "beat the bad guy threatening everyone." Worse, if she's in danger, she's on her own.
    • Darwin sounds like the most literal example. His superpower is nothing but defense mechanisms, of any imaginable variety, for any and all situations, cranked up to the point of invincibility. It's just too bad he doesn't really have anything for offense. So while he can survive almost anything, he rarely has the ability to actually win a fight. On one notable occasion, his powers decided the best way for him to survive fighting the Hulk was to teleport him — to the next state over. However, in at least one What If? story dealing with Vulcan, who was prepared to murder everyone in the X-Men to cover up how he'd killed all the X-Men trapped on Krakatoa in a kind of "No, I didn't mean to!" situation, Xavier guides Darwin into taking a more proactive, controlled use of his power as he feeds it information on what's happening, resulting in Darwin's power forming the ability to destroy the part of Vulcan's brain that accessed his powers, rendering him permanently powerless.

    Fan Fiction 
  • Anchor Foal: It rarely happens in the present day, but an unmarked foal in great peril can sometimes manifest in self-defense, gaining whatever talent is necessary to survive the peril. Fluer's mark is stated to be such a manifestation.
  • In Child of the Storm, Harry's protection from his mother, which takes the form of a connection to the Phoenix, combined with Death-Activated Superpower — whenever he's in mortal danger, dying or dead, the Phoenix protects him, usually fairly subtly (relatively speaking). First by protecting him from Voldemort's killing curse as a baby, then by incinerating Quirrell, then by ensuring that Fawkes came to his aid in the Chamber of Secrets, and then by giving his Psychic Powers the nudge they needed to activate and send a distress call, triggering the events of the story, and in chapter 58, scaring off Hera. Then, in chapter 71, subtlety is dispensed with by resurrecting him, possessing him, and going on a rampage that kills at least a couple of dozen HYDRA Agents and several hundred Dementors.
  • Date A Live: Altered Timeline: It has been shown that when the Spirits' powers are not yet fully awakened, their Angels will take over their bodies when they sense power strong enough to threaten them, even that of another Spirit's. This is first shown with Origami, who went into a trance and attacked after seeing Tohka.
  • Ringo in With Strings Attached. He automatically teleports to a safe location when he is badly startled. This can be inconvenient when he ends up somewhere hundreds of miles away from the others.

    Film — Animated 
  • In The Incredibles, Violet Parr gets a boost to her force field powers (effectively permanent until she dissolves them, probably six feet in diameter) when she and her brother, Dash, are threatened by the villain's mooks. Inverted earlier in the movie: when requested by her mother to put a force field around a plane to stop them being blown out of the sky with ground-to-air missiles, she panics and is completely unable to concentrate and make one that's a) large enough to cover the plane or b) exists for more than a second.
  • The title character in The Iron Giant is a massive alien war machine that, due to damage caused during the initial landing on earth, is completely unaware of its true purpose. Unfortunately, the Giant's weapons and more destructive mindset can be triggered against its will if it perceives a threat.
  • At first, Miles Morales's invisibility in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse only kicks in if he's really afraid. He figures out how to use it on command later, at least.
  • In Turning Red, in addition to being Emotional Powers, Mei's transformation to or from a giant red panda occurs when she's in danger of being injured.

    Film — Live-Action 

  • A Certain Magical Index:
    • Accelerator's Psychic Powers, named "Vector Change", make him basically untouchable: any kind of harmful object (fist, bullet, radiation, extreme heat, etc.) that touches his body gets its vectors reversed and reflected away from him without doing him any harm. This is just its basic "setting", however. If he makes active use of his Vector Change, he can do many other things with it. Using Vector Change to the maximum extent possible can only be done by willingly shutting off this auto-defense, however; this fact is exploited by one villain to land a successful shot on Accelerator that leaves him with crippling brain damage (he recovers... sort of).
    • Whenever Touma becomes separated from his right arm and the ability to direct his Imagine Breaker properly, the invisible thing emerges. Rather than just a superpower as far as the series is concerned, however, it appears to be a sentient something intrinsically connected to Touma and partially suppressed by Imagine Breaker that listens to him.
  • In The Children of Man, the blue magic of the Nikelan Oracles will generally protect them from harm. In one memorable case, an Oracle fell off a cliff, and her blue generated a force-field around her, causing her to bounce down the cliff unharmed.
  • Kayneth Archibald El-Melloi of Fate/Zero has this in the form of the Volumen Hydragyrum, an enormous bolus of mercury that (a) he manipulates at will and (b) automatically defends him against threats.
  • Galaxy of Fear: From time to time, Tash Arranda forms a kind of bubble around herself while under attack, which can even push back attackers that are close enough. It doesn't always even appear, though.
  • In Harry Potter, this is how young wizards first manifest their powers prior to learning to control them. In Harry's case, for example, his first memory of using magic is apparating away from some pursuing bullies. Other manifestations include shrinking the incredibly ugly sweater he was forced to wear until it no longer fit him and growing all his hair back overnight when the Dursleys had shaved him bald. Lots of wizard children are lucky enough to manifest by levitating a favorite toy that no one will pick up for them, or something — it's just unlucky ones like Harry and The Amazing Bouncing Neville who have good stories.
    Hagrid: Did you ever make anything happen? Anything you couldn't explain, when you were angry, or scared?
  • The main character in Richard Sabia's short story "I Was a Teen-Age Secret Weapon" has a psychic power that causes anyone who displays hostility towards him to lose coordination and become accident-prone. He never really becomes aware that he has this power, and only the military scientists who have been studying him seem to know about it.
  • The Legendary Moonlight Sculptor: As a reward for completing an epic quest arc, the main character Weed unlocks a new class for players, the Necromancer, and is rewarded a high-level, as of yet unknown power from the class called The Power to Reject Death, allowing him, when he dies, to resurrect as a random member of The Undead class of monster with new stats and powers until he either dies again or until 24 hours have passed and he returns to being human. In addition, some of his revivals grant him full-on control of necromancy skills, while his class type is normally locked out of any variety of sorcery.
  • In Mistborn: The Original Trilogy, Vin decides that she has this. When losing a fight, she is saved by doing something with her existing magic that nobody knew was even theoretically possible — specifically, she drew on the titular mists for a much-needed power boost. She later counts on this trope coming into play to save her. In the end, that doesn't work, because the ability isn't actually an example of this trope like she thought it was. Rather, something else had been blocking her most of the time.
  • Mother of Learning: The soul marker stamped on Zach automatically detects tampering with his mind or soul, or the death of his body, and resets the time loop to protect him from it. He initially doesn't know enough about soul magic to interact with it deliberately, but it later turns out to be possible with the right training. Those features can't be disabled, though, only manually activated to reset the loop early, so he can't alter his soul in beneficial ways such as acquiring a Familiar.
  • Pacifica from Scrapped Princess is seemingly only able to use her scream attack when under extreme stress.
  • Bink, from the Xanth novels, had one of these; people incorrectly believed him to have no magical talent at all because no one had ever seen it activate. It turns out that he cannot be harmed by magic, making it one of the most powerful talents ever — to the point that the talent, itself, will literally enact Gambit Roulettes in order to keep magic from harming him. The talent works in indirect ways in an effort to hide its own existence; after all, if somebody knew Bink's talent, they might find some non-magical rock to bash in his head with. Eventually the Evil Magician Trent figured it out because his powerful magic caused Bink's talents to generate increasingly implausible scenarios to protect him. Good thing it turned out Trent wasn't actually evil.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Angel episode "Untouched" features a girl whose telekinetic powers work this way. They started as a result of sexual abuse by her father and kicked in when she got threatened.
  • Charmed (1998):
    • Piper, who has the power to freeze time, activates by being startled or scared through most of the first season.
    • Phoebe's levitation activates during a fight with a demon. Her premonitions are mostly received to inform her that some innocent's life is in danger.
    • Paige can only orb for a long time when startled or in immediate danger.
  • Chuck:
    • "The Morgan" can cause heart attacks and slippage near very high and broken windows.
    • Now we have Intersect 2, which is essentially a bucket full of one Defence Mechanism Superpower after another.
    • 2.0 actually both subverts it and plays it straight. Chuck can only use it when he's not overly emotional, which means he can use it when he's not in danger. The moment things get stressful he can't use it until he really needs to, at which point he emotionally either enters the eye of the storm (if somebody else is in danger) or has to use a calming mantra (if he's in danger).
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Doctor himself has this, like all Time Lords, in the form of Regeneration.
    • Possibly a bit different, but the Weeping Angels turn to stone when they are being looked at. When they reappear in "The Time of Angels", it is clarified that they aren't just stone — you cannot, for example, break them with a hammer — but somehow out of phase with the universe in such a way that they cannot be damaged at all in stone mode. The word "quantum" may be involved.
      Tenth Doctor: They have survived this long because they have the most perfect defence system ever evolved.
  • In Earth: Final Conflict, the organic Energy Weapons known as Skrills are revealed to have been re-engineered from a race of primitive insect-like creatures that fire blasts of energy when threatened. Companion Protectors control their Skrills using their Cyber-Viral Implants.
  • Heroes:
  • The Sentinel: Jim Ellison's Super-Senses awaken due to the stress of being isolated in the remote jungles of Peru. When he returns home, he forgets about it due to PTSD, but when he becomes solitary again as a cop on a stakeout, they reawaken. Power Incontinence and How Do I Shot Web? are major components of the show.
  • Time Trax: The Procardians have a defense mechanism activated involuntarily under threat or extreme stress. They turn sideways (while still looking at the target/threat) and raise their fists with the farther fist being higher. They emit an energy blast that knocks the target into a coma.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Exalted: The Black and White Treatises describes "The Battle's End", a spell that compels all combatants in an area to stop fighting. It's powerful, but it's used for diplomacy, not surprise attacks; the caster loses temporary Willpower points if they attack anyone, and everyone under the spell is freed. Narratively, the spell is powered in part by a goddess of peace, so it makes sense that she would punish those who exploit it.
  • GURPS has the limitation "Emergencies Only" to simulate this.
  • This is a major shtick of white cards in Magic: The Gathering. In particular, Righteousness and Smite come to mind.
  • From the Mutants & Masterminds splat book Hero High, we get the Holding Back drawback. If enough of your team is disabled or if an appreciable number of innocent lives are at stake (including your own), you switch into an overdrive mode that makes you several levels stronger than you normally are.
  • The World of Darkness: In the Old World of Darkness, this is how a werewolf first manifests his powers — shifting to Crinos form when threatened and leaving his would-be-tormentors as pink mist. At least one edition of the core book had a foreword that was written as an experienced werewolf talking down one who had changed for the first time, explaining to him that what just happened was okay and (relatively) normal. This carries over into Werewolf: The Forsaken, where it's noted that a significant chunk of Rahu (the warrior Auspice) undergo their First Change after some asshole tries to start something with lethal intent, usually resulting in said asshole ending up in pieces.

    Video Games 
  • In Bug Fables, this happens twice to Leif. The first time, he initially thought he wasn't capable of fighting, as he was the scout in his exploration team, until an enemy sneaks up on him. He uses ice magic to freeze it out of reflex, surprising himself as well as Vi and Kabbu. The second time, Dr. HB is unable to identify the cordyceps inside Leif by scanning, and wants to dissect him, resulting in him putting up a Bubble Shield to keep him away. In both of these cases, once his reflexes awakened the respective abilities for the first time, he was able to use them at will afterwards.
  • In Diablo III, Leah's power acts like this in the first two acts, only unleashing when she is in serious danger. When she finds her mother Adria again, she starts learning to control it, becoming an able mage.
  • In Golden Sun, adepts have forms of Psyenergy which unconsciously protect them when they need it. This is first demonstrated in a cutscene in the first game when they first enter Kolima or Kolima forest. They discover that some crystals are raining from the sky and turned the villagers into trees. They're knocked unconscious but are protected by a shield (which reappears in several other parts of the game to help avert Convection, Schmonvection and the like). They vow to make an attempt to master this unconscious power, but never actually learn to willingly trigger it.
  • The Longest Journey Saga: In The Longest Journey, April Ryan doesn't have conscious control over her Shifting (i.e. dimension-hopping) powers for most of the game, and muses bitterly in her diary on how she only seems to be able to open Shifts when running for her life. Subverted later on when she learns to trigger her powers with her painting skills. Inverted in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, where it turns out that losing her powers after TLJ was actually a defense mechanism that "protected" April from going back to Stark and confronting the mess she made of her and her friends' lives by going on her first adventure.
  • Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story gives this to Bowser. Whenever he gets himself crushed by something massive, his "Rump Command" becomes active and requires the brothers to pump him full of energy. The end result is that Bowser grows to Godzilla-size, ready to Megaton Punch whatever just smashed him.
  • Transistor: Spark(), as a passive, does a Doppelgänger Spin when triggered by being attacked:
    Spawn a Copy when attacked, diverting nearby Targets.
  • In Valkyria Chronicles, the powers of the Valkyria are activated only in life-threatening situations. The main Valkyria encountered through the game (as an enemy), Selvaria, was revealed to have stabbed herself to activate her powers. Later on, when a major character on the player's side is revealed to have been a Valkyria as well, this translates in gameplay into massively improved stats that only activate when the character's health drops below 50%.

  • El Goonish Shive:
  • In Minion, the only time we've ever seen Gin in werewolf form was after a skeleton warrior KO'd him with a morningstar.
  • It's hard to say for sure, but it seems like the Monster in the Darkness from The Order of the Stick might have some of these — at least, whatever it is that happens in #661. In this case, it's not the MitD itself that is threatened — who knows what could do that — but those it has come to care about.
  • Tower of God: At first, Twenty-Fifth Bam's powers are completely passive, resulting in magic resistance. Occasionally, like when he and Rachel get curb-stomped by Hwaryun, they are a last defense and use Shinsu to cut up faces, and eyeballs.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers: Super-Soldier Shane Gooseman of the Galaxy Rangers has the reflexive ability to adapt into a form that can withstand whatever hazardous environment or assault he's being exposed to.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Avatar State starts out as this, presumably for every Avatar. With effort and meditation, though, he or she can go in and out of it at will.
    • It should be noted that until they reach the level where they can control entering/exiting the Avatar State, the Avatar has very little direct control over their actions in the Avatar state at all. Aang unintentionally dishes out some epic destruction on Earth Kingdom soldiers when a general provokes him into the transformation in an attempt to help/force him to master the state before he's ready. He also almost certainly kills more Fire Nation soldiers than he would ever be comfortable acknowledging when he fuses with the Ocean Spirit.
    • The entire reason Aang survived becoming a Human Popsicle for a hundred years is that he instinctively used the Avatar State and a combination of air and water bending. Spending the entire century trapped in the Avatar State kept him alive, but it also burnt up the extra vitality that being the Avatar normally grants, leading to a relatively early death in his sixties (technically 160s).
    • In the Sequel Series The Legend of Korra, some villains try to exploit this: if the Avatar were to die in the Avatar State, the Avatar Cycle would be broken. So they capture and poison her.
  • This is revealed to be a function of the Omnitrix in Ben 10: Omniverse: if the wearer is about to die, it will shift through every single DNA sample it has until finding one that can survive the given situation.
  • In Gargoyles, Fox is the daughter of Halcyon Renard and Titania. Despite that, for the whole series, she shows no signs of being anything other than a normal human. That is, until Oberon tries to kidnap her newborn son, to which she screams and sends him through the wall with a blast of raw, magical force.
  • Steven from Steven Universe is full of these: he inherited a lot of powers from his mother and has mastered none of them. He's not aided by the fact that they're even more unreliable than most. His shield has often totally failed to activate in dangerous situations and one time he found himself unable to deactivate it, trapping him and Connie inside for hours.

    Real Life 

Alternative Title(s): Defense Mechanism Superpower, Defence Mechanism Power, Defense Mechanism Power