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Powerful and Helpless

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You can't always save the day by hitting things.
"You have nothing! Nothing to threaten me with! Nothing to do with all of your strength!"
The Joker, The Dark Knight

A hero or villain can have superpowers, fighting skills, knowledge, wealth, power, technology, political and social connections, all of which help them to achieve their goals. But sometimes a situation arises where their power is rendered useless. No, they haven't wandered into the range of a Power Nullifier or been Brought Down to Normal. They don't have Useless Superpowers that regularly fail to work properly. They'll still punch as hard as they normally can, or use their genius intellect to try to think their way out of the problem, or they'll call on all their connections and resources and favors owed, but none of those things matter here.

Unlike an Outside-Context Problem which a character cannot anticipate but might still overcome through More Dakka or Explosive Overclocking their powers, this is a moment which could just as easily be caused by a regular antagonist or circumstance and When All You Have Is a Hammer… just won't solve the problem or the Inverse Law of Utility and Lethality has come back to bite a character hard. This is the moment when a character can see that using their power will gain them nothing and get them nowhere.

For a hero, it may be because the villain has captured a loved one and is using them as leverage, or is forcing the hero to make a Sadistic Choice where they can only save one person while condemning another. Or maybe in a universe with magic and super powers, there's no way to bring someone back from the dead.

For a villain, perhaps they need to crush the hero's spirit and send them past the Despair Event Horizon to achieve victory, but Torture Is Ineffective and the hero simply won't break, no matter what. It also might be the case of a character with powers who just can't improve his own life with them.

These situations often arise to teach a character and the audience a valuable lesson: One can't solve every problem just by being what they're an expert at; there is great value in expanding one's knowledge; a friend can help with a problem, or that one can gain somehow by losing. This lesson is an antithesis to Time to Unlock More True Potential, in that improvement can also go sideways instead of forever upwards.

Sometimes there's a situation where a fighter has To Win Without Fighting. Or it could be that a Flying Brick can only succeed by learning to be a Guile Hero. Or the Science Hero has to stop overthinking and see that there's a Mundane Solution. It could also be a Necessary Fail in order to ensure a positive outcome some other way in the future.

Often though, it winds up being a case of Failure Is the Only Option and a lesson that we all need to Know When to Fold 'Em; Misery Builds Character, and tragedy makes for good drama.

This trope can be related with Unwitting Pawn, in which case the hero's physical abilities or resources are useless against the guile of The Chessmaster, the Manipulative Bastard or the Magnificent Bastard. On the flip side, the latter three can themselves fall into this trope against someone that's Too Dumb to Fool.

If a powerful character loses to a still more powerful character to demonstrate the second character's greater power then it's The Worf Effect. If a character's power takes the form of wealth but they can't pay for a solution like buying their way off a sinking ship, then it's a case of Money Is Not Power. If a character literally loses their powers and/or abilities and has to find a way to succeed without them, then they're Brought Down to Normal or Your Magic's No Good Here. Compare with Reed Richards Is Useless where the hero has powers/resources/tech that could solve numerous real world problems but only ever seems to use his gifts to fight the next villain. Also compare with Kungfu Proof Mook where it's a specific opponent who's immune to the hero's regular abilities. Contrast its polar opposite, This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman: the character's power is usually lame and has little use, but upon meeting a certain specific situation its use becomes highlighted. Contrast also Swiss-Army Superpower where they can use their powers for a lot of things, even improbable ones.

Whatever the situation, this is where it really pays off to be Crazy-Prepared.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Hayate Yagami is without question the strongest living mage in Lyrical Nanoha, to the point that the TSAB has to put out evacuation warnings when she takes to the field (even her weakest spells are equivalent in power to carpet bombing). That said, there's very little practical application in a peacekeeping organization for "NUKE EVERYTHING!", so she makes do with her skills as a commanding officer most of the time.
  • Jujutsu Kaisen: Downplayed by Satoru Goro. He's an impossibly powerful Jujutsu Sorcerer, capable of easily curb-stomping even the most powerful enemies in the series. However, his real goal is to reform the Jujutsu System, the hierarchy that governs the Jujutsu Sorerers. He takes a lot of issue with the Elders who control the system, often ideologically clashing with them. He muses that, given how powerful he is, he could just kill them all and wrest control away from them... but concludes that doing so would be counterproductive to the long-term reforms he wishes to implement. So instead, he became a teacher and is working on a bottom-up reformation of the Jujutsu system by raising up a generation of powerful students who can stand with him as equals.
  • Played for Laughs in One-Punch Man: Saitama is the most powerful man in the universe and the only thing in said universe that can survive his strength is not the mighty enemies he curb-stomps with a single punch, but the extremely annoying little mosquito that occasionally pops up to bite him.

    Comic Books 
  • In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan laments that despite all his vast power, he is just a puppet of a deterministic universe who can see the strings and cannot alter the future even if it ends in the destruction of humanity.
  • In the X-Men franchise, Magneto's immense magnetic powers can defeat almost any threat to himself, but can't do anything to make people stop hating mutants (which is one of his reasons for often taking it to extremes).
  • Mega Man (Archie Comics) has this in "Prisoners of War", Issue 49: after defeating every robot master thrown at him & salvaging their I.C. Chips (the robot equivalent of a soul / personality), Mega Man helped rebuild them, intending to give them a 2nd chance & purpose by reprogramming the battle robots for more mundane uses. However, some masters saw modifying their core programing to be the same as erasing their true selves, choosing to be shut down as themselves instead. Needless to say, this devastated Rock, whom Dr. Light told: "We can't save everyone, and not everyone wants to be saved."
  • Superman:
    • Both the Heroes Against Hunger special and Alex Ross' Superman: Peace on Earth deal with Supes being unable to stop world hunger from hurting many people, even if he has godlike power. His absolute best attempt to rally food for the needy can only feed them, at best, for one day (and even then, he has to fight off warlords and other kinds of cruel people that would really prefer him to be unable to succeed... and partially manage to accomplish that).
    • There is also the two-part storyline Crisis At Hand, where Superman grapples with the problems of domestic abuse as a neighbor is beating his wife and she initially refuses to press charges. It also reveals that his actions in Action Comics #1 lead to the death of the woman he saved. Ultimately, it's Lois who gives the woman to strength to leave and the man to realize that he needs help.
    • The natural deaths of Ma and Pa Kent in The Life Story of Superman and other stories. Clark may be the most powerful being on Earth, but there's nothing he can do.
    • In Supergirl (2005) storyline Way of the World, Supergirl fails to save a boy that is dying from cancer, and she has to accept her incredible powers can't fix everything.
    • In one story, Superman interferes with a war by using his super speed to dispose of all the combatants' weapons, then calls on them to make peace. They don't listen and pick up sticks and rocks to keep fighting. He sadly notes that he cannot defeat the hatred in men's hearts.
  • An issue of Green Lantern, "The City That Died!", features Hal Jordan attempting to handle a city that has suffered a total electrical blackout. While handling the crisis, Hal laments that despite being the most powerful man in the world, he's powerless to counteract the catastrophe.

    Fan Works 
  • Avenging Class: Mysterious Heroine XX and Sam Wilson discuss racism and sadly note that it cannot be solved just by beating people up.
  • Starlight Glimmer becomes this in the one-shot Below Average. After Spike, Gilda, and Iron Will easily brush off her equal cutie mark spell due to lacking cutie marks, two unicorn stallions wear magic-repelling bowties, leaving her with no way to harm them.
  • Fate/stay night: The Dragon of the Seventh Heaven: Tamamo-no-Mae, despite being a Physical God, doesn't know any healing spells, so she can do nothing to stop Asia Argento from dying. Issei Hyoudou possesses Heaven's Feel, but since he is still figuring out its kinks, has no idea how to use it to heal Asia. Issei ends up summoning Jeanne d'Arc, who doesn't have any healing powers either, but she convinces Asia to let Rias Gremory reincarnate her as a Devil.
  • RWBY: Epic of Remnant: The Servants are all killing machines with abilities that dwarf many of the inhabitants of Remnant, and Angra Mainyu is able to repair Gudako's body, but none of them are able to wake her up from her coma and feel really helpless and guilty about that.
  • In the Daredevil (2015) fanfic The Sins of the Father, Matt has to face the fact that he can't do much to stop Wilson Fisk when Fisk still has influence even from a jail cell. This becomes clear very early on in the story, when Fisk has Carl Hoffman assassinated to keep him from testifying at Fisk's criminal trial.
    The thought of Fisk still wielding power from jail was absolutely terrifying. Daredevil could do nothing to stop him while he was inside.
  • Stakes and Fenceposts: Clark Kent sadly notes that despite all his strength and powers, he couldn't save Lana Lang from dying because, "I can't punch a brain aneurysm in the face."

    Films — Animated 
  • Aladdin: Multiple:
    • When Jafar steals the lamp, Genie can do nothing but obey. So in spite of his phenomenal cosmic powers he can only watch as Jafar wishes to be the most powerful mortal on the planet and apologize while sending Aladdin to the ends of the Earth.
    • When the already Drunk with Power Jafar is tricked by Aladdin into becoming a genie himself - he gains the omnipotence he desires, but forgets that phenomenal cosmic power comes at the price of imprisonment and only being able to use that power in the service of a master.
  • In The Little Mermaid (1989), King Triton can do nothing to break the contract Ariel signed with Ursula. All the power he wields through his trident cannot destroy the contract. All he can do to save Ariel from becoming a polyp is pull a Take Me Instead by replacing Ariel's name with his own.
  • In the film Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Darkseid has kidnapped and brainwashed Supergirl. In an attempt to rescue her, Batman has armed the hellspores on Apokolips which Darkseid uses to turn other planets into fire pits. When they go off, the planet will be destroyed. All of Darkseid's power and threats won't make Batman disarm the bombs, and he is forced to give in and release Supergirl.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • In Doctor Strange (2016), Dormammu is the all-powerful Greater-Scope Villain from the Dark Dimension who could consume our universe with ease, and is in the process of doing so when Strange confronts him. Doctor Strange realizes that for all his infinite power, Dormammu has no concept of time, as it doesn't exist in his domain. But Dormammu also can't die. So Strange defeats him by bringing time to the Dark Dimension via the Eye of Agamotto and locking them both in a "Groundhog Day" Loop where all he can do is kill Strange repeatedly for all eternity. This effectively makes Dormammu a helpless prisoner in his own dimension until he accepts Strange's request to leave Earth alone.
    • Avengers: Endgame's Action Prologue ultimately results in this. The Avengers who survived the initial dusting of half the universe follow Thanos to his Garden planet only to discover that Thanos destroyed the Infinity Stones to render his work irreversible. Even Thor decapitating Thanos isn't enough to make their victory anything less than hollow, and it takes Time Travel after a five-year Time Skip to bring everybody back, at the cost of two of the Avengers' lives. Of particular note here is Captain Marvel, who is more powerful than even Thanos, but still helpless to reverse what he did.
  • In Citizen Kane, all of Charles Foster Kane's wealth and power can't stop the world from finding out about his adultery which kills his political career. In fact one of the over-arching themes of the film is that all of Kane's wealth and power fail to gain him the love of others, which is the one thing he truly wants and never really gets.
  • In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the machine entity known as V'ger has knowledge that spans the universe and is in many ways, one of the most powerful beings ever seen in the Trek franchise. And none of it matters to V'ger because it has reached its limits and needs to find a way to evolve into something greater. It even throws an impotent tantrum when Kirk refuses to acquiesce to its demands in the face of overwhelming force.
  • In The Fifth Element, all of Zorg's wealth and power and influence counts for nothing when he chokes on a cherry and there's nobody to save him but his enemy. Cornelius takes a moment to note the irony and rub it in, but he ultimately does save Zorg's life.
  • In The Dark Knight, the Joker proves himself to be Too Kinky to Torture and mocks Batman while on the receiving end of a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown to extract information on the location of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes who have been kidnapped. He rightly points out that Batman can't achieve anything with all of his strength.
  • Death Bed: The Bed That Eats possesses immense psychic powers but is completely immobile and also quite stupid, a fact that the artist ghost mocks it for.
  • In The Sunset Limited, the character who is only named "Black" is trying to convince another character, "White" not to commit suicide. White is an atheist and Straw Nihilist, while Black is a man of God and a Good Shepherd. All of Black's arguments wind up falling flat and his sincere and powerful belief in God, Jesus, heaven and love do absolutely nothing to convince White that life isn't a cruel futile joke and that death isn't a sweet release. Black is presented as a Magical Negro who has to come to terms with the fact that his wisdom is completely useless in helping White.
  • This is exactly the gambit Lex Luthor pulls on Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to coerce him into fighting Batman. Lex has had Martha Kent abducted and held hostage and she will be killed if Clark refuses to fight Bruce. He also makes sure his men don't tell him where they stashed Martha so Supes can't beat the information out of him. Clark's eyes are glowing red and he's ready to burn Lex alive, but knows his mother will die unless he gives in. At that moment, despite all Superman's powers, Lex Luthor has effectively nullified him.
  • The Neverending Story has the Rock-biter, a giant made of stone who eats (of course) rocks. At the end of the movie, we see him sitting alone when deuteragonist Atreyu meets him. The Rock-Biter explains that when The Nothing (a huge vortex) appeared, he tried to protect his small, human-sized friends from it, but the Nothing just ripped them right out from his fingers. So, the Rock-Biter sits and waits for the Nothing to come back and take him too, repeating the Madness Mantra: "They look like big, strong hands...don't they?"
  • In Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Anakin rescues his mother from the Sand People, but can't stop her from dying. Sadly, the lesson he learns from this is not "There are limits to a Jedi's power", but "I need to be more powerful and the Jedi Order's holding me back".
  • Superman: The Movie: Despite his godlike powers, Clark Kent is helpless when his father Jonathan dies of a heart attack.
    Clark Kent: All those things I can do. All those powers. And I couldn't even save him.

  • Morgoth in The Silmarillion. The most powerful being in the universe, and most of his power is beyond his reach, having spread it in the matter of the world.
    • The Valar too, during the Akalabeth: The kingdom of Numenor has risen against them and is sailing to the undying lands to claim the secret of immortality from them, which the Valar don't even have the power to grant. The Valar in their role as guides and guardians of the childrennote  of Illuvatar are also forbidden to raise a hand against them, and so they have to call upon Illuvatar himself to deal with the problem.
    • Sauron, in LOTR. The mightiest being at that point of time, and he can only watch with mortal terror when he discovers the ring is in Sammath Naur, so close and yet so far, depending on the Nâzgul to be saved.
  • Animorphs:
    • In Visser, it's revealed that as the first Yeerks to land on Earth, Edriss and her subordinate took human hosts and had children, and actually grew attached to them. At one point one kid fell sick, and they could do nothing as their ship (which could synthesize a cure in seconds) had to stay hidden.
    • A vecol is a disabled Andalite, who has some kind of infirmity (such as a genetic disease) that can't be healed by morphing (or they cannot morph).
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court:
    • For all his skill and knowledge about modern (for the 19th century) technology, which he used to turn Arthurian Britain into a utopia, Hank Morgan can't do anything when his daughter falls sick. Thankfully, she gets better.
    • Later, he can't do anything to stop the civil war that tears the country apart after Lancelot and Guenivere's affair is revealed. All he can do is use his advanced technology (gatling guns, electric barbed wire and telegraphs) to hold out against the reactionary knights, up until Merlin's spell (the only one shown to work) sends him back to the present.
  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: The antagonist of this short story is the evil supercomputer AM, a machine with incredible intellect and vast powers. Said computer is unable to move, create, or do anything constructive with its power, as it was built to organize World War III, so it lashes out in a fury and wipes out almost the entire human race and tortures a handful of survivors.
  • The heroes of The Infected are just fine at taking down the bad guys, less so at dealing with systemic discrimination, police violence and the politics surrounding superpowers.
  • In many ways the Crippled God from Malazan Book of the Fallen is one of the most powerful gods of the pantheon, especially because he comes from a different world and his powers follow different rules from everyone else's. But with his body largely destroyed and then chained, he can't wield most of that power directly; he's got to work through subtle, long-ranging effects (like poisoning Burn and the Warrens) or through empowered proxies (like the Pannion Seer or Rhulad Sengar). His actual body is nearly helpless.
  • In Wings of Fire, Darkstalker is an animus dragon, which essentially gives him Physical God level powers to enchant objects to do anything. When his mother, Foeslayer, is captured by IceWings, he is desperate to think of a spell that can save her, trying everything he can - but he's prevented from directly saving her by the animus powers of the dragon who is trying to capture her, Queen Diamond, and he can't just kill Diamond because then she'll be replaced as queen by her niece Snowfox, who is much more extreme than her and would probably kill the entire NightWing tribe. This feeling of helplessness is a big part of him sliding into increasingly more extreme uses of his powers to deal with anything that bothers him.
  • Contessa from Worm has the power to defeat anything... except the entities that will cause the apocalypse. A lot of the problems in the setting are the result of her and Cauldron's desperate attempt to find something, anything, that will allow them to fight off the apocalypse, since despite all their power they're shooting in the dark as much as anyone.
  • In Ward, our protagonist Antares can bench-press 14 tons, is completely immune to damage from the first thing that hits her (and her invulnerability comes back again after a few seconds), and can fly at freeway speeds with near-hummingbird maneuverability. However, many of her problems—teammates with emotional and psychological issues, abusive and neglectful family members, political maneuvering, anti-superhero propaganda campaigns, and so on—can't simply be punched away, even if she was willing to start using her powers to murder people. Thus she winds up using her "weakest" power, the ability to induce certain emotions in others, much more often than you might think, and was forced to pull off several of her greatest accomplishments by good old fashioned leadership, conversation, and dealmaking.
  • In Codex Alera, Gaius Sextus is the most powerful furycrafter in all of Alera, but much of the drama comes from how politics and the maneuvering of his rivals renders him unable to easily resolve most of the problems he faces. In Academ's Fury, a combination of his old age, weariness from constantly furycrafting away endless storms hitting the western coast, and slow poisoning from his wife combine to make him delirious and ranting about this trope, declaring how helpless he is despite all of his power. In Captain's Fury Gaius also has to intentionally avoid using his furies during his infiltration of a traitor's lands, since doing so would alert his enemy before Gaius can get close enough to spring a surprise attack. This leads to him developing a life-threatening infection, since he doesn't dare use his powers to heal it.
  • The math genius of Professor Moriarty, Arch-Enemy of Sherlock Holmes, made Moriarty powerful because he published his first Math treatise at 21 years old, "Treatise upon the Binomial Theorem", that had a European vogue and on the strength of it he won the Mathematical Chair at one of England's smaller universities. Later, his math genius made Moriarty helpless because when he publishes his last treatise "The Dynamics of an Asteroid", the book is so difficult that nobody in the scientific press can criticize it. Without computers to prove or disprove his theories, it's meaningless to continue working in math because there is not another human being who can understand him.
  • The Creator from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant must stay outside of The Land and cannot act directly to counter Lord Foul. His direct action would break the Arch of Time and free Foul from his prison (and his very presence in The Land itself carries that risk). Thus he's forced to act through surrogates like Covenant.
  • Liveship Traders: Dragons are unstoppable killing machines who can go wherever they want and do whatever they want, with no one able to tell them otherwise. However, they are also incapable of building and changing the environment the way that those puny humans can. This has led them to the brink of extinction due to the loss of their breeding ground, with the last full-grown dragon forced to realise that she can only save her species by getting humans to help restore it.
  • Monday Begins on Saturday has Savaof Baalovich Odin - the most powerful mage in history who at some point in his life attained complete omnipotence, with the caveat that his magic must not harm any living being. Incapable of conceiving such a thing, he swore off active magic forever and took over the IT support department of the Soviet "Research Institute of Sorcery and Wizardry".
  • The Hero in Maoyu is a Person of Mass Destruction and the only one powerful enough to defeat the Demon King... but when he actually meets the Demon King and talks things over, he realises that humans and demons should make peace instead. Unfortunately, "millenia-long racial tension" turns out to be the first enemy that he has no idea how to fight. While Hero does eventually grow into a capable diplomat and Guile Hero (and his combat skills still see use on occasion), in early arcs he's pretty much limited to teleporting his more politically-savvy allies around.
  • A Certain Magical Index: Accelerator falls into despair and goes mad when despite all his world-shaking power, he can do nothing when his adoptive daughter Last Order falls seriously ill. Fortunately, Touma and others eventually lend a hand.

    Live Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation has a few examples:
    • In "Skin of Evil" Armus murders Tasha, physically tortures Riker, and emotionally tortures the rest of the Enterprise away team in order to gain amusement, yet it doesn't amuse him for long and he can't get them to obey him or break their spirit despite his vast power. Rubbing his own impotence in his face turns out to be the key to defeating him, as Picard discovers.
    • "The Best of Both Worlds": The Enterprise crew defeat the Borg by turning their collective consciousness which is their greatest strength into a weakness. Data plants a sleep command into an assimilated Picard, and the rest of the Borg automatically obey the command because of their interconnected nature.
  • In the Supernatural season finale "Alpha and Omega" (S11, EP23), Amara who is God's sister and equal and opposite in power is unable to prevent her own demise along with the rest of the universe because she delivered a fatal blow to her brother and everything goes with Him if he dies - a fact she is very aware of.
  • The Series 9 finale three-parter of Doctor Who is effectively one long case of the Doctor being this.
    • In "Face the Raven", the Doctor is lured into a trap street (a hidden alien refugee camp) in London because his capture will buy it protection from the outside world. Alas, the method of luring him in threatens the life of a friend of Clara's, Rigsy, and in hopes of saving him she rashly decides to take on his death sentence, figuring that if worst comes to worst she'll be rescued by the Doctor himself. Problem is that he can't undo what she's done or stop what's now coming for her, so she'll be dead in in eight minutes. The Doctor loves Clara dearly, and proceeds to threaten Ashildr and the entire trap street with destruction, declaring he'll call on his allies and even his worst of the worst enemies to do so, if she does not fix this situation, even as she pleads that she cannot. Clara declares You Are Better Than You Think You Are and he is forced to realize that if he makes a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against helpless innocents, he will break her heart with the knowledge that her mistake turned him evil. All he can do now is watch her die and allow himself to be handed over to his enemies...
    • Thus in "Heaven Sent", the Doctor is trapped in his own private prison/torture chamber/hell, being endlessly chased by a creature that will kill him if it ever catches up to him. He spends the whole episode trying to think his way out of the prison until he finally realizes that all his genius won't help him. There are only two ways out: one is to give up, admit defeat and confess a secret he knows must never be told; the other is to endure a four billion year cycle of torture, death and resurrection while endlessly punching a wall harder than diamond to grind it down so he can reach freedom. He laments the worst part of it all is that all his genius and determination might make him succeed, but it won't matter because Clara is still dead and will remain so. But thinking on his Clara inspires him to see the horrible process through. And so...
    • "Hell Bent" reveals that he's been Driven to Madness by the above events and is now The Unfettered — and the reason he wouldn't tell that secret is because he realized it could give him access to technology that he believes he can use to save Clara from her death. The Batman Gambit this requires goes off without a hitch, but just as he hits a Hope Spot he realizes that no, he can't free her from her time-looped, Only Mostly Dead state after all; he's violating a fixed point in time and thus the entire space-time continuum faces destruction. He still tries to see his Tragic Dream through, claiming he is no longer accountable to anyone, but at last Clara herself causes him to have a Heel Realization and he accepts that he must give it up not only for the greater good, but for his own good. In the end, while his efforts do allow Clara to have myriad adventures within the last moment of her life he is not able to enjoy the fruits of them, and he also loses his key emotional and physical memories of her, his karmic punishment for not accepting fate and giving up his principles to futilely fight it instead.
  • In the series Once Upon a Time, the character of Rumpelstiltskin becomes cursed as an immortal nigh-omnipotent sorcerer called "The Dark One" at the cost of slowly being twisted and corrupted by dark magic. His son Baelfire discovers a magic bean which will open a portal to another realm without magic where he and his father can live in peace. Rumpel who has become addicted to power, refuses to go and loses his son through the portal. Unfortunately for him, his vast powers don't include dimension hopping, so he is completely helpless and unable to bring his son back. He does discover another way to reach the other realm, but it requires centuries of planning, manipulation and dirty deals. This is how he evolves into The Chessmaster of the series.
    • Rumpelstiltskin makes a deal with someone who wishes for immortality as his price. Rumpel informs him that his powers cannot grant immortality even though he has it himself as The Dark One. He can however wind the clock back and make people younger.
  • Arrowverse:
    • Supergirl (2015):
      • In "Survivors", Supergirl confronts Veronica Sinclair/Roulette and orders her to stop her criminal activities. Unfortunately, Roulette is completely unafraid of and unimpressed by her, and none of Supergirl's power or threats can change her mind, even when Supergirl burns her with heat vision, since she knows Supergirl won't kill or maim her. Roulette is eventually arrested, but gets out immediately due to her connections.
      • Similarly, the Corrupt Corporate Executive Morgan Edge is completely unafraid of Supergirl because she won't kill. At one point, Supergirl tries to give him a warning by suddenly flying him to the middle of nowhere and leaving him there. The next day, he's back home and laughs off Supergirl's actions because he's so rich and well connected that it was child's play to get a ride home.
    • Crisis on Earth-X (the CW's Crisis Crossover arc wherein the Nazi evil counterparts of several superheroes attack Barry Allen's wedding) provides us with "Overgirl", the evil counterpart of Supergirl that has embraced the whole "walking Physical God" mentality and has the power to back it up... and she's suffering an uncontrollable solar power buildup that will kill her unless she gets a heart transplant (namely, from the good version of Kara Zor-El). She and her husband (the evil version of Oliver Queen) spend a lot of their scenes undergoing the drama that they are racing against time. Sure enough, our heroes prevent Kara's vivisection and Overgirl's energy build-up reaches critical levels and she explodes during the final fight, driving the evil Oliver to perform a Suicide by Cop to the good Oliver out of despair.
    • Superman & Lois: In the Pilot Episode, Clark Kent realizes his superpowers are useless to help when his father dies of a heart attack, his mother dies of a stroke, and then Morgan Edge buys the Daily Planet and does layoffs of several employees including him.
  • Hercules: The Legendary Journeys: In "Twilight", Hercules' mother Alcmene suffers a heart condition. All Hercules can do is sit by her side and comfort her, and she dies at the end. Iolaus sadly tells him that for all his strength and fighting skills, this is a battle he cannot win.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • Twice in the episode "Ted". When Buffy's mother falls in love with a man named Ted, Buffy quickly finds out that he's cruel and manipulative when no one is looking, but acts polite and friendly when others are around. To Buffy's dismay, she's forced to just let Ted insert himself into her family, as any use of violence would just make her look like the villain. Buffy's actually thrilled when Ted punches her, as she finally has an excuse to pummel him using her Super-Strength... only for Ted to get knocked down the stairs and have no heart beat after. Buffy then has to deal with a police investigation (where her increased healing rate makes it hard for the police to believe it was self defence), and when she narrowly escapes any charges, she still has to deal with the guilt of having killed someone and the huge toll it takes on her relationship with her mother, at least until it's revealed that Ted is actually a robot.
    • In the episode "The Body", Buffy is unable to do anything when she comes home and finds her mother on the couch, dead from a brain aneurysm. Buffy is left nigh-catatonic, wondering how long Joyce had been in the house and if she could have been saved, even as the doctors state that the aneurysm was very sudden and there's nothing Buffy could have done even if she had been at her mother's side at the time.
    • In Season 6, being a superhero does not make Buffy any less vulnerable to typical homeowner problems, such as a pipe bursting in the basement. Nor does being a superhero provide her with any viable income to pay for home repairs, and having a construction foreman for a friend (Xander) doesn't entirely resolve the issue of costs.
  • The Marvel Netflix shows generally have the heroes facing off against villains that their powersets really aren't useful against.
    • Daredevil (2015):
      • Matt Murdock may be the Devil of Hell's Kitchen, and he can beat Wilson Fisk in a brawl, but Fisk isn't the kind of guy who can be scared off by threats or a beating. He's a powerful crimelord with connections who can play the justice system like his personal fiddle. The show makes a big point of the fact that taking down Fisk requires Matt to use his legal skills as a lawyer and his physical skills as Daredevil.
      • For all his power in the underworld, Fisk is unable to stop his girlfriend Vanessa Marianna from being poisoned at one of his fundraisers. While he can use his money to get her the best doctors, all Fisk can do is stay by her hospital bedside until she recovers.
    • Jessica Jones (2015): Jessica's superstrength isn't useful against Kilgrave since he uses mind control to get others to do things for him. Not to mention, for most of season 1, Jessica is trying to keep Kilgrave alive in the hopes of exonerating Hope. Only once Hope dies do the gloves come off.
    • Luke Cage (2016): Luke Cage is a bulletproof man with friends in the NYPD. But the threats he faces off against, largely from the Stokes-Dillard gang, are ones where his superstrength and invincibility mean nothing when it comes to powerful crimelords with connections and the ability to spin Luke as a bad guy in the press.
  • Cobra Kai: Daniel's daughter Sam is the top student in Miyagi-Do karate, having been taught by Daniel and Mr. Miyagi. But then in the season 2 finale, she gets into a fight to the death at school with Tory Nichols, and while Sam wins the fight, she suffers from severe PTSD for most of season 3. When Tory shows up to aid her Cobra Kai teammates in a fight with Miyagi-Do at the laser tag, hearing her voice is enough to cause Sam to shut down and retreat from the fight, rendering her totally helpless while the fight turns in the side of the Cobra Kais and Hawk breaks Demetri's arm. She's so afraid of Tory that she considers giving up karate entirely just so she doesn't have to worry about facing Tory again, forcing Daniel to pull her out of school for a day and give her a pep talk about how important it is not to give in to fear.
  • The genius physicist Sento Kiryu / Kamen Rider Build lives in an alternate Japan that was split into three parts by an alien artifact. The leaders of the individual parts/city states got tired of their passive agressive power struggles and declared war over said artifact. There was nothing Sento could do to stop it. Unsurprisingly, a perpetually broke vigilante like him has no money, publicity or political power. So he attempts to fix the situation with what he has - by inventing means for his side's Kamen Riders to overpower the other side's Kamen Riders as soon as possible to minimize the collateral damage and casualties. It absolutely fails and he is driven half-mad with sorrow and guilt, which then leads to more desperate attempts and more suffering. In the end, he failed to stop anything. The war, the destruction or even his family's death.
  • It's not surprising that a show like 9-1-1 would highlight this happening to its heroes, but it's not just cops and firefighters who discover that can't always save the day. 911 operators suffer 'dead-end calls' where they can't do anything even with their databases or connections with the police, and just have to listen to their callers die.
  • Angel: In several episodes, Angel attempts to intimidate members of Wolfram & Hart with displays of his Super-Strength, but since they know he does not use lethal force on humans, they tend to be unfazed and mock him for wasting their time.

  • Iron Maiden: The titular song of Powerslave delves into the thoughts of a pharaoh who, for all of his worldly power and the worship as a living god by his subjects, is a "slave to the power of death"—he will die, just like everyone else will, and he dreads this.
  • The Lucero song "Tácticas de Guerra" ("Tactics of War") uses this in a romantic (if not symbolic) fashion. The song's narrator is a woman who holds a tremendous amount of powers and magical items (including the capacity to Walk on Water and talk to God), but none of these things grant her the courage to talk to the man she loves, which leads to her comparing figuring out how to spit it out to war tactics.

    Myths and Legends 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Part and parcel of being a Darklord in Ravenloft. They are the undisputed masters of their domain, with the ability to prevent anyone from leaving... but they can't leave either, and they are cursed never to achieve what they really want. Strahd von Zarovich is an immortal vampire, but despite all his mind-control powers, he will never win the heart of the woman he loves. Azalin Rex is a powerful lich, but he can't learn any new spells (which kinda defeats the point of turning into a lich in the first place), and he's stuck in the Demiplane of Dread, unable to undo what he sees as My Greatest Failure. Vlad Drakov has a country to control, but he can never conquer any other. Dark Powers make absolutely sure that the Darklords both never get what they want and are never able to just give up their attempts and find peace. It's a good thing they all really, really deserve it.

    Video Games 
  • In Final Fantasy XIV, the Warrior of Light is THE strongest fighter in all of Hydaelyn. This means nothing with cases such as political machinations against them, being drugged, watching your friend's souls get taken one by one, and dealing with The Corruption of becoming a Lightwarden.
    • Yet another source of frustration for The Scions of the Seventh Dawn is their inability to help the Warrior of Light deal with the primal threat directly. Despite being on par with the Warrior on the battlefield, entering a battle aginst a primal without the Echo to protect thenwill only make the situation worse. As such, they're forced to watch largely from the sidelines or fend off Mooks while the Warrior takes on the latest primal uprising on their own (or with their fellow Echo-using adventurers). Later averted in Endwalker thanks to Nidhana's and her research team's progress with their Warding Scales. The devices repell the corrupting aether from Primals, allowing the bearer to be safe within proximity regarding tempering. As such, the Scions actually fight the Magus Sisters and Anima together with the player character - the first Primals they have been able to battle in the entire game.
  • Horizon Zero Dawn: For all their godlike power and the ability to create and destroy worlds, all the AIs in the series have some inherent flaw or obsession that prevents them from achieving true free will or growing beyond their programming.
    • The Big Bad Hades is ultimately just what any artificial intelligence really is; a big, immobile computer. His strength is entirely dependent on what systems, machines, and people he can control and without those things he’s helpless. He spent most of the time prior to the events of the game trapped in an inactive machine, unable to do anything until a human discovered him, and once Aloy manages to get past all his minions in the climax, he’s totally defenseless.
    • Gaia, despite her capacity to recreate the world from scratch, is still subject to the artificial limits imposed by her programmers and producers. In particular, CEO Ted Faro decides he wants humanity to start over and deletes her historical archives, forcing her to watch as humanity's education system is destroyed by the same man who accidentally ended the world.
    • Nemesis is limited by its own insanity. Despite their incomprehensible power and overwhelming, nigh-magical technological space armada, they are ultimately an uber-sociopath forged from the mental copies of the worst people in human history, and tempered with isolation until their sanity evaporated. They could become a god - but their mind is too broken to think about anything but humanity's destruction.
  • God of War (PS4): Kratos, the bloody god who brought the Greek Pantheon crashing down in his original trilogy, is completely powerless to help his son Atreus after he falls seriously ill. What makes it worse is that Atreus's condition—the contradiction of "a god believing himself [to be] mortal", as Mimir surmises—is ultimately Kratos's fault, as he has staunchly refused to tell his son his true heritage, out of fear that Atreus might become something like the monster he is. The most Kratos can do is entrust Atreus to Freya's care, while he travels to Hel to obtain an ingredient that can help Atreus recover.
    • Kratos has been this since the beginning. What he wanted most of all was forgiveness for his sin of familicide, and the ability to either live with it, or forget it entirely, leading to years of service to Olympus and finally the final act of deicide. When he finally achieves the goal set to him by the gods, Athena says that he is forgiven for his past deeds, but he will never be able to forget (Athena claiming that's a power beyond even the gods), sending him into suicidal depression. When he then attempts to kill himself, the gods deny him that release and turn him into the God of War, so that now he will be tormented by his sin for eternity. He ends up taking that poorly.
  • Very, very present in the Legacy of Kain series.
    • Kain himself in his debut game suffers from this, despite gaining various powers and weapons and taking various levels of badass as his potential as a vampire grows, he's still unable to keep himself from being manipulated by Moebius into inducing a genocidal crusade against the vampire race. This actually becomes a part of his Character Development across the years, as he comes to realise that magical or physical prowess has no use in the web of manipulation that has been built across Nosgoth.
  • Medieval II: Total War: You can have the strongest empire in the game spanning all of Europe, a treasury packed with gold and a professional army that even the Golden Horde fears to challenge - and none of it will matter when The Black Death strikes. Expect half your city population to die, and your army to wither to next to nothing. There is no cure and germ theory of disease will not be a thing for 700 years, so no way to prevent the spread. The one upside? Your enemies are just as much ruined by the disease as you are, and you can infect your own spies and send them into your cities to infect them as well.
  • Kessler forces this on protagonist Cole in inFAMOUS: presented with a Sadistic Choice between saving Trish or saving 10 doctors, Kessler tells Cole to choose, with death as the outcome for the choice he doesn't make. However, it's a Morton's Fork: if Cole saves the doctors, Trish dies. If Coles saves Trish, it's not actually Trish but someone else, and Trish (hidden with the doctors) dies anyway. And Cole's amazing electric powers, which allow him to fly, throw lightning and call down immense lightning storms, can do nothing to prevent that outcome. Just as Kessler planned: he needed Trish to die to keep Cole from holding back when the Beast shows up.
  • Arguably the Central Theme of Dragon Age II. No matter how powerful or clever Hawke is, no matter how many heroic acts they perform, they are ultimately powerless to defeat the greatest, most pervasive threat of all, which is gradually bringing about Kirkwall's downfall; mundane social decay born out of unresolved infrastructural issues, rampant factionalism, ethnic bigotry, weak leadership, and a growing divide between economic classes.
  • In the finale of Deus Ex, Bob Page is on the verge of merging with Helios and ascending to godhood... but Transformation Is a Free Action is completely averted and the process to surgically integrate him into Helios takes time, meaning that Page cannot actually do anything to defend himself against JC or prevent him from disrupting the fusion process. All he can do is hope that the defenses he set up ahead of time slow down JC enough to let him completely merge with Helios. They don't.
  • One of the big ideological conflicts surrounding Overwatch hinges around this idea. In its heyday, Overwatch (the in-universe organization) was hailed as a beacon of hope full of legendary heroes who would save the world from evil and destruction (from the Omnic Crisis to bigger criminal organizations like Talon), but this idealism only took them so far. Maintaining their honor and the red tape of international legality took its toll on their ability to directly and permanently correct larger systemic problems, with their peacekeeping operations giving way to clandestine Dirty Business that ultimately had good intentions, but thoroughly tanked their reputation, led to their disbandment, and ultimately set the world into an even darker path where the bad guys effectively won through attrition. Several prominent figures — most notably Jack Morrison and Gabriel Reyes — fell apart from the disillusionment leading up to Overwatch's collapse, with Morrison becoming the dreaded Vigilante Man "Soldier: 76" and Reyes becoming the even-worse new "Reaper" of Talon. However, many other heroes maintain their various approaches to justice out of impulse or simple orneriness, with their collective desire to live up to the heroic "power" of yore leading to them reinstating the organization, knowing full well that doing so is illegal. Collectively, it seems that when faced with this broad form of helplessness, the response everyone has (even the villains) is "Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!"
  • Doom Eternal: The Doom Slayer, despite essentially becoming a force of nature, couldn't prevent the fall of his newfound comrades the Night Sentinels and their planet Argent D'Nur due to treachery from their leadership and from within their own ranks, in the form of secret deals with Hell, conflicting allegiances and ideals, and even being sold out by their own friends.
    Samuel Hayden: "All your strength, all that rage, and you couldn't save this world from itself. But this time, Earth will be different...."
  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: As mentioned under the Literature folder above, the Big Bad of the story is AM, an evil supercomputer with godlike power that's been torturing the five survivors of World War III for over a century. One day, AM decides on a new "game" for them to play—he entraps each survivor in a simulation that reflects their worst fears and insecurities, hoping to break their spirits. But for all of AM's omnipotence, he can't stop the group from making moral choices, leaving him helpless as he watches them win his games and overcome their flaws. This directly leads to an even bigger example of the trope in the endgame: one of the survivors is able to enter AM's mainframe and discovers the three central components of the supercomputer, represented by a literal Freudian Trio. To get the Golden Ending, the player must invoke a Logic Bomb on each component, destroying AM's sanity; the one for the Superego is "Clarity," which forces AM to realize that he'll eventually rust away into a pile of inert junk, and not a single one of his abilities can prevent it. The one for the Id in turn is already painfully aware of how much power it has while being unable to do "a god damned thing with it", and expressing Compassion for it (making it realize no matter what AM does to you, it's still the most tormented thing in the complex) serves the same purpose.

    Web Animation 

  • Archipelago: King Fandango tried use his power as an absolute monarch to order his subjects to stop hating his half-breed cousins. As said cousin Tuff explains, he might own them, but he can't change who they are or how they feel.
  • In The Greatest Estate Developer, Javier is an unbelievably talented swordsman and the original hero of "Knight of Blood and Iron". But for all of his strength, he lacks the business acumen or the revolutionary ideas required to dig the Fronteras out of their debt. Seeing Lloyd's accomplishments convinces Javier to protect him in earnest because Lloyd is the family's only hope of survival.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: Onni, the most powerful of the mages involved in an expedition exploring a Forbidden Zone ridden with Plague Zombie monsters, is part of Mission Control because he's extremely scared of the Forbidden Zone in question in addition to not being The Immune. He can technically help long-distance if needed, but can only do so if he knows he's needed, something for which he needs to rely on the weaker mages who are actually part of the expedition.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Justice League episode "This Little Piggy", Batman and Zatanna are trying to rescue Wonder Woman who has been turned into a pig by the witch Circe as an act of revenge. Circe cannot be defeated by Zatanna's magic or Batman's fighting skills, so he decides to negotiate by giving something up instead, and it works. The "something" he has to give up? The secret that he is a talented singer.
  • The Legend of Korra:
    • The series at one point provides us with the story of Wan, the First Avatar. When he became the Avatar he was the most powerful Bender in the world and was able to defeat Vaatu, the spirit of darkness. Yet for all his power he was ultimately unable to stop the strife between people he unwittingly unleashed when he first freed Vaatu. After a lifetime of fighting, Wan died full of regret that he failed to undo his mistake.
    • The continuation comic book The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars provides us with the fact that the Earth Kingdom is very strongly heteronormative, and Avatar Kyoshi (one of, if not the, strongest Avatars we've seen on-screen (other than maybe Wan), and The Woman Behind the Man in the E.K. government) never could do anything to stop this intolerance (which affected her personally, being revealed to be bisexual) no matter how hard she tried.
  • In Miraculous Ladybug, Hawk Moth has the power to transform people into akumatized supervillains with all sorts of incredible powers... except bringing his wife out of her coma. To do that, he needs the protagonists' Miraculous, but since his power is to empower others, he has no choice but to rely on his minion, whom he cannot directly control. The villain can put his loved ones in danger, make Stupid Evil decisions that cost him yet another victory, or get easily tricked because Sanity Has Advantages, and the only thing Hawk Moth can do is threaten to remove their powers.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has "The Cutie Remark", where all Twilight's magical power can't stop Starlight from destroying Equestria, since Starlight has set it up so any time Twilight attempts to time-travel, she will too. Twilight's only choice is to talk Starlight down by dragging her into the Bad Future she caused.

    Real Life 
  • Comics writer Alan Moore hates the very idea of his work being made into movies because of how they botched From Hell and V for Vendetta. DC Comics and the movie industry have constantly tried to buy his favor in the past, promising him millions of dollars if he'd just let them put his name on movies like Watchmen to give it even more legitimacy because it'd have his approval. Mr. Moore always says no. He doesn't want to be a millionaire and he doesn't want his name on any movie adaptations of his work. He doesn't mind if someone adapts his work, so long as they don't associate his name with it. He cannot be bought. Entertainment industry giants worth billions of dollars are powerless to persuade him.
    • The only time he ever accepted it was with the DCAU's adaptation of his famous "For the Man Who Has Everything," arc. Namely, they asked him for permission before writing it and one reason was believed because it was his work on Superman and nothing original. That, and aside from excluding Jason Todd from the story, the DCAU adaptation changed almost nothing from his original. Because it didn't need changing. It was also one of the only two adaptations of his work he ever liked (the other being the intro to Watchmen as an 80s Saturday Morning cartoon, probably because he knew it was meant to be parody and found it hilarious.)


Video Example(s):


Melony Cannot Free Axol

Despite having been granted immense powers by the Fierce Deity Mask, Melony is unable to break Axol free of Zeros' control.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / PowerfulAndHelpless

Media sources: