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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!"
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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.

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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.

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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.

If a powerful character loses to a still more powerful character to demonstrate the second character's greater power then it's the 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.


Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • The Hero in Maoyuu Maou Yuusha 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.
  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • In Supergirl Volume 5 storyline "Way of the World", the titular heroine fails to save a boy that is dying from cancer, and she has to accept her incredible powers can't fix everything.
  • 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 a Kill ’Em All approach).
  • MegaMan 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."
  • Both the "Heroes Against Hunger" special (the current page image) and Alex Ross' "Superman: Peace on Earth" deal with Supes being unable to stop world hunger from hurting many people, even if he's a Physical God. 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).

    Fan Works 
  • 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.

    Films — Animated 
  • When Jafar steals the lamp from Aladdin, 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.
    • Likewise, 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 The Little Mermaid, 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 
  • 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.
  • In The Dark Knight, the Joker 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.
  • 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".
  • 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 the titular hero confronts him. Doctor Strange realizes that for all his infinite power, Dormammu has no control over time which doesn't exist in his domain. 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.
  • 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.

    Literature 
  • 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.
    • Elfangor didn't crash-land at any random location, he was trying to get to the place where he'd hidden the Time Matrix. The Yeerks caught him before he could fix everything, but he did the next-best thing, giving morphing power to the humans that just happened to be passing through (his human son, Visser One's host's son, a girl with the power to sense temporal disturbances, and the brother and cousin of a high-ranking Yeerk's host).
    • A vecol is an Andalite form of pariah, who has some kind of infirmity (such as a genetic disease or a missing tail) that can't be healed by morphing, which restores the body to its normal state.
  • 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, so it lashes out in a fury and wipes out almost the entire human race and tortures a handful of survivors.
  • The heroes of TheInfected 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.
  • 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.

    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.
  • In the fifth season episode "The Body" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy comes home to find her mother dead from a brain tumor. There is literally nothing Buffy can do despite being a super-powered Slayer, and she very understandably falls to the floor and vomits from the shock.
  • 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.

     Music 
  • 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.

    Myths and Legend 

    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 
  • 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.
  • Horizon Zero Dawn: For all of his godlike power, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Webcomics 
  • 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 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.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has "The Cutie Remark", where all Twilight's magical power can't stop Starlight from destroying Equestria. Twilight's only choice is to talk Starlight down.

    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 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 millions 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. 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.)
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