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Strong as They Need to Be

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Vegeta: Wait a damn minute, something's wrong here. Back on your planet, the Namekian couldn't even stand up to Nappa. Yet here he is, now, taking on Freeza. In his second form!
Gohan: What do you think happened?
Vegeta: Well, either Freeza hit me so hard I'm in a delusional coma, or...
Gohan: Or...?
Dragon Ball Z Abridgednote 

Every so often, the villain is just too powerful. They're going to destroy the world, or at least control it. Sometimes, if the writers really want it to seem like a big deal, the villain will threaten the entire galaxy, universe, or even multiple realities. It seems all hope is lost. And there's nothing the heroes can do to stop it.

Then, suddenly, the hero will decide that he's serious. This time is for reals. He'll whip out some until now unforeseen strength, and promptly show the villain what for, usually demolishing the bad guy so completely that it prevents them from ever pulling that world threatening crap again, or at least until the writers want them back.

This trope isn't The Power of Friendship, nor The Power of Love. It isn't just a Forgotten Superweapon, and only rarely is it related to positively sick levels of training. No, this trope is only really in effect when a character suddenly displays a level of power that has not even been hinted at up until its point of use. There have been no scenes depicting the character practicing towards this level, and no dialogue has given any indication that the character is aware that they are capable of it, or indeed, that they even know this level of power to be possible. They simply find themselves in need, and are subsequently capable of defeating their enemy, with no outside help whatsoever.

If any explanation is given at all, this is usually handwaved as the character having simply held everything back up until this point, never mind all the dangerous, possibly near-death encounters they've most likely been through up until this point that could've really used something like this.

Another explanation is that the extra power is used only in dire emergencies because it's extremely dangerous, has a very limited number of uses, or is positively guaranteed to cause Really Bad consequences. If so, it's an example of Godzilla Threshold, not this trope.

It goes the other way too. Characters can often be found struggling to defeat a particular foe, when considering their skill and compared to the baddies they faced in the past, it should be a piece of cake. Used to pad out time length with elongated fight sequences as well as to prevent the heroes from defeating a villain that the writers need for later. This conspicuous decrease in power invariably is a staple of shounen filler arcs.

This trope does not always need to involve powers relating directly to beating the tar out of things, of course. If any hero is suddenly able to call upon powers they have never shown or hinted at before, with no explanation given by him or any other character, chances are they are Strong As They Need To Be.

Often a result of the writers letting the Rule of Cool take over. If called upon to Handwave or put a lampshade on this, the character might give a "No More Holding Back" Speech.

Can overlap with Berserk Button, Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass, and Power Creep, Power Seep. For long running, decades-long franchises, especially Comic Books, some overlap with Depending on the Writer may occur as well, especially as one author may shower a character with high showings while a later author given new reins over the character may subject them to lower showings that stack up awkwardly and perhaps embarrassingly compared to their past accomplishments. Compare with I Am Not Left-Handed, Imagination-Based Superpower, New Powers as the Plot Demands, and Only the Author Can Save Them Now. Contrast Drama-Preserving Handicap.

For the phenomenon of "As Big As They Need To Be", see Not Drawn to Scale, Your Size May Vary, and Telescoping Robot.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Bleach:
    • It seems that every arc gives a separate explanation for why Ichigo's power is inconsistent. Originally, it was said that he couldn't control his power because he hadn't been properly trained. Later on, it's said that his power levels are linked to his resolve to win. Once he had better learned to control his power, villains learned to exploit his fluctuating resolve by beating down his self-confidence by demonstrating their greater power or revealing a few carefully chosen truths about his friends or family that he didn't know. Eventually, he caught on to this tactic and verbally chewed out the next villain who tried it. Then in the "Lost Substitute" arc, it's revealed his substitute badge was suppressing his reiatsu, because the high brass of the Shinigami were worried that they couldn't fully trust him, and that the previous substitute would turn him against the Soul Society. And finally, the final arc claims that the real reason his power fluctuated so much is because his "Shinigami" power, known as Old Man Zangetsu, was actually his Quincy power, secretly masquerading as his Shinigami power and only permitting him to access just enough to survive. When he and Zangetsu confronted each other about it, Ichigo learned that his true Shinigami power was the Inner Hollow that had trained him in an antagonistic way. Once he had accepted both spirits as his weapon, his power levels stabilised for the final Big Bad of the story.
    • When Kenpachi and Ichigo fight, their spiritual power initially matches. Feeling he lost the fight, Yachiru tells Kenpachi they'll grow stronger together, and every fight after this shows that he is indeed stronger. When he comes close to death against Nnoitra, he suddenly powers up enough to defeat Nnoitra after appearing to do nothing more than swing his sword two-handed. It's eventually revealed that Kenpachi gains a power-up every time he's brought to the point of death. As a child, he was so powerful that when he met his first Worthy Opponent, he subconsciously suppressed his powers when he was on the verge of victory because he was terrified of killing his opponent and thus ending the fight. Whenever he comes close to dying, he allows himself to use more of that power as he realizes that whoever he's fighting is strong enough to take it. He eventually achieves the Shikai and Bankai weapon releases other Shinigami take for granted, learning in the process that Yachiru was his weapon all along.
    • During the Bount Arc, Ichigo is unable to use his Bankai, to make sure the arc had no impact on the canon story. Then once he is able to, he still isn't as strong as the last time, despite being immune to the spirit-damping effects of the real world.
    • During the laterGotei 13 Invading Army arc, Ichigo's power constantly fluctuates because the arc is set after he used Final Getsuga Tensho, which made him lose his Shinigami powers; the arc has him keep them to some extent, but it's made clear that he's on borrowed time until they're gone for good. He manages to temporarily return to full power in time for the final boss fight.
  • Campione!: The Bull Authority has this is as an explicit rule of its use; it can only be used if the opponent also has Super Strength, and only grants strength equal to the threat.
  • A Certain Magical Index:
    • Fiamma of the Right explicitly has this as his power. His ability, The Holy Right, usually manifests itself as a giant bird-like claw growing out of his shoulder. The Holy Right is nearly omnipotent, but it only uses the right amount of force to accomplish what Fiamma wants at the moment. The more powerful his opponent, the more powerful it becomes. Which is why, when he swings it at Touma after depriving him of Imagine Breaker and the strike is deflected by the "Invisible Thing" inside his arm, he nearly goes into a panic attack because that shouldn't have been possible, especially since Fiamma had just obtained his power-up to become stronger than God Himself.
    • Touma's Imagine Breaker seems to vary in the power of what it can negate. At one point, it manages to destroy Gungnir, a divine weapon that destroys the entire universe as a mere side-effect of being thrown, and Touma is left with just two broken fingers. Yet at other times, it gets overwhelmed by attacks from human magicians or espers, forcing him to deflect/redirect the attacks rather than outright negate them. The general rule of thumb seems to be that an attack that requires a constant power output, such as a Kamehame Hadoken, is harder to negate than a simple magical object like the aforementioned Gungnir. This is shown when he has trouble negating a massive continuous explosion of power generated by the magical weapon Curtana Original (and in fact ends up getting blown away by it), but has no problem destroying the sword itself when he actually manages to touch it.
  • D.Gray-Man revels in this trope. One time you'll see the whole cast ganging up on a single demon and taking several episodes to beat it, at great cost. The next day, despite being weary of the fight, they can kill them by the dozen.
    • Averted with level 4 akumas, who are still crazy tough and require you being general-level in strength just to beat one. The first one actually had a lot more punishment than the rest of them as it had all the generals, the protagonist and a recently re-empowered Action Girl against it.
  • Dragon Ball:
    • In Dragon Ball (particularly Dragon Ball Z), this is very common. One character is beaten, and a few moments later (without any chance of training), he is so much stronger that he can beat the guy who has just defeated him without even sweating. This is justified for the Saiyans after the first arc with a technique called "Zenkai", basically that "Saiyans get stronger after being put near death". More often than not, Zenkai gets a Saiyan to equal or slightly exceed the power of the next opponent they face. That opponent then often reveals another form, and beats them again.
    • Fusions and transformations generally make a character strong enough to exceed the biggest threat currently out there. Either their opponent then gets a transformation, or that's the last fight of an arc.
    • The majority of training characters go through is done offscreen or over time (at least in the manga), and the end result of it is generally that they gain as much power as needed to be relevant, interesting to watch, or able to stall until Goku or Gohan enters the fight.
    • Goku directly invoked this trope in the Buu Saga, using up the rest of his time on Earth to force himself to a ridiculously high power level and hold off the villain long enough for Trunks to escape.note 
    • For a majority of the series, vast differences in power levels were usually portrayed as hard walls. No matter how hard a weaker character tried, they would never be able to even scratch a stronger character. However, around the point after it was stated that Goku had absorbed some of his God powers into his natural state in Battle of Gods, large differences in power levels being portrayed as impossible barriers started to slowly disappear. Characters like Master Roshi, Krillin, Tien, Android 17, and Piccolo began having far better showings against established strong characters than they logically should, especially Master Roshi in the manga who was able to hold his own against Jiren. In addition strong characters like Goku seem to get randomly weaker, such as Goku getting injured by a bullet that he saw coming, even though he got surprise shot in the head as a kid with no injury. And then there's cases where both seem to happen at once, like Goku and Krillin's sparring match, where Goku is portrayed as stronger than Krillin but not nearly to the utterly one-sided no effort curbstomp degree that it logically be at this point even in just his base form. This is sometimes hand-waved with a character implying that they did some training off-screen or other characters saying they'd slacked off and subsequently become weaker, to varying degrees of believability.
  • In Hajime no Ippo, the titular character has been known to being beaten to the point of barely being able to move by the second round, but managing to hold on for another 5 rounds anyway, then managing to beat his opponent in an attrition battle.
  • Inazuma Eleven the Orge: First season Raimon has to fight the third season's Big Bad, who can easily defeat Zeus, the first season's villain who the heroes needed to struggle so much against to win in the TV anime. What do they need to win within 30 minutes? A Kid from the Future, four new players, and some four-tier above abilities the heroes learn because they're getting really serious.
  • Kekkaishi: Yoshimori Sumimura works two ways: either everyone's praising him for being way stronger than he should be because he took out a tough opponent; or he's getting lambasted for letting a weak opponent walk all over him. The way he fights tends to be ludicrously inefficient against weaker opponents, though, which provides a legitimate flaw for somebody who's Weak, but Skilled to exploit.
  • Maken-ki!: Takeru's "Blood Pointer" ability enables him to draw Element from others and his surrounding environment to temporarily boost his fighting abilities. Which is how he went from barely surviving an encounter with Tesshin, to being strong enough to go toe-to-toe with Ouken Yamato and Takeru Yamato back-to-back, only minutes later. But days afterward, he realized that with his own power alone, he was weaker than a third year student.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, the last arc has Treize use the Tallgeese II, which official specs list as just redeco of the first Tallgeese. Yet, its shell-firing dober gun act like a buster rifle and blow up Virgos II, even with their planet defensers deployed!
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Asuka's Evangelion Unit-02 in End of Evangelion is only armed with a short knife and limited energy supply because of the damaged power cord, yet she manages to disarm nine mass-produced Evangelions — each with the ability to fly, and each armed with a massive greatsword that can turn into a replica Lance of Longinus and ignore any AT Field — with only 20 seconds for each. Prior to that, she had already wiped out a small army of a battleships, several tank battalions, a couple of artillery brigades, a few more VTOL gunships, and tanking an N2 Missile. Then the mass-produced Evas regenerate and gang up on the downed Unit-02.
  • In Nurse Angel Ririka SOS the scope of the main characters' abilities is not clearly defined; everyone is as strong as the plot demands. This is especially true of Ririka, who pulls out one-time-only named attacks every so often.
  • One Piece: This tends to be played for laughs. Luffy defeats Arlong in the previous arc, who was the most powerful pirate in the East Blue. Yet he's easily restrained by Buggy and his mooks for his "execution" despite showing displays of super-strength and persistence.
    • The most glaring example is the Davy Back Fight Arc. Last arc, Luffy defeated Eneru, an extremely skilled fighter who used one of the most powerful Devil Fruits ever seen. In the Davy Back Fight, he has trouble with Foxy, who, even if one takes into account his Weak, but Skilled status, is indeed extremely weaker than Eneru.
  • Implied and weaponized in One-Punch Man. The most likely in-universe theory about the origins of Saitama's strength is that he has somehow managed to completely disable the natural limits that prevent living things from gaining strength past a certain point. This means that Saitama's physical abilities are potentially infinite and the only limitation is how much effort or restraint he puts into his blows. He can go from casually knocking someone out in a single blow to straight up reducing a monster to Ludicrous Gibs.
    • We learned more about his power when he fought Cosmic Fear Mode Garou in the manga. Faced with an opponent that could actually match his power for once, it only spurred him to keep growing exponentially stronger, to the point where Garou was unable to keep up.
  • Pokémon: The Series:
    • Ash Ketchum. No matter how many incredible feats he pulls off, defeating Frontier Brains, Legendaries, and giving Champions a hard time, he'll still always find himself losing or nearly losing to far less accomplished Trainers. In particular, his strength is most likely to be nerfed at the start of each new saga to keep him from just easily plowing through every Gym Leader, though he's usually allowed to at least retain the skill he's picked up over time (with the exception of Unova).
    • Depending on what the plot calls for, Pikachu can be good enough to take out legendaries and psuedo-legendaries such as Dragonite and Regice, or weak enough to be taken out by a first day trainer with a Snivy, though in Pikachu's case, it has less to do with strength and more with defense, being a Glass Cannon.
    • Team Rocket are just as glaring. They lose so often that their rare success named a trope. But occasionally, they prove to be scarily competent...before going back to being jokes. Case in point, in a Pokemon Sun and Moon episode, they more or less BEAT Ash and all his Pokemon in a fair battle, and the only thing that stopped them from taking Pikachu was Bewear whisking them away again. Fast forward a few episodes and they then get wrecked by a newly-hatched Vulpix...
    • In "All for the Love of Meloetta!", Iris' Axew, a mon in its first stage with a spotty at best record, managed to somehow put up something resembling a fight against Cynthia's Garchomp, a mon that beat four of Paul's team with one hit each. Despite this, it still largely returned to being babied by Iris afterward.
    • Iris's Dragonite is another glaring example. It was set up as incredibly overpowered in its first few episodes, tanking quad-effective Ice-type moves like they're nothing and one-shotting its opponents with ease. Ironically, it completely loses this power once it starts obeying Iris, subjected to The Worf Effect in just about every one of its later battles.
    • The actual competence and strength of any Pokemon is highly dependent on the plot. While there's usually some consistency on which Pokemon are more powerful than others, their individual feats will always change for dramatic or comedic effect.
  • Pretty Cure generally doesn't really have a consistent power scale when it comes to the titular Cures and the Monster of the Week creatures that they fight. If an episode introduces a stronger variant of the monster, expect the Pretty Cure to be on the receiving end of a Curbstomp Battle, while other episodes will probably make the Cure that it features really powerful, no matter how strong the monster god, while in another episode they're fodder.
  • Rosario + Vampire: Just how strong Outer Moka is tends to vary. One minute she can uproot trees with her bare hands and lift giant hammers, while the next she can be physically restrained by ordinary human mooks.
  • In Sailor Moon, Mars and Jupiter seem to have natural abilities that may or may not carry over in their transformed states. Mars uses hers often; Jupiter's implied ridiculous amount of strength, alas, does not really jibe with how fights are choreographed and is much rarer than it should be compared to some other shows. She also tends to get her ass handed to her if she does get to use it.
  • At least in the manga, Samurai Deeper Kyo was this trope. Period. There are even one or two techniques used by the heroes that they had never tried, just imagined, and after getting a power up or going into a Super Mode, they just do it. And we're not talking about trying a "roundhouse back flying kick". We talk about "the technique that draws my blood make-up over your body to boil your blood from inside".
  • Soul Eater, such as with the ending of the anime giving the main groups a couple of late superpowers. While the 'courage punch' had some precedent (the importance of courage having been used numerous times, but never quite so explicitly), things like Maka's Weapon form and Kid's Sanzu Lines had no such setup whatsoever.
    • While Maka's weapon form was certainly an example, Kid's Sanzu Lines were nothing new if you read the manga-the alternate ending is to blame, here.
  • In Superbook, Gizmo's wind-up function generally lasts until the plot requires him to break down. In the first episode this results in the Fall of Man.
  • Tekkaman Blade: Somehow, Blade is simultaneously stronger and weaker in the sequel than he was at the beginning of the original series. No information is ever disclosed to explain this.
  • A rare villainous version: In Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the Anti-Spiral King is shown to only use as much power as the Dai Gurren Brigade uses. This is to specifically invoke Hope Spot after Hope Spot — every time the heroes get stronger, the Anti-Spiral King effortlessly powers up to match them, all in the name of maximizing the terror and despair they feel. It doesn't work.
    • The Deconstruction is also mentioned: The end result of being "As strong as you need to be" in a universe where everyone else can do the same thing is the "Spiral Nemesis" — eventually, two factions each following this trope will fight each other, leading inevitably to the explosion-filled destruction of the universe. Given the fact that the last fight between the ASK and DGB literally destroys one universe, he probably has a point. It's also mentioned that those with the Spiral Power instinctively recognize the truth of the Spiral Nemesis when told about it.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! ZEXAL, the mighty Number monster "Heart-eartH" operates on this principle. It always has a tiny 100 Atk points and 100 Def points. Until you attack it (while it's in attack position), and it gains attack points equal to the Atk of the monster attacking it. So, attack it with a mediocre 1500-Atk monster, and it'll have 1600 Atk points, destroying the weaker monster. Attack it with a gargantuan 5000-atk point monster, and it'll have 5100 Atk points. Combined with its other defenses against destruction by effects, it took some highly advanced cooperative maneuvers by the heroes to get Heart-eartH out of their which point it promptly turned into its true form, "Heart-earth Dragon."
  • This is an explicit power of Kuwabara from YuYu Hakusho — his spirit energy literally increases when fighting a stronger foe. It's also evident and completely ignored in most of the rest of the cast.

    Comic Books 
  • The Amazons from Amazons Attack!, when Wonder Woman's people invaded the United States seemed to fluctuate wildly in their power. In one scene they're giving Supergirl and Wonder Girl a hard time, then Superman shows up and trounces them effortlessly, then they're taking down fighter jets with flying horses and spears, Batman can beat them in a straight up fight, they can invade Washington DC and the army can't do a thing to stop them, then they get shot down by soldiers. They're not Immune to Bullets, and they beat the US army with spears and giant bees note !?
    • Wonder Woman herself is often subject to this. She can either be as strong as Superman or weaker than him (and even then by how much will vary). Her Lasso of Truth can either be unbreakable or be broken by incredibly strong opponents. And then there is her weakness to bullets which comes and goes at the writers' whims.
  • Asterix:
    • Just how bad is Cacofonix's dreadful singing voice in ? At best, it's bad-karaoke level, where other people find it annoying and embarrassing but also quite funny (like in Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and the Falling Sky, Asterix and The Big Fight, and a few throwaway scenes where he's needed to sing for a pun without interrupting the plot); it's usually Suckiness Is Painful (Asterix and the Gladiator, The Mansions of the Gods, and most of the throwaway scenes with him in books where he isn't plot important); but if necessary he can also be a Weather Manipulation Brown Note with Reality Warper powers (edging into this in Asterix and the Normans where his singing is said to be the essence of true fear, possibly Asterix and the Soothsayer where his singing may be causing the Gods to strike the village with lightning, but especially Asterix and the Magic Carpet where he can create rain indoors and Asterix and the Secret Weapon where he's working on a song so bad that it creates an apocalyptic thunderstorm and terrifies all animal life from the forest, including a dragon). Some of this is Sequel Escalation, especially early on when Goscinny was still working out what was funny about each character, but it zigzags quite a lot — it's weird to go from him being a borderline abomination in Secret Weapon to performing under a beautiful, cloudless starry sky with only a little annoyance from the other villagers in Falling Sky.
    • He then goes all the way to the opposite extreme, which he'd never been seen in before, in Asterix And Obelix's Birthday, where he becomes an unusually good singer for a page in order for some gags to work. During that sequence he has a Groupie Brigade of screaming teen girls who love his music, big-selling albums (in 50BC), and is the respected, feared Caustic Critic judging a reality-show-like singing contest. Other bards in the same scene are shown to be Hopeless Auditionees who are far worse than he is. The mere existence of someone worse than Cacofonix is unthinkable in most of his other stories.
    • The potion's effects and dosage are all over the place. For instance, Obelix gets three drops of magic potion in Asterix and Cleopatra to boost his strength such that he can pummel his way out of a pyramid, and claims he notices no difference (a later story establishes a dose large enough to work on him would have turned him to stone). However, in a later story, a barrel of potion gets spilled into the sea, causing all the fish in the Channel to be superpowered enough to savage the fishermen trying to catch them, even though the concentration must be much, much lower. In Asterix and Obelix All At Sea the potion is used to restore Asterix from a severely injured state after losing a fight, despite having no technical healing powers. On top of that, the relative effectiveness of larger doses over smaller doses is flipflopped since the plot of Asterix and the Olympic Games is centered on the fact that everyone who's taken potion becomes equally strong and equally fast, regardless of their real capabilities. Maybe it's homeopathic?
  • Christopher Priest mentioned this when writing Black Panther's solo series. Depending on the Writer, Panther can hold his own against the entire Fantastic Four and even trade blows with The Thing, or be overpowered and beaten unconscious by random muggers and Mooks. What makes it worse is that the Black Panther's costume is lined with vibranium (the same stuff Captain America's shield is made of), which means he should be able to shrug off blows that would wound or knock out a normal man.
  • Deadpool, whose healing powers are literally taken from Wolverine, has his own healing ability fluctuate wildly depending on how powerful they need to be for the plot. This is explained away as a result of the constant battle between his cancer and his healing powers, as sometimes the cancer gains ground and sometimes the healthy cells gain ground. It even becomes a major plot point when his healing factor stays in a weakened state and he seeks medical attention to try and improve it. He is literally immortal though, since after meeting Death herself when he was having near death experiences he fell in love with her, Thanos became jealous of Deadpool and prevents his soul from passing on so they can never be together.
  • Jack Kirby's Celestials, through it's more visible in alternate realities — in Earth X they as a whole cannot match Galactus, in other worlds they are capable of effortlessly killing three wielders of The Infinity Gauntlet, and in What If?: Secret Wars (1984) they can take Doctor Doom, possessing the Infinity Gauntlet AND the power of the Beyonder, despite that both are individually powerful enough to defeat Abstracts, who are supposed to be far above Celestials. And in another reality one of them is no stronger than a fleet of spaceships.
  • The Flash: All the Flashes don't seem to use their speed as much as they can. For example, Wally West once emptied the city of Chongjin, North Korea, which has 532,000 people, by carrying every citizen out of the borders, one at a time, in 0.0001 microsecond. He began the rescue after a nuclear bomb had been detonated in the city and carried them all miles away to safety, so fast that they seemed to have been teleported. This indicates that he is trillions of times faster than light. Anyone capable of that level of speed should essentially be invincible. However, occasionally he get hit by enemies much slower then him; for example, Deathstroke infamously stabbed him in Identity Crisis. This is handwaved by the way the Speed Force works, where essentially using too much of it risks pulling the speedster into the Speed Force itself (in what's functionally the speedster version of the afterlife). To avoid this, they tend to be Willfully Weak 99% of the time, and save pushing past the Speed of Light for when the situation is dire enough to call for it.
  • This trope is actually used to describe the power of DC Rebirth characters Gotham and Gotham Girl, introduced in the Batman storyline "I Am Gotham". The brother-sister duo are given powers by Dr. Hugo Strange that fluctuate depending on who they're facing. This is easily shown in the finale when a Face–Heel Turn Gotham is beaten bloody by Batman, yet when the entire Justice League, whose numbers include two Green Lanterns and the pre-Flashpoint Superman, show up, he tears them apart. The downside of this is that it is Cast from Hit Points, meaning that they're going to die when it's all used up. Gotham ended up dying earlier as Gotham Girl is forced to put him down.
  • Solomon Grundy, a regular villain in The DCU, is a justified case. His power explicitly fluctuates due to his Resurrective Immortality; every time he comes back, he gets a somewhat different personality and power level. Some forms are able to trade blows with Superman, while others are weak enough for Batman or Green Arrow to take down.
  • DC's Hawkman has a nebulously defined amount of superhuman stats (ie: far stronger than any peak human but below Superman or Wonder Woman levels) that's never been clearly measured where he's powerful enough to hurt serious heavy hitters like Despero or Black Adam and draw blood from them but in turn, he can be hurt or even beaten by peak humans like Batman or low level superhumans like Deathstroke.
  • The Incredible Hulk's level of physical might and durability varies tremendously. This one, however, has a built-in explanation: Hulk's physical might — and in the 2003 movie, his physical mass and size — is directly related to how angry he gets. Hence the Catchphrase "The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets." For example, Wolverine has fought him several times — most of the time to a standstill until he manages to get one good cut in and piss the Hulk off enough that his anger really flares up. At the same time, during the Onslaught event, in the last battle with the titular villain, Jean Grey mentally removed any blocks Banner may have had to restrain himself, and he beat the hell out of the physical form of a being that could alter reality with a thought. In short: hope your first punch knocks him out. Similarly to Darwin below, in one story Hulk developed the ability to breathe in space by getting angry enough. Another factor is which Hulk's shown up, as different Hulks have different strength levels, though even Grey Hulk/Joe Fixit, who's usually considered weaker than his other selves, is still formidable in a fight.
  • The Infinite Crisis OMACs are an interesting case. They're villains, which is unusual for this trope, and Strong As They Need To Be is their explicitly stated ability. When they sight a superhero, they'll identify the hero and reconfigure to have the powers and abilities they need to win the fight. Nearly everyone has asked the obvious question, which is: Why are the bad guys going out of their way to give the heroes a fair chance? Why don't they just configure themselves with the Superman-killing abilities and lay waste to everyone? No answer has yet been given. Fan theories quite naturally abound; for example, as machine-based creatures, it's been suggested that it would take far more energy for them to hit someone as hard as Superman could all the time than to reconfigure into more limited forms. The fact that the Infinite Crisis Brother Eye was made by Batman would explain a lot. (Of course, the real reason is so that O.M.A.C.s could believably pull off a Red Skies Crossover with any hero on the roster, even near-Badass Normal ones.)
  • Iron Man: Iron Man occupies this niche in Marvel, being extremely strong, fast, and durable enough to be considered a lower end high-tier or a higher end mid-tier power character. He's powerful but not too powerful as to be unbeatable. However, he's still powerful enough that you'll really have to work for a victory over him if you're beneath or around his power level. And underneath all that powerful armor is still a man with both the physical and psychological weaknesses of a mortal man. Over the years, we've seen Tony get the upper hand over heavy hitters like Magneto, She-Hulk, and Dr. Doom. But alternately, street level to mid-tier power characters like Captain America, Spider-Man, or Shang-Chi can also get the upper hand over Iron Man and even defeat him in some cases with the right setup.
  • Deconstructed with Plutonian in Irredeemable he doesn't really have super strength — he is a reality warper and breaks laws of physics without thinking about it, so he can subconsciously set himself to be as strong as the situation requires him to.
  • In JLA/Avengers, Superman and Thor are as strong as the plot requires. Thor can take on Superman and the Martian Manhunter simultaneously in the first fight (actually he was overpowered), but Superman alone can knock him out (even so, Thor claims in the last issue that he has a good idea of how powerful Superman is and could possibly beat him in another fight). In the final battle, Superman defeats Count Nefaria, a villain who can take on Thor and the entire Avengers team at once (at least we see Superman confront the Count, so for all we know he could have had help). Rising to the challenge, Thor defeats Doomsday, who is famous for killing Superman. Kurt Busiek's word is that Thor only knocked Doomsday off the panel, not that he was actually defeated.
  • The Joker's fighting skills fluctuate wildly. Sometimes, he's an excellent fighter who can actually defeat Batman in a straight-up fight, whereas most writers prefer to present him as so weak that he can be knocked out cold with one punch.
  • Harley Quinn's fighting ability fluctuate wildly as well. While she is pretty consistently portrayed as weaker than Batman, just how much weaker varies greatly. Sometimes she's a complete joke that goes down in a single move, and in others she's scarily competent and an actual threat.
  • Legion of Super-Heroes has the character Nemesis Kid, whose power is exactly this. He develops abilities strong enough to deal with anyone he's directly fighting. If he fights a martial artist, his skills will be superior, if he fights a cosmic powerhouse, his strength will go through the roof. Naturally the only way to defeat him is to go after him in pairs because he can only adapt to one power at a time. He dies at the hands of Princess Projectra, not a particularly strong fighter, whose only ability is casting illusions. He can see through them, but this does not stop her from snapping his neck for murdering her husband.
  • Lobo may have this as an explicit superpower. Or he could have been lying. Regardless, he can go toe to toe with Superman and regenerate From a Single Cell... and then get himself killed (briefly) by a surprise knife to the guts.
  • What powers the Martian Manhunter has, and to what degree, varies enormously with who's writing him and the needs of the current story. He seems to have all and only the abilities he needs to put the story where the writer wants it. Sometimes he's like a combination of Superman and Plastic Man (except weaker), and other times he is the most powerful being on Earth (as in a storyline where he turned evil and everyone was terrified of fighting him). In Blackest Night, a zombie MM points out "I'm as powerful as Superman. Why does everyone FORGET that?" before kicking some ass. For that matter, his Kryptonite Factor toward fire is alternately treated as a Weaksauce Weakness that keeps him from being too overpowered, or a psychosomatic weakness that can be overcome with willpower; the two inconsistencies go hand in hand.
  • In Marvel Comics #1000, the Eternity Mask (established by retcon to have been owned by multiple characters throughout Marvel's history) has this as an explicit power; as long as the wearer intends to use the mask's power for good, it makes them the equal of any opponent they face. This doesn't guarantee them a win, though, only makes the fight fair. When first created, it allowed an untrained peasant wearing it to duel Sir Percy of Scandia to a standstill, and the 2021 Defenders series clarifies that it will even give the wearer power on the level of cosmic entities if they face one in a fight.
  • Another instance of a character having this as an explicit part of their powerset is Hurricane in Marvel Westerns. He was granted a magical power that allows him to be the fastest gun in the west... but only when his life is threatened, so he can't use it for profit. But if it is, he can be outnumbered one hundred to one and still come out on top.
  • Thor frequently invokes this trope, with the idea that he was "holding back" for fear that unleashing his true power would kill his opponent. Almost always accompanied by a line such as "Now you must face the full might of Thor!" Thor states that even against superhuman foes on Earth, he doesn't dare use his full strength for fear of killing them. There's clearly some ego involved in this, of course, since Earth has some superhumans who are every bit as strong and durable as Thor, if not moreso (see: Hulk, Juggernaut, Hercules, Sentry, etc). Though during the Mutant Massacre he got so angry he did kill the super-strong Blockbuster (who might not have been "Class 100" level but was clearly no pushover) with a single blow, so he's not just blowing smoke, either.
    • This however doesn't explain why his speed and durability fluctuate as much if not more than his offensive ability. He's been wounded or even incapacitated by proximity mortar shell detonations, bullets, or terminal velocity falls, yet he's also taken hits from enemies who can obliterate city blocks with their fists. He's fought super-fast people like the Heralds with little trouble yet also been totally outfoxed and outmaneuvered by supposedly slower characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine.
    • How strong an average Asgardian usually varies, in some cases they are not much different than the average Peak Human and in other cases they are even stronger than Spider-Man.
  • Sentry has this problem, one time being able to fight with Hulk as equal, having his ass handed to him by She-Hulk or Hercules another, then reaching a level where he can kill Ares, wipe the floor with Thor and destroy Asgard single-handedly or kill Molecule Man. May be justified as his powers may depend on his emotional level or how much he's influenced by the Void. Not to mention the writer. At any given time he may just be Super-Fabio, but then again he may also be a high scale reality warper, have complete control over every molecule in the universe, or be the angel of death.
  • Peter David pretty much stated this trope when responding to comments of his writing of She-Hulk. Fanboys were quibbling about She-Hulk's power level under PAD's run and he said she'd be as strong as the story required — as the story was more important than the stats.
  • Spider-Man has this problem very often. His strength, while theoretically possible to mathematically calculate, is subject to plenty of fluctuation. Even his webbing is subject to this, sometimes being broken by a Badass Normal and sometimes strong enough to hold up a car or two.
    • The ultimate expression of this was when he was attacked by Firelord. Panicking, dodging, and running for his life, he sees the Herald of Galactus survive everything he can throw at him unharmed, up to and including an exploding gas station. But when two kids nearly get killed by his uncaring foe, Spidey loses his cool — and proceeds to pound Firelord into the pavement, punctuating every barrage of fists with statements on the order of "Hey, you don't attack kids!" It takes the arrival of Captain America and The Avengers to snap him out, by which time Firelord is flat on his back, eyes crossed, and dazed for quite a while. Just to elaborate, this is a being on a power level roughly equal to Thor or the Silver Surfer, and leagues above the power level of Spidey or any of his usual foes.
    • Several times, Spider-Man has been trapped under tons of debris when someone's life was at stake. On those occasions he was able to tap into a reserve of strength that allowed him to lift the debris off him, all the while disbelieving it ("Come on, Thor couldn't lift this...the Hulk couldn't lift this!")
    • Venom also goes through this, ranging from only being a little bit stronger than Spidey himself to being able to match the Juggernaut blow for blow. This is actually part of Venom (Mac Gargan)'s powers; when injured or threatened, the symbiote can increase in mass and strength to meet whatever threat it is fighting with equal force.
    • Rhino's exact physical might and resilience tend to fluctuate, ranging from "Spider-Man can beat him when very pissed" to "about as strong as the Thing". One comic in the seventies had him fight The Hulk for three days straight, while a later comic had Miles Morales knock him out by tricking him into falling a few stories.
    • Subverted when Spider-Girl happened to be in a similar situation, with evil god Set trapping every superhero on Earth under an unbreakable forcefield. May was doing everything she could to beat him and even dropping a building on him didn't slow him down. However, when May called all her Heroic Resolve for one final attack and it was looking like this trope was going to be used....she kicked him in the nuts. After that, Set admitted that he was holding back on her. Unluckily for him, that kick was painful enough to make him stop upholding the force field and release the superheroes, who unleashed a giant ass-kicking upon him.
    • Also applies to the Spider Sense. Sometimes it allows Spidey to see and avoid multiple attacks and enemies coming from any direction, in the dark, while blinded, even while barely conscious, other times Peter will just stand there saying "spider sense tingling!" until he gets hit, and occasionally it won't go off at all even when it should.
      • This can be seen as a case of Don't Think, Feel. When he allows his spider sense to guide him, he can dance around enemies. When he tries to focus on what is causing it, his reaction speed decreases. Interestingly, one side story showed that his spider sense is always going off a little bit because of all the random dangers around us that we don't notice. Except when he is freefalling while webswinging.
    • The Inheritors in Spider-Verse and Spider-Geddon exist in a perpetual state of "Stronger than Spider-Man or anyone near him." It is extremely unclear what exactly that means or what their upper limits are and it begs the question of why doesn't Spider-Man ask for some help from Marvel's Heavy Hitters to take them out?
    • How well Spider-Man does against peak/enhanced humans with more advanced martial arts skills than his own will fluctuate wildly. Against someone like Captain America, he'll never be able to perform well and while Peter's respect for Cap is a possible/probable reason, every fight Spider-Man has against Captain America will end with Peter being outperformed somehow. However, against other peak/enhanced heroes (with or without healing factors) like Wolverine, Black Panther, or Deadpool, Spider-Man will do significantly better and can utterly embarrass some of those heroes in one-on-one fights if he really feels like it. In one of their more recent Let's You and Him Fight battles, Spider-Man showed he could easily dodge Black Panther's attacks and pepper him with hard hits at the same time and even Hawkeye's intervention in the fight didn't give T'Challa any major advantages. To put things into perspective, Black Panther has been presented as Captain America's absolute equal in the peak human stats/martial arts abilities category and has himself been able to stalemate or even defeat Captain America before.
  • Superman:
    • At the beginning, Superman was only "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound". However, his power levels gradually crept upwards during the Golden Age until he was strong enough to move planets, faster than light and able to fly through an exploding nova unharmed. In 1986 his power was nerfed (he could "only" move mountains, for example) in order to allow him to believably fight small-time thugs, but the writers forgot about his new limitations as soon as they needed him to fly anywhere faster than light or breathe in space.
    • Even with the Post-Crisis Superman, some writers (Mark Waid is a good example) like to write him as a being of godlike power, capable of surviving things like the super-nuke in Kingdom Come that would kill literally anyone else.
    • How strong Superman is in relation to Wonder Woman and Aquaman usually varies. Sometimes they are just as strong, other times Superman is slightly stronger, and other times Superman is much stronger.
    • Some stories suggest that, like Hulk, Supes' power level is affected by his mood. In For the Man Who Has Everything, he was so mad at Mongul that he actually wanted to kill him, and he went absolutely apeshit on him. Mongul is normally stronger than Supes.
    • Supergirl — and her alternate counterpart Power Girl — is usually treated as the equal to Superman, but depending on the story she may be more powerful or clearly weaker (she's consistently been depicted as faster since the Silver Age, though). Her powers fluctuate depending on who she's fighting... or her opponent's level of popularity. So, in Wonder Woman Vol. 1 #177 she easily manhandles Wonder Woman, whereas in H'el on Earth Diana disables Kara after a lengthy struggle.
    • Kon-El has fallen victim to this, too. In Infinite Crisis, Kon gets curbstomped and killed off by Superboy-Prime. Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds comes out, and Kon tanks all of his attacks.
    • Speaking about Superboy-Prime, in Infinite Crisis he murders dozens of Titans, beats Earth-Two Superman to death and he's only barely stopped by New Earth Superman after being weakened. In later stories like Sinestro Corps War and the abovementioned Final Crisis he's easily punched out by any member of the Super-Family, and he's knocked down by a squad of Teen Titans in the Prime Of Life storyline.
    • Jonathan Samuel Kent's strength tends to vary based on how strong the plot needs him to be. For instance, he can lift a car over his head in one issue but has trouble breaking iron chains in another. This becomes particularly glaring after the Black Dawn arc, where he's strong enough to stop a train with ease, but Damian can still punch him hard enough to feel pain. Sometimes justified by the fact that as a Half-Kryptonian, he has to hold back or he'll splatter normal people with a regular punch.
    • It happens to Lex Luthor in The Black Ring. Luthor's battlesuit allows him to face Slade, Larfleeze, and finally Brainiac. In each case, the suit seems just strong enough to allow Luthor to battle his adversary of the moment. Of course, it's possible they are different models.
    • Even in crossovers, Superman isn't immune to this. In crossover comics with Marvel, Superman can be shown defeating people high on the totem pole such as Thor, Juggernaut, or Hulk but absolutely get demolished by Venom in another story and not even Spider-Man's intervention will save him.
  • Suske en Wiske: Jerom often showcases previously unknown powers that will help the plot move forward more easily.
  • The Thing is another character whose strength has actual limits and there are some foes that he simply cannot overpower. Although we pretty much have to be told this for this to be true; at one point he was even asked point blank how strong he was and his answer was "STRONG ENOUGH!" That said, he does have one long-standing solid limitation: he's not as strong as the Hulk.
  • Young Avengers: When Billy manages to temporarily access his Demiurge potential, he becomes capable of Breaking the Fourth Wall and actually stepping out onto the pages of the comic to change/rearrange panels (i.e. reality), effectively making himself almost as all-powerful as the artists, writers and editors.
  • Many mutants from the X-Men have to cope with this, heroes and villains alike:
    • Wolverine's Healing Factor is a prime example of this. It ranges in effectiveness from merely a slightly accelerated form of ordinary healing (needing days to heal from relatively minor injuries) to full From a Single Cell level (being able to regenerate himself from just a bit of brain marrow or a blood smear).
    • Darwin, the Evolving Boy literally has this trope as his superpower. Whenever placed in a situation he is unsuited for, he will gain a new power capable of dealing with it. Place him in total darkness and he gets the power to see in the dark. Stick him in a burning building and he becomes immune to fire. Trap him underwater and he grows gills. It will not, however, give him an instant 'I Win' button for every fight. An often mentioned example is when they tried to get him to fight Green Scar Hulk: instead of gaining something to match or negate his powers, Darwin's powers instead teleported him to the next state over to get away from the Hulk. His power is to evolve whatever he needs to survive, not necessarily to win. Although he can sometimes maneuver himself into a situation where his power is forced to give him the specific adaptation he wants, he has no direct control over it.
    • Similar to Darwin is another X-recruit named Lifeguard, whose mutant power is to gain the ability she needs to save others. No telling whether or not that ability will be something that will keep her safe or defeat the enemy.
    • The Juggernaut is subject to this as part and parcel of his powers — unlike most X-characters he is not a mutant, and his powers are of a mystical nature instead, being granted to him by a malevolent extradimensional being called Cyttorak. Cyttorak is an avatar of death and destruction, so his gift waxes and wanes depending on how evil his chosen Exemplar is at any given time. As a character often caught in the Heel–Face Revolving Door, this is used to explain why Juggernaut always tends to be weaker as a hero than he ever is as a villain.
    • The Strontians Gladiator (of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard) and his evil female version Xenith are a race of aliens with powers very similar to Superman's, but dependent in strength on their confidence level. At full confidence Gladiator has effortlessly pimp-slapped the Juggernaut, moved planets and crisscrossed the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds. But if they feel even a small amount of fear, doubt or regret, they get weaker, which has led to some truly humiliating defeats for both over the years.
    • Much like the Strontians, the powers of Knight Templar villain Exodus are also tied to his mental state. Specifically, he draws strength from his faith and the faith of others around him in himself. When empowered by the awe of hundreds of Genoshan mutants Exodus was powerful enough to throw down with two whole teams of Avengers and X-Men and dispatch both literally with one hand. When in doubt, though, he is much less effective, as seen when he reluctantly allied himself with the much more evil Mr. Sinister in 2008's Messiah Complex.
  • The Valiant Comics version of Solar, Man of the Atom once stated that he could make himself literally as strong as he wanted to be. Justified, as he was a Nigh-Omnipotent Reality Warper who was eventually revealed to have created the entire multiverse.

    Comic Strips 
  • Nodwick: The titular character's muscle strength is just enough to carry whatever load he is asked to move but is not suggested to have super strength. Unlike most of the examples here, people have noticed this as an ability of henchmen in general and taken advantage of it. One villain even kidnapped the entire henchman guild to use them to build a temple because each one could lift stone blocks that would take a team of men.
    • The Dungeons & Dragons stats write-up in Dragon specifically notes that Nodwick cannot lift a heavy portculis in order to give his adventuring party access to the villain's castle, but he can carry it all the way back home if they decide it counts as "loot".
  • Popeye: Just how strong Bluto is tends to vary. Normally, he easily outmatches Popeye until Popeye eats spinach, after which Popeye easily blows him away, while on other occasions, he's either weaker than Popeye and uses trickery to fight back, or can fight Popeye evenly even after the latter eats the spinach.

    Fan Works 
  • In Pokémon Reset Bloodlines, Ash's fluctuating levels of skill and maturity are explained as a result of Cyrus testing his newfound Reality Warper in him, resulting in lots of losses that shouldn't have happened.
  • My Brave Pony: Starfleet Magic: Damn near EVERYONE, especially the Space Ponies: They can either be incredibly powerful, or not enough, depending on what the narrative wants at that time. Nine times out of ten, in a fight they'll start out as not strong enough to handle the enemy, only to suddenly become capable of handling the bad guys when they're on the verge of losing.
  • In the sequel to The Last Daughter, the author defended Talor killing an Endbringer by stating that Kryptonians — and super-heroes in general — have always been as strong as the plot demands.
  • In another Worm/DC crossover called Echoes of Yesterday, the writer nerfed Kara at the beginning of the story so she doesn't curbstomp all opposition at once, and clarified her power levels will increase quickly and gradually as she battles stronger enemies.
  • Circus Days: Twilight and Rarity compete in a magic tournament, and from what they tell they were evenly matched, while in the show they are nowhere near in terms of power.
  • Nerve Damage: Samson's Noble Phantasm gives him strength according to the threat of the enemy. While fighting Lancer Cu Chulainn it got up to A+++, and according to Word of God, it's going to go EX against Gilgamesh in the future.
  • This is Snowflake's talent in the Triptych Continuum. If he sets a goal for himself that can be accomplished with physical power, his magic will increase his strength until he is strong enough to accomplish that goal — if said goal is within the ultimate limits of what a pony body could potentially accomplish. In essence, he can go up to the absolute border of species capability, but he can't cross it — and making that kind of effort may expend enough energy to drop him anyway. It still allows him to surprise an earth pony opponent of similar or larger size, who was not expecting to be outmatched.
  • RM's strength varies wildly in The Pokémon Squad depending on what fits the gag. In one episode, he's so weak that he couldn't even tip a table despite being angry. In a different episode, he destroys a considerable chunk of a casino after losing everything in a game of strip poker.

    Films — Animated 
  • Villainous example in The Transformers: The Movie: Megatron's Gun form is powerful, but usually not enough to OHKO an Autobot. In this movie, however, not only is his gun-form powerful enough to kill Brawn and Ironhide, but normal lasers are enough to kill Prowl and Ratchet and mortally wound Optimus Prime himself! In the animated series, Prime could withstand a blast from Megatron's much more powerful fusion cannon.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thanos's strength is mostly an Informed Attribute (in the sense that it's conveyed entirely through power-scaling) and varies depending on the needs of the plot. He never displays particularly great feats of strength himself but can go from curb-stomping those who have to being troubled by clearly much weaker characters.
    • In Avengers: Infinity War he defeats the Hulk with ease with his bare hands in under a minute. However neither he nor the Hulk's blows in this scene have anywhere near the same effects seen the Hulk's other fights, doing no damage to the environment and not even knocking each other off their feet (contrast, for example, the Hulkbuster punching Hulk across a city block, or Abomination kicking him through a building). Later in the team fight on Titan he's fazed by blows from Iron Man and Spider-Man, who are at least an order of magnitude weaker than the Hulk, and is unable to simply swat them like flies in a single blow as you'd expect of someone who can easily incapacitate Hulk. The same fight has Spider-Man and Iron Man managing to restrain him for several seconds (with some help from one of Star-Lord's gadgets), long enough for Mantis to disable him with mental manipulation. Then at the very end of the film he inexplicably has a bit of trouble with Captain America. Yes, it was just Thanos's fingers versus Steve's whole body, but this is still someone who can very generously be estimated at 1% of the Hulk's strength.
    • In Avengers: Endgame, he easily defeats Captain America and Iron Man and overpowers Thor, but not to anywhere near the extent you'd expect of a guy that can casually overpower the Hulk (Thor being a good deal weaker than Hulk in raw muscle); Thor's even able to resist him for over fifteen seconds in a direct contest of strength where Thanos has superior leverage and is visibly gritting his teeth with effort, and this is mirrored earlier in the fight where they have a blade clash followed by a pushing match and it's actually Thanos that gets disarmed. Thor's supposed to be a lot weaker in this film than he is normally, too, due to being an out-of-shape, alcoholic wreck. A near-identical struggle takes place later in the fight, this time with equal leverage, and Thanos actually seems to be losing when Captain America shows up on Thor's side to lend him some extra strength, even though again, Steve should barely register compared to these two.
    • Loki is another character with next to no feats of his own who we mostly know is super-strong thanks to power-scaling. But like Thanos, said scaling isn't consistent. He has occasionally been shown to give his brother Thor some trouble in a fight, but Hulk and Thanos literally toss him around like a ragdoll and the latter even rings his neck one-handed like a human would a chicken's, suggesting he's actually pitifully weak compared to people of that tier (Thor has directly contested with both of them and done alright). He is repeatedly suggested to be far physically superior to any average Asgardian and can go through Asgardian-level combatants with ease like Frost Giants and Dark Elves, yet he's also been restrained by regular Asgardian soldiers and defeated in hand-to-hand combat by Valkyrie, who is merely an Asgardian Elite Mook. His own series takes this to new extremes. In the movies, at the bare minimum Loki has at least consistently proven stronger than Steve Rogers, a super-soldier. However in the series, it takes effort for him to subdue B-15, a human Hunter in the Time Theater; an ordinary human Sylvie enchants in Roxxcart mops the floor with him; on Lamentis (which is a Kree world in the comics) drunk Loki fights off Ambiguously Human train guards until two of them throw him out of the window; and in the room with the Time Keepers, Loki is able to defeat yet another two Ambiguously Human guards only after Sylvie tosses her blade to him.
    • What If…? (2021) continues the trend, though it is has a built-in excuse in that it explicitly depicts alternate universes where power levels don't have to line up with the main one. Still, even with that, how wildly relative strength fluctuates seems a bit strange. Ravager Thanos is defeated with rather embarrassing ease by Cull Obsidian and Proxima Midnight, two Elite Mooks of his from the main timeline that had trouble with Spider-Man (and in Proxima's Case, ordinary humans). In fact in Endgame Cull was killed in seconds by Giant-Man, someone who's generally depicted as weaker than Hulk. Infinity Ultron's Thanos meanwhile gets immediately dispatched by Vision (well, Ultron in Vision's body), despite Vision never having been depicted as particularly powerful before and supposedly weaker beings than Thanos surviving the same beam attack that killed him with little damage.
    • The powers of Wanda also known as Scarlet Witch seem to vary depending on the moment, in her best moments she is able to sweep the floor with enemies as powerful as Thanos, Doctor Stranger and Wong, but in other cases she has trouble beating the members of the Black order or Captain Carter. She also often forgets her telekinesis and reality warping powers in favor of shooting slow energy balls or attempting to mez enemies with a slow spell at point-blank range, both of which are extremely easy to avoid and usually lead to her getting KO'd.
    • Spider-man: depending on what is convenient for the plot, his strength is not that different from that of a super-soldier, to the point that Captain America, the Vulture and Shocker are able to defeat him with relative ease, in other cases his strength is shown to be hundreds of times superior being able to hold a ship together, lift hundreds of tons of debris, stop a hit from Cull Obsidian, and survive being hit by a bullet train.
  • DC Extended Universe has a Fast As They Need To Be example with Wonder Woman. In all of her appearances, she'll have at least one scene showing her capable of Bullet Time, usually by deflecting them with her iconic bracers, and then completely forget that she can be that fast when she actually fights anyone in favor of swinging her arms and legs about as quickly as Gal Gadot can. Compare, for example, her deflecting a bullet in the No Man's Land scene and her death match with a superpowered Ludendorff, both in the same film. Or her rapid bullet deflecting in Justice League to her fight with Steppenwolf, again in the same film.
    • Often this is an example of special effects trickery whereby the bullets are as Fast As They Need To Be; it's not that Wonder Woman is fast, it's that the bullets are extremely slow, which is disguised by camera tricks. Sometimes the trick falls apart on close inspection. A noticeable example is in the car chase action scene in Wonder Woman 1984; a bullet with a real-world velocity of at least 800 m/s is stopped just a few inches from Steve's face by Wonder Woman, but you can clearly see that it isn't going much faster than the cars on the road (when it should be dozens of times faster) and is even slow enough that Steve himself has the time to react to it and turn the wheel of his car in the time it takes for it to cross a few meters, meaning it's at best about as fast as a thrown baseball. Another blatant example is when Wonder Woman is fighting the terrorists at the beginning of Zack Snyder's Justice League; not only are regular humans shown moving (albeit slowly) in Bullet Time when they should be completely still, but there's a visible clock in the scene, so you can actually see that it takes ~0.5 seconds of real time for a rifle bullet to cross a room, making it much slower than a baseball.
  • In Bloodsport Shingo the son of Frank Dux's mentor Senzo is younger than Frank and he beats him up effortlessly when they first meet when he is a young teen trying to steal Senzo's sword, however later he is shown having trouble fighting an overweight bully who beats him despite not using any martial arts against him.
  • Godzilla's power varies from film to film. Sometimes, he's able to defeat enemies with a single breath of his atomic breath, while others, he struggles in a tooth-N-claw battle against his enemies. Most of this is explained by many of the movies being set in one of several Alternate Universes, so they would be different versions of Godzilla. Still, particularly in the later Showa era, Godzilla usually suffers a total Curbstomp Battle in round one, and then inexplicably bounces back more powerful than before. During his "second wind" he will be able to counter or outright ignore the attacks that caused him severe injury the first time. While Godzilla does have regeneration as one of his powers, the speed and convenience of these turnarounds is still somewhat odd. The best example of this is in Godzilla vs. Gigan, where Godzilla gains a true second wind after being beaten to the point of being little more than rag doll in Gigan and King Ghidorah's claws, to turning the entire battle around after being thrown into a building and smashing it. A variant of this occurs in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla which had him gain a new power (temporarily) to get a good grip on his foe.
  • Inverted in The Pumaman, in which the "superhero" is capable of tearing apart a car or ripping into a brick wall with his bare hands, but at the movie's climax is just barely able to overpower an elderly Donald Pleasence in a struggle.
  • In Push, Nick starts out unable even to fix a roll of the dice, and ends up kicking Victor's well-trained and highly experienced ass, even though Victor was shown earlier literally mopping the floor with Nick... and the ceiling, too. Similarly, during the fight he lost, Nick is shown deflecting a bullet, a trick he had not practiced or even seen until just moments before. All this with no training, and with very little practice, apparently only because It Was Time For Him To Win.
    • Also, during the final confrontation, Agent Carver clearly pushes Nick mentally ("WHERE WERE WE?!")... but instead of jumping, as he was presumably pushed to do, Nick turns around and tele-punches Carver. How did he do this? No one, before or after that moment, was ever shown as able to resist a push.
  • A Quiet Place: The aliens are shown to have Absurdly Sharp Claws that can claw through a metal silo like tissue, but when the kids hide in the truck, the monster is not able to get in, even though the truck would have thinner metal than the silo. Also, the newspaper clippings claimed that the creatures were invulnerable to modern weaponry, yet Evelyn blows one's head off near the end with a shotgun just fine (which is far less than the military could have done).
  • David in Unbreakable has a version of this, but the trope is played with in that he was middle aged before he noticed. While he is quite strong in the normal sense it's because he lifts weights as part of his normal exercise routine, and the amount he lifts is set to where it provides decent resistance but isn't likely to actually hurt himself. Thanks to the events of the movie he has reason to suspect that he's stronger than he thinks and makes an attempt to find his actual bench limit, only to find that he's still straining the same amount no matter how much weight he adds.
  • Wolverine pulls this off in X-Men: The Last Stand when he faces down Dark Phoenix in the climactic scene of the movie. His healing powers are inexplicably multiplied to the point where he can walk up to Phoenix (who by this point had already atomized several main characters and the entirety of Alcatraz island), taking multiple psychic blasts which flay the muscles from his bones only to fully regenerate in less than a second. Keep in mind that this version of Wolverine took some time to heal from a single gunshot or being hit by a log. This was so egregious that it got a Word of God Retcon, stating that Phoenix's out-of-control abilities also amplified the powers of nearby mutants. It's also been surmised that Jean was Fighting from the Inside, not letting her full power (which could easily turn Wolverine, adamantium skeleton and all, to vapor) be brought to bear. Then there’s the fact that throughout the whole scene, his pants remain intact.

  • In The Divine Comedy, the shadow-bodies that form around deceased souls have Intangibility and can't interact with physical objects, unless the plot requires it.
    • Virgil clasps his hands around Dante's eyes in Inferno Canto Nine, keeping the mortal from dying at Medusa's gaze, when his hands really should have phased through his head.
    • When a horde of demons threaten to end the protagonist's journey in Hell, Virgil is able to use his illusion of a body to pick up our hero and leap into a ditch with him.
    • When the recently deceased Casella hugs his mortal friend, they pass through each other to make their respective states clear to the reader, even if it contradicts Virgil actions earlier.
  • In the Dragonriders of Pern book All the Weyrs of Pern, a character asks one of the dragonriders how much a dragon can lift. F'lar, the Dragonrider, considers the question before answering "they can lift as much as they think they can." This turns out to be justified a few books down the line, when it's revealed the dragons have telekinetic powers that somehow no one had noticed in over 2,500 years.
  • The Dresden Files has an in-universe example with the Knights of the Cross. Their swords are literally powered by God, and as long as they stay true to their mission they are able to take on literally anything up to a Fallen Angel. The reason it is this trope is that they are never empowered enough that victory is guaranteed, merely enough that victory is possible.
  • In The Elric Saga, Stormbringer is noticeably fickle this way. It can empower Elric to slaughter his way through hundreds of human opponents or even kill gods one day and have trouble dealing with a single lesser (if generally still supernatural) foe the next, as the plot and Rule of Drama demand. Of course, it's worth remembering that the runeblade is itself of demonic origin, alive and sentient in its own fashion, and obviously evil to the point of outright treachery at times...
  • Gotrek from the Gotrek & Felix is always just strong enough to take down the current monster that he should really have no chance against. This matches the rules for slayers on the tabletop, but in his case it seems to affect his actual skill as well.
  • Done well, and justified, in a fight scene from Lord Darcy novel Too Many Magicians: Lord Ashley is dueling a villain whose sword is enchanted, and keeps flickering in and out of visibility. As he's pressed hard by his foe's invisible attacks, Ashley's fear activates his own power of prescience, allowing him to intuit exactly where the blade will strike next. This turns the tables on the villain, who begins a fighting retreat ... at which point, Lord Ashley's growing confidence causes his prescient power to shut down again, as it's established that it only works when he's under stress. Luckily for him, his opponent doesn't realize that's what happened, and when Ashley hesitates, his foe seizes the opportunity to escape rather than attack.
  • Serenity Falls a horror trilogy from James A. Moore has the enigmatic "Hunter". This killer of the supernatural is always more powerful than whichever horror threatens the locals but his power is dependent on how potent the opposition is. Against a mundane street gang, he barely survives but when he's asked by a young boy to help against a necromantic Carnival of the Fantastic - he powers up and easily slaughters all the ghosts and demons.
  • This happens on both sides of the fence in the Warhammer 40,000 fiction. Often Chaos Space Marines or other alien enemies of the Imperium require a lot of Imperial Guard cannon fodder to be hurled at them before they die. Then you have series like Dan Abnett's Gaunt's Ghosts, where the killing of Chaos Space Marines is almost-but-not-quite offhanded.
    • This is often true of the loyalists as well.
    • Gaunt's group did shoot them in the back from ambush while they were utterly massacring another Imperial unit.
    • Orcs get this treatment a lot too. Sometimes they are almost a joke and a minor threat to guardsmen unless they have a huge numbers advantage, and sometimes the same kind will be a difficult fight to Space Marines one-on-one. Same applies to Tyranids.
      • Orcs are a special case. A feral Ork army is almost laughable in terms of strength, while a carefully constructed WAAAGH! is almost unstoppable. Often, you'll see something in between the two. The strength of the Orks depends on the strength of the local WAAAGH! It's a species that runs on Clap Your Hands If You Believe, thus this trope is easily justified. The writer just has to limit how hard they can "clap."
      • The strength of their opponent is also a crucial factor. Orks are a survivor race. When they face a more powerful and able opponent they will be just as tough, whereas if the opponent is incompetent they wont be any worse, but they'll not be any better than they would normally be. Comparing Orks between stories, or in certain games such as Gorkamorka, where they don't have as much of a dedicated opponent, the contrast is rather striking.
    • Possibly justifiable in cases where the story is about different chapters/regiments/hives/etc. as experience plays a big part in war.
    • The Imperial Guard often suffer from the inverse form of this trope being as Weak As They Need To Be. Their performance will be pitched at a level where they are being beaten and thus need rescue by the heroes of the story but not being so badly outclassed that those few heroes can't make the difference between defeat and victory. Thus, Depending on the Writer, the Imperial Guard will either be a competent force that is led by a grizzled veteran and uses modern, combined-arms tactics, or they'll be a Red Shirt Army that's led by some incompetent glory-hound or armchair noble who bought the rank and throws men into WW1-esque meat-grinder slaughters. That second Red Shirt Army depiction is usually reserved for stories where the Space Marines are Main Characters. Go figure.
  • This inconsistency is one of the complaints against World War Z's zombies. In a story which purports to be realistic, zombies which can shrug off Tank blasts, air-dropped bombs or overpressure created by artillery so long as they doesn't hit the head have absolutely no business being killed by small arms or plucky civilians' melee attacks.
  • The supervillain Lung from Worm has this as an explicit power. The longer he fights the stronger he becomes, slowly Hulking Out from a man into an enormous unstoppable dragon. When given enough time, he can fight Endbringers one on one. He's taken out by Taylor in the first arc, serving as a Starter Villain, due to being defeated before he has time to become too powerful to defeat.
  • This is an explicit rule in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. The Powers That Be ensure that every wizard has enough power to deal with whatever the current crisis is. Luckily, drama is preserved by making failure a real option; just because you're strong enough to solve the problem doesn't mean you'll figure out the solution, or want to pay the price. This is also why older wizards tend to be weaker than their younger counterparts. Their skill with magic is such that they don't need as much power.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Buffyverse as a whole the strength of vampires varies greatly, from clearly superhuman on a level that can't hope to be matched (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel Season 1) to being able to be beat by the Badass Normal of Angel, Charles Gunn, easily. Additionally, some vampires are shown to be able to bend steel bare-handed, while others have been held back by wooden doors.
    • When asked about the strength of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon replied, literally "as strong as the plot needs her to be".
    • Angel tended to do this a lot as well. Particularly notable with Connor, whose abilities seemed to correspond directly to how inconvenient it would be. When he's on their side, he gets beaten up by practically everything not an ordinary vampire. When fighting against them, he took out almost the entire team single-handedly, twice.
      • But then again, he ended a threat that had lasted for an entire season by punching a hole in the face of an "evil" goddess. Because he was the only one awake who could.
    • The Turok-Han vampires in Buffy Season 7 also seem to suffer from this. The first one nearly killed Buffy the first two times she fought it, forcing her to use literally everything she could get her hands on to defeat it the third time aroundnote . As for an entire army of them in the series finale, the newly activated Slayers, along with Xander and Dawn, the team's resident Badass Normals, take them down pretty easily.
  • The Defenders (2017): The head members of The Hand (especially Elektra) are able to shrug off bullets and knock around explicitly super-strong characters like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. And, in turn, they were all fought to a standstill at one point or another by the physically-normal Daredevil (Who managed to hold his own against two of them at once).
  • The Doctor is a common offender. In some episodes, he can literally move faster than laser fire. While in others, he gets cold cocked by an ordinary person.
  • Iago from Estoy Vivo is a particularly blatant example. In his best days, he can dodge bullets, perform impossible acrobatics and wipe the floor with dozens of Walkway agents who are presumably the same level as him, while in his worst days, three human mafiosos are enough to capture him without allowing him to put up a fight.
  • The Flash has already been mentioned in the comics section, but rest assured the situation is no different on the small screen! In The Flash (2014), we get scenes with the STAR Labs gang where his top speed is being calculated and we are told outright what it is. However, outrunning lightning in an early episode is a feat far beyond the speeds we're being told is his max. However however, being faster than lightning should mean nobody with a Freeze Ray or the ability to copy himself should ever stand a chance against him. In one episode he'll be so fast that an entire episode takes place in the time it takes a nuclear explosion that has already happened to travel a few feet, sometimes even moving at super speed compared to that (as in, the world, explosion included, is still totally frozen to the viewer, but Barry, Jay, and Jesse will zip around the way they can when we're seeing things normally — super speed squared!) In future episodes he's back to running straight into villains' fists as if he couldn't see it coming.
  • Game of Thrones started suffering from this once the showrunners ran out of written material from the original A Song of Ice and Fire books and having to rely on their own writing abilities. Prominent examples included:
    • Arya Stark's mutation into an inconsistent Faceless Man washout who could only flee from the Waif one episode, then inexplicably survive fifteen stab wounds and kill the Waif in the very next episode.
    • Daenerys Targaryen's dragons (all of them) were untouchable engines of destruction in Essos. Then they reached Westeros and... well, were still engines of destruction that could shrug off hits from giant crossbow bolts. Then they suddenly became vulnerable to spears and giant crossbow bolts and in very short order three dragons were reduced to one dragon. And then in the penultimate episode the one remaining dragon is back to an unstoppable engine of destruction that annihilates the entire enemy force solo despite enormous numbers of said giant crossbows.
    • The Night King spent six seasons as the greatest of Greater Scope Villains in the series and was promised to be a Conflict Killer that would either force all of Westeros's royal houses to unite against him or be slaughtered by him. His combat performances in those seasons lived up to this overpowering menace... until he reached Winterfell and was effortlessly killed by Arya Stark.
    • This trope even began being applied to intelligence, with traditional series masterminds such as Littlefinger, Varys, and Tyrion Lannister devolving from consistent schemers to being As Smart As They Need To Be, or as dumb since all three characters starting making colossal mistakes left, right and center to facilitate killing them off or neutering their effectiveness and plot importance.
  • In Toku series such as Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Power Rangers and the like, this trope is in effect, with power levels depending on how pissed you are, what time of episode it is, how fast the plot needs to move past one fight, and how loud you yelled before rushing in. Hikonin Sentai Akibaranger, a parody Super Sentai series, had the Rangers realize that the general leaving is like an Event Flag for the good guys to start winning; the Monster of the Week was been invincible before, but they realize what always happens soon after the general says something to the effect of "I'll leave this to you" to the monster. As suddenly they're pummeling the previously-unbeatable foe, Red triumphantly cries out that consistent power levels do not exist! Yeah, it's that kinda series.
    • It's most on display in Kamen Rider Decade and other crossover occasions. Decade and Rising Ultimate Kuuga can each supposedly destroy the world. Shadow Moon, an Ensemble Dark Horse Breakout Villain from Kamen Rider BLACK, utterly hands them their spandex-covered butts. Then Kamen Rider Double shows up and just as easily beats down Shadow Moon. In general, in a Massive Multiplayer Crossover, count on the featured team or hero to be much more effective than the various Fake Shemp rangers and riders in the background, and the featured villain, who was the enemy of one team or hero, to be a match for all involved (going up several orders of magnitude in power) while the less focused-upon ones to easily be knocked aside in one punch (beaten in seconds whereas it took a whole episode for a Monster of the Week and much of the season for The Dragon or Big Bad.) In short... Akiba Red knows what he's talking about.
    • It's most ridiculous in the Kamen Rider franchise, where Riders will have officially published stats like running speed, jumping height, and punching and kicking power. The manual (sometimes a literal one! We saw the stats on Professor Ryouma's computer in Kamen Rider Gaim!) says exactly what every Rider can do, no more, no less, and what advantages and disadvantages each form has. Count on absolutely none of it to be adhered to in any actual episode.
    • In Super Sentai and Power Rangers The red ranger is usually the strongest member of the core team, but how much usually varies depending on what is convenient for the plot, in some cases he is only slightly stronger than other members, and in other cases he is able to defeat the rest of the core team on their own.
  • In Smallville's Grand Finale, Clark flies up to Apokolips, a planet with engines on it, and shoves it all the way back into space saving the day and exhibiting about a billion times the super strength he's ever demonstrated in the TV series. This is Silver Age level power for Superman and even that character was normally moving inert planets when he moved something that massive. Possibly justified, as Apokolips was said to have been drawn to Earth by humanity's despair, amplified by Darkseid's corruption. However because Clark became a beacon of hope, he was able to eradicate Darkseid's influence, severely weakening Apokolips in the process.
  • J'onn J'onzz from Supergirl (2015). In Season 1, he defeats an enraged Supergirl in literally 30 seconds, is described by Superman as "the most powerful being on Earth," and later goes toe-to-toe with fellow Martians and tears his way through a Daxamite army (it should be noted that Daxamites on Earth have nearly the physical abilities of Kryptonians). Another episode in the show has him getting beat up by a human with a metal arm. Season 3 is a particularly bad offender, as the villains are three Kryptonians, meaning he could easily defeat them all over the course of an afternoon, yet acts as if they're too much for him.
  • Supernatural:
    • vampirized Hunter Gordon Walker was strong enough to rip off two vampire's heads and could even kill his partner with his bare hands, but when fighting Sam, his strength appeared to be downgraded.
    • Castiel tends to fall in to this as well, likely because he's so powerful the writers feel they need to gimp him to keep the Badass Normals relevant. In his first appearance in Season 4, he's described as "cosmic" and both the heroes and villains seem to think he's more powerful than anything they've encountered. Half a season later, he gets his ass kicked by Alistair. In Season 5, he's cut off from Heaven and gradually loses his powers, however the order he loses them in doesn't make much sense (his healing is gone by the second episode, yet he's still able to time travel halfway through the season). In Season 6, he gets his powers back, but major villain Eve is somehow able to nullify them by virtue of being older than he is. The writers tried to reverse this in Season 7 by making the leviathans even stronger than angels, but due to them displaying far less power and routinely getting their asses kicked by humans, demons, and ghosts (all of which are much weaker than angels) this came off as a bit of an Informed Ability.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Pro wrestling loves this trope. The good guy will consistently get beaten and be depicted as brutalized and exhausted, until they suddenly bounce back for a victory. John Cena is a particular offender. He needs to be able to lift his opponent onto his shoulders in order to perform his finisher but against gigantic opponents he is often unable to do so (despite him having lifted the likes of Big Show and Viscera in the past). Whether he eventually manages depends on whether he is booked to win that night or not.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Magic: The Gathering: Archangel Avacyn's power is directly proportionate to the strength of the dark forces on Innistrad. When the monsters start gaining the upper hand, Avacyn and the magic derived from her get stronger, while if humanity starts to gain the edge Avacyn's power weakens. This is very deliberate: she was created by the vampire planeswalker Sorin Markov to keep his kindred from eating humanity into extinction (and subsequently starving to death themselves), so she was specifically designed to always be strong enough to keep humanity alive but not strong enough to let them permanently defeat the monsters.

    Video Games 
  • Bayonetta's ability to activate witch time seems to be on when the plot needs her to have it. She can activate it for minutes at a time at will with no cost; during normal gameplay she needs to precisely dodge attacks or use magical energy with a device. It is, however, universally accepted that she always plays the other spectrum of this trope, because where's the fun in going full blast all the time?
  • In Beyond: Two Souls, Aiden's powers and limits varies depending on whatever the plot needs him to do. While he can't stray too far from Jodie, his range tends to be somewhat inconsistent. He can also easily possess or strangle anyone the plot needs him to kill.
  • In Devil May Cry 4, Nero's Devil Bringer can bring small enemies in and toss them easily, and against large ones, it will bring him to them fast. Against bosses, it becomes a lot larger and more powerful depending on the opponent and situation such as tossing a dazed Berial and Dagon up, grabbing Echidna's tail from a distance, blocking punches from the massive Savior and becoming five times larger to break the latter giant's face apart.
  • Ser Cauthrien in Dragon Age: Origins is a boss example. Despite being an experienced soldier and undeniably a Badass Normal, she somehow has almost as much health as a fifty foot tall dragon when you first encounter her, in which she's intended to be a Hopeless Boss Fight. In later encounters, she's much more manageable.
  • Listen to the stories of various Dwarf Fortress players for a while and chances are, some of their tales will include bizarre occurrences of random civilian dwarves pulling a One-Hit Kill with a household tool or their bare hands on a huge monster that just effortlessly massacred the entire well-trained, well-equipped military. Similarly, expect to hear plenty of stories of usually One-Dwarf-Armies getting oneshotted by a random low-level mook.
  • God of War: Kratos has this all the time. It's particularly notable in the second game when the Colossus of Rhodes stamps on him, and he tosses it away. But there's a wall in the way? Must go all the way around this convoluted route rather than just, you know, knock a hole in it? Or in the first game, when your method of getting through a gate with thin bars that something else already ripped a hole in is to push over a 60 foot high statue. In God of War II, his insane strength might be justified that in the beginning Kratos still has all the powers a full-fledged god can brag about, he doesn't brag "Fear the new god of war" while beating the first mooks for nothing, still the trope applies for the rest of the second game and the sequel as well, in God of War III Kratos stripped of all his powers he gained on the previous game, can take the pressure of Cronos — a being who dwarfs the Colossus of Rhodes — trying to squash him and push him away, after this display of strength it makes one wonder why Kratos needs to face through all the puzzles and locked doors at all.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Snake's barely able to fight after being stabbed in the shoulder, but spends a good five minutes in a microwave corridor intended to vaporize anyone who entered immediately after suffering a heart attack, and is still just about able to kick away Scarabs.
    • Raiden's strength in this game is relatively consistent: he's really strong but he can't instantly overpower Vamp (who isn't that strong himself; Raiden defeated him with guns when he was still a Badass Normal) and can be held down by four Gekkos (but can overpower two). He's also slow and fragile enough that Badass Normal Snake is still relevant next to him and can even defeat foes he has trouble with (e.g. he shrugs off small arms fire but can still be penetrated by harpoons and knives, implying heavy-duty ammo would have no trouble). His best strength feats are throwing two Gekkos around with one limb each and leaping over a small building, and at one point he's unable to free himself when buried by what couldn't be more than a few dozen tons of rubble. In other words he's clearly The Big Guy and stronger/tougher/faster than Snake, but not to the extent of making him irrelevant... until the climax of the game, when he manages to essentially leg press the 100,000+ ton Outer Haven by himself. No explanation is ever given for this.
  • Justified and integrated in the story in Planescape: Torment. Vailor, a suit of armor animated by a zealous spirit of a dead Mercy Killer has dedicated his life (or unlife, he doesn't really care) to eradicating evil and injustice, and as such, Forces of Justice grant their champion sufficient powers to defeat it. You can basically point him at the Final Boss, explain what an immense injustice he represents, and Vailor will gain enough powers to kill it.
  • Resident Evil 6 has this with the Ustanak. Depending on how big of a threat the plot needs him to be at the time, he can either be a Nigh-Invulnerable One-Hit Kill machine that Jake and Sherry need to hide and run from, or weak enough that Jake can trade blows with him in close quarters.
  • Sonic The Hedgehog's speed is very inconsistent from game to game. At Sonic's best he's fast enough to outrun planes, rockets, missiles, black holes, etc. while at his worst Sonic can't catch an obese scientist fleeing from him on foot. Of course, if you believe the implication that he almost never uses his full speed save for VERY special circumstances just to challenge himself, this is justified.
  • How high and how far Mario is capable of jumping varies from game to game and whether or not he is under player control at the time. For instance, Mario will be unable to jump over obstacles unaided if at all that he would have been more than capable of jumping over unaided in other games, and/or still not be able to do the same despite demonstrating the ability to jump significantly higher than said obstacles in cutscenes or in battle in the very same game.
    • The biggest fluctuation occurs between the RPGs and the platformers. In the platformers, Mario has to depend on Boss-Arena Idiocy to beat Bowser; in the RPGs, he can beat Bowser with nothing but the clothes on his back.
    • Bowser himself is usually depicted as a Mighty Glacier, yet often demonstrates jumping prowess that Mario could never dream of, among other feats. His actual size and strength also varies tremendously, as does his actual confidence. Princess Peach herself has demonstrated athleticism compared to Mario as well as vaguely-defined magical powers at points, yet when Bowser comes a-calling she's suddenly completely helpless. In general, it's safe to say that the game informs how capable the characters are more than anything else.
  • Super Robot Wars runs heavily on this to allow the Massive Multiplayer Crossover to function, so that something like a Gundam can take on the much larger and more powerful enemies from a show like Getter Robo. At the particularly extreme ends of the spectrum is something like Bonta-kun, which is essentially a mascot costume with a machine gun, being able to take on universe-destroying threats from GaoGaiGar FINAL.
  • Ultraverse Prime, an arcade Beat 'em Up based on The Ultraverse where you play as the Flying Brick superhero named Prime can be somewhat inconsistent with your power levels. During gameplay you can lift dumpsters and cars with your bare hands, but when you're fighting mooks in melee combat your punches deals roughly the same amount of damage as other arcade beat-em-ups of it's time, even though with that kind of strength Prime should easily send human mooks flying halfway to the moon with each punch. And NO, it's not because he's pulling punches due to some Thou Shalt Not Kill moral obligations; Prime can smash human enemies with lifted cars and pull a One-Hit Kill.
  • In the older Warcraft games and stories, Deathwing was, while powerful, still rivaled by the other Aspects and it was only by tricking them into creating the Dragon Soul and wielding it against them was he able to pose a significant threat to all four of them combined. This was also initially the case after he returned in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, as he fought the Life Aspect Alexstrasza in the Twilight Highlands and, while Deathwing won, the fight was fairly even and both of them were severely injured by the end of it. It's later revealed that Deathwing was saturated with dark energies to such an extent that he was effectively unkillable even by entities like Alexstrasza and the other Aspects. In order to wipe his matter from existence and kill him for good, you need a much greater amount of power delivered in a much briefer assault — so they grab the Dragon Soul from the past, supercharge it with more power than it's ever had, attune it to Deathwing so it can harm him, and get Thrall to fire it at him... and even then, it takes multiple shots.

  • The Nasaghasts in The Adventures of Dr. McNinja. Two are dispatched in short order by the doctor using holy shurikens, and the third taken by surprise and almost killed. Then it flies into space, catches and throws back a launched missile, and returns in a surprising Big Damn Heroes moment to save Chuck. Unfortunately, it only acts when astronauts are being immediately threatened and stands by passively while the newly-released second Horrorsaurus tears through the human army (seeing as he's the only NASA astronaut present). But then the Horrorsaurus kills Chuck. And the Nasaghast grows to immense size and rips the Horrorsaurus apart.
  • Every single character from Bob and George (though it is sometimes justified). For example, at one point George can't even harm the villain with any of his lightning attacks. Yet later on he destroys an entire castle/base by accident. Megaman's intelligence (and thus, battle skills) also fluctuate alot, but this is explained within the story.
    • Actually, it was explained why George couldn't use his powers against Mynd; Mynd was able to just absorb the electricity. There's also the fact he appears to have a limit on how often he can use his powers (his MP— er, Weapon Energy). And by accident? He destroyed that castle because he was pissed that he had been hung up from the ceiling for months and could have done something about it, but he couldn't because he forgot he could.
  • Butch of Chopping Block is overweight and out-of-shape, and was once outrun by an old lady with a walker, but whenever his life is in danger, he becomes absurdly lethal. Chalk it up to the strip's Negative Continuity.
  • This is how Grrl Power's For Whom The Death Tolls' super power works. Whenever attacked it gives him a heretofore unseen power as a perfect counter.
  • In Homestuck, during the Trolls' battle against the Black King of their session, Gamzee suddenly unleashes never before seen power against him, doing almost as much damage as Vriska, a God Tier character with manipulation of luck. This was a result of his class — Bard — who are notorious for dramatically affecting their team's fortune for either better or worse.
  • In L's Empire, the king or queen of the Kayoss will always be stronger than the combined power of those they are fighting.
  • Played for Laughs in The Order of the Stick with Crystal. As Haley's personal rival, she is always the same level as Haley. Even if she does nothing to earn these levels.

    Web Original 
  • The Angry Video Game Nerd example. The Nerd is able to beat Jason Voorhees in a fight, but has trouble beating The Nostalgia Critic.
  • Epic Rap Battles of History mentions that the reason why Bruce Lee isn't strong is that he's defeated by a small and inanimate aspirin.
  • Happy Tree Friends: Splendid, being a Superman parody, has this in spades. One episode had him killed by a small explosion, while another had an explosion that destroyed everything else on Earth but left him without a scratch.
  • Homestar Runner 's Strong Bad has this bad. He can easily carry out the 42 pound Lappy 486, and kick the 18-pound Cheat, but has trouble with doing a single push up.
  • The superheroine Tennyo in the Whateley Universe is intentionally written as an exercise in a character whose problems come from having too much power rather than not having enough. In the novel "Boston Brawl", she suddenly gained increased regeneration and strength. In her novel "Christmas Crisis" she went all out to save her parents, and pretty much ripped reality apart. And maybe survived a tactical nuke, or else she somehow teleported away. It turns out that she is actually a very small part of a cosmic superweapon. One designed to kill beings that threaten whole galaxies. Nothing she faces on Earth is even playing the same game, with the possible exception of beings like Sara Waite.
    • Chou Lee, while often simply a very skilled Kung-Fu Wizard, is also the Champion of the Tao. She is occasionally handed a Mission from God, and according to her author at these times is empowered such that she can kill anything. As with The Dresden Files, victory is simply possible but not assured.

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad!:
    • Stan is a CIA agent, yet his physical prowess varies greatly. Sometimes he's every bit as strong and skilled as a professional killer should be and sometimes he's so weak that he's been beaten up quite easily by untrained fighters (most notably his old childhood bully Stelio Kontos).
    • Steve is usually portrayed as a wimp, but every now and then this varies. In "Irregarding Steve," he beat Beauregard unconscious in a fit of rage. In "Family Affair", he tears down the living room chandelier in another fit of rage. In "Cow I Met Your Moo-ther", he lifts Hayley's bed over his head. In "Bully for Steve," he's so pathetically weak that, according to Francine, he can't even make a fist.
  • Batman Beyond: The new bat-suit is explicitly stated to augment the wearer's strength tenfold, but villains with no superpowers or strength-increasing enhancements can still fight Batman on even grounds and somehow aren't killed by his hits.
  • Ben 10: As it would turn out, the villains get this more often than the heroes. It was more forgivable when the franchise was in its heyday, but in recent years Ben has gained a reputation for being one of the most powerful characters in Western Animation, if not all of fiction period. This makes it much more noticeable when regular humans wielding alien weaponry can somehow pose a significant threat to him.
  • Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot: Rusty, depending on whether or not the plot needs Big Guy to defeat the enemy. With Ep-327, he managed to defeat him after he took Big Guy down in a single shot, but against Big Guy's Evil Twin built by the Legion, he only managed some cosmetic damage.
  • Camp Lazlo: Clam is incredibly strong in most episodes. He tosses boulders for fun. In "Hard Day's Samson", he struggles to carry a container of mashed potatoes that Samson is hiding in.
  • This is common in Gargoyles, especially with Goliath. Sometimes he can rip the pusher off a bulldozer and hurl it through the air but at other times he has trouble taking on one very strong human. Elisa Maza is an even greater example of the trope as despite being a Badass Normal that usually relies on brains over brute force, she consistently ends up in a Designated Girl Fight with Demona over the latter's gun for as long as the plot needs her to, yet during an instance where Elisa became a gargoyle, it was treated like a long-overdue The Dog Bites Back right down to Demona's reaction.
  • Gravity Falls. In "Dipper Vs Manliness", Dipper is skilled enough to go through the Manotaur's Training from Hell and beat the Multibear, a giant monstrous bear. However, in the later episode "Fight Fighters", he is shown to fear losing to Robbie, a normal teenager. Justified as he is still a child and his body won't naturally produce enough muscle to last for long without keeping up the extreme training.
  • The Enforcers of Jackie Chan Adventures. In some episodes, Jackie effortlessly curbstomps all three with no effort, and a handicap to boot; in others, just one is enough to give him trouble for no noticeable reason. Hak Foo is the biggest example. While Finn, Ratso and Chow are consistently portrayed as less-skilled combatants than Jackie (though by how much varies) Hak Foo varies between being a serious threat to the heroes (even besting them a few times) and being only slightly less incompetent than the other three. Whenever Hak Foo is operating alone, chances are he'll be portrayed as much more dangerous than when he's with the other Enforcers.
  • The titular Johnny Bravo is probably the greatest example of this trope. In spite of his muscular physique, he manages to find himself on the receiving end of a good beating by anyone barely half his size, even by children, which is pretty bizarre considering that he effortlessly wrestled a crocodile in an early episode.
  • As mentioned under the Superman examples above, this is present in Justice League:
    • Particularly in regards to limiting four of the original seven, in order to keep them from solving every plot before Batman, Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl/Shayera have a chance to act.
      • Green Lantern John Stewart is notably lacking in creativity, and his constructs are overpowered regularly, despite believably being capable of destroying a planet on his own (later it's stated that a couple dozen Lanterns could easily destroy a planet with their blasts).
      • The Martian Manhunter (J'onn J'onzz) rarely ever uses more than two powers per episode, though he's supposed to be one of the league's heavy hitters. He eventually relegated himself to behind the desk in Unlimited before putting himself out of action until the finale.
      • The Flash's speed and attention to detail were regularly limited to the point where he could be tripped by random thugs or the environment, and couldn't even see himself moving on tape. He eventually does access the upper limits of his power, before it's explained that using that much could kill him. It's stated that he doesn't use certain applications of his power (destructive resonance, phasing, vortex generation) because of how destructive they are. That, and they're really hard to do and he doesn't have time for that.
      • Superman can vary from being the most powerful member of the team to being the Worf of the team, who is only to be defeated by the villain on duty.
    • Conversely, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Hawkgirl are inconsistently portrayed while being more powerful than they would regularly display:
      • Batman is a Badass Normal who is generally portrayed as being smarter than everyone else, including the brilliant mind reader who first organized the team, and is active in situations that should readily get him killed.
      • Wonder Woman, despite being portrayed as the Naďve Newcomer who didn't know what her items' abilities were until late in Unlimited, could go toe-to-toe with Superman and dropped her supplications for more power with "Hera, give me strength!"
      • Hawkgirl/Shayera is stated to be a mental match for Batman and his strategic superior, but prefers to brute force her way through matters needlessly, and is generally reliant on her Nth-metal mace, which does whatever the plot says it does.
    • In talking to Supergirl, Steel sums it up as being that the original seven have some special quality about them, even though they aren't all the most powerful, that helps them pull through.
  • The Legend of Korra was guilty of this at the end of Book 1 with Mako resisting being bloodbent by Amon enough to zap him with not only lightning, but enough a strong enough strike that sent Amon flying backwards into a wall. Bear in mind: 1. Only powerful waterbenders and/or Avatars using the Avatar State, have done that, 2. Amon is the strongest bloodbender in history as his father was so strong he forced Aang in his prime to use the AS to even move and Tarrlok was capable of both suppressing Korra's firebending and knocking out nearly a dozen people at once, 3. Mako has never depicted being able to lightningbend without even a quick version of the usual wind-up motions of the technique nor suggested to be that powerful beforehand and 4. Amon is literally watching/sensing Mako do it right in front of him.
    • The show has also been accused of doing this with the Avatar State, which was weakened considerably to maintain drama due to how frequently Korra uses it.
  • The Looney Tunes Show: Daffy Duck is a pretty big offender. In "The Foghorn Leghorn Story", Daffy and Foghorn get into a fist fight and they fight to a standstill. In "Monster Talent" Daffy's surprise attacks on Gossamer don't even faze him. Then there's "Muh-Muh-Muh Murder", where Daffy is so weak, he can't even pull open a door that little kids have no trouble with.
  • Mao Mao and Badgerclops in Mao Mao: Heroes of Pure Heart are always just as strong as they need to be for the plot to work. This is required since the monsters that randomly attack the town don't arrive in increasing levels of strength, so if they always just busted out the ultimate attacks they've shown in previous episodes, there wouldn't be much drama.
  • Masters of the Universe:
    • In He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983), the more powerful villains were shown to be able to give He-Man a good trouncing on their very first try. However, if the same villains found themselves tangling with his weaker Arch-Enemy Skeletor, they were shown to be unable to inflict so much as a wrinkle on his clothes. This went on up until the introduction of King Hsss, who proved to be eviler than any of them.
    • In the 2002 version, He-Man's Strong As He Needs To Be nature was perhaps best exemplified by the time he effortlessly lifted a stone tower that had to weigh in excess of a hundred tons and threw it into the sun. Punching any of the bad guys with a similar level of force should've turned them into a pasty smear on the nearest wall, yet they were always treated as legitimate threats.
    • In the comic book version He-Man's special power is specifically defined as the ability to have exactly the amount of strength he needs to accomplish what he's trying to do at the moment, but no more.
  • The mane cast of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is often subject to this. One example is Twilight Sparkle, whose telekinetic strength varies quite a bit (at one point, she lifts a two-story-house-sized bear and large water tower simultaneously, then later in the series, struggles to pull Fluttershy out of a box, even with the help of her friends). Fluttershy is almost a literal example, as she can match the speed of Rainbow Dash, the fastest pony alive, when she needs to, but in "Hurricane Fluttershy", can only get about one-fifth of Dash's wingpower, despite her training beforehand, and only pulls about half Dash's wingpower because she absolutely needed to. Big Macintosh is able to pull and entire two story house in one episode, but struggles to carry a large cake in another (although balancing is admittedly more difficult than pulling). Spike is repeatedly, explicitly shown to be stronger than his size should allow, but sometimes has difficulty in fetching large books.
    • In "Hurricane Fluttershy," it's proven to be mental: stage fright is why she has trouble flying and she repeatedly goes on about how all eyes would be on her. When practicing with her animal friends, they hold up masks that look like the background ponies, she'll instantly start tripping herself up until she gets better at it. When it's just her and her friends, she's able to fly normally.
  • PJ Masks is frequently guilty of this, most notably with Gekko's Super Strength (one moment he easily lifts heavy objects over his head, another moment a villain easily restrains him) and Catboy's Super Speed (sometimes he can perform feats that rival The Flash, other times he's certainly fast but still slow enough for a villain to intercept or dodge him).
  • The Powerpuff Girls are notorious for this. One episode will have them proving themselves to adult heroes as the mightiest supers in their entire universe, and another will have all three girls get beaten down by a gang of ordinary thugs. Not to mention one time where an overweight nerd was able to trap them in toy packaging.
  • Rick Sanchez, one of the two main protagonists from Rick and Morty, is very much this. Sometimes he can be seen slaughtering his way through whole armies of Galactic Federation Soldiers without breaking a sweat, other times he can be shown to have met his match in single fights with other scientists or the President of the United States. Due to the series' rather unique setting there are also multiple versions of Rick that make up an army of their own with presumably the same intellect and physical capabilities as him. However, they seem to get slaughtered just as easily as other soldiers.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Mr. Burns. He's always depicted as frail and weak, but just how frail and how weak depends on whatever makes the joke work.
    • Homer as well. On the one hand, he's often shown out of breath from the smallest amount of physical activity, and in "The Homer They Fall," one of his punches can't even kill a fly. On the other hand, he's also shown fighting much more athletic characters to a standstill, and performing impressive feats of Acrofatics.
    • Nelson is another example. Sometimes he's the toughest kid in school to the point where he's unfazed when Jimbo, Kearney, and Dolph or (unsurprisingly) Bart try to beat him up. Other times he's able to be beaten up by the other bullies.
  • Spliced: Two-Legs Joe suffers really badly from this. Most of the time, he's shown as having the strength to crush ordinary people easily, but not strong enough to stand a chance against other super-powered creatures like zombies or yetis. However, a few episodes turn him into a full-blown Reality Warper able to create tornadoes and earthquakes, level entire cities, turn people inside out, create black holes, move celestial bodies, and alter the strength of gravity just by stomping his feet.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants has this bad. At times he can barely lift stuffed animals or a straw by himself, while at other times he can tear a mailbox out of the ground or send his opponents flying across a city block with his blows. There's also his skills with karate; at times he can equal Sandy and even beat her, while at other times he's incompetent to the point where Sandy literally kicks him around like a football.
    • Related to this is the fact he used to be able to shapeshift, which means he could sometimes be very strong, but in later seasons this trait has mostly vanished, getting SpongeBob stuck in situations where he could have easily escaped via shapeshifting.
    • Also played with Patrick Star. While he is often extremely strong, to the point where he can throw his rock house around and lift the pavement off the ground, he has been seen as being so weak he can't rip paper apart.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The skill and power of the Jedi tends to vary greatly from episode to episode. In some episodes, they'll be literal One-Man Armies who effortlessly plow through dozens of battle droids and win entire battles single-handedly; in others, they'll struggle to beat a single Badass Normal who may not even be all that badass. Exactly how strong the characters were in relation to each other was also very inconsistent, for example, in "Revenge", Obi-Wan teams up with Ventress to fight Savage Oppress and Darth Maul, and Obi-Wan says they're outmatched. In the very next episode, Obi-Wan fights the two again, by himself, and beats them handily, wounding Oppress and forcing the pair to flee. Standard Battle Droids also suffer badly from this. Whether they're a complete joke even with a massive numbers advantage or a legitimate threat in a fair fight varies with the episode.
  • In Super Friends, Wonder Woman and Aquaman's strength varied. Sometimes, they were depicted as only as strong as ordinary people and could be restrained by mooks or ropes. Sometimes, they were correctly depicted as having Super Strength.
  • Teen Titans (2003):
    • Due to the emphasis on the Rule of Cool, the team's powers and abilities were considerably up and down. One infamous example was the case where superpowerless Boy Wonder was able to singlehandedly beat down Cinderblock, with his bare hands. Every other time however, Robin and his teammates struggled to defeat him. The Titans often reached literal godlike levels during the season finales.
    • Cyborg's little trick of reassembling himself after Brother Blood literally took him apart in a fight. This was so ridiculous that the writers included a line of dialogue stating that this was a one time thing.
    • Raven's strength fluctuations are legendary. In some cases she's been beaten by just having her mouth forced shut, but when the plot calls for it she's capable of soloing her Physical God father. Justified because Raven's powers are fueled by her emotions; the more passionate she becomes about defeating an enemy, the stronger her powers become in order to accomplish it.
    • Starfire is pretty bad about this trope. She can survive extreme environments when the plot calls for it, and be totally helpless when it doesn't. In one episode, Starfire winds up wandering around frozen tundra, apparently in danger of freezing to death. Given her super speed and flight abilities, there was nothing in that episode stopping her from flying out of the area, or back to Titans Tower to get proper equipment if things get too hairy. The weirdest part is that Starfire has been shown to be able to comfortably survive in the vacuum of space several times. Then too there might be an explanation for both her (and Raven's) powers in that they're emotion based, which means that theoretically, a villain could defeat Starfire by getting her depressed enough. But the strangest would have to be in 'Haunted' where Robin (HUMAN!) manages to "hurt" her just by grabbing her arms?! Granted at that moment she is really shocked and confused at the way Robin was acting. But this is an alien that took a blast to her face in 'Troq' where she was also visibly upset at being discriminated by Val-Yor.
    • Cyborg and Starfire's Super Strength also varies greatly just compared to each other, as one can be shown at any given moment to be an order of magnitude stronger than the other. For example, Cyborg was able to hold Starfire into submission with just one arm in the episode "Switched", but in another episode, Starfire was shown to be much stronger than Cyborg, also with the use of one arm.
      • Robin has been shown to be able to curbstomp all of the other Titans 3 separate times, twice when they weren't holding back, and yet will also lose to villains that any one of the other members of the team can beat singlehandedly.
      • Mammoth is an interesting case. Oftentimes he's able to top Cyborg or Starfire in Brute strength, but at least once Cyborg was able to overpower him in a shoving match.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, The Tick. This trope is a perfect description of his "drama power." The in-story description of it is "nigh-invulnerability." The Tick is always the exact right amount of invulnerable to keep the plot going. So he's much more vulnerable during slapstick scenes.
  • As noted above, Gladiator powers are based on his confidence and his appearances during Phoenix Saga in X-Men: The Animated Series really shows it. At his first appearance he simply ignores Juggernaut punching him and then threw him to the ocean with one hand. Later, feeling conflicted about fighting Rogue against his personal code allows her to knock him out with one punch. Also, how invulnerable is Rogue? Sometimes the same blast that sends Scott or Jean flying but doesn't put them out of the fight has a similar effect on her, sometimes having a building dropped on her is less than a mosquito bite. This during her Flying Brick days with Ms. Marvel's powers permanently absorbed.
  • Mesmero from X-Men: Evolution. In his first appearance, Xavier was whupping Mesmero quite well until a mysterious voice (Apocalypse) said something about not knowing who he's dealing with, and suddenly Xavier is being plastered on the ground. In his next appearance Xavier defeats him easily. For most of his appearances he's a Squishy Wizard, but in the Dark Horizon Season Finale he can suddenly take on Wolverine and Sabretooth at the same time. Possibly justified because Mesmero's powers were granted by Apocalypse, and the old mutant may well have adjusted how much power he let his minion use based on how much he thought he'd need.

  • According to Umberto Eco's seminal 1995 essay "Ur-Fascism", one of the defining traits of all fascist movements is that they view what ever group they consider the enemy (which obviously varies depending on the fascist movement) as either an overwhelming threat that they have to stop immediately or as weak and ineffectual losers with no hope of winning, depending on what the propaganda requires at the time. He then goes on to suggest that this is part of why fascist governments invariably fail eventually: they are incapable of objectively gauging the strength of their enemies, and thus aren't able to fight them effectively

Alternative Title(s): Weak As They Need To Be