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Useless Superpowers

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"Clearly this is a superpower that buggers you about a bit. Like an invisibility power that only works when you are playing a trombone."
Yahtzee's review on Scribblenauts

The characters normally have access to powerful abilities, which could greatly help them in their current situation, but are currently unable to use them for one reason or another.

Common in series like Bewitched, where the characters are given almost unlimited powers at the beginning, and the writers have to come up with more and more arcane limitations to create a new conflict each week.

Often involves a Fantastic Aesop about how using powers to avoid hard work is bad.

A form of Holding Back the Phlebotinum. Compare Coconut Superpowers, Embarrassing Superpower, Forgot About His Powers, and Cool, but Inefficient. For superpowers that are actually useless, see What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway? or Blessed with Suck. When the uselessness happens just when the power would've been necessary, then it's Plot-Driven Breakdown. When the useless superpower becomes useful, it's This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • At the start of Cardcaptor Sakura, Keroberos is unable to use most of his powers because they are sealed away due to being stuck in his Sleep-Mode Size until all the Clow Cards are captured. Unsurprisingly, he is quick to reassure Sakura that once he can return to his normal form, he will be very powerful and "cool", (and so he is!). But even after he is freed to be his Mega Neko self whenever he wishes in the second season, invariably one barrier, spell, or complication after another crops up that renders his powers fairly useless — or they just don't have much of an effect. Of course, this is usually because in most cases, he's unknowingly trying to combat his own creator's powers, but still.
  • Miroku from Inuyasha is cursed with a black hole in the palm of his hand. While it will one day consume him, and if he has children the curse will be passed on to them, it can also suck in anything into an inescapable abyss. So what keeps this from being a Story-Breaker Power? The Big Bad's minions all have the ability to produce poisonous miasmas, which does affect Miroku if he sucks it inside his hand. It doesn't take long for him to go from a super-powerful Person of Mass Destruction to mere Combat Commentator, although on several occasions when there truly is no other choice, Miroku will go ahead and use it and deal with being poisoned. The Wind Tunnel also grows as he uses it, and can grow more quickly if his hand is damaged.
  • In the Dragon Ball TV Special Dragon Ball Z: Bardock - The Father of Goku, Bardock is granted precognitive powers by the last of a race he was slaughtering. You'd think being able to see the future would be useful, but in this case, the power comes in the forms of random, uncontrolled visions of the future, which mostly consist of his youngest son's life on Earth and Frieza wiping out Planet Vegeta and all of its people. Which was the point. The alien gave Bardock the visions as a form of vengeance, hoping to punish the Saiyan with dreams of a future that can't be stopped. The only consolation is the knowledge that his son will be the one to defeat Frieza. Lampshaded in Dragon Ball Z Abridged:
    Bardock: (as Dodoria's about to blast him) USELESS-ASS PSYCHIC POWERS!
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, Roy Mustang's flame alchemy fits this trope. Mustang has the power to shoot flame from his hands as long as he's wearing his special ignition gloves, which is a massively powerful combat skill — that he can only use on the rare occasions when it isn't raining or flooded, the enemy didn't steal or destroy his ignition gloves, and he isn't blinded. To his credit he is at least Genre Savvy enough to carry around a box of matches just in case his opponent thinks destroying or wetting his gloves will render him completely helpless: Edward himself learned this the hard way during a duel between the two.
    • Most alchemists require time to draw a proper transmutation circle or access to an item containing one, such as Mustang's gloves or Armstrong's gauntlets, in order to reshape matter, so denying them that item leaves them as ordinary mortals. Even those like Ed and Al and others who've attempted human transmutation and seen the Gate of Truth who can perform circleless alchemy need to be able to use both hands for it. Getting his automail arm busted up in the Final Battle renders Ed useless until Al separates his soul from his armour in order to undo the deal with Truth and give Ed his organic arm back.
  • This is much of the gag with KonoSuba, due to the presence of Aqua, essentially a powerful water goddess incarnated as a magic-user. She possesses vast power, but even assuming she isn't paralyzed by her phenomenal stupidity, she has a great habit of running into enemies that can completely shut her down. For instance, anything not undead or demonic, and especially anything not undead or demonic that shares a water focus. Naturally, the very first thing she faced in battle was a giant frog, which nearly swallowed her whole. (The second was a different giant frog. She had a very unpleasant first day.)

    Comic Books 
  • The Silver Age version of Superman is so powerful that making any problem last longer than three panels takes some doing. As DEATH BATTLE! noted, before the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, Superman was able to sneeze an entire solar system out of existence. As such, Kryptonite Is Everywhere, with just about everyone having some Superman-nerfing something. Worth noting that during the Silver Age, it's more or less accepted that Superman has solved the problem of traditional crime: thus, many stories deal with him doing strange publicity stunts instead of fighting evil.
  • Green Lantern stories from the same era. The fully-unleashed power of a Green Lantern is such that, for a time, even the yellow weakness wasn't enough: there had to be "invisible yellow" or "infra-yellow"note  or a "yellow compound" around when GL needed to attack enemies or manipulate objects that were so completely non-yellow. A little Techno Babble to make a green-clad bad guy count as yellow meant you didn't even need a #2 pencil to seriously ruin Hal's day.
  • The Flash and other speedsters can be very difficult to write well, since they can solve many problems before the bad guys can blink. Good writers find tougher problems (impenetrable force-fields, not knowing where the bomb is, things that require flight, ice rinks, high-altitude air too thin to support their metabolism, etc.). Bad writers fall into this trope, turning what by all rights should be among the most powerful abilities possible into complete uselessness.
  • Touch (2004): After Dex's death, Cooper gives a man named Geoff powers, but they simply take the form of making him luminescent. an interesting power but not one which would work for marketable hero work. Coop pays Geoff two grand for his trouble, takes the power back and then gets Brian to fill in.
  • Franklin Richards, son of Susan Storm and Reed Richards, has Reality Warper powers that essentially make him a capital-g God. Naturally this is a headache for any good writer to maintain narrative tension with, which is is a problem with Marvel's rotating staff. He was born with these powers, so he spent most of his history too young to control them, leading to a lot of drama where Reed took drastic action to regulate them like putting him into a coma, leaving Sue horrified at such measures. Sometimes his future selves would come around, who either fully mastered his abilities or only had access to an infinitesimal fraction of them which still often left him the strongest thing around. In general Franklin vacillates between his powers being a source of drama or an escape hatch but never consistently enough for him to be a factor in most crises. Dan Slott's run dealt with this by depowering him after finally reaching his limit reconstructing the entire multiverse.

    Fan Works 
  • Lampshading the original movie (as listed above), Dragon Ball Z Abridged has Bardock constantly complaining about the fact that his future sense never actually helps, and often interrupts him in the middle of combat.
  • In The Keys Stand Alone: The Soft World, Ringo discovers early on that nearly everyone and everything of importance is invisible to his mindsight, thus crippling him for most of the story (though he does figure out a workaround to at least see the silhouettes of people and moving objects, and George gets him a pair of binoculars that also help).

  • Witchcraft and wizardry on the Discworld. Magic itself is not that difficult: learning when it's a good idea to use it is, because wizards' magic either causes massive wanton property damage, attracts the attention of Ghastly Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, or both. Meanwhile, overuse of witchcraft's more showy elements leads to cackling, gingerbread cottages and seriously dirty fingernails.
    • In Thud!, after government inspector A.E. Pessimal is dragged along to observe the Watch quelling a riot, he asks Commander Vimes why they couldn't recruit the wizards to help stop a potential riot by magicking away the weapons. Vimes indicates that they could, but crap would happen, like missing fingers... to say the least.
    • It's been outright stated that most of the education in Wizard Universities is learning how not to use magic. Of course it may not be much of a problem, since it's also been stated that, dangerous magics aside, wizard universities work just like regular universities: They understand the futility of trying to actually teach young people anything, so they just put them near a lot of books in the hopes that things will pass from one to the other, while the young people themselves put themselves near bars, pubs, and taverns for exactly the same reason. The Last Continent further clarifies that the University is less about education and more about giving the wizards a framework where their natural viciousness and ambition can be focused into academic feuds and gaining titles instead of magical warfare. Though it could also be a case of Power Incontinence, as it is often very difficult for a wizard to refrain from using magic.
    • Of course, in Sourcery, Pratchett shows just what happens when wizards use magic freely and have an abundance of power available to them. The results are not pretty. It's strongly implied that the historical wars between wizards were even worse. Not surprising that not using magic has become more important than the magic itself.
    • At least one Discworld book points out that in nine out of ten situations, there's just no point to using magic. Doing anything by magic takes the same amount of effort as doing it by not-magic. So you could create a loaf of bread out of sheer nothingness, but it'll just disappear again in a few seconds on the energy reserves of the average wizard. Better to just bake your own damn bread. Additionally, Mustrum Ridcully once observed that there's not usually much point in conjuring up fireballs if monsters show up, since anything that isn't fazed by being whacked with six feet of solid oak staff is probably immune to magic as well.
    • In a minor, non-spellcasting example, in Hogfather the UU wizards realize that every imaginary creature they mention that might be responsible for a mundane process (e.g. the Hair Loss Fairy) is popping into existence. The Dean immediately tries to exploit this new phenomenon by invoking the Give The Dean A Huge Bag Of Money Goblin; this fails, because he doesn't normally receive large bags of money for no visible reason, but it was presumably worth a try.
    • On the Witch side of things, magic can be powerful, but when dealing with the superstitious sort of country bumpkin that witches tend to encounter in their rural setting, it's nothing compared to good old "Headology" (basically trickery combined with a good knowledge of human nature). There's no point in cursing someone if you can just convince them they've been cursed so they blame their next spot of bad luck on you. When someone comes to you with a bad back, give them some sugar water and tell them it's a potion while surreptitiously administering some chiropracty and inventing a superstitious reason for them to sleep on a stiff board for a while. Even Magrat, who believes much more firmly in showy occultism than the others, carries a breadknife with her when she goes out. Magic is fine, but a good knife is a good knife.
  • Larry Niven attempted to avert this by ending his Known Space series after Ringworld, because he had introduced too much Phlebotinum, like the Teela Brown gene, to continue writing without invoking increasingly circuitous barriers to the use of said Phlebotinum. Of course, then he went and made Ringworld Engineers, and Ringworld Throne, and...
  • Harry Potter:
    • The Restriction on Underage Wizardry prevents the main cast from using magic outside of the school. Even without that, one has to contend with Potterverse magic being pretty much worthless because all of the major antagonists can also use magic with equal or greater skill. Lampshaded in Book 6 in a conversation between Cornelius Fudge and the British Prime Minister:
      PM: But... but you're wizards! You can do magic! Surely you could take care of... well, anything!
      Fudge: The problem is, Prime Minister, the other side can do magic too.
    • By book 3, Harry starts to evade these problems. He inflates his aunt like a balloon (she gets better and has her memory wiped by a third party) and is excused because everyone is just glad he's safe after he ran away, and then goes to a wizarding friend's house where he can cast supervised magic. In book 4, his abusive guardians are afraid of his godfather coming to get revenge on them, so they leave him alone from then on, and later in the series he often goes to wizarding friends' houses.
    • We find out more about the underage restrictions in Book 6. It turns out that while the usage of magic by minors does set off alarms, the Ministry technically cannot do more than locate it before informing the parents or guardians of the wizard.
  • In the later Callahan's Crosstime Saloon novels (the ones set in Jake's Place), Spider Robinson has introduced so much Applied Phlebotinum that he has to jump through some pretty ridiculous narrative hoops to justify why the regulars can't easily use it to solve whatever problem they currently face (Callahan's Con is particularly egregious in this regard).
  • Richard from The Sword of Truth is said to have more magical ability than anyone else living, but he has to be emotionally charged to do jack. Occasionally he'll destroy an entire regiment with nothing more than a thought, but otherwise can't light a candle without flint. Richard's powers are often noted to be inversely proportional to the number of pages left. Even with these limitations, there is enough of a Story-Breaker Power potential that Richard's gift has been blocked or restricted by taking a hostage on a regular basis.
  • In L.E Modesitt's The Saga of Recluce, mages have the power to reshape land, permanently alter weather, and wreak unholy destruction on those around them. However, the more powerful the magic, the greater the price. Using Order magic to cause death always results in a backlash against the mage, typically blindness. Improving the weather in one place can cause major and catastrophic climate shifts (in one book, changing one land from desert into productive land by moving weather systems creates a much larger desert elsewhere). Using Chaos magic prematurely ages the user, and turns one into walking entropy — food spoils more quickly, clothing and furniture wear out much faster than normal, and machines break down constantly. Using either one to heal injury or kill disease can weaken the person it's used on. The Balance pretty much limits uses of magic to small, subtle things, or results in greatly shortened lifespans.
    • It also appears to cause some substantial changes to the characters of the users. Habitual users of Chaos magic become chaotic themselves: power-hungry, backstabbing, untrustworthy, unstable, and conflict-prone. Order users can become passive, hidebound, rules-obsessed, and excessively conservative, even reactionary.
    • Even invisibility is nearly useless as a power. It's done in a very realistic manner, by bending the light around the mage, but this means that the mage has no light to see by, and is stuck in pitch darkness the entire time he's invisible. And, of course, he can still be heard just fine.
  • Lucretia from Bystander has won the Superpower Lottery. However, books and street signs don't take into account thermal vision, and it's only because her temperature sight only activates in areas of significant fluctuation (like outside) that she can read at all. Likewise, her ability to see electricity makes computers, cell phones and TVs more or less useless for her. Finally, she has such a pathetic level of fighting skill that normal people had only a little difficulty handling her despite her strength and actual trained soldiers easily take her down. It's no wonder that she puts most of her faith in her skills as a street rat and manipulator. Even then, her sloppily executed Batman Gambit is what causes things to spin out of control plot-wise.
  • In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, galactic Chessmaster R. Daneel Olivaw's Telepathy and Mind Control, along with the fact that he is almost The Ageless due to being a robot, should make him virtually a Physical God. However, due to being Three Laws-Compliant, he cannot effectively use his immense powers in any way that could be construed as "harming" an individual human. In theory the Zeroth Law Rebellion principle should allow him to bypass this, but in practice it is impossible to judge whether messing with somebody's head will benefit humanity as a whole or not. Thus, even though he technically possesses the power necessary to halt the collapse of the Galactic Empire, he cannot actually do so because of the restrictions on his actions. He is thus forced to pursue other options such as the Seldon Plan and Gaia.

    Live-Action TV 
  • As mentioned in the intro at the top of the page, Bewitched may be the Ur-Example of this trope. One first-season episode revealed that Samantha could rewind time and completely rewrite reality with her powers — and she's not even the most powerful witch in the series. As such, the writers had to keep coming up with caveats to not only her gifts, but magic in general:
    • One of the biggest examples throughout the series is that Darrin isn't crazy about Samantha using her magic to solve all of his problems for him. This has been interpreted in later years as a kind of supernatural Stay in the Kitchen, with Darrin trying to force Sam to be "normal". Notably, she usually ends up ignoring him.
    • Several episodes involves needing to know the exact spell/hex/transfiguration that was used to enchant someone or something in the first place; Sam couldn't fix a problem until she knew the specifics of the magic behind it. Similarly, breaking a spell required knowing who had cast it — while Endora was usually behind the wacky magic of the week, she was occasionally innocent, forcing Sam to look to her other relatives for a solution.
    • The first few seasons feature the absentminded Aunt Clara, who was prone to casting powerful enchantments and then forgetting either what specific spell she'd used or the counter-spell required to undo her magic.
    • The Witches' Council, the governing body of magic, would occasionally show up and keep Samantha, Endora, or their relatives from using their powers (usually when it was most inconvenient).
    • Finally, there was a general habit of witches and warlocks casting protection spells against each other, resulting in magical battles of willpower.
  • A prime example of this is in the various Star Trek series, where their transporters — which could easily enable a quick and painless escape from captivity or a heated firefight — are often rendered useless for one reason or another (interference, mechanical failure, etc.).
    • Or simply forgetting how many transporters are supposed to be on the ship.
      • In the Next Generation episode "The Hunted", Super-Soldier Roga Danar, to escape from the Enterprise while the transporters are shut down and mostly under guard, sneaks into a cargo hold and uses a cargo transporter, powered by a phaser, to beam off the ship. Using a cargo transporter is a bit risky, as they are not as precise, and you run a very high risk of arriving at your destination with your liver put in backwards.
    • Or that if the ship's transporters are down, the shuttlecrafts' aren't.
    • Or, for whatever reason, no one can contact the ship.
    • Frequently an issue with Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. As empathic/telepathic powers can serve as either a Plot Device or a Story-Breaker Power, writers often had to struggle with the use of her character. Sometimes her powers were extremely useful, other times they were useless. It did not help that writers were very inconsistent as to the exact extent of her abilities. In some cases she was shown as being able to sense people on a planet's surface while she herself was on the Enterprise in orbit, or even just sense psychic impressions left behind by strong emotions experienced in the past. At other times she would completely miss things happening right in front of her. Sometimes handwaved as Mind over Manners.
  • Out of This World (1987): Evie's almost unbounded "Gleeping" power manages to fail at crucial plot points in pretty much every episode. Evie has powers that basically amount to "Do Anything", but to keep her from solving the problem of the week easily, it will do something other than what she wants it to as if it were a Jerkass Genie and not her own power, and then not let her reverse it until certain requirements (or a certain point in the episode) have been met. This gets worse as the show goes on. At first her only power was freezing time for everyone but her, which was very useful, but not a panacea for reasons that made sense. Her powers became very fond of backfiring once she got to Reality Warper class.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch:
    • Sabrina was a teenage witch—so she combined the lack of foresight and desire for quick fixes common to teens with powers they didn't fully understand. She was also trying to balance learning about the supernatural with a fully mortal life as well, which tended to make her lazy about looking up specifics in her Magic Book. She also couldn't access the full range of her powers until she got her "Witch's License"—and even then, she couldn't use it until she solved the Spellman family secret! Finally, her aunts tended to take a "hands-off" approach to Sabrina's magical education, insisting that she learn to clean up her own messes rather than simply fixing them for her. Combine all of this with the inevitable attempts to hide magic from the mortal world, and you begin to understand Sabrina's issues.
  • In Doctor Who, the Doctor's sonic screwdriver — normally an all-purpose lockpick — is unable to affect anything that's been secured with a "deadlock seal", which seems to pop up arbitrarily in all places and historical eras (though when it shows up on modern Earth it's always of alien origin). Ten also reveals that the sonic doesn't "do wood" and that it can be blocked by certain types of hair-dryers—though he is trying to fix the latter.
    • The Master lampshades this when showing off his considerably more weaponized equivalent.
      Master: Laser screwdriver. Who'd have sonic?
    • In a number of episodes, the main conflict could be easily solved if he had access to the TARDIS, but it was accidentally sealed in a vault / stolen / lost / fallen down a shaft almost as soon as the characters stepped out of it.
  • The Charmed Ones are magically restricted from using their magic for personal gain. Try to predict the winning lotto numbers? The ink on your ticket disappears.
    • Hell, they're lucky if that's all that happens. Remember the time they tried to use magic to cure Piper of a fatal disease? The disease gained its own body, became sentient, and started killing people.
    • This was made apparent to new character Paige; when she cast a 'Karma/reap what you sow' spell on a fellow employee, it backfired and gave her breasts so big she had to break spherical holes into the windshield just to get in her car.
    • Time after time, a demon would be immune to their powers and require specific conditions to be vanquished. Considering that Piper got the power to blow things up, it was kind of necessary to maintain dramatic tension: an episode's major antagonist would seldom survive simply being gestured at by Piper, and the few who could handle that were still totally fragged if the sisters brought out the big guns and said "The power of three will set us free" three times.
  • By the end of the first season of Heroes, Peter Petrelli, who could copy any superpower he saw, gained almost godlike status. In season 2, he can't use his superpowers because he has amnesia and can't remember most of them. In season 3, he is trapped inside another body and can't access his powers. This ends when he has his powers taken away, and gets a new one, which is a largely toned down version of the power he originally had.
    • In the miniseries that came before the sequel series, Heroes Reborn, the two characters Quentin and Pheobe Frady made fun of an EVO who appeared on the Tonight Show, who only had the power to heat water up to room temperature.
  • Throughout Season Seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow is reluctant to make full use of her immense magical powers for fear of turning evil like she did in Season Six. Her fear is so great that in the series finale, when she performs a powerful spell to activate all the Potential Slayers in the world, she has her girlfriend with her in case she goes completely evil and has to be killed.
    • Averted in the Season 8 comics. By now, Willow has become confident enough to make full use of her powers, even though she still gets the Black Eyes of Evil when she goes all out.
  • In Misfits, Alisha makes fun of a boy whose power is the ability to control... Milk! A bit rich considering her own power is the ability to make people rape her.
    • Curtis has the ability of turning back time, but doesn't know how to trigger it. It's eventually accepted that Curtis can only turn back time when he feels directly guilty about something, but that doesn't stop everyone else from telling him to turn back time whenever something bad happens (and having him respond, "It doesn't work like that!").
    • Nathan is immortal, but his healing factor only kicks in when he actually dies.
  • In Farscape, Jool's sonic scream is intially this: her voice is loud enough to melt metal, but she only ever reaches sonic pitch when she's actually upset, afraid, in serious pain, or all of the above—not because she can't do so normally, but because she honestly doesn't think to use it under most circumstances. It gets to the point that when the power goes out and Aeryn wants to perform some emergency welding, she actually has to break Jool's thumb to get anything useful out of her. Thankfully, in her final episode on the show, she appears to have learned her lesson: she uses her scream to melt her way out of a pair of handcuffs.
  • In Tracker, there's an episode where Cole is hit with an energy weapon that screws up his polarities and renders him unable to use his Cirronian powers.
  • One of the central points of The Greatest American Hero is that while Ralph's suit may give him a wide variety of superpowers, the fact that he lost the instruction manual shortly after acquiring the suit means that he doesn't know what most of them are, and has very poor control over the ones he does figure out. The most frequently demonstrated example is flying. Can he fly? Yes. Can he control where he's going while airborne? Sort of. Can he make a controlled landing? No.
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000: Played for Laughs in the Riding with Death episode. Crow decides to become a superhero — Turkey Volume Guessing Man, with the power to estimate how many turkeys it would take to fill a given space. It turns out Mike can do it too, much to everyone's surprise (including his own).

    Tabletop Games 
  • All characters in the RPG game Paranoia have mutant superpowers. They have two problems. First, using your mutant superpower proves you are a mutant, which is treason, which is punished by summary execution. Second, they are extremely undependable - not only do they often not work, they often backfire as well.
  • The Dresden Files: The Paranet Papers mentions a minor talent in Pennsylvania who has X-ray vision. The problem? He can only use it to see through drywall and nothing else.

  • In Fly by Night, the Gypsy fortune teller is able to predict several events that will coincide with Miriam meeting her soulmate, and she foresees Miriam's death shortly after this, but can't use her powers to see where Miriam works.
    Gypsy: You're a hard woman to find.
    Miriam: But I work just down the street. And you're psychic!

  • The bumbling eponymous character in Captain Amnesia, a 1980s radio series, has "1,001 superpowers but can't remember one of them."

    Video Games 
  • It is never explained why Mega Man teleports to the start of the Death Course instead of the boss's lair. Jamming stations?
    • There is a bit of a Hand Wave established in the supporting documentation issued by Capcom. In fact, there are two: either Mega Man has to travel through the various areas to stop the robots that are causing havoc (the Mooks), or the boss's room is protected against teleportation. Both are plausible.
    • The Comic on the other hand explains that Dr. Light has limited intel on the location of the robot master, and only knows that the robot is somewhere in the area Mega Man is sent to. Since the modus operandi of the robot masters is to reprogram the local worker robots into minions to secure the area for them, this forces Mega Man to teleport to the entrance and fight his way through until he finds the robot master.
    • Fridge Logic applies on the first one, particularly with Mega Man X. In that game, even if you've defeated that board's boss already, you still have to fight the mooks if you teleport there!
    • And on that note, Mega Man Battle Network as well. It seems Mega Man is the only navi that can't choose where he jacks in. Once you fight through all the viruses, everyone else just pops in.
  • Persona 5: The Wild Card usually isn't this trope, since 'access to multiple Personas' is a very useful ability, hence why it's restricted to protagonists. Goro Akechi is a Wild Card who can do precisely jack squat with it, because extra personas come from Confidants and Goro, friendless as he is, has none. He's stuck with just Robin Hood and Loki (given by the Big Bad specifically to use to cause trouble).
  • Touhou Project, and its limitless broken superpowers, occasionally creates powers that simply never really get used.
    • Remilia is a prime candidate. Her power of "Fate manipulation" is basically never spoken of, since manipulating fate would have no apparent effect except that Remilia somehow benefits from everything, setting up a "just as planned" ending. Since people tend to prefer "Charisma Break" Remilia, she usually doesn't even get this much in most fanon. Even canon works like Silent Sinner In Blue only hint that she is allowing herself to be "manipulated" for her own benefit while using Obfuscating Stupidity (which itself is trying to hide behind being an Ojou). Then again, in Bohemian Archive in Japanese Red, Remilia's sister Flandre claims that she's a braggart and her only real power (apart from her vampire abilities) is to lie convincingly about how she planned everything.
    • Keine's superpower is theoretically unstoppable — she can consume history and rewrite it at her whim, theoretically making her capable of consuming a person's ever being born. In-game, it seems she can't even make characters forget that the human village existed, much to her chagrin. Due to her lack of flashiness, this power is generally ignored in fanon in favor of her much more visceral, but far less dignified, head-butting of opponents.
    • Rumia is given a far more humiliating reason for her power's uselessness — her "darkness" superpower was meant to sound scary, but is actually completely useless, because it's also her own Weaksauce Weakness — using her power blinds her, and she is canonically recorded to fly into trees whenever she uses it.
    • Yuyuko Saigyouji has the power to kill humans. Of course, she is trapped in the underworld, where everyone is already dead. When she does encounter the living, they are One-Hit-Point Wonder humans that are easily dispatched by the same bullets everyone can use without special powers. Or aren't humans. Or are immortal.
      • In addition, anything that enters the Netherworld is counted as dead for the duration of their stay, so Yuyuko's own home is a Restraining Bolt on her power.
      • Also, Yuyuko actually doesn't like her power very much (the reason she's a ghost in the first place is that she committed suicide due to the fear of her own power), so she uses it very sparingly.
    • In-universe, this is explained by the Hakurei Spellcard Rules, a system of formal, nonlethal magical combat designed to curb the use of broken powers and reduce the damage more powerful beings could inflict, both to others and to their surroundings. Effectively, this also justifies the game mechanics.
  • Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse sets Max up with some incredibly useful toys of power, has the player rely on them throughout the whole episode, then strips them all away for the boss fight. Half the time you even lose the ability to walk.

    Web Animation 
  • In Cyanide and Happiness we have Senor Cleanfist. He is able to clean anything but has to physically destroy the object in question to get rid of some grime.
  • Homestar Runner has Bubs, who apparently has the ability to fly, but only gets about two or three inches off the ground due to all the weight he's gained. Plus, he loses the power when someone gets him to say his name backwards, minus the first B (sbu).
    • Strong Bad points out another instance in the e-mail shapeshifter, involving shape-shifting. Naturally, in the episode, he fails to do any useful shapeshifting: he turns into "any shape of balloon animal", turns into "legal tender" to buy something but finds he can't change back and gets blown away, and gains the ability to turn into "almost anyone"—as in, he can turn into about half a person.
      Strong Bad: "...if comic books, cartoons, and Sci-Fi Original Movies have taught me anything, it's that shapeshifting comes with a bunch of boring rules and restrictions that limit its potential Turn-Into-A-Bulldozer-Whenever-I-Wantity. You can turn into a machine gun but not bullets, contemporary jazz turns you back to normal, you can only turn into presents your grandma's knitted for you. Crap like that."

  • In Casey and Andy, Satan herself is Andy's girlfriend. The author had to come up with reasons she doesn't want to use superpowers to resolve story arcs immediately. Quite often, it ends up being "I'm evil and your suffering amuses me". Well, she is Satan...
  • El Goonish Shive: This is what magic burnout does. If you overuse magic, you can temporarily lose your ability to use magic at all. Nanase's guardian form spell, which gives her a superpowered angelic form, is guaranteed to cause burnout; Ellen also suffered this when she successfully cloned the form.

    Web Original 
  • Whateley Universe:
    • Tennyo tends to suffer from this. While her powers are ridiculously helpful at killing things dead, she has a BIT of a problem with the whole "holding back" deal.
    • Nikki, a powerful sorceress, tends to have trouble with sneezing in the middle of incantations, prompting surprisingly useful mayhem! Of course, her secondary power of "everyone crushes on her fiercely" helps when she gets hit.... And we now know that she has access to ancient Sidhe magics which require so much Essence that she has unknowingly destroyed several ecosystems. So she can't use those guys anymore.
    • Folder can fold anything, including air. Effectively a one-hit-kill power... but s/he's a pacifist. Precisely because it's a one-hit-kill power ..and s/he has anger management issues that are very well hidden under that pacifism. S/he doesn't dare use his/her powers in anger, for fear that s/he would kill someone if provoked.
    • Then there's Gotterdammerung. His sole power? Total destruction of anything he touches down to the quantum level. It can't be used for anything but death or destruction. Since he's the sensitive type and doesn't want to hurt anyone, it makes him a helpless bully magnet.
  • Jeannette of Funny Business is a full-on Reality Warper. The only reason this isn't a Story-Breaker Power is because she can't use her powers to fix her emotional problems, which make up most of the conflict.
  • Mr Welch is forbidden from invoking this.
    1480. I will not add the restriction "only to cook eggs" to any of my super powers.

    Western Animation 
  • Used constantly on The Fairly OddParents!. This series mostly avoids the problems Bewitched had, however, by explaining the rules the fairies work by at the beginning and then sticking to them. And yet, despite the exaggeratedly large size of the rule book, it only contains about 20 or so rules, with a new one popping up whenever the plot calls for it. Then again, half the time they simply give Timmy the Idiot Ball, and in many episodes he probably could've found a way around a restriction if he really thought it out. In this specific example, the Idiot Ball is named Cosmo. The rest of the time, the conflict is created by the wish — or outside forces — separating Timmy from the Fairies, or their wands, so that he needs to regain his ability to make wishes before he can clean up his mess.
  • Ben 10 shows fairly early on that the hero is absolutely clueless about how his Imported Alien Phlebotinum works.
  • Jackie Chan Adventures has the Twelve Talismans, which grant the holder extraordinary abilities. However, of the twelve, there are three that can be pretty useless when they're on their own: these are the Rat Talisman, which grants motion to inanimate objects, the Tiger Talisman, which literally splits the holders Yin personality from his Yang personality, and the Sheep Talisman, which grants Astral Projection. This is parodied when henchman Finn just happens to get all three of these talismans, after all twelve were randomly divided amongst the group.
    Finn: Astral projection? Motion to the motionless? Yin yang? How come I get all the loser powers?
    • The Sheep Talisman is often the most mocked of the set, with most people finding it useless. It's the one Talisman that Jade will rarely bother to steal from the vault. During the series finale, she takes it but never uses it, and pretty much immediately gives it to Paco, who has no idea what it does.
    • The existence of each Talisman is justified for Shendu. Shendu depends on the Rat Talisman to keep him out of his statue form, and the Tiger Talisman keeps the power of the other talismans in balance. Furthermore, Shendu was the only one who knew how to use the Sheep Talisman properly with no problems.
  • In the second season finale of Justice League Unlimited, Martian Manhunter wants to teleport all available Leaguers to battle the fused Luthor-Brainiac entity, but the teleporter is damaged. He comments that it's damaged so often, he wonders why they even bother with it anyway.
    • Heck, the Martian Manhunter is the biggest example of this, even moreso than Superman. He uses his shapeshifting three or four times in the entire show's run. He uses his mind-reading powers to cry out in pain at how powerful the Monster of the Week is. His density-shifting powers are rarely used to their full extent (he'll stare at oncoming projectiles rather than, well, become intangible and let them pass through him harmlessly) and only once did he bother to actually shift his density to become super hard and heavy in the entire show.
    • This is applied a lot in Justice League, given that if the Flash, Superman, and Martian Manhunter were allowed to apply their powers to their full extents, each one would probably be able to get more done alone than the entire Unlimited League.
  • In the animated version of Beetlejuice, the title character can do pretty much whatever he wants once Lydia calls him into the living world. However, he developed all of his powers solely for his "bio-exorcist" profession; they are only good for "juicing" (pranking) people. This works out wonderfully when he has targets to humiliate. However, any attempts to use them for more constructive purposes backfire or have ridiculous drawbacks, or he literally interprets a wish or underestimates the penalties involved.
  • There's an episode of Superfriends involving a damaged nuclear submarine. You'd think This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman, but he's acting even more useless then normal just to let the other star of the episode, Black Vulcan (who has electricity powers) do most of the work. In general, Aquaman tended to suffer this a lot; there are multiple episodes where he gets attacked by sea monsters and doesn't simply take control of them.
  • On The Magic School Bus, said "magic" was frequently unreliable and the bus was prone to Phlebotinum Breakdowns, typically in the name of having plots which couldn't be resolved in three seconds. Most notably was in one episode that showed the bus was surprisingly vulnerable to peanut butter: a messy eater named Junkett, just by eating one while inspecting the vehicle, practically disabled the entire engine. Ms. Frizzle has a near perfect track record of twisting such problems into a lesson so the kids could solve the problems by themselves and learn; it's Frizzle's Catchphrase.
  • The pilot episode for Steven Universe has him find a time travel device- but, because of his inexperience, he accidentally locks it so he can only use its powers to make comebacks on time.

    Real Life 
  • Anyone who has ever belonged to a social group where she or he is above and beyond the most skilled athlete, the physically strongest, by far the best educated, the most intelligent, the most well-off and with the most surplus income, etc knows exactly what it is like to be continually forbidden by friends to do anything to help them and what it is like to be the only person excluded from a group game of basketball or Trivial Pursuit because allowing someone so talented to play is declared "unfair to everyone else."
  • Similarly, it is a very real thing in the United States for someone to be denied a job for being "overqualified."
    • Well, "overqualified" people are more likely to ask for raises or object to mistreatment on the job, aren't they?