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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. For superpowers that are actually useless in and of themeselves see What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway? or Blessed with Suck. When the depowerment happens just when it would've been necessary, then it's Plot-Driven Breakdown

Examples of Useless Superpowers include:


Anime and Manga

Comic Books

  • The Silver Age version of Superman was so all-powerful that making any problem last longer than three panels took some doing. As such, Kryptonite Is Everywhere, with just about everyone having some Superman-nerfing... something.
  • 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" 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.

Literature

  • 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!, a Discworld novel, 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.
  • Larry Niven averted 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's 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.
    • By book 3 he 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. The author got bored of the restrictions.
      • He's not allowed to cast supervised magic at Ron's house so much as the ministry doesn't know if he does - wizarding parents are expected to monitor their children, because the presence of magic in the house already makes it impossible to know if an adult or child cast it. It's only really obvious who did it if the only adults in the house are muggles.
  • In the later Callahans 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 of the Sword of Truth series 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.
    • I think you'll find that Richard's powers are directly related to how many pages are left.
  • In L.E Modesitt's 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, 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 its 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.
    • Interestingly, because of the way the book was designed, it is a pleasure to read, and a good proof that Tropes Are Not Bad.

Live Action TV

  • 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 crippled or useless for one reason or another (interference, mechanical failure, etc.).
    • Or simply forgetting how many transporters are supposed to be on the ship.
    • Or that if the ship's transporters are down, the shuttlecrafts' aren't.
    • Or, for whatever reason, no one can contact the ship.
  • Another is in Out of This World, where Evie's almost unbounded "Gleeping" power manages to fail at crucial plot points in pretty much every episode.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch falls in the same category as Bewitched here.
  • 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).
    • It doesn't work on wood, either. (No electronics or moving parts.)
      • And it can be blocked by certain kinds of hairdryer.
        • He's working on that one.
    • Not to mention all the episodes where the main conflict could be easily solved if he had access to the TARDIS ... too bad he accidentally sealed it in a vault / had it stolen / got lost / fell down a shaft about ten seconds into the show (and five seconds after stepping 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. I guess the Elders take that personal gain rule REALLY freakin' seriously.
    • 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 enormous breasts.
      • You say that like it's a bad thing...
        • They were so big she had to break spherical holes into the windshield just to get in her car.
    • Plus there was 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.
    • Don't forget Ando, whose new super power is to augment other powers, essentially making him a super sidekick. Until, that is, he learned that he could also use it to Hadoken his enemies.
  • 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 was so great that in the series finale, when she did a powerful spell to activate all the Potential Slayers in the world, she had her girlfriend with her in case she went completely evil and had 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, the sound of Jool's scream can melt metal. She screams every time she is surprised, unhappy or scared. She inexplicably does not scream in a few situations where she is being attacked by someone using delicate, metal weapons.
  • 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.

Tabletop Games

  • All characters in the RPG game Paranoia have mutant superpowers. Unfortunately, using your mutant superpower proves you are a mutant, which is treason, which is punished by summary execution.

Radio

  • 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.
    • 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.
    • There are two other possibilities: the teleport system is fixed or that Mega Man has no idea where specifically the main boss has secured himself thus that appearing in a random place is unavoidable (it only looks like a linear level to us players).
  • Touhou Project, and it's 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 even 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, and even canon works like Silent Sinner In Blue give only hints that she is purposefully allowing herself to be "manipulated" for her own benefit while using Obfuscating Stupidity (which itself is trying to hide behind being an Ojou).
    • 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, and, due to its lack of flashiness, is generally ignored in fanon, for 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.
      • There's more to it than just that. Anything that enters the Netherworld is counted as dead for the duration of their stay, hence 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.
  • Sam and 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 Comics

  • In Casey and Andy Satan herself is Andy's girlfriend. Author had to come up with reasons she doesn't want to use superpowers to resolve story arcs immediately.

Web Original

  • In the 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. Also, 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.
    • Hey, what about Folder? S/he can fold anything, including air. Effectively a one-hit-kill power... but s/he's a pacifist.
      • Folder's a pacifist 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.
  • Most of the powers in SOTF: Evolution.
  • TREE POWERS, ACTIVATE!
  • Bardock: Useless-ass psychic powers!
  • USELESS SUPERPOWERS

Western Animation

  • Used constantly on The Fairly Odd Parents. 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.
      • To be fair, EVERYBODY in Fairly Oddparents is an idiot, to one degree or another- it's that kind of comedy. Timmy is actually one of the less dumb characters in the show.
      • '"I wish I could change Da Rules." "I wish I had thought this out a little better, or had more foresight in the future."
        • "Oh, look, that's the first of Da Rules!." for #1, and for #2...Things get a thousand-times worse. "You thought it over, and came up with an even BETTER idea!"
        • Timmy actually tries this in the second video game. The results are... worse than expected.
  • And Ben 10 only manages to sidestep that category by showing fairly early on that the hero is absolutely clueless about how his Imported Alien Phlebotinum works.
  • In the second season finale of Justice League Unlimited, Martian Manhunter wants to teleport all available Leaguers to battle the Luthor-Brainiac combination, but it 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 all of his spells backfire or have ridiculous drawbacks, or he literally interprets a wish or underestimates the penalties involved.
    • Example: Lydia is busy baking cookies for the Girl Scouts Cookie Sale. Beetlejuice gets bored and instantly conjures some cookies from the underworld. Lydia doesn't trust them, but she's woefully undersupplied so she sells them. The last line of the recipe? "Do not dunk." When Beetlejuice finally decides to test what happens, the cookie grows lifesized and goes on a rampage. So do all the other cookies he sold. Oops.
  • 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.
  • Homestar Runner has an example of this when pointed out by Strong Bad in this e-mail [1], involving shape-shifting.

  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."

  • 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.
    • Not quite. Most of the time, all problems were made on purpose so that the kids could solve the problems by themselves and learn. It's the Frizzle's catch phrase.
  • The Powerpuff Girls episode "Nuthin' Special" has Buttercup looking for a special power (like Blossom's ice breath and Bubbles' Spanish language), but every time she demonstrates one, her sisters duplicate it. Out of contempt, she sticks her tongue out at them, curling it in the process. To Buttercup's surprise and delight, Blossom and Bubbles cannot duplicate it. The narrator even lampshades how pointless it is.
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