Despite the frequent gripes I have with the portrayal and handling of superpowers, am also a life-time fan of the super-hero genre – but stop short of obsessive comic trivia and the cosplay. It’s typically the little oversights and lack of balance and power-scaling that causes the most issues for many series, and for me personally. It’s because I care so much for these things that I give the superhero-genre it a hard time.
That said, I’ve come to appreciate well written powers, ones that have drawbacks and limitations – which can be surpassed with intense practice and conditioning.
But I’ve also come to recognize bad ones; ones that have no limitations or consequences to the user, ones that disregard established in-universe rules to even function, and ones that are not paired with supplementary traits to aid in their function.
Now that I’ve made myself look like the good guy, let’s take a look at our first victim.
This has always been a favorite of mine, though knowing how people really felt about me would likely result in more pain that amusement.
Now, I’m not talking about those stupid omnipotent psychic types that can manipulate gravity and lift mountains on top of being able to read your mental-bio in less than a second. That’s dumb, and I’m pretty sure the people who write those characters are victims of the “10% brainpower” meme and don’t actually know what a psychic is.
Mind-reading characters are subversive and lowkey, tasked with gathering information rather than flashy battle sequences. Given the shadowy nature of their abilities, most mind-readers are portrayed as an antagonizing force – often seen violently probing minds for precious secrets. But how are they doing this?
Very rarely is any kind of explanation given as to what a mind-reader is actually doing when they use their power – but that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes a story will try and provide an answer that sounds believable but then immediately disregards its own rules (you’ll see what I mean two powers from now).
But when we’re talking about the ability to read thoughts it’s often explained away as the ability to receive a person’s residual brainwaves within a certain range and convert those waves into comprehensible speech or images in the mind. And that the reader in question can effortlessly pull sensitive information for a mind without the target even knowing, unless they want them to.
If this sounds like an ability with too few drawbacks or risks, that’s because it is.
Not only that, but it’s also common for the targets of mind readers to be conveniently mulling over important information in the clearest and most least ambiguous language ever.
And don’t even get me started on those instances where mind-reading is integrated into combat. The amount of time it would take to read someone’s mind to figure out their next move, think of a counter, and then act, is not at all practical. You’d eat three blows before you got done overthinking the first one. Unless the goal is to figure out their first move and counter, or to prevent a surprise attack from a hidden weapon, or the battle is a board-game, you’re honestly better off not using it.
Despite the near impunity that many with this ability seem to enjoy in less fleshed-out franchises, I have seen mind-reading done well.
As I mentioned before, I much prefer powers that aren’t consequence free, and mindreading has some good limitations.
One of the essential weakness to take into account would be all the surrounding thoughts from other people you might not be able to filter out. It would not, realistically, be comparable to focusing on one voice in a crowd. There probably wouldn’t be any distinct markers that differentiate one person’s thoughts from another.
When you think, do you use your own voice? Do you think only with words, without any form of visualization? No. You would be subjected to a bombardment of nonsense information with no capacity to make sense of any of it.
Which is why you’d want the ability to scan thought via direct contact. It’s not as covert as long-range mind-reading but it gets around the interference of other thoughts; essentially turning the nerves in your hands into electrodes for Electroencephalography.
Alternatively, if you’d like to avoid a great deal of expositing on the inner workings of a reader’s abilities, Empaths are often overlooked but can be very effective.
Their powers work by detecting the emotional states of their targets rather than any specific thoughts, effectively turning them into human-lie detectors. Immunity to deception is a very powerful ability, particularly in the hands of a hero.
Though you’d basically be faced with a game of 20 questions every time you interrogated someone, but as long as they can understand and consider your questions, they don’t even need to answer you verbally. Empaths might not be able to pull info by force, but they will get answers eventually.
And if you’re really serious about making the most true-to-life mind-reader that doesn’t force the audience to believe strictly factitious footnotes of the physical world in order for the power to make sense in universe, there are tens of thousands of documents, case studies and old volumes attesting to not only the existence of similar abilities, but their inner workings. Needless to say, such abilities would require some modest info-dumping on the audience – but nobody can fault you for doing your homework, can they?
Invulnerability, Indescribability, Imperviousness, call it what you will. I call it a lie.
Unlike mind-reading, I don’t much care for indescribable characters that supposedly can’t be injured in most cases; and that’s simply because it almost always turns out to not be true.
Some great threat that feels no pain and can’t be beaten is either being set up for someone stronger to show up and kick their ass – in which case it’s a narrative device, a drum-roll for someone else’s off-screen power-up. or only a threat until their one obscure weakness is discovered.
In reality, someone who’s seemingly “indescribable” is really just boasting a high damage threshold due to immense physical strength and resilience. It doesn’t matter how scuffed the paint on a tank gets when you throw rocks at it, you need to find the guy with the missiles.
In other words, apparent damage immunity is usually a bi-product of another power, rather than the true power itself. That said, if a character is made of meat, being truly impervious is all the less likely unless there’s some kind of aura shenanigans at play. In which case, their immense defense has a time limit and is much more viable.
And if the “Just hit them harder” solution doesn’t work, then there’s only ever one other solution – seal’m up!
It’s just so predictable.
Despite its hindering predictability, there are some creative work-arounds to improve this power – by making it weaker (I promise that makes sense). I’m no big fan of the obscure “one weakness” troupe, so that’s off the table. Rather, I’ve found it more effective to use less direct methods to deal with these kinds of characters, seeing as how any direct method fails by design. Toxins, infections, and asphyxiation are two of the most promenade solutions in this respect. While their bodies’ exteriors are damage-proof whether this is due to some ki-field or diamond hardness, an apt solution would be to attack form within.
Another underutilized alternative to the invulnerability shtick is the lesser known intangibility – or being unable to be touched by taking on a nebulous form that is virtually impervious, but has the added drawback of being equally harmless to others. Making it more strategic and in need of good timing when used.
Gigantification and Minimization
Now we’re really getting into some nonsense. Gigantification and Minimization sometimes come paired together but it’s usually one or the other, with gigantification being more common. The advantages of becoming large do, after all, come to mind far easier than those of shrinking.
Growing to an immense size tends to bring increased strength and durability, but is usually offset by slower, more cumbersome movement. Becoming small on the other hand offers all of the opposite perks and weaknesses – greater speed and mobility paired with the chance you might be stepped on or eaten. Good stuff. It’s balanced. But it has one terrible flaw, the explanation.
Okay, the distance between atoms is expanding or contracting. Alright, fine. I can buy that. That’s a nice, sound explanation that I hadn’t heard before. They don’t explain HOW the quantum juice actually does that but I’m glad they don’t even try. They just would have dug themselves a bigger hole.
Having something grow or shrink using the method describe does not, in any way, effect the mass of the subject in question, thereby not effecting the weight. However, we can clearly see that a weight disparity is snuck into the action sequences while the directors hoped and prayed I wasn’t watching.
It would be one thing for the movie to just disregard its own rules outright (which it does), but it’s actually worse than that, in certain scenes AM maintains his mass – which is how his punches have any weight behind them – and in other’s he’s riding a fucking ant. They just follow the rules when it looks cool!
But what’s more, when he’s huge he apparently weighs many tons, but is he stronger? His muscles are bigger, but they’re aren’t stronger. His bones aren’t denser, yet he manages to stand and walk. He should be collapsing into himself like this.
But the Quantum Realm, Oh my god, the Quantum Realm. It wasn’t enough to blow off the pseudo-science with weight change, they had to go and make atoms even smaller than atoms too. Unreal.
As much as I hate to say it, there is no good in-universe explanation to support the existence of this ability. The solution: Don’t give one.
I don’t mind when a power lacks a reason behind why it works, that’s fine. But don’t give me a reason, and then immediately forget what you told me minutes later.
One method of Gigantification that does work is fixed-gigantification; in which a character has all of the enhanced strength to survive their own massive frame, but is locked into that size forever. Tragic, but plausible in a more realistic setting.
Otherwise, just don’t breathe a word about what’s going on with it.
“You’re being too nick-picky, Scathing. You just made this video to pick on Disney and show Mt Lady’s ass in the thumbnail, didn’t you?”
Well, that is all true, but it’s not the whole truth. For there is one power, so outrageous, so indefensibly stupid, that no science or magic can justify its being.
Time-stop is the dumbest most absurd power, there has ever been. If you take nothing else away from this video, know that every time you’ve seen this ability, you were deceived at the moment of its activation.
It is not possible to move in stopped time: The air surrounding your body would stay in place, trapping you in the exact position you were in. The only advantage this could possibly provide, granted you were somehow conscious, would be providing you an unlimited time to think. Reducing time stop to nothing more than FTL information processing – a Jimmy Neutron style Brain Blast.
“But let’s say you could move.”
The force of the air against your body would atomize your flesh…
“Well, let’s say air resistance isn’t a factor at all, and that your body can function normally.”
The force you apply to the ground as you walk, not to mention the blows you would land on your enemy, would be incalculable in their impact, causing impossible destruction on an intergalactic scale. Your limited mass multiplied by infinite acceleration, equals the end of all things.
“W…well, let’s say the force you apply in stopped-time is the same as when time is moving?”
You would be blinded. Each step forward would result in a rush of retinal stimulation, resulting in blank whiteness and might even cause your eyes to burst from overheating. Any step backward and you would see nothing but blackness. Moving infinitely faster than light as time is in stasis would result in a lightless, vacuous void in your wake, pushing it aside like the air as you move.
Is it getting through yet?
Time stop is the single most absurd power because no being could plausibly survive using it. Any that could don’t need it, because if infinite force cannot harm you nothing can, and nobody could beat you anyway. Except maybe the aforementioned toxins. Never underestimate DOT, kids.
Time-stop is a non-starter but there is an alternative: Time-Dilation.
The ability to adjust the rate of time around yourself, essentially moving at normal speed while the world around you moves slower or sometimes faster.
Super speed is, often times, actually time-dealation without realizing it. But depending on the speed involved, a character would likely require the appropriate paring of super strength and resilience to use it without flying apart.
And that, boys and girls, are absurd powers that, even in the realm of fantastical feats, don’t really make sense. Just be sure to keep your explanations arcane or generally vague and anything is possible!
I’m Scathing Take, and I’m not sorry for this.