Hi, I’d like to know what your take is on the Badass Normal trope. Is it realistic to have a non-powered hero in a super-powered setting be able to kick just as much ass as their super-powered compatriots or even able to take down a superhuman in a fight? (Think Hawkeye and Black Widow in The Avengers, or Batman in Justice League and the ilk.)
My reason for asking is because I know there are many writers who are dismissive of this trope due to the unrealism of it all (such as Orion’s Arm referring to this trope as the “Plucky Baseline Syndrome”). In addition, your article on oppressed mages also highlights a point on why muggles wouldn’t stand a chance. So the bottom line of my question would be – is there any way to make the Badass Normal trope work? Or is it one of those tropes that need to be dropped from a story?
Hey Justin, thanks for writing in!
It’s totally possible to have a Badass Normal in a story that’s otherwise full of super-powered characters, and in fact, this character is almost always a fan favorite. There’s something extra likable about a character who has to work harder and show greater ingenuity than their peers. We inherently cheer for the underdog, and how better to illustrate that than a character with no powers in a world of supers?
The main problem is, as you’ve guessed, this gets unrealistic really fast, and most superhero stories are way past the event horizon of believability. Black Widow and Hawkeye should both be dead a hundred times over as they go up against enemies scaled for Thor and Iron Man. I call this phenomenon “power-leveling.” Remember that fight where Captain America and his crew take on Thanos’ minions at the start of Infinity War? You’ll notice that when Cap, someone with supernatural strength, punches an alien, they grunt and get knocked back a little. When Black Widow, a normal human who works out a lot, punches an alien, they grunt and get knocked back a little. I guess Cap and Widow’s powers are about on the same level in this scene!
Heck, this isn’t even just a problem for mundane characters. It comes up any time characters drastically differ in power levels. Captain America is explicitly not bulletproof, whereas most of the other Avengers are. He should be dead a hundred times over when he takes the same kind of hits they do, but for some reason he never is!
Marvel gets away with this because they’re a multi-billion dollar film franchise with super high production values, and so most people agree not to care about goofs like this, but the rest of us mere mortals have to try a little harder.
The easiest way to make a mundane character matter in a super-powered team is to give them expertise in things beyond hand-to-hand combat, which is what most superpowers are used for. This is what’s known as the Sokka approach. Even after getting his sword, Sokka is no match for the other characters in a fight, but that’s fine because Sokka’s contributions to the group are tactics and planning. This is why the best stories about Batman in the Justice League tend to focus on his detective skills rather than his fighting skills. There’s just no realistic way Batman will ever be as good in a fight as Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc.
If you want your mundane character to go head to head with the supers, that’s a lot harder. You can try to compensate with cool tech, but that has some hard limits. If the tech is so powerful, why don’t the super-powered characters use it too? Captain America would be a lot more effective if he had one of those sweet energy guns. Or just a normal gun. For that matter, there’s no real explanation for why Tony’s never made a suit for anyone else. Imagine what Black Widow, someone actually trained to fight, could do with one. At that point, the tech itself starts to feel like a superpower.
You can put some limits in place, but you need to be careful with them. Avatar, for example, has a strong implication that bending doesn’t work unless your hands are empty, which lets non-benders level the playing field a little with swords and spears. The show isn’t 100% consistent about this, but it’s still a good idea. Even so, a powerful bender quickly outmatches even the best armed warrior.
In most cases, your best option is to keep your superpowers fairly weak, or very limited in scope. This can still provide a really strong advantage, but it’s also believable that a mundane character could overcome that advantage with enough determination and grit. Season 1 of Heroes is the best example I can think of for that. Most of the characters there either have weak powers or don’t know how to fully use them, so the Horn Rimmed Glasses Man can still compete even though he has no powers of his own.
If you want to know more, I’ve written an article on this subject: Five Ways to Handle Characters With Different Power Levels
Hope that answers your question!
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