Analysis

Six Supposedly Powerful Abilities That Don’t Measure Up

We storytellers love giving our characters special abilities. They’re just cool! They add novelty, let us craft different plots, and make a story’s empowerment fantasy more enticing. But sometimes a powerful ability isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I see this all the time in manuscripts I edit. The protagonist has trained for years to master the bow, but they live in a world of guns. Or they can cast powerful magic, but the spells take so long they’re never useful. While this kind of contradiction can make for a fun subversion if done purposefully, it’s a mistake in most cases. But it’s not just new storytellers who have this problem; lots of professionals suffer from it too. Here are a few examples of powerful abilities that aren’t useful.

1. Troi’s Empathic Sense

Troi looking pensive.

Lieutenant Commander Deanna Troi is routinely mocked for being useless, but in any rational universe, she’d be one of the most useful officers on the Enterprise. She’s a trained therapist on a ship where people face traumatic events every day, and she’s a skilled diplomat in an organization that makes first contact its highest priority. Then there are her empathic abilities. She can instantly read a person’s emotional state just by looking at them, and sometimes she can even sense what godlike aliens are up to.

But if you’ve ever watched The Next Generation, you know Troi’s reputation is well earned. Her therapeutic skills aren’t any use because the writers don’t seem to know how therapy works, and Picard always overshadows her in the diplomacy department. But what about her empathic powers? Surely those would still be useful?

Unfortunately, no. Despite her being an expert in reading emotions, Troi’s powers only ever manifest in one of two ways: frustratingly vague or blatantly obvious. In the first scenario, Picard or Riker ask Troi if anything is up, and she’ll say something like “I just can’t tell” or “I’m getting too many conflicting feelings to be sure.” In the second scenario, Troi looks at the sneaky Romulan commander who is clearly hiding something and says, “Captain, he’s hiding something.” Thanks, I guess?

It doesn’t take an empath to realize how frustrating this dynamic is, especially since it sidelines one of only two women in TNG’s main cast. Neither does it take an empath to realize why this happened: the writers weren’t prepared for a character who can easily determine another’s motivation. You see, a huge number of TNG episodes depend on an alien trying to trick the crew, uncertainty over what an enemy will do, or meeting a new alien that’s hard to understand. If Troi could actually read emotions like she’s supposed to, those plots would all become too easy to solve.

2. Miroku’s Black Hole

Miroku unleashing his black hole.

Inuyasha isn’t particularly innovative as animes go, but it does have one usual feature: the most powerful ability in the show isn’t held by either of the leads but by a side character. Oh sure, the titular Inuyasha has a big sword, and co-protagonist Kagome has spirit arrows, but both of those pale in comparison to Miroku, who has a black hole in his hand.

Okay fine, the show calls it a wind tunnel, but it acts more like a black hole, compressing and pulling in any matter Miroku points it at. All he has to do is hold up his hand and remove the prayer beads that keep the black hole shut, and anything in front of him is history. He doesn’t have to aim it or do any complicated combat techniques. The black hole’s only real downside is it has a high potential for friendly fire, and that can be countered by putting Miroku up front.*

With all this power, Miroku should be taking down villains left and right, but he doesn’t. So what’s stopping him? Originally, the limit on Miroku’s power was that if he used the black hole too often, it would expand and eventually consume him. But that didn’t hold up for very long, because hastening a far-off death is obviously preferable to being killed by an enemy right now. So, what really stops Miroku from easily defeating any enemy the show can throw at him?

Magic bees. No, that’s not a joke. The Inuyasha setting includes evil magic bees called Saimyōshō,* and their venom can close up Miroku’s black hole. I’m not really sure how that works, since the bees get sucked in just like everything else, but somehow it does. These magic bees are extremely common, and it’s not long before every villain Miroku runs into just happens to have some around. If venom that closes a black hole sounds like an oddly specific power, that’s because it’s an obvious patch the writers rushed out to correct an ability that was more powerful than they meant it to be.

Oh well, maybe Miroku can look into using magic bee venom as a treatment to keep the black hole from getting big enough to devour him.

3. Mai’s Knives

Mai with her knives.

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Princess Azula needs a couple of badasses to saddle up and hunt down the Avatar with her. To this end, she recruits her old friends Ty Lee and Mai. Ty Lee is a master of pressure-point strikes. She can disable an opponent’s bending or even completely immobilize them in just a few hits. Meanwhile, Mai is so good with throwing knives and darts, she’s practically an anthropomorphized machine gun. There’s no doubt about it – these two will be dangerous opponents for enemies of the the Fire Nation.

However, as the show gets deeper into seasons two and three, a strange pattern emerges. Ty Lee is very successful with her pressure point attacks, but Mai’s knives always miss. Whenever she attacks, her target ducks out of the way, hides behind a handy plank of wood, or uses bending to make a shield.

In fact, just about every main character in the show has a higher success rate than Mai. What’s going on? Is she just bad with her knives? Nope! The problem lies in the show’s rating restrictions. Ty Lee’s attacks disable an opponent without really harming them, so she’s good to go, but Mai’s knives would draw blood if she ever hit anything, and that would be too graphic for the show’s target audience of young children.

Now, I can already hear you asking how that can work, when this is a show where characters routinely smash each other with rocks and burn each other with fire. I can only tell you that in the world of Avatar, fire and rock attacks do little more than push an opponent backwards, rather than causing the kind of hideous injuries that would violate the show’s rating. That wouldn’t have worked with Mai’s knives, since it would look absurd for someone to get hit by a knife and only be pushed back.

This leaves Mai with only one way to reliably defeat an opponent: pin them to a wall by putting a knife through their clothes without touching their skin. This is hard even in the world of Avatar, as characters can usually get free unless Mai lands a bunch of knives at once. This means most of Mai’s fights are actually won because her enemy gets scared and runs away, not because she can realistically defeat them.

4. Hawkeye’s Guns

Hawkeye with her guns.

In the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it seems that in order to be good at fighting, you have to specialize in either alchemy or sword fighting. Alchemy is incredibly powerful magic that can level towns, and swords seem to grant ninja powers in this setting, so it’s understandable that most characters choose one or another. But one woman refuses to be part of the magic/sword binary. Her name is Riza Hawkeye, and she chooses guns.

Guns might not seem like an unusual choice for fighting, especially since we’re talking about automatic weapons rather than muskets, but Hawkeye is the show’s only serious fighter who uses them. For her unusual weapon and her deadpan reactions, she is a fan favorite. Unfortunately, her skill with guns is fairly useless.

I’ve got to be making this one up, right? Throwing knives and magic black holes are one thing, but everyone knows guns are deadly killing machines. How could they be useless? It all comes down to which opponents Hawkeye is allowed to shoot. For the first and second seasons at least,* many of her opponents are powerful homunculi, and they’re nearly impervious to her bullets. No matter how many times she shoots them, they always regenerate.

Alchemy, on the other hand, is far more effective against homunculi. It’s slower and more ponderous but also more powerful than Hawkeye’s guns. Fair enough, but what about human opponents? Surely then Hawkeye would have an advantage, since her guns give her more accurate, longer-ranged, and faster attacks? You would think so, but it’s hard to tell because Hawkeye almost never comes up against human adversaries. The one time she does come up against a major human antagonist, her expert marksmanship suddenly goes out the window, and she’s only able to shoot him in the leg.

It’s fairly standard in fiction that characters who can take more damage will get hit more. If damage were shared equally, a lot of characters would die before their time. It stands out with Hawkeye because there’s no visually convincing way for enemies to block or avoid her shots, so she misses unless her opponent just happens to be immune to bullets.

5. Ed’s Special Alchemy

Ed and Al activating a transmutation circle.

Staying with Fullmetal Alchemist but moving away from guns, let us consider the show’s main character, Edward Elric. In his tragic backstory, Ed attempts a forbidden alchemy ritual and loses his leg as a result.* But as a consolation prize, he gets such a deep look at the fabric of reality that he can now perform alchemy without a transmutation circle.

That sounds like a powerful combat ability. Transmutation circles are highly complex, and most alchemists need one in order to use their magic. Drawing a circle is both difficult and time-consuming, so not having to do it should be a major plus for Ed. He can summon giant hands of stone to do his bidding while his enemies are still scribbling with chalk.

But when you watch the early episodes of Fullmetal Alchemist, there’s one thing you won’t see: anyone drawing a transmutation circle in combat. Instead, other alchemists have transmutation circles sewn into their clothes or tattooed on their skin. While the show occasionally hints that different alchemical effects require different transmutation circles, this never seems to hinder anyone. Alchemists use their pre-made circles for a wide variety of effects, regardless of the show’s intent.

This reduces Ed’s ability to an odd curiosity, hardly the sort of thing you’d want to trade your leg for. At best, he should be able to get some polite applause at dinner parties. Of course, I understand why the writers did this: they wanted a show about alchemy battles, and Ed would win too easily if all his opponents had to draw their circles by hand. It’s too bad they couldn’t think of a special ability that wouldn’t conflict with the show’s basic premise.

As a strange addendum, the show does eventually introduce a combat alchemist who doesn’t use pre-made transmutation circles. Her name is May, and she gets around the circle limitation by… drawing her circles really quickly. It looks a little bizarre, like she’s moving on fast forward, and it only drives home how useless Ed’s ability is.

6. Saru’s Danger Sense

On this final entry, we’ve come full circle back to Star Trek but set over a hundred years before Troi ever set foot on a starship. In the franchise’s newest entry, Star Trek: Discovery, Saru is the first officer on board the titular USS Discovery. His species supposedly evolved from prey animals, and so he has a heightened danger sense. At first, I assumed this just meant he was good at assessing potential threats, but it seems to have a supernatural component as well. At least, that’s the only way I can explain why in several scenes Saru reacts to possible danger he can’t possibly have known about.

A supernatural danger sense sounds really useful, especially in a show where the characters can’t go five minutes without being ambushed by Klingons. Of course, by now you’ve likely guessed that his power isn’t actually helpful, but the way in which it isn’t helpful puts Saru a cut above the other entries on this list.*

First, we get what normally happens when a character has a special sense: it doesn’t work, or it’s too vague to be helpful. For the entirety of Discovery’s first arc,* Saru’s danger sense either fails to alert him of threats or only gives him obvious information, like how the giant Klingon ship shooting at them might be a threat. But then it gets worse!

You see, Saru’s danger sense is always going off around the main character, Michael Burnham. This leads Saru to mistrust and second-guess Burnham, even though she’s only trying to help. Again, it’s unclear if this is caused by some bias on Saru’s part or a supernatural sense, but the result is the same: Saru wastes time being paranoid about a trustworthy ally. That’s not even the worst part! In a later episode, we also see that Saru’s danger sense makes him more vulnerable than his human crewmates to an alien’s mind control powers.*

So not only is Saru’s power useless, but he’d actually be better off without it. He’s managed to eclipse Troi for the award of Star Trek Character With The Worst Power, and that’s no easy feat.


If you look at the abilities on this list, you’ll notice a theme: almost all of the problems arise from the ability’s being too powerful and the writers not knowing how to handle it. Their only recourse was to make the ability useless so it wouldn’t break the plot. The lesson here is simple: don’t give your characters an ability so powerful that it no longer works with the story.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Jonny Wilson

    Actually, the transmutation circles as a handicap does come up a few times in the first two seasons, in the form of Mustang’s glove. When the rain stops it from being usable, and when Lust bursts a pipe to soak it are two instances I can think of off-hand. Mustang ends up having to carve a transmutation circle into his own hand to be able to use his alchemy, before he provides what might be my second-favourite scene in the show.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      As far as I can tell, the water thing is about Mustang needing a spark to start his fire alchemy, rather than any requirement for a transmutation circle. It is true that Mustang can be disabled (or at least hindered) by losing the transmutation circle in his gloves, but at that point Ed can also be disabled by having his hands restrained.

  2. Adam Thaxton

    My roommate joked that Saru has “the telepathic ability to blame Michael for everything, and it’s contagious. Captain gets talked into going on a dangerous mission and dies? Michael did it! Michael explains how something works and why you shouldn’t do the thing, then someone does the thing anyway? Michael did it! Foodulator is burning the toast? Michael is somehow responsible for this!”

  3. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    IIRC the problem with the poisonous Saimyōshō bees was that if Miroku’s black hole ate them then Miroku himself would get poisoned.

  4. Tifa

    Both Troi’s abilities and Miroku’s Wind Tunnel have been bothering me for years.

  5. Greg

    Cinematic Spiderman’s Danger Sense is either worthless or non-existent too.

    • Snowden

      Well, it’s good in Civil War, cause its a subtle little moment where he dodges incoming quick objects.. But yeah, it’s completely nonexistent in Homecoming and basically worthless in Infinity War.

  6. N

    So regarding the transmutation circles: my understanding was that other alchemists can only do a specific kind of alchemy with their pre-drawn circles. Mustang can only use his gloves for flame alchemy, Kimblee can only turn things into explosives, etc. That’s what makes a certain someone’s back tattoo so important: there would be no need to burn it off if any transmutation circle could be used for any purpose; the entire point was that only the circle as depicted in the tattoo can be used for a specific kind of alchemy.
    And while Ed shows an overwhelming preference to turn nearby solid objects into weapons for hand-to-hand combat, he can do completely different things too. He performs medical alchemy on himself towards the end of the Briggs arc, for example. While the need for action did result in such ramifications being unfortunately overlooked, I feel that Ed’s much-hyped ability still matters because he could diversify the kind of alchemy he uses (that he never does so is probably because he’s hotheaded).

  7. StyxD

    The funny thing about Ed’s alchemy is that the primary reason it turns out to be so underwhelming in the story is Ed’s own disinterest in making use of it.

    Technically, the alchemists that use pre-made circles never break the “can do only one thing with them” rule, it’s just that “one thing” is defined very vaguely. Mustang can control fire, which is everything from lighting a cigarette to scorching half of a city. Still, the military alchemists are a bit like benders, who have mastery over a single element.

    Ed could theoretically be a prodigy that mixes and matches advanced techniques in inventive and powerful ways… but he just doesn’t bother. Every time there’s a fight, he’ll either make a melee weapon out of something or transmute the environment to hold his enemy in place. And that’s it.

    Sometimes he also comes up with an interesting insight into alchemy that helps him win the day. Then, like Harry Potter, he forgets all about it next arc.

  8. P.L.

    About Deanna Troi’s empathic abilities, there’s a lack of internal consistency too: for one, she should be able to win every poker match.

    • Dave L

      Data literally had a computer brain that enabled him to remember every card shown and to calculate any odds. He also didn’t perform “tells” the way a human would

      Geordi La Forge’s VISOR could see human vital signs such as heart rate and temperature, giving him the ability to monitor moods and even detect lies in humans

      Riker, the normal human w/ no special abilities, was the poker champ

  9. Chaos Mechanica

    Your comment on Mai’s knives make me think about Wolverine in the 90s animated series on Fox. Every time they went into battle, he’d pull out the old unbreakable and slice adamantium claws, backed by his unstoppable healing factor, fighting prowess, attitude and rage.

    If he faced robots, you’d see him be the badass he’s said to be.

    If he faced humans on the other hand…

    He’d be thrown halfway across the city, stunned, dodged or coincidentally fight the one enemy who is invulnerable to physical attacks.

    Even as a five year old I could see something was wrong and quickly gave up Wolverine as the best X-Man on the team.

  10. C

    Actually, Miroku gets poisoned by Naraku’s bugs if they sting him as he sucks them in. I think he could also be sickened by miasma if he tried to suck that up, too. So while it’s a silly premise, its limits prevent it from being a story breaker.

  11. Al

    Hah sorry but i have to say your ‘reasons’ to Fullmetals and Hawkeyes ‘weaknesses’ or whatever you can try to describe ‘issues with abilities’ is just simply over looking and taking it way past, what Fullmetal Alchemist brotherhood really is. It’s a drama for starters, its supposed to have twist and turns, yes you maybe acknowledge this, but you still look past it. Defending the series now, Hawkeye is not the all seen goddess at what she does, but still is simply a force to be hold; the reason to why she always fights creatures on a higher based ‘level’ or non at all realistic time situations, is because she slowly and mostly fallen for Roy Mustang, who himself is a alchemist (flame alchemist to be exact 🔥) who is apart of the state alchemists. This means she is in constant in peral throughout the series and is brought to her near death experiences on occasions more than often she would probably like, not only that over a decade prior she was in the Ishvalan war as probably (knowing anime\manga writings and scripting) was the best sniper\marks-woman (marksmen if u thinking of being weird.) in that time period. So carrying on them fighting skills, knowledge, training, murderer intentions (which she was unclear of the time in the Ishvalan war) and conflictions; she is clearly enough proper to not only handle her own, but whoever needs her, is protected by her or against her. She is sick of death, and yes she also wipes it off, to protect the ones she cares about but she also pulls the trigger, to subdue or inflict non killable shots so that she can prevent escape, stop or even pressure\persuade her target, to do as she pleases or vice versa. She’s more of a reliability, than all the reviews that can be stupidly put together for her, that’s a fact. Secondly the serious is not wildly using different ways to activate or summon\use alchemy in different ways, because let’s be honest, yes Edward Elric would have been more interesting, fun and more unique with his own way of using alchemy; but then you lose the aspect or air that this show is about, two little boys who have lost everything, including one of them their whole body and the other a right arm and left leg; but that’s not the originalty of the show, no the originalty comes with the feeling they have to put into it, to use their alchemy and not to ever lose hope. So what, he’s not unique with his abilities, nether is his brother Alhpones Elric or their teacher (JUST A HOUSE WIFE, may i add as well!) or anyone within the series. Yes some have transmutation circles or symbols on their clothing, or scarred/cut/etched into their body or skin, to help stopping drawing circles into the ground to help use the alchemy, but its no different and yes IT IS no different to the Elric brothers in many ways, but it is as well at the same until more and not to be very difficulty guessed anti parts (villains or creatures/homunculi) comes their way and shows that their are other kinda unique ways in using alchemy. This puts up a TV show, that is dammed to be one of the best animes in this century. Back to the main point tho (lol #YOLO go watch it, like now, just stop what your doing and watch it, Netflix definitely don’t regret it, nether do its fans.) and anyways the closest counter parts in the sprout of the season of brotherhood to act upon Ed’s abilities would be a philosophers stone, humunclus, Father or Alkahestry (which don’t forget, was basically designed by the Elric’s brothers father Van Hoenheim, as he himself is immortal as he is a philosophers stone and he treked everywhere, until he passed out in a dessert and he was then saved by the people of Xing, and Hoenheim passes on his knowledge to them, in a more controlled and peaceful manner, if wanted. Ed doesnt understand or know this/any of it, until later in the series, but the main fact here is, is that it is no different to alchemy, but in that Alkahestry is part of chi and is more used for restoration for example rather than destruction for say. But it is shown in the series its different in a way, when realistically its not.) or god, expect no one can defile and become god, well bc God’s just too moik for everyone son. But the main point is that Ed wasn’t made to feel different or uniqe with his alchemy, even if it was made to be or not, it was the people closest to him, his courage, his hight, his brother, himself; that’s his uniqe ability, to push forward through the dark and work his way through it, even as a young child and with his brother they had read Mastery books on alchemy and done a lot more, to prove what he could and can really do, his alchemy and abilities to summon/use them is cool and awesome, but shouldn’t be tried to be put on a pedestal to try to show off or create a difference with his character or should have been, although that’s what the show is almost about in a way just alchemy and a bunch of other lore about itself and surprisingly some odd facts here and there; Ed is fine the way he is, even if he was just ordinary with his alchemy in a way, his story is more uniqe and that’s the more important information, to really mention. Peace, Al.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.