Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Limits of Superpowers

There's always been a problem getting superpowers across in fiction. For instance, Superman has almost no defined limits to his abilities, which is fine for a Superman tale but it tends to water down tension in any crossover story he appears in. Batman can be the strongest martial artist, the smartest guy in the room, and the guy with the right tool at any time to the point that "Batgod" is an actual saying. Certain character are just clearly above others and it does wreck a lot of tension.

But it's also a problem in Japanese entertainment, too. In Dragon Ball, Goku becomes more powerful than the demigod of space, Frieza, and then the only tension becomes that the next villain is somehow stronger than Frieza. Or you can have Fist of the North Star where there's obvious fodder that serve no challenge to Kenshiro and where the main villains are the only ones that stand a chance against him. These are all limitations to the sort of stories one can tell with powers or skills.

But there's a whole other way to write powers, a better way, that will help raise the stakes, keep powers unique and mystifying, and will allow the writer far more freedom. Some may scoff, but there is a clear answer to the question of how to avoid the superpowers overtaking the story.

The solution is to limit the powers.

Yes, my solution is limiting the most important part of a superhero story in order to avoid limiting the types of stories that can be told with them. I admit it's confusing, but stick with me here.

Superpowers are fascinating. Having the ability to do crazy things you couldn't do in real life can obviously give you great story ideas. Invisibility, heat vision, flight, or super strength, are typical abilities used in any number of stories. Then there are more specific abilities like growing claws out of your hands or charging playing cards with kinetic energy. You can do anything. This is all great.

But what do you do after that? When the initial story is told, what will your character do next? Sure he beats the villain with his flashy power, but what about the next villain after that? Does the defeated villain merely get craftier and/or stronger as well? I suppose if your villain doesn't have any powers he could, but why would you hobble your poor bloodthirsty sociopath of a bad guy that way? And if your villain has powers, what stops him from not just going out and taking what he wants when the hero is not around? Very little. If this was a world of powers it wouldn't be like many comics portray it, it would be utter chaos. The only way to temper chaos, is with order.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I will list examples of where powers are used effectively and how they influence the way the story is told. These are all stories centering on abilities that are not in any way normal and the characters affected by them.

Oh, and there will be spoilers for the series below, so fair warning.

Yu Yu Hakusho - "Chapter Black"

Yu Yu Hakusho had a great run through its first two (of four total) sagas featuring a teenage boy named Yusuke Uremeshi brought back to life as a Spirit Detective that mediates between the human and spirit worlds. The first arc involved him navigating this tricky new profession and contained a lot of mystique and dread. The second arc went full shonen where the main character powered up Dragon Ball style in order to beat the main villain at the end. It was nail-biting and intense, but when Yusuke finally won it was invigorating.

But then the author realized something. Yusuke was the strongest fighter now, and no physical challenge could set him back. So the author could do one of two things. He could either simply make a villain stronger than the last one (the main mistake of the last saga in the series) or he could think conservatively about his powers and howto approach the story.

What he did was create Psychics who wielded a new type of power. Psychics have strange abilities such as mind reading, freezing people by stepping on shadows, eating anything and reforming it in their body, trapping people in games (yes, Bleach ripped this arc off), hitting the target with whatever they throw, cutting off the pain centers in their body and reforming detached limbs, and control water with their blood. All of these can only be activated in range of the Psychic's zone of effect and can be deactivated only when the user is unconscious or dead. Brute force, the brute force the series had been relying on for the entirety of the previous arc, is rendered a mere card in a deck of choices to overcome enemies. New tactics are needed.

These tactics involve out-thinking opponents, overwhelming them with other abilities, or finding weaknesses in their abilities to exploit. Powers are still deadly and effective, but they are far more limiting (and yet more creative) than what came before in the series.

My Hero Academia - "The Stain Encounter"

My Hero Academia was a fun superhero series at first that laid down strict guidelines for its powers. Because over 80% of the world has them, heroes have to have more knowledge and control of their powers to stand up against any villains that may arise. Brute force isn't enough for every situation. While there were glimpses of this earlier in the series with how Midoriya, our main character, had to get around opponents who simply knew their powers better, it all came to a head during his Field Training exercises.

The Hero Killer, Stain, has arrived on the scene and has started killing those he deems unfit to carry the title of hero. After attacking Ida, Midoriya's friend, due to what the villain did to his brother, he decides Ida is a fake hero who only acts on revenge and decides to murder him as well. Then Midoriya shows up in the nick of time to save his friend from a gruesome death.

Now, there are a lot of good character and thematic moments in this battle which make it incredible, but that's not why it's being mentioned here. It's here because this fight shows how battles with rules are far more intense than those without them.

For instance, Midoriya can only use 5% of his full power. As has been shown earlier in the series, if he uses too much he will break his bones and become useless. In a situation where his friend's life, and an innocent, are at risk he cannot afford to go all out. At one point he loses concentration and almost breaks his arm in the midst of the chaos.

Ida has superspeed abilities, but is frozen by Stain's blood-curdle quirk which freezes in place anyone whose blood he ingests for a limited time. This means if he gets close than he, like Midoriya, are at extreme risk. Add to the fact that Stain is desperate to kill him, and has the means and skills to do it, and he is at an extreme disadvantage.

Todoroki has long range fire and ice powers which allow him to keep Stain at a distance, but getting Stain off when he comes close is difficult. Not only that, Stain has long range and close range weapons to close the gap. And he is far more experienced than Todoroki and the other new heroes.

All three of them need to work together to cover the others and their weaknesses or they'll be killed by a far more experienced opponent and villain. What ends up unfolding is one tense and exciting battle with high stakes and drama.

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure - "Stands"

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is known mostly for its crazy comedy and over the top action, but it also squeezes in genuine moments of drama. Each "part" of the story is divided by protagonist and era (and sometimes genre) with the first being a Gothic Horror vampire story, the second being a martial arts adventure tale, and the third being a globetrotting action comedy with a new twist. That twist that the author added in Part 3 were called "Stands" and they changed more than just the series, they changed much of anime and manga in general by those they influenced.

What Stands were was a reflection of the user's soul in weaponized form. If you were a single-minded punk, you would have a Stand named Star Platinum which allowed tremendous speed and strength in close range situations. If you were a chivalrous fencer, you would have a Stand named Silver Chariot which allowed for lightning quick precision strikes. Most Stands in Part 3 worked this way with some near the end going over the top and strange.

But it was Part 4, Diamond Is Unbreakable, which gave the Stands an extra kick. Now they had more varied limits and applications and require much more out of the box thinking to overcome. The main character, Josuke, has a Stand which can disassemble and reform anything--except himself. So while he can heal others, it means little if he is dead and cannot help others. Not to mention, he has to get close to use it. Other powers are similarly limited, yet strange, leading to some truly unique battles.

Part 4 was not that popular in Japan when it came out (the least popular part) but the anime has raised its popularity overseas and given it a shot in the arm. And it isn't like it was that hated, it influenced a little game called Persona 4 which has its aesthetic, premise, and general powers, and made a mint in the process.

It was with this that the importance of rules in regards to powers became essential to creating unique drama. Later parts of JoJo would go crazy with Stands and giving them too much power, but when the series hit the right note like part 3 and 4, it can be a lot of fun.

Of course these aren't concrete rules to writing powers. You can do whatever you want. There are few concrete rules when it comes to writing other than "make sense to the reader" and "give the audience what they really want", but they do help give guidance.

Superpowers are a lot of fun to imagine and play around with, but its important to not get carried away. It's still a story of heroes and villains, and if the heroes have an obvious and easy time achieving victory then the audience won't be engaged. It's the same if the villains could achieve all their goals before the story even begins. Heroes and villains need a reason that keeps the other from easily succeeding. Just remember that whatever you write that you're still writing a tale of Good Vs. Evil just the same as if there were no powers involved.

But, beside that, it's important to have fun. This is fantasy, after all, so go nuts. A limit on power does not equate to a limit on imagination. As the above examples show, you can do a lot even within borders.

There will always be a limit somewhere, just make sure it's not in the confict.

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