Cause and effect. Action and reaction. Exertion and consequences.
One tool in the box that superhero creators have continually made use of to make their characters more human and more relatable to readers is that sometimes, with great power comes great weakness. Not every superhero has a flaw as overt as kryptonite or emotional baggage. Sometimes, it’s a simple matter of not being able to control their powers.
Maybe they never received proper training in how to use their otherworldly abilities. Perhaps they made a terrible mistake and now have to pay the price. Maybe they suffer from a profound lack of self-confidence. Or maybe their powers are so strong and so raw, that at the end of the day, there is no way to control them. How these heroes choose to handle these deficiencies is as wild and varied as the human race itself. Here are 15 superheroes who just couldn’t get a grip on their superpowers.
15. Friendly Fire
Oh, Section 8. They meant well. There’s no way to deny that they were a group of wannabes, with ridiculous… well, abilities. And that word is used loosely. Only one of them had bonafide superpowers, and that was the man known as Friendly Fire. (Like the rest of the team, his real name was never revealed.)
Friendly Fire was a huge, burly man who possessed the ability to shoot blasts of fiery energy from his hands. He’s also the only member of the team who saw Section 8 for what it was: a group of losers. Section 8 had a guy who carried a window around just to throw bad guys through, a moron who produced extraordinary amounts of phlegm, and a weirdo who welded dead dogs to villains. By those standards, Friendly Fire was probably the most impressive member of the team.
Unfortunately, the guy had a very hard time controlling his aim, and frequently wound up shooting his teammates instead of the bad guys. Friendly Fire suffered from terrible anxiety, which also kept him from controlling his powers. His final adventure saw him trying his hardest to defeat actual, threatening villains — but instead, he blew his own head off. He also took out the guy with the window, so at least he did something right.
14. Radioactive Man
Dr. Chen Lu, Ph.D. intentionally exposed himself to small amounts of radiation over time until he built up a superhuman tolerance. Not only did he become able to survive massive exposure to the stuff, his skin started glowing green and he ‘roided-out, big time, somehow converting radiation to physical strength. He gained control over radiation and was able to wield it as a weapon as well.
Except for one small caveat: he’s never entirely in control. Radioactive Man can’t “turn off” his powers, meaning that he never stops giving off radiation, making him a danger to those around him. He’s forced to wear a special bodysuit if he wants to avoid harming others, but it only works for a short while. When Norman Osborne was in control of things during the “Dark Reign” storyline, he had Dr. Lu don something more akin to a hazard suit, which had similar effects. His emotions have been shown to affect his absorption and release of radiation.
Sadly, Radioactive Man can’t seem to decide which side of the law he wants to be on. He’s battled the Avengers countless times, voluntarily worked with the Thunderbolts, served as a hero to the people of his native China, and flip-flopped back to villainy again and again.
13. Black Bolt
The King of the Inhumans is a tricky one, because he does have some measure of control over his powers. The problem is, his special ability gives him a handicap that he can’t do anything about.
Black Bolt‘s power is all in his voice. It’s said that the energy emanating from his voice is so powerful that he can level a city block with a whisper. Pretty cool superpower, right? But the problem it presents is obvious: he’s effectively mute unless he wants to destroy everything and everyone around him.
He can modulate his voice from a whisper to a scream, thereby employing a measure of control over how much power he emits. But any kind of conversation — be it casual or negotiating with an enemy — is simply impossible for Black Bolt. And that makes his power more a hindrance than an asset. He’s traditionally chosen to allow his wife Medusa to speak for him. Fortunately, she knows him so well that she’s able to accurately predict his commands.
But still, even with a modicum of control over his vocal chords, the guy cannot emit a sound without causing omega-level destruction. You have to imagine that he wishes he had a slightly higher level of command than that.
12. Captain Universe
Captain Universe is no one individual or hero. It doesn’t work that way. Like the Power Cosmic or the Phoenix Force, the Uni-Power is an unfathomable wellspring of energy, almost elemental in nature and beyond human understanding. From time to time, and for reasons known only to the Uni-Power itself, it merges with a sentient being, gifting that being with the incredible powers of Captain Universe.
The individual imbued with the Uni-Power maintains their personality (more or less) but becomes something so much more than they were before. Most of the time, Captain Universe is an ordinary person granted these extraordinary powers. But ocassionally, the Uni-Power bonds with an existing superhero. That combination greatly heightens the abilities the hero already possesses, and sometimes, it even grants some new ones to go with it.
Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, X-23, Hulk, and many others have wielded the powers of Captain Universe. The problem is, when you’re already pretty darn powerful and you’re suddenly vastly more so, it has a way of overwhelming the senses. Very few (if any) Captain Universe conduits find it possible to control the Uni-Power for an extended period of time, though there have been a few ordinary humans who managed. But superheroes in particular seem to have very short encounters with it.
11. Ghost Rider
You probably already know that Ghost Rider’s powers come from his black magic bond to a demon. That demon’s name is Zarathos, and he has been a thorn in Johnny Blaze’s side for decades.
The arrangement between them allowed the demon to surface in Blaze’s body as the Ghost Rider, an instrument by which Lucifer returns escaped damned souls to Hell. In the early days, Blaze had very little influence on the Rider, succumbing to Zarathos’ control anytime evil presented itself. But over time, he gradually gained more control over his alter-ego, using its power to not merely vanquish baddies, but to protect the innocent.
This protection of the innocent became Ghost Rider’s primary mandate as Blaze made its mystical powers his own. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Zarathos has resurfaced several times over the years, enacting various schemes to regain control of Johnny Blaze’s physical body. At times he was successful, causing Blaze to once again lose himself to the Rider. But the human usually manages to beat back the demon in the end.
10. Captain Atom
In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, readers were presented with an alternative look at the future of the DC Comics universe. It was a violent reflection on current times, where new heroes rose to popularity among a weary public for using decisive violence to kill villains rather than stop or imprison them.
One of these was Captain Atom, an old-school hero who stayed on with the murderous newer heroes like Magog to try and keep them in check. Atom’s powers were a double-edged sword. He was nearly unmatched in any fight, a being of pure “quantum” energy encased in an alien metal, who could fire atomic blasts and fly at supersonic speed.
It was only this metal shell that kept the good Captain’s explosive powers at bay, as he was essentially a walking atomic bomb just waiting to explode. A battle with a villain named Parasite proved this to be true when the baddie used strength he’d absorbed from Atom and Magog to rip open a tear in Captain Atom’s shell. The release of all of Atom’s energy at once was enough to cause a nuclear explosion and subsequent fallout across the state of Kansas, killing millions and devasting America’s heartland. Whoops?
9. The Sentry
Boy oh boy. Bob Reynolds has been subjected to so many retcons, it’s a wonder his story makes any logical sense at all. And that point is probably debatable.
Marvel Comics launched The Sentry as a hero on Superman’s power level (or beyond) with the conceit that he’d always been a major part of the Marvel Universe, it’s just that everyone forgot he existed — including Bob himself. This bait-and-switch happened to the poor guy several times in various forms (but never more effectively than in his debut series by Paul Dini and Jae Lee) until he found himself losing his grip on reality. One storyline even suggested that Sentry himself had been using his nigh-unlimited powers to subconsciously cause people to forget him.
But the original explanation was that Sentry had a twisted alter-ego, a manifestation of his dark side called The Void. Their yin-and-yang status meant that one couldn’t exist without the other, hence the need to wipe Bob’s and the world’s memories of the Sentry/Void’s existence. For an all-powerful, god-like superhero, it must suck to be unable to be a superhero without potentially unleashing armageddon.
8. Citizen Steel
Nathan Heywood had a promising football career until a severe injury required him to have a leg amputated. One encounter with a metallic baddie later, and his system was infected with said villain’s metallic blood. For never-really-explained reasons, Nathan’s body absorbed the metal, and in addition to growing him a new leg, it made him superhuman.
The problem was, this new “living steel” body came with some drawbacks that were far beyond Nathan’s ability to control. The good: he gained nigh-unlimited super-strength and invincibility. The bad: he lost the ability to feel physical touch, which prevents him from gauging temperature or pain. Plus, he can’t control how strong he is. Like, at all. So for example, his footsteps tend to be so heavy that the floor or ground fractures under him. (Think: the scene from Amazing Spider-Man 2 where Peter Parker accidentally destroys his bathroom because of his newfound abilities — but on a much more dangerous scale.)
7. Liz Sherman
Poor Liz. Think you’ve got issues? When her powers first manifested, the young Ms. Sherman conjured a fire so big that it leveled a city block and inadvertently killed thirty-two people — including her own parents. Kinda takes “survivor’s guilt” to new levels of bad, doesn’t it?
She later learns to control her powers while working at the B.P.R.D., but Liz’s ability to generate fire is inexorably linked to her emotional state, and that power has been known to slip out of her control during intense situations. At least she has friends like Hellboy and Abe Sapien on hand to help her through it.
Always a damaged soul, Liz would learn years later that she couldn’t live without her fire — quite literally. She once traded away her fire in an attempt to be rid of it for good. But without it, she began to slowly die. (Don’t worry, she got it back.)
6. New 52 Superman
A confluence of several circumstances ultimately led to the demise of the New 52 version of Superman. One of those was the emergence of a new power he called the “superflare” ability. With this power, Supes released a massive, full-power blast of every bit of solar energy stored up in his cells. It was an attack of devastating destruction, but it had the side effect of leaving Clark powerless for twenty-four hours afterward. His body needed time to re-absorb sunlight before he could fly or super-punch anybody.
After repeated use of this ability, Kal-El found himself losing most of his powers, including flight, heat vision, speed, and so on. It didn’t help matters that Lois Lane revealed his secret identity to the world (long story). A few apocalyptic fights and one kryptonite infection later, he was forced to use his superflare power one last time. It pretty much finished him off.
Fortunately, the pre-New 52 Superman had found his way into the Rebirth universe, and was able to take his place. But New-Supes’ loss was deeply felt by all of his friends — especially his lady love, Wonder Woman. We think the Man of Steel was recently restored in full (hopefully, with full command of his signature abilities), but given DC’s love of the retcon, who knows.
5. Molly Hayes
The Runaways were a group of teenagers who discovered that all of their parents were evil villains in a fun new take on the superhero genre. Molly Hayes was the runt of the group, a precocious mutant whose powers didn’t present themselves for the first time until she teamed up with her friends.
Molly, who’s superhero moniker is Bruiser, has super-strength. But being so young, exerting this incredible physical power causes an out-of-proportion strain on her small body. So after she’s performed a feat of physical prowess, she usually falls asleep. More than once, she’s saved the day by doing something big to help her friends at the last minute. Good thing they’re there to care for her after she passes out.
Runaways is no longer being published (sob!), and some of its former members have moved on to other teams or pursuits. Molly hasn’t been seen in a while, but it’s assumed that she remains a Runaway along with whatever other members of the team who’ve stuck around.
4. Scarlet Witch
Wanda Maximoff’s powers have always been a challenge for her to control, but back in 2004, they reached critical mass. Years ago, she gave birth to twin boys, but it turned out they weren’t real. They were just manifestations of her reality-altering “chaos magic.” She was unable to accept this, and she soon became a danger to herself and others, so her memories of the boys were wiped from her mind.
Years later, Wanda began to remember them, and when she realized what had been done to her, she went mad with grief. A nervous breakdown gave way to a full-on war waged against the Avengers that resulted in several deaths and the team’s complete upheaval. And all of the destruction and death came from her tampering with the fabric of reality. Later on, she caused “M-Day,” the de-powering of the mutant race that nearly caused their extinction.
Moral of the story: don’t mess with mommy. It was all retconned later to her being possessed by some kind of astral entity or something, because comics. But as it was written at the time, Scarlet Witch lost control of her mind, and her powers couldn’t help but follow.
3. Jean Grey
It’s one of Marvel’s best-known stories, an all-time classic comic book epic that helped define an era. Jean Grey gained a massive boost in power thanks to a cosmic entity known as the Phoenix. Unbeknownst to her or the X-Men at the time, the Phoenix was an all-powerful force of life and death, and far too much power for one person to control.
It went okay for a while, but you know what they say about corruption and power. The old adage once again rang true when the Phoenix overpowered Jean and transformed her into the Dark Phoenix, a force of ultimate destruction. Jean’s personality faded further and further into the background while the Phoenix took over completely.
In the midst of her madness, the Phoenix consumed an entire star, causing the destruction of an inhabited world and the deaths of the billions who lived there. Needless to say, that was a point of no return for the character, and during a brief moment of clarity, Jean’s real personality reasserted itself and she committed suicide to keep from killing anyone else. (Never mind that all of this was retconned six years later.)
If there was ever a poster child for not being able to control one’s power, it’s undoubtedly Bruce Banner. You know the story: bombarded with gamma radiation, poor Bruce was doomed to transform into a huge monster anytime he couldn’t keep his anger in check. And boy, does he have a temper.
Just how much control Bruce loses as the Hulk is a spectrum that fluctuates according to whatever story is currently being told and who’s telling it. Sometimes he’s a mindless beast, willing to rampage and tear apart anything and anyone regardless of their villain or hero status. Other times, Hulk maintains some semblance of Bruce’s intellect and morals, choosing to fight alongside the Avengers and other heroes. There have even been times when Hulk was basically Bruce Banner’s genius mind stuck in Hulk’s powerful, barbaric body.
But on the whole, the idea is that the angrier Hulk gets, the stronger he becomes. But the anger: strength ratio seems to bring with it an equal descent into “mindless beast mode.” There’s a reason you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
1. Pretty much all of the X-Men
Is there a single X-Man who hasn’t lost control of his or her powers at some point? It’s hard to think of any.
Cyclops can’t control his optic blasts without the help of his specially-made visor. Beast keeps mutating into various furry forms. Wolverine has lost his healing factor countless times — and even died because of it. If Rogue touches anyone, she involuntarily takes their powers and even their lives if the connection is prolonged. Marrow once lost the ability to control her excessive bone growth. Hotheaded Chamber has no lower jaw or much of a neck thanks to the energy blasts that emanate from his head. Legion barely has any control at all over his nigh-innumerable abilities.
It seems to be something inherent in the nature of mutation that the benefits these genetic deviations bring also cause disadvantages or impairments. As much as mutants want to protect the world that hates and fears them, they can’t help but remain set apart from them, rarely able to pass as homo sapiens.
What other superheroes can’t quite seem to get a grip on their abilities? Let us know in the comments.