The rise of superhero movies and television series means a greater variety of superpowers are finally making their way to our screens. It’s not just super-strength and expert level combat anymore. With the aid of shows like CW’s Arrow and movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, general audiences have been introduced and begun to grow accustom to the ideas of mysticism, aliens, and talking animals. And technological advances have made heroes like Groot and Hulk not only possible, but also believable. However, just because some movies have made it look easy, there are still plenty of superpowers that incredibly hard to get right on screen, either because of CGI challenges or because the power is hard to see.
So here are 11 Superpowers That Look Terrible In Movies, including some examples of both times they were done incredibly right and times they were done incredibly wrong.
As with any power you can’t see, telepathy – the ability to read and control the minds of others – can be tricky to get right on the big screen (or the small screen for that matter). Either through camera angles or other stylistic choices, a director has to make it clear that the action is mostly taking place inside one character’s head, usually without the aid of verbal clues unless they’re in the form of voice overs. And while it might be hard on directors and writers, it’s also a challenge for the actor, who must figure out how to look while they are supposed to be controlling someone else. James McAvoy, who plays Professor X, has even talked about some of the challenges he faced portraying his own powers when he’s surrounded by the more obvious superpowers.
Of course, this power can be easier to depict depending on how the power presents itself. For example, Jessica Jones’s villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant), has a mind control power that is more similar to hypnosis, meaning he controls other people’s action through verbal suggestion, instead of just with his mind.
There’s no shortage of superheroes who can fly, from characters born with the ability like Superman to those aided by suits or other tech like Iron Man. While it’s theoretically easy enough to show a character soaring through the air, so often the flight scenes in superhero movies and shows are weak points in the special effects department.
Sometimes it’s clearly visible wires; sometimes it’s obviously green screen; sometimes it’s a far shot of obvious CGI; and sometime it’s all three. Television shows, thanks to their lower special effects budget, are big offenders, with CBS’s Supergirl being just the latest example. But it’s not impossible to get a flight scene right. While Man of Steel isn’t without its problems, it’s widely praised for Superman’s first flight scene.
9. Willpower-Based Constructs
Many of the most powerful superheroes and villains—like Green Lantern and Victor Von Doom—can construct anything they want as long as they have the willpower to do so. These willpower-based constructs would seem to make them near unstoppable, which presents its own storytelling problems. How do you find a villain bad enough for an unstoppable hero and how do you find a hero who can stop an unstoppable villain? But putting aside the basic storytelling challenges, the examples of willpower-based constructs we’ve seen in movies have also just looked unbelievably bad.
In the Green Lantern movie, most of the constructs look like unbelievable CGI things instead of anything useful or helpful to the hero (a Hot Wheels car ramp???). And while we know from the comics that Doctor Doom can also make willpower-based constructs, you wouldn’t know that from watching the most recent Fantastic Four. In fact, throughout the last third of the movie, it’s incredibly unclear what exactly he can and can’t do.
Whether it’s a werewolf, a character like the Hulk, or just plain-old size manipulation, using CGI to transition a human character into something else is rife with problems. Too often, the transition is so obviously computer-generated that it takes you right out of the movie action or the quick camera cut aways mean you miss most of the change. The wolf transitions in the Twilight franchise are notoriously bad, and it’s an incredibly profitable series, with a presumably generous CGI budget. And even Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) transition in the latest X-Men adaptations leaves something to be desired, despite the post-transition character looking great.
Of course, it’s not just the transition that can pose a problem when the character is transitioning into a mostly CGI creature, like the Hulk. What with the Hulk looking so good in Avengers 1 and 2, it’s easy to forget how hard it is to create a believable giant green man. But one only needs to look at any of the standalone Hulk movies for a reminder.
Super-intellect is one of those super powers that’s been done so successfully on so many occasions that it’s easy to forget how hard it is to convey from a storytelling perspective. As we watch Tony Stark and Bruce Banner geek out over science or Sherlock make near impossible deductions, we know those characters are super smart, both from the way they act and the things they say.
But, a basically normal human—a writer—had to write that dialogue you hear and the character traits portrayed. While no one’s saying writers aren’t smart, many of them are tasked with writing complex dialogue about scientific principles with little to no science background. That means, research and outside experts might need to be found. And it’s not just the “smart-sounding” dialogue. Writers also face the larger story challenge: forming plot twists and story arcs that a super-genius would come up with, without the aid of being a super-genius. After all, if just the average viewer could solve crimes right along with Sherlock, the character wouldn’t be anywhere near as impressive.
6. Animal Based Powers
Animal-based powers can present themselves in different ways. There are characters like Ant Man, whose powers are mainly exercised through the help of a suit. And then there are characters like Squirrel Girl, whose physical mutation gives her squirrel like features and a squirrel affinity. Thanks to The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, it’s near impossible to not want a Squirrel Girl movie. But then you have to wonder, what would that character look like on screen? There’s always a chance that a girl running around with a squirrel tail rolled up in her pants is a step too far for major movie audiences.
Not to say that animal based powers can’t be done successfully. We were all skeptical when Marvel announced Guardians of the Galaxy with a CGI Rocket Raccoon, fearing that at worst he would be distractingly bad and at best he would look plain silly. But the fears were put to ease when the movie came out as a genuine hit, with Rocket being a pure delight on screen and a fan favorite.
Invisibility is another power we’ve seen done right so many times that it’s easy to forget the challenge behind it. By definition, invisibility is impossible to see, so it must be difficult to portray on a solely visual medium. The audience wants to know what’s going on onscreen; we don’t want to just see things happen at random and have to infer that there’s someone invisible making them happen. That’s why it’s so often muddy or snowing—like in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—when an invisible character is performing an important function.
You also don’t want one of your main actors to not be onscreen for the majority of the movie, so the invisibility must be used sparingly, even if it would be the logical best choice for a character to stay invisible throughout an entire fight scene. Other tricks for invisibility have included making small ripples where the invisible person is moving through space, which was used in Harry Potter when he was under the invisibility cloak, and keeping the clothes visible, which was used in 2005’s Fantastic Four.
4. Expert level sorcery
Like the willpower based constructs, masters of sorcery having a seemingly unlimited scope of power, which creates storytelling problems as far as weaknesses and conflict. Last year’s Victor Von Doom in Fantastic Four is a good example of the problems with having your villain be one of the most powerful practitioners of sorcery in the world. Doom was able to blast almost everyone away, basically melting people with a glance, but then he bizarrely let the heroes throw some punches at him without bothering to melt their faces off too.
When magic and sorcery are limited by the use of verbal spells or harnessing mechanisms (like a wand or staff), it’s almost always more successful because the audience can better see and understand the power. But for any limitations to be believable, they must be built into the story from the beginning. Otherwise, audiences will be left asking, “why didn’t they just cast some spell?”
3. Super senses
Any character with super sight, smell, or taste is going to be a challenge, partly because the super sense is usually the least interesting part of the character’s plethora of powers. We all know Peter Parker has this amazing spider-sense that alerts him to danger, but that’s mostly because we’ve been told that repeatedly over the course of a handful of movies, not because we really see it in action. It’s much easier to show him crawling up a wall and swinging from buildings with webbing, which tells the audience he’s a superhero for obvious reasons.
But a character like Daredevil, who relies almost entirely on sense based abilities, is a far greater challenge, which Marvel’s Netflix series absolutely met. Instead of trying to use CGI or cheesy effects (like the Ben Affleck film) to show his heightened senses during fight scenes, the show relies on camera angles and Matt Murdock’s own reactions to subtly convey his abilities.
2. Chi-based powers
Characters with chi-based powers can harness their spiritual energy in order to augment their physical and mental capabilities, often to superhuman levels. Just like with sorcery, the ability to harness chi has its own challenges based solely on the mysticism aspects. But, more importantly, with chi-based powers it’s harder to show exactly where the ability to augment their strength or speed is coming from. Watching a character concentrate for a few seconds before gaining super human skills likely isn’t enough, without at least some other explanation.
We’ve yet to see a live-action adaptation of a superhero with chi-based abilities, but that will hopefully change soon with Marvel’s Iron Fist, the last show in Netflix’s lead up to the Defenders miniseries. But rumors have already surfaced that suggest Marvel execs were concerned about how to approach the character’s mystical powers and considering holding off on the magic elements. Hopefully, they stick to the original Iron Fist origin though, because Iron Fist’s most notable ability is the ability to channel all of his body’s chi into his fist, basically creating a glowing, inhumanly powerful punch. And that seems like it would be pretty cool to see on screen.
Elasticity is one power that live-action movies and shows have really yet to get right. It’s easy to see why elasticity could be a useful power, and many popular heroes, including Mr. Fantastic and Plastic Man, are blessed (or cursed) with it. But if the Fantastic Four movies have taught us anything, it’s that it is really hard to believably nail stretching powers. In both the 2005 and 2015 versions, Mr. Fantastic’s elasticity, even at its most believable moments, only ever looked okay and most of the time it looked downright bad.
The fact that the latest Fantastic Four, with its incredible budget, still couldn’t make the superpower believable might be enough to scare off others from attempting other superpowered stretchers. Several years ago, a Stretch Armstrong movie was in the works, but after a long pre-production the project was eventually abandoned. The released storyboards for the project actually look pretty promising, but you do have to wonder if the stretch powers would have been too much of a challenge to translate.
Those are eleven of the superpowers that we think are hardest to get right. What superpower do you think always falls flat on screen? Which ones are you most impressed by when done right? Let us know in the comments!