No One Gets To Be Special – Thoughts on Depowering

It’s been a long time since I really did a good post on a trope or anything like that, what with Cartoon Month and now NaNo. Time to fix that.

As for NaNo… is not going well. My normal workload both with writing and real life has gotten in the way and if I’m going to get to 50k with my NaNo stuff, I’m going to have to have a miracle. Fear not though; SIMaS is going into the 4th Wednesday slot starting in December, so I have no excuses anymore.

But anyway, let’s talk about something I came across this past month:

As some of you well know, I am a massive fan of Avatar: the Last Airbender and just recently picked up (and binge-watched in a single day) Books 1 and 2 of the sequel series, Legend of Korra. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Korra. The Roaring 20’s setting is fun, the animation of gorgeous, and the music is amazing. I even feel that some people didn’t give the story the appreciation it deserved because they missed a lot of subtext.

No, the following rant has to do with the villains of the first season: the Equalists, and both the fan reaction to them and a quote by Joss Whedon about The Incredibles mentioned on the commentary that drove me berserk.

For those not into LOK, don’t worry, you won’t have to know all that much to follow this. The Equalists are a organization that feels that they are oppressed by the portion of the population born with the series’ version of superpowers: element bending and wants to do something about it. By episode three, we quickly learn that when they mean ‘do something about it’, they mean ‘they want to depower everyone’.

This is a pretty classic concept that eventually pops up in any setting with superpowers and on the surface, you might think they have a point. Really, superpowers can be dangerous and in a lot of settings, there’s no way of stopping someone from getting one, so a lot of people liken forced depowerings as something skin to gun control. It’s also an unfair advantage! I mean how are we going to enjoy a good track and field event if Dash from The Incredibles, Quicksilver from X-men, or our own Callie from The Descendants is hanging around waiting to smoke those slow normals?

And in LOK, we do see that there is at least an elite force of police with metal control (and yes, they get around like Warrick, but I’m pretty sure they were inspired by Attack on Titan (a show I cannot bear watching beyond episode 1)) and organized crime seems to be run by ‘benders. I sure wouldn’t want my job as a hired goon threatened by magic goons! [Problem one for the Equalists: until the Equalists prove to be literal terrorists and trigger an admittedly awful, amoral backlash, this is the ONLY example we see of this oppression. People say the council is made of of benders, but we see in flashback that that’s not written in stone.]

The thing is though, powers are not guns. Unless they’re tied to a device, they’re part of the person, often something they were born with.

Which brings me to the Joss Whedon quote. Apparently, Mr. Whedon, who I do respect as a creator, has a problem with The Incredibles. He has said that the moral of the story is uncomfortable because it says that some people are just born better.

… If you want to push that to the extreme, you can suggest that moral has a little Germany circa 1940 on it.

But that would be stupid.

Look. I don’t know where we went wrong. Eighties cartoons got it right: we should be celebrating our differences because our differences are awesome.

I can’t draw. That is why I teamed up with my best friend for like three years and did a webcomic that benefited from having us both on it. That is why I started writing this serial and all my other stuff. If everyone could draw at the same skill level and I could draw at that skill level, none of this would exist and I wouldn’t be on the cusp of making a living doing what I love. IT si awesome that I can’t do something.

Hell, I also can’t dunk. I’m a big fat guy from a big, fat family and my genes are a size 60 tall all by themselves (actually less than that nowdays, but you get the point). And because I can’t dunk and others are great at dunking, it’s fun for me to watch basketball. Or dance, or be pretty (I am a cave troll). You get the point.

Other people are born with different genes that make them better suited to different things and this is a good thing. In fact, that is the point of genes in the first palce. Everyone being different and being good at different things is how evolution works and unlike you would rather be an amoeba or a member of the Phelps clan, that is also a good thing.

I don’t get this idea that everyone should be equally good at things or can’t be born with an advantage unless you’re growing them in vats for it, or killing the ones who aren’t.

…or destroying the ones who are.

Which is where depowering as a ‘solution’ comes in.

A lot of people talk about depowerment as a punishment in a lot of super-powered series. Mercifully, a lot of stories (LOK included, which in my eyes redeems the ‘happy’ ending from) do show the trauma of doing so. Not a lot go that one step farther when thinking just how terrible depowering is. Because it is very close to something we did to people in real life: forced sterilization.

In the world of the stories, the people in charge, or the people trying to be in charge will decide that someone having powers is unwanted and forcibly remove that capacity from an individual. In the real world, in the very state where I live, people actually decided they wanted to remove ‘insanity’ (psychology having just been invented three days earlier, so ‘being a criminal’ or ‘being poor’ were officially ‘insanity’ then) from the gene pool and so removed the ability to breed from people against their will.

In LOK, when we first see the Equalists take someone’s powers, it’s all criminals and I actually saw fans, people I know point this out as if that meant it was okay. During Marvel’s Civil War, tony Stark invented SPIN tech, a custom nanite cocktail that depowered a specific person and used it on heroes who didn’t agree with him, including She Hulk and Komodo—a girl who without her powers, has no legs. Related to that event, the Pro-reg side ripped a piece of bonded alien tech off the character Arsenal’s arm, apparently stripping her nerve endings. Her crime? Not being good at boot camp and freaking out when exposed to powers that drove her mad with terror. That monster.

My point is, these are never good people. They never ‘have a point’ because their version of evening the playing field is violating another person—lots of other people. Hell, in the Avatar universe, ‘bending is linked to spirituality, so they’re probably tearing chunks out of these people’s souls.

What I find interesting though is if they didn’t go that one step further into ‘objectively evil in every way’, their methods tend toward making themselves ‘special’, usually through ingenuity. Syndrome from The Incredibles gave himself tech-based powers. The Equalists learned chi-blocking and rocked sweet electro-kali sticks and badass steampunk mecha. And the U-men from X-men—stole mutant organs and used them themselves.

Emphasis, because holy crap, you guys, that is both horrible and awesome in a grody biopunk kind of way. Though obviously, that’s way worse then the depowering in the same way dismemberment is worse than sterilization.

Organ theft aside, I like this kind of anti-special type more than the depower guys. The idea that they recognize that they wouldn’t be able to stand up to a super in a fight and strives to counter them on equal ground through ingenuity.

Not that depowering isn’t something that shouldn’t be in the tool box of every writer whose works involve magic and powers. It is an excellent existential threat on par with death depending on how connected a character is to their powers.

As with death or giving someone a physical handicap in-story though, it has to be presented for the major life change it is. If your characters only fight crime with their powers and don’t say use it to get breakfast in the morning, or just to get around, the impact is lost. This is something that ought to change everything for them and be a major occurrence.

Coming from the other direction, when used to neutralize a threat, it should be treated the same way. Depowering isn’t like handcuffs or being put in jail. It’s a terrible thing being done to them and should be treated as such.

Which isn’t to say the heroes have to understand how bad it is at first. In particular, kid heroes probably don’t get the concept of what they just did, but it should slowly become evident the magnitude of what they did to another human being.

Same goes for the villains, by the way. I’ve said in the past that the old chestnut about everyone being the hero of their own story not necessarily being true, but that doesn’t mean that even fully evil villains are aware of the scope of what they’re doing. Having one realize the implications might make for interesting character development.

Finally, let’s not forget that sometimes, depowering is the best option. One example where it didn’t happen but possibly should have would be the Deatheaters from the Harry Potter series. These are wizards who specifically prey on the magically inclined children of the non-powered (thus people who don’t have a support network to protect them and are thus especially vulnerable) and use spells everyone has agreed shouldn’t be used.

In this case, the wizard’s prison of Azkabhan is already a torturous gulag where wraith things suck out your joy, the Deatheaters have been shown capable of repeatedly escaping it, and their powers are largely the result of training (You have magical capability in the HP verse, but it doesn’t seem possible for someone to be self-taught—correct me if I’m wrong).

Here, I actually expected Rowling to go into the morality of depowering before having that be the solution particularly because the wizard prison is so horrible. Of course it wasn’t, but still.

In the end, like a lot of power tropes, depowering is one that hasn’t been fully explored yet. With so many real world parallels to what’s being done, it’s kind of surprising that the grit and darkness-happy mainstream comic universe still uses it as a relatively ‘harmless’ event (Decimation, which was itself a mistake came close, but there it made everyone either happy or suicidal. No one was really bummed by trying.) when if it happened to a real person, it would be anything but.

And it’s certainly not the answer to a societal ill. Imagine if someone tried to stop racism by taking away people’s skin.

And on that lovely note, I shall leave you in horror.

Just a heads up, I’m likely to not have access to the internet or writing for a lot of next week (American Thanksgiving!), so don’t be surprised if there’s not 4th Wednesday post or blog. There might be, but we’ll see. If it makes you feel any better, So I Married a Supervillain Part 2 will become the 4th Wednesday slot next month. The people demanded it and so it shall be done.

Oh, and The Descendants – The Complete Volume 1: Welcome to Freeland House is now on sale in the Bookstore and by next week, the Cafepress store should be back with the new clean logo and some other stuff. If I can get ahold of Clay Kronke to get his permission for 1 and 2, I’ll have posters for the Rune Breaker covers up too… because I want to buy them…

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
    William J. H. Boetcker (not Abraham Lincoln, as commonly attributed)

  2. Talk about timing! In tonight’s ep of The Flash, his powers are stolen from him.

  3. Didn’t Aang take away the firelord’s powers in Last Air Bender? Of course this was an extreame case.

    • He also took Yakone’s away in LoK.

      On the balance, I think both of those were pretty justified because they were in the process of doing awful things to people with said powers and couldn’t be stopped otherwise. I imagine Ozai could have melted his way out of any prison they had and Yakone… jeez.

  4. FYI season 3 & 4 of LOK are much better than 1 & 2.

    • I agree completely. Even in the first couple of seasons, there are things I like a lot, but season three was better and season 4 has appealed to me a great deal so far. One thing that LoK has done pretty well, despite the somewhat disconnected story arcs, is showing that actions have consequences – and sometimes very unpredictable ones.

  5. I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here.

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