An Arguement for Passive Powers

I doubt it will come as a big surprise to anyone that superheroes and all things related to them are a common topic of conversation in my life right now. For the most part, these have been fun, light discussions about superhero lore, favorite types of characters and storylines, even a discussion about the colors of the Lantern Corps and the implications of that recent breakdown. I had two discussions yesterday, however, that got me thinking about different kinds of powers and how perhaps passive powers aren’t given enough respect. I really want to thank K., in particular, since it was the discussion with her that got me thinking about powers in this way. I’m going to start playing City of Heroes again this week with some friends and the discussion I had with her really put me into an interesting frame of mind when I was sitting down to consider what powers to take for a new character in the game.

Super powers can be categorized in many, many different kinds of ways, but one way of looking at them is as “active” or “passive”. “Active” powers are powers that act outwardly and upon something else – laser eyebeams that shoot things, flame powers that burn things, lantern rings that create things, and sonic calls that stun people and break objects are all examples of powers that act on something other than the superhero who wields them. “Passive” powers act for the user, most commonly as protective or telepathic types of powers, and do not typically forcibly affect something other than the person possessing the power – telepathy, shapechanging, force fields and invisibility are all typical “passive” powers.

The thing about powers, though, is that they are really only tools. In the hands of an idiot a flame shooter will still make fire, but what if you give it to a genius? What might she do with it? Probably more than just make fire, but whatever she does is still likely to involve flames.

Now what about a force field? The most obvious use of it is to protect. You put up a force field and nothing hits you. But what if you make it more portable, as Violet did in The Incredibles? It’s not really anything more than just a simple force field, but it’s hard to deny that surrounding a speedster with it was a clever use (combining two passive powers, by the way). But what if you wanted to do even more with it? What else can a force field do? Well, as Sue Storm illustrates in the panels here, it can easily be used to punch holes in things. She’s also been known to use her force fields to stop up the air passages of her enemies, and to block the passages to their hearts. Clever uses indeed, and not likely what the writers who originally decided to give her the power intended!

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Superspeed is a passive power, but the Flash can do any number of amazing things with it, the most common of which is creating funnel clouds that lift or push things and people around (including himself). Rogue of the X-Men has what is arguably the most passive power of all – she “borrows” other people’s powers. This allows her to do some pretty amazing things, however, and she is considered one of the most powerful members of the team because of her ability to turn the tide of a battle so effectively with her unique power. The Martian Manhunter of the Justice League is telepathic and telekinetic and this allows him to not only know if someone is telling him the truth, but also to find hidden memories they didn’t even know they had and to shapeshift into incredibly powerful creatures (dragon-like serpents are a favorite of his).

And yet, passive powers are generally not as desirable as active ones. The established characters have a pretty good spread of both (although the female characters tend to be more likely to have passive powers than the male ones). But open a superhero themed video game and try to make a character with passive powers and you will find that it’s extremely difficult. Superspeed is about the only one reliably there. Force fields, shapeshifting, any kind of telepathy (even telekinesis), all are largely unheard of in videogames.

I can definitely see how passive powers could be more difficult to program, especially since effective use of them generally involves some creativity, but they seem absent even in their uncreative forms. Force fields could be very useful, even if you can’t kill or push someone with them. Controlled shapeshifting could be a fun element as well, especially since it could give a character access to a set of powers they only have while in their other form. Personally, I’d love to see these. I’d love to see more interesting powers and more creative uses of traditional powers in general. And perhaps, when it gets right down to it, that’s why I find passive powers so interesting – because they foster creativity so very effectively.

Obviously, this isn’t the most organized of posts, but I’m still pondering these things and I doubt that I’m going to come to any satisfying conclusions any time soon. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on powers in general and the way that videogames use them, so if you have anything to share, please comment!

Some examples of types of passive powers and characters with them:
Telepathy/Telekinesis: The Martian Manhunter, Jean Gray, Professor X, Marvel Girl
Force Fields: The Invisible Woman, Violet Incredible
Borrowing/Mimicking: Rogue, Mimic, Synch
Superspeed: The Flash, Dash Incredible
Shapechanging/Stretching: The Martian Manhunter, Elongated Man, Mr. Fantastic, Elastigirl, The Wasp
Teleportation: Misfit, Spectre, Nightcrawler
Healing Factor: Wolverine, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel