When TV superheroes lose their powers
As Buffy Summers, Nick Burkhardt, Barry Allen and more have discovered, losing your super-powers is a classic hero rite of passage…
This feature contains spoilers for Grimm season 3.
To have a superhero lose their powers at a certain point in their journey is a convention as old as time, a matter of when rather than if, and it’s a given that every action-adventure genre story will include it at some point. There’s a reason for that – stripping a hero of what makes him special is often the best way to develop them as a character rather than a symbol or an empty idea, but the ways in which TV shows, movies and comics do it has evolved over time.
At the end of Grimm‘s third season, Nick is tricked into giving up his powers when eternal thorn-in-his-side Adalind pretends to be Juliet in order to sleep with him. It’s a classically convoluted plot perfect for the heightened world of the show, and the loss of Nick’s Grimm powers is something that, like all classic superhero series, it was going to get around to eventually.
The writing had really been on the wall since the beginning of the season – just when Nick was mastering his power and getting stronger than ever, he had to lose them entirely.
There are a few ways in which these stories play out, but all of them involve humanising the main character in some way. When a hero exists in such an intensified universe, it’s slightly harder for an audience or readership to connect to them on a normal level, and taking away their abilities – the barrier between them and the rest of the world – is just like giving a protagonist any kind of impairment they have to overcome.
It can be a test to see whether they emerge stronger on the other side, or it can be the reverse, when the hero doesn’t actually want to go back to being a hero at the end of the storyline.
In Grimm‘s case, Nick has been through almost all the versions of the persona, such is the requirement of a fantasy procedural in 2015. He’s been the reluctant hero when first learning of his gift in season one, before intermittently wishing away his abilities when they threatened to complicate his job or his relationship. In season three, however, neither of these things really applied, and so the ‘be careful what you wish for’ element has been largely bypassed.
But it’s a powerful excuse for a narrative to strip its protagonist of their powers just at that moment, and it’s one that’s been pulled many a time. Shows in the ’90s and ’00s were particularly fond of that angle, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel to Smallville and Charmed. In those shows, it was common for the protagonist(s) to resent their powers on a weekly basis, being heroes out of necessity or obligation rather than a personal desire to save the world.
It almost always came down to a wish for normalcy, a common trope in comics as well as film and television. It can be choice, if Spider-Man dumps his suit and swears off web-slinging for issues at a time, but more often than not is something forced upon the character in order to test their commitment to whatever cause they’ve chosen to fight for.
It was slightly different in Smallville, which adopted the comics’ fondness for testing its hero by taking away his powers just when he was becoming complacent. This happened most notably in the first season, when a freak of the week coincided with a lightning storm and transferred Clark’s abilities to one of his classmates. Things seemed hunky dory until his loved ones were in danger, when his compulsion to help took over.
This is ordinarily the case, as with Superman II when the same character tried to live a normal life with Lois before returning to his original superhero status, as the one thing you can be sure of is that the guy or girl in question will eventually regain their powers and return things to the status quo.
The shortcut to existential angst shouldn’t be underestimated either, as the humanising of a character that is more than ordinary will always lead to introspection. This is vital for any long-running story to maintain any kind of tension, as the hero must know why he’s the hero or else risk getting boring.
And romance is a significant factor, with superpowers often making the hero of any story into a loner, whether they have a team of helpful sidekicks around them or not. Nick’s loss of powers on Grimm has implications for his relationship and job, which season four of the show is able to explore at length.
Sometimes gender can play a role in how the storyline plays out too, as Buffy‘s memorable power-loss episode demonstrates. In season three’s “Helpless,” she discovers that it is part of her training to be reduced to human strength and agility before facing a vampire without her powers. As with most things the show did over the years, it was something of a commentary on female empowerment and the patriarchy represented by the Watchers’ Council.
The sexual element to Grimm‘s storyline, with Nick losing his powers after literally sleeping with the enemy, is almost the mirror image to this.
Action-adventure procedurals like Grimm rely heavily on the protagonist being happy and willing to go on the weekly missions that the format demands, and so one thing that this device can achieve is making the reluctant or disillusioned hero appreciate and learn to love the cause. This is something ordinarily played with on more light-hearted shows, popping up on shows like Chuck, but really has been applied everywhere.
When a show wants to use the device to propel a longer storyline, returning to normal is often a negative thing. Angel did this brilliantly in its first season with “I Will Remember You” – in which he became human for one blissful day – with the character giving up his normal life as a sacrifice.
It’s the difference between the heroes on Arrow and The Flash – two relevant examples currently on television – as the former views his role as a duty brought on by guilt, and the latter as something that just needs to be done by someone, so why not him? Barry Allen also has superpowers in the traditional sense of the word, while Oliver Queen is reliant on his training.
The Flash has already had a loss-of-powers episode in the first part of its first season and, rather than being glad to be rid of powers he never wanted in the first place, Barry spends the rest of the episode trying to reclaim them. He’s the classic hero that has been missing from many of these recent stories – akin to Marvel’s Captain America in that he just wants to help – and contrasts with Nick in his attitude towards that prior to this point on Grimm.
Heroes must be flawed, and invincible protagonists are rarely very interesting. It’s a vital part of the superhero narrative to reduce the central character to something less, something vulnerable, in order to make them relatable and human. Either as a tool for getting out of a sticky narrative corner or a way to propel the hero’s journey forwards quickly, it will always be a part of the genre.