Jan 07 2012
Here are some possibilities.
1. A lack of money. Superheroics can result in injuries, but anybody with a secret identity probably wouldn’t want to reveal those injuries to an insurance company. (Otherwise, they’d need to lie to the insurance company or reveal their secret identity). Second, a lot of superheroes spend what must be substantial amounts of money on their superheroics. For example, Peter Parker is practically on the verge of starvation (and has been evicted at least once), but he’s still buying high-grade flame-retardant fabric for costumes. Even a wealthier team like the Fantastic Four could have financial difficulties sometimes. Their headquarter alone would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year (in financing/interest, property taxes, maintenance, insurance to protect nearby buildings from FF science, building upgrades, etc). Government agencies might face budgetary restrictions, particularly if they’ve antagonized Congress/Parliament.
1.1. Troubles at work and/or school. Superheroes don’t have very much control over when supervillains attack, so they frequently have trouble maintaining a regular work schedule. Superheroes can take some steps to minimize the damage to their day jobs, but a worker that’s frequently late and/or absent without leave will probably get in trouble with his/her boss and/or school.
2. Physical stresses of a highly dangerous job. For example, injuries stemming from fights or overexertion, a lack of sleep and/or time to recuperate, exposure to highly dangerous chemicals or alien symbiotes, mild aging (Batman’s at least in his 40s), etc.
2.1. Mental stress and/or combat fatigue.
3. Pressure from friends/family/loved ones to give up or minimize superheroic activities. They may be concerned about the superhero’s well-being because it’s such a dangerous job and/or the superhero might not be well-suited for the job. Alternately, a spouse or lover may feel that the toll on their relationship is getting too high, particularly if he/she has been kidnapped or nearly killed before.
4. Disagreements with other protagonists (superpowered or otherwise). For example, Lucius parted ways with Batman over philosophical differences. Superheroes might privately and/or publicly hold each other accountable if a mission goes awry. Alternately, if there’s a crime or disaster where multiple superhero groups respond, the groups might have trouble cooperating–the teams might be very different philosophically, tactically, demographically, etc. If a super-SWAT team and a team of superpowered high school students both respond to a hostage crisis, there are a variety of reasons the SWAT commandos would not want to trust the students with any responsibility. Peter Parker is good at many things, but he’s not extremely methodical and probably doesn’t have much experience with hostage situations. Alternately, the high school students might have trouble cooperating with the SWAT team, if they’re convinced that the SWAT team is so gung-ho they’re going to get a lot of hostages killed and/or the SWAT commandos don’t have the right superpowers for this situation and/or are using a more standard set of strategies against a completely unpredictable adversary.
5. Impermanent superpowers. In most superhero stories, superpowers are permanent. Some stories take away superpowers for short periods (for example, Kryptonite temporarily drains Superman’s powers), but you could make the problem more long-term. What if the character’s powers are naturally fading away because of aging, overuse or a weakening of the power source? Maybe the price of recharging his powers is so high that the character isn’t willing to go through with it?
6. Superpowers that don’t handle low-level situations well. For example, some superpowers would be tricky to use in a situation that wasn’t life-or-death. If the Human Torch tries to stop a minor scuffle like a bar brawl, he’d have to think creatively about how to get involved without torching someone that is probably more of a nuisance than a superpowered threat to humanity. He’d probably also want to think about any potential harm to bystanders. It’d be highly risky to break out fire in a crowded building because it could trigger the fire alarm and set off a fatal stampede.
6.1. Imprecise superpowers. Most people aren’t 100% accurate at anything. What would make one person less accurate/precise than another?
- Some characters might not have as much fine control as others do, even though their powers might be similar. For example, one telekinetic might be able to mentally pluck bullets from the air or turn a screw, whereas another telekinetic might be more powerful but less precise.
- Some superpowers are naturally harder to aim, especially at a distance. If a criminal is 50 feet away and running, a superstrong character would probably have a harder time stopping him than a psychic or an elemental controller would. Even at point-blank range, a superstrong character might have trouble exploiting a tiny vulnerability (like, say, the clasps on Juggernaut’s helmet).
- Some superpowers have splash damage that is hard to control. For example, a superstrong attack is likely to cause reverberations that could be dangerous to passersby. Even if a fire-based attack is aimed perfectly at a hostage-taker, the hostage would probably get burned even if the fire doesn’t touch him.
- The superpowers may require concentration and/or careful aim. In a stressful situation, it’s easy to get distracted and/or nervous and/or make unsound split-second decisions. A character with less training and less experience is more likely to make interesting mistakes here.
- Other factors that might matter: whether the shooter is moving, whether the target is moving, whether the target has cover and/or a human shield, distance, visibility, weather conditions, whether there are superpowers in play that interrupt or disrupt other superpowers, etc.
7. Unreasonably high expectations on the part of the hero and/or other protagonists and/or public at large. Superman or not, Metropolis will have murders. Even Superman can’t be everywhere. That said, a hero might have trouble looking at it like that without feeling like he/she was writing people off and/or making excuses for failure. Members of the public may get bitter if a loved one gets killed because they might (justifiably) feel there’s a double standard at work. Let’s face it–if murder victim Jane Doe had been dating a superhero, the superhero probably would have prevented the murder. “Superheroes may say they don’t have time to save everybody, but they always seem to have time to save the people they care about.” Alternately, a more powerful and/or skilled superhero may expect too much of other characters. A superhero that has the ability to summon a horde of celestial super-beings might be disappointed if a partner like the BMX Bandit can’t keep up. Alternately, the BMX Bandit might get annoyed because he feels like he’s getting shown up by his partner and/or isn’t getting enough of an opportunity to put his skills to use.
8. Side-effects of superpowers. Whatever caused the character to get superpowers could also result in obstacles down the road. For example:
- Physical–for example, maybe the person’s body can’t handle the superpowers and/or the body changes in some way that causes complications. Tony Stark has medical issues related to his origin and Slate is far too heavy to use an elevator or chair.
- Mental–for example, the person’s personality shifts or he has a Hulk-style personality split. Dr. Manhattan’s interests and perspective change dramatically when he ascends to quasi-godhood.
- Social–for example, discrimination against mutants.
9. Team-related conflict. It’d be impossible to design a company where there wasn’t some sort of potential friction (e.g. employee-employee, employee-leader, leader-leader if the organization is big enough to have layers of leadership, etc). In a highly stressful field like superheroics, the media would create some even if there weren’t much to begin with.
10. Conflict with society at large (the public, the police, the press, government as a whole, etc). Superheroes tend to commit many felonies, so you have room to run with this if you’d like.