This is the crystace they shall sheathe in my heart if ... I use these powers for capricious or selfish purposes.
—Part of the Sentinel's oath, as given in Fusion Fire
Older Superheroes are expected to have a higher moral standard. No abusing your powers for personal gain. Sometimes this is enforced by the authority that granted their abilities, but most often it is self-imposed.
You have power, and it's easy to become drunk with it and then abuse it. Why should one follow the rules of society when one can impose his own? And why should one serve at all when one can rule? When morals and ethics clash with one's personal opinions or selfish desires (something Freud would assign to the conflict between the Superego and Id) it's only too easy to give in to the later, causing a path that leads to a once noble hero to become a Well-Intentioned Extremist, then to Those Who Fight Monsters, and then Knight Templar, until there's little to distinguish him from the evils he once fought. In fact, this is the very reason villains outnumber heroes by at least five to one.
What constitutes "abuse"? That gets into a nebulous area. This trope usually involves the more obviously violent powers that could kill someone in a few seconds or violate a person's integrity, but even good powers can make bad people. However, if your family is down on their luck financially, what's a little arm wrestling wager at the pub going to hurt?
Mostly this is a moral stance superheroes took early in their career to make sure they never hit the slippery slope to evil-dom. This happens fast, arm-wrestling for money at the pub will often signal temptation to evil within a few episodes, if not that very one.
Keep in mind though, in the hand of a poor writer, it is easy for this to turn into a Family-Unfriendly Aesop or Fantastic Aesop of a message... Cursed with Awesome powers and unable to enjoy them in any way, trapped in a life you didn't choose... It's an easy way to force You Can't Fight Fate on a likable character and is usually a one way ticket to Wangst-ville. It's also important to note that heroes shouldn't just avoid abusing their powers, but actively use them for good... with moderation.
Outside the superhero genre, this is not often a trope relating to the main characters, but many a Reasonable Authority Figure is deeply aware of the responsibilities that come with his post. Indeed, one way to detect whether such a figure is good is how he regards the misery or deaths of the faceless masses; even not knowing any of them, the Reasonable Authority Figure will not regard them as A Million Is a Statistic and if he must sacrifice them, will regard it as Dirty Business.
Incidentally, the entire quote reads "with great powers must come great responsibility".
Anime and Manga
- Nozomi, The Ditz of Yes! Pretty Cure 5, wanted to use the Dream Collet's any-wish-your-heart-desires to do all her homework for her.
- In My-HiME, the applications of the HiMEs' powers were explicitly unrestricted, which Dark Magical Girl Nao used to justify using her powers to rob unsuspecting men, posing as a child prostitute. An Aesop ensued, although frankly, a criminal, regardless of how insignificant the crimes are, hardly has any chance to win an ethics debate to begin with...
- At least if you seriously want to claim that laws are always ethical.
- In Gundam Seed, Mu La Flaga throws this at Kira near the beginning, one of the prime reasons Kira continues to take up arms and fight.
- The final episodes of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann carry this theme in the revelation that reckless use of Spiral Energy can potentially destroy the universe.
- In Alice 19th, Alice is encouraged to use her powers to help her studies. However, in a side story, a character loses her powers when she tries to charge money for the water she created using them.
- Something interesting: fansub group Janime translates a line from Yu-Gi-Oh! GX as "With great responsibility comes great power." The speaker is not referring to any superpower, but Judai's super-charisma and inherent ability to inspire people and get them to follow him just by being himself. That's not as good as it sounds.
- It's kind of subverted in the anime Eden of the East, in which twelve people called Seleçao are enrolled in a "game" where they get 10 billion yen and a concierge that allows them to do almost anything they want with it. It is later revealed the the goal of the "game" is for one of the Seleçao to use the money responsibly to "become a Messiah" who will "save Japan": Those who fail to do so are killed when they run out of money (or killed when one of the others win). "Noblesse Oblige" and "The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power" are Arc Words in the story.
- Averted early in the Chuunin Exam Arc of Naruto, wherein everyone in the room is subtly encouraged to use their ninja abilities to cheat on the written portion, which is so impossibly hard that this is the only way they will be able to finish. They were really being marked on their ability to cheat without being caught.
- Joey Jones from Heroman struggles with this once he get's the titular robot. Comes with the territory seeing as the series is the brainchild of none other than Stan Lee.
- Inuyasha: Inuyasha isn't allowed to obtain Tessaiga without learning that he must protect humans if he wants to wield it. Thereafter, his ability to strengthen and master Tessaiga goes hand in hand with his increasing compassion.
- The trope name comes from Spider-Man, where the hero used his powers to earn some money at wrestling, but couldn't be bothered to stop a criminal from escaping—the same criminal who would later kill his uncle. Humbled, he takes up crime fighting, having learned that (in the words of Stan Lee) "with great power there must also come great responsibility". Of course, this doesn't stop him from making money from his power by selling pictures of Spider-Man to the newspapers.
- The man's gotta eat and Spidey works better as a crime deterrent if people know what he can do. It's not like he's getting rich off a few pictures.
- Peter really didn't have a choice. With Uncle Ben dead, he was suddenly the breadwinner of the house. Then there were Aunt May's medical bills, what with her weekly visits to the hospital emergency room. Jesus, the old broad could sit in a draft and catch cancer.
- That phrase, Spider-Man's trademark, is parodied in Marvel Ultimate Alliance in a conversation with Spider-Man:
"With great power comes--"
- Ezekiel, a person with powers similar to Peter, poses a question to Spider-Man.
"And what comes with great responsibility?"
- In an issue of Universe X, an older, fatter Parker answers this when he declares that he had the maxim backwards all along:
"It's responsibility that brings power. It's knowing what needs to be done that brings strength. And courage. That's my daughter...and I won't let her remain a mindless slave of the Skull."
- Subverted by Runaways in which Spider-man's mantra provokes the following reaction from Gert.
"Really? That's inane. Most people in life don't have great power, and few that do are almost never responsible with it. The people who have the greatest responsibility are the kids with no power because we're the one who have to keep everyone else in check."
- A slight case of Hypocritical Humor, considering the Runaways have no small amount of power themselves...
- Used in All-Star Superman, although not spelled out. Lex Luthor gains Superman's powers at the end and goes on a rampage, stopping every so often as his Super Senses give him new insights on the universe. Just as his powers run out, he declares that life is beautiful and everyone needs to stick together - implying that anybody with Superman's godlike perspective would naturally choose to become an altruist. The Where Are They Now? Epilogue implies that Luthor mellowed out considerably after the experience.
- Although you have to remember that Luthor is smart and would be capable of recognizing the beauty of the universe with his new Super Senses...and even then it didn't completely stop him from trying to defeat Superman anyway. If anything it's a combination of Superman's godlike perspective and being raised well that makes Clark Kent who he is.
- Occasionally averted in X-Men, when a mutant is shown using their powers to aid in doing their day job. For example, Colossus used his superhuman strength and endurance to work as a farmer (in the comics) and a construction worker (on the TV series) before joining the team. While he is using his powers to do productive work for society, it is clear that he is getting paid for it.
- On the other hand, a lot of mutant heroes tend to come to blows with other mutants for this reason. Many of them don't adhere to Xavier's goals of unity and peace with humans, not helped by the fact that a lot of humans treat them like crap. Sadly, this also doesn't help Xavier's goal much either.
- This was (and still is) a common trait of Communist superheroes (and supervillains!) in comics. Most if not all of them are on the government payroll. It's superhumans from non-autocratic countries who have the freedom (and a loaded sponsor) to use their powers as they choose.
- This was also demonstrated in the 1990s Sleepwalker comics with Anti-Villain Spectra. Her initial criminal schemes give her amazing superhuman powers and transform her into a supervillain, and she seems ready to become a criminal, but by the next time Sleepwalker runs into her she's using her light-projecting abilities to make a living working for a glassware manufacturer.
- Superman isn't above using his powers to get a good news story if doing so doesn't interfere with fighting evil. In one of the earliest comics he scooped Lois on a story about a dam bursting by outrunning her train, stopping the flood, and phoning the story in.
- Sort of justified in that his heroing makes his job more difficult far more often than it makes it easier — like Peter Parker, the guy deserves a break.
- Various versions of Iron Man usually wrestle with this - Tony Stark's fortune is built on his engineering genius, but in the film, Tony decides to get his company out of the munitions business after seeing that his weapons were being sold in dirty deals to terrorists and criminals. In the comics, Stark quit selling weapons years ago, but he still frets about villains stealing and abusing his armor designs, sometimes to the level of paranoia that he manipulates, deceives and even attacks his own friends.
- A bit of a subversion and Aesop in the DCU. Rita Farr's inability to control her size-changing abilities ended her film career. The only movie she made after it was a knockoff of "The Incredible Shrinking Woman." Likewise, her adopted son (Gar "Beast Boy" Logan) also went into acting, and had a good run on a Star Trek knockoff, using his shapechanging ability to play an alien...however, neither of them were able to find more acting work, since their reputations as "freaks" made them un-castable in anything else. Other DCU examples were Victor "Cyborg" Stone and Cliff "Robot Man" Steele. Their Emergency Transformations enhanced them, but also rendered them ineligible to participate in the athletic abilities they loved because their cybernetics were considered cheating. For all of the above, it's arguable that they're in the hero business because they can't do anything else.
- A recent[when?] issue of New Avengers has superhuman mobster The Hood (who is a villainous deconstruction of the Marvel teenage superhero, and whose name happens to be Parker) explaining to his gang that they owe their enhanced abilities to him:
Hood: With power like this comes responsibility.
- A single-panel cartoon that ran in a magazine showed a fitness trainer telling a man that before he could sign up for an exercise program at that gym, he must swear an oath never to use his great strength for evil.
- Not using Time Travel for personal gain was one of Dr. Emmett Brown's self-imposed policies on his and Marty's trips in Back to The Future. In the second movie, Marty considered making easy money with a time machine, but Biff Tannen beat him to using a future sports almanac to gamble on past events, which resulted in drastic changes in the timeline. However, like other rules - not using information from the future and avoiding one's other selves - Doc eventually disregarded this rule anyway after finding his love in 1885.
- Possibly justified by the fact she was supposed to have died. Removing her from the timeline would probably cause less damage to history than not.
- In part III, Doc constructed a giant machine with the sole purpose of creating ice cubes before the technology (otherwise) existed, which sounds like something one would do if they were trying to randomly change the timeline. That's all it does too; no Chekhov's Gun here.
- He probably had no intention of publicizing his inventions anyways, and even then, nobody in town would probably figure out how it worked.
- ...Not to mention that information from the future saved Doc's life in the first film.
- The Specials has a Crowning Moment of Funny associated with this:
Deadly Girl: Ted might have been right about some things. Like drinking; last week I got drunk at a bar mitzvah, unthinkingly summoned forth demons and...they...ate a kid.
- Kick-Ass sums it up with "With no power comes no responsibility. Except that's not true."
- Used in the film version of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" for the Safety Patrol.
- The film version of Superman borrows the trope and plays it straight, when Pa Kent tries to lecture the teenage Clark about not showing off. "You are here for a reason," he says...
- Right before he dies of a heart attack that Clark can't prevent.
- The eldest immortal of the Underworld series feels that it is his responsibility to clean up after his kid's messes but the protagonist says that if he was really being responsible then he'd have stopped his offspring along time ago, as he's the only one capable of doing so.
- Explicitly invoked in the Healer's Adsum Domine, a Gabrielite hymn in the Deryni works. Rhys Thuryn sings it in the short story "Healer's Song", and Duncan McLain sings it during the dedication of Camber's chapel in King Kelson's Bride. The English translation of the first verse makes the point:
Here am I, Lord:
- In CS Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, half invoked. Lucy uses her access to cast a spell to find out what your friends think of you, but when Aslan rebukes her, it is not the personal gain, but the eavesdropping. He explicitly says that spying on people by magical means is still spying. So with great power comes—more chances to do things that would be wrong regardless of how you do them.
- Given that the Narnia Chronicles are a huge allegory for Christianity, the idea that spying on people through magical means is wrong lends an odd sheen to God's omniscience...
- In Graham McNeill's Warhammer 40,000 Ultramarines novel The Warriors of Ultramar, Uriel explicitly thinks that the Inquisitor considers the population he is willing to sacrifice as numbers, while Uriel thinks of them as people.
- In John C. Wright's Chronicles of Chaos, Victor's Backstory includes a time where he made a worm and discard it and was sternly rebuked: the stronger must protect the weaker, or still stronger than they will treat them in the same manner. In the story itself, as the oldest child (with Amelia, the next oldest), he watches over and protects the younger children. At the climax, he makes his declaration of love to Amelia and regrets that he has nothing to offer her but himself; he had wanted to wait until he could provide for her.
- Given a stranger spin in the final part of Tuf Voyaging, where the main character, after twice failing to solve a planet's problems in spite of his Cool Ship's godlike powers, concludes that to give them a permanent solution to their situation, he must accept the responsibility and authority of a god alongside the powers of one.
- Lots of examples in the Whateley Universe, including the headmistress of Whateley Academy, but Stormwolf (Adam Ironknife) is probably the best example. He's so totally devoted to the concepts of justice and law that he's letting bad stuff happen because he doesn't have proof of it. Also, every single person in the school club Future Superheroes of America is this way by definition.
- On the other hand, all of Team Kimba use their powers to make their lives easier, doing everything from Fey magically drying her long hair every morning, to Generator using her powers to earn money working in the Whateley Academy sewers.
- The wizards of Young Wizards have to swear an Oath before they get their power, and intentionally breaking it will result in the power being taken back.
- The Animorphs agree not to use their morphing powers to copy sapient beings without permission from said being. They eventually have to break this rule, but they're really not comfortable with it.
- Also comes up with David, who uses his powers to steal money and break into hotels. This doesn't end well.
- Wizard Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files embraces this trope, saying that he "follows the Tao of Peter Parker." He means it, too. Thomas Raith comments on this in the Dresdenverse story Backup, saying that Harry has a "half-divine, half-insane philosophy" about responsibility that "he's cobbled together from the words of saints and comic books."
- Subverted by many other wizards of the White Council. As long as they do not use black magic, they are free to use their powers for personal gain. If the White Council did not allow it, it would cause a civil war among the wizards.
- The Merlin, head of the White Council, however accepts this trope he just interprets responsibility differently than Harry.
- Virgil used this trope as the Roman ideal, making it Older Than Feudalism:
Other peoples may yet
- In C. S. Goto's Blood Ravens trilogy, the amnesiac Rhamah's first serious doubts about Ahriman stem from his actions—and Rhamah's rebuke is that knowledge brings power, and power brings responsibility.
- The Bible, of course, in the Parable of the Faithful Servant: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."
- The Sentinels are well aware of the dangers their Psychic Powers entail, and therefore hold themselves to a high moral standard.
- The Knights Radiant of The Stormlight Archive had this as part of their oath. Specifically, "strength before weakness" is a pithy way of saying that those with power have an obligation to use it for the benefit of those without.
- In Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet novel Invincible, when discussing his options with Geary, Rione ironically observes that some people think that great power means doing what you want to, and not what you don't want to.
- In Charmed, the sisters were prohibited from using their power for "personal gain."
- To the point where they couldn't even use it to save Piper's life when she was about to die from natural causes, even though it would preserve their special Power-of-Three-ness and presumably save many lives in the long run. The rulebook really didn't think that one out, huh?
- Later on, the writers played with this trope a bit. In S6 Phoebe's empath power is taken away because the Elders feel she abused it. In S7 the sisters use their powers to help the avatars try and create utopia but this comes at a heavier price than they realise and then they have to put things right.
- To the point where they couldn't even use it to save Piper's life when she was about to die from natural causes, even though it would preserve their special Power-of-Three-ness and presumably save many lives in the long run. The rulebook really didn't think that one out, huh?
- The original Power Rangers were explicitly instructed not to use their powers for anything but fighting evil. This was actually subverted in the later Mystic Force season, though they were punished for it and technically later teams never had Zordon's three rules.
- Even the Theme Song says so. They know the fate of the world is lying in their hands. They know to only use their weapons for defense.
- Hiro Nakamura, of Heroes, has explicitly quoted this trope, in full "Spider-Man" glory, to his more mercenary friend Ando—and was proved correct when Ando's argued-for cheating at cards got them in serious trouble. (Just because nobody knows how you're cheating doesn't mean they can't tell you're cheating!)
- And the other hero who exemplifies this philosophy is named Peter P.
- Michael from Roswell has been known to use his telekinetic powers to cheat at dice games.
- Gary from Early Edition once uses the paper to bet on horse races. He was so busy making money that he doesn't read the part about a friend of his who dies in a car crash.
- Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad occasionally used their powers for fun and games, including a game of Internet hide-and-seek.
- In Smallville, Clark naturally feels compelled to use his powers to help others. Many others with powers, don't.
- Poor President Bartlet from The West Wing has a very strong sense of this trope that invariably leads to enormous guilt, to the point of declaring that he would not be able to stomach the prospect of remaining President if he ever walked willingly to a bunker during a crisis. The trope was not just limited to his personal feelings: it screwed him over badly on numerous occasions, most sadistically in the third season finale, because it's part of his job.
- In "True Q" on Star Trek: The Next Generation, when trying to justify killing Amanda if she were a half human/Q hybrid, Q states "With unlimited power comes responsibility." Of course, being that it's Q, you can't be sure if he isn't being disingenuous, but the episode still does make the point when Amanda is forced to face the fact that living as a human would mean not making use of her powers.
- Mage: The Awakening has a Karma Meter that dings the Awakened for engaging in Mundane Utility, but you practically have to be a saint to be affected. On a more general level, flagrantly throwing about extremely obvious magic will quickly lead to Paradox.
- Genius: The Transgression calls its Karma Meter "Obligation". High Obligation, you're a Reasonable Authority Figure and Science Hero. Low Obligation, you're either a cackling lunatic or Mengele.
- Cole from In Famous. And everything Kessler puts you through? Preparation for when the shit really hits the fan.
- Spoofed in Psychonauts. After Ford Crueller teaches Raz how to use pyrokinesis, he tells him not to use it unless it's REALLY important, or unless it's REALLY funny.
- Mentioned during King Terenas' voiceover about his son Arthas in the Wrath Of the Lich King intro:
"Our line has aways ruled with wisdom and strength. I know you will show restraint when exercising your great power."
- However, this line is juxtaposed against Arthas resurrecting an undead dragon.
- In The Godfather game, Tom Hagen tells you as Aldo Trapani that becoming Capo is an honour that comes with great responsibility, should you speak with him immediately after the promotion cutscene. Given that Aldo's at best a Heroic Sociopath and at worst an out-and-out Villain Protagonist, though, one wonders if there was meant to be any moral behind it...
- In Dragon Age II, this was how the hero's father, Malcolm, viewed being a mage.
- Freefall: Absolute power sues absolutely.
- With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility — and who wants that?
- Black Mage of 8-Bit Theater turns this trope completely and unapologetically upside down.
- Also parodied in Everyday Heroes, when Carrie gets Summer out of doing chores by using the power of her Puppy Dog Eyes.
- The Order of the Stick parodies it, of course.
Elan: "With moderate power comes moderate responsibility."
- Schlock Mercenary sees Petey say this to the Rev (who identifies it as "the Gospel of Uncle Benjamin").
- The Dreamland Chronicles: It's not easy, being queen.
- Bob and George How to get George to fight for a minor character? Remind him he's a superhero!
- Completely inverted in Questionable Content by the AnthroPCs which are totally fine with having no civil rights because having power would mean having to take responsibility For the Lulz. Given how most of them seem free to run around doing whatever they please instead of serving as an actual computer, it seems like they've gotten the better part of the deal.
- Also, Hannelore points out that her mom could have never gotten to where she was as a businesswoman if she's believed in that phrase.
- In Keychain of Creation, Misho was a Solar of the First Age, and therefore one of the rulers of Creation. Unlike many of his brethren, he ruled wisely and well. However, one day he saw the Loom of Fate, and due to his perfect memory, he could never forget it. He spent the rest of his First Age incarnation working non-stop, since with his power he knew every single second of his time could save hundreds of lives. It's implied that when the Usurpation came he didn't even notice until he was actually killed.
- For Spinnerette, "great responsibility" includes not cutting in line.
- In the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, this was the standard code of behavior for pretty much all player characters. The standard mantra was "If your character lacks a Code Against Killing, you need to ask yourself why not."
- Atop the Fourth Wall mocks this whenever it is encounter. "That's right people, don't have anything unique or special about you, perhaps it's not "normal""
- Many characters in Marvels RPG, especially Spider-Man, as is to be expected.
- In The Powerpuff Girls (The Movie), which is a detailed telling of their Origin Story, the girls learn the hard way what using their full power can do to an innocent town; a game of tag wrecks many buildings and streets, and generally panics the citizens. At the end, the message is subverted, and by the time of the series, the ridiculously large amount of collateral damage the girls wreak on Townsville is accepted by everyone as the cost of safety.
- Kim Possible has no superhuman abilities, but her ability to call in favors comes close. She can usually line up global transport and any needed equipment from people she had helped in the past, at any hour of the day, to anywhere on Earth. She is reluctant to use it for her personal gain from an ethical standpoint, but in a more practical sense, she knows that abusing this ability might make it go away, since it's tied to her character and reputation.
- In Danny Phantom, Danny has occasionally used his powers to retaliate against bullies. However, when he really lays on Dash, he comes to regret it when a nerdish ghost confuses him as a bully.
- Danny using his powers for any personal gain never works out well and sometimes puts Amity Park and its people in world-ending danger. In an alternate future he created by cheating on an ersatz SAT turned Danny into a Complete Monster after his family was killed in an extremely unlikely accident... because his English teacher wanted to make a point. Averted with Vlad who used his powers to amass a fortune through clearly unethical means... yet played staight in that he's a lonely and bitter man who wants to be loved. Well, that's what he says as he tries to repeatedly kill Jack Fenton and endangers innocent people on a regular basis. You would think Vlad alone would be enough of an example to not need the other Aesops, but Danny can be an Idiot Hero on occasion.
- Averted in Ben 10. Ben uses the Omnitrix for personal gain or personal amusement every chance he gets. His idiocy, however, usually brings about the worst possible result.
- In the WITCH episode "The Stone Of Threbe", the girls have trouble getting the smelly character Blunk to take a bath, so they decide to transform to make it easier to catch him. A few minutes after doing so, their powers are stripped away by a side-effect of the Stone of Threbe's presence, and they spend the rest of the episode wishing they'd used their powers more responsibly. The loss of the girls' powers isn't directly related to their misuse, but it seems like Karma chose to bite them in the butt.
- Which leads to Fridge Logic and a Broken Aesop since cleaning Blunk up was supposed to keep his stink from hurting Hay Lin's family-owned restaurant's business; since the restaurant's basement acts as the Guardian's HQ and Hay's grandmother/WITCH's mentor lives there it's in the best interests of the entire universe that it stay open. Karma does pay them back at the end when Blunk rolls into a car wash and gets clean.
- The girls usually experience similar cosmic backlash when they use their Astral Drop clones to make life a bit easier for them. In the third volume of the original comic, overuse of the Astral Drops actually leads to the girls' lives getting wrecked for a while, while in the second season animated series episode "H is for Hunted", Nerissa uses her powers to make one of Will's Astral Drops a living, breathing person... with heartrending consequences.
- Also in "H is for Hunted" they transform to decorate their gym for the farewell party of one of their teachers and mostly get away with it, though they do come close to getting caught. The more realistic Aesop ("Don't neglect your responsibilities") is mixed in with the Fantastic Aesop fairly well and the Astral Drops are not used at all for the rest of the season, though more likely because of Nerissa's ability instead of the girls actually learning their lesson.
- Truth in Television. This mantra is often used on forums to explain how its leaders should act.
- Winston Churchill was credited with the saying "The price of greatness is responsibility", which is close enough to the Spider-Man line to make one wonder if Stan Lee might not have come across that quote when creating Spider-Man.
- German physicist Georg Ohm never forgot the words of his dying uncle who told him, "With great Power comes Great Current squared times Resistance" and crafted that wisdom into the foundation of modern electrical engineering. Translated that means that with high levels of Power one has the Responsibility to deal with the waste heat if one doesn't want their device to burn up.
- Soldiers, police officers, judges, and others in similar positions are often required to swear oaths to never abuse their powers.
- Any weapons or combat sport class will drill into their students' heads that they have an obligation to use their skills and tools in a safe and responsible manner.
- George Washington Carver is quoted to have said "It is unjust for a man to pass through life without leaving behind a good reason for his existence." or something like that.