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A reason why I dislike comic books:

Superheroes/meta-humans/etc..

You see, superhero and supervillain powers need to be impossible (or extremely hard) to reproduce, in order for them to work as intended, quite hard with rules, assuming you don't want your power system to be like Quirks (My Hero Academia) and Stands (JoJo). Both of which quickly devolve into chaos and plot conveniences. After all, their only limitation is that the writer will conveniently remove game-breaking powers through the plot.

Suppose you want to kickstart a new [undefined] Comic Universe because you disagree with the creative choices of Mi**** Mouse and Snack Zyder and now believe that both the MCU and DC had been ruined.

You want your power system to adhere to rules (like physics) that won't be broken like Steely Dan's skeleton.

The easiest way to do that is if our heroes' powers come from their bank account, i.e: high-tech gadgets like powered armor and electron-beam cannons. Sure, you can have your mutants here and there, just don't expect them to be on the same level of destructiveness as a guy who wears a tank for a suit.

Let's call these gadget-based superpowers superscience since it's a child's idea of what science looks like. To be fair, it's cooler than looking up functions on StackOverflow.

Now, why is it that on a carbon-copy of 2020's Earth (but without widespread political radicalism), where our superhero stories take place, there are only a handful of these superscience weapons and gadgets with little to no hope of mass production, despite fully-functional and extremely useful prototypes existing?

Generally speaking, I don't want the reason to be internal, (the creator is unwilling to disclose the schematics because of personal beliefs) but an external pressure/limitation. MAD technically counts as an external pressure.

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    $\begingroup$ Take a look at how "Tinkerers" and "Tinkertech" work in Wildbow's Worm. It looks like what you're looking for: non-reproducable, disruptive, and unlikely to cause widespread technological uplifting or upgrading $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Oct 13, 2020 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ This is the first question I've ever read that violated the help center's "don't ask questions that are a rant in disguise" rule and yet had a valid question anyway. Congratulations! BTW, just to be a pain in the neck, what makes your superheros any different from Batman? Bruce Wayne has no intrinsic super powers. He has one good resource (a better-than-average intellect) and one enormous resource (money). Why is that not the only valid answer to your question? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 13, 2020 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with the VTC, "Why ... there are only a handful of these weapons and gadgets with little to no hope of mass production, despite fully-functional and extremely useful prototypes existing?" is a perfectly valid question. We are already limited to things based in physics via "You want your power system to adhere to rules (like physics)" So answers should be based in reality. $\endgroup$
    – IT Alex
    Oct 14, 2020 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ @ITAlex I didn't vote to close, but I can understand it. "What reasons might justify X?" questions are notoriously opinion-based. In a world that uses one-specific-question/one-best-answer as a model the only way to ask these questions and avoid closure is to clearly explain how the best answer will be judged, thus making a subjective question objective. So, Meph... how would you judge the best answer? I'll VTR if you explain. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 14, 2020 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ :-) You're still ranting about DC/MCU. In reality, a lot of the text of this question doesn't apply to the question - it doesn't even apply to backstory. It explains your justification for asking the question - but it's still a rant. However, what's still missing is any way to judge a best answer. However, I'm going to VTR because as I've thought bout it, I believe you're asking for a finite list of things. In other words, opinion-based it may be, it's not an infinite list. We've allowed these before. Cheers. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Oct 14, 2020 at 19:04

6 Answers 6

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Apply Clarke's Third Law

The only way to have technology that can not be reproduced is to incorporate a level of technology that exceeds modern technology by enough to be incomprehensible to those who try to reverse engineer it.

Clarke's Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

While this is generally true, I would say it is not absolutely true. The reason that Marvel and DC violate disbelief so badly is because they use Clarke's Third Law as an excuse to ignore science all together and just treat it like another soft magic system. What Clarke's 3rd Law fails to emphasize is that even highly advanced technology is still governed by science. The "magic" of advanced tech is that someone solved an up-till-now unsolvable engineering problem, but the "science" of advanced tech should still agree with generally proven facts.

For example, if you were to go back to ancient Greece with a tank, they world recognize the principles behind the tank. The would recognize that you have a vehicle on wheels, and that your are using metal to armor it. Given some hands on time with it, they could probably glean that than your cannon has something to do with fire and air pressure, but when it comes to the electronics, metallurgy, chemistry, and everything else that goes into making one, they would be missing too many intermediate stages of science between what they have and what you have to recreate it no matter how much time you give them to reverse engineer it.

The other way Marvel/DC violates disbelief is by inventing a new phenomenon as a plot device, and then calling it something that is already well understood to be something else. The number of things these comics call a "black hole" or "gamma rays" can be a pretty big turn-off for anyone with a grown-up level of education. By all means, you should feel free to add some handwavy phenomena, but you should be careful how you label them. It is better to make up something new that utterly baffles on lookers and has no explanation, than to try to explain something in a way that is plainly untrue.

Tropes that work well for this

Super Intelligence: Your setting has a misanthropic scientist who is so far above and beyond normal that he has in a single lifetime gotten too far ahead of modern science for people to understand what he is doing, and he has no inclination of explaining what all those middle steps are. This is generally my least favorite approach since it often ignores the HUGE infrastructure that advanced technology actually requires and creates a terrible return on investment compared to mass produced gadgets. Tony Stark & Bruce Wayne are the only 2 examples of this trope being well executed that I can think of because they were intelligent enough to invent things that were hard to reverse engineer, had access to multi-billion dollar military tech R&D facilities, and most importantly, they both ultimately decided they did not want to sell their weapons technology for ethical reasons. That said, needing to have a private arms company in your back pocket that you spontaneously decide not to use significantly limits the number of heroes and villains your setting can have.

If I were to incorporate this trope as the baseline for all supers in my world, I would have the inventor create a bunch of prototypes as he tries to figure out what production model he will go with, then kill the scientist preventing his work from ever reaching the industrialization stage. Then you scatter to prototypes as needed to fit your plot.

Time Travel: Your heroes and villains are from the future, fighting with what to them is just normal technology. If the current era is ground zero for a temporal war between future civilizations, then much larger numbers of heroes and villains may come into play, but it means that your powers are likely to be standardized kits rather than unique powers. If a single organization sends back 10 heroes, chances are they will all have the more-or-less the same general kits and therefore similar power sets.

Here the future people want to control the narrative of history which they can't do by just giving thier tech away willy nilly; so, they control its distribution very tightly.

Alien Technology: This is my personal favorite because technology falling from the sky can land in anyone's backyard. Since any rando can come across it, you can have an environment similar to Central City of ordinary people being elevated to hero/villain status instead vs everything being accumulated in the laps of the powers that be. This also means no one on Earth actually knows how it works to even try to mass produce it. Lastly, something like an alien ship exploding leaving tech all over the place to be found is going to give you a much more diverse set of powers since the debris form the ship's medical lab will be different than from the arms locker which will be different from the machine shop, etc.

Archeotech: May not really fit into your setting since you are going for alternative modern, but it may still be worth mentioning. Any time you have a massive collapse in civilization the technology to do certain things is lost and what old technologies that remain become the the things of legend. Norse Mythology reflects this in their descriptions of old swords. In the Viking world, many ancestral swords were made using old Roman metallurgy techniques like pattern welding and core piling. By the beginning of the high Medieval period, most of these techniques were lost to time; so, ancient swords were often credited with having magic properties because they were so good. Now, take this concept into the modern world and let's say your world was hit by such a massive solar flare or cyber attack that 99.9% of all digital information is wiped out, we'd be pushed back to the 1950s overnight. Since even our computer factories need computers to run these days, recovery would be a long and painful road... but a few things survived this event; so, your best tech in this world would actually be the stuff too old to reproduce rather than too advanced.

Designing Your Clark Tech

Much like the tank example from before, you will want to always include a few elements of what we do understand, and make sure the things you add on top of that don't go against it. So, let's say you want to make a futuristic rifle that can cut a building in half. Well, we already have a good understanding of how lasers work; we just can't muster the power to make one that strong or the materials to not melt even if we had the power.

This is where the "magic" is introduced. You give someone a laser gun, but it is made out of something so thermal insulating that it that makes Starlite look like paper mache. Then you give it a miniature fusion reactor for power. The materials and systems that go into this thing are so complex and mysterious, that our science does not even tell us how to begin reverse engineering them, but everything "logical" about the device makes perfect since in terms of kilowattage, conservation of mass and energy, and total destructive potential. Our concepts of science tell us that such a device might be able to exist, but does not scratch the surface for how to make it a reality, and that balance is the key.

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  • $\begingroup$ shoulda read your answer first, it already includes what I mentioned in my comment. plus some! +1 $\endgroup$
    – MarielS
    Oct 13, 2020 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ "For the sake of simplicity, we are going to assume our heroes' powers come from their bank account, i.e: high-tech gadgets like powered armor and electron-beam cannons." <- This new stipulation may seem to invalidate my answer, but ultimately, if you have money you buy any of the applicable technologies as long as you can find the right seller. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Oct 14, 2020 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Or commission their development (potentially from alien tech) in the first place? $\endgroup$ Oct 14, 2020 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Mephistopheles That could work well too. Sure, the aliens could meet our entire demand for domaflachies by selling us a million of them at a fair market value, but why do that when there are like 20 really rich guys willing to pay a billion dollars a piece for them? Especially if you can come up with a good reason why the aliens have a limited capacity to get them to us, like really expensive space travel. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Oct 14, 2020 at 19:12
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You Just can't Make a Billion of Those Anymore:

If you want to have a world with advanced technology that isn't available to the masses, then have a reason it can't be manufactured en masse.

  • Unobtanium: Some rare, near impossible material is needed to power these devices. This is pretty much the Black Panther path, with an asteroid of special matter being the whole world supply.
  • Social disruption: Bad things happened once individual people got a hold of (hand cannons/mind control nanites/portable fusion generators). These technologies have caused a social and political collapse of traditional industrial society. The factories churning out regular consumer goods have recovered, and people are starting to get back to normal, but the factories making advanced engineering aren't. Universities are just recovering to the point they can begin understanding these disruptive technologies again. Governments struggle to keep jet fighters in the air, and fusion-powered armor with jet packs are simply not economically practical any more.
  • Neo-luddites: Maybe the consequences of these things were viscerally unpleasant, and people have turned away from advanced tech. The aerospace industry is crumbling as people refuse to fly and take trains instead. Governments spend money on social programs rather than particle accelerators and nations band together against countries that don't. Wars have been fought about it. The major powers rely on their economic might to keep military superiority and no longer want change.Scientific research is cause for sanctions by the UN, but brilliant and driven people still remember what was known, and continue to push the envelope in secret (thus secret identities).
  • Hazardous materials: The underlying tech that powers/supplies these devices has a disastrous consequence, like microfusion power plants prone to melt down, circuits that spontaneously give rise to aggressive human-hating AI, mutagenic effects that render the users sterile or manufacturing requirements so toxic that they've been banned. Heroes might be considered villains by the public for using these dangerous devices, or the supply of parts has dwindled since their manufacture is outlawed. Perhaps experimental use in space creeps back to Earth.
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Every gadget has to be hand-produced and customized. You can't just mass-produce the fire blaster, it needs to be adapted to the individual user's brain waves, and most people can't use a fire blaster of any kind, though many can use a power gadget of some kind.

Or perhaps you need to take a super-science serum to have the physical changes that enable you to use such gadgets, and it turns out that it reacts vastly differently to different people. Even identical twins have enough difference that once the serum is done, you have to fit them out with different gadgets.

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There are a number of reasonable explanations in these comic books (and movies) you're so quick to dismiss, and you probably won't find any better ones.

Some combination of these would make it much less likely that someone can or will recreate it.

Recreating the exact conditions, ingredients and steps to reproduce something can be extremely difficult (the Coca-Cola formula), even when you have a sample of the real thing, but especially if you've only seen it in passing or not seen at all (like something that's on someone's person or hidden in a hideout at all times, that there's only 1 of and that the creator of has a strong incentive to keep secret: to avoid having villains misuse it).

Although people trying to recreate gadgets and powers has certainly been a plot point in comics. I believe one of the villains in Iron Man recreated his suit, although perhaps not the more-important reactor that powers it.

  1. Getting lucky.

    This could be due to scientists experimenting (Captain America getting a secret serum) or just being in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time (Spiderman getting bitten by a radioactive spider).

    The two examples I listed aren't gadgets, but it could also be applied when talking about a specific ingredient or component of a gadget rather than something being injected into someone's body.

  2. Having lots of money (Batman).

    If you have something that costs billions of dollars to make, you're already limiting it to just the richest of the rich and preventing mass-production.

  3. A high level of intelligence (Iron Man) and/or the creativity to think of things no-one else managed to think of.

  4. Access to really advanced technology.

    This is somewhat closely related to having lots of money and intelligence, but it's also a bit different.

    A very well-funded and secretive lab that's spent many many years focusing very heavily on a certain domain is going to have a huge advantage above everyone else in that domain. It's not unreasonable to think they'd be able to come up with something others would only be able to recreate decades, if not centuries, later.

  5. A relentless pursuit for invention or to become a superhero.

    I can't think of a great example of this right now, but arguably many of the gadget-based heroes would at least be fairly strongly motivated by this. Kick Ass might be a decent example, although that was presumably intended to be a bit more on the absurd side.

  6. Superior physical skills (often through extensive training).

    Batman spent quite a few years training and you have other examples like Black Widow and Hawkeye. The latter two are arguably not technically gadget-based heroes, but that's easily solvable by just giving them some gadgets. The running joke (out-of-universe, at least) for the latter two is that they can't really compete with superheroes with actual superpowers, but this might be less of a problem if there aren't any heroes with actual superpowers.

    Such a hero wouldn't need particularly advanced gadgets for it to be hard for others to become heroes using the same gadgets, as it's their physical abilities that really makes the gadgets useful.

  7. Some extremely rare elements.

    Vibranium is the common example from Marvel comics, used in Captain America's shield and Black Panther's suit.

    We certainly have plenty of extremely rare elements on Earth, even if we haven't managed to find an application for them that will give us superhuman abilities (yet, that I know of).

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Powersuits are superyachts

Take a cue from Batman. Make power armor wildly expensive. $1.9 billion, like the world’s most expensive yacht, should do it. Make it highly custom fitted to the individual.

Now, the only people who have powersuits are people who:

  • Are obscenely wealthy
  • Desire to waste their wealth ostentatiously
  • Are young enough to go galavanting in power armor
  • Want to help people, or appear to help people
  • Don’t care enough about helping people enough to use their money to fix systemic problems

The base cost drops your ‘potential hero pool’ to about 2000 people. The subsequent requirements should narrow it down to a few dozen or less. Fortunately, that bunch are going to eccentric enough to wear costumes and have superhero names, and are rich enough to get away with vigilante justice.

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  • $\begingroup$ “Highly custom fitted” is to eliminate military interest. If power armor has to be tailored to one specific individual over a timescale of months/years, the military won’t care about the power suits, they’ll just scale up the tech and make a plane out of it so that the pilots can be interchangeable cogs. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Oct 17, 2020 at 10:46
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The Implausible Physics Amateur Scenario

Building Advanced Technology that is Super-Inconsistent

There are real life examples of advanced technology that was nonreplicable, but I mostly think of John Hutchison. John Hutchison is what you could think of as a notorious amateur. He experimented on his own, did not take notes on what he was doing, was working with effects that had no real scientific basis, and admitted to hoaxing results if and only if the experimental setup failed to produce the desired results. Because it was nonreplicable and considered a hoax, there wasn't a lot of follow up on Hutchison's work. These results could be explained by accidental creation of quasiparticles like exciton polaritons today, but nobody professional has linked his research to the rare field of exotic matter research. There are many ways in which a story similar to his could be incorporated into a story/world. One good way is to have some important character or agency that debunks his/her claims or abilities. The person may also have some form of paranoia, which has also affected John Hutchison, who believes that government agencies want to steal his research. Government agencies claim his research is not usable. Many aspects of his story are an improvement on the current gadget-hero scenario and could be used to make a better (but more inconsistently powerful) gadget user. Even his technology is intriguing, melting metal, levitating objects, etc. I think the key word would be that such gadgets are "implausible" and that could be a driving force that keeps them from being accepted for military use or mass production.

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