The Big Bad Wannabe is a villain who is seen as a significant threat but can't back it up when it comes to the crunch. The absolute level of menace varies widely, from an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain having a good day, to a villain who could legitimately be The Big Bad if the real Big Bad wasn't even more Badass than they are, but within a story they are (initially) presented as a big deal.
There are a lot of ways of building up a baddie. In a Slice of Life show a school bully might just talk tough. In a more action oriented work the wannabe might beat up a tough hero to look even tougher: the Worf Effect.
There are also many ways of revealing the villain is an over-inflated threat. A school bully might run from a real fight. In the second example Worf Had The Flu — an unfair circumstance gave the villain his early victory. Sometimes it's just a matter of scale; the heroes catch a murderer, but he's just a copycat, not the real mastermind serial killer he was thought to be. Alternatively the real Big Bad might outdo the wannabe or even kill the wannabe. Those that fall under this trope are also extremely vulnerable to the Wannabe Diss, both from actual Big Bads and their enemies.
The early victory can show the Badass in Distress. Fans might feel a Player Punch if a sidekick comes to grief.
Contrast with Team Rocket Wins. Compare with Smug Snake vs The Chessmaster or Magnificent Bastard, Eviler than Thou, and Disc One Final Boss. See also Dragon-in-Chief. Subtrope of Paper Tiger.
(Some entries still link to this with "Evil Frog Who Wants To Be An Ox" which is a reference to the old fable The Frog Who Wants to Be an Ox about a frog who inflated himself until he exploded while trying to emulate an ox's size)
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Anime & Manga
Kyoko of Puella Magi Madoka Magica appears to be the most significant non-witch threat in the show during her early appearances. However, as she undergoes a Heel-Face Turn, it turns out that the girls' main foe is in fact Kyubey, who ruins their lives and robs them of their humanity in order to stave off the heat death of the universe. Bonus points in that this is the catalyst for Kyoko's turn to the light side.
Hol Horse from the Stardust Crusaders arc. He even tries to kill Dio at one point, only to be given the first demonstration of Dio's Time Stop.
Donatello Versace is this to the main villain three arcs later. Like Hol Horse he starts out under the villain's command but seeing no motive to help him and feeling more entitled to Dio's legacy due to being his son Versace tries to hijack his plan.
Marie from Flame of Recca manages to easily "defeat" The Smart Guy Mikagami Tokiya through a string of coincidences, but is later smacked around by Recca and Domon, and she's been a non-factor ever since.
Hody Jones from One Piece may be the Big Bad of the Fishman Island arc, but compared to the post-Time Skip Straw Hats, even with his steroid abuse, he's nothing but fodder. It's particularly telling that he's the only Big Bad of an arc who was beaten beforehis minions. With, he's the most dangerous member of the three-man Big Bad Ensemble in that same arc, is the one whose minions actually fight with the Straw Hats, and came close to commiting genocide against his own people (twice, in fact). If he wasn't so hopelessly outmatched, he would have been the Big Bad, and he was at least stronger than everyone who wasn't a Straw Hat. The only exception to this was Jinbei, and he would have joined the crew if it weren't for the fact that he had personal business to attend to first. This even carries over into their eventual fate. Many of the villains are defeated and have to live with their dreams being crushed, but they're still around, and some of them are better off when they find something new to do with their lives. Hody and his crew talked big about sacrificing their lives for the strength the Energy Steroids gave them (the steroids being the only reason they were ever a threat at all) but after going to jail, the toll of the steroids turns out to simply be turning them into harmless, wrinkled old fogies. The would-be conquerors of the world are too lame for even their defeat to have a modicum of dignity.
Mixer Taitei is one of the only villains to ever straight up defeat Kinnikuman himself, but immediately afterward suffers the ignominy of being killed by Kinnikuman's milquetoast kid sidekick, Meat. To be fair, Mixer Taitei is a giant blender Choujin and his fight with Kinnikuman has knocked a few of his screws loose without him realizing it, making him extremely vulnerable to drops and suplexes... but the fact remains that after beating The Hero, he was in turn defeated by a preteen 1/8th his size. The only reason he won against Kin was because the 5 Evil Gods gave him a temporary power-up, meaning the match was 1 against 6. Mr. VTR has to alter reality enough to reverse Kin's Finishing Move in Mixer's favor.
Gates from Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, who spends the entire season being set up as the Big Bad. In the climax, he kills a henchman of another villain and defeats Mao... And then Sousuke enters the arena and kills both Gates and his Elite Mooks in a matter of minutes.
In the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind anime, Kurotowa pulls the most half-assed attempt at this ever. When Kushana is missing and presumed dead, he plans to take command from her and use the Giant Warrior to carve out a position for himself — or even conquer the world, it's really not clear just where his ambition would end. Then, when she turns up alive, he just quietly gives up on this plan, complaining that his chance is gone now. It's even more jarring if you read the manga first, as there he shoots up to Not-So-Harmless Villain territory in record time. To be fair to the guy, with Kushana presumed dead he would be left in charge of their forces and the operation to revive the Giant Warrior. Backing off when Kushana reappears just means he's just loyal to her and his complaining is more bemusement that actual bitterness.
Gyunei from Char's Counterattack. He seems to view himself as a rival that has the chance to take control of Neo Zeon from Char, and manages to capture Amuro once, using a hostage. Not only does he never even get the chance to try against Char, but once he's out of dirty tricks and has to go one on one with Amuro, Amuro casually kills him in one shot and flies off without even a thought for him.
Yuna Roma Seiran from Gundam Seed Destiny is a Smug SnakeJerkass who plots to seize control of his nation from its rightful ruler, Cagalli, and is generally a pain in the behind to the main characters. While he's initially a legitimate problem, he is quickly overshadowed by the competition for the Big Bad slot, unable to measure up to suave, ChessmasterGilbert Durandal or the dumb and violent, but utterlymonstrousDjibril. He's even outmatched by Djibril's Dragon, the Criminal AmnesiacNeoRoanoke. Which actually makes him sound even more pathetic because Neo Roanoke is actually Mu La Flaga, a good guy who rejoins the Three Ship Alliance in the latter half of Destiny while he slowly regains his memories.
In Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team, Ginias Sahalin is The Big Bad from the first episode to the last. However, if he were removed, the series would still have a credible Big Bad in the 08th's commanding officer, Ethan Ryer, who nearly wrecks the team's cohesion by putting them all under investigation, and abuses We Have Reserves to the point where it seems like he's trying to get as many of his own men killed as possible. Eventually his own Number Two places him under arrest; the only reason he didn't do it sooner was because he felt Ginias was a greater threat.
The original series of Gunnm has Bigott Einsenburg who seems to be a high ranking official in Zalem and has a smug disdain for scrapyard cyborgs who defile their bodies with electronics. He betrays Gally several times because he just sees her as a disposable tool. He also has access to the superweapon "Abbadon" which crushes a full scale rebellion led by a Humongous Mecha in seconds. However Desti Nova then reveals all citizens of Zalem have their brains replaced with chips when they come of age. Cue an epic psychotic fit which leads to the guy and all his co workers being eradicated by Zalem's true robotic rulers.
Master Jose of Phantom Lord manages to terrorize the entire guild, and even put Makarov out of action for a while due to one of his Quirky Mini Boss Squad member's sneak attack. The second Makarov recovers, however, he obliterates Jose without even trying.
Noah from Soul Eater. He is thought to be the 3rd Big Bad of the series until it turned out he was simply a tool of the Book of Eibon's Table of Contents.
While Gonzou Tarukane is dangerous thanks to his wealth and his connections being the founder of the Black Book Club, and hiring various demons and humans to do his dirty work. He overestimates his chances of winning, loses everything when Younger Toguro is defeated, and doesn't compare well to the rest of the antagonists in the series. It doesn't help that The Toguro Bros were actually working for the real Big Bad who had caused him to lose his money, and that they end up killing him after this is revealed.
In the final arc, after the preliminaries end, just before the first match of the tournament, a contestant approaches Yusuke and tells him that after he wins his first fight, he will fight him in the second round and kill him, before going on to kill Yomi (who had the best chance of winning overall) in the third round, and then win the tournament and take over the entire Demon World. Yusuke wins his first match... but his would-be second round opponent does not.
Utterly obscure villain The Human Flame kills major DC hero Martian Manhunter with help from an agent of Darkseid, who wanted to use him to win other villains to his side. Now he's on the run from both heroes and villains.
Flame's benefactor Libra might also count. For the one who killed Martian Manhunter, he's reduced pretty much to an afterthought once his boss Darkseid enters the scenes.
The original Saw Viper from the G.I. Joe comics killed (for real) four named Joes and with his battalion killed off some more (including some pretty prominent ones like Quick Kick) in the space of a single issue, whereas the Cobra organization had repeatedly failed to kill even one named Joe for years prior to that event. He then had the gall to point this out to Cobra Commander (a guy well known for being extremely dangerous and unpredictable) himself. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow eventually hunt down and kill him offscreen for his heinous deed.
Komodo Dragon from Invincible singlehandedly killed Shrinking Ray and Dupli-Kate and tore out one of Rex Splode's arms, but Rex still kills him shortly thereafter
In The Sandman the third rate villain Dr. Destiny gains godhood and that appears to be it. it's only temporary. Once unleashed Dream is a literal force of nature and beyond such combat. Another example are the minor nightmares Brute and Glob (originally from a much more child friendly DC comic that previously held the Sandman title) manage to make their own miniature Dreaming from a single child's mind.
The Skrulls in the Marvel Crisis CrossoverSecret Invasion. To wit, they managed to capture three superheroes; including Spider-Woman, Yellowjacket (one founding member of The Avengers) and Dum Dum Dugan BEFORE big events like House of M, all not through direct combat. To make it even more 'big', they also used the same method to capture Black Bolt of the Inhumans, considered as one of Marvel Universe's most overpowered characters. Their eventual invasion turns out to be an Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion, although they still caused the death of The Wasp. Then, their queen Veranke (disguised as Spider-Woman) was headshotted to death by Norman Osborn, and then Hercules kills their God with ease. Oh, and thanks to killing Veranke, Norman immediately kicked off the Dark Reign era.
The Yellow Bastard in Sin City. Sure he's a rapist and murderer (of children, no less) but in combat, he's a Dirty Coward and is eventually killed pretty easily.
Honestly, every villain in Sin City tend to fold like a wet towel in a straight-up fight, even built-up badasses like Manute and The Colonel. The only real exception is Kevin.
Sonic the Hedgehog: Anti-Sonic, Sonic's Evil Twin from Moebius, was this for a long time, as he liked to talk tough, only to be pushed around by the other villains and get beat up easily by the heroes (a pre-Character DevelopmentAntoine once knocked him out cold. By accident.). Then, a dose of Chaos energy directly from the Master Emerald transformed him into Scourge, granting him several dozen levels of badass and making him one of the series' most powerful (and popular) villains. He's still not on the level of Dr. Eggman or Finitevus, but he's definitely a credible solo threat these days.
Y: The Last Man has the Daughters of the Amazon and their leader Victoria who wields a ton of influence in the crazy time following the gendercide. Victoria gets an axe to the head by the end of the second arc and the rest of them are soon rehabilitated.
Marvel villain The Hood tries so hard to become one of the verse's Big Bads after getting a taste of power from his magical clothes. Problem is, he's still a street thug at heart and doesn't really know how to best use the vast power he has at his disposal. He does accomplish a lot, but he's ultimately a slave to his own hunger for power and to the entities who feed his addiction. The one time he tries to claim power without making any deals with otherworldly entities he attracts the attention of a much worse villain and loses that power in short order. His greatest act of villainy was having a bunch of his thugs beat up a captive superheroine, and said heroine paid him back in spades.
Grand Moff Morlish Veed from Star Wars: Legacy. Arrogant, ambitious, and ruthless to a fautl, he has his eye on the Imperial throne and plainly considers himself an Evil Genius when in fact he's just average- and in a galaxy also inhabited by Darth Krayt, Darth Wyyrlok, Emperor Roan Fel and Veed's own girlfriend Nyna Calixte, average just isn't good enough. He spends most of the comic trying to gain leverage while in fact being the pawn to one faction or another.
Skroa the Cunning is a skillful Chessmaster, a demonical Evil Sorcerer and he effortlessly plays the Five-Man Band protagonists and their Arch-Enemy into accomplishing his goal for him. However, when he tried to take over the world in the past, he was eventually defeated by his RivalDarkhell, who ended up being the Big Bad; in the present day, he did got his own story arc, but was Brought Down to Normal at the end of it and later captured while Darkhell and Anathos were taking over as major villains. And when he comes back later attempting to get his powers back, he ends up slaughtered by a vengeful Amydala before he could even succeed.
Captain Ceyderom is introduced in his story arc as the apparent Big Bad. In the next book, he is quickly overshadowed by his "ally" past Darkhell, and ends up quickly defeated when he finally tries to act.
Count Kasino appears to be the Big Bad of the story arc when he is introduced; not only does he not even survive more than one book, but the next book reveals he was part of Abyss' (the true Big Bad) machination to begin with.
Batman villain Hush never learns. A brilliant surgeon in the secret of the Bat's true identity, he has an habit of gathering A-List bad guys to do his bidding and likes bragging to them that HE is not the type to fool around. Yet, he's eventually revealed for what he truly is: Bruce Wayne's petty and moderately effective Troll who get the credit for plans that are mostly others' and left on his own, an Anti-Climax Boss. To put it short: Bane, Hush isn't.
Another Batman villain Ignatius Ogilvy aka "Emperor Penguin" had this as his primary motivation. His father was a henchman who was murdered in front of him when he was a kid. Ever since then Ignatius has been trying to prove that he could be more than a mere henchman and be a Big Bad in his own right. Ignatius briefly manages to oust Penguin and even beats up Batman in a fight after taking some Super Serum, but he goes down quickly enough after Batman and Penguin team up to beat him.
Harry Potter fanfic "Partially Kissed Hero" stated that Severus Snape's real reason to hate James Potter was that all of James bullying him during school time was what prevented Snape from being taken seriously enough to become a Dark Lord on his own right.
Lung, Daolon Wong's former apprentice, who views himself as the only one powerful and skilled enough to take Wong's place as the Darkest Mage. However, his master plan — to force Jade, and by extension her Shadowkhan, into his service — was too simple minded, and fell apart rather easily. More importantly, the fact that his only response to said plan failing was to not acknowledge that fact and keep bludgeoning ahead, and that his reaction to Jade's minions showing up was to slip into a Villainous BSOD bordering on a full-scale breakdown... yeah, he's really not in Wong's league. And then Jade's minions kill him, so he's definitely never going to make Big Bad. Shortly afterwards, Drago arrives from the future in an attempt to change the timeline to his desire. However, while he has the strength to back up his plans, said plans are constantly derailed by every other faction he comes up against kicking his ass and he's eventually sent back to the future, where the Matriarch (future Jade) has him restrained and beaten. He doesn't look so impressive at that point.
Daolon Wong himself rather comes off as degrading to this in-story, given his pitiful attempts at regaining his power and the Humiliation Conga he goes through (Tarakudo even calls him a wannabe at one point).
Wei and his Dragon Sho, from Legacy of the Fire Empire hold several children hostage so they can force Fire Lord Jiazin to step down from her throne, and bring back the Fire Empire. When Kanoda throws a spear at them, they make the mistake of sending out the soldiers leaving themselves unguarded. Kanoda then acts as a diversion, while Avatar Aang ambushes the soldiers when they come back and promptly knocks out Wei and Sho.
Fallen King has Yami Bakura, who is a threat, but isn't nearly as pressing or as personal a threat as Pegasus is. In his internal monologue, Joey thinks that Pegasus is the real monster and Bakura can't compare.
Kanoya in the Medaka Box fanfic World As Myth tries to take over the Student Council with force ... and is promptly defeated by two freshmen in the first chapter.
Films — Animated
Dijon in DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp. He's just Merlock's lackey and knows it, but when he accidentally gets control of the lamp he abandons his master and fancies himself the Sultan of Duckburg when he takes Scrooge's fortune from him. Merlock sneaks into the palace by hitching a ride with the Ducks and shows him who the real villain is.
Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 believes he's going to take down Tony Stark, especially since he just "hired" Ivan Vanko, a brilliant tech wiz that can create gear rivaling Iron Man's. The thing is, Hammer has absolutely no control over Vanko as the latter hacks into his system, derails his Powered Armor prototypes into unmanned drones, and so on. Vanko even plays up You No Take Candle for no other reason than to annoy Hammer, and get him out of his way. Hammer's is most clearly shown as pathetic when he tries to force Vanko into line... by taking his pet bird. And his shoes.
Buckingham in the 2011 version of The Three Musketeers. He humiliates the Musketeers, counts on Milady de Winter's allegiance, believes his war machine to be invincible and all but states to Cardinal Richelieu that France would have no chance against England in case of war. However... Milady is just spying on him and promply defects upon learning that the Musketeers are en route to London, he's the first villain to be taken out by the Musketeers and they even steal his invincible machine. Averted in the end where Buckingham has not taken the theft lightly and assembled a large fleet of airships and a naval force to take vengeance upon the Musketeers.
Carmine Falcone from Batman Begins. As Gotham City's major crime boss, he makes very clear to Bruce that he's completely untouchable but once Batman gets serious, he stands no chance and he ends as a guinea pig for Dr. Crane, a guy he thought was his underling but who actually worked for the true Big Bad.
Salvatore 'Sal' Maroni the new Mafia Boss from The Dark Knight aspires to replace Falcone as the new master of Gotham but he's no threat compared to the Joker.
John Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises pays Bane "a small fortune" for helping him attempt to take over Wayne Enterprises. Bane later points out that, contrary to what Daggett thinks, this doesn't give him any power over Bane.
In the Loop: The masterminds behind the war are the PM and the President. Their respective enforcers, Malcolm and Linton see themselves as superior to each other.
Admiral Marcus from Star Trek: Into Darkness is most certainly a dangerous thereat, but the moment Khan gets his hands on him, Marcus becomes nothing more than a tiny blip on a radar.
Goldfinger gives us Mr. Ling, a Chinese nuclear weapons whiz on loan to the titular villain's operation. Ling acts like a superior to Goldfinger in their interactions - reminding him of deadlines, receiving progress reports from him, and so on - as the "on-paper" aim of Goldfinger's scheme is to destabilize the West's economy to benefit the Communist countries, and realizes he's being gamed perhaps half a second before Goldfinger puts a round through his heart.
Shamoke from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. A bit of a subversion, since the novel treats him as working under Shu, the good guys. He manages to kill a weakened Gan Ning with a shot to the head, but after Shu falls for a fire attack in a later confrontation, Shamoke retreats, and is then killed by Wu general Zhou Tai.
Visser Four from Animorphs. After a humiliating defeat on the planet Leera, he comes to Earth and attempts to use the Time Matrix to rewrite history in order to make the Yeerk conquest of Earth easier. But he has no real idea what he's doing, bumbling from one historical battle to the next and ultimately gets himself captured by a German/French allied force in a severely altered version of World War II.
For the first 5 books Draco Malfoy acts like a pro-Voldemort fanboy Sitcom Arch-Nemesis to Harry, more of an annoyance than a threat. Then, when Half-Blood Prince comes along, he starts actively working for Voldemort and his Death Eaters. When he tries coming up with plans to aid them they end up failing simply because he's really not able to keep up the level of evil required of him, and because of his stupidity. His mother was in fact terrified of him joining up because she knew he was in over his head. Dumbledore infers that Voldemort only let Draco join the Death Eaters to punish Draco's father's failures.
Draco's dad, Lucius. Lucius is a very smooth operator, and there's nothing he won't stoop to in order to cement his family's influence, and in his first few appearances he's treated as someone very dangerous- but when Voldemort is resurrected, Lucius is truly revealed for the Smug Snake he is in comparison to his revived boss. By Deathly Hallows, he's almost a complete nonentity.
Saruman from The Lord of the Rings is by all means a dangerous villain, and even planned to supplant Sauron as Big Bad by getting his hands on the Ring himself. However, it soon becomes clear that compared to the powerful Magnificent Bastard Sauron he is only a Smug Snake pretender. He attacks Rohan with his entire army leaving Isengard undefended, and even then his army fails to effectively curb stomp Rohan, while underestimating the neighboring Ents. On the other hand, Sauron effectively pins down Gondor with an advance force that is a fraction of his military might and is only defeated with help from a 3,000 year old forgotten zombie army and is implied to have driven out or annihilated the neighboring Entwives during the previous era when he was more powerful.
In The Russian adaptation of "The Shadow" by E. Schwartz, the titular Living Shadow is this. After successfully becoming king ,he gets played around by his ministers and then dethroned.
Annias in The Elenium is a Smug Snake who's out to become Archprelate (think Pope) through whatever means are necessary. For the first two books he is played as a dangerous, if overconfident adversary. Then in Book 3, it all falls apart on him, he's forced to flee for his life to the God of Evil he made a deal with, and his Dragon-in-Chief, Martel reveals that he is the real brains of the operation. It's all downhill from there for Annias.
Shift the Ape, from the last The Chronicles of Narnia book The Last Battle, cooks up a cartoonishly silly Paper-Thin Disguise scheme to con his way into assuming Aslan's authority (which actually works), then conspires to take over Narnia with the help of the Calormen Empire. Once the invasion is underway, his authority is quickly subverted by the far more competent and serious Calormen General, who promptly feeds Shift to the God of Evil.
Sol of Warrior Cats: Power of Three, who takes over ShadowClan, but then is easily defeated by Lionblaze, Jayfeather and Hollyleaf.
The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara: The Ilse Witch is without a doubt a dangerous young woman and is no one to be crossed lightly. Yet as The Morgawr's former Dragon she is forever the junior partner in their relationship, a fact that she resents enormously, as she believes herself to be his equal in power and skill. The Morgawr and his current Dragon, Cree Bega, see the situation rather differently, regarding the witch as little more than a dangerous tool, to be used and discarded as they see fit, and the bad news for her is, their view of things is more or less accurate. Soon after arriving at Castledown the Ilse Witch is sidelined as The Heavy by Antrax, and then by The Morgawr himself. Powerful and clever she may be, but she's just not evil enough to play at his and Cree Bega's level.
Several examples in Codex Alera, considering the Big Bad Ensemble and Gambit Pileup the series has going on. Sarl is probably the most obvious, going from a supporting villain in the second book to the main bad guy in the third and screwing things up a lot before getting undone by his own hubris and inability to control his own followers. High Lord Kalarus does better, effectively holding the title of Big Bad for the middle three books (of six), but he still goes down hard just before the real Big Bad reveals herself.
The Shadowmasters, particularly their leader Longshadow, in the middle part of the Black Company series. Though they certainly do a lot of damage, they just don't stack up compared to the Lady, the Dominator, or the Ten Who Were Taken from the first arc, Kina from the later books, or even Soulcatcher, who operates throughout. Longshadow especially proves himself to be an incredibly powerful sorcerer and dangerous opponent, but he's just too erratic and paranoid to put his abilities and resources to their full potential.
A Song of Ice and Fire gives us Cersei Lannister, who has a couple of neat ideas, but once she gets on the throne... she manages to surprise Magnificent Bastard Petyr Baelish with how quickly she runs the kingdom into the ground. He points out that in the Game of Thrones she imagines herself a player, but is in reality a piece, because even as the most politically powerful person in Westeros she is so damn predictable.
Several examples in The Wheel of Time, with Sammael (who badly overplayed his hand), Elaida (who was just never as awesome as she thought she was) and Padan Fain (who by that point likely could have replaced the Dark One as Big Bad if he hadn't run straight into the one guy completely immune to his power) being the three most notable.
Prince Edmund in Black Adder tries to lead a group of the most evil men in England to take over the kingdom. Since he's cowardly and petty, they betray him the moment someone else shows up.
Warren (and his partners-in-crime, to a lesser extent) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer tries to kill Buffy, but does kill Tara. He brags to demons about "killing the Slayer" in order to impress them (they aren't impressed), and then discovers that Willow has become extraordinarily powerful and is trying to kill him. His position has become one of such helplessness that the Scoobies need to prevent Willow from killing Warren and his relatively innocent compatriots Andrew and Jonathan. He meets his end at Willow's hands.
Harmony, a schoolmate-turned-vampire, thinks of herself as the Big Bad, much to Spike's amusement.
Also, the 5th season episode "Fool For Love" is dedicating to exploring this trope, after Buffy nearly gets killed by a random vampire that is easily dispatched later by Riley. When asked for advice, Spike tells Buffy that it is incredibly likely that her end will come at the hands of a random Mook, just having a good day.
Spike himself repeatedly calls himself "The Big Bad" despite never really being so, he's The Starscream at worst. He's successful.
Actually, he was the Big Bad for about the first half of season 2 (after proving badder than the Anointed One), but then getting usurped by Angelus.
As if fulfilling Batman's addressing in the Western Animation example, Choujin Sentai Jetman had Gai Yuuki/Black Condor, after surviving lots and lots of battles against the Vyram... gets stabbed by a random mugger and killed. Whatever happened to the thug is mostly unknown, most fans call him Karma Houdini.
Vern on Dark Oracle spends the whole of Season 2 attempting to become the Big Bad. His magical power increases exponentially, and he becomes a legitimate threat, though he is thwarted at every turn by Lance and Cally. Then, just as it looks like he's going to achieve true Big Bad status, former Big Bad Omen returns, his bosses, Blaze and Violet break free from their Dark World in the mirror, and Vern is relegated to loser status again.
The Vardans in Doctor Who manage to temporarily conquer Gallifrey and the Time Lords with the Doctor's help, only for it to turn out that it was all a trap by the Doctor... and furthermore, they only turned out to be unwitting stooges of the Sontarans, who were using them to do all the difficult stuff and then were planning to wipe them out anyway.
Again with the Sontarans in colab with Luke Rattigan. Luke comes up with the device du jour that puts Earth in danger and thought he was in a Big Bad Duumvirate with the Sontarans, but as soon as he reveals to them nobody of his Think Tank wanted to join him on "Earth 2", the Sontaran leader reveals they would all have been shot anyway, leaving Luke a whiney little snot who just lashes out angrily at a society that doesn't take him seriously.
Arthur Petrelli of Heroes, mentioned before in hushed tones, debuts by draining the previous Big Bad's power, then drains all of Peter's powers (including his ability to get and hold powers), and starts gathering people together for some evil scheme while easily stopping anyone who opposes him. Then after a few episodes before he can get his plan going or we even find out what it was, he is easily killed off by Sylar.
Leverage: Season 4 appears to be setting corrupt investor Jack Latimer up to be the series first ever Big Bad. He's The Man Behind the Man to many of the companies they've taken down, is making a clean profit from every move they make, and has been spying on the team by wiretapping their apartment. It is eventually revealed that Latimer has been getting most of his information from former Mark, Victor Dubenich, whom he believes he has under control. In reality, Dubenich is the far smarter of the two, holds the real power in their relationship, and ultimately turns on Latimer in the finale, shortly after the investor reveals that he is Too Dumb to Live.
Smallville: Alexander Luthor talks a good game, and his Enfante Terrible (later Teens Are Monsters) status, and undoubted Evil Genius make him a legitimate threat to the heroes. Yet he's too fundamentally screwed up to replace the genuine Lex Luthor, and his Clone Degeneration causes him to slowly break down both mentally and physically, ultimatey resulting in total amnesia and a Heel-Face Turn. A similar case could be made for the psychotic Lex Clone who escaped in the Season 10 premiere: he's incredibly dangerous, but is too insane to fully step into Lex's shoes, and is in the middle of The Last Dance anyway. They've got the same problem in fact: they're very capable opponents but are overshadowed by both their genetic source material and the season's realBig Bad.
Gordon Dean on Alias. He stakes his claim to being the show's newest Big Bad in the first episode of Season 5 by brutally murdering Sydney's love interest right in front of her, but he proves over the next several episodes to be a singularly inept Arc Villain instead. APO almost effortlessly exposes his operations, steals all of his money, captures him, and successfully tortures him for information, and he is subsequently murdered by his employers after they determine that he has outlived his usefulness.
Viserys Targaryen tries to amass an army to take back the Seven Kingdoms from King Robert, but despite marrying off his sister to Khal Drogo he never gets any respect from the Dothraki due to his arrogance and disrespect for their customs. He gets fed up with waiting on Drogo to fulfill his promise and is killed after he threatens both Daenerys and Drogo's unborn son.
Cersei Lannister tries to be the political heavyweight of the Lannisters at first while her father is out in the field, seizing the throne from Ned Stark and Robert's brothers on Joffrey's behalf and at Tywin's consent. Joffrey quickly undermines her power by going over her head to execute Ned, and this pisses off Tywin so much that he sidelines her in favor of Tyrion to get things back in order in the capital.
Joffrey himself tries desperately to be a powerful king, but is instead just a cruel bully. He's definately one of the most sadistic characters in the show, but his aspirations to lead his army and boasts to personally face Stannis Baratheon in battle are proven hollow when he cowers in his palace in fear. His grandfather Tywin's political cunning and Westerlands army is the only thing holding Joffrey's regime together.
Dexter'' has Neil Perry who in order to make a name for himself, he consciously obstructs a murder investigation by claiming to be the Ice Truck Killer. He views himself as a sinister mastermind destined for fame when in fact he's little more than an unscrupulous poseur. Once La Guerta shows him a severed head, he starts crying like a baby and owns up that he is not the Ice Truck Killer.
Many times when a popular face wrestler is on a title reign, a monster heel will typically be built up to challenge him. He'll start out by utterly smashing jobbers before plowing through the midcard with a few easy victories over established, popular superstars along the way, but by the time the big showdown at the pay-per-view rolls around, the heel will usually lose decisively to the popular face and will be booted back down to the midcard, rarely if ever seen again in the main event. Recent examples include the pushes received by Snitsky, Chris Masters, and Umaga, among many others.
The Dresden Files RPG introduces Domocles Ravenborn, something of a subversion because he is a very legitimate and deadly threat if you get into a fight with him, but also a bully who folds under pressure. He's the ultimate poser, but with actual power if he knew what to do with it.
Bordeaux from .hack//G.U. PK's Alkaid, but is later beaten by Haseo, and never heard from again.
Shinji Matou in Fate/stay night. He's an arrogant Jerkass who fights for his own self-gratification, takes out his frustrations on his sister and his servant Rider, and tries to sacrifice everyone in his school just to increase Rider's power. Yet he's also a complete coward who begs and squeals for mercy the second that the tables turn on him, and he never ends up well in any route. In the Fate route he is unceremoniously killed by Ilya; in Unlimited Blade Workshe gets turned into a Holy Grail core by Gilgamesh, an experience so traumatic that he is scared straight; and in Heaven's Feelhe is killed by Dark Sakura after abusing her one too many times.
Subverted by Taro Namatame from Persona 4in the worst ending. He is revealed to be the one behind the kidnapping and his last acts ends up killing Nanako, though not a party member, but still a very well beloved character. The player can opt to throw him into the Midnight Channel where he will be killed by his own Shadow (which clearly DOES pose a worse threat than him alone...). The better endings, however, averts this as Namatame turns out to be a Tragic Hero manipulated by Adachi.
Played straight with Mitsuo Kubo, a mentally unstable student who propagates himself as the culprit behind the string of murders in order to gain attention, and who the party believe to be responsible for a short time. In fact, Mitsuo only kills one person, Mr. Morooka, and it is revealed that he was thrown into the TV world by Adachi to further his own goals; Mitsuo spends the rest of the game presumably in prison.
King of Fighters' has K9999, especially for those who like Foxy and Kula. He backstabbed and killed Foxy (at first) and seriously breaking Kula's heart as he and Angel bully her and would've killed her if it wasn't for K's Big Damn Heroes moment. Then he retreats, never to be seen again... then Foxy was later revealed to be Not Quite Dead. Hoping for a rematch for what he he did to them? Not a chance, when K9999 is eventually retconned into a different person, Nameless, who had a different backstory (and a much more sympathetic one at that).
Many games with The Empire, such as Suikoden always have some guy like this at first who targets you or your loved ones because he's a dick; plotwise in order to keep your characters in an adversarial relationship with said Empire. Once you've managed to beat him; you are now deep into "Enemy of the State" territory and will be dealing with the full might of the Empire.
Saleh from Tales of Rebirth is at first shown and described as a powerful enemy general, with a reasonless penchant for destruction and disgust on anything that is 'good'. Everytime Veigue tried to approach him during the first half of the game, he spends his time outwitting and overwhelming Veigue... in cutscenes. However, he is never seen in battle on solo compared to his partner Tohma, he's usually fighting with a friend. Veigue defeats him rather easily, and following Tytree's "The Reason You Suck" Speech, it would seem that Saleh would try to get his threat level higher. Unfortunately, he spends most of his time after that just annoying Veigue with words on how he's going to crush their 'power of hearts', without actually kicking ass, and when he's actually fought the second time (with all his allies, nonetheless!), he's beaten just as easily. In other words, Saleh barks as if the power of evil will triumph all the time, but he couldn't back up with actual prowess.
In Fire Emblem, Alvis of Velthomer subverts it by also surprisingly being sympathetic in a way. While he at first starts as an amiable ally to Sigurd, he mostly stays behind the scenes when Sigurd was being accused... only to pull off the biggest Player Punch ever by taking in Sigurd's wife as his own... and then slaughters him and his whole army mercilessly and then becomes the next Emperor of Grandbell... only to realize after 17 years that he's been had by Manfroy who eventually made his son Julius into the host of Loptous and practically turns Alvis himself into a pawn ruler and the Empire he built goes from noble to downright tyrannical. By the time Celice comes to avenge Sigurd, it is widely known that Alvis, while he was a big threat beforehand, is now reduced into a pitiful man swept by fate and the true villain and evil is Manfroy.
Mac from Mega Man X3. He used X's trusting nature to sucker-shot him with a stun bullet and captures him easily. Then Zero arrives and it only takes several shots and maybe one or two swings of the Z-Saber to kill him for good.
Delphi from Trauma Center. Played up as a nihilistic bio-terrorist group that sees modern medicine as unnaturally prolonging people's lives. To that end, they do end up creating the parasites that form the threat of the first two games... and completely fail to kill any real number of people. In one outbreak in Under the Knife 2, the current head of Delphi ends up turning the television off during a report happily pointing out that despite their best efforts, not a single person was killed. Compare to Trauma Team, where untold thousands of people are killed completely by accident, with no Big Bad behind Rosalia whatsoever. Pretty pathetic showing for such a feared organization.
In Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Antasma falls into this, being kicked aside by Bowser once he gets the Dream Stone's power back.
Rieltar Anchev in Baldur's Gate. He seems to be the mastermind behind the Iron Throne's evil plans, but turns out to be just a puppet for his adopted son Sarevok, whose own plans have an even darker end.
In his defense, he is aware that he isn't the Big Bad - getting to that point was the entire point of his scheme.
Mister House is also this in the NCR or Independent paths. You can easily kill him without a second thought about five minutes after walking into the Strip. Despite his grand plans of setting up an oppressive military dictatorship, and his ability to complete that plan if the Courier aids him, he's only ever capable of taking action against a Courier who sides against him once in the entire game. If you opt to blow up his robot army, he'll sick four Sentry Bots on you in the bunker. But after that, you're free to go back to the Lucky 38 and kill him whenever you feel like it with little effort.
Mass Effect: Elanos Haliat from a side-quest in the first game. He traps you underground with a nuke as part of a gambit to get back in charge of the Terminus Clans, who your character helped defeat during the Skyllian Blitz. He leaves you enough time to disarm it, takes his gang out in one last ditch attempt to kill you, and ends up getting killed in the resulting firefight. Doubly humiliating if you managed to run past him and his men and get into your Awesome Personnel Carrier, in which you case you can take out the entire group with one shot from the main cannon. Though it's harder to do it that way, since it's far away and you have to run straight through enemy bullets.
His Genre Blindness is doubly so if Shepard is an Infiltrator. After claiming to know everything about Shepard, he sets up his camp at the bottom of the mountain that he trapped the expert sniper in. Guess how that ends.
If Loghain had pulled his coup during normal times in Dragon Age: Origins he'd be a pretty threatening Big Bad, but since there's a Blight going on he's just a distraction on the way to the Archdemon.
Wilhelm von Juergen from Super Robot Wars Original Generation (or, more precisely, The ODE System that absorbed him)... is practically the very epitome of this trope. His debut in the OVA involves effortlessly capturing the new Aggressors (Lamia Loveless, Arado Balanga, Seolla Schweitzer and Latooni Subota) plus Kusuha Mizuha, because all of them are not in any mecha. Then, while Lamia eventually resisted him, he still manages to overrode her mind one time before Kyosuke plugged her out, while the rest of his captives are subdued by the rest of the EFA and restored. Then, in Original Generation Gaiden, whereas while once Lamia resisted he couldn't override her mind, instead he apparently killed her off, now while she was battered and naked on Alt Eisen's arm... only for seconds later (after the rest of the EFA weaken him) get killed off (and reabsorbed) by Duminuss. To add insult to injury/death, Duminuss "revives" her, then later Axel brought her back to her normal self, rendering Juergen's "victory" pointless.
President Shinra — first senior, then junior — in Final Fantasy VII. You start out fighting their corporation that owns practically the whole planet and is slowly killing it, until Sephiroth shows up, kills the old President Shinra in passing, and sets out to kill the Planet in a much more grandiose manner. Rufus Shinra becomes the new president of the Shinra Corporation in his father's place and promises to be even more ruthless, but he can never make it past the status of a secondary menace with Sephiroth around, and in fact tries to work in parallel with the heroes against him sometimes, though never with them. And in media following the game, he's mostly stopped trying to be a villain.
Queen Brahne of Final Fantasy IX is a pretty classic example of the "overconfident weakling" variant of this trope; an apparent menace to just about every major city on the Mist Continent during discs 1 and 2, she's certainly ruthless enough to be a Big Bad. It all falls apart when she tries to take on her own weapons supplier, Kuja, and ends up having her entire fleet obliterated in a single battle.
Garland is an example of the "legitimate and serious threat" type. Introduced with a lot of fanfare, revealed to be The Man Behind the Man extraordinaire, and shown to be more than capable of foiling Kuja's schemes - in fact, he's technically the Big Bad behind most of the game. In the end, though, he makes the mistakes of thinking kicking Kuja's ass was enough to keep him in check thus focusing only on Zidane while completly ignoring his friends, only to end up ousted from power and killed in a rather undignified fashion by Kuja.
Final Fantasy X gives us Seymour Guado. Having the aura (and screen time) of your typical FF Big Bad and gleefully pushing the party's buttons, he might make you think he would succeed in his Evil Plan to becoming the next Sin. But soon after that reveal, he quickly stops bearing any significance to the plot, just showing randomly being a dick and thus never managing to get any sort of influence over Sin.
Azmodan in Diablo III wants so badly to be the Prime Evil. Too bad his competition is Diablo.
The third time you meet Mysterio in Spider-Man 2 you find him robbing a convenience store. As he turns to confront you, his health bar appears next to him, filling up completely not once, not twice, but three times, granting him (apparently) far more health than any other in-game character. Then, it turns out, a single punch does him in.
Borderlands 2 has Professor Nakayama of the "Sir Hammerlock's Big Game Hunt" DLC. While he's the main antagonist of the storyline, he is portrayed as a largely pathetic individual who strives to become just like Handsome Jack but isn't nearly as effective of a villain. The protagonists and Hammerlock only agree to kill him solely because they consider him a nuisance distracting them from their hunting expedition and when the Vault Hunters proceed to kill their way past his Jack-worshiping savages, Nakayama proceeds to freak the hell out and make it clear that he's terrified of you guys. When you finally meet him, he ends up up tripping down a slope and tumbling to his death.
Shin Megami Tensei IV has Tayama, the Yakuza kingpin who has taken control of Tokyo After the End. The city's entire population fears and respects him, he acts as the main antagonist for the second quarter or so of the game, and he has a stable of incredibly powerful demons and numerous Moral Event Horizon crossings to his name. As his arc continues, however, we discover that all of said demons hate him, only fighting fore him because he has their Soul Jars, he's a massive coward if he's deprived of them, and that of all the antagonists in the game he's by far the least "in the know" of the finer points of the plot.
Two examples from The Order of the Stick — Nale and Daimyo Kubota. Both are pretty clever guys who can do some serious damage, but their inflated egoes cause both to spectacularly crash and burn (at least twice now, in Nale's case).
Nale and Elan's father Tarquin truly believes he is the real Big Bad, and that Xykon is just the end-goal of some minor sidequest, and that Elan, not Roy is the main protagonist. In their final confrontation, after Tarquin killed Nale (mainly because he was a distraction in the conflict between himself and Elan), Elan flat-out refused to fight, capture or engage with Tarquin in any way and just left him in the desert without any sort of climactic confrontation, which was probably the worst thing he could have done to him. Tarquin is left screaming after a departing Elan to come back and "finish the story".
In Powerpuff Girls Doujinshi, we have several examples of this: First, Mojo Jojo — the Girls' canonical Arch-Enemy — nearly succeeds in killing them with a monster, only for them to be saved by Jack, at which point Mojo is captured by Bell and forcibly "recruited" to work for the Darkstar Council. Then, when they arrive at the Council's base, they're greeted by Zim, who for a moment seems to be pretty high up in the organization, since he's sitting on a throne and giving a Motive Rant about their goals... then Dr. X, the realBig Bad shows up, and tells Zim to get out of his chair and get back to his janitor duties. Later on, Mandark shows up and appears to be a major villain, but it's quickly made apparent that he's nothing but a pawn that Dr. X is manipulating through his mental instability.
Black Licorice from The Last Mystical Legend Of The Fantastic Fantasy Trigger Star is a living embodiment of this trope. He starts out burning a city to ashes for the sake of being evil, causing the main character to seek revenge against him. He then turns out being extremely weak, unable to beat even his own mooks. He is less evil than the main character. In an actual fight against the main cast, they point out how weak this enemy was and that it couldn't be the real Black Licorice-at wich points he pretends being a mook, flee, and burst out crying wondering what's going to happen to him.
Lupin Madblood of Narbonic, who tries to defeat Helen Narbon or take over the world, and never comes close to succeeding. Once he was thwarted by a gerbil. Okay, it was a really smart gerbil, but stil...
Dr. Linksano from Atop the Fourth Wall appears from another universe and tries to take over ours, but all of his plans end up failing without Linkara even noticing. After the review of Warrior 2 and 3, he retreats at sight Lord Vyce's approach, which he said was reason he fled his universe. After Vyce's defeat, he makes another attempt to attack Linkara, but The Entity appears to kill him. After he is brought back from that, Linkara just hires him as a tech-expert and he becomes a (so far) loyal ally.
In the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, Brainchild put together a criminal organization, attracted mercenary supervillains to work for him, and tried to take over New York City's underworld. He was arrested, and his organization dismantled, by Pamela Odd, a Badass Normal private detective.
Nephandus of the Whateley Universe. A member in bad standing of the Bad Seeds (children of supervillains club) at Superhero School Whateley Academy, none of his nefarious plans have succeeded. One of his plans ended with him duct-taped head down in a toilet.
There is Starscream in the original cartoon, repeatedly trying to kill Megatron and failing miserably, but always gets let off with a slap on the wrist. When Megatron turns into Galvatron after Starscream betrays him yet again, Megatron decides he has had enough and disintegrates Starscream.
The Transformers Prime Starscream seems like a big threat to start off with, killing one of the autobots in the first ten minutes, competently leading the decepticons and showing some signs of beating his Chronic Backstabbing Disorder when he displays concern for Megatron’s wellbeing. Unfortunately he is extremely vulnerable to Villainous Breakdowns and thinks he’s far tougher than he actually is, the humiliation piling up until he’s left badly damaged with no allies and is forced onto a bus for the rest of the season.
Beast Wars had a similar character with Terrorsaur, and while smarter than G1 cartoon Starscream, proved to be as big of a failure. His attempts to overthrow Megatron generally resulted in whoever he was working with manipulating him as part their own plan. He's an 80s Starscream Expy in a Darker and Edgier 90s series, and "Megatron has falle- oh, wait!" just doesn't cut it when you're surrounded by true Magnificent Bastards. As TF Wiki puts it, "Terrorsaur is always thinking two steps ahead. Unfortunately, the big guns of the Beast Wars are usually thinking at least four steps ahead, and Terrorsaur always ends up on the short end."
Scourge could also be considered this, and comes pretty close to controlling Fortress Maximus which would have allowed him to get rid off Megatron/Galvatron, but his attempts are thwarted and lead to Galvatron mind controlling him into his fanatically loyal slave.
As seen in the page quote, Long Feng of Avatar: The Last Airbender . He had a pretty good conspiracy going in Ba Sing Se, managing to keep the Earth King under his control by not letting him know there was a war going on. He manages to delay the Avatar and his friends, brainwashes and kills Jet, and even manages maintain control of the Dai Li after he is exposed for his treachery. When Azula show up in the city he tries to use her to start a Coup against his king, and then betray her. While this plan success, when he tries to betray her, her charisma has made the Dai Li loyal to her putting Ba Sing Se in the hands of the Fire Nation.
Councilman Tarrlok who practically rules the city with the other councilmen except Tenzin acting as yes men. He is able to enact curfew laws for non-benders, and arrest a large group of people and Korra's friends when they try to stop him. When confronted by Korra, he demonstrates the previously unheard-of ability to bloodbend during the daytime and without a full moon, and actually manages to subdue and capture Korra. The next episode his plan is found out and he escapes with his bloodbending, but loses his political power in the process. Amon is able to counter his bloodbending, defeats him and takes his bending away.
Varrick is a competent enough villain, and got even farther than Tarrlok ever did, but ultimately the real Big BadsUnalaq and Vaatu are out of his league. He initially attacked Unalaq to start a civil war. Then, he plans to start an even bigger war against the Northern Water Tribe by bombing a peaceful demonstration and robbing Asami's company, blaming the north. When Mako catches on to his plans he gets the gangsters Mako is forced to work with help him rob Asami's last resources forcing her to sign interest over to him, and frames it all on Mako. His next plan though, kidnapping the President, exposes him and he is arrested. He ultimately is forced to enter an Enemy Mine with the heroes and help stop Unalaq by giving them his ship. Ironically, he's the one who ends up surviving.
Killer Moth from Teen Titans is a Mad Scientist with dreams of conquering the city, and the skill to probably make it happen if he didn't have a ridiculous gimmick, and wasn't completely cowed by his Bratty Teenage Daughter. She's as evil as he is, but not very bright, and when she hijacks his scheme as a means to get a date for her prom, things go downhill pretty fast.
Jack Spicer from Xiaolin Showdown actually started out as something of a Big Bad during the show's first season, before getting unseated by Wuya. After that, Chase Young and Roy Bean came onto the scene, both more powerful villains, which started his decline into Diminishing Villain Threat, until Jack was only an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain. One time-travel episode subverts this though, when it turns out Jack could grow up to become the successful super villain he always dreamed of being.
Jackie Chan Adventures: At the beginning of Season 3, Daolon Wong became the main villain and tried to get the talismans' powers for himself. He got two powers (Rooster and Pig) for most of the season and (briefly) Sheep. When he brought Shendu back so the Dragon power would be available again, things went downhill for him.
Subverted later on, when a group of Skakdi (the Piraka's species) performed a ritual sacrifice, during which they threw the remaining Piraka snakes and various other beings into a vat filled with Mutagenic Goo — along with, unknown to them, Zaktan's still living particles. The result is a god-like fusion who has become one of the several new Big Bad expectants. Or is this a Double Subversion, as we don't know for sure if this being can even be considered to be the same as the Piraka (or just Zaktan)?
If he is not promoted as a hero, Akechi Mitsuhide is usually seen as this. He did plan his betrayal of Oda Nobunaga, but it depends mostly on luck about how Nobunaga suddenly came into Honnoji with minimal troops. Right after he defeated and forced Nobunaga to commit suicide, 13 days later, Nobunaga's successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi arrives and defeated Mitsuhide, forcing him to flee and get himself killed by peasants. Hideyoshi might not be a complete evil per se, but he is also often the recipient of Historical Villain Upgrade like Nobunaga.
Not applicable in the rare instances where Oda Nobunaga is portrayed as good, while Akechi Mitsuhide is portrayed as evil. In those cases he typically ends up being the Big Bad already. This is pretty rare since Oda Nobunaga is almost never portrayed as the hero.
These both seem to stem from two ill-viewed events, Hideyoshi's blunder of an invasion into Korea, and Nobunaga's hatred of Buddhism and burning of a temple of warrior monks. (It doesn't matter, that they tried to assassinate him first... only that they were monks and he burned the temple down to the last man.)