Brains: Evil; Brawn: Good
"Well, as far as brains go, I got the lion's share, but when it comes to brute strength, I'm afraid I'm at the shallow end of the gene pool."
It seems that heroes in fiction are held to higher standards of physical strength than villains are, and that depending on the style of the work, villains are held to higher standards of intellect than heroes are, (see also The Villain Makes the Plot
) leading to an apparent trend in some styles of works (especially those of the Disney-style
variety) that evil uses brains while good uses brawn.
This often results in Dumb Is Good
, whereas evil tends to be smarter but comparatively lacking in the strength department
, as if to imply that physical strength represents moral strength
. Occasionally, the villain is actually merely Feigning Intelligence
, or the hero just has the Idiot Ball
until the climax, ready to pass it to the villain.
Since it follows that qualifications in fighting/military leadership are therefore nobler than academic ones, see The Good Captain
and Morally Ambiguous Doctorate
Of course, this trope has some Fridge Logic
(if not Fridge Horror
) to it in that characters who are less intellectual might be more prone to poor moral judgement
. Then again, villains tend to use their intellect for rationalization
of what they do rather than sincere moral thought, so the point is often moot.
See also Thud and Blunder
, the subgenre of Heroic Fantasy
that make gratuitous use of this trope. Contrast Guile Hero
and Science Hero
, who often overcome physically threatening foes with trickery
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Anime & Manga
- Played with in Code Geass, in that stereotypical heroic character with Charles Atlas Superpower Suzaku is actually an Anti-Villain working for the Big Bad, while Squishy Wizard Lelouch who behaves like a stereotypical villain is actually the show's Well-Intentioned Extremist Byronic Hero.
- Subverted in Bleach, where Ichigo is an impulsive guy who goes through one Shonen Upgrade after another while the show's Big Bad Aizen establishes himself as a Magnificent Bastard who fights through subterfuge rather than raw power. However, when the two meet, Aizen reveals himself to also be MUCH more powerful than Ichigo, and not only has A God Am I attitude, but later on actually TRIES TO LITERALLY MAKE HIMSELF ONE.
- InuYasha. The eponymous protagonist is an unkempt, not particularly smart guy whose only strategy is to Attack! Attack! Attack! with his BFS, while his archnemesis Naraku is an A grade Manipulative Bastard who accomplished far more with his mind than he ever did with his Combat Tentacles. Notably, the heroes gained the ability to all but pulverize Naraku pretty soon after he showed up, but he managed to remain a significant threat until the end by careful plotting, means of a more defensive skillset and knowing when to do a strategic withdrawal.
- Played with in Eyeshield 21 in that both characters are technically "good guys." Kurita is enormous, strong, a bit dim, and one of the kindest characters in the series (just watch out for his hugs). Hiruma on the other hand is the Lean and Mean Trigger Happy Drill Sergeant Nasty whose total lack of physical skills is more than made up for by his evil genius. Together, they play football.
- As a general rule, DC Comics tend to favor this trope pitting morally upright "average" icons against a Diabolical Mastermind (Lex Luthor, Ultra-Humanite, Sivana, etc.); while Marvel Comics as a rule tend to pit the Guile Hero against The Brute (Carnage, Juggernaut, Abomination, Sentinels).
- Superman vs. Lex Luthor. Not that Superman is a dummy, but he does solve many of his problems with his fists.
- Also the Ultra-Humanite, the first comic-book supervillain, was designed to be the opposite of Superman, and was given "the most learned and agile brain on Earth" to contrast Superman's strength.
- While Brainiac is tougher than either of them, his physical might still doesn't measure against the man of steel and he has a twelfth level intellect, making him one of the smartest beings in the universe.
- Captain Marvel and Dr Sivana. Though Marvel has the Wisdom of Solomon.
- The Incredible Hulk and The Leader. Though some versions of the Hulk is smart. And Bruce Banner is a genius.
- Though more recent stories tend to play with Banner being a less than morally outstanding individual, himself.
- This particular usage of the trope has been called out: "You're making the argument that Strong is good and Smart is evil to a bunch of comic book nerds? You don't really want to sell comics, do you?"
- Somewhat inverted by Spider Man who has a lot of villains stronger and dumber than him. (The Rhino, Venom, Carnage).
- Played straight by some of his more prominent foes (the Green Goblin and Doc Ock) where they tend to edge him out in terms of brains and he edges them out in strength.
- Though Doc Ock's Arms are actually stronger then Spider-Man overall, and actually made his debut by defeating Spider-Man in single combat. Though Doc Ock himself is indeed somewhat physically frail.
- Green Goblin's raw strength in proportion to Spider-Man also varies, when originally it was equal to an ordinary man, then slightly weaker then Spider-Man, and sometimes noticeably stronger depending on the Goblin Serum used.
- The Mighty Thor and his evil half-brother, Loki.
- Only in comparison to each other. Loki is actually super-strong, durable, and able in combat by Earth standards. He's only weaker in that area by Asgardian standards, since the kids there are, by Word Of God, as strong as Spider-Man. And Thor is not particularly slow on the uptake, either, he's just surrounded by too many geniuses like Loki, Iron Man, and Odin, for it to show.
- The prequel comic to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog reveals that this is the reason Billy decided to become a supervillain in the first place. Another one also reveals that Captain Hammer has deeply anti-intellectual beliefs, telling kids that anyone who is "different", such as being good at math or science, is a potential supervillain and should be reported to the police.
- Averted in Watchmen: Ozymandias is reputed to be the smartest man in the world, but he's also more than a physical match for most other heroes. Dr. Manhattan, in turn, is the most powerful hero and a scientist too.
- M.O.D.O.K. and Captain America follow this trope as well. Although both are pretty smart, M.O.D.O.K. is essentially a living supercomputer. M.O.D.O.K. even mentions this trope in MvC3.
- In Scott Pilgrim, Scott isn't very bright but he is the "best fighter in the province" according to Kim. Gideon, on the other hand, is a genius inventor who cannot defeat Scott without stealing his sword or utilizing his technology.
- Granted everyone in The Tick seems to have a few screws loose, but The Tick himself is most definitely Brawn=Good.
- Played with in Iron Man/Mandarin stories. The Mandarin usually starts off with intellectual schemes, but quickly degenerates into savagery as he becomes frustrated, ending stories as a little more than a crazed chimp with rabies who super-karate-chops mindlessly.
- Stray inverts this with the main couple. Adamska, who has the muscles and the combat skills, is decidedly the more morally ambiguous of the two. Hal, the skinny nerd engineer, is the Nice Guy Morality Pet. Adamska isn't a completely straightforward Evil(ish) Brawn, however, since he's a Genius Bruiser who relies more on his Improbable Aiming Skills than raw power.
Films — Animated
- This seems apparent in Disney Animated Canon movies, especially the more recent ones.
- The Lion King has the strong and noble Mufasa versus the Lean and Mean Scar, who comments on their differences in strength and intellect before even revealing his evil nature.
- Subverted, since while Scar is a cunning and Machiavellian politician, Mufasa is wise, just and existential.
- During the second half of the film, Mufasa's son Simba actually takes over as the brawny hero.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame has Quasimodo using his strength for usually justified (or at least well-intentioned) purposes, whereas the physically weak (and morally weak) elderly Manipulative Bastard Frollo emotionally abuses Quasimodo into an extreme of self-loathing that is in some ways comparable to being weak until he overcomes said self-loathing.
- Disney's Hercules pits sleazy Manipulative Bastard Hades against naive farmboy-ish Hercules who trades almost solely on his superstrength
- The Emperor's New Groove's villains include Yzma, the main villain, who is Lean and Mean but clearly cleverer than the physically-stronger Anti-Villain Kronk. Its "heroes" include Anti-Hero Kuzko, also skinny, and profoundly self-centered, and Pacha, a more unambiguously good character who is noticeably physically stronger and nowhere near as self-centered.
- Sort-of inverted in Beauty and the Beast, which has the smart Belle on the side of good and the dumb, muscle-bound Gaston as the main villain. Still, Gaston is defeated in a physical battle with the Beast, who is not particularly intelligent.
- Whether or not Gaston was even that dumb in the first place is subject to Alternative Character Interpretation anyway; it is plausible that he was just Obfuscating Stupidity. That he thought up that scheme for blackmailing Belle into marriage shows some level of cleverness, and that the people he associates with call thinking a dangerous pastime would easily provide an incentive to play dumb.
- Could be just Book Dumb.
- Also inverted in Atlantis: The Lost Empire, with scrawny but brainy Milo up against muscley and only slightly less intelligent Rourke.
- Inverted with The Great Mouse Detective as well. Basil and Ratigan are evenly matched in wits. However, Ratigan far outweighs Basil in physical abilities.
- Averted in Aladdin, which pits a Guile Hero against a Manipulative Bastard.
- Megamind vs Metro Man.
- Kung Fu Panda 2 has the burly, dim-witted panda Po pitted against the evil, scrawny but superintelligent albino peacock Shen.
Films — Live-Action
- Die Hard: Cowboy Cop John McClane vs. criminal mastermind Hans Gruber. There's a reason it was the former Trope Namer of The Villain Makes the Plot.
- Although it should be noted that McClane is far from stupid. While he isn't a genius at plotting like Gruber, he does a fairly awesome Sherlock Scan and proves himself to be Awesome by Analysis and pretty good at the Indy Ploy.
- In Thor , the cunning Loki frequently manipulates his powerful and hard-headed brother Thor.
- Averted in the Indiana Jones films, where Indy is a rugged tough adventurer and a clever scholar as well. The antagonists tend to be thuggish Mooks led by a Big Bad who, like Indy, is both smart and adventuresome.
- The Green Lantern movie has lazy, irresponsible and pretty vacant Hal Jordan fighting the shy, intelligent, hark-working, under appreciated Hector Hammond.
- The Dark Knight Saga:
- The original Dragonlance book series. Raistlin Majere was sickly and physically weak, highly intelligent and gradually turned to evil. His brother Caramon is strong, slow-thinking and a good guy.
- Harry Dresden regularly gets his ass handed to him by more experienced and skilled opponents, but in terms of raw magical power he actually surpasses most of them. Moments where he gets this power properly applied to a strong enemy and/or enhanced by some planning tend to be crowning and sometimes terrifying.
- That's not entirely accurate. It's true that Harry is much more powerful than the majority of other wizards, but he also goes up against plenty of nonhuman entities that can crush him like a bug, and he usually achieves victory against them through improvisation and sheer audacity.
- Inverted in the same author's Codex Alera. Tavi, our hero, is physically unimposing and the only person in his civilization outside of small children not to have elemental powers, meaning that his enemies tend to heavily outpower him in terms of brute strength and even after he gets military training and starts developing powers, his enemies scale accordingly. Consequently, he has to use his brain to get out of most of his problems and is a full blown Guile Hero by the second book.
- Due to Character Development, Dresden has improved his Chessmaster capabilities to the point where he managed to trick Lara Raith, the eldest surviving and therefore most experienced of Lord Raith's daughters in terms of manipulation and deception, into thinking she was using him to overthrow her father when he was in fact using her to get rid of the greater of two evils (or so he thought at first) and taking revenge on his mother's killer. That was in book 6. We are now on 14.
- Lara Raith, Magnificent Bitch supreme, admires his mind. Mab says that she admires his manipulation of Molly. The second case in particular is one where Your Approval Fills Me with Shame and happens to be Harry's Berserk Button.
- A prime source of Alternate Character Interpretation when it comes to Odysseus, hero of The Odyssey. According to different sources, Odysseus' cleverness and wiliness were what set him among the greats of the Greek heroes, or else they were signs of a weak and cowardly nature too pathetic to fight like a real man.
Live Action TV
- Clark Kent and Lex Luthor on Smallville, naturally. Even more so in this adaptation - Clark isn't called the Big Dumb Alien for nothing; this may have something to do with introducing Chloe Sullivan, who is more of an intellectual match for Lex.
- Inverted with Doctor Who. As Craig Ferguson put it, the one constant of the show is the triumph of "intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism".
- The selection of the two tribes during Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains' pre-production was geared toward this. Before the merge, the Villains won 7 out of 8 challenges on the merit of their cleverness—the only challenge the Heroes won over this stretch was an unprecedented 8-0 sweep in a purely physical, one-on-one sumo wrestling challenge.
- Most face/heel rivalries in Professional Wrestling play out like this with most of the drama centered around the heel cheating and tricking his way to victory against a more powerful and/or skilled babyface. Whereas a heel who's legitimately skilled gets cheered a lot of the time, the heel gets booed because the fans know he doesn't "deserve" to keep winning and are waiting until he finally gets demolished.
- Prominent examples (as heels, of course):
- Ric Flair
- Chris Jericho
- The Miz
- Jerry Lawler was pretty much the Ric Flair of Memphis.
- Triple H is a perfect example of both. As a heel he can't win a match clean to save his life yet as a face all he needs are his fists and maybe a sledgehammer in order to take out the rest of the roster.
- A variant exists specifically as the standard psychology of a tag team match. Typically, the heel team will often times be more skilled at actual tag team wrestling, isolating one face and utilizing numerous tag team maneuvers. This builds tension for the Hot Tag, whereupon the fresh babyface finally tags in and demolishes the heels singlehandedly, usually until a pinfall is broken up, all parties end up in the ring, and anything goes from there.
- Professional Wrestling also has the "intellectual heel" persona, such as Chris Nowinski, David Otunga (both Real Life Harvard graduates), Molly Holly for a female version, and currently, Damien Sandow, whereas there is no real "intellectual face," since the intellectual heel will usually be wrestling a big, powerful face.
- Mega Man is a naive little robot who can bench-press a small building. His greatest villain is the brilliant but maniacal Dr. Wily. Then again, Mega Man has at least two benevolent scientists backing him up (one of which is Dr. Light, being Wily's equal).
- Final Fantasy, most of the villains are cunning, scheming, manipulative masterminds that rely on magic and trickery while the heroes are strong, courageous, stalwart warriors that charge into battle using swords. The Crisis Crossover Dissidia: Final Fantasy highlights this — aside from Garland, Sephiroth and Jecht, all of the villains fight using magic and have strategic Difficult, But Awesome fighting styles, while the heroes aside from Terra are physical brawlers with Boring Yet Practical attacks.
- In Mario And Luigi Bowsers Inside Story we have the idiotic but strong Bowser as the Villain Protagonist versus the intelligent Fawful as the antagonist.
- Slightly inverted in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog with the Evil Genius Dr. Horrible, who is actually, a nice guy when he's not doing evil things, and the superhero Captain Hammer, who is a dumb Jerk Jock. The prequel comic seems to indicate that brains and brawn are polar opposites here. When Dr. Horrible previously tries to inject himself with a Super Serum made from Captain Hammer's DNA, he becomes as strong and tough as Hammer but also just as dumb. They just keep Megaton Punching each other until Dr. Horrible decides to go back to being smart.
- Averted with the other heroes and villains in the related comics. For example, Johnny Snow (mentioned in the show itself) is smart enough to build himself a Freeze Ray, which he uses to stop the Evil League of Evil, when Captain Hammer is out of town.
- Subverted in The Powerpuff Girls episode "Three Girls And A Monster." Neither Blossom's brains or Buttercup's brawn is able to defeat a huge lizard monster. It's sweet little Bubbles. Using beguiling innocence and politeness, this little beauty brings down her beast.
- Also subverted when the girls were hopelessly outmatched by the giant Fish-Balloon monster. Only Professor Utonium's giant mecha was able to defeat the near-invincible creature.
- Not to mention Fuzzy Lumpkins, who is about as dumb as they come, and as STRONG as they come.
- Subverted on Gargoyles with Goliath (a hulking Proud Warrior Race Guy) and Xanatos (a Magnificent Bastard with no superpowers). Just to read the descriptions of the characters, one would assume this dynamic to be in place, but as the show goes on Goliath gets a chance to repeatedly show off his Genius Bruiser and Warrior Poet sides, while Xanatos proves to be an expert martial artist who eventually has a suit of Powered Armor made that lets him match Goliath's physical abilities. Both hero and villain are no slouches in the brain or brawn department.