"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."Heroes in fiction are held to higher standards of physical strength than villains, and villains are held to higher standards of intellect (or at least cunning) than heroes, (see also Villains Act, Heroes React) which suggests that evil uses brains while good uses brawn. This often conveys the message that Dumb Is Good: the heroes are straightforward men and women of action, while the bad guys are smarter yet squishier, as if to imply that physical strength represents moral strength. Occasionally, the villain is Feigning Intelligence, the hero is playing dumb, or the hero just holds the Idiot Ball until the climax, when he passes it directly 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. Often leads to Armored Villains, Unarmored Heroes. See also Thud and Blunder, the subgenre of Heroic Fantasy that makes gratuitous use of this trope. Contrast Guile Hero and Science Hero, who often overcome physically threatening foes with trickery or brainpower respectively; and Evil Is Bigger, where the villain is physically superior to the hero.
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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.
- In Bleach, Ichigo is an impulsive guy who goes through one Next Tier Power-Up after another while the show's Big Bad Aizen is a cool thinker who fights through subterfuge. Well, up to the point where he too begins going through one Next Tier Power-Up after another like it's hot, but unlike with Ichigo Aizen's power ups are always presented as "part of his plan".
- 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.
- Superman vs. Lex Luthor. Superman, of course, is far from stupid, but Luthor ("a tenth level intellect") is the smartest man alive, and unlike Superman, can't solve problems through brute force.
- 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.
- Zig-zagged with Superman's enemy Manchester Black. Black's powers are all mental in nature, being both psychic and telekinetic, while Superman's are still physical and he largely uses his super-strength. But in terms of behavior, Black is a violent thug whose psychic powers still get used for brute force and Superman eventually defeats him with intelligence; strategically beating him at his own game.
- Captain Marvel and Dr Sivana. While Captain Marvel is not stupid, he is still a child at heart and solves his problems through the application of physical force. Then again, he does have the Wisdom of Solomon...
- The Incredible Hulk and The Leader. Though some versions of the Hulk are 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?"
Kind of obvious, really. Hero: Big green dumb strong guy. Villain: Small green smart weak guy. It's not really dripping with creativity, and the moral ends up being "clever planning and logic can never win against the sheer physical brutality of a guy who barely even knows where he is." This is not a moral that your average comic book reader wants to hear.
- Memorably so in the Book of Ratings:
- Somewhat inverted by Spider-Man who has a lot of villains stronger and less intelligent 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.
- 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.
- 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 Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
- 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 relies on his technology in a fight. Guess which one is the villain.
- Granted everyone in The Tick seems to have a few screws loose, but The Tick himself is most definitely Brawn=Good.
The Tick: My brain has always been my Achilles' Heel!
- 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. (Said comment provides the page header).
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame has Quasimodo using his freakish 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. Interestingly, Phoebus occupies both a physical and moral intermediate spot between the two, possessing only average physical strength and generally well-meaning but also Innocently Insensitive.
- 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.
- 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. (Aladdin does have some musculature, however.)
- Played with a good deal in The Jungle Book: Mowgli is both puny and naïve, while Shere Khan is physically imposing (being a tiger, after all) as well as a Wicked Cultured villain fond of using big words. But Mowgli manages to defeat him by being a Fearless Fool, while Khan turns out to be a shameful coward.
- Captain Hook in Peter Pan is a triple subversion: noticeably taller than Peter (and appearing larger due to the flamboyant costume he wears), but unnaturally skinny and no physically stronger in proportion. He is, however, the superior swordsman for much of the movie, and Peter usually relies on his wits to trounce him.
- Megamind vs Metro Man.
- Not a straight example. Megamind is a Designated Villain who's only a villain because he believes in a Balance Between Good and Evil. He would prefer to be the hero but since he couldn't top Metroman he chose to be the villain.
- Inverted at the end with Megamind and Titan.
- Titan isn't as stupid as he appears, though. Not many people would've caught the "Metrocity" vs. "Metro City" pronunciation.
- Kung Fu Panda 2 has the burly, dim-witted panda Po pitted against the evil, scrawny but superintelligent albino peacock Shen. (though when in actual combat, Shen held his own quite well). The original was an inversion, as the story follows Po's quest for enlightenment which gives him the upper hand against The Berserker Tai Lung. The third also inverts, as Po's strategic schemes enable him to defeat Kai, who is both a formidable fighter and creates "jade mooks" to inflict pain.
- Inverted in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which pits Badass Bookworm Jack Skellington against Oogie Boogie, a rare villainous example of a Boisterous Bruiser. That being said, the way Oogie actually fights Jack is this trope played straight, using his lair and his traps to his advantage rather than face Jack directly. We never get to see much of Jack's power, but given that he's the lord of Halloween, he might very well be stronger than he appears. Also, Oogie is clearly a Dirty Coward and a Fat Bastard, and extremely vulnerable due to literally being a sentient swarm of disgusting bugs very patchily sewn up inside a gunny sack that promptly disperses when the sack is torn off.
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 Villains Act, Heroes React.
- In Thor, the cunning Loki frequently manipulates his powerful and hard-headed brother Thor.
Loki: Are you ever not going to fall for that?
- The Green Lantern movie has lazy, irresponsible and pretty vacant Hal Jordan fighting the shy, intelligent, hard-working, under appreciated Hector Hammond.
- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies culminates in a battle between a well-coordinated army on one side and several bands of improvising, numerically inferior fighters whose strategy is essentially either "hold your ground" or "blindly charge the leader". Needless to say, the protagonists are part of the second group.
- The Batman films from the 1980s and '90s followed this formula for the most part, with Batman being inhumanly tough (he survives being blown up, set on fire, and shot multiple times) and most of the villains (Joker, Penguin, Riddler) being Evil Geniuses but either pathetically short and chubby (Penguin) or so wimpy they can't effectively land a single punch (Joker, Riddler). However, Batman has plenty of intelligence in his own right. And Batman & Robin plays with this in a number of ways: Mr. Freeze is both extremely intelligent and able to physically dominate Batman on occasion; however, it's shown that without his super-refrigerated suit and a subzero environment, he becomes very weak and even near death. Also double-subverted by Bane, who is so stupid that he can only repeat a few words he hears and has muscles on top of muscles - but all that physical strength is the result of a nasty steroid formula that was pumped into Bane's normally scrawny body. The Dark Knight Saga has this on the first two movies - while Batman is still the "World's Greatest Detective", he's more of a fighter than the League of Shadows and the Joker, who rely on often complex evil schemes. Then The Dark Knight Rises seems to subvert with Genius Bruiser Bane, only to play it more straight as the woman behind the man is revealed.
- Inverted with Ajax and Swan in The Warriors. Ajax is the strongest (or at least the second-strongest) Warrior among the gang's nine bruisers, and also stupidly pigheaded - and he pays for that pigheadedness by being arrested after getting himself into a situation he easily could've avoided had he not been so stubborn. Swan, meanwhile, survives the night and becomes the gang's new leader through being a Guile Hero.
- Unbreakable discusses how the Arch-Enemy is usually a villain who fights the hero with his mind, while The Hero of the film has Super Strength. This is Foreshadowing the reveal that Elijah is the Big Bad.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A prime source of Alternative 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.
- In Paradise Lost, the rebellious angels use their brains and skill to invent guns, and turn back the loyal angels for a moment. The loyal angels respond with brute force: ripping up mountains and throwing them at the rebels. Jesus ends the fight the next day just by charging at the rebels with his overwhelming power.
- The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, played for laughs in Wally's superhero stories. The hero is normally too dumb to live and forgets he even has super strength. They will often mess with the villain's machine, and make it worse. The villain will then have to fix it.
Live Action TV
- 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.
- In the Mini Series Beast (Jaws with a giant squid rather than a shark), hero Whip Darling is a brawny fisherman, while the villainous mayor is a classic bespectacled nerd—at one point, Darling even sneers at him about his "Harvard education" as though this is something to be ashamed of. Darling also sneers at him about how "you're still the same creepy little kid you always were", indicating that Darling bullied him back during their school days and has no remorse over doing so, or worse yet, protected him from bullies and now regrets doing so. All of which is presented as perfectly okay.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy's not exactly an idiot, but her main advantages are her superhuman strength and durability.. The Big Bads were typically Evil Geniuses or Diabolical Masterminds who were nevertheless often physically weaker than Buffy (though Glory in Season 5 is a notable exception). This is most pronounced with Warren Mears in Season 6.
- 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 (despite being for years the most physically dominating main-eventer on the roster not named Kane or Undertaker), yet as a face, all he needs are his fists and maybe a sledgehammer in order to take out the rest of the roster.
- The standard psychology of a tag team match suggests this trope. Typically, the heel team shows more skill 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.
- Prominent examples (as heels, of course):
- 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 Damien Sandow, whereas there is no real "intellectual face," since the intellectual heel will usually be wrestling a big, powerful face.
- As a heel, AJ Lee was arguably a good example: outrageously insane (insanity often said to be a byproduct of genius) and fond of mind games, but so petite that the larger Divas could floor her with a single punch. However, AJ made up for it by being a superior mat wrestler, relying less on strength than on systematically breaking down opponents.
- Christian. As a heel, it seemed like he could never hold his own in the ring without cheating.
- Eddie Guerrero usually was an inversion, winning matches by being a Guile Hero - quite justified a lot of the time, since practically everyone he faced was more muscular or at least taller than he was.
- 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 & Luigi: Bowser's 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.
- The Powerpuff Girls :
- Evil genius Mojo Jojo vs the girls and their super powers. Chemical X is the cause of both; think about that. Possibly subverted in that the girls, especially Blossom are fairly clever themselves, not to mention the (largely) harmless and Reasonable Authority Figure Professor Utonium.
- Inverted with Fuzzy Lumpkins, who is about as dumb as they come, and as STRONG as they come.
- Played with 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 repeatedly shows 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.
- Thoroughly mocked in Dan Vs. season 3 finale, "Summer Camp", by making this the stated philosophy of the episode's villain. The summer camp in question is run by The Social Darwinist Mr. Tedesco, who, under the guise of "toughening up" the campers, divides them into two clans and makes them fight for a "spirit stick" which grants its clan privileges such as food. Dan recognizes that his clan can't win a straight fight, so he gains the spirit stick by setting a trap with a hornet's nest. Mr. Tedesco punishes the whole clan for this, explaining that the entire point was to win through brute force—that taking the stick with cunning was "cheating". Dan does learn something in regards to standing up for yourself... and proceeds to lead the kids into destorying the camp and taking down Mr. Tedesco.
- Said philosophy was decided during the first year of the camp, when the two groups competed for the stick. One managed to get through cunning before getting it taken at the last moment through brute force, so it could've gone the other way.
- The Simpsons played this straight quite often:
- Artie Ziff was the villain to Homer's Designated Hero when they were rivals for Marge's hand in high school. Artie was a real Jerkass to Homer, even though Homer probably could have cleaned his clock with little trouble. Of course, Homer could be a jerk sometimes as well, but that was due to his being Innocently Insensitive, whereas Artie knew better and had no excuse.
- On a few occasions Abe Simpson and Monty Burns have squared off, usually in connection to their days together during the war. Abe was a brawny sergeant in the 1940s, while Monty was - and continues to be - so physically weak that a baby is stronger than him. Monty is also scheming, while Abe comes off as The Fool more often than not. And even though Abe has gotten pretty feeble himself in his old age, he's got courage to spare - not to mention a powerful Papa Wolf streak when Monty almost kills his grandson.