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When a building in a modern action film or series is blown up or otherwise totaled, there will be no people nor plot-critical items inside when the destruction hits.
We've all seen a movie where a missile flies past the hero directly into a window and causes a building to explode. Or a timer ticking down to zero on the immovable bomb in the basement of an office building. And gosh! Let's not forget the many, many fun cartoons or anime where skyscraper after skyscraper after building is just freaking totaled. But is there ever anyone in the building?
Nope. It was conveniently empty. No carnage.
Whenever a writer gets his hands on a special effects budget, it seems that several buildings suddenly become conveniently empty - inevitably leading to explosive goodness and giant fireballs. This is dictated by the Second Law of Metafictional Thermodynamics.
A probable reason is to keep villains (or heroes!) from crossing the Moral Event Horizon and to prevent viewers from getting a Downer Ending. Or else it's to maintain Willing Suspension of Disbelief: while action films are supposed to be for high stakes, one tends to think harder about what the characters have been doing when people are seendying ''en masse''.
After all, there was no holocaust on Endor.
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Anime and Manga
This happens to a city in Pokémon Special. Then again, Lance does insinuate that there probably were a few people still in the city when he blew it up. Not that he cares.
In the original American syndicated dub of Dragon Ball Z, Vegeta gives us this line after he and Nappa utterly destroy some real estate upon landing in the middle of a crowded city:
"Too bad it's Sunday, those buildings would have been filled up tomorrow!"
How he knew it was Sunday, or why the buildings would be empty on a Sunday is never addressed. The death toll was just a little bit higher in the original version.
Minutes after landing Nappa decides to vaporize a large portion of the city they are in. We are later told by a reporter that the entire portion of the city had somehow been evacuated before it was destroyed. Despite the fact that hundreds of people were gathered around the impact crater seconds before the attack.
"He blew up the cargo robot! (beat) And the cargo was people!
Played straight in the Buu saga, where there's nothing keeping the titular Buu and Gotenks from duking it out on an empty Earth. At one point, Gotenks sends Buu flying, which results in several buildings also sent flying. Piccolocalls him out on it due to the possibility of Dragon Balls lingering around.
In the Android saga, this was going to be averted by the heroes suggesting to leave the city and fight Android 19 and 20 elsewhere. It is the subverted with Android deciding that destroying the city and everyone in it would give the fighters a place with no people. It is Harsher in Hindsight when it turns out that Android 20 is Doctor Gero. It would make sense if a robot couldn't understand the difference, but that reveal just made his actions even more unsettling.
One chapter of Karakuridouji Ultimo has Hana (A little girl about 5 or 6) and Eddie/Gluttony (A huge ass robot doll) try to get Yamato, the protagonist, to call out Ultimo (his robot doll) and fight them. They do so by destroying the school Gymnasium, which, sure enough, is empty. This is a bit odd considering that at any other given point in the series, there seems to be no problem with killing people off.
Rinne no Lagrange takes this Up to Eleven when Madoka's robot crash-lands in a conveniently empty lot (which had a house in it until a short time ago), avoiding the demise of any innocent buildings.
Brutally averted in Attack on Titan. When titans fight in built-up areas, humans are often sent flying along with debris or shown laying broken amid the wreckage of buildings.
This was extremely common in 1970's comic books. Typical scene: Superman lands next to an unknown evil-doer and tells him to stop doing whatever evil-thing he's evil-doing. Said bad guy then turns around and lands a killer punch on Superman, who flies backwards with such force that he crashes through three or four buildings, all to show how strong the bad guy is. Invariably, there will either be a "condemned" sign obviously visible in the frame in front of the buildings, or Superman will think to himself, "Thank goodness those buildings were abandoned/scheduled for demolition/new and not yet occupied, so no one was hurt!" Just how bad is the economy in Metropolis that there are condemned buildings everywhere?
It's still a common trope. In a more recent JLA storyline, Plastic Man (who was giant-sized in order to battle a giant-sized opponent) remarks that he's grateful for the bad economy, otherwise there'd be no abandoned buildings to smash.
Some writers take this to absurd lengths in The Incredible Hulk. He could be a speck in a full-page of city-wide devastation, yet someone will maintain that no one was killed in the conveniently empty 20 city block radius. Averted in Ultimate Marvel, where the Hulk's rampages really did kill people. This is because Ultimate Marvel is significantly more cynical, and because Ultimate Hulk goes out of his way to kill and eat people.
In a one-shot parody comic called What The—?!, one panel◊ thoroughly lampshades the use of this trope in the Marvel Universe. Ironically, this particular example would make perfect sense in the canon universe: no non-super-powered urban dweller with half a brain would want to risk living or working in buildings neighboring a publicly known superhero base where someone is always picking a fight. The buildings' owners would also have long since abandoned them as unprofitable, leaving the city to demolish them.
Lampshaded in X-Factor vol. 2 #32, where Val Cooper makes an offer to X-Factor to work for the US government. They refuse, leave town, and to underscore the point, Madrox blows up their abandoned building when Val and her forces arrive, giving them just enough time to get out. Let's let Dr. Cooper sum up, after she catches up with Jamie a few months later in the epilogue:
Val Cooper: I did some checking, Madrox. You owned that building you blew up. Even got the demolition clearances. Technically you broke no laws. But you figured by making a big demonstration, you'd show your team how tough you are, and scare me off besides. Except I don't scare, Madrox. Let me put it in a way that your film noir mind will understand: this is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Played for laughs in an issue of Spider-Man. Spidey, who's sore about his recent trial seperation from Mary Jane, sneaks into a building and vents his anger by spending a good while just trashing the place. After realising how much damage he's done, he sneaks out again as a crew arrive to demolish the place, only to watch it collapse before they can even get close to it. They then break for lunch.
Averted in the Tamers Forever Series. Sakuyamon blasts a Diaboramon into a building which collapses on top of Rei Tanaka and kills her. To be fair, she gets better pretty quickly with the help of Huanglongmon.
In the Pony POV Series, Dark World!Discord mentions there's an Abandoned Warehouse District for the expressed purpose of having giant monster fights without 'breaking his toys'. He just brought two buildings to life and had them battle to the death in said district.
Jaden: It's a good thing Venice is apparently empty! Or that might've been kind of dangerous.
Total Drama What The Heck features an exaggerated example. A nuclear blast levels a conveniently empty city, which had previously been evacuated in the wake of an industrial accident.
Justified in Fight Club. The Narrator is furious at Tyler Durden for the mass murder he's about to commit in Project Mayhem, which involves blowing up several office buildings. It's then explained that the buildings are completely empty, as it's the middle of the night, and all the people that would be working there at that time are members of their group.
Fast Five of the The Fast and the Furious series, full stop. One safe dragged behind two automobiles nearly leveled downtown Rio! In fairness, though, they drive the safe through a clearly occupied bank.
Averted elsewhere, when the characters actively gun down innocent security guards, to prevent them from becoming bodies for Agents.
Justified as they are probably able to pick the locations from outside before they enter the Matrix - and the aversion is because they have no choice but to assault a heavily defended building.
In Volcano, there is a finished but unoccupied condominium building conveniently located for being turned into a lava barricade. Furthermore, the building is conveniently owned by a Corrupt Corporate Executive.
Averted in 2012. As Jackson and his family are flying the plane through the crumbling Los Angeles, you can see people falling out of the buildings and into the giant cracks in the crust.
In Blue Thunder, a Misguided Missile from an Air Force F-16 slams into a skyscraper during an aerial battle in the early evening hours. Aside from expressions of dismay by the various police and military personnel in charge, the incident appears completely forgotten about. So... was it Conveniently Empty or is this a blatant case of No Endor Holocaust? We may never know.
In Monsters vs. Aliens, San Francisco has been emptied out by the government so the buildings damaged were empty — however, during the Golden Gate Bridge scene, the alien robot crunches up several conveniently empty cars. When B.O.B. moves the barriers to let the cars through, every other car on the bridge was occupied because they all drive away.
In Megamind, Titan and Megamind crash through one, though the roof and down through every floor. A few seconds later, a gas tanker explodes at the mouth of a tunnel, and it's implied that people are being killed and harmed by the battle.
In the first American version of Godzilla (1998), several Misguided Missiles end up destroying the Chrysler Building, after the titular monster dodges them. The military men are more annoyed at missing the creature, while the Mayor of New York is a little more concerned about the fact that they just blew up the Chrysler Building. Since New York has been evacuated just prior to Godzilla showing up, there is nobody in the building.
In Die Hard, a security guard conveniently mentions that there's nobody in the building except the folks partying on Holly's floor. Good to know John can blow up elevator shafts without taking out any unsuspecting night-shift janitors or overnight painters and repair crews.
Those guys were likely taking the night off, as it was Christmas.
In The Other Guys, the cops finish a car chase in a stylish way that also results in the lobby of the Trump Tower blowing up in a giant fireball. Even if there were no bystanders hurt in the crossfire or when one of them hijacked an occupied bus and drove it through traffic into machine gun fire, at least the receptionist must have bought the farm there.
In the Wesley Snipes film The Art of War, the U.N. building is apparently manned by one security guard.
Justified in Pacific Rim. Evacuations are shown occurring throughout Hong Kong before the Kaiju Otachi and Humongous Mecha Gipsy Danger fight in the city. Director Guillermo del Toro said showing the city was empty was a major priority for the scene, since "I don't want people being crushed. I want the joy that I used to get seeing Godzilla toss a tank without having to think there are guys in the tank."
Man of Steel: During Zod and Superman's big fight, the Metropolis skyscraper Sup gets thrown into is seemingly empty, though he gets thrown into many more that we don't see the interior of. It's averted by Word of God, though, as an interview with director Zach Snyder had him state that about 5000 people died from the fight.note Actually a surprisingly low number, as just a little under 3000 people died on 9/11 from two buildings collapsing, while Metropolis has a much larger disaster site.
The Dresden Files is inconsistent on this trope. Some days, like in Blood Rites, the building is Conveniently Empty. Other days, like Grave Peril it's packed to the gills with his enemies (and, potentially, of their innocent victims, who may or may not already have been dead—a nice source of angst for our hero). Either way, if a building can be burnt to the ground without hurting innocents, odds are Jim Butcher will see to it that it ends as a burnt husk.
Discussed and justified in That Hideous Strength since the destruction of Edgestow was orchestrated by angelic beings, who also arranged to clear the town ahead of time.
Animorphs had a tower disguised as an "office building," but which was really a kind of passageway for alien spacecraft to secretly travel from the sky to an underground base. Even though It Makes Sense in Context, and even though the tower is conveniently empty, the Animorphs' method of destroying the tower is still something that could never have been published after September 11. (It involves deliberately crashing an airplane.)
Live Action TV
Smallville: A number of times. The most serious one is when Clark burns down a pair of twin skyscrapers with heat vision.
Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers once commented that the giant robot-kaiju battles took place in the "abandoned warehouse district". Whether it was a warehouse district that had been abandoned due to weekly giant robot-kaiju battles, or a district that had been set aside at some point for the express purpose of being full of empty warehouses in case of giant robot-kaiju battles, is left up to the viewer.
A season 2 episode of Mighty Morphin' has a conveniently empty PLANET. When the Rangers need to get the Mcguffin to transfer powers to new Rangers they go to the deserted planet. It's deserted to avoid Inferred Holocaust when Zedd ends up blowing up the entire planet.
In Power Rangers Lost Galaxy, even a giant city-sized spaceship that had only been constructed recently, containing a cityscape inside it, had an abandoned warehouse district for the robot-kaiju battles.
For this last one, it can be explained: an intentionally closed biotope for decades or even centuries to travel from a stellar system to another, with a large human society inside probably means there will be some population grown. So this was houses for population grown. Toooo baaaad!
In Power Rangers S.P.D., one monster exclaimed "I hate empty buildings!" as it knocked one down. Another episode of the same series has a monster fire at a building, blowing it up to drop rubble at the Rangers, and the Yellow Ranger says "Lucky no one was in that building!" (No, there was no sign that anybody checked, or could have checked.)
Don't think Super Sentai never does this, either. In Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger, a villain has hijacked the most powerful of the mechs. When he turns it to obliterate a few buildings, Doggie Kruger quickly orders an evacuation. Apparently, a massive evacuation was completed in the seconds it took for the robot to turn ninety degrees and fire. That's some kind of record.
Deka's also got a monster who was sympathetic (seen trashing cars early on, it turns out a non-evil alien was framed and not actually the Monster of the Week. He hates cars because his wife and child were killed in a car accident.) who escaped the Rangers by blowing up a building to drop rubble at them (in fact, this scene is the source of the footage for the "Lucky no one was in that building" SPD moment.) We get no such line. However, the whole point of the character is that he didn't kill the one person who died earlier in the episode... and we have him committing an act that would realistically have a body count in the several hundred! Nobody commenting on it makes it worse, really.
Naturally, both PR and the Super Sentai original have many, many, MANY instances - fewer in PR post-9/11 but they're there - of buildings being annihilated during giant robot-kaiju battles. The fact that it'd mean thousands of people were also annihilated often goes unmentioned. The otherwise-wacky Engine Sentai Go-onger was especially bad about it. Hammer monster strikes the ground, several blocks' worth of downtown buildings crumble to piles of concrete instantly, nobody seems to care.
The Doctor Who special "The Next Doctor" subverts this when an enormous Cyberman begins to fall, and the Doctor has to keep it from destroying the Inconveniently Occupied Buildings.
Subverted on Banshee when crime kingpin Kai Proctor decides to send a message to the new tribal chief by blowing up the under-construction Indian Casino. Proctor is the kind of guy who would have made sure that construction was shut down for the day and that the construction site was empty. However, right as he is about to blow the building up we find out that the mayor has trespassed on the site and is sitting inside the building. Even when you make sure that the building is conveniently empty, you cannot be sure that someone will not just wander in attracted by the emptiness.
First Encounter Assault Recon: The Auburn District of Fairport is entirely abandoned by the general population. Anyone who lived there claims sickness, nightmares and ghosts for moving out of there. There is a reason for this underneath the surface.
The areas around the Auburn district are shown to have not been so abandoned, however - you find bodies turned to ash and then the ghosts of victims of the nuclear explosion all over most of the urban areas in FEAR 2.
Not so much conveniently empty buildings as conveniently empty starships, but in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Laharl singlehandedly annihilates an armada of 2 million ships sent to attack the Netherworld. It's all right though, because as Etna notes, he just happened to allow all of the crews to escape before destroying their ships. Flonne sees this as further proof that he is awakening to The Power of Love. Laharl, for his part, makes one of his customary excuses for this.
Seemingly averted in Bangai-O. Every time a building is destroyed (for the purpose of raising the high score), screams can be heard. Not that anyone cares.
All of the buildings, rooftops, tunnels etc. Faith makes her way through in Mirrors Edge are completely empty (except for the police and security trying to kill her).
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you raid a 24 hour news organization which one would naturally expect to have a graveyard shift. No one is there but baddies, and after reading people's emails explaining a sudden evacuation prior to your arrival, it foreshadows the coming reveal.
One stage in Mega Man Legends takes place in an "Abandoned Warehouse District"; which has a Humongous Mecha attack you; and it levels any building in between you and it. Interestingly, building damage to inhabited buildings can occur in similar attacks earlier in the game. While no people die in these attacks, for some reason; it's in the player's best interest to prevent this as it takes your time and money to avenge them and the requisite side quests and power-ups.
Rhythm Thief & the Emperor's Treasure takes this to absurd extents. Even when Phantom R goes to world-famous Parisian landmarks like Notre Dame, Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower mid-day, absolutely no tourists or civilians are around to see him do things like find the Dragon Crown or a secret entrance into the catacombs or fight with the Chevaliers Diaboliques. Even when the Eiffel Tower gets struck by lightning, there is no one in it other than him.
In Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Neo Bowser Castle appears and Antasma demonstrates its death ray/disintegrator weapon on some islands, completely destroying them. Good job no one happened to actually be living on these islands or visiting them at the time, despite this being a popular tourist destination. Although an NPC remarks that a bunch of rare plants and animals were killed by the laser.
Additionally, during the Earthwake boss battle in Dreamy Wakeport, Luigi and the boss end up knocking each other flying through various buildings via their attacks. Justified, though, since Dreamy Wakeport is, like most Dream World areas, fairly desolate (And what little "lives" there is vague as to whether it's actually sapient or just imaginary).
Similarly to the above example, Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs also has island destruction. The first thing the Societea do with their ancient superweapon is display their power by vaporizing one of the smaller local islands. While it does have a small Pokemon population, they were all evacuated anyway thanks to the emergency boats Booker had built and left on the island, making it only a loss of geography and plantlife. Later on, Dr. Edward attempts to vaporize a much larger and very inhabited island, but by that point the weapon has been sabotaged anyway, failing.
Any and all "civilian buildings" in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 and 3, and really any RTS with Garrisonable Structures, conspicuously lack any civilians. In some missions, it's explained that the area in question is already under evacuation orders, but that still doesn't cover all the surprise attacks and other circumstances.
Averted in Moon Crest 24 as people can be seen inside the building the Ice Titan cut down. And in a later page, students are calling family to check on them and one is grieving over her sister.
Constantly lampshaded in Megas XLR, with signs like "Conveniently Empty Building" and "Going to Be Demolished Anyways" on the buildings in question. Though also subverted in some episodes such as the "Museum of Irreplaceable Art".
In Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, while Joker is trying to blast the Batmobile with a Kill Sat, the beam passes over what seems to be an abandoned building. Originally, it was a full, operating movie theater, until the animators were forced to change it. Similarly, the commentary sarcastically notes that all the cars knocked off the road by the beam were empty robot-driven cars.
SWAT Kats has this in spades. Commander Feral constantly blasts the heroes for all the collateral damage they cause, although no mention is made of any casualties. Subverted in one episode where a stray missile supposedly injured innocent bystanders, although it was later revealed to be a setup.
In the first episode of Symbionic Titan, the fight between the Titan and their foe creates a giant crater in the city, which is still visible and noted in subsequent episodes, with the implication that thousands were killed. The heroes try to limit their efforts to outside the city from then on.
In Teen Titans the entire city will sometimes be conveniently empty when the Titans fight. This is a good thing, as anything is fair game for the Titans to use as a weapon in battle, from cars to street lamps. The most egregious example however is in Season 4 finale "The End (Part 1)" when Cyborg lifts an office building and uses it to smash Plasmus through two other buildings.
The DCAU exhibits this trope. The property damage in a typical episode of Superman: The Animated Series or Justice League can be massive, but almost no-one gets hurt. An extreme example was in the finale of JLU, in which Superman hits Darkseid with everything he's got, sending the big D flying through five or six skyscrapers, but the only people seen on screen are those on the ground watching in awe. Other buildings are seen being evacuated as they fight, but at the start of it, the entire Daily Planet staff was suspiciously hard at work during yet another alien invasion's start
STAS also played with subverting the trope in the episode in which Lobo is introduced: Superman hits him, sending him flying through the Lexcorp building, and there's a lovely shot where Luthor is working in his office and Lobo comes crashing through the floor and out through the ceiling, cursing the whole way. No-one gets hurt, but the building was definitely occupied.
This was a plot point in the second season finale of Justice League, where Cadmus' conveniently empty headquarters gets fired on by the League's downward-pointing, orbitalBinary Fusion Generator. Amanda Waller, Cadmus director, is confronted by Batman for her and Lex Luthor's earlier actions against The Question and the League, and she suggests that their shot was a missed attempt at retaliation. When he points out the League's surveillance knew the building was empty, she suggests it was a "warning shot", so as not to show her hand that she was considering what he was suggesting, which was that Luthor hacked the League's system and fired the shot, not caring whether or not Cadmus was in the building, and benefiting either way.
And even though Cadmus' HQ was empty, the blast caused devastation for miles around. Even if "no one was hurt," the fact that people could have been is played as seriously as possible, factoring into the ongoing storyline that the League may be becoming a threat.
Subverted in an episode of Ben 10: when Vilgax seizes Ben as Heatblast and sends him flying through several buildings, people are actually seen at one point in the building, surprised to see Heatblast. Similarly to the Superman and Lobo case, nobody gets hurt (which is still surprising considering Heatblast is made of fire), but the building was occupied.
The movie Ben 10: Destroy All Aliens, on the other hand, plays this trope Up to Eleven during the fight sequence between Way Big and a Way Big transformed Azmuth, where both of them crush, raise and destroys several buildings with seemingly no victims and no one one waking up to see it in the whole city. What makes this example even weirder is that Gwen actually suggests moving the fight away from the city to avoid collateral damage, only to get completely ignored.
In an early episode of Godzilla, Godzilla's counterattack against a monster wrecks a bunch of warehouses. When one of the team cheers at Godzilla turning the tide, another teammate asks him if he'd be cheering if there had been people in those buildings, conveniently letting the audience know that no one was hurt.
This sort of thing happening is rare, but not unheard of - for instance plane crashes during the day in residential areas have a much higher probability of hitting an unoccupied house (most folks are out working, etc)- like this one in May 2014.
Skyscrapers, however, are very rarely completely empty - night staff usually cleans and keeps an eye on things during the night.