Cornered Rattlesnake

"Put the army in the face of death where there is no escape and they will not flee or be afraid - there is nothing they cannot achieve."
Sun Tzu addressing this trope

The "Cornered Rattlesnake" is when a character or a faction is pressured to the breaking point. Another group or a villain will bully or threaten the weaker 'rattlesnake' until the weaker person fights back. Sometimes the 'weaker' group is actually surprisingly powerful, but the bully underestimated their abilities. Having the rattlesnake 'bite back' is something the villain normally didn't intend or anticipate, and so he will face the consequences.

Sometimes a Cornered Rattlesnake will be given assistance from the enemies of the villains, and so will begin to be able to defend itself. The villain's cruel actions could actually make their allies turn towards the 'rattlesnake's' side.

The phrase refers to the real life scenario of if a person were to corner a rattlesnake. The human can easily choose to retreat, but instead tries to kill the rattlesnake. Cornered, the rattlesnake would defend itself. This trope doesn't require the rattlesnake to win, as it is possible to kill the snake, but being bitten is highly likely.

Sometimes this is a response to a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, Hopeless Boss Fight or Curb-Stomp Battle. See also Beware the Nice Ones. This is also one of the major themes of Japanese Spirit.

This isn't Bullying a Dragon, as the cornered rattlesnake appears, at first, to be physically weaker or a huge coward and only reacts in self defense. Compare Mugging the Monster, where the would-be victim just shows no outward sign of the threat they pose. Also compare Burning Your Boats, which is intentionally putting your own side in this position.


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     Film - Animated  

  • In Toy Story, Sid's toys have been brutalized by Sid, who sadistically enjoys destroying, damaging and disfiguring his toys. The toys risk being exposed as living creatures, but are able to scare Sid into respecting his toys.
  • In The Iron Giant, The Giant is attacked by the US military. This leads the robot to engage into a 'battle mode' where he uses giant alien weapons to destroy almost everything in sight. The military itself becomes the Cornered Rattlesnake now and arms a nuclear missile to destroy The Giant, even at the risk of killing everyone in town.

     Film - Live-Action  

  • The Dark Knight Trilogy
    • In Batman Begins, Mook Joe Chill kills Bruce Wayne’s parents. Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop Gotham police cannot deliver justice to him. The Mafia Don Carmine Falcone gives Bruce Wayne a "The Reason You Suck" Speech that forces him to begin The Hero's Journey, then he is trained by the League of Assasins and outsmarts Corrupt Corporate Executive Earl to become the Batman. A possible explanation is that Gotham was a Cornered Rattlesnake and it is trying to produce a hero to survive: Notice that all of the forces oppressing Gotham were Threshold Guardians that created the hero that will fight them.
    • In The Dark Knight, the gangs of Gotham are forced to hire the Joker as the police and Batman are overwhelming their gangs. This leads to Joker blowing up many buildings and threatening or massacring dozens of people.
      Bruce: I know the mob wouldn't go down without a fight, but this is different. They've crossed the line.
      Alfred: You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them, you squeezed them to a point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they don't fully understand.
    • Rounding out the trilogy, in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce is trapped in prison while the city of Gotham is in danger of being blown up, but even his anger and sense or responsibility aren't enough to give him the willpower to escape. Finally, when time is about to run out for Gotham, Bruce becomes so desperate that he throws all safety to the wind and escapes the prison in a life-or-death attempt without wearing a rope.


  • In A Brother's Price, Captain Raven Tern is genre-savvy enough to avert this. When she stands in front of the Whistler farm, and the question is presented to her why she doesn't just force them to let her in, she points out that the adults are away on business, and the house is full of toddlers and girls in their early teens, who are armed up to the teeth.
  • David from Animorphs is this, both figuratively and literally. In The Solution he actually morphs a rattlesnake, and as for the figurative part? The end-of-book blurb for The Solution speaks for itself:
    And he has nothing to lose.
    That's why the Animorphs have to get rid of him. Now.
    • Visser One thinks of the whole human race this way, which is why she pushes for a secret invasion—she knows enough about human history and psychology to realize that they'll fight to the last man, and sometimes even win, no matter how much stronger their foes might be.
  • Don Quixote and the Knight of the Grove are going to fight, and the squire of the Knight of the Grove bullies Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s squire, into a fight. Sancho continuously denies this, until the squire of the Knight of the Grove menaces to give Sancho some buffets, so Sancho invokes this trope trying to defy it:
    "To match that plan," said Sancho, "I have another that is not a whit behind it; I will take a cudgel, and before your worship comes near enough to waken my anger I will send yours so sound to sleep with whacks, that it won't waken unless it be in the other world, where it is known that I am not a man to let my face be handled by anyone; let each look out for the arrow—though the surer way would be to let everyone's anger sleep, for nobody knows the heart of anyone, and a man may come for wool and go back shorn; God gave his blessing to peace and his curse to quarrels; if a hunted cat, surrounded and hard pressed, turns into a lion, God knows what I, who am a man, may turn into..."
  • In The Art of War, Sun Tzu warns the reader from putting an opposing army in this position: Always leave your opponent an escape route or you'll unnecessarily lose men to the ensuing Last Stand, no matter how much stronger your army is.
  • Following Sun Tzu's advice, Mat deliberately averts this when making battle plans in the fifth book of The Wheel of Time, explaining to Lan that you never want to see what your opposition can do when they don't have any option other than to fight as hard as they can.
  • Played with by Terry Pratchett in Witches Abroad. Two snakes which were transformed into humans are threatening Magrat, who is usually an utter wimp and tends to shrink from conflict, then they back her into a corner and she punches one of them so hard that it flies through air and then clubs the other on the head.
    "the trouble with small furry animals in a corner is that, just occasionally, one of them is a mongoose."
  • The Boy who was as hard as Stone has the main character undergoing this.
  • In Pact Blake Thorburn averts this-while he will lash out violently when backed into a corner, he'll more often than not do so thoughtlessly, without considering consequences or realistic possibilities of escape. Hence, his enemies have no issues cornering him. The problem arises when Rose, his Distaff Counterpart, is cornered. Being the calmer and more educated member of the pair, she's more learned in the family trade-specifically, diabolism, and once she's backed into a corner she rapidly loses any moral qualms she has about sending things like Bloody Mary after her enemies.
  • This is why Gavin de Becker discourages filing restraining orders in The Gift of Fear, as they often just push abusive spouses and stalkers over the edge and cause them to murder their victims.

     Tabletop Games  

  • Exalted: Ebon Dragon has this theme as one of his (very few) admirable quality. The harder you gang-up on him (or one of his chosen), the harder he/they fight back— usually in a way that is completely unexpected. For example, Cornered Titan Desperation charm allows you to use ranged attack charm in point blank range if you're, well, cornered. Screw momentum, he has to survive!
  • Espers in Psionics: The Next Stage In Human Evolution are extremely dangerous when pushed too far.
    • Rose in Captured. After being detained, put on constant P.P.I.C.s, and subjected to cruel experiments and indoctrination attempts by the Shop for at least six weeks an agent tells her that her friends were killed in an escape attempt. She snaps and mangles the agent in question. Details are left out but she notes that the agent isn't pretty anymore and may not ever walk again. She doesn't even know what she did or how she did it.
    • Harry in Broken Things. Kept in a position similar, although seemingly even crueler, to Rose, he eventually gains enough power to overcome his captors and goes on a rampage throughout the facility. When his rescuers show up, they find him killing the nurses and doctors that tortured him.
    • Ian TK Pushes Chad after being assaulted by him and his bully friends, yet again.
  • Some of the flavor text for white, red, and green cards from Magic: The Gathering reference this trope, such as Alara Reborn's Colossal Might.
  • In Pathfinder, one racial ability that ratfolk can take is effectively this - if they are under half health and have no conscious allies within 30 feet of them, they get bonuses to both attack and defense.

     Video Games  

  • Painwheel from Skull Girls has been experimented on, brainwashed and mutilated by Valentine's labs. Her scarred and deformed body makes it impossible to live a normal life, even her family cannot recognize her and mistake her as a murderous monster. Painwheel was once a normal girly teenager, but now is a feral and violent fighter. Valentine's greatest weapon is now her biggest threat.
  • Chell, from Portal, is forced to destroy GLaDOS, who is forcing Chell to go through dangerous test chambers and even attempted to kill Chell by dragging her into a fire. Otherwise Chell is just a normal person, while GLaDOS is a giant robot that can fire rockets, summon turrets and poison rooms with neurotoxin.
    • Similarly, Gordon Freeman from Half-Life is a perfectly ordinary young scientist just trying to survive an alien invasion, becoming a One-Man Army in the process.
  • This trope is why it's a very bad idea to surround enemy troops on an open battlefield in the Total War games. If you completely surround an army they will battle to the death, knowing there is no other option. However if they are simply outflanked and overpowered, some will want to rout and retreat to save themselves. This is also why sieges almost always devolve into a final bloody meatgrinder in the city/castle square. Once the defenders fall back there, they know they've got nowhere else to retreat to, so they stand and fight to the last man. The only way to prevent this is to somehow break the entire enemy army before any of them can retreat to the city center. However, if the siege has been long enough and bloody enough, the fight in the city center can result in a Back from the Brink moment, when the enemy army is so exhausted and worn down that they break and run.
  • Applies to the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot. Lara Croft, an innocent young archeologist that has never found need to harm another living thing, is forced into a corner by a crazy cult and is forced to fight to survive. This has the unfortunate side-effect of causing Lara to gain a dramatic level of skill in survivalism and combat, and ends up being the single biggest mistake the cultists ever made.
  • Happens often in First-Person Shooters where a capture the flag or capture point game mechanic is used, cornering the opposing team into one last standoff pretty much guarantees that you'll be fighting every single player at once, throwing everything they have at you at once. A good example would be the "red team" in most Team Fortress 2 matches.
  • By the ending of Final Fantasy Crisis Core, Soldier Zack Fair is alone and saddled with a Mako poisoned cadet. He tries to avoid the massive army sent to kill him, only killing when he's forced to fight directly, and just wants to disappear into the city. Then he realizes that he's utterly fucked if he keeps running. Cue Zack taking down the majority of the Shinra Army by himself before his death in the games greatest COA.
  • Taking Roche's path in The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings has the town of Vergen doing this when an enemy army attacks them. They lose and the town is taken, but at a high price for the attackers (that can also include the attacking army's king.)

     Web Original  

  • In Worm, the PRT decide that they've had enough of Skitter, so once they find her secret identity they dispatch Dragon and Defiant to apprehend her immediately. The location? In the middle of a high school cafeteria filled to bursting.
    Skitter: You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.
    • More disturbingly, the PRT actually wants Skitter to take hostages so they can justify going to such extremes to take her down.

     Western Animation  

  • In the first episode of Batman Beyond, Bruce's Batman is too old to fight against the goons. One of them is about to beat Batman with a pipe, forcing Batman to use a gun to win. Batman, who hates guns, decides he needs to retire in his old age so he wouldn't be in this situation again.
  • In the early DC Animated Universe series Batman: The Animated Series, the episode "Joker's Favor" climaxes with this, when Charlie Collins, driven over the edge by the realisation that Joker will keep tormenting him and his family forever simply because he finds it that fun, feigns Sanity Slippage and threatens the Joker with a Mutual Kill via one of Joker's own bombs, terrorizing Joker into giving up all his information on the Collins family.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
  • Tom once bought a book titled "How to Catch a Mouse". At some point, Jerry was cornered and Tom read from a chapter that "a cornered mouse never fights". The book was proven wrong.

     Real Life  

  • Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
  • Many revolutions were formed by militias of citizens, who were too pressured by their governments to survive without rebelling.
  • Unfortunately, there are many examples of people who are driven to suicide, murder or murder-suicide from bullying, threats and other things.
  • Carpenter ants can self-destruct, spreading their poisonous guts over their enemies.
  • Rattlesnakes, the Trope Namer. They're usually content to ignore and be ignored, but will strike if they feel threatened.
    • Almost all venomous snakes, for that matter. They actually prefer running away over biting if they can run away. Mambas are an exception, being quick to anger (and not at all subtle) but usually if you see a venomous snake at all you're more likely to be bitten by trying to kill it than by just backing away. In one form or another, many venomous snakes give you a courtesy warning: "Piss off or get bitten." Rattlesnakes with their rattles and cobras with their hoods are the most recognizable examples of this. Bottom line, if you're so foolhardy as to not heed those warnings, you WILL get bitten.
    • At least if you're too big to eat. Snakes only produce so much venom. Any they spend killing a human is venom they can't use to kill something edible. It's preferable to evade or scare off a large creature, and a good metaphor for the trope as the confrontation is not something the snake benefits from.
  • Skunks are normally peaceful creatures, but will spray predators with a smelly liquid if threatened.
  • Bees and spiders, except for a few notable examples, would much rather fly or scuttle away rather than sting or bite a creature about 1000 times their size. Usually they do after a person has been swatting at them.
  • Deer of all creatures are surprisingly dangerous despite how cute they may seem. They would just love to bound away from you, but as this guy learned will not hesitate to kick the crap out of you if you push them.
  • During the Punic Wars, the Carthaginian general Hannibal caused such a situation at Cannae: the battle was one of the worst defeats Rome ever suffered, most of the Carthaginian losses ensued when the Romans noticed they had been surrounded and tried to kill their way out, with about three legions worth of troops escaping the encirclement.
  • Invoked by the barrier troops, troops stationed behind the main fighting force with orders to gun down any deserter or friendly troops that retreat without orders.
  • An old Japanese proverb translates roughly as "The cornered rat will bite the cat," and is quite apt since rats can be surprisingly fast when pressured and have sharp enough teeth to give a nasty injury to any cat.
  • Relatedly, cats. That hissing and puffing might look like it's just for show, but if genuinely feeling cornered and desperate, cats can unleash some rather destructive violence on whatever is between them and freedom.