A vague, wispy look given by a character in response to something that, theoretically, should produce a more intense or specific expression of shock, horror, or revelation. Typically the character looks vacant with their mouth opened, supposedly astonished about something but really looks like the tail end of binging on sedative narcotics. The trope is often used to describe the "wide" range of emotions a given actor may use for a role, and one of the staples of lazy character design and artistry. "Dull Surprise" shows up so often because it's a simple expression to perform or draw.
On occasion this is done intentionally. An entire branch of acting called "minimalist" goes on the assumption that reining in your performance is the truest form of the craft, as it's actually much easier to overact and it creates a greater contrast when they do flip out. Clint Eastwood is one who has perfected that art. In specific roles and scenes, using this look may indicate the event you are responding to is not merely surprising, but genuinely incomprehensible, to the point that characters have no faintest idea how to react. This usage typically precedes or is preceded by a Flat "What.". It may also be done intentionally to show that the character in question is utterly unflappable, even in the face the most astonishing events, or has gone through the wringer one time too many.
And from a different perspective, the lack of expression is vastly preferable to hamming up the performance to the point of absurdity and Milking the Giant Cow. The tone of the work itself may be intended towards a quiet, passive experience. For actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Nicolas Cage, the times they actually show emotion tends to make for hilarious YouTube compilations.
Very much Truth in Television. People's faces often betray very little emotion — especially if they don't think anyone's watching them.
Trope is named for a skit in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 where Mike Nelson attempts to guess the emotions portrayed by Kathy Ireland in Alien from L.A.; the correct answer for each was "Dull surprise!" It is also a meme in Transformers fandom, in reference to the art of Pat Lee.
Compare That Makes Me Feel Angry, Frozen Face (if the character's face literally cannot emote), Emotionless Girl, Kuleshov Effect, Dissonant Serenity.
Contrast Chewing the Scenery (and all its Sub Tropes)
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Anime & Manga
Due to the simplified style and reliance of stylistic cues that amount to outright writing what the character is feeling in many manga works (sweat drips, tears, shadow lines, sound effect that basically write things like "shocked" in the air be characters), trying to imitate the overall visual style of the source material often turns animated adaptations into this. Even original works frequently make strong stylistic choices, sometimes with a single characters, involving fixing facial elements that in real people change quite constantly to convey expression. Most commonly, the problem centers around the eyes, where they're drawn big and wide in the standard cartoon exaggeration, but don't shrink, grow, and change shape in similar cartoon fashion because the animator feels that would cross some sort of line on realism.
The most intenseexample is probably Attack on Titan, where the mouths are also simplified and follow words rather than expressions and the 'clean' style leaves the faces with no reference marks for expression whatsoever. This leads to some rather Narm -ish moments in the earlier episodes where characters are screaming at each other and trying to chew the scenery and 'emotional' reaction-shots are spammed... with every character bearing exactly the same facial expression as the 'peaceful times' illustrating dinner scene from the first episode.
In Battle RoyaleKiriyama's facial expressions are hard to illustrate other than using question marks for confusion.
Kira in Gundam Seed Destiny sports this when Meer Campbell dies and everyone is crying and he just looks like he just smoked a bunch of pot. Considering that Kira's cry is notorious for sounding like a dying horse, the viewers got off lucky.
Takumi Fujiwara in Initial D gets to Ctrl+Alt+Del levels when his driving passion is awakened while watching his rival's performance during an illegal race.
One theory is that the artist was so good at drawing cars, he decided to use the same methods on human beings.
Kyon mentally criticizes Itsuki of this in the SOS Brigade movie. Strange in that since his normal persona is at least something of an act, and a pretty good one at that. Even Kyon has trouble figuring out what he really thinks about anything.
In Nyoron Churuya-san, everyone except Churuya and Achakura have one same monochromic expression. That is, they all look like this: -_-. All the time.
This happens a lot in Gantz. One the most obvious examples is this panel◊ from chapter 303.
Done intentionally with Ichiro in Nerima Daikon Brothers—he's so calm and sedate that he reacts to almost everything with a blank, slack-jawed expression. Actually, it seems like most of the guys at the Host Club behave this way for some reason.
Every character Tsutomu Nihei has ever drawn. His most famous stoic is Killy from Blame!!, who is quite well known for having the emotional range of a broken toaster.
Gaara of Naruto, after his Heel-Face Turn, tends to embody this trope for the most part. Even when Kimimaro nearly succeeded in shoving a bone-turned-drill through Gaara's face in the Sasuke Retrieval arc. It wasn't until Kimimaro's kill-you-with-my-last-breath attack that the Kazekage at last showed shock and fear that was on-par with the other characters of the series.
Shaman King's HaoAsakura usually conveyed minimal shock, fear or surprise at something unexpected happening around or to him. That is, until things got serious.
Many characters in Ubel Blatt look like they're in perpetual Dull Surprise, although there are a few times where they do show some emotions but that tends to be most of the older cast or when the younger cast are very angry.
Chief Kushima shows remarkably little emotion for a man whose arm has just been torn to shreds by a metal cable in the first episode of Real Drive, despite of not yet having a cybernetic body at this time.
Kotori Makino from Koe de Oshigoto! While she can simulate the proper expressions when acting, her own emotions are very rarely visible on her face. She has yet to be seen surprised, shocked or angry, which is quite a feat, considering what usually goes on around her.
Ulquiorra Cifer from Bleach is the physical embodiment of this trope. Most of the time, the closest he gets to an expression besides line face is during battles where he's shocked, which is expressed by just barely widening his eyes. If it wasn't for dramatic speed lines or speech bubbles with exclamation marks you may not even catch that his expression changed at all. However, his repeated encounters with Ichigo leads to a prolonged Villainous Breakdown, because Ichigo's refusal to give up starts to get to him. When he transforms into his true super form, the fact that Ichigo still won't stay down pisses him off to the point that he starts shouting at him. He later manages to recollect himself, and when he's about to be nuked by Ichigo's hollow form after being caught off guard, all he does in response is stare blankly at him and say "do it". Of course, since he's the Anthropomorphic Personification of nihilism, this is to be expected.
Inverted in-universe with Kasuka Heiwajima of Durarara!!, who is a Master Actor even in the most camp and B-movie of roles... and has the emotional range of Rei Ayanami on valium when not acting.
The Medicine Peddler in Mononoke, whose reactions to the eponymous demonic apparitions are usually limited to phrases such as, "Oh my." or "My word." Especially amusing when the people around him are cowering and screaming in fear.
Daily Life with Monster Girl: in chapter 20, Zombina stumbles onto a fight between Kii, a dryad mutated by illegal toxic waste, and Suu, a slime grown to giant size by the same waste. The two lose their balance and topple directly toward Zombina, who reacts with a blank expression and a deadpan "Uh..." before she's smashed flat. A glorious example of this trope used intentionally.
During the Spider-Man story arc "The Other," an issue is devoted to Mary Jane's shock and grief at Peter's apparent death. Whom did Marvel hire to draw this emotionally-charged issue? Pat Lee, who is notorious for this sort of thing. Cue 20 pages of Mary Jane looking far more stoned than grief-stricken, even if you want to believe that she was in shock the entire time her expression didn't change at all.
Linkara mocks an issue of Uncanny X-Men (#423) for having Nightcrawler reveal a surprising bit of info and having all the characters react in shock... "or rather with apathy, shock, confusion, boredom and surprise".
The comic book version Anita Blake reacts this way to everything. No matter how shocking, horrific or terrible the event, she reacts by opening her mouth slightly and looking perturbed.
At one point in the "ill-conceived" DC series Amazons Attack, Batman looks down and frowns slightly while saying, "An Amazon attack, a deadly bee weapon. Bees. My god." Made into a running joke by Linkara.
The fact that the dialogue only uses periods only underscores the fact that Batman seems to flatly declaring this without any emotion whatsoever — given the bee-themed superweapon he's discussing, under the circumstances the reader would have probably forgiven an exclamation mark or two.
Despite the arc being drawn by what's often considered the series' best artist, the Sonic the Comic adaptation of Sonic Adventure suffers from this. Amy and Tikal in particular have dull expressions.
X-23's abusive upbringing has left her with a poor understanding of how to deal with her emotions, so she generally only has two reactions to things happening around her: blank and seething rage. Anything more tends to be very subtle variations thereof. When she does visibly emote you know whatever caused it was a big deal.
Most noticeable in The Matrix trilogy, which is apparently why the Wachowskis hired him. For the scenes within the Matrix, this was done deliberately by all the actors at direction from the Wachowskis to help create a sense of disconnect caused by Morpheus and the others knowing the Matrix isn't real. Admittedly this is somewhat undermined by the whole "Your mind makes it real" speech.
The Room, with Tommy Wiseau. It is not difficult to imagine every line of his in the script, except questions, ending in a period, given his flat, mostly-unaffected delivery. He sounds bored even when his character is supposed to be outraged.
Johnny: Oh, HAI, (fill in the name)! (Endlessly. Even to a dog.)
Johnny: "I dihdt naht hit her. It's nawt true. It's bowlschit, AH dihdt naht hit her. AH DIHDT naaaaaaght. Oh, hai, Mark."
In his short film The House That Bleeds on Alex, he plays the titular role in the exact same fashion. Special mention goes to his portrayal of Alex's corpse which is both realistic and completely natural.
Selma Blair maintains this expression at all times in the film version of Hellboy, possibly justified by the fact that her character tends to blow things up when she gets too emotional. Liz also spends a significant part of the film pretty heavily medicated.
The 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice had Matthew McFayden (Darcy) doing this. Mister Darcy has a consistent problem with this in various film versions of the book. The reason seems to be that in the book, he starts out disdainful and cold to the point of rudeness, and different actors struggle with how to play him so that he can be accepted by the audience in a romantic role despite coming off as a jerk less than an hour ago.
Jennifer Lawrence does "dull surprise" extremely well in both Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games, although to be honest, it's kind of in character and can also be translated as "grim concentration" in both cases.
Just imagine the number of sedatives the cast of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats must have been on while making the movie. There is a scene in which a man's hands get burned off and he doesn't seem to mind. You've probably made a bigger reaction to losing your keys!
In fact, Screen Junkies, creator of Honest Trailers, made a supercut video of all the times people in the Twilight films are staring at each other without talking. The video is just under half an hour!
Jason Statham has two distinct moods: Scowling while beating people up, and scowling while beating people up with his shirt off. It can take several viewings of a Statham movie to even figure out what's supposed to be motivating the character because of this, leading to his characters' behavior being seemingly essentially random in his unfortunately common appearance in spy movies where the main character's emotional state driving him to choose between conflicting duties or alliances is the whole plot. The Transporter 3 is the worst offender.
Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III. From the amount of emotion in her dying "Dad?" you'd expect she wanted to ask Michael to pass the orange juice.
Moonraker: Doctor. Holly. Goodhead. Really, my dear, if you're facing the end of humanity by toxic freaking nerve gas, would it kill you to at least sound kind of interested?!
Christian Bale seems to have a variety of facial expressions comparable to a marble statue. This is largely due to his method of playing sociopathic and/or emotionally disaffected characters. Several of his films feature bipolar performances swinging between Vulcan-like emotional coldness and sudden, manic frenzy.
Dorothy Parker once said that Katharine Hepburn ran "the gamut of emotions, from A to B."
Orlando Bloom. Although he'll probably strike a heroic pose at the same time, just to mix things up. The one time Bloom showed genuine emotion is his grin when Jack Sparrow commented "Nice Hat" to him in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Early into Kingdom of Heaven, Balian murders a priest (his own half-brother in the extended version) in the heat of the moment. Even during this act of passion, Bloom's facial expression is that of mildly confused curiosity.
Deliberately played with in Scanners, where the protagonist has no personality, and delivers all his lines in a Creepy Monotone. This makes Stephen Lack's performance easily confused with simple bad acting - his roles usually have more emotional range to them.
Clive Owen wears the same dully surprised face for the entirety of King Arthur.
Steven Seagal. In Italy, and possibly, elsewhere, TV advertised a series of Steven Seagal films with this line (translated):
"His facial muscles are firm, but leg and arm muscles moves like lightning".
Zooey Deschanel. For example, in Tin Man and in The Happening (with one reviewer describing her performance in the latter film as being that of "a perpetually surprised lemur"). The Happening even gives her the line "I don't like to show my emotions," which many suspect was a desperate attempt to make her lack of any performance work. This culminated in her role as the title character of (500) Days of Summer, where her emotionally mute acting style worked great as an emotionally dead character to explain why the main character, obviously hoping she'd be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, had such a terrible relationship with her.
All the characters, aside from the one crazy lady at the end, from The Happening suffer from this. In a film about a supposed terrorist attack, which causes mass suicides, you would think people would be a bit more emotional; but no. Instead the most emotional scene in the film is when they get upset over the lead character's wife having dessert with a co-worker.
William Hurt in the 1998 Lost in Space movie. The robot displayed more emotion than him. Hurt's dull performance could be summed up in just one line:
"I love you, wife."
And when his family is killed by the planet debris, he's so dull the music has to do the acting for him.
Ford has rejected the oft-repeated suggestion that he deliberately did a poor job to sabotage the voice-over. He insists he did the best job he could with badly-written narration which he felt had no place in the film.
Hurd Hatfield in the 1945 The Picture of Dorian Gray. The voiceover is saying he's seized with terror and panic, and he just looks kinda bored. Even when he murders Basil, he seems like he's thinking about what kind of sandwich he wants to make later.
Channing Tatum and Sienna Miller in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Their roles could have been played with cardboard cutouts and tape recorders and nobody would have noticed the difference (at least one reviewer said the special effects are more animated than Tatum).
Fireproof manages to make this look natural with Kirk Cameron's character. As a volunteer firefighter, Caleb tends to automatically swallow his emotions in a crisis, leading to vacillating between Dull Surprise and completely exploding.
Fred Clark, at Slacktivist, has credited Cameron's acting style to his having learned to act as a child actor in a family sitcom: child actors in such shows learn, primarily, a) to mug and b) to wait until someone else has delivered a line. "Watch CamCam's reaction and see if you can spot one. CamCam isn't talking, so CamCam isn't acting."
According to Sergio Leone, in the '60s, Clint Eastwood had "two facial expressions: one with the hat, and one without it". His acting style evolved a lot since then.
Legend has it that Leone once explained Eastwood's appeal by saying that "when Michelangelo looked at a block of marble, he saw David; when I looked at Eastwood, I saw a block of marble." Leone was initially drawn to Eastwood by his restrained performance as Rowdy Yates in Rawhide, and the two men worked hard to perfect this for A Fistful of Dollars. His character's trademark wardrobe - the poncho, the cheroot, the hat - were all intended to de-emphasise the character's humanity, and he had no name. Except for Joe.
Kill Bill - This is precisely the expression that Uma Thurman had upon waking up from her coma, so shocked that she sat straight up in bed, emphasized by the freeze-frame.
Daryl Hannah isn't exactly well-known for emoting in her acting. However, this works for her character in Kill Bill because this makes her a lot more ruthless and threatening. An example is her apathy to Michael Madsen's death by black mamba (the snake, not the Bride)
What about the daughter of Vivica A Fox's Character reacting with slight disappointment at her own mother's death.
Malin Akerman in the Watchmen movie. Her reaction to being teleported to Mars is remarkably sedate.
She, in fact, took this to the meta level by requesting that the filmmakers cut anything that might add characterization to Laurie outside of acting, such as her smoking, profanity, stammering, etc. Dull Surprise applied to thematics as well as delivery is a terrible thing to behold.
Matthew Goode, as Ozymandias, provides a more mild but still persistent problem. In particular, the comic's ebullient "I won!" (accompanied with raised fists and a shot of Alexander The Great in the background) is replaced with a near-whisper indistinguishable from any of his other lines. Opinion varies on whether this is necessarily a bad thing, however; to some people, it comes off as Ozymandias being so overwhelmed by the fact his plan actually worked that he's just plain incapable of emoting.
Dr Manhattan has this tendency in-universe. Though he has an excuse.
Kevin Costner, in most of his roles. Waterworld ("My boat") perhaps has a justification, as his character shuns and is shunned by society, and he rarely interacts with people out on the open ocean.
As an example of Tropes Are Not Bad, Javier Bardem exhibits little to no emotion as the ruthless Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Naturally, he's a lot more intimidating, and won an Oscar for his performance.
Paul Walker always used this as his backup mode of acting, but nowhere was this more evident than in the 5th The Fast and the Furious. He reacts to the fact that his girlfriend is pregnant with an expression of "meh, that's good too." A pity, because the acting of the cast all around improved somewhat by then (especially Vin Diesel, now able to show emotions!)
Michael Pitt in damn near everything.
Sam Worthington is infamous for this. He was commended at one point for his acting in Terminator Salvation. Then Avatar and Clash of the Titans rolled around, and people realized that he wasn't doing a brilliant role as an emotionless robot, he was trying to act normally. He does a lot better in The Debt.
It's worse when you learn his character in Terminator Salvation wasn't supposed to be a emotionless robot.
Possibly every role ever played by Camilla Belle. Her entire acting range is a blank stare...and nothing else.
Justin Timberlake spends most of In Time with the same grumpy facial expression. May be justified, but it's really not due to having taken a lover while all the chaos happens in the movie.
Lampshaded in the 1998 The X-Files movie "Fight the Future." While doing a bomb search in Dallas, Scully tries to trick Mulder by saying the door to the rest of the building (they're on the roof) is locked. She teases him about panicking.
Scully: I saw your face, Mulder. There was a definite moment of panic.
Mulder: You've never seen me panic. When I panic, I make this face. (remains completely passive)
Michael Madsen has one permanently plastered to his face regardless of his role. In the Bloodrayne movie, he looks bored out of his mind even as a sword is rammed through his chest.
The Avengers (1998): John Steed and Emma Peel spend the film reacting politely and bantering during dangerous situations instead of getting excited or freaked out by any of it.
The characters did much the same in the original series, but the actors appeared to be enjoying it.
One critic attacked Daniel Craig's performance in Quantum of Solace as an emotionless Robo-Bond, especially after his lauded performance in the previous film. However this was likely intentional, seeing as everyone in the film (M, Mathis, Camille) calls Bond out on his cold demeanor in the wake of Vesper's death.
Batman: The Movie: Frank Gorshin's famously hyperactive Riddler provides a surprisingly good example. The manic, perpetually giggling supervillain can't enter a room without laughing or push a button without a flourish, but when he checks his skywriting missile and discovers that it's sent the Batcopter into an unrecoverable fall, his immediate reaction is to stop giggling, shake his head and blink. Upon looking again and confirming, he shrieks "Look!" to get Catwoman's and Joker's attention, but as they begin to laugh and cheer, Riddler just stares at nothing and quietly mutters, "I got them. I got them."
Yoda pretty much always looks and sounds extremely bored all the time, even when he's fighting for his life, and whenever he is surprised it's shown very subtly. As the Jedi Apprentice books put it:
"His heavy lidded eyes blinked slowly, making him appear bored, but his long ears twitched. Qui-Gon had come to recognize the sign of the Master registering surprise"
Aaron Johnson as Ford Brody was criticized for this by many viewers and reviewers, though as a bomb tech just back from 14 months of presumably harrowing duty, trying to deal with mounting tragedy over several days both personal and generic, it makes sense.
It must run in the family, as his six year-old son Sam Brody doesn't make a strong expression toward anything, even Godzilla or his mom appearing after San Francisco.
Much of Heather Langenkamp's acting in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors with her character Nancy Thompson is unjustifiably like this. It is absolutely strange for someone who's a) featured as the main protagonist, b) has actually encountered Freddy before (so she knows how he works) and takes the initiative to find out how to at least defeat him temporarily and c) converses in dialogue with which she downplays the peril through being entirely unconvincing in a film featuring a burnt serial killer that picks off teenagers dealing with him in their dreams who are institutionalised for being considered delusional for thinking he exists. You'd think a horror film where teenagers are terrified of the unpredictable attempts (and some of them downright aren't) on their life within their dreams by a killer madman who enjoys murdering youths would have instilled fear in Nancy, not least for having gone through it herself. On top of this, she has to cope with the fact that these teenagers are being locked up and sedated because of the belief of their mental state, which is the opposite of a good idea taking into account the circumstances, so I'm sure her dialogue could have been injected with a little more genuine empathy and worry (her previous experience should have paid off in this regard).
The characters in Bradleys Summer have a lot to be surprised about, considering that it's not every day you find out that your butler is a terrorist leader who plans to blow up your house during a party held by a congresswoman, and the plot was just stopped by kids. And the way they find out is by seeing a bomb go off when the kids threw it in a lake. The average real-life parent whose kid got in trouble at school for something minor would have a stronger reaction than these adults do.
Arrow: Pretty much Laurel Lance's default expression. Even when she's meant to be angry, she looks like she was just slapped in the face with a fish.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Pretty much Oz's whole bit. The minute he sees Buffy stake a vampire, he brushes it off and says it "explains a lot."
7th Heaven: The Camden twins, Sam and David, in the later seasons, were a particularly awful example of this trope. Everything they said came out in an almost robotic monotone.
Batman: The principle of Adam Westing, which Adam West himself did the whole time, when he didn't sound drunk that is. Part of this was intentional to have him play the Straight Man to the crazy villains, and he memorably averts Dull Surprise towards the end of the film when Catwoman's mask comes off.
Criminal Minds: Ellie Spicer, the abducted little girl in the episode "The Longest Night", seemed to unintentionally smirk through a lot of scenes in the episode, regardless of the situation.
Reed, whose sole expression was one of annoyed petulance.
The Day of the Triffids: One of the many, many problems with the UK remake. Dougray Scott as the hero was a particular offender, delivering lines like "we have to warn everybody" with all the urgency of someone reminding their wife to pick up milk on the way home. One could have put it down to merely staying true to the spirit of the original book (John Wyndham's dialogue sometimes suffers from the same problem) if it hadn't been a considerably looser adaptation than the 1981 series, which averted this trope rather thoroughly by the way.
Dead Like Me: Ellen Muth (George Lass), is like this in many scenes, being a depressed Deadpan Snarker. Britt McKillip (George's sister, Reggie) is even more like this. She spends pretty much the whole series carrying a dull expression even when Reggie's sister dies, her parents get divorced, and her dog gets hit by a car.
Doctor Who: Karen Gillan had several instances of this, especially during her first season. She gradually improved over her run, however.
Father Stone is also this. Answers every question with a deadpan "No, I'm fine" even when he's struck by lightning.
Flight of the Conchords: The dull despair of our heroes is one of their defining traits, used to show how utterly unlucky they are. Misfortune comes their way so often that all they can manage anymore is a small sad 'Oh.'
In the episode "The Late Dr. Crane", Niles is talked into getting a botox injection. Due to the paralyzing nature of the treatment, a revelation causes him to exclaim "Oh my God!" without moving a single muscle above his mouth.
Martin once gave a similar (non)-reaction after returning from the spa. When asked why he didn't smile or anything after receiving good news, his response was that he thought he was smiling.
Anna Torv. Considering that she shares scenes with one of the Largest Hams known to mankind, which is sure to emphasize any poor attempts at more subtle expressions in others. She's gotten a bit better with it though.
She finds out her boyfriend is a double agent, then sees him get killed, then he packs his suitcase and moves into her brain. Later she finds out that she was a Tyke Bomb guinea pig in Walter and William Bell's drug experiments. If she had a normal emotional range it would be a miracle.
But then, it's called subtlety (it's all in the eyes, baby!) It works very well for a character as subdued as Olivia, but viewers have become so used to actors Chewing the Scenery that it's probably hard to recognize and not mistake for woodenness.
On the other hand, her emotional problems are a plot point in Season 2. The trauma of being a human guinea pig wrecked her emotionally and taught her to channel any fear into anger. We meet an alternate universe version of Olivia who is much more emotional, confirming that it's a deliberate acting choice.
This is more a problem with her co-star, Joshua Jackson, who has two modes: Deadpan Snarker, and just deadpan. This is especially visible in Season Three, when his character has to deal with a whole bunch of emotional problems about half-way in.
Full House: The Olsen twins, sharing the role of Michelle, were at times painful when they got old enough to have actual lines. In all fairness, they were very young at the time, but it went on to dog their later work as well, and was a major contributing factor in the complete failure of their one and only theatrical starring feature, New York Minutenote (they were billed below Steve Guttenberg and Kirstie Alley in 1995's It Takes Two), which only grossed $14 million dollars during its whole box office run. Both twins, now adults, have turned to other careers.
Watching Jennifer Love Hewitt do this has been the source of many a narmy moment. It really doesn't help that they end about half the scenes with a nice big close up of her so desperately struggling to make a facial expression, any facial expression.
Milo Ventimiglia, who played Peter. About the most "emotion" he shows is a slight curl of his lip, but that's actually a result of partial face paralysis.
It's glaringly obvious when he's in a scene with someone who can actually act—Jack Coleman, Cristine Rose, Christopher Eccleston, Zachary Quinto, David Anders, Hayden Panettiere, and on into the sunset (fortunately he never had a scene with Mr. Muggles). Watching his interactions with his on-screen brother Adrian Pasdar is especially painful. One comes across as dangerous, calculating and creepy, the other appears lobotomized. Oooooh dear.
He simply inherited it from his on-screen father, Robert Forster, who apparently decided that Arthur Petrelli was too powerful to have any emotion on his face or in his tone when delivering his dialogue. He doesn't even seem bored, just... monotone.
Taub: Here's my impression of Foreman on the happiest day of his life. (dons a completely flat expression) Now on the saddest day of his life. (does the same face)
Jason and the Argonauts: Jason London as the eponymous character in this Hallmark miniseries. From being told that his uncle killed his father to nearly drowning, he has the same nauseated look.
Jericho: Ashley Scott. Sometimes she tries to cover this up by holding her hands over her blank face. With mixed success - many times this has simply ended up looking like she's sniffing her fingers, not a major improvement.
Law & Order: Elisabeth Rohm, when she was on this show, was given the derisive nickname "Rohmbot" because of this.
MADtv: This style of acting is parodied in another sketch, "One True Impact". It is a spoof trailer uniting Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal in a dramatic film about two brothers reuniting to cope with the impending death of their terminally ill father. Considering these two action stars' limited dramatic range, you can probably guess how this turns out. The trailer's narrator describes it as "a sensitive story about feelings and emotions never before captured on film". And he was right:
Steven Seagal: [bored monotone] I'm your brother. Why don't you believe me?
Psych: This happened in one episode with a rich widow being told something shocking. Her reply is "I'm shocked" with a blank face. When the others look surprised (and suspicious), she explains that she has had botox done and can't show emotion.
Raising Hope: Adorably a Subverted Trope in this Fox show. Typically TV babies just stare or appear agitated, bored, and fussy, but the twins playing Hope always seem to be genuinely fascinated by what's going on around her (them). Their reactions always seem to fit the scenes.
Revolution: This is many people's impression of Tracy Spiridakos, otherwise known as Charlie Matheson. Can't forget Graham Rogers as Danny Matheson, either. Although he's less Dull Surprise and more completely flat-lined. However, in their defense, both of them are less than 20 years by the time the show started airing, and this show is the first time both of them got be main characters, so they need to get experienced. Besides, sometimes understated acting is more effective than hammy acting.
Robin Hood: A bizarre case is the usually-good Joanne Froggatt. Her character Kate spends most of her time with her face screwed up due to her constant scowling, crying and whining, but when she's faced with an actual crisis such as a threat from her brother's murderer or the dead body of one of her comrades, all she can muster is a blank stare. Contrast this with her role as plucky head housemaid Anna on Downton Abbey, and be amazed.
The main cast criticized themselves for the ending to "Thor's Chariot," where they only seemed mildly intrigued by the sight of a ship the size of a city appearing and eliminating a Goa'uld army in seconds. In behind-the-scenes interviews, they explained that none of them appreciated just how impressive (or big) the ship would look in the finished episode, so they did not think to put more awe or fear into their expressions.
Richard Dean Anderson and Christopher Judge later commented that they fell into this trap again in "Prometheus", not realising how impressive the effects would be, making them appeared remarkably bored by the massive Cool Starship taking off right in front of them.
Interestingly, despite Teal'c often trying to be emotionless, it was often clear from his face alone what he was feeling at the moment. Also, as seen in interviews, Christopher Judge is much more lively off-screen (described by Amanda Tapping as a "jackass") - which comes across in the episode where Teal'c and O'Neill switch bodies.
It was a point of some parody (including a MADtv sketch) during the popularity of this show that both David Duchovny and, to a lesser extent, Gillian Anderson would frequently react to mysterious or horrific events with deadpan near-monotone exclamations (since their acting was justfine when the other's character was in danger, though, one could assume that they've become a bit jaded).
Mulder: How can I get this off my hand without betraying my cool exterior?
Chakotay in Star Trek: Voyager was noted for having the emotional range of a tree stump under most circumstances. Robert Beltran actually can act; he just didn't like his role much, and didn't want to waste too much effort on it. Harry Kim could also be a bit immobile, but according to Garrett Wang the producers told him to underact.
Most point out that Rob Van Dam's major failing is that almost every interview, regardless of context, has all the emotive strength of a stoner asking if he and his buddies should go on a snack run. Which is appropriate, since he isThe Stoner in character and in Real Life.
One of the few glaring faults of Dragon Age: Origins is how wall-eyed the Warden is to just about everything - which is especially disturbing considering that a great deal of work went into the facial animations of the Companions, and compared to the rather animated Hawke in Dragon Age II.
Shadow Of Destiny has fairly limited facial animations, so most of the characters look like this at some point, but Eike spends virtually the entire game in a state of Dull Surprise. It doesn't help that his English voice is fairly monotone.
Silent Hill characters have this tendency given the limitations in the graphics; many fans consider the fourth game's protagonist Henry Townsend to be the worst offender.
The limited engine of Deus Ex, combined with acting that ranged from ridiculously over-the-top (and borderline racist) to the flattest line readings imaginable lead to Dull Surprise in more than a few situations. The creators of the game actually stated that this was done intentionally, to have the player produce the emotions instead of them forced on him.
In Knights of the Old Republic, the main character always looks sort of mildly interested in dialogue mode, complete with nodding or raising an eyebrow occasionally, which works for much of the time but not when something dramatic is going on.
In Team Fortress 2, the Spy is the class most likely to be incinerated by a triggerhappy Pyro. Thus, one might expect the Spy to fear his natural enemy. However, where the others might bawl out "I'M BURNING!" and "ON FIRE!" at the top of their lungs with expressions of obvious distress, the Spy's response? Just him with practically the same unperturbed expression he usually exhibits, coupled with an extremely blasé "I do believe I'm on fire," or "I appear to have burst into flames." Hitting him with Jarate, on the other hand...
He does shout the same "Fire, fire, FIRE" that all classes share, but he really sounds more like he is just letting his teammates know than feeling actual panic at being on fire.
However, all of the classes (even the Pyro, whose face is obscured by an all-encompassing gas mask) are very expressive with their feelings, their emotions ranging anywhere from sadistic glee (when they're doing well) to Oh, Crap (when they aren't).
The Mission Control in Persona 3 Fuuka Yamagishi, narrates pitched battles in an incredibly flat, stilted manner. She's a bit better outside of combat, but there are still times where her voice actress is clearly valiantly struggling to keep the emotion down.
Happens again in Persona 4. Shadow Mitsuo's voice is flat and stilted. Mitsuo's shadow is intended to represent his inner emptiness. Unlike the previous game, it's perfectly justified and not at all due to the failings of the VA.
X does this in the opening cutscene to Mega Man X 8. Facing down an army of shapeshifting Reploids should yield a stronger reaction than, "did I leave the oven on?"
He didn't even know they were shape-shifting reploids when he made that face the first time. He thought they were a dozen Sigmas. Seeing how one Sigma is already an unstoppable destructive force that can corrupt billions of reploids and rain down space colonies to destroy the planet, X should have been crapping his pants if that were possible.
The English voices for Will and Chloe in Tales of Legendia perform in a spectacularly unemotional manner. This is particularly bad for Chloe, who is supposed to be an emotionalcharacter, and many of her scenes throughout the game therefore come off as laughable due to her voice's monotone not fitting the situation.
In Final Fantasy VI, all of Shadow's sprites are like this, including his laughter and surprise graphics. Partially justifiable in that he's wearing a maskand he has "killed his emotions", but you can still see his eyes—in a game where just about everyone's eyes are clearly visible and show obvious emotion during laughter and surprise.
Magus in Chrono Trigger has sprites like these, with a contrast similar to that of Shadow's in Final Fantasy VI mentioned above. He actually doesn't even have a surprise animation (He has an animation, but it's a deep scowl rather than a look of shock like everyone else).
Nearly everyone in the first Baten Kaitos game, thanks to the phoned-in voice acting. Xelha, in particular, seems to have trouble expressing any strong emotion.
Similarly, Arc Rise Fantasia. Special mention to the character whose voice actor seems to have put his full emotive talents into sounding vaguely Brazilian, resulting in a sort of silly-clearly-fake-accent-monotone.
In Killer7, Mask de Smith says things like, "Yeah, I'm here to kill Mr. Fukushima" with all the gravity of, "Yeah, I'm here to do the dishes". This was probably intentional, given that Mask, like the rest of the Killer7, is a professional assassin.
In Dead Mountaineer's Hotel, Alec Snevar sounds like his actor was reading the script; there is zero effort put into making the character sound realistic.
The elcor are a deliberate version of this- they communicate via pheromones and extremely subtle hypersonic notes. Something as small as a small smile would be the equivalent of bursting out in song explaining how happy you are to them. Unfortunately, this renders the elcor as being extremely monotone, so they have a habit of prefacing whatever they say with whatever emotion they're feeling. Example: "Delighted: Human, it is good to meet you, Enthused: Let me show you around."
The one time an Elcor doesn't start a sentence with an emotional preface, though, the emotion in his voice matches that of a normal human. It's enough to bring many players to tears.
In Mass Effect 3, Diana Allers acts this way, barely registering anything more than mild disapproval if you threaten to boot her off the Normandy if she files an opinion article or even boot her off yourself.
Taken Up to Eleven in this deleted clip, which one commenter describes as "MASS EFFECT 3 NOW WITH AN ALL ELCOR CAST!".
Admiral: "My god. The Reapers."
The male Shepard gets a heft dose of dull surprise throughout the series, though Mass Effect 3 shows him getting angry several times. Very angry. One reason some fans prefer Jennifer Hale's performance as the female Shepard is that she consistently avoids this.
Male Shepard cries out very emotionally when he believes Cortez will die. It's not that line, but Shepard's response that is full of Narm; all the fear and emotion is sapped out of Mark Meer's voice (and Shepard's face, regardless of whether it's male or female) and he replies with a dull "You sure."
Cortez: Dammit. I'm hit.
Cortez: I'm all right!
Shepard: You sure.
Fighting Knuckles in Sonic Adventure has him utter an extremely dull "Oh no" every time you hit him. It has become a Narm Charm to many people.
Most of the voice acting in King's Quest V consists of this, due to the voice cast consisting of members of the dev team. Hilariously inverted in one instance, where if you examine the empty pouch in Graham's inventory, the narrator proclaims "The pouch is empty!" in a voice of utter shock.
At one point in Borderlands 2, Sanctuary is being lifted into the air while being bombarded by Handsome Jack's satellite. Just as he thinks victory for him is assured, Lilith, who he had thought to be dead, finishes charging up and teleports the entire city to safety. Jack's reaction? A mildly surprised and disinterested, "Huh."
Handsome Jack is an intentional parody of this trope, being literally a faceless villain with his features frozen in place. His relative mildness in the face of setbacks and his usual business (including the gruesome murder of the player character) is also intended to provide contrast for when you find out what he really, actually cares about.
Lilith also has a measure of this, following up various feats of day-saving with a stoic "'sup" and a nod at the PC.
Deus Ex: Invisible War had this as one of its many flaws. The protagonist can learn about ancient conspiracies and be a part of events that will alter the fate of all mankind forever, ushering in the singularity. Or they can be responsible for human extinction, the reign of a benevolent omnipotent conspiracy, or a new age of bigotry and zealotry. And every step of the way, his or her facial expression and tone of voice will be the same as when he or she talks to coffee shop managers about their coffee. Then again, it seems almost everyone in the world talks and acts this way. Spoilers ahoy, but you can see just how bad it is here.
In the American version of Final Fight, when you destroy the car in the car destroying minigame, the owner of the car will come out and say "Oh, my car.", which he's supposed to be yelling, judging by the Japanese version's "Oh! My god!" and the subtitles "OH! MY CAR"(the font may not contain lowercase however so it might be "Oh! My car") which lack a second punctuation mark in both versions.
Riku, after he's just been possessed by Ansem in the first game. Half the time he's not even listening to Sora, and the other half he just sounds rather bored.
Ctrl+Alt+Del: The internet term "B^U" is frequently used by detractors to describe the lack of facial expression (everyone evidently usually looks slightly slack-jawed) as well as everyone looking really similar. It's also become shorthand for "Tim Buckley", who has his own unique set of emotional cripplements.
In a tutorial on drawing facial expressions, Tracy Butler of Lackadaisy specifically included a "Buckley face" as an example of bad art.
Buckley, for a time, seemed to be deliberately sticking to this art style just to spite his detractors. However even he has managed to start avoiding this facial expression of late... usually.
The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!: Bob's standard default expression is eyes wide with his mouth in a tiny O shape. This perhaps reflects the fact that he's constantly encountering new weirdnesses, but has become too used to it to ever look more than mildly startled.
Most Problem Sleuth characters constantly wear this expression, as Andrew drew them deliberately badly in the first place and then only very rarely redrew their base figures. Occasionally he lampshades this, for example in the first Problem Sleuth book:
Allies are united for the first time on the material plane. You eye each other with suspicion.
In How I Became Yours, this is a recurring problem due to how much copying and pasting there is; a character might be speaking normally in one panel, and then shouting or breaking into tears in the next with the same expression.
Kevin Baugh of Kickassia, by virtue of not being an actor at all. Arguably makes it funnier than if he'd tried to be over the top. Apparently it was even at least somewhat intentional, in order to contrast with how hammy everyone else was.
In his review of Golden Girl, The Cinema Snob realizes he doesn't know a good quip after he hears one of the doctors' names is Doctor Who, so he calls up Linkara for help and tells him the movie he's watching. Linkara's only deadpan response is "Of course you are..."
The Nostalgia Chick is like this sometimes. Justified by the fact that she's trying to act like she's too intellectual to enjoy the things she reviews.
Ultra Fast Pony deliberately does this as a joke. Some background characters, and almost every crowd, have completely flat voice acting—whether they're screaming in panic or shouting for joy. It contrasts with the very expressive animation these characters have.
Not usually one for this, being an either good or hammy actor usually, but Doug Walker as the Plot Hole in "The Review Must Go On" just sounds really condescending and bored instead of the wise he was probably aiming for. It's a Talking to Himself scene, so he must have spent all his energy on getting Donnie's rage at the situation across.
The Transformers were originally this, due to cheap animation and being robots. As the series became more profitable, the animation got better, but the comics have remained pretty bland.
Transformers fans have used this term to describe the emotions portrayed by the characters in any Dreamwave comics drawn by Pat Lee or anyone aping his style.
The page image is a particularly infamous example; the expressions on everyone's faces, especially Devastator, are so bland, readers thought that it was some sort of Twist Ending, like Omega Supreme showing up to save the day, or Unicron arriving to wreck stuff up. Why is everyone staring openmouthed?! "Because Pat Lee can't draw any other expression" proves the answer. Schedule Slip made it worse; people waited months to find out what caused the Mass "Oh, Crap!" and there was much discussion over it. And then the next issue comes and the situation hasn't changed at all.
A great example in The Justice League comes from The Joker of all people. When an explosive he had planted in Las Vegas seemingly fails to go off, The Joker watches a video replay in super slow motion that reveals that The Flash had carried the device to the outskirts of town while it was exploding. The Joker's only reaction was uttering a subdued "Huh."
This is justified as the bomb isn't his real plan.
Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom was specifically groomed throughout her life to be this way — she strives never to show emotion in her face. See also Stiff Upper Lip.
Also the palace guards are supposed to be this way, and are often goaded by tourists hoping to get them to break face.
And if you piss them off, indeed they just might "break face".
A running joke concerning many Finnish athletes, who apparently have hard time showing emotion even when they win something big. A good, notable example is the F1 driver-turned-rally-driver-turned-F1-driver-again Kimi Räikkönen, parodied here◊. Another one is ski jumper Janne Ahonen, the only man ever to win the 4-hills tournament five times. He even got a dubbed nickname, "The Mask", from the German press due to this.
After Ahonen won the 4-hills for the 4th time, he was keeping his regular stoic face on during celebrations. A German reporter asked him to smile, just a little, for the camera. His response? "I am smiling."
A lot of athletes come across like this when they give interviews, since they are taught (at least indirectly) not to show much emotion. Athletes are taught to maintain a poker face and avoid showing pain or distress since that might give their opponent an advantage. That tends to creep into their personality as well.
Babies tend to make this expression a lot, since they're constantly encountering things that make no sense to them yet.
People with severe Alzheimer's Disease show a lot of Dull Surprise for the same reason.