"You, O king, were watching; and behold, a great image! This great image, whose splendor [was] excellent, stood before you; and its form [was] awesome. This image's head [was] of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth."
— Daniel to King Nebuchadnezzar, The Bible, The Book of Daniel, 2:31-35
This is when a character who is generally held to be incredibly talented is revealed in the end to be a total incompetent. If the incompetent character is on the side of the heroes, this forces the heroes to save the "savior", who is usually an obnoxious example of The Rival, or a phony example of Always Someone Better. Straight-laced heroes usually have to swallow their pride to help this jerk. The Naïve Newcomer may be shocked to find he's not the nice guy everyone thinks he is. Other heroes will squeeze every benefit they can out of it. If the character is an idol in the eyes of the protagonist(s), Broken Pedestal often follows. If the character with the Feet of Clay is a villain, at first he will appear to be all-powerful and frightening, but will turn out to be a coward, a weakling hiding behind illusions, a Harmless Villain, or Too Dumb to Live.
The villain option tends to appear either in comedy, or in children's TV (with a moral about standing up to bullies).
See also The So-Called Coward, Informed Ability, Miles Gloriosus. Contrast Shrouded in Myth. When the character turns out to be just as competent as he is supposed to be, but is also a complete and total Jerkass and not all that heroic at all, it's Warts and All. The inversion of this trope usually falls under Obfuscating Stupidity, as a character believed to be an utter incompetent is really hiding his competency.
Not to be confused with Feet of Clay, a Discworld novel about golems with literal clay feet. The villainous option should also not be confused with the Big Bad Wannabe, a villain who looks powerful only because he delivered a luck-based kill on the hero or the hero's True Companions, but proved to be a weakling when compared with the other bigger villains.note Also not to be confused with the accepted meaning of the phrase "feet of clay" in normal English usage: someone who is idolized, but has a hidden ethical flaw - the Discworld novel's title is ironic, since the golem has no ethical flaws.
Divided into heroic and villainous examples who have a reputation belied by reality.
Don Kanonji from Bleach plays with this trope. The audience would assume he's a fake, judging by his over-the-top style and the fact that he's using his supposed powers for personal gain, but he really can see ghosts. Unfortunately, he has no idea how to actually get rid of them and, in the episode that introduces him, ends up turning a ghost into a Hollow before Ichigo can stop him. He does mean well, setting up the Karakura Heroes, which at least keeps the kids out of trouble. His main problem is the fact that everything he does is done through a Large Ham filter. He later proves to at least be useful with his negligible reiatsu and saved Tatsuki from Aizen by buying her some time.
Not to mention that he saved Ichigo's ass when he got caught dead to rights by that same hollow while trying to save Kanonji's ass. The look on Ichigo's face after Kanonji's paltry-looking Cannonball says it all.
In the 2004 version of The Alamo, Davey Crockett expresses the sentiment that he, himself, is an example of this trope, being propped up by public opinion and overblown stories about his so-called exploits. He's not, but it makes for a poignant moment.
Captain Amazing in Mystery Men. The titular heroes aren't too good with the helping, though.
Gilderoy Lockhart of the Harry Potter series manages to coast along fairly well on his own hype and stories stolen from the people that actually did them, who he magicked into forgetting and nothing else — at least until he runs into Harry.
Rita Skeeter goes out of her way to explore this in both Dumbledore and Snape.
In the Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy, Inspector Spratt often has to contend with gloryhound Detective Inspector Chimes who is incompetent, but gets great write-ups in the newspapers and magazines.
Fascinatingly, the book of Wicked is the only iteration of the story in which he has actual power. He appears to be some kind of magical criminal fleeing his home dimension, and Dorothy, who comes from the same place, is his inadvertent nemesis. ( Elphaba is his daughter.)
In "Skulduggery Pleasant" it's hilarious really, the rise and fall of Killer Supreme Vaurien Scapegrace. He goes on about how he makes killing an art form, but he's really a coward, useless, and in the end, mainly dead.
"I am the Killer Supreme!" "But have you actually killed anyone?" — Sanguine questioning Scapegrace's abilities, Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days
Monk, "Mr. Monk and the Other Detective" (with Jason Alexander as the guy with Feet of Clay).
Heroes: Hiro Nakamura spends most of the first season going on and on about the legendary samurai Takezo Kensei. After meeting him through a time travel accident we find he's a rude, dishonorable English con-artist who gets his legendary status largely through Hiro's intervention and his Healing Factor.
Hawkeye to Radar in MASH, right until Hawkeye sent him to Seoul on a "date", during which Radar was injured. After Hawkeye was drunk in the E.R because of guilt, Radar eventually saw him as an ordinary man, not the hero he looked up to.
The characters in Metal Gear Solid make a big fuss about how incredibly tough Meryl is - an eighteen-year-old female soldier with a Desert Eagle. However, she trembles when told to shoot, forgets to take the safety off her gun, gets Mind Controlled by a psychic into shooting Snake and attempting a suicide, 'takes point' in the most useless way possible for the gamer and for Snake, gets shot by a sniper, and spends the rest of the game getting tortured and arguably raped off-camera, to make a return, unconscious, at the end. Depending on the ending, she may or may not live to crash her car and pin her and Snake under it. But unlike, say, the Faux Action Girl, we learn that it wasn't that she was inherently useless so much as very young and inexperienced - she becomes aware of this over the course of the game and her façade of arrogance is dropped.
And when she returns in MGS4, she has Balls of Steel.
Several examples throughout Mass Effect, but the best example would have to be Conrad Verner. Somewhat subverted by the third game, which can reveal that Conrad actually is fairly badass when he sticks to what he's good at: He is has a doctorate in Xenoscience and wrote his dissertation on Dark Matter.
Skyhawk, one of the superpowered defenders of Boston, in the Whateley Universe. He's super-strong and flies, but he's not as strong as he thinks. He tries to be a hero, but in "Ayla and the Birthday Brawl" he nearly gets a roomful of children killed by attacking the villains in a way that lets them see him coming from blocks away. Phase refers to him as 'Skydork'.
Futurama's Zapp Branigan, a military hero whose exploits are based on one of two factors: sending wave after wave of men in unnecessary suicide gambits, or fighting totally helpless or pacifistic foes.
Darkwing Duck: Gizmoduck (originally from DuckTales) repeatedly visits Saint Canard for the express purpose of thwarting evildoers, and his sterling reputation as a "super-powered" champion of justice far outshines that of the headline-hogging glory-hound ostensibly starring in this show, but more than once he has gotten himself captured by supervillains and needed Darkwing to rescue him.
One episode even had Darkwing attempting to emulate Gizmoduck to even up the egregious disparity in their abilities, asking Gizmoduck to make him his own super-powered gizmo-suit, but in the end the high ferrous metal content of the gizmo-suits turned out to be the very Achilles' Heel that the villain Megavolt exploited to subdue the heroes with his Evil Plan du jour, a giant electromagnet. "Without my suit, I'm nothing!" Gizmoduck groused. Darkwing proved that he was something more, by shedding his gizmo-suit and saving the day.
On the other hand, there's also episodes where Darkwing gets in over his head and is forced to admit he needs the help of other heroes, Gizmoduck among them (like Just Us Justice Ducks).
"Bowling Paul" from Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. Mac gets some very Jedi-like bowling training from him after seeing all the pictures of him with his bowling trophies. Turns out that he can't bowl at all. He was only in the pictures because the guy next to him in every single one of them won all the trophies, and he was the guy's imaginary friend.
In My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic The Great and Powerful Trixie presents herself as a badass magician who once beat an Ursa Major, and humiliates the mane cast by one-upping them on everything (or rather immaturely playing tricks on them because she actually can't do better than them), but when an actual Ursa Major (actually an Ursa Minor) shows up, she reveals that she made the story up to give her a better reputation. It's then left up to Twilight Sparkle to actually get rid of the bear.
Oolong early in Dragon Ball. As the villagers explain later, they were so scared of his fearful looks they never even thought of fighting back. The village girls he kidnapped, however, realized how much of a pushover he was once they saw his true form.
In Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure part three, all the heroes initially see of the wielder of the "Wheel of Fortune" stand is his muscular arms. Turns out he's completely scrawny everywhere else.
In a memorable scene of Labyrinth, the cleaners chase Sarah and Hoggle down an underground tunnel. It looks like a monstrous, unstoppable juggernaut of whirling blades and steel-plated doom, but when the camera finally shows it from another angle, it turns out to be a bicycle-like device run by two little goblins on pedals.
Also, the gate guardian. Inside the big metal behemoth is a weak goblin that Hoggle easily throws out of the pilot seat.
Similar to the gate guardian is the giant metallic Samurai in the dystopian film Brazil, who the main character fights in his dreams, where he is a winged Knight in Shining Armor. The giant figure pretty much shatters like a heap of clay and metal, possibly inspired by the trope quote.
The Wizard turns out not only to be considerably less powerful and impressive than he initially appears, but hastily decides not to be a villain at all, once the ruse is exposed.
The Cowardly Lion is also this type. Remember, when he first appears, he challenges the Tin Man and Scarecrow to fight. ("I'll fight ya both at the same time! I'll fight ya standin' on one foot!") It doesn't take long for his true nature to be revealed.
The warriors of Halfdan the Black in Erik the Viking were so used to people being so afraid of them that they fled immediately that they didn't know what to do when Eric managed to inspire his men to actually fight back.
In The Quick and the Dead, Ace looks like he's a front-runner for champ of the quick-draw contest, aided by the fact that he's played by Lance Henriksen. It turns out that he mostly just hot air.
In Stephen King's The Dark Tower novels, the character of The Crimson King is revealed in the end to be a (non-)towering example of this trope. Whether this is a clever subversion or a lame anticlimax has been a matter of heated debate.
Star Trek did this on a smaller scale with villains who seem godlike but are distinctly not (like in the episodes "Catspaw" and "Who Mourns For Adonais?").
Let's not even talk about the "god" at the center of the galaxy...
...or even Trelane ("The Squire of Gothos"), who turns out to be a petulant child...
That doesn't lessen his power any—the threat was still very real. He's just less cool.
Star Trek: The Next Generation had Ardra, a local planet's version of the devil who arrived to assume total control over the populace and was soon revealed to just be a con artist with "A bad copy" of a Romulan cloaking device whose "powers" came from her undetected ship.
The PBS show Ghostwriter did this a lot. One villain turned out to be a failed artist living in his aunt's basement. A computer hacker nearly shuts down the school, but when she's caught, she has no reason for her crimes other than to get attention. The THABTO gang from the pilot were the ultimate example: they steal a lot of money, wear creepy monster masks, perform secret ceremonies, communicate in code, send people death threats, and try to strangle the heroes. The good guys humiliated the THABTO gang by revealing their pathetic secret: all the scary masks and codes were part of an elaborate plan...to win a video-game tournament.
Subversion: Ghostwriter, "Am I Blue?" There's a theft at the "Galaxy Girl" convention, and the perp leaves clues which imply a weirdo who watches way too much TV. When the perps are caught, they indeed are weirdos, but they have sound financial reasons for the theft. They created Galaxy Girl and sold the idea, but never got any money
On Mad TV, one of the recurring characters is an example of this: an easily provoked jerk jock, who is highly possessive of his girlfriend. Gets in a fight with at least one person in every appearance. The opponent is usually scared to fight the guy until they realize his fighting style consists entirely of flailing his arms impotently and falling against his opponent.
A Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has the gang facing the coming of a "fear demon", who, when he finally breaks through into the human dimension, is revealed to be about three inches tall. Buffy steps on him.
Which Giles would have known beforehand if he'd thought to translate the caption on the picture: "Gachnar - actual size".
In Spider-Man 2: The Game, the boss battle with Mysterio begins with his 4 life bars filling up and dramatic music. He goes down with a single punch.
Partial example in Phoenix Wright. Oldbag has vital information that she's not willing to give up and when you approach her the second largest Psyche-lock so far appears, looking like you'll need four pieces of evidence to get her to break. However, giving her an autograph makes her break 3 out of 4 of the locks instantly, and the 4th one is broken (with no further effort) solely because she's a gossiper and wants to tell you.
The K'Tang in Star Control 3. They appear as gigantic creatures in heavy Powered Armor, flying powerful ships, threatening everything they encounter, and proudly proclaiming their dominance of the Crux Hegemony - a powerful consortium of several space-faring species. In truth, they are tiny, puny creatures who are barely capable of surviving without their suits, and in fact they are not even the masters of the Hegemony, being no more than puppets in the hands of another member-species, the Ploxis.
In Asura's Wrath, the chapter where Asura and Yasha finally defeat Deus is titled this, for this precise reason. Deus always believed he was the only one who could defeat Vlitra Gohma, and that his extremist methods were the only way to stop the monster. Asura and Yasha crush him and reveal that his method was doomed to failure and that he was never the all-powerful god he thought he was.
Broken Saints plays with and lampshades this. One of the Shadow Men references the "giant with clay feet" imagery to the other, who turns out not to be the threat he was built up to be, though still a dangerous foe. It is the lampshading (and more Genre Savvy) Shadow Man who is the real threat, and a BIG one too.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force has dozens of villains who are less dangerous than they seem. The Mummy's only ability was fast-talking people into thinking that he could put a mummy's curse on them. The Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past From The Future does nothing but bore people to sleep with endless stories and summon smoke for dramatic effect. The Plutonians kidnapped Master Shake and replaced him with an evil clone — but because they didn't know how to work the machine, the clone didn't look like Master Shake and wasn't evil but less of a Jerkass then Shake himself. (Meanwhile, back on their ship, the Plutonians were trying to convince Master Shake to please step into the path of their disintegration beam.) The Moonites constantly talk of taking over the world, but their gun fires a projectile that moves so slowly, it's sometimes questionable if it moves at all.
Subversion: Aqua Teen Hunger Force, "The Shaving." The Monster of the Week is a pathetic wimp named Willie Nelson who can't scare anybody. Or rather, that's what the Aqua Teens think right up to the very last scene, where they find he has a cache of dead bodies stored in the attic, then watch as Willie rips Carl's arms off and drinks his blood, thinking nothing of it and offering the blood to the others.
Invader Zim had an episode where Zim is kidnapped by the galaxy's two stupidest aliens. Zim escapes them by walking out the door, and one alien yells at the other, in a really weird British/Australian accent, "So you're saying that just because I forgot to lock it, it's my fault that the door was unlocked?". Jhonen Vasquez has stated that he finds the idea of technologically advanced idiots to be funny.
Will Du from Kim Possible the "number one Global Justice agent".
Except those werecat ladies with the zombies. Just for a change of pace. Oh, and the sentient computer virus.
The soul-stealing demons in the live-action movie, too.
A commonly-used plot point in the animated Scooby-Doo movies is the monster being just another person in a costume, followed by the real monster showing up. So really, every Scooby-Doo movie is like this.
Eddy's brother on Ed, Edd n Eddy is actually both types at once. The whole series plays him up as The Ace, someone who Eddy looks up to an admires. When we finally see him in The Movie, he is quickly revealed to be a jerk whose constant abuse toward Eddy was the reason for his Jerkass Façade. Then type two comes into effect when Ed defeats him by removing a hinge on his trailer door, causing it to hit him in the face. Word Of God says this is because he never received pain in his life, so the door hurt him more than it would anyone used to pain.