Only The Author Can Save Them Now
: But are The Plague Dogs
then to drown
And nevermore come safe to land?
Without a fight to be sucked down
Five-fathom deep in tide-washed sand?
Brave Rowf, but give him where to stand—
He'd grapple with Leviathan!
What sort of end is this you've planned
For lost dogs and their vanished man?
—Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs
Making your villains a credible threat to your heroes is what makes any conflict interesting. In some series, most notably Science Fiction
and High Fantasy
, it may even be necessary for your villain to be a threat to the entire world. A powerful villain and flawed heroes will make for a good story, so it stands to reason that in a lot of stories, the villain is more powerful than the heroes in some capacity.
But there is
a balance to it.
Eventually, the villain is so many orders of magnitude above the heroes
that there's absolutely no chance for them to win with any of the capabilities we know them to have. We all know what's coming: a Deus ex Machina
. The heroes aren't going to save themselves; the author
is going to save them.
This Audience Reaction
describes a situation in which, when you should be thinking, "How are the heroes going to get themselves out of this one?" you're instead thinking, "What contrived plot device is going to arise at the last minute and rescue them?"
The major criteria for this trope are as follows:
- The villain, threat or situation must be much more powerful than the heroes, perhaps even a Villain Sue;
- The heroes must not have previously shown that they have powers or skills that would help them escape this situation, and
- The situation must ultimately be resolved with a Deus ex Machina.
See also Like You Would Really Do It
and Strong as They Need to Be
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Anime and Manga
- Phibrizo from Slayers Next: The credibility point was broken about at the point where he killed all of Lina's friends without much effort at all, then backpedaled, said he only killed their bodies, and then threatened to destroy their souls as well. And then we got the very literal Deus ex Machina...
- Digimon has a habit of this:
- Digimon Adventure: Myotismon (Vamdemon) gets more and more powerful, shrugging off the heroes' best attacks... so the Upgrade Artifacts spontaneously generate energy chains to hold him in place. Apocalymon, the final enemy, is so powerful that he can destroy both universes in one shot if he feels like it. Again, Upgrade Artifact Ass Pull to the rescue, as they form a force field to contain the explosion.
- Digimon Adventure 02: Averted to the very end, until the final enemy, who feeds on sadness, is defeated by "hopes and dreams." While it's not completely out of the blue like the season one examples, it's still pretty lame. It would probably have been better received if the dreams in question weren't invented wholecloth for the episode with no previous explanation. (Okay, Jou at least got a retcon where he decided to enter the medical profession after all... in a drama CD... after spending a good portion of season one convincing his parents to let him do something else.)
- Completely avoided in Digimon Tamers, but Digimon Frontier gives us the way the kids suddenly became indestructible near the end. Power levels get DBZ-ish, and you have Lucemon slamming the heroes into the ground so hard the moon they're on is destroyed with enough force to take out the two other moons. The kids... just aren't hurt. The villain's final defeat made enough sense, but to last long enough to do make it happen, unprotected humans were simply not being hurt by world-destroying forces.
- Mega Man NT Warrior falls into this in Stream: when the main villain's Dragon is already pretty much invincible, and her boss can erase Earth and violate every natural law with a thought, how are the heroes supposed to win?
- That's how the Shaman King manga ended. By the look of it, the heroes are completely screwed. Due to Executive Meddling, the series was canceled, and fans were left with a No Ending, or worse, a presumed Downer Ending.
- The author has since released the ending, which is fairly satisfying.
- This is one of the primary problems with the "Chapter Black" arc of Yu Yu Hakusho. Sensui walks in and shatters the Sorting Algorithm of Evil with a power level far beyond anything Yusuke could possibly obtain in the short amount of time he has before the portal to demon world opens. Cue the last minute Deus ex Machina bloodline power up.
- This is then horribly subverted by revealing the sides were uneven in the other direction - King Enma's men show up and seal the portal with a minimum of fuss. All of the damage was for nothing.
- The final Big Bad of Gash Bell, Clear Note, happened to be so far above the rest of the cast, that previously-established rules of the story had to be broken into pieces to allow his defeat. Basically, just about every previously-banished mamono temporarily comes back to lend the titular character their strength.
- Bleach: Aizen was an insanely powerful Master of Illusion (in that both his illusions and he himself are insanely powerful), so he essentially has most of the cast mind-controlled and could beat most of them even if they weren't. When the protagonist finally shows up to pull a Big Damn Heroes, he can't even scratch the bastard, who then goes on to get several more power upgrades. Ultimately, he's only beaten by the hero gaining so much power that he has to immediately lose them so as not to destroy the plot. For added lulz, it's stated that the only reason Aizen didn't win despite Ichigo's powerup is because he didn't want to.
- Also the technique that Ichigo uses to defeat him is never even hinted at prior to Isshin training him in it. That's in addition to the fact that there were actually several points at which the villain could have been reasonably defeated but was saved by a Diabolus ex Machina.
- The last episode of Eureka 7 begins with the Scub Coral command center destroyed, with Eureka now forced to become the new command center... except that Dewey Novak gave her a virus that will spread to destroy the rest of the Scub Coral on the planet. Meanwhile, Scub Coral antibodies are threatening the good guys. Just when everything seems set for a Downer Ending, The Power of Love transforms the Nirvash and Renton goes off to save Eureka and the day.
- This happened recently in Magical Record Lyrical Nanoha Force, in a pretty Goddamn stupid way. The heroes are currently getting pummeled by the Huckebein, a group of people who specialize in Anti-Magic, forcing them to use ridiculous weapons that don't work right, in a sort of in-universe example of Fake Difficulty. To make matters worse, their leader suddenly shows up and proves how strong she is by one-shotting three heroes in one chapter. How are they going to get out of this? Why, she just lets them go, of course! The only reason the protagonists have any kind of victory (grabbing the Living Macguffin after they disappear) is because she can apparently predict the future, so what they do doesn't matter.
- A commonly made prediction within the Berserk fandom. Guts' mission of killing the Nigh Invulnerable Big Bad Duumvirate of the Berserkerverse already seems impossible enough. And with the Idea of Evil thrown into the mix -
- It's common in Fairy Tail for Natsu to win the final battle of any given arc by means of random temporary power-up. The first time was against Jellal, when it turned out he could eat Etherion, then with Zero when Jellal gave him a special magical boost. It's Double Subverted in the Tenrou Island arc where Natsu is losing and suddenly gets the ability to also use lightning from Laxus only to continue to lose, but then it turns out that the Exceed who wandered off earlier stumble upon the Big Bad's weakness.
- The real Uchiha Madara from the current Naruto arc. Not only does he have the Eternal Mangekyou Sharingan, Mokuton, and Rinnegan, three of the most broken abilities in Naruto; he's a nigh-unstoppable super-zombie. He currently has the five kages battling him, and working together they've barely managed to momentarily inconvenience him.
- Then... it got worse. Now that he's broken free of Kabuto's control, he is now an indestructible, immortal ninja zombie with unlimited chakra. Not to mention that he has demonstrated the ability to create clones that are EVERY BIT AS OP AS HIM and create a MONSTROUS Susano'o that wrecked a fraggin mountain just by swinging its sword. On top of that, all of his opponents are half-dead, out of chakra, and know just how hopeless this is. To say that a miracle will be necessary to end this in a way that is in any way favorable to the Kages would be a colossal understatement.
- And now we have the Kages all in bloody mess with Tsunade crushed in half, with no sign of Madara having actually needed to try to achieve victory.
- it got even worse, the Jubi is revived, and despite being only partially revived, it completely overpowers the Kyubi and Hachibi. With Tobi and Madara using it to beat Naruto and company into submission.
- The X-Men storyline Dark Phoenix had to have Jean have a split personality (before the Retcon), or else there would be no way to stop it.
- Word Of God: The writers of the Retcon were basing it on clues in the original storyline. Jean did say something about the Phoenix being part of the cosmos and needing to be sent back where it belongs.
- This was a mainstay in the Tintin series, especially in the earlier albums. Tintin's reputation for smarts and ingenuity is only half-earned, because it was convenient luck that tended to save him most often.
- When the Fantastic Four faced Galactus for the first time, it was clear that they had no way of defeating an omnipotent cosmic being. Instead, Johnny was sent to retrieve the Ultimate Nullifier—that most infamous of comic book asspulls—to cow Galactus into leaving Earth.
- Sluagh is the second book in the DAYD canon, focusing on Neville Longbottom. In it, a 22-year-old Neville takes the remaining members of Dumbledore's Army into battle against another Dark wizard, and Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione and Neville's new wife Hannah are brutally, horrifically slaughtered. Except the first book in DAYD canon had an epilogue that contradicted all of that, so you just knew there'd be a big magic Reset Button lurking somewhere...
- Played for Laughs in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Our heroes only survive the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh because the animator suffers a fatal heart attack.
- "He didn't get out of the cockadoody car!" Present in both the film and the novel, Misery gives us a meta-example of the story's villain lecturing its protagonist about the evils of pulling contrived crap like this. She tells a story about how her experience of serialized action films was ruined when a hero clearly shown in a car plummeting to his death at the end of one serial is shown narrowly escaping the car at the beginning of the next. The story's author protagonist admits that although this forces him to travel through very complex circumlocutions to fully justify what happens in the novel he's writing for the villain, it ultimately makes for a better story.
- The original Thrawn trilogy of Star Wars books by Timothy Zahn would be a good example. Although the Imperial and New Republic forces were mostly equal on paper, Grand Admiral Thrawn held the initiative and never let go for an instant. 2 3/4ths of the three books were dedicated to the heroes struggling not so much to win as to survive. At the climax of the final book, Luke and Mara were trapped on Thrawn's clone world at the mercy of Joruus C'baoth and the majority of the Republic navy were warping right into a massive trap at the site of their planned counterattack against Thrawn's forces. Only a series of increasingly catastrophic and unlikely setbacks in the final quarter of the third book allowed the heroes to win the day. The author himself even commented that writing a plausible ending was difficult because he had "written himself into a corner" by establishing Thrawn as such a Magnificent Bastard.
- In the Sword of Truth series, the last eight or so books have a constantly advancing horde of Imperial Order soldiers advancing little by little across the New World. The heroes have minor victories here and there, and during the fighting retreat led by Kahlan under Operation Fuck Your Shit Up, the D'Haran army slaughtered the Order by the dozens for every casualty they took, but the Order had the sheer numbers to overwhelm all opposition. In the end, the Imperial Order had cut right through the middle of the Midlands and had advanced to D'Hara, where the only army of consequence left in the New World was holed up in a city on a plateau surrounded on all sides. Even sending cavalry into the Old World to pursue a policy of total war as part of Operation Fuck Your Shit Up Twice barely made a dent (partly because said cavalry was fought off by a witch riding a Dragon). The only way the heroes managed to pull out a victory was to find the MacGuffin from the first book and eventually use it to create a new world (which is, incidentally, implied to be Earth) and magically banish everybody that shared the Imperial Order's philosophies there to live out their lives without magic, wonder or the hope of an afterlife. Essentially, the sort of world they were trying to create in the first place.
- The Nights Dawn Trilogy by Peter Hamilton paints the heroes into a corner with its galactic Zombie Apocalypse, and then has to end with a literal Deus ex Machina. The Naked God is a machine with godlike powers, used to save the human race.
- He does it again in the Void Trilogy, perhaps even more literally - The Anomine machine makes a protagonist, Gore, into a god. Subverted in that the god powers are not actually used; the fact that they can exist is enough to convince the Firstlife to un-create the Void.
- Early in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy 1, Arthur and Ford are thrown out of an airlock without spacesuits. The narration explains the maximum length of time one can expect to survive in that situation, and the sheer improbability of being rescued during that time, at which point they are rescued by a ship that runs on improbability. Douglas Adams admitted that he wrote the situation with absolutely no idea how to get them out of it, and came up with an improbability-based solution as a result of watching a TV show about judo.
- In the final book of his The Dark Tower saga Stephen King does this literally by sending his characters a letter to warn them of a trap. He even Lampshades it in the note with a sentence to the effect of "Here comes the Deus Ex Machina!"
- This is a staple of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The author seems to have created the House of Azath for exactly this purpose.
- The Harry Potter series uses this in the first book. Harry's about to be killed by Quirrel, but his mother's love protects him from harm.
- Similarly, in the fourth book, Harry is miraculously saved when we find out that wands that share cores can't fight against each other. Again, clearly planned all along since it's important in later books, and was mentioned in the first book when Harry was buying his wand, but it comes across as a contrivance at the time.
- This trope was lampshaded in the fifth book, when both the above examples are touted by Hermione and other members of the DA as evidence for why Harry was qualified to teach the DA, much to the frustration of Harry, who keeps trying to explain that those things happened completely by coincidence and had nothing to do with his intelligence or skill (everyone just ignores him and points instead at the things he did do all on his own.)
- In the seventh book when Voldemort needs someone to check if Harry is alive, he chooses the only person out of the dozens of his followers who had any reasons to lie to him.
- Not to mention his super lie-detecting skills took a temporary hiatus.
- As indicated in The Plague Dogs, the book seems about to end with the dogs miserably drowning, to the point where the Reader intervenes and begs the Author to save them. The Author obligingly pulls a Deus ex Machina out of his... backside. The movie opted to follow through with what it had started and conclude with a Downer Ending.
- Out Of The Dark is a hard-SF tale of an alien invasion of Earth. Near the end of the book, the aliens, having run out of other options, decide to simply destroy Earth completely with a massive asteroid, and it's been established many times that humanity has no defense whatsoever against orbital bombardment. The day is saved thanks to a Deus ex Machina in the form of Count Dracula and an army of vampires. In what, up until that point, had been a "realistic" hard science fiction novel!
Live Action TV
- Somewhat the attitude some Stargate SG-1 fans had about the practically god-like Ori. In fairness, though, the writers have found reasonably believable ways for the Ori to be battled — but the eventual resolution in The Ark of Truth was nevertheless a Deus ex Machina, involving an impossibly convenient and previously unmentioned piece of Lost Technology.
- "Reckoning" suffers from this. Clusters of Replicators? More Dakka, or the disruptor introduced at the season start. A galaxy-spanning swarm of Replicators that almost instantly adapts to weapons used against them? Meh, let's use the previously unmentioned Ancient superweapon that wipes them all at once.
- Russell T Davies did a good job resurrecting Doctor Who after its long hiatus, but he was not very good at writing a satisfying finale to the series broadcast while he was executive producer. He was very bad in that particular area, in fact, so the finale of each Davies series suffered from this trope. Unlimited armies of Daleks and Cybermen? Easy, use something that takes them all out at once. The Master rules the Earth? Tinkerbell Jesus to the rescue. Another army of Daleks with the power to DESTROY! REALITY! ITSELF!? Donna develops 1337 Time Lord hacking skills and... they explode, somehow. The Master has turned everyone on Earth into copies of himself? The Time Lord President Rassilon fixes it with a flick of his wrist.
- This has lead to the term 'Davies Ex Machina' being coined by fans.
- Invoked, inverted, subverted, played with, tap-danced on, and turned sideways in the fifth series finale: with Amy dead, Rory an Auton, the Doctor locked in the Pandorica, the TARDIS exploding with River inside it, and every star and every planet winking out of existence, everything is hopeless until the Doctor suddenly appears out of thin air and gives Rory the solution to everything. It promptly turns out to be a paradox operating under a Stable Time Loop that breaks all kinds of rules and which the Doctor is only doing because the entire universe is about to be destroyed anyway and the multiple layers of paradoxes cause all kinds of major difficulties for the characters throughout the episode.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's final battle with the First Evil is spectacularly anticlimactic, seeing as the army of Elite Mooks is easily defeated by two separate Ass Pulls. The fact that the Big Bad is incorporeal, and cannot be directly fought (thus shooting down any chance of a satisfying Boss Battle to begin with) does not help matters.
- Inverted in Power Rangers Dino Thunder the last Monster of the Week is able to survive a Deus ex Machina style Finishing Move. Except for the fact it doesn't, it dies and the footage is then played backwards to revive it. They then pull another Deus ex Machina to kill it by sacrificing their zords even though they still had Megazords they hadn't even used yet.
- Later in the episode the Big Bad is shown to be Not Quite Dead and in the ground battle survives a hit from the Red Rangers Battlizer, gets up and proceeds to split into 4 copies. Which they can only stop with a type 3 Deus ex Machina (the episode seemed to love those). Worse, the one time they had used that type 3 it wasn't in the real world, it was in a comic book world making it a type 2.
- Supernatural gets like this sometimes. The Winchesters have no magical abilities of their own and routinely go up against demons and monsters with telekinesis or other powers that render the boys' weapons (even the magical ones) totally useless. Yet somehow something always allows the boys to pull out a win.
- 24 pulled this in the seventh season when Jack is infected with a bioweapon and is going to die in hours. The doctor in charge of his condition explicitly states that there is absolutely no cure. Then suddenly in the next hour she reveals that there is an experimental treatment that could potentially exist.
- Dick Tracy: Chester Gould's seat of his pants writing style meant that he would often put Tracy in death traps without necessarily knowing how he would get out of them. Part of Gould's genius was being able to work his way out of his traps without resorting to this trope, but one Death Trap is worth mentioning: Tracy is put in the bottom of a deep pit the villains have dug in the ground, and a boulder only slightly smaller than the diameter of the pit is dropped in, slowly but steadily grinding its way down to crush Tracy. Any attempt to dig around the boulder will make it fall faster, and none of Tracy's allies know he's in the trap. Gould's admitted this one stumped him, and suggested to his editor that Tracy ask Gould himself for help, as a giant hand would come in and free him. His editor shot this down because... well, because it was a terrible, terrible idea. In the end, Tracy escaped by digging down and coming across a mine shaft, which he escapes into just as the boulder is about to crush him. An obvious lucky escape, but at least not a logic breaking one.
- Dragonlance (Chronicles) may be an example of this. The Armies of Evil (tm) not only have better troops, including the draconians, which can kill even when dying, they also have dragons and gods. If not because a pretty obvious Deus ex Machina or two (some of them in the form of an actual god, even) the heroes would have lost, and died.
- Dragons can become this if handled improperly in Shadowrun, and BOY do Game Masters seem to handle them improperly.
- It should be noted that Shadowrun is pretty explicitly a Crapsack World, and if your party has screwed up to the point of getting dragon'd the GM probably isn't going to save them now.
- Always a risk with Classic/Old World of Darkness games, where the various antagonists were usually in positions of power simply by dint of being unassailable: if they weren't, they would have been dethroned already. If handled badly, this can result in either this trope or Failure Is the Only Option. That said, they don't call it the World of Darkness for no reason, and more than one of their game lines use Villain Protagonist.
- In Shakespeare's As You Like It, as Frederick is advancing with his army on the Duke and his followers, he he meets a hermit and pulls a Heel Faith Turn, suddenly repenting everything and restoring the Duke to his throne.
- Half-Life 2 Episode 2, the Combine Advisor. Something that can throw people with telekinesis and suck out brains? Scary. Something that flies, throws people with TK, paralyzes everyone around it, eats brains, that I can't harm or avoid, and it hates me, and knows where I am? No longer frightening, it's in Deus ex Machina's hands now. Since Half-Life doesn't do cutscenes, they have to make do with Scripted Event Power To The Max.
- The Shadow Rise boss battle in Persona 4 has this happening. The Shadow analyzes you and makes it impossible to hit her. After a few turns of attacks missing, a cutscene ensues where she tries to kill you. The only reason you are saved is because Teddie unleashes an awesome power and kicks her ass. Then, you fight his Shadow.
- Final Fantasy IV, during the final battle with Zemus/Zeromus, the heroes are initially defeated, only for their friends to revive them through prayer.
- The Fate scenario of Fate/stay night has a badly wounded Shirou and Saber facing down Berserker, a mythological hero who comes back to life the first twelve times he is killed, and cannot be killed twice in the same fashion. Shirou is on his last legs, Saber has no mana left and is badly wounded and Berserker still has five lives left after having lost six to Archer and one to Rin. Berserker charges... and Shirou is suddenly able to magically create a copy of the magic sword he had been dreaming about throughout the route. The sword, which has up to this point only existed as an image in a dream, turns out to be able to kill Berserker seven times over with a single blow and stop him mid-charge, saving our heroes.
- This is kind of how the characters survived a particular situation in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. Layton, Luke, Flora, Celeste, and Prime Minister Bill Hawks are in Layton's car, which has just driven off the edge of the Big Bad's Humongous Mecha and is plummeting to the earth. Only then does Layton flash back to something that Don Paolo said, which was not previously shown (and, given the events of their conversation that were shown, seems improbable at best). Pressing a button gives the car the Eleventh Hour Superpower of turning into a plane, and they're able to fly to safety.
- Though Don Paolo is established as a Mad Scientist, he did fix the Laytonmobile beforehand, so it's not too unlikely that he made some Deus ex Modifications.
- You cannot defeat Giygas. Seriously, the final battle of EarthBound is Unwinnable by any normal, in-game means. You have to invoke Paula's Pray ability, which before now has only had certain randomized and often dangerous effects. She calls on many of the characters you've seen so far in the game, but even their support is not enough to defeat Giygas. Only after she calls out in desperation for anyone to help does the player finally pray for Giygas to die, effectively saving the party with the sheer force of wanting to win the damn game.
- Mass Effect 3 had this in full force, establishing it at the early at the game with Admiral Hackett outright telling the Player Character that the Reapers can't be defeated conventionally. True to form, surprise! A Deus ex Machina is introduced early in the game and is the only way to win — or, depending on your point of view, a Diabolus ex Machina is introduced that lets you choose which way you want to lose.
- This is an especially odd example, because the game's writers had to actively Retcon information from the first two games to write themselves into this corner — in Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2, the Reapers were clearly very powerful but strongly implied not to be totally unbeatable by conventional means, as long as the galaxy could be unified in time. In ME3, an earlier encounter with a single Reaper that was established to have destroyed eight cruisers is now described as having destroyed the better part of three entire fleets.
- Global Guardians PBEM Universe: This was a regular occurrence in the Golden Age campaign. However, being set in The Golden Age of Comic Books, the players knew that this would happen frequently going in, and eventually started suggesting bigger- and more-over-the-top ways to implement this trope.