Let's face it: Cats are a huge part of the human experience. They make things cuter, they complement schemes to take over the world, their ears and tails are often added to the human form, but there's another class of cat altogether. Ever since the first anthropoid was dragged off and eaten by a sabertooth, the large cats have invoked fear and awe in the hearts of humans. They've become the symbols of kings, empires, even gods and demons. Their pelts are gorgeous and carry with them a sense of awe. And, obviously, they have a profound impact on humans and the fiction they produce.
See Analysis.Panthera Awesome for ways this trope applies to specific cats.
See Cool Cat for when this applies to regular cats. Also note Our Gryphons Are Different, when big cats (specially lions) are mixed with other awe-inspiring creatures, the birds of prey. Despite the popular name, the Tasmanian Tiger (more accurately, the Thylacine) is not a cat, but a marsupial.
While this trope is about big cats, it should not be confused with Mega Neko, which is about cats that are exceptionally large for their species.
Also not to be confused with the metal group Pantera, which is indeed awesome, but not feline.
In the Discworld fanfic Whys and Weres, the werewolves of Überwald realise - belatedly - that they are not the only were-creatures on the Disc. For, from out of Darkest Howondaland, the Leopard Society has stirred and come to town. And when a werewolf meets were-leopards, never has the phrase "they fight like cat and dog" been more appropriate....
In the 2011 movie We Bought a Zoo, although the movie is about zoo in general, the animal that gets the lion's share of the story focus is tigers. A male lion also makes an appearance. Jaguars are also mentioned but never showed.
Similarly, although multiple animals appeared to converse with, the Eddie Murphy remake of Dr. Dolittle focused a great deal on a tiger and the movie's climax revolved around an operation to save his life, with the doctor's conversational talent critical to making this possible (first by identifying what was wrong with him, then being used to help soothe and calm him while he was being operated on).
The moor cats of Shannara are a fictional species resembling the panther with the ability to blend into their surroundings. They are a match for most of the franchise's monsters, including the werebeasts and the Shadowen.
In Kingdoms of Light by Alan Dean Foster, a spell transforms a bird, a terrier, a snake and three cats into humans to return color to the drab Kingdom of Gowlands after it was taken over by an evil warlock and his goblin hordes. During the Final Battle all the animals transform into larger wild animal counterparts of their respective species. The bird turns into a firebird, the terrier into a large wolfdog, the snake into a reticulated python, and the three cats into a lion, a panther, and a leopard respectively.
Also by Foster, you have Ahlitah from the Journeys of the Catechist series. He's a hybrid of lion and cheetah, and possesses his father's strength (the lion), and his mother's speed. He basically serves as The Snark Knight throughout the series, and The Big Guy for the first book.
And also by Foster, the world of Spellsinger doesn't have many feline characters appear, but among those which do many cats are Mooks for the bad guys; one, the sadistic Sasheem, is the first mate for Pirate Parrot Corroboc; and the heroic, Badass, Dual Wielding Amazonian tigress with a Southern drawl, Roseroar, becomes a great ally to the hero of the series.
In Warrior Cats, the cats' mythology says that they're descended from a LionClan, TigerClan, and LeopardClan, and they have folk tales about these Clans (which Word of God says are just stories - the big-cat Clans did not actually exist). One big cat does actually make an appearance in the series - a mountain lion that preys on the local cats, who have dubbed him "Sharptooth".
The Honor Harrington series and its Young Adult spinoff Stephanie Harrington feature the hexapuma, a six-legged felinoid that only vaguely resembles Earth "big cats", and can grow up to three meters long, massing several hundred kilograms when mature. To the other six-legged felinoids, the Treecats, they're known as "Death Fangs", and even with high-powered human rifles (civilian, anyway) can take several shots to kill.
In the Obsidian And Blood trilogy, people born on the day of the Jaguar in the Aztec calendar can summon jaguar spirits. Most people can only manage insubstantial kittens, if that; but someone with enough training can summon a war-beast capable of splitting bone with its claws.
In ''Forests of the Night'' and the sequel Fearful Symmetries the hero is Nohar Rajasthan, an 8-foot anthropomorphic tiger.
Super Sentai (and by extension, Power Rangers) that have any animal theme at all will have at least one big cat in the mix. Special notice goes to Gekiranger/Jungle Fury, in which "big cats" were the de facto theme: the three core Rangers had tiger, cheetah, and jaguar powers, the Big Bad was a lion, and one mentor type, Sha Fu/Master Mao, is apparently a caracal. The only exceptions were Kakuranger/Mighty Morphin' Season 3, the dinosaur-themed Abaranger/Dino Thunder and Kyoryuger, and bird-themed Jetman - though they did manage to throw a sabertooth into the other dinosaur season, Zyuranger/Mighty Morphin' Season 1.
Big Cat Diaries focuses on the lives of three real big cat families each season - a cheetah family, a lion pride and a leopard family. You get to see the real-life awesomeness of these cats in this show, although with just how hard it is to be a wild animal.
The Bastet werecats from Werewolf: The Apocalypse. There are nine tribes, each based on folk depictions of the animals. Simba werelions style themselves as natural leaders, Swara werecheetahs are messengers, Khan weretigers are warriors and heavily involved with the Hengeyokai, Bagheera werepanthers/leopards are judges/justice-dealers, Pumonca werecougars are travellers, Qualmi werelinxes are mystics/riddle-lovers, the Ceilican are faerie-touched Eurasian wildcats, and the Bubasti are mysterious Egyptian black cats. Unfortunately, the Bastet as a whole are difficult for players to portray. They're solitary by nature except for the Simba and Khan, but only in the context of an African or Asian setting. And like other Changing Breeds, they're an ill fit for the social dynamic of a werewolf pack. This does not stop players with Special Snowflake Syndrome from insisting on playing one.
The Lyran Empire in Star Fleet Battles names all its ship models after species of big cats, e.g. the Tiger cruiser, Saber-Toothed Tiger mauler, Cheetah frigate...
The Rakasta, humanoid big cats who come in much the same types as Werewolf's Bastet.
Catfolk appear in both 3rd Edition and Pathfinder. They seem to be based roughly off of lions in the former, leopards in the latter.
Third Edition also featured numerous feline based prestige classes, usually centered around gaining the ability to transform into cats, gain catlike senses or other traits, or summon various types of felines. Or any combination of the above.
Traveller : Played with, with the Aslan. The Aslan look like lions, however they are not even mammalian and act like many tribes of humans do.
Anima: Beyond Fantasy has Arturia, the white lion that was the companion of Zhorne Giovanni, the first Emperor and Dakku, a black panther in lots of steroids that's the companion of Lucanor Giovanni
there is the Sylvan Morigami Alsei, which is a gigantic plant-like tiger.
Also, Naturia Leodrake has the highest attack power among the Naturia, but has no effects whatsoever. It later becomes Leoh, Protector Beast of the Sacred Tree, who is enhanced with the armors worn by the "Constellar" and the "Evilswarm", respectively. Leoh is also a shortened version of "Leodrake". Gao is one Level higher than "Naturia Leodrake" and has 100 more ATK and DEF.
Transformers. Every group of animal-based 'bots will have at least one cat in the mix, sometimes breaking the only-one-of-each-type rule that most such teams would be expected to have. (The original Predacons have a lion and a tiger, the early Maximals have a tiger and a cheetah). Even several series with mostly vehicle types tend to have a kitty as one of the few animal-based 'bots.
Primal Rage's toyline had the, well, toyline only Slash Fang, a character who was supposed to show up in the cancelled sequel, and showed up in the novelization of the story. He's a giant two-legged sabretooth tiger, as his name implies.
In World of Warcraft, Druids can shapeshift into a cat form to do physical damage. The species the cat forms are based on varies by race, but Tauren become lions, Night Elves become panthers, Trolls become tigers, and Worgen become what appear to be mountain lions (their cat form is rather vague).
In Age of Empires III the whole package of big cats appears with Asian Dynasties expansion. Jaguars, cougars, lions, tigers, white tigers, snow leopards and leopards, in the form of black panthers. They are all quite nasty to face, especially the ones available as trainable units.
In Age of Empires II The Conquerors you only have jaguars. And the elite unit of Aztec Civilization is Jaguar Warriors.
Primal Rage's cancelled sequel was to have a giant sabretooth tiger amongst the pantheon of pre-historic gods, named Slash Fang.
One of the shapeshifting Beings in But I'm a Cat Person is normally a tiger. In spite of the usual one-species-only limit on its kind, it can also turn into certain related cats like a leopard and an Iberian lynx. (The reasons are only apparent if you study ancient Greek and Sanskrit.)
The Pink Panther, who would go under Black Panthers if he weren't, you know, pink.
The Mutates from Gargoyles were Xanatos and Sevarius's attempt to recreate the eponymous creatures via LEGO Genetics; they used DNA from various big cats as the best counterpart for a gargoyle's strength and agility, and the finished Mutates each resemble a different big cat- panther (Derek Maza/Talon), lioness (Maggie), mountain lion (Fang) and tiger (Claw).
The German Army has gotten in on the trope via Theme Naming of their armored vehicles: Pumas and Panthers and Tigers, oh my. Leopard II tanks are the most modern in the series. (The whole "big cat" thing might have something to with the fact that the German word for armor in general is panzer...) There was also a Lynx light recce tank in Hitler's menagerie. This trope is somewhat subverted in that - seemingly having run out of cat names - the very largest tank fielded by the Germans, at way over 100 tons, was called the Maus.
And a family of self-propelled artillery weapons - admittedly with 88mm or 105mm stings - were called the Wespe, Hornisse and the Hummel - Wasp, Hornet and Bumblebee.
Lions are a favorite heraldric symbol competing with eagles in popularity. Some heraldric artists Take a Third Option and use a Gryphon which is after all both an eagle and a lion so to speak. Venice used the "Lion of St Mark" (a winged lion) as a national symbol and England uses a Lion. You would think such conspicuously nautical powers would prefer a Marlin or some other badass nautical critter. No matter.
Unusually Badass Sherpas are honored with the title of "Tiger".
Whether it's positive or not, it's up to you: in Brazil, the nickname since 1979 for the income tax is "lion", originating from a campaign from the local IRS associating said tax with the animal.
Digimon has some other examples that exist outside of the "running gag": notable ones include Baihumon, one of Digimon's Four Sovereigns; Mihiramon, the Tiger Deva from Digimon Tamers; Lynxmon, who is also on fire; and many, many more.
Leo Aioria from Saint Seiya wears the Leo Gold Cloth, based off the zodiac sign. His eyes and explosive personality are often compared to that of a lion, and he's nicnkamed "The Golden Lion".
The 1965 movie Clarence the Cross-eyed Lion and the 1966 spin-off TV show Daktari both featured Clarence, a male lion who happened to be cross-eyed. In the movie, he's captured after raiding the livestock of a village — it's discovered that due to his crossed eyes he sees double and cannot hunt wild game. He's taken to the local vet clinic and adopted by the veterinarian's daughter. The TV show focused more on the vet, his family, and dangers-of-the-week (often poachers or criminals trading in wild animals,) but Clarence was still a major character.
There was also another lion who was petrified for most of the first book. He eventually fights alongside Aslan in the final battle against the White Witch after being freed.
Born Free: book in 1960, film in 1966. A lioness, raised from a cub in captivity, is rehabilitated to life in the wild. In the late 50's the idea of rehabilitating captive animals for successful life in the wild was not widely accepted or attempted. The Adamsons may have been the first to try it.
David in Animorphs acquired this morph and for a while displaced Jake as the only big cat in the group. They even had a big cat showdown where David nearly killed Jake when Jake's usual bite-the-neck tactic didn't work thanks to the mane.
Chris Jericho used the Red Baron "Lionheart" prior to coming to WWE in 1999. His Boston Crab Finishing Move, later renamed the "Walls of Jericho", was called the Liontamer, and his second-rope moonsault is called the "Lionsault".
Liontaurs, the official race of the land of Tarna in Quest for Glory III. Most of them are badass warriors or mages and obsessed with honor and glory. One of the main characters of the game is Rakeesh the paladin, who is a sort of mentor to the hero.
In the Disney version of Robin Hood, Prince John and King Richard are depicted as lions (Richard with a mane, John without).
Lambert the Sheepish Lion wherein Lambert was mistakenly delivered to a flock of sheep by a confused stork and grows up thinking himself to be a funny-looking sheep until the day when he saves the flock from wolves.
Possibly North Eastern Africa, in the land bordering Eurasia. While still far removed from their normal habitats, hunting for food and being driven away by man could account for the journey and explain why he was found orphaned (parents killed, finally, after being driven so far South)
In Ranma 1/2 one of Gosunkugi's cunning plans to expose Ranma's fear of cats was to set a tiger on him. There is also the character of Lime who is descended from Tigers (on his mother's side).
Kotetsu T. Kaburagi from Tiger & Bunny has tigers as his Animal Motif. His name has the kanji for tiger in it; his superhero persona is Wild Tiger; the scriptwriter has stated that he had the tiger of the Chinese zodiac in mind when he wrote his character; he even has a tiger cellphone background.
Might Guy uses a move called Afternoon Tiger to defeat Kisame, which is a taijutsu move that fires a massive pressure bullet in the shape of a tiger's head.
Mr. Tawky Tawny in the Shazam franchise. He's an urbane and well mannered humanoid tiger who chooses to live in Human society. That said, if he is forced to fight, then he is deadly in combat with his strength, fangs and claws.
In The Jungle Book, Shere Khan is a Bengal tiger that was born with a withered leg, thus lacking the "fearful symmetry" of Blake's Tyger. He regards himself as the lord of tigers (apparently the meaning of his name) but is really a coward and a bully. He's still a dangerous and scary man-eating tiger and proves to be quite cunning and manipulative. He also frequently undergoes Adaptational Badass in most adaptations.
The second Winnie the Pooh book, The House at Pooh Corner, introduced Tigger, who is not vicious at all, but overly enthusiastic and, like Hobbes, fond of pouncing on those he likes. The fabled Jagular are not so friendly, though they are never actually seen.
Animorphs: Jake's preferred battle morph, and the only big cat in the main team.
The boss Fenrir in Final Fantasy XII appears as a large Behemoth-type enemy with the head and fur of a white tiger(in spite of being named after a giant wolf).
Altered Beast has the protagonist becoming a weretiger in one level.
Jagged Alliance 2 features Bloodclaws, huge wildcats roughly double the size of a normal tiger. Some characters shout "Tiger!" when they see one approaching. They are mostly encountered in wilderness sectors as well as in a arena of some sort, where they can be released from their cages. Bloodclaws, despite only being able to attack in close combat, are very dangerous enemies even for well-armed mercenaries. They are fast and take multiple hits to kill. Loading hollow-point ammunition is strongly advised.
The Legendary Pokémon Raikou shares quite a few traits of both Tigers and Saber Tooth Cats.
The Jonny Quest TOS episode "Riddle of the Gold" had a tiger hunt, where the hunters became the hunted.
Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures: A monstrous, scary, and dangerous beast is loose in the city... no, it's just a misplaced white tiger loose in the sewers, frightened and running, but no less dangerous. They manage to un-misplace it safely.
Tigress, the most fearsome of the Furious Five, in Kung Fu Panda.
Chocolove (aka Joco) McDonnell in Shaman King has a jaguar spirit.
One episode of Pet Shop of Horrors featured a jaguar, in an episode about an underground South American terror cell seeking to overthrow the current regime and restore the glory of their ancient civilization. Complete with the ancient religion, which is where the jaguar came in: she was attached to the family of the cell's charismatic leader. At one point she fell out of a helicopter, and D jumped after her; they were rescued mid-air by a condor... yeah.
For the cover of a The Rolling Stones album, a photographer planned on having Mick Jagger sitting in a convertible with a jaguar. This proved to be EXTREMELY dangerous, so they had to build a partition out of fiber glass to keep Mick (or maybe the jaguar?) safe. While this was happening, the photographer took a photo of the jaguar's face, then drew on his viewfinder where the jaguar's eyes and nose were. Then he took some shots of Mick on the same frame of the roll as he did the Jaguar. This is the result. This was before photoshop.
In Pokémon Black and White, Purrloin's evolution Liepard speaks for itself (although it's actually a leopard cat, not a leopard).
The Leopardmen in Quest for Glory III, who are a race of cunning shape changers and magic users who can make themselves appear as upright leopards and live in the dark jungle. They value intelligence and stealth and are proof that Dark Is Not Evil.
Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez from Bleach. His Zanpakutou name is 'Pantera', thus he turns into a bipedal panther-like humanoid. He gets black hands and feet, but the rest of his new form is standard Hollow white.
Ronan from Philippa Ballantine's Digital Magic has the Code Name "Panther" because he spends a lot of time in the form of a black panther. Turns out he's Puck from the first book, Chasing the Bard; the panther was one of his favorite forms.
In The Jungle Book, Bagheera the black panther was born in captivity but escaped into the jungle, becoming one of its most feared and respected predators. His cunning and bravery make him one of the best teachers a young man-cub could ever want.
King of Fightersboss Rugal Bernstein has a pet panther named Rodem which appears with him on occasion, and some comics also give him a very loose leopard motif. Similarly, fellow boss (Original) Zero has a genetically engineered black lion pet named Glaugan that also assists him in battle as a striker.
Rugal's children, Adel and Rose, have a pet panther kitten. Presumably it's Rodem's baby.
Panther Caroso of the Star Wolf Team from Star Fox.
In Quest for Glory I, monsters called Cheetaurs roam the forests at night, which actually are more like huge panther-creatures. There's also the cute little kitty owned by the old lady in town, that turns into a giant panther if you try to harm its owner.
Brütal Legend features ridable black panthers with Eye Beams. They're actually the most normal species in the game's setting.
Chronos "Evil" Lait from classic video game Golden Axe 3, the most powerful character in the game, mainly due to his super move in which he lunges across the screen in an unstoppable and unblockable attack.
The Argentina national Rugby Union team is nicknamed Los Pumas, despite a jaguar appearing on their crest. Apparently, when the team visited South Africa in the 1960s, a local reporter mistook the jaguar for a puma, and the (mistaken) nickname stuck.
Many U.S. schools are nicknamed after this animal, in one form or another. Notable examples are Brigham Young University, better known as BYU (Cougars), the University of Houston (Cougars), Pennsylvania State University (Nittany Lions), and the University of Pittsburgh (Panthers).
Pern's southern continent is home to large feline predators, which apparently derive from semidomesticated cheetahs released by the original colonists. As Pern's native terrestrial predators had mostly been wiped out by Thread, these cats had no competitors and could afford to evolve a greater body size.
In medieval Persia and India, tame cheetahs were status symbols, the equivalents of fast sports cars today. Kings, emperors, princes and high-ranking officials would keep cheetahs to hunt gazelles and deer. The Persians even taught cheetahs to ride on horseback behind their trainers until they got close enough to their prey. At one point Mughal princes would keep hundreds or even thousands of hunting cheetahs and the fastest cheetah of all would be treated like royalty herself and carried to the hunting grounds upon an elephant with musicians and trumpeteers announcing her arrival, while the less successful cheetahs would be kept hungry in order to make them more competitive. Unfortunately, since it's nearly impossible to breed cheetahs in captivity, this cheetah-hoarding resulted in making the cheetah extinct in India and nearly destroyed Iran's population entirely.
Un Real World features the Lynx at top of the food chain. It is incredibly agile, resilient enough to shrug off a couple of arrows before approaching the hunter. It can kill an average person (including you, the protagonist) with a single blow, posing as a serious threat in a world where death is permanent. It is no surprise that Lynx fur is the most prized commodity by foreign merchants.
In P.C. Hodgell's Chronicles of the Kencyrath, heroine Jame has a hunting-cat, Jorin, as a Bond Creature. He's identified as an "ounce", which is in modern times generally associated with the snow leopard (uncia uncia), but the author has clarified that she means the older definition of that word, which applied to any spotted wild cat, and he's actually supposed to look like a serval. Jorin is blind from birth, but manages to see through the mind-link, borrowing his mistress' vision.
Played with in Tokyo Mew Mew. While Mew Ichigo's cat features technically come from the Iriomote yamaneko, a highly endangered mountain cat, this only matters to the actual story. Once she gains Shapeshifting (sort of) to transform into an animal, however, it seems to be a generic housecat. Granted, real Iriomote cats are about the size of a housecat and could easily be mistaken as one, especially if one didn't expect to see an endangered wildcat...
Great Sabrecats are a staple monster of the Dragon Quest series, but can also be befriended in a few of them. A Great Sabrecat cub is the first monster to join you in Dragon Quest V, and the reward for a sidequest in Dragon Quest VIII is a bell that summons a sabrecat for your character to ride on, multiplying your movement speed on the world map tenfold (said sabrecat is also part of a rather Tear Jerker subplot with his former master).
In Katekyo Hitman Reborn!, the Varia boss Xanxus has a liger named Besta, who is a mix of the Sky Lion and Storm Tiger. Xanxus increases the awesome by rhetorically asking who decided mixed breeds are inferior to pure breeds, insulting his royal opponent.