"In appearance it is very powerful but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of; it is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand the wind and the rain."Subtrope of More Than Meets the Eye. A character is not as tough as their physical appearance and/or personality suggests. Basically the opposite of Hidden Badass (though they can go the Cowardly Lion route). Paper tiger is a literal English translation of a Chinese phrase, meaning something that seems as threatening as a tiger, but is really harmless. This Chinese colloquialism is similar to the English phrase "its bark is worse than its bite". The phrase is an ancient one in Chinese culture, but sources differ as to when it entered the English vocabulary. It is found translated to English as early as 1836, in a work by John Francis Davis.
This usually falls under the following subtropes:
- Big Bad Wannabe
Not the evil overlord they seem to be.
- Dirty Coward
Acts imposing but is shown to be a coward when confronted.
- Face of a Thug
Because Good Is Impotent in fiction, they are likely to be this.
- Fake Ultimate Hero
If they are supposed to be a mighty hero.
- Fake Ultimate Mook
If they are in a video game, then they're probably one of these. The Anticlimax Boss is likely to be this as well.
- Faux Action Girl
If they are a woman with a reputation as a fighter, but none of the skills to back it up.
- Miles Gloriosus
If they brag about being a badass but prove to be a coward when faced with real danger.
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- One Piece:
- Bellamy the Hyena bullies other pirates on the island of Jaya and has spring-based powers with enough concussive force to destroy buildings. Protagonist Monkey D. Luffy and his first mate Roronoa Zoro let themselves get beat up by Bellamy, under the idea that he has not wronged them. Once he does, however, Luffy challenges him, and Bellamy gets stopped cold with a single punch. While Bellamy was strong, Luffy and Zoro were way out of his league, and he ignored all evidence to the contrary. This includes finding both Luffy and Zoro's wanted posters, and then immediately dismissing them as fakes, despite the fact that their bounties were both much higher than his own.
- The fake Straw Hats, who talk a good game while nobody spotted the ruse, but they fall apart even faster than the crews they'd hoodwinked when push comes to shove. Luffy uses Conqueror's Haki to knock the fake Straw Hats out all at once, and then the fake Luffy gets knocked out later, exposing the ruse.
- Dragon Ball
- In the English Funimation dub, Majin Buu calls Vegito exactly this during their fight. He is very much mistaken though.
- Zigzags with Hercule Satan. For an ordinary human, he is quite powerful and would have been a contender in the original Dragon Ball. However, he is horribly weak compared to the monsters in Z. That doesn't stop him from boasting about his strength and challenging the likes of Cell and Buu, both beings so powerful that they can kill him without even looking at him. Hercule is also dismissive of the previous champion, Goku, calling him a paper tiger more or less. Still, Hercule has the heart of a true hero, if nothing else.
- In the original Dragon Ball, Oolong is this in his first appearance. He uses his transformation magic to intimidate people, but as he himself notes using transformation magic to become a powerful monster doesn't give you the abilities of that monster.
- Zoonama pulled the same trick in Dragonball GT, intimidating a nearby town by claiming he could cause earthquakes, when in reality he only had the ability to predict them.
- Raijuta Isurugi from Rurouni Kenshin boasts all the time about his skills at kenjutsu, and how it should always be a murderous technique. In the end, he's revealed to be a phony Sore Loser who never actually killed someone.
- The Military Police Brigade in Attack on Titan only accept the top ten recruits of each trainee class so their members are inherently the best and brightest the military has to offer. But their tendency to neglect their training and serious duties has left them the least capable branch and Jean noted when on a mission to save the captured Eren, its members are easily devoured. In comparison, the Survey Corps and the Garrison are more experienced and prepared to fight Titans.
- Medabots features Banisher. Looks badass, sounds badass, decked out with cool weapons, and in general gives off an Implacable Man vibe. Too bad his weapons and tactics are expressly designed for counterattacks only, not to mention his armor being next too useless. In their first battle, Metabee ends up taking him down with a single shot, as Banisher had to wait for Metabee to make the first move and didn't expect him have such a strong gun.
- In Gundam Build Fighters Try, the Gundam Tryon 3, a Double Zeta Gundam made up to be like a Super Robot, was declared this by its first opponent in the Gunpla Battle Nationals. It easily proved it wasn't.
- The Seven-Faced Widow in Big Trouble in Little China is a Phony Psychic who turns out to have very little power at all, certainly far less than people believe. She has managed to kill or drive mad numerous opponents in her time, but only because they were all too scared to challenge her directly, instead steering clear so she could manipulate and destroy them from afar. When Jack does challenge her directly she proves unable to accomplish much of anything at all.
- In A White Knight in Bayville, Mystique turns into "The Thing with Teeth" while fighting Xander. But while it's great for scaring her minions, Xander is an experienced demon hunter and punches her in it's weak point, causing Mystique to collapse in pain.
- While facing several Naruto-like creatures (born of a genjutsu bringing people's worst fears to life) in Black Flames Dance in the Wind: Rise of Naruto, Naruto's female clone Akiko outright calls them Paper Tigers once she realizes that since they're born of civilians fear of Naruto (know nothing of what he's capable of), said creatures simply fight like drunken civilians.
- Lex Luthor uses this trope by name in A Spark of Genius when describing the new superpower Romania, claiming it's leader The Leviathan won't act against Krasnia just for knocking down some of it's defensive towers. He's wrong (Romania conquers Krasnia within an hour of their attack) but he was also likely just trying to pacify the rebels he was dealing with.
- In Pokémon Reset Bloodlines The Sensational Sisters' strongest team is actually extremely weak due to months of inactivity. Despite containing the likes of Cloyster, Poliwrath, and Kingdra, Ash considers it more of a challenging second gym battle than an eighth gym battle like it's supposed to be
Film - Live Action
- The nihilists in The Big Lebowski. Despite them appearing dangerous, threatening to cut off the Dude's "johnson" and cutting off a toe, they're completely useless in an actual fight, with Walter taking out all three of them effortlessly. They never even performed any of the ruthless crimes they claimed.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939). When the Cowardly Lion first appears he acts in an aggressive manner, charging the group and challenging them to a fight. When he tries to attack Toto, Dorothy smacks him on the nose and he starts crying. Granted, the Cowardly Lion also turns out to be a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass later on.
- In The Naked Gun, one of the members of the council of evil calls America "a paper tiger."
- Eponymous Paper Tiger where the boastful British private tutor Ray Bradbury loses his cool and is ultimately, extremely humiliated but finally redeems himself in the eyes of his student Koichi Kagoyama when, faced with immense danger that would cripple anyone with fear, his innate courage begins to shine to his own disbelief.
- In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the press corps call Jefferson Smith a "paper tiger" to his face, telling him that he was only appointed to fill a seat in the Senate and vote the way Senator Payne wants him to, which chafes the idealistic young senator.
Film - Animation
Live Action TV
- Osten Taylor from Pearl Islands was a buff bodybuilder who had absolutely no idea how to rough it out in nature, almost drowned in a challenge, became convinced that a pelican was out to get him, and ended up being the first contestant to quit Survivor.
- Crystal Cox in Gabon, the six-foot-three Olympic gold medalist who had one of the single worst athletic performances in the series, culminating in her missing a slam dunk on a basketball hoop that's shorter than she is.
- NBC’s One World: ex-delinquent Jane ended up feeling this way. Normally strong, tough, streetwise, with a smart mouth, a camping trip with their guardian and the other girls brought out a side of her she never really expected: being terrified of puny little creatures and insects of the woods.
- The Ultimate Fighter: Occasionally a fighter will look very formidable in the gym, or at least talk a good game, only for him to completely underperform during his fight.
- Parodied/discussed in Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin comes across the term in a book he's reading for homework and asks his tiger Hobbes what the definition is. Hobbes responds that it's a tiger with a newspaper route, much like a paperboy. One Beat Panel later:
Calvin: "...This book makes no sense at all."
- From Tales of Monkey Island, Bugeye is a bald, tattooed pirate who disrespects the main character and generally talks tough. But once you need to get information out of him, you find that the slightest bit of pressure will make him squeal.
- Sir Prancelot of Scufflewick from Drakensang: he wears a full plate armor, has a cool winged helmet and wields a large two-handed sword. He's also a complete wimp who won't admit his failures and runs away from goblins.
- In Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere, UPEO itself is regarded as one of these, especially highlighted in the mission "Paper Tiger". To further push the point, their planes are obsolete hand-me-downs from both General Resource and Neucom, which are the only things making them anywhere near a relevant military force that can keep the two corporations in check.
- The Nali of Unreal are 7 feet tall, have four arms, and are quite muscular. They are also completely incapable of fighting and get easily destroyed by anything that attacks them.
- The Batarian Hegemony in Mass Effect is said to be this. They're a rogue state that's essentially Space North Korea, and the only way they can effectively war with anyone is hiring terrorists and pirates to launch proxy attacks on human colonies, which caused the Skyllian Blitz and the Battle of Torfan. Though in the past they annexed an independent asari colony and shelled a salarian planet, by the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around they're the first race to be curb-stomped by the Reapers, though considering it's the Reapers it goes without saying.
- It's pretty clear Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir in Dragon Age: Origins is not the political powerhouse he might portray himself as. Highever is openly rioting against him, Redcliffe and nearly the entire Bannorn is warring against him, and according to Bodahn, the Darkspawn burn down Gwaren, his own fief, leaving him with Denerim under his military occupation and Amaranthine, which Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening reveals was increasingly divided because of what Arl Howe did. Actually losing to him at the Landsmeet pretty much requires the Warden to actively avoid the political sidequests, or for them to go out of their way to be a jerk to people they're trying to win over.
- Part of this can be attributed to the prejudice Loghain faces from being a former commoner. While his Rags to Riches story has made him popular with the people, his fellow nobles actively despise both him and his daughter. It doesn't help that his main political ally is Howe, a despicable noble simply in it for a power grab, who's openly disliked by everyone. The fact that they plot the destruction of the Cousland household at the start killed any chance of them being able to sway others to their side.
- This is also subverted; his reputation isn't based on his statesmanship, it's based on his skill as a general. Politically he is in way over his head, but in the civil war his actions triggered he and his few allies are taking on the rest of the country and winning.
- Behemoths in Final Fantasy XIII look threatening when first encountered, with their large size and 20,000 hit points. They turn out to be easy to stagger, and it is also easy to perform sneak attacks on them.
- In Minion, Count Antonie's vampiric powers make it nigh-impossible to kill him...but merely beating him up is dead easy.
- Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire had this:
Buck: Amazing what a rep lets you get away with, eh?
- King of One-Punch Man fame. In addition to inadvertently taking credit for the actions of the protagonist (meaning people think he can kill giant monsters with one punch), his always stoic expression and Rugged Scar make him so intimidating that not even the S-ranked heroes dare to get on his bad side. But really he's just a weak and cowardly Otaku.
- Played for laughs in One Minute Melee where Joke Characters Hercule/Mr. Satan from Dragon Ball Z and Dan Hibiki from Street Fighter get into a confrontation. Both are unsure if they could take the other guy, but both also don't want to have to back down and have their reputation destroyed. The result is two paper tigers egging each other on and trying to outbluff each other until they have no choice but to fight it out. Enjoy.
- Interestingly, when the aforementioned two meet in Death Battle, this is one of the deciding factors in determining a victor. Despite both men being way out of their league in their respective canons, Mr. Satan can actually back up his talk as he's strong enough to pull three buses, punch through the side of one and tear a phone book in half in addition to being a legitimate World Tournament Champion. Dan, however, cannot back up his talk as all of his attacks are pathetically weak and his one canonical win — against Sagat — was done out of pity to prevent him for continuing his suicidal Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Hakoda tries to pick a fight with a tough-looking prison inmate by shoving him, but instead of fighting back the inmate says "that hurt my feelings!" Averted a few minutes later when someone starts a prison riot, causing that same inmate to scream, "Forget controlling my anger!" and rushes out to fight with everybody else.
- Dave from Dave the Barbarian. As the Theme Song states, he's "huge, but a wimp".
- Johnny Bravo. He's a pretty muscular-looking guy but he's always getting beaten up by the women he flirts with. Which is especially weird considering in the very first episode he was able to successfully wrestle A CROCODILE!
- Tiger in Skunk Fu!. Formerly a powerful warrior, after losing to Dragon, he's become a cowering wimp.
- Cerberus from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (Yes, that Cerberus). True he's a fierce three-headed monster quite literally from Tartarus that's the size of the average house, but all it takes to tame him is a belly rub and a friendly game of fetch.
- Season 4 might have subverted this. Though friendly enough to the ones he's not guarding, he was the one thing keeping Lord Tirek, the worst and most dangerous villain to appear yet, from escaping Tartarus.
- Major Man from The Powerpuff Girls. He's hugely muscular and has all the standard superpowers, but is reduced to a quivering wreck when put against a real threat and has to create fake ones.
- Various "sports cars" released through the years are often sporty only in appearance, being mated to underpowered engines and awful chassis dynamics. The Pontiac Fiero is a prime example, with exotic and stylish bodywork reminiscent of an American Ferrari, but The '80s smog regulation made it slow as molasses and it used the same suspension setup from GM's land yachts. It became the base for hundreds of kit cars to make it look like an actual Ferrari or other exotics, but more often than not leaves the mechanics completely unchanged. On the plus side, it's just as realistically "reliable" as a Ferrari thanks to the car's notorious reliability issues such as spontaneously bursting into flames.
- In order to survive, many animals make themselves to be much more fearsome then they actually are. Many butterflies have eyespots on their wings to deter would-be predators (such as songbirds). Another example is the King Snake, which has a red, black and yellow pattern that's similar to the high venomous Coral Snake, but the King Snake itself is harmless to people. There's even a saying that goes with this: "Red touches yellow, kill a fellow; red touches black, you're okay, jack."