Pilot: How do humans make it through a cycle — or even half a cycle without killing each other? You have no special abilities. You're not particularly smart, can hardly smell, can barely see, and you're not even vaguely physically or spiritually imposing. Is there anything you do well? John: Watch football. —Farscape, "Crackers Don't Matter"
Humanity is just plain less cool than the other sapient peoples of the universe. By any standard one cares to choose, aliens of any type are greater than or equal to humanity, with the occasional weak point, often due to their Bizarre Alien Biology.
This makes sense in the case of aliens landing on Earth; you have to be pretty self-assured in your own abilities to risk landing on a rock dominated by near-hairless apes (reference to humans as 'monkeys' can be expected at some point, even when they wouldn't naturally know what a monkey is) with nuclear weapons and a history of murdering each other for any number of reasons. One would assume that a weaker alien - at least one without massively compensatory technology - would just keep right on flying, and go land on a planet full of Smurfs.
Even in Space Opera, where we do most of the landing, it's rare to encounter a species that is inferior to humanity in all ways; the Cargo Cult are usually not advanced technologically or mentally, but they may very well be stronger and tougher than their so-called god.
In comics, nearly every alien is outright superpowered. Of course, almost all major characters in mainstream comics are super, so that's not so illustrative.
This is also a staple of Tabletop Games and other fantasy games, where humanity is almost always the "Middle Race", with no one attribute that stands out, but instead a balance of all stats and abilities as they are usually the basis of the design of all other main races.
Just to add to the insult, they all live longer than humans, too.
One thing humans can do to balance the scales, apparently, is mate with any of these superior species to create Half Human Hybrids with those traits. Sometimes even humans that were only raised by aliens are likely to somehow "inherit" abilities from their foster parents. The more "human" the alien is, the greater the apparent tendency to give them superpowers.
This may be due to the fact that aliens in fiction are, more often than not, either outwardly indistinguishable from humans or just humans with stuff tacked on. No actor would put up with the makeup artist taking parts away.
As if all the above wasn't humiliating enough, aliens also are viewed as (or view themselves as) morally stronger than weak-principled humans who do such unthinkable things as murder, rape, pillage and hate. Thus, they have the ethical imperative to put us all on trial for our crimes if they so desire. Apparently, humans are the ONLY sentient race in the whole universe who've ever killed one of their own kind in anger; nobody ever questions this.
Point any of this out in the presence of the hero, though, and you're likely to get yourself a Patrick Stewart Speech. Sometimes the speech is justified; often even the physically superior aliens will admit that Humans Are Special for having accomplished so much with so little.
On the other hand, sometimes our "inferiority" isn't necessarily a bad thing. While humans might lack the strengths of the aliens in question, they might also lack its weaknesses. More than anything, humans are adaptable, oftentimes moreso than the supposedly "superior" races. Unless you take into account that many of these weaknesses are usually very rare, while they can bathe in stuff that can kill humans in seconds.
This trope may be invoked by Physical Gods as well. Instead of "Puny Earthlings", they will treat us as "Puny mortals", but the rest is basically the same.
This trope is common because, even among Earthly life forms, most people (and intellectuals/writers) believe humans are squishy wizards who hold an obvious advantage only in intelligence. Other animals are always faster, stronger, tougher and more agile than a human. In truth, humanity stacks up decently enough against many individual species rather than the vague "animal kingdom" amalgam that it is most often compared to, but quite badly against other predators. It is in fact likely that a human (even prehistoric) deprived of their intelligence and thus ability to manufacture tools, clothing, and shelter would rapidly die from starvation and exposure. Other predators rely purely on their innate physical abilities.
Compare and contrast Being Human Sucks, which is where humans think they suck compare to the aliens. Contrast Humanity Is Superior, Humans Are Special, Humans Are Cthulhu, and Humans Are Warriors. See also Humans Are the Real Monsters, Humans Are Morons, Humans Are Average, and Insignificant Little Blue Planet.
Not to be confused with Earthlings.
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Anime and Manga
The humans (and inexplicable Funny Animals) of Dragon Ball and its offspring are completely, pitifully underpowered. Case in point: the term "power level" was used liberally in the first season of Dragon Ball Z; the higher someone's "power level," the stronger they were. An average human's power level is 5. The first villain we encounter in the series has a power level of 1,200. Add the Sorting Algorithm of Evil into the mix and you've got yourself a race that has apparently survived its entire existence on little more than a wing and a prayer.
In Lyrical Nanoha, practically every world out there has access to Magitek... with one of the few exceptions being earth. Earthlings have zero magic culture since the vast majority of us have diddly squat magic capabilities. However, as though following some strange law of averages to balance all the puny earthlings, it's mentioned that when the exceedingly rare earth mages are found, they tend to be sickeningly powerful ones like Nanoha, Hayate, and Gil Graham.
In Outlaw Star, there was an episode where there was an alien being resembling a cactus that had the power to influence and control everything living around them. Subverted in that when its power didn't work, it was completely helpless. This led to a less-than-dignified death delivered by the hands...er, feet of the waifish Melfina.
While The DCU is probably the king of this trope thanks to Superman et al., it's rather surprisingly averted in Green LanternCorps: there are a multitude of alien races, some of which are just plain better than humans, but most of which have their own advantages and disadvantages (one race has no concept of sound, another has no sight, one member is a sentient planet, another is a sentient strain of smallpox, and so on.) Humans do still get picked on, though (you can thank Hal for that one).
It's also worth noting highly powerful superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, etc, really don't take kindly to other superpowered beings scoffing at the supposed lameness of humans (said scoffers usually have to eat their words due to good ol' human scrappiness winning out against high odds, and the protective heroes delivering smug "I told you so"'s.)
Superman also claims without hesitation that Batman is the most dangerous man on the planet. Not Luthor, not Supes himself, but Batman. And Batman's too good of a friend to turn Supes into a liar.
Plus the fact that Wonder Woman herself is an Earthwoman.
Starfire from Teen Titans is an alien who is actually superpowered by their own standards; she has the ability to fly, learn foreign languages through skin contact, superhuman strength and endurance, and the ability to shoot energy beams. All but the last of these is standard issue for her species.
Subverted by the one Badass Normal Earthling on the team, Karate Kid.
While the Marvel Universe has less of this trope than DC, most aliens are still super-powered in some way. The most commonly seen aliens are the shapeshifting Skrulls and Dire Wraiths, the Kree and the Shi'Ar who both have greater strength and stamina than humans, and the Watchers and Celestials— fuggeddaboudit.
In Elfquest not only do the elven main characters look down on humans because the elves all have incredible looks, lifespan and abilities, the readers so it seems, are expected to agree with them. But the most annoying part is: In real life we have evil and selfless, stupid and clever, abject and proud people. While not all of them are evil, most humans are. Evil or not, all humans can be tricked by elves in a way a five year old wouldn't fall for in real life. And all the non-evil humans kiss the feet of the elves in that Can't Argue with Elves way.
In most comic book continuities though, the advantage humans have over the other races is that earth will have a ridiculously high concentration of humans with superpowers. There may be a whole planet of hawkmen, or a whole planet of shapeshifters, but humans are the ones that spontaneously mutate superpowers through random accidents or X-genes. Aliens with superhero level abilities will almost never have any variety in powers and conversely will have common weaknesses. And then there are the many humans, both good and evil, who will use their scientific abilities to create weapons and armor to even the odds when they fight their alien foes. The likes of Iron Man and Doctor Doom might not have the same fancy innate abilities as the Skrulls or the Shi'ar, but they're easily a match when it comes to intelligence and science smarts.
In fact, the DC ComicsCrisis Crossover "Invasion!" was precisely about this fact: The alien Dominators wanted to exploit our superbeings to conquer the universe, but had to trick other alien races into helping capture them first, on the excuse that humans are troublesome, genetic freaks.
In Invincible this is both played straight and subverted - several aliens are more powerful than humans, especially the Viltrumites (who are like humans.... but with mustaches, superpowers and really long life spans). But at one point there is an alien race with much shorter lifespans, and Allen the Alien is considered superpowered by his own race's standards.
Parodied in Spaced Invaders, in a scene where the small band of Martians leave their ship and threaten to blow up the Earth with their supposed super-weapon, until it's pointed out to them that their ship would be destroyed as well. The Martians flee in disorder:
"'Prepare to die, Earth scum, prepare to die, Earth scum!' I'll make sure they carve that on your tombstone!"
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: "Do your worst, inferior one!" Downplayed in that the aliens only advantage is their more advanced technology than the human protagonists. That, and, said aliens mainly use the technology for bizarre stage performances rather than to take over the world.
Was Prince an alien? I thought he was just a regular human bootblack with a spaceship and bullet-proof tights or something.
In the original, he wasn't bulletproof at all, which is why he dodges their weapons. For some inexplicable reason, Immune to Bullets was added in the translation.
Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon is often associated with his threat exclamation of "Pathetic/Puny Earthlings! Who will save you now!?". To answer that, we have this line from the theme song: "FLASH! AH-HA!!"
Inverted in Aliens in the Attic. The aliens are a foot tall and are repeatedly outsmarted by children. They still call them Puny Humans though.
Played strait and inverted with the Prawns in District 9, as they have superior physical strength, speed, and size, and have a vast majority of highly advanced technologies that humans can never use. Unfortunately, this doesn't stop the humans from dumping them in a slum and outright treating them worse than dirt. This (apparently) is due to their need to be commanded by a member of their leader caste, which have all died out before the other Prawns could escape the downed vessel. This doesn't mean they're unintelligent, however, as the Prawns could be just as, if not more, intelligent than humans, it's just that the survivors are the drone caste members, and they don't have the drive to use their resources to liberate themselves from the humans.
Averted in The Matrix. The machine programs are much stronger than the average human, but a special exception could be made with the main characters. Also subverted by Neo beating up the very Agents who mistake him for a Puny Earthling.
Trio of Agents: It's Him. The Anomaly. Do we proceed? Yes. He is still. Only human.
The Na'Vi in Avatar are nearly twice the size of humans, and even more strong, fast and agile on their home turf - not the mention the ability to neurally link with other lifeforms via a 'plug' in their hair. Although the humans definitely have the technological advantage, and even then the Na'Vi seem to take to guns pretty quickly...
The "strength" thing is questionable, considering the low gravity environment. The avatars however, being genetically-engineered, are stronger than natural-born Na'vi (due to having human-like muscle tissue), which goes some of the way in explaining the Mighty Whitey plot.
Neil Gaiman used to tell about receiving a script for a potential movie adaptation of Sandman. He read until he came to a scene where Morpheus is attacked by soldiers while proclaiming "Puny humans! Your weapons cannot harm Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams!" at which point he put the script down and refused to read even one page further.
Inverted in The Avengers, wherein the Hulk beats the ever-loving crap out of Loki and then says, "Puny God."
Man of Steel does a good job of showcasing just how hopelessly outmatched humans are against Kryptonians. At this point, nothing on Earth is prepared to deal with threats of this scale and magnitude.
It's also suggested that much of Superman's strength and speed is a natural result of Kryptonian physiology being on a lower gravity planet. His Super Senses, flight and Heat Vision is his biology soaking in the yellow sun radiation. This is one of the first times that not all of his powers are either one or the other.
The Men In Black films make an serious case of this when they point out they avoid using universal translators because human thought is considered an infectious disease by some aliens. Further shown in the novelization when two race are about to attack each other with Earth in the middle, because the humans aren't considered sentient life and thus consider the planet uninhabited.
A botched attempt happens in Naga Eyes. Riku the naga goes on and on about how humans are weak compared to nagas. This would be all fine and well, if it weren't for the fact that a naga's life seems to consist of little more than lying around and eating a random passers-by or two.
Discussed in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fic Xenophilia. Lero keeps finding himself at the receiving end of such thinking (made worse by the inverted social norms resulting from sex disproportion in pony society - the mares keep trying to protect him). He finally snaps when threatened by an unicorn mare of another herd, whose stallion was giving Lero's a hard time: he lectures her in how while he may be weak in pony standards, he's not helpless, which he showcases by holding her up on her hind legs by her neck while speaking in a scarily sweet tone of voice. Rainbow Dash takes note on how he's taking care not to hurt her while he does so, and how easily he could do it.
Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath loved this and used it extensively in their series of Star Trek fan novels, both amateur and professionally published. To them, Vulcans including Spock were much stronger physically and capable of greater telepathic abilities than in canon, and Spock had been holding back and playing down his superness to co-exist alongside his human crewmates. When legendary Vulcan explorer Savaj came on board in The Promethean Design, he talked Spock into revealing his true nature and Spock ended up going into something called "Vulcan command mode", literally at one point leaping a tall building (well, a wall anyway) in a single bound. He then took command and ordered "instant, unqualified, unargued obedience" from all the crew. We are told (and shown, in Fate of the Phoenix) that on Vulcanoid worlds, humans cannot even push buttons, open doors or turn on faucets.
Hobbits, on the other hand, rarely are luckier than average midgets.
Arguably an Unbuilt Trope by Tolkien himself. His elves may be all kinds of badass (although their superiority is usually more alluded to than spelled out in loving detail), but they're at least as capable of making a mess of things as humans are — and they are bound to the world that humans get to leave behind after death.
Animorphs had an interesting variation - though the aliens were far more advanced, it seemed to have only been because of a head start. The Andalites took three times as long as humans to go from heavier-than-air flight to landing on the moon. (One wonders what things would've been like a few decades after the end of the series, considering that by then, humanity's first faster-than-light spacecraft was under construction.) Another thing that scared the wits out of some aliens was sheer numbers. ("You mean five million, Sub-Visser?")
Speaking of the Andalites, they have insanly weak arms so much that one is shocked that a human child can throw a rock
Indeed, of all the major alien species in Animorphs, only the Ellimist has any claim to being entirely superior to humanity: Yeerks are useless without a host; Gedds are barely sentient, weak and clumsy; Hork-Bajir aren't terribly bright on average (seers being the exception) and appear to age faster (though they're no joke in physical matters); and Taxxons can't control their own hunger.
Robert Zubrin's The Holy Land. Of course, they're all humans, but the Earthling humans have terrible hygiene, are shorter and less physically fit, and have absolutely no Psychic Powers.
Inverted in E. E. “Doc” Smith's Spacehounds of IPC: the inhabitants of Saturn's moon, Titan, can't stand the "dreadful temperatures" and "crushing pressure" on Saturn's surface. To the human protagonists, meanwhile, it's basically a midsummer's day.
Referenced in The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi. Humans are slower and weaker than most other alien races, which is why they no longer use unaltered humans as soldiers. (They prefer instead to use genetically engineered Super Soldiers with transplanted minds.)
In the Known Space universe by Larry Niven, Humans have been regularly at war with a race, the Kzin, described in various books as being walking, talking, 700 pound tigers. Even more impressive, humans begin the conflict as a nearly pacifist race, having been turned into near sheep by the ruling UN. They owe much of their survival to wild innovation and what the Kzin disparagingly refer to as "monkey curiosity". Good old humanity is somewhat helped by a hyper paranoid race called the Puppeteers, who like them enough to slowly sell them (or rather, arrange to have sold to them) faster than light technology.
Used for satiric purposes in Voltaire (the philosopher, not the musician)'s short story Micromegas, which involves two colossal aliens, one from Saturn and the other from Sirius, visiting Earth. The Saturnian mourns that he has only 72 senses in comparison to the Sirian's nearly 1,000 senses. And Micromegas states that he met creatures far superior to himself.
Averted with the thranx in Foster's Humanx Commonwealth novels, as these insectoids have as many physical disadvantages (easily drowned, bad climbers, limbless juveniles) as advantages (extra legs, good senses, tough exoskeleton) over humans.
The eponymous Stranger in Stranger in a Strange Land qualifies as "humans raised by aliens are likely to somehow 'inherit' abilities from their foster parents".
Humans can gain these abilities too, so it's more of a training thing.
The Oankali from Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis series all have interesting powers.
A minor (Grannan) character in the Star Wars Expanded Universe Black Fleet trilogy comments that X-wings are designed for human tolerances, prompting Admiral Ackbar to comment that it's "frustrating to be held back by their limitations."
Gulliver's Travels features a race of Giants and a race of morally and intellectually superior horses.
The "humans are the only race ever to be put on trial" thing is at least averted in Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile novel, Have Space Suit – Will Travel. Humanity does end up being judged by the Council of Superpowered Aliens; however, this trial comes right on the tail of another race being put on trial, so it seems to be a fairly routine procedure. And the other aliens which are indisputably worse get thrown in the wastebin, whereas the human race is still considered redeemable.
In a short story by Sergey Lukyanenko, three alien ships arrive to Earth and demand that humans move as many as they can into the polar regions, so that the aliens can settle most of Earth. The main character is a diplomat sent to negotiate with the alien representative, who turns out to be a pretty decent guy, regretful of having to do this. However, their homeworld is threatened by a black hole, and habitable planets are rare. In the end, though, the alien gladly informs the diplomat that they managed to terraform Venus and stop the black hole, all within a few weeks of arriving to Earth. He also remembers his grandfather who discovered the wheel. Furthermore, he offers to give their ships to humans, as they are now obsolete, and explains that the reason humans were never conquered by another race is because we're "so pathetic." I guess it makes sense if you have gone from wheel to interstellar travel within a century while someone else took millennia just to reach the atomic age.
Used to a minor extent in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series. The alien atevi are bigger (and thus stronger) than humans, have superior hearing and night-vision, are much better at math, have the innate ability to instantly and accurately count things, and once they count something they have a Photographic Memory of the resulting number.
In Gordon R. Dickson's novel Spatial Delivery, the two alien races who come into play are both giants compared to humans. A member of the species who act as the antagonists of the story (enormous beings from a high-gravity planet) once showed up to the Olympic Games on Earth and casually proceeded to break several human track and field records in quick succession without even trying, just to show his contempt.
If anything this is played straighter in the Discworld books than in most non-parody fantasy. Most sapient races are flat out better than humans: dwarfs are tougher, stronger and live longer (though the stronger bit is more due to them working out by constant mining. Carrot is a human raised by dwarves and his strength is described as a dwarf scaled to 200%), trolls and golems are near indestructable and incredibly strong (and trolls are incredibly intelligent when in cooler temperatures), vampires have all their standard strengths and can even learn to replace their lust for blood, pictsies are unbelievably strong and ferocious (gnomes are described as being as strong as a human despite being half the size of a Barbie doll) and orcs can only be called superbeings.
Subverted in The Tommyknockers by Stephen King. While the title aliens have a natural skill for adapting human technology into all kinds of weird sci-fi devices, they also prove to be much more short-sighted and psychotic than humans. They also can't really seem to think of any constructive purpose for their technology, whereas humanity's scientific advances have often improved our quality of life.
In Eight Worlds a race of aliens kick humanity off Earth to protect dolphins and whales. They plan on forcing humanity to live between star systems has they have to many other alien races.
In The Lost Regiment series, life sucks for most humans on the planet Valennia. Transplanted there from Earth against their will, stuck in a Medieval Stasis, and engaging in brack-breaking labors, all they have to look forward to is to have 20% of them be selected to be slaughtered and eaten by the true masters of Valennia, the 10-foot-tall Human Aliens who see themselves are the chosen race and engaged in a never-ending circle around the planet, taking tribute from the human cities they pass. Anyone who tries to resist is wiped out by the numerous hordes. It's not until the arrival of American Civil War soldiers with muskets and cannons does some hope appear for the average human on Valennia. After all, even a Tugar can fall from a rifle whose range rivals that of the famed Tugar warbows.
Live Action TV
Alien Nation depicted the Newcomers as generally better in every way; physically stronger (they were labor slaves) and able to learn in years what took humans decades, with the vulnerability to salt water as the only major downside. This created a lot of resentment among human supremacists.
Seeing how they mostly live right next to the ocean, that's a pretty big downside.
They were also poisoned by the proteins in cooked meat.
Also, most of these characteristics derived from genetic manipulation, as their former oppressors engineered the Tenctonese to be a perfectly adapted slave race.
This usually applies in Star Trek. To illustrate, the most commonly seen alien races would probably be the Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, and Ferengi. Of that list, the only aliens not physically stronger than humans are the Ferengi, and even that wasn't true in their first appearance.note Although they may only appear weak thanks to their general cowardice, as Quarkdid break gold bars with his bare hands. Some of those races also have longer lifespans than humans, but none have shorter. There are exceptions; for example, Star Trek: Voyager's Kes belongs to a species that only has a nine-year lifespan.
The species is, however, telepathic, has photographic memory and mature very fast. Whether this makes up for the short lifespan is in the eye of the beholder. (They'd kind of have to mature fast, wouldn't they?)
Also they apparently can only have a single child, once. Um..., without a high rate of multiple births or cloning, that would mean the population halves every generation.
The Elaysians (which appeared on Deep Space Nine) come from a low-gravity environment. They would almost collapse under their own weight in normal gravity even with a gravity harness.
Averted with the majority of the Bajorans. Only the Kai have any special abilities, and that's only by virtue of being proxies for the Prophets.
Power Rangers plays this utterly straight. We have tiny lifespans measured in (at extremes) centuries rather than millions of years, we have no innate superpowers or weaponry, we can't grow several hundred feet tall on demand like most species seem to be able to, pretty much anything more complex than a morpher that we make is either really buggy or made with large amounts of outside help (if not borrowed entirely), and our only native tribe of mages that hasn't wiped itself out lives in a pocket dimension, rarely coming out (and are led by an alien witch, no less). Somehow, despite this utter lack of talent, ability, or luck, humanity (specifically, California) has managed to turn back armed invasion by more or less the entire known universe, with minimal amounts of aid.
In Farscape, humans are lacking compared to a great many species, especially in terms of life spans. However, this is not played completely straight, as humans have a much greater heat tolerance compared to Sebaceans. Furthermore, at least some of these superiorities may not be natural, as Sebaceans have greater eyesight and lifespan (though not heat resistance), and yet they are implied to be the descendants of humans.
In the Peacekeeper War miniseries, Sebaceans are revealed to be genetically altered humans, created to be the muscle for the great peacemaker aliens. Things went slightly wrong when these aliens got sealed away and left the Peacekeepers on their own.
"Crackers Don't Matter" is made of this trope. Thanks to a light-based Hate Plague inflicted by the Villain of the Week, Moya's crew start losing their minds and get rather snippy with each other. Amusingly, the terrible eyesight that Humans have compared to the other species that they had previously mocked Crichton for, ends up saving their lives, since Crichton proves must more resistant than everyone else to the Hate Plague's effects. As a result, he mockingly declares that this is proof that "Humans. Are. Superior!"
Crichton is hardly an example of an average human, though. With a Ph.D. in astrophysics, he is smarter than anyone else aboard. He just like to play up the "dumb human" image. What he lacks is knowledge about that part of the galaxy.
Averted in the Stargate Verse. Humans have been able to grievously upset a power balance that has stood for thousands of years and kick the collective butts of many an advanced species.
Specifically, the Goa'uld are stupid egomaniacs with a god complex and powerful but highly inefficient technology that only a handful of them even partially understand. The Asgard are physically about as strong as an infant. The Tok'ra are a dying race due to limited supplies of host bodies and the death of their only "queen" rendering them incapable of reproduction. The Replicators (Milky Way) aren't really sentient (at first). Pretty much everyone else is either human or a Reality Warper.
OTOH, aside from the Asgard and the Reol, we're pretty near the bottom of the raw strength scale.
In Babylon 5, the humans are behind the other major races technologically (except possibly the Narn), are considerably bigoted (a failing of all the races), are Curb Stomped by the Minbari, and do little against the Shadows (when one thinks about it, it is largely a Minbari-Shadow war, with a few hangers on). In general humans, except for the main characters, come off rather poorly.
The human ability to forge disparate groups into communities was remarked on as nearly a superpower by a few aliens, who mostly don't mix. Any other race would have made B5 as a human station with a few embassies, not a melting pot of a city. It was outright stated that attempts to unite the races in previous Shadow wars flat out failed, it took a human.
It is implied that humans are something of a Future Badass species who will basically all end up Touched by Vorlons. Certainly, no other species ended up with telepaths quite as strong as Lyta Alexander and Ironheart, for example.
Demon variant, where both vampires and demons look down on humans, even though vampires themselves are the lowest of the low to many demon races (though some individual vampires are strong enough few demons would dare say it to their faces), and demon races are all likely tainted with humanity anyway. Both types are stronger, faster and have various supernatural abilities.
Illyria's habit of likening people to vermin, apes, plankton, amoebas, slime...
In beginning of episode 12 of the documentary Cosmos: A Personal Voyage ("Encyclopedia Galactica"), Carl Sagan narrates, "In the vastness of the Cosmos there must be other civilizations far older and more advanced than ours."
In Dungeons & Dragons, humans on average were always weaker in at least one stat than any other race: elves had agility (and sometimes intelligence), dwarves had strength and endurance, and so on. But until the third edition of the game, the other races were limited in their choice of classes and their advancement therein, while humans could take up any profession and progress to any experience level with no restrictions. In Third Edition, classes are opened up to all races, but humans get more skill points and a bonus feat, representing their "versatility" as the Jack of All Stats of the setting.
Inverted in the post-apocalypticTabletop GamesGamma World. Humans that survived the nuclear apocalypse unaltered are assumed to be of incredibly hardy genetic material. They are much more resilient than other races (though they lack the super-powers and cool mutations of others).
A later Dragon article insisted that the "pure strain humans" were actually products of a few centuries of genetic engineering, a la Star Trek Augments. Humans who hadn't received such gene therapy (i.e. us) were total wimps by contrast, and were the ancestors of the game's human mutants, lacking the mislabeled "pure strain's" resistance to radioactive mutagens.
In Mortasheen, humans are not very high on the food chain, usually ending up as either food, experimental subjects or sometimes pets, which is why the human civilization of Wreathe is so genocidal towards all the setting's monsters and mutants. Though, actual native Mortasheen humans are rather blase about this whole state of affairs, sometimes even volunteering for experiments to try and become something less vulnerable.
Warhammer 40,000 is a particularly strong example, where an unaugmented human is among the weakest, most pathetic things on the battlefield. Orks are stronger, more resourceful and ridiculously hard to both kill individually and wipe out as a whole. Eldar are faster, longer-lived, more intelligent (or act it), universally psychic and with ludicrously advanced technology. Humans have three things going for them: the comprehensively superhuman Space Marines, above and beyond most other races' footsoldiers, the best Tanks(and Biggest Humongous Mechas) in the setting, and sheer numbers; the one resource the Imperium is never, ever short of is manpower. (Of course, this tends to lead to... wastefulness.)
It has to be noted that humans, while weak, aren't the weakest sapients in the setting - that honour goes to the Tau (okay maybe the gretchin), who are shorter-lived, less skilled in melee and have even worse eyesight, needing advanced targeting equipment to hit as well as humans. They make up for it by having some of the best-equipped armies in the setting, and only getting better (and also the ability to fly naturally, though their affinity for jetpacks means this doesn't come up very often anymore).
The eyesight of the Tau is a point of much contention and debate in various novels and books. The current consensus appears to be that Tau can see into the IR and UV spectra naturally and can pick out much finer visual detail than humans (humans will get eyestrain trying to understand Tau art): However, their eyes take longer to gauge distances and focus on moving objects.
Played almost depressingly straight in Exalted. The player characters are among the eponymous Exalted, humans given the ability to perform superhuman feats of magic and badassery by virtue of having received a sliver of divine power (the source of which determines what type of Exalted they are). Those humans who don't get chosen, though? Pretty much at the bottom of the world's sentient totem pole; their main use, as far as many gods and even Exalted are concerned, is that they're good at offering prayers and sacrifices and make useful pawns. What's worse is that they were specifically designed to be that way.
Averted in most games by Deep 7. Santa's Soldiers? Humans are stronger, taller, and faster than the game's Christmas Elves, but cannot use magic. In Arrowflight, Humans are the result of demons seducuing elves, and therefore walk the fine line between Order and Chaos. In their Red Dwarf RPG, humans have bonuses to their endurance because they're the ones crazy enough to invent vindaloo and New Age music.
In Halo, humans are not only inferior to the Covenant in numbers and technology, but a number of the latter's member races are also physically superior; an Elite or Brute is dramatically stronger, tougher, and faster than a human, while a Covenant Hunter is pretty much a walking artillery unit, able to wipe out normal humans by the squad, and can only really be stopped by heavy weapons. Only the Powered Armor-wearing superhuman SPARTANs are able to physically even match the Elites and Brutes.
Just how puny the Earthlings are compared with those species depends on which sources you look at, and which characters are involved; elite "normal" humans like the ODSTs are often shown in the expanded universe to be able to put up a good fight against Elites and Brutes, and even in the games, regular Marines can often hold their own, depending on difficulty level, weapons equipped, and positioning.
It's also worth noting that the majority of the Covenant's soldiers are Grunts, Jackals, and Drones, who are generally little better than Cannon Fodder, with the Grunts in particular being completely outclassed by your average human soldier; Halo: Contact Harvest even shows a newly-trained 72-man colonial militia company (not even proper Marines or Army troopers) able to hold its own against a roughly 170-strong Covenant force (the vast majority of it made up of Grunts and Drones, with only a small pack of ten Brutes).
Earthlings are also puny in a literal sense; with the exception of the Grunts (who can grow as short as 4'6"), every other race in the Haloverse are much bigger than humans, with even the lightly-built Jackals averaging well over 6 feet tall, while Elites, Brutes, and Hunters completely dwarf even the 7-foot SPARTANs. And even Grunts have enough strength to disembowel humans.
Humanity is also completely outclassed in space combat; most of their victories occur only when they manage to outnumber the Covenant by at least three to one, and even then they usually end up taking more casualties than they inflict. Indeed, human victories on the ground usually merely serve as delaying actions to cover for mass evacuations, since the almost-inevitably victorious Covenant fleet will generally just proceed to "glass" the planet from space.
However, there are a handful of space battles where a well-led or well-fortified human force manages to either defeat or heavily damage a numerically superior Covenant fleet, examples including a skirmish between the UNSC Iroquois and four Covenant ships, the Battle of Reach, and the Battle of Onyx.
This is no longer the case, though, as of Halo 4. Improvements in technology have allowed any veteran soldier or promising recruit to be "upgraded" to a SPARTAN-IV Super Soldier without spending decades in training, and even the UNSC's standard equipment has largely closed the gap with the Covenant's. Additionally, the UNSC Infinity is superior to any Covenant ship, incorporating human, Covenant, and Forerunner tech. True, there's only one Infinity, but the former Covenant has become fractured and diminished due to its own civil wars, and humans are in a much better position to upgrade even their existing ships with new/rediscovered/stolen tech, with most of the former Covenant races' own scientific know-how having been suppressed when their empire was still intact.
Averted in the backstory; prehistoric humanity at one point had an interstellar empire which nearly equaled that of the Forerunners (before the latter defeated and devolved them), making them one of the four most advanced species in the history of the Milky Way.
Used to interesting effect in M.U.L.E., where a starting monetary penalty marks humans as the "Expert Race", intended for use only to handicap experienced players.
This actually comes with its own slightly-balancing advantage — Starting out in last place means that, until you start rising up the ranks, none of the harmful random "help or hurt a single player" events will ever happen to you. If an event happens, you will always get a beneficial one — anything from a few units of sellable goods to a free plot of land.
Pretty much any alien in Half-Life is physically superior to the Earth equivalent. In the first game, the weakest members of the Nihilanth's army were capable of hurling electricity (and as evidenced in Episode Two have the potential for so much more) while the Nihilanth itself possessed enough psychic might to keep open a dimensional rift by itself. The Earthlings made up for this with technological prowess, as the Nihilanth's forces largely revolved around Organic Technology and natural racial abilities. This could be considered an inversion actually, as despite the aliens' physical superiority it was pretty clear they couldn't stand up to the United States alone, let alone the whole Earth. However, afterwards, the non-sapient Xen beasts (mostly Antlions) overran the planet, killing off a ton of native Earth fauna and forcing humans to barricade themselves in their cities.
The Combine play this completely straight. Though there is no indication of physical superiority, they are technologically advanced enough to conquer the planet within hours and their leaders are psychically almost as powerful as the Nihilanth. And the GMan, whatever he is, is basically Nyarlathotep. This was the same empire responsible for destroying the Nihilanth's species and conquering the sentient Xenians (later known as Vortigaunts). The only thing humans have going for them against the Combine is superior teleportation technology, a few Badass Normals and the walking superweapon that is Gordon Freeman.
The Metroid series has (among others) the psychic Chozo and their adopted human, series protagonist Samus Aran. Granted, they did infuse her with their DNA so she could survive on their planet, and a lot of her more badass moves come from the combat suit they modified for her... but even out of the suit, she can jump twice her own height, among other things. In fact, she's had a total of three different species somehow combined with her, and each one has given her special powers, though one of them did give her a weakness to cold (which she eventually overcame thanks to the suit technology and the fact the weakness is one the species eventually outgrows anyway.
''Fate/stay night features Gilgamesh, the most powerful heroic spirit in existence and the first and greatest king of history, who happens to be 2/3s God. His ego is so gigantic it might just suffocate you if you are in proximity of Gil, if he even allows you to look at him. Ultimately his pride serves as his downfall in all 3 routes, but if he was actually willing to go all out, he could take on every creature in the world´s powers combined. He is so arrogant that he rarely even wields his endless array of weapons, he SHOOTS them at you, and only wields his actual weapon Ea against worthy opponents (the ones we have seen so far are Saber, Shirou after Gil got put on the defensive, Fate/Zero´s Rider and a town´s worth of evil spirits).
Double Subversion in Dragon Ball Online where humans are a main playable race and fend for themselves with superior KI techniques. Then the Head Director clarified that the Humans were actually Saiyan Hybrids descended from Goku and Vegeta, while actual humans are still irrelevant when it comes to saving the world.
Partially subverted in Prototype, as Mercer has been casually slashing and punching his way through the human military for the first parts of the game....but then he meets Specialist Cross.
The US Army and Blackwatch do a pretty good job fighting normal infected and hunters and could have end it all much faster if Alex didn't kept killing them by the truck loads.
In Iji, humanity is considered a pest at worst by both of the two alien races. To the point that the Tasen, upon invading, hardly bothered looking at human "neoweapon" research because it was still horrendously inferior to even their outdated weapons.
Sword of the Stars has a bad case of this. Humans are either physically or mentally inferior to practically every other species in the galaxy and a one-on-one fight 'au naturelle' of your average human vs. your average pretty much everything will put the human in a disadvantage. Fortunately, Sword of the Stars is a 4X game, and human ships are no worse than those of their fellow species — and when you take into account that human boarding- and planetary assault crews have Powered Armor and special training, the odds are more equal.
Notably averted in Mass Effect. While aliens like the Asari are naturally powerful psychics and can live for centuries and the Krogans are exceptionally strong and durable and potentially live for centuries, all races are shown to have enough strengths and weaknesses to put them on relatively even ground with humanity. In fact, humanity's determination and ingenuity quietly scare the crap out of everyone else.
That said, the trope does get played straight (though also for laughs) in the sequel:
Wrex: Now, Shepard. What brings you here? How's the Normandy?
Shepard: Destroyed in a Collector surprise attack. I ended up spaced.
On a grand scale, humanity is fairly powerful, but not the most powerful. Humanity is a major power in the galaxy, even stronger than several pre-established ones like the batarians, but are still far weaker than the turians, asari, geth, and salarians economically, militarily, technologically, and population-wise.
Notably, a few alien races live significantly shorter lifespans than humans. Salarians only live to be about forty, and Vorcha only have twenty. They do compensate by the salarians having an advanced metabolism that allows them to get by with only an hour of sleep a day and leads to an overclocked nervous system, and the Vorcha can adapt to almost any environment, and can regenerate. Still, that's a lifespan of only a fraction of the average human.
Turians can survive more radiation that a human, having evolved a metallic carapace to compensate for their homeworld's weaker magnetic field. However, human food is toxic to them (averting No Biochemical Barriers), like their's is for us. Also, they're too dense to float.
According to Grunt's tank imprint, it's actually the Quarians who are one of the more hardier species in the galaxy compared to Krogan. Their physical robustness is however offset by their severely weakened immune systems.
In a purely physical sense, humans are puny. The Turians, Vorcha, and Quarians are all tougher and stronger, the Krogan even moreso. Even the Asari, with their natural biotics, could be considered tougher since they can shield themselves. But in the Mass Effect world (much like in Real Life), guns are an excellent equalizer, and humans are decidedly not puny when it comes to strategy, tactics and reflexes.
This is the assessment of Humanity by the Leviathan... except for Shepard.
Albion also averts this. The feline Iskai seem pretty impressive at first, being tall, extremely fast and agile, possessing prehensile tails that allow them to wield an additional weapon, and being quasi-immortal (albeit at great cost) on top of it. But it's soon revealed that from their perspective, humans are enormously strong and sturdy, and 'can live to an incredible age' - Iskai's natural lifespan isn't much longer than 40-50 years at most, and the aforementioned quasi-immortality method is available only to a handful of highly respected individuals. Ultimately, Iskai are Fragile Speedsters, while humans are Mighty Glaciers - neither better than the other, they complement each other well on your team.
Humans in Gensoukyou, the setting of Touhou, are quite a bit weaker than and generally at the mercy of the youkai (fortunately, nowadays youkai are more concerned with tea parties than eating humans), only able to thwart the pathetically weak and deeply stupid fairies. Even the handful of humans that can effectively fight youkai are not quite normal:
Reimu has special powers from the Hakurei bloodline, and has been noted to be closer to a senninnote someone who's transcended humanity by being a Hermit Guru, basically. Not exactly a youkai, but not human, either than a regular human. Marisa acts like a youkainote given Touhou's metaphysics, this could well cause her to become one, even if she doesn't decide to become a magician youkai, which a few characters have commented on, and most of her power comes from magical mushrooms and magical devices. Sakuya may well not be human. Youmu is half yuureinote ghost, phantom, something like that. The fandom doesn't agree on the translation. Keine is a were-hakutaku, though it's not clear how much of her power comes from this. Kaguya and Mokou are immortals with a thousand or so years of experience. Eirin is insanely old, and may be a godnote She's based on one, and given that someone connected to her in the backstory became one.... Sanae is a god in addition to being humannote not the same as being half god. Yes, it's weird and is helped by a couple of gods.
Command & Conquer 3 Tiberium wars: All humans have to use equipment or cybernetics to fight, the Scrin spit corrosive chemicals, control minds and fire energy out of their bodies.
On the other hand, Scrin are critically dependent on Tiberium and Tiberium radiation for survival; without it they will literally shrivel up and stop moving, and they seeded Earth with the stuff specifically to harvest ever more of the precious material. Kane goes so far as to call them "a cult of addiction in the guise of a species", implicitly comparing their entire invasion to a druggie sticking up their neighbors for money.
At the epilogue of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Demise makes several comments about how the humans from his glory days spent their time cowering in their caves at the mere sight of him and fled to their goddess Hylia for protection. He even mocks Hylia for abandoning her divine form for that of Zelda (this is after eating her soul), and yet he finds it curious that their kind begot the likes of Link and Groose. He even commends Link when he finally goes down.
"You stand as a paragon of your kind, human. You fight unlike any human or demon I have ever faced."
This is both inverted and played straight in XCOM: Enemy Unknown; human XCOM troops are physically stronger and tougher than most of the aliens in one respect or another. They're bigger and tougher than Sectoids, Thin Men, and Floaters, and it isn't until XCOM encounters Chryssalids, Heavy Floaters, and Mutons that enemies as tough and well-armed as they are show up. Of course, then the elite Mutons, Muton Berserkers, Cyberdiscs, and Sectopods show up, and then the Ethereals make their presence known, all of which are dramatically more powerful than XCOM soldiers, even the ones in Titan Armor. It turns out that human physical strength is an ideal trait, when coupled with mental capability, which the Ethereals wanted to incorporate into their empire. The Ethereals even note during the final assault on the Temple Ship that most of their more impressive specimens have been massively altered at the cybernetic and genetic levels to get something that exceeds the human form.
Lampshaded in Schlock Mercenary, when Schlock's unit is trying to come up with a way to use Schlock's various powers Nigh-Invulnerability, reforming if destroyed, shape-shifting, and a couple of other things) to get past a military checkpoint. Schlock complains "Why does it have to be MY powers? To me, YOU guys are the aliens. Can't you use your 'Special human powers' to get us past it?"
And the only reason he has unusual abilities is that Carbosilicate Amorphs are descended from swarms of Nanomachines. The other naturally-evolved species have little or no physical advantage over humans, or if they do, it's minor, roughly balanced, and treated realistically (i.e. a four-armed alien who can only see in one direction ain't gonna aim weapons everywhich way at once).
This trope is indeed justified and explored quite a bit; most of the stronger and more powerful species are artificial, such as Shlock himself and the uplifted apes and elephants.
Averted by the aliens in A Game of Fools who, despite their fearsome appearance, have little advantage over humans besides their highly advanced technology, can be easily restrained with nothing but rope and a fair few are terrified at the very sight of humans (though they've gotten over the last one somewhat).
Neeg also got the crap beaten out of him by an Old lady.
Aylee and her species in Sluggy Freelance are not only capable of assuming different forms to suit their environment, but their collected arsenal of genetic tricks from unknown eons of consuming planets (which acts to justify this) allows those forms to have just about any useful attribute, though not all at once. Thus, Aylee apparently never needs to sleep or breathe (nor, possibly, go to the potty), and often has vastly superior physical abilities compared to humans as well as a powerful Healing Factor. Things like flight, breathing fire and emitting EMPs are also possible adaptations. She's also very talented at web design. On the other hand, she's socially awkward on Earth and dreadful in handling money, and sometimes leaves slime all over the place or eats unnacceptable things.
In the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, the Delethai are bigger, stronger, and tougher than human beings, as are the Xorn and the Terhish. The Hsax are smaller and physically weaker than humans, but are much faster and have much sharper senses. Physically, the K'kriki'i are pretty much harmless to humans, having evolved on a planet with about the same gravity as the Moon... but they're a race of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens and much, much smarter than humans to boot.
Pretty damn bad in Ben 10. So many other species have outright superpowers, and humanity's only one appears to be the ability to breed with these aliens so their kids can have the alien superpowers. It gets pretty bad when the idea of a human having magical powers is treated as ridiculous while having similarly-themed energy-based superpowers inherited from the alien grandparent isn't (turns out that it was both, as said grandparent is an alien who's literally made of magic).
Although, those are mostly just the aliens that the Omnitrix happens to use. A fair few one-off and civilian aliens are generally on par with humanity.
The Omnitrix aliens are every sentient race Azmuth could get a sample of, plus every new alien encountered since then 'cause the Omnitrix can scan new ones. The first non-super aliens are encountered in Omniverse, the fourth series, the franchise's eighth year (unless we just assume some of the background aliens in big crowd scenes aren't superpowered.) We also learn that the human-appearing magic users Hex and Charmcaster come from another dimension. Humans can't use magic after all, or at least we've never seen it. Though interestingly, one of the least superpowered races is that of Vilgax, the Big Bad. Most of his 'powers' come from technology. Separated from his arsenal, he's just (very, very) strong. Still, in "Vilgax Must Croak," that proved to make him a match for three alien bounty hunters in Iron Man-class Powered Armor.
It gets better: In Ultimate Alien, aliens get 'evolved' forms. A Ben from a possible future has an Ultimate form of his own, which is... using Omnitrix alien powers without transforming, as opposed there being something cool about humans to push Up to Eleven. Humans really do suck in the Ben 10 universe.
In Futurama humanity has been effortlessly conquered by the Omacronians so often that we're now Genre Savvy enough to just surrender on the spot. Not only is their space fleet so strong they can conquer a solar system before breakfast, they're large enough to swallow humans whole and posses the key to immortality. For some reason they're huge fans of human pop culture, as well as our horns.
We've also had our asses handed to us by the Decapodians and the Brain Spawn. Of course, we can always blame Zapp Brannigan to some degree.
There ARE individual Irkens who are extremely competent at planetary conquest and using all that advanced weaponry. It's just a crapshoot whether they actually get in a position to do so considering that all honor and authority in their society is bestowed based on height before any other standard. Zim is actually rather good at using it himself, he's just completely incompetent at target selection. (He once carried out one of the most devastating planetary assaults EVER performed by any Irken...he just forgot to travel from his homeworld to the target planet BEFORE unleashing planet-wide devastation.)
Hawkgirl and all other Thanagarians, as portrayed in Justice League, have super-strength and wings.
Teen Titans has Starfire (and her sister Blackfire) who are super strong, can fly, can throw fireballs, learn languages by kissing and have inordinately high pain thresholds (including a tolerance for extreme temperatures). All of these powers are just... characteristics of Tamaranians, apparently.
Soundwave makes many good points on human inferiority to Transformers in this debate in case your still have any doubts.
The ultimate result of this is that in Transformers AnimatedSari, who is easily the most likeable (read:least hated) human, turns out to be at least partially mechanical.
However, most Autobots are so freaked out by organic contamination that captain Fanzone actually managed to intimidate an informant into getting them what they needed just by threatening to drool on him.
The live-action movie verse on the other hand, the humans are effective fighting Transformers because they're puny; their small size allows them to hide in cover and pop up to fire a few Sabot rounds at a Decepticon.
It's possible that the Autobots, Optimus Prime in particular, like and protect humanity because we're so small and weak.