The Man Behind the Curtain
"And was this fellow, Oz, a powerful dinh? A baron? Perhaps a king?"
Again, the three of them exchanged a glance from which Roland was excluded. "That's complicated," Jake said. "He was sort of a humbug—"
"A bumhug? What's that?"
"Humbug," Jake said, laughing. "A faker. All talk, no action."
After infiltrating the fortress of evil
, fighting off hordes of Mooks
, successfully navigating the Death Course
and laying the almighty smackdown on The Dragon
, you finally reach the Evil Sorcerer
's inner sanctum. You charge in, ready to face the Man Behind the Man
and kick some ass...
Wait a second, since when was Baron Von Ruthless a bedridden feeble old man with leukemia
? And why does he have a dry ice machine?
Sometimes the Big Bad
is disappointingly small. Sometimes the Ultimate Evil
is far less ultimate than you were led to believe. Sometimes The Man Behind the Man
is just the The Man Behind The Curtain: a villain who falls depressingly short of their own hype. More deserving of a slap across the face than a pummeling (but even that might kill them), they are not even a remotely credible threat to the heroes. You want to hate them, but all you can muster up is pity.
If this happens in a serious story, expect the audience to be ticked when they find out the long-awaited big fight is going to be really one-sided, if it happens at all. Of course, really crafty Men Behind The Curtain make sure that the hero is significantly weakened
by the time they get to him, either through exhaustion from fighting everyone before him or doing something very sneaky and underhanded to him before the fight begins. Then again, there may well be Truth in Television Justification
for this; after all, a commander without an army is effectively useless. Of course, Tropes Are Not Bad
; in a cynical-realistic show with Anyone Can Die
and Reality Ensues
in full force, it would be jarring if the enemy is thoroughly outmatched but still poses a threat in person.
is a Video Game
-specific subtrope. For the inverse of this trope, see Fluffy the Terrible
. Contrast with Villain Decay
and Authority Equals Asskicking
. May use the Fake Special Attack
. Has surprisingly little to do with Curtain Camouflage
or the Dramatic Curtain Toss
, though some examples may have those as well.
By this trope's very nature, all examples will be SPOILERS. You have been warned.
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- In the Cowboy Bebop episode "Brain Scratch," the mysterious and sinister Dr. Londes turns out to be an internet persona created by a paralyzed and semi-comatose teenaged boy in a hospital.
- While his People Puppets are incredibly powerful, and he is capable of unbelievably terrifying deeds by proxy, Nagato, AKA Pain turns out to be...a withered near-skeleton of a man incapable of standing upright or moving on his own and constantly at death's door.
- In Afro Samurai (manga only), Afro has murdered his way through the ranks of those who either covet his Number 2 headband or are protecting the current Number One, only to find that his target died long ago.
- This happened in the game version as well, but ended in such a way in that there was a still a satisfying Final Boss fight.
- In Turn A Gundam, Queen Diana and her supporters refer often to her Evil Chancellor, Agrippa Maintainer, and his scheming in lunar politics while she's away. They return to find that he's put the Moon under martial law and wants to oust her for supposedly reawakening the Moonrace's latent warlike instincts... but he's also a Smug Snake who's using the Blood Knight Ghingnham faction as his muscle, and Gym Ghingnham is running rings around him. Then he gets killed by Midgard, his own agent.
- Mobile Suit Crossbone Gundam seems like it's building up to this: it's known from the start that the Big Bad, Crux Dogatie, is incredibly old, frail, and on constant life support. But while his body is frail, his mind and spirit are anything but, and he somehow manages to project an aura of intimidation and authority whenever he's on-screen. He's very driven and cunning, and continually stays one step ahead of the heroes throughout the story. And in the end, the final battle is fought with him when he personally flies a gigantic Mobile Armor into battle, easily the biggest threat on the battlefield.
- Yellow Claw in Agents of Atlas turns out to just be a feeble, dying old man whose schemes turned out to be just a desperate publicity stunt to advance the career of his chosen heir.
- In "The Hard Goodbye", the first Sin City story, Marv kills his way through hitmen, gangsters, a police death squad and a silent and deadly farm boy cannibal killer to get to the man behind the murder of Goldie...who turns out to be a really little old man who isn't nearly as imposing as his fearsome reputation as a Cardinal would lead one to believe. The big bad cowers and dies screaming as Marv exacts his revenge on him.
- The infamous Adversary in Vertigo Comics' Fables turns out to be... Geppetto, still as happy and kindly as ever, but turned megalomaniacal after he was requested to help overthrow and replace one too many evil dictators with wooden stand-ins from his magic grove (the same one he carved Pinocchio out of). While he's gathered quite a gaggle of evil Fables under his thrall, without his authority and his magic wood, he's actually quite pathetic.
- Mr. Mind: The head of the Monster Society of Evil turns out to be an intelligent bespectacled worm. Not a big worm, or even a mind controlling worm (that's retconned in later) but a normal sized green worm. With glasses. Kids must have laughed...
- The retcon makes him terrifyingly powerful. His normal form is telepathic and telekinetic, while his evolved form eats entire universes.
- Early on in the Deadpool Corps series, the Deadpools have to stop The Awareness, a cosmic entity resembling a giant cloud that is feeding on the minds of entire alien species and making them its slaves. Actually, the real Awareness is a pretty pathetic-looking little alien, the huge nebula being nothing more than a shroud. Once the Deadpools make it past his minions and his traps, he is easily dispatched.
- The trope title and the page quote both refer to Oz, the Great and Terrible, who, as everyone now knows, proved to be neither. While in the film his disguise was a fiery hologram, in the book he changed disguises every day. (A giant head, a beautiful woman, a dragon, and a fireball.) In the sequels, though, he does become a bona fide wizard.
- Malkariss, ruler of the subterranean kingdom from the Redwall novel Mattimeo. He spends his life inside a giant carving of a polecat that amplifies his voice. He's really so old that he's practically helpless when his own slaves attack him.
- Randall Flagg, Mordred Deschain, and the Crimson King from The Dark Tower. Stephen King even foreshadows this in the quote at the top of this page, which occurs right before a scene in which Flagg reenacts the exposing of The Wizard of Oz.
- Flagg and the Crimson King are two cases where The Man Behind The Curtain overlaps with Villain Decay. In previous novels like The Stand and Insomnia, they were presented as competent and terrifying, but Stephen King subsequently changed his mind about the nature of evil and set these villains up to be exposed as humbugs in the final volume of The Dark Tower.
- The Star Trek novel Kahless is, essentially, a "demythologization" of the Klingon legends about the titular character. When Kahless finally confronts his traditional enemy, the tyrant Molor, he discovers that Molor is not an invincible warrior—just a dying old man.
- Mr. Foreclosure, the villain of The War Between The Pitiful Teachers And The Splendid Kids, is an ant. Not even a giant ant.
- In Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce, Blayce is called "The Nothing Man", because that's what he is: a short, weak, fidgety, acne-ridden slimeball. Given that he's a serial child murderer and necromancer who invented the horrific killing devices that plague the Tortallan front (as well as brutalizing the local population), Kel is disgruntled to find that he's so unimpressive and easy to kill once she takes care of his Dragon.
- Werner von Aargau in Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard. His contract with the nephilim - having one of them physically implanted in his body to link their species with humanity - has kept him alive for the last several hundred years, but didn't stop him from aging. He is now spliced into the fabric of a building in such a way that he cannot be killed without Taking You with Me.
- The demon Quetzovercoatl in Terry Pratchett's Eric. The Nightmare Fuel demon who's the basis of an entire warlike religion turns out to be all of six inches tall. To add insult to injury, he's killed seconds after appearing on earth.
- The Authority in His Dark Materials is revealed to be a frail, old and hopelessly senile angel sealed inside an almost indestructible crystal cage by his servants to keep him alive. He's even lost the ability to speak, but seems happy when the protagonists unwittingly kill him without even realizing who he is.
- Malazan Book of the Fallen: When Adjunct Tavore Paran meets the Whirlwind Leader Sha'ik in a duel on which the whole destiny of the Whirlwind rebellion, the battle is... short. Sha'ik has left Felisin to her own feeble powers, and she is ruthlessly killed in a few blows.
- Cronal from the Star Wars Expanded Universe is a subversion — he hides behind holograms and body doubles to disguise the fact that physically he's a frail old man on life-support, but he's such a powerful darksider that he doesn't need a working body to pose a threat.
- In Barbara Hambly's novel The Ladies of Mandrigyn, the whole world fears Altiokis the Wizard King, shadowy ruler of a mighty empire, the greatest wizard the world has ever known, immortal, invincible... It turns out he's a third-rate magician who captured something by luck in his youth; by some combination of his own cretinous nature and the mind-corroding effects of the alien power, he's become a vicious, dull-witted, infantile glutton who whiles away the centuries indulging his base appetites.
- In Jeff Somers's cyberpunk novel The Electric Church, the leader of the eponymous Church (which offers "salvation through immortality" by means of cyborg conversion) is a digitized consciousness in a box (though his personal avatars, the Cardinals, are very formidable).
Live Action TV
- In the fourth season Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Fear Itself", Buffy and company must fight their way through a haunted house where the decorations have been brought to life as monsters by the influence of Gaknar, a primordial fear demon. When the demon itself is brought forth, it is so tiny that a fearsome-looking picture of it shown earlier proves to be actual size. There's an Aesop — the standard "The only thing to fear is fear itself" moral, hence the title.
- LOST's Jacob, who runs the Others from a secret cabin and can apparently only speak to Ben, is such a straight execution of this trope that the episode in which Jacob first appears is in fact titled "The Man Behind the Curtain."
- Subverted: There was no man behind the curtain - Ben never spoke with Jacob, who doesn't really live in the cabin. Whoever Locke heard, it wasn't Jacob...and he wasn't in charge. The actual Jacob appears only two seasons later.
- It turns out it was actually Jacob's brother, who is actually the Black Smoke, which means it's subverted to hell and back as it's therefore the Unkillable Monster behind the curtain. Just to rub salt in it, the image that Locke sees in that chair is actually a vision of his dead self, a reference to the Monster plotting Locke's death. Jacob did use to live in that cabin, and the Monster is old and manipulative enough to really be in charge, in a sense, even if nobody realizes it.
- Star Trek' Balok, from the episode "The Corbomite Maneuver," has the appearance of a human child. When he communicates with other ships via the viewscreen, he uses an intimidating puppet.
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Zig-zagged with the Clairvoyant, the Big Bad of season 1. When first encountered, he appears to be a wheelchair-bound old man who can't even speak and has to communicate through a computer, qualifying him for this trope. However, it's revealed this man isn't actually the Clairvoyant, just a fall guy set up by HYDRA. Then it's revealed that the real Clairvoyant, John Garrett, is not a psychic at all, just a man with a lot of information at his disposal. Then it's revealed that he's also Secretly Dying, and his body has decayed to the point where it requires a Super Serum just to operate at normal human levels, qualifying him for this trope too. THEN he takes the GH.325 drug in an attempt to cure himself, and starts developing genuine clairvoyant abilities as a result, ultimately making him a subversion.
- Spocks Beard have a song with this title and theme on their X album.
- Space 1889 in Beastmen of Mars the players will find out who is behind the horrifying Cult of the Worm. He’s fairly underwhelming, yet not…
- The Feeble Files adventure game has one of these, although it's not a person who you'd know about before you reached the final "dungeon." The CEO of Omnicorp, the man behind the Omnibrain, the ultimate source of all the torment in the galaxy is a senile old guy who was actually asleep for the last several centuries while a strategy game AI ran things for him. He dies instantly when a frustrated Feeble punches him in the face.
- Bob the goldfish in the Earthworm Jim series.
- Emperor Murod in the original Summoner, despite being served by legitimately intimidating and nasty lackeys and being responsible for actions of gross evil... is just a feeble old man. On top of this, he's an Anticlimax Boss, even after pulling a One-Winged Angel out of nowhere.
- Subverted in Advance Wars - Dual Strike with CO Von Bolt, a feeble old man. But since all of the actual combat is between replacable mooks, and Von Bolt is a strategic genius with a devastating CO Power, he's still pretty threatening.
- No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle is all about Travis fighting his way to the man responsible for the murder of Bishop, Jasper Batt Jr. By the time you reach him, he reveals himself as a tiny, weak, buck-teethed man who is only capable of fighting you with his rocket-racecar-desk and robotic bats.
- Though this is subverted rather gloriously as after he is first beaten he pumps himself full of steroids transforming into the hulking Batt-man. And if you can beat that, he somehow bloats up to the size of a blimp to crush Travis.
- In Darkened Skye, the Big Bad Evil Overlord Lord Necroth is widely known and feared as "He Whose Face Must Not be Glimpsed". It turns out that Necroth is really an inch-high maggot using a giant megaphone to communicate with his followers. Skye even has to use a shrinking spell to enter Necroth's throne room to confront him. Skye even remarks "He Whose Face Must Not be Glimpsed. That's because he's too small to see! You're Lord Necroth? You're nothing more than a pathetic little..." Despite being The Man Behind The Curtain, Necroth is not an Anticlimax Boss, as he does put up a reasonable fight (since the heroine is also only an inch high at that point). Possibly a Shout-Out to Mr. Mind, above.
- In Final Fantasy X, The Man Behind The Curtain, Yu Yevon, is described in the third act to be the controller of Sin. This feat gives the impression that his power must be immense, yet he is revealed in the final battle to be nothing more than an insect. A spectral insect, but an insect nonetheless.
- Most of his feats were done in ages past, and he's degenerated so much he's really quite defenseless on his own. In his prime, however, he was likely the greatest summoner the world has ever known and created TWO Epic Level Summons with his skills. At the same time. He's also the father of Yunalesca, another contender for being the greatest summoner since she created the Final Aeons, another Epic Level Summon AND she knows how to make more of them if need be. After 1000 Years of Epicness, it seems to have finally decayed Yu Yevon utterly.
- This is, incidentally, how Mega Man 2 ends. Dr. Wily suddenly transforms into an alien (with some mad targeting skills), but when you destroy the alien, the whole room is revealed to be a giant spinning holographic space projector of some sort, and the alien itself a small floating turret. Dr. Wily has nothing else up his sleeve, and (presumably?) surrenders.
- Ozwell E. Spencer of Resident Evil is one of the original founders of the Umbrella Corporation. His company has been producing every strain of The Virus under the sun, and executives, especially the founders have a tendency to go One-Winged Angel as soon as the hero shows up. When we meet Spencer, he's a terrified, feeble old man who is on life support 24 hours a day. Who gets killed by Wesker before we even get to fight him.
- The Collector in LittleBigPlanet (not to be confused with those Collectors) spends the entire game one step ahead of the player, hiding in the background and snatching away various objects and NPCs with a giant robot and an Evil Laugh. Once you've finally chased him to his bunker and defeated his robot, however, he turns out to be a tiny little guy - smaller than Sackboy, even - and all he really wanted was some friends. Needless to say, he's immediately forgiven, and everything ends on a happy note. What kind of game did you think this was?
- Parodied in one of the joke endings of Silent Hill 2, where it is revealed that the unseen entity jerking James around and forcing him to relieve the most painful memories of his life is... a shiba inu dog. Roll credits!
- Fallout: New Vegas has Mr. House, the enigmatic genius who controls the Vegas Strip with his army of robots, who nobody has ever met in person and is rumored to be the oldest political force in the Mojave Wasteland. He turns out to be a shriveled, almost-mummified 261-year-old Howard Hughes Expy sealed in an iron lung, who dies of multiple viral infections if you so much as open the case he's shut in.
- Apparently there's a species of spider that does this—a tiny spider makes an effigy of a giant spider to scare off predators. 
- Mad Mod in Teen Titans turns out to be a feeble old man running a simulator. The version they were going after was actually a hologram.
- Subverted by Brother Blood, who looks like a frail old man relying on personal charisma and Mind Control powers to make himself seem dangerous- and then Cyborg gets into a fistfight with him, and he turns out to be one of the most dangerous hand-to-hand combatants in the show.
- Mr. Big in Rocky and Bullwinkle always cast an enormous shadow because of a flashlight he always kept with him, but ended up being one or two inches tall, and can be picked up with two fingers. It is later revealed, in his last appearance, that not only is his shadow effective enough that he can take over the moon with it, he is still strong enough to beat up a full-sized person.
- In an alternative ending of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Oogie Boogie ended up being Dr. Finklestein, who was trying to teach Sally a lesson and was jealous that she chose Jack over him.
- As it was, Boogie turned out to be ... practically a Mind Hive collected of thousands of little bugs, who when they were split apart could only squeal "My bugs! My bugs!" over and over.
- In Ben 10: Secret of the Omnitrix, Ben and company confront the creator of the Omnitrix, a giant alien with a booming voice. It turns out to be a biosuit. Azmuth is a tiny froglike alien, a member of Grey Matter's race.