Villainous Underdog

"Superman vs. Lex Luthor. One is an utterly invincible, immortal god with infinite strength; the other is, uh ... a balding middle-aged man with the strength of one Gene Hackman."

Everybody loves a good David Versus Goliath situation. Watching the heroes triumph over apparently insurmountable odds is something we not only enjoy, but anticipate seeing. It's why tropes like Underdogs Never Lose exist in the first place. So what happens then, when the underdog is the villain?

It's a lot rarer than the opposite, but on occasion you will find a story in which the villain(s) are outmatched, outgunned, outnumbered, or just generally outclassed by the heroes they face off against. In-series and out, the heroes are favoured to win, and have such a clear advantage that it's amazing the villains are able to pose any threat at all. In fact, that's where most of the drama in such a situation comes from—watching as our antagonists, whether through bravery, tenacity, brains, or sheer dumb luck manage to give our heroes a serious run for their money. Alternately, the trope may be Played for Laughs, with the whole point being watching the villain fail spectacularly.

Please note that this isn't just about cases in which the hero is a better fighter than the villain. A Non-Action Big Bad who has thousands of henchmen at his disposal can still be the Goliath to a lone hero's David (though were said Non-Action Big Bad to challenge the hero to a Duel to the Death this trope might be in effect). This is about cases in which an objective look at all factors reveals that the villain, rather than the hero, is at a significant disadvantage across the board.

Expect to see a lot of Villainous Valor in a situation like this. For more general David & Goliath battles see, well, David Versus Goliath. Often comes up in a Brains: Evil; Brawn: Good situation. Might overlap with Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain if Played for Laughs. See Invincible Hero for the kind of protagonist who is almost guaranteed to have one of these in his Rogues Gallery.


Examples

Anime & Manga
  • Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam's protagonist, Kamille Bidan, is a terrifyingly powerful Newtype in a Super Prototype Gundam tailored to his own specifications. He's an Instant Expert at anything he tries, and his Psychic Powers eventually reach the point where he can channel the spirits of the dead. And who is his archrival for most of the series? Jerid Messa, a Badass Normal Elite Mook in a mass-produced mobile suit, who no matter how hard he tries, Can't Catch Up. Over the course of the series, Jerid's piloting skills, mobile suits, and eventual Newtype powers all all improve significantly, but he always lags just behind Kamille, and his obsession with defeating the superior pilot is what eventually leads to his death.
  • During Mobile Suit Gundam 00's first season, the Gundams vastly outclassed any suit that they went up against, leaving the three world powers dependent on numbers and tactics to bring them down. This makes Graham Aker, who insisted on challenging the Gundams in a series of one-on-one matches using only his increasingly modified Flag come off as a particularly crazed underdog. Pitting his insane refusal to recognize defeat against the Gundams' immense technological advantage, Graham eventually did manage to score some victories, and in the finale, uses his GN-Flag to fight an already exhausted Setsuna F. Seiei and his Exia Gundam to a draw.
  • And to complete the trifecta, the character most devoted to defeating Tekkadan in Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is Ein, a rookie Gjallarhorn mobile suit pilot who was a disciple of one of Mikazuki's early kills. Due to his youth, hot-bloodedness, and blinding hatred of Tekkadan, he is general outright ignored by Mikazuki while screaming insults. And then Mikazuki crushes his mech, forcing him to be rebuilt into the deadly Graze Ein.
  • Sicks, the Big Bad of Majin Tantei Nougamineuro starts off the manga considerably weaker and outgunned by Neuro, only initially spared by the demonic Neuro's insatiable curiosity and utter distaste for taking human life. To carry out his genocidal plans, Sicks uses his men to force Neuro to expend energy and make him weaker in the human world to the point Sicks can defeat him.
  • Medaka Box: Kumagawa Misogi is specifically designed as this trope. As the supposed weakest being in the world, he can't seem to truly win against anyone, let alone the eponymous Invincible Hero protagonist. Ironically, this is part of his mentality, as he can't even imagine a scenario where he may win, but he manages to score many small victories as the series goes on.
  • In One Piece, Eneru, despite calling himself a god and playing the role convincingly well, finds himself no match for protagonist Luffy, as Luffy's rubber powers render him completely immune to Eneru's electricity powers. When the two fight, Eneru has to completely rely on indirect uses of controlling electricity but manages to keep up with Luffy in that way.
  • Team Rocket quickly became such in the Pokémon anime. As Ash and Pikachu quickly developed into one of the most powerful and competent battlers in the show's universe, Team Rocket were established as Ineffectual Sympathetic Villains with weaker Pokemon and battle skills, thus often attempted to capture the heroes' Pokemon via scheming and gadgetry. Meowth is a blatant case since, as a Pokemon, he has barely any battle competence.
  • Yoshikage Kira of ''Diamond is Unrbreakable'' is flat out weaker than the likes of Josuke and Jotaro in close combat, and thus has to rely on clever bomb placement rather than just trying to brute force his way to victory.

Comic Books
  • Lex Luthor is perhaps the single most iconic example in comic books. Where Superman verges on being a Physical God, his archenemy is an unpowered human, distinguished only by his wealth, manipulative and technological brilliance, and need to dominate and lord over others. Fully aware of the power differential between himself and "the alien", Luthor views himself (or at least presents himself to the world) as a Promethean figure, stealing fire from the selfish gods in order to empower humanity. Said Grant Morrison, "It's essential to find yourself rooting for Lex, at least a little bit, when he goes up against a man-god armed only with his bloody-minded arrogance and cleverness."
    • It also covers most of Superman´s foes during The Golden Age of Comic Books, since, with few exceptions, the majority of Supes' villains from The Forties were not super powered examples include Toyman (a criminal with weaponized toys), The Puzzeler (who was basically a knockoff of The Riddler).
  • Captain Marvel is one of the few characters at DC to be more powerful than Superman. His personal nemesis, Dr. Sivana, is an old man who walks with a cane, and whose Mad Scientist schemes rarely work out the way he plans them.
  • Batman is a supergenius technoninja who mastered every martial art on the planet, and has access to billions of dollars worth of military grade resources. His archfoe, The Joker, is a (usually) physically unimposing clown who doesn't have a fraction of the money, weaponry, sanity or training available to him.
    • This trope could extent to most of Batman's classic Rogues Gallery (e.g the Penguin, Riddler, the Scarecrow, Catwoman, Two Face, Hugo Strange...), since unlike Bruce Wayne, none of them have tons of money to back their operations (except maybe the Penguin), and they don't even have the benefit of knowing Batman's true identity.
  • Criminal mercenary Mark Scarlotti, alias Whiplash I/Blacklash I, was an athletic man who wore a Kevlar bodysuit and had a pair of titanium whips. He typically used these to fight Iron Man, whose sci-fi arsenal practically defines There Is No Kill Like Overkill. That Scarlotti was a going concern for forty years is a testament to sheer persistence, bravery, and a fair amount of luck.
  • Godzilla: Rulers of Earth: Zilla (aka the American Godzilla) is very much this when he clashes with the original Godzilla, lacking his Japanese counterpart's Breath Weapon, superior armour, and greater bulk. He nevertheless acquits himself well, making use of his better strategic thinking and tunneling skills to try and outfox the much more powerful protagonist.
  • A common trait in The Golden Age of Comic Books was that even Physical God heroes would fight Street thugs and Those Wacky Nazis, who had one superweapon at best.

Film
  • Part of the premise behind Megamind: the titular Villain Protagonist has lost to his nemesis so many times that he expects it. When he actually wins, he has no idea what to do with himself.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe
    • Loki in The Avengers (2012); up against a Super Soldier, a walking armory, his older brother who happens to be the God of Thunder, The friggin Hulk, and Black Widow! He has to rely almost entirely on wit, intelligence, and trickery to be a threat.
    • Same goes for Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a sentient AI that is only able to gain strength by hijacking Tony Stark's technology, and even then, the Avengers kick his butt every time he meets up with them. The only reason Ultron becomes a threat is because he's lucky enough to always find a way to retreat from a losing battle and hide for long enough to figure out what to do next. Even then, Ultron loses the "perfect body" he had created to inhabit to the Avengers, which gets its own sentience and fights on the Avengers' side. In other words, in the film's climax, Ultron is fighting in an imperfect form against his perfect form AND several Marvel A-list heroes.
    • The ultimate example, however, has to be Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. He is a former military colonel, but other than that he is an average joe with nothing but his wits and The Power of Hate. Doesn't keep him from being the first villain to achieve his goals at the end.
      Zemo: I have experience, and patience. A man can accomplish anything with these.

Literature
  • Wendy Alec's Brothers series retells the Bible story with the emphasis on the War in Heaven between God's five sons. Four remain loyal, but the fifth, Lucifer, is the bad apple in the divine orchard. Lucifer's rebellion is retold, but every time he challenges his brother Christos, he inevitably gets Curb Stomped.
  • Jedi Quest has gangster Granta Omega. Unlike his father, Xanatos, who was an ex-Jedi, Omega was born not only without Force powers, but without any connection to The Force whatsoever. Using his status as a "Force Blank" to his advantage, Omega launched a number of plots against the Jedi, typically acting through agents, and using his apparent undetectability to make good his escape. No match for a Jedi in a direct engagement, Omega did his best to make sure he never faced them one-on-one, using deception, hired guns, and bioweaponry to even the odds in his favour.
  • In The Mahabharata, the Pandavas and Kauravas are both evenly matched in general. But Karna versus Arjuna is the major exception. The story expects you to root for Arjuna who is the heroic figure, backed by Krishna. Yet Karna, despite being cursed by fate and bad luck proves to be a great warrior solely by merit, skill and ability. Karna gets defeated by the Pandavas by a complex Gambit Pileup, manipulation and divine intervention.

Live-Action TV
  • Most villains on Smallville, particularly early on. Given Clark's Nigh-Invulnerability, most battles ended as soon as he was able to track the Villain of the Week down, and he was more likely to be injured by the town's Kryptonite deposits than by one of them. As the show went on, increasingly powerful villains who averted this appeared (most notably Brainiac and Major Zod), though his two most beloved (and arguably most dangerous) foes, Lex and Lionel Luthor remained scheming Badass Normals to the end.
  • Fargo: Season 2 had the police up against the Kansas City Mob and the Gerhardt crime family in a Mêlée à Trois. Mike Milligan, a low level Kansas City enforcer ascends to a major threat, before the Kansas City heads lose faith in him, and pull out their support, leaving Mike with no resources beyond the guns he has and only one henchman (Gale). The Police and Gerhardt family never find this out and still see him as having the entirety of the Mob's resources and being a major threat, all the while Mike and Gale scramble to find some sort of edge on their enemies. The penultimate confrontation at Sioux Falls, ends with the true Big Bad, Hanzee Dent, tricking the police and his own employers, the Gerhardts, into thinking they've attacked Mike and his Mobsters, when in actuality they just end up killing each other. Mike only shows up when the fighting is over, and he ends up being the winner of the Mob War.

Professional Wrestling
  • Haystacks Calhoun made a career as a traveling face, often dwarfing even the mightiest heels of any given territory, such as Pampero Firpo in Detroit.
  • No matter how over matched any of the "villains" of wrestling are, more often than not there is still some doubt as to whether the (often comparative) heroes will win simply because it only takes three seconds to end a match and sometimes not even that many. Honky Tonk Man, for example, retained his Intercontinental Championship against superior opponents by making use of a guitar and getting himself disqualified, as titles don't change hands by DQ.
  • Mr. Fuji put the Orient Express in this situation when he got rid of Demolition in favor of Akio Sato and Pat Tanaka, who really weren't ready to inherit Fuji and Demolition's feud with Legion of Doom.
  • Many popular but utterly outmatched "baby faces" find themselves targets for belittlement, bullying and torture by larger/better connected "heels". Against more equal opponents, the heels can win by cheating. So in comes the big monster of the baby faces, to finally give those no good dirty cheats what's coming to them. An example of this pattern includes Jack Evans-Homicide-Samoa Joe(the succession of faces) against the heel Ring of Honor Champion Bryan Danielson (squashed the first, paid someone off to handle the second, found himself facing the wrath of the third)
  • Baby face wrestlers on paths of revenge and or pursuit of titles often get matched up against unpopular opponents unrelated to their goals for the catharsis of seeing hapless heels get destroyed and to build up anticipation for the faces getting to what they really want. Examples include "Portugal's Perfect Athlete" Shanna, who CZW\WSU owner DJ Hyde put between himself and Nevaeh/Jessicka Havok as well as The Kimber Bombs, who happened to be in the way of Jessicka Havok and Madison Eagles, who were pursuing the Canadian Ninjas in SHIMMER.

Tabletop Games
  • Warhammer 40,000: This is occasionally seen in battles with the Forces of Chaos vs Tau. Unlike humans, the Tau cannot be corrupted or influenced by Chaos, their technology is such that they basically outgun and outrange every other force, and, they don't backstab each other/sacrifice their own units every ten minutes.
    • Chaos Cultists are these by definition. With skills that equal those of the lowest ranked Imperial Guard grunts, and armour that is inferior to that of every other unit in the game, Cultists get by on numbers and luck.
    • Imperial propaganda tries to portray the various xeno species as this- like Eldar using antiquated tech, or Tau spooking when they hear loud noises, or orks being easy to defeat in close combat. It falls apart the second the troops enter combat.
  • Mutants & Masterminds' Freedom City setting has August Tiberias Roman, archfoe of The Centurion, and the resident Lex Luthor stand-in. Where Centurion was based on Superman, and could fly, lift hundreds of tonnes, and shrug off cannon fire, Roman was merely a very well-connected and careful Mafia don, whose crimes could never be traced back to him. Their enmity lasted from Centurion's 1938 debut, until his death in 1993, at which point Roman, having made it to old age and outlived his nemesis, retired.
  • Exalted: Among the various Exalted types, Solar - the type meant to be played by the PCs, is generally (and canonically) the most powerful, once they rack up enough experience. Meanwhile, the typically-antagonistic Terrestrial and Sidereal Exalted are considered the weakest, but they make up for it with sheer number and resources. Or, in the latter case, extreme age and subtlety.

Video Games
  • Captain Syrup, from Wario Land II steals from Wario at the start of the game, and is running for her life from him the rest of the game. Wario is completely invincible in this game, what with it being impossible to get a Game Over. The hero, if Wario can even be called one, can't have much more of an advantage over the villain than this.
  • Arguably, the Institute in Fallout 4. They have the worst armour in the entire game, their laser weapons are frankly pathetic in comparison to the Brotherhood of Steel's (and up against crude pipe weapons, they fair rather poorly), and they have limited manpower. Synth-power, on the other hand, they have in spades, and if it wasn't for their ability to mass-produce these disposable minions and drown threats in them, they wouldn't have anything going for them. They don't even have Powered Armor, despite logically being able to produce suits superior to those of even the Enclave. Justified as their super-technology is done For Science! rather than for world domination, and indeed their only goal is to build a functional nuclear reactor so they don't have to rely on the surface any more, which paints them in a much less villainous light than previous Fallout villains.

Web Comics
  • The Linear Guild tends to be this to The Order of the Stick. Their character builds are less optimized than the Order (except for Thog), and it's pretty clear they'd lose in any straight-up fight. They remain a credible threat only because of Nale's scheming, and even that tends to backfire.

Web Original

Western Animation
  • Elmer Fudd of Looney Tunes is a particularly infamous (and unintentional) case, since he was so meek and incompetent against Bugs Bunny that even some of the Warner Bros creative team started to think Bugs was coming across more as a petty bully than a defensive trickster. As such the series went through a long list of more challenging opponents to rectify this, though almost all of them still fit this trope.
  • The setup of The Dreamstone. The Land of Dreams consists of the almost omni powerful Dream Maker and an army of magic crafting Wuts. Viltheed consists of the powerful but inactive Zordrak and his incompetent and powerless Urpney army, who were usually reliant on some eccentric gadget of Urpgor's to invade the Land of Dreams, which was usually disposed of easily. As such many episodes' tension was reliant on the heroes making the questionable tactic of sending Muggles, Rufus and Amberley to handle everything, and even they usually trounced the Urpneys to the point of Unnecessary Roughness.
  • Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons are built around this concept, with the smart, but horribly unlucky coyote being thoroughly overmatched by the super fast, equally smart, and ungodly fortunate Road Runner. Physics itself was always on the Road Runner's side, meaning Wile E's schemes were doomed from the start. A large part of this was, of course, because in the words of Chuck Jones "The audience's sympathy but always remain with the coyote."
  • Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. While Sylvester certainly isn't weaker than Tweety, he's no match for Granny or Hector and has to find ways to sneak past them in order to get at the bird. That's without getting into his fights with Speedy Gonzales or Hippity Hopper.
  • The title character from Samurai Jack is the greatest warrior on the entire planet, frequently having hoards of villains coming at him at once, and beating them soundly. Despite ruling the entire world, Aku actually has to constantly hide his lair around the world to avoid Jack, because he always loses any encounter between them.
  • Many of the villains from The Powerpuff Girls are like this, what with each one of the Girls being almost on a Superman level of power. Notably, though, are the members of the Gangreen Gang, who are pretty much just 5 teenagers with no real powers other than being slightly stronger than normal people... but still being a whole lot weaker than the Girls themselves.
  • The Equalists from Legend Of Korra. In a world where some people are born with Elemental Powers, those who are not come to resent being second-class citizens and start a revolution. They use Power Nullifier martial arts techniques and put up a real fight against Korra and her allies. Though their leader, Amon, turns out to have powers himself, it's still played straight for the rest of the group.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VillainousUnderdog