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We Are Team Cannon Fodder
When a main hero or team leader is so important to the story that the secondary characters' actions will have minimal impact when it comes to the big fight. This can happen in the natural evolution of the story, and is more tolerated when the Terrible Trio does it. When it happens to the characters we've known for a long time, it's depressing. The one bonus is this usually gives the main hero the best motivation to try his best.

Ironically, this is less jarring when the other characters have no special abilities, since it's logical the hero could be the only one to do things. In these cases, the secondaries will still find ways to help.

Goes hand-in-hand with Only I Can Kill Him. This is the result when they Can't Catch Up when it applies to everyone. At best they end up Overshadowed by Awesome. See Gondor Calls for Aid for an inversion. Compare/contrast Hero Secret Service, where the team is useful but still cannon fodder. When it's done with extras rather than characters, they often become a Redshirt Army. Finally, compare Spotlight-Stealing Squad.

For Cannon Fodder as part of Military and Warfare Tropes, see... well, its own article.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Dragon Ball Z's later arcs, the effectiveness of the characters in the grand scheme of things was basically whittled down to a few Saiyans.
    • The least subtle display of this has to be the final fight with Cell in the arc's climax, in which every non-Saiyan protagonist combined their powers to attack Cell from behind, who was already struggling to hold off Gohan in front. Their strongest attacks didn't so much as wrinkle his clothes, and Cell—who didn't even have to turn around—rebutted all their collaborative assault simultaneously. Only the assistance of other Saiyans put the fight over the edge. note 
    • Piccolo, the most powerful of the non-Saiyan characters previously spent a year (inside the Hyperbolic Time Chamber training rigorously from even that point) to become the most powerful character on the show by a wide margin through merging with his other half, and still remained surpassed completely again by all the Saiyan characters despite their training occupying the space of 10 days.
    • It finally comes to a head in Dragonball GT, where even Gohan, Goten, Trunks, and Vegeta to an extent are rendered completely ineffectual against the Big Bad of each main storyline. That's right; everyone who's not Goku squarely ends up here eventually.
  • Initially averted in Naruto. While the title character was particularly powerful, he didn't force the rest of the cast into cannon fodder position for most of the series. In fact, of the dead members of the Akatsuki, Naruto has only been directly involved in the defeat of two: the first he took down after that member was worn down by Kakashi and the second which he handled mostly on his own still took the rest taking an attack that left that member partially weakened, support from his team of summons, and some critical information that they revealed to him (which they spent a long time finding). Kishimoto seemed to do a pretty good job of keeping the rest of the cast at least marginally relevant. Unless they're a woman; in which case they fail in their actions or stay on the sidelines to begin with.
    • Exagerated towards the end of the series, where only Naruto and the Uchiha clan are relevant. In the Fourth Great Ninja War arc, Naruto single-handedly out-performs roughly eighty thousand ninja, half of whom died in less than 24 hours. Once he entered the battlefield, Naruto beat almost every opponent remaining. Eventually, the ninja army joined him where he was, which served only to make more targets and split his power. Their only meaningful contributions were: Hinata and Ino, both of them women, causing an attack of the Ten-Tailed Beast, at that point the strongest thing in the series, to miss, and shielding themselves after they made themselves easy targets.
    • The only weaknessess of the Host of the Ten-Tailed Beast was revealed to be Sage Chakra, which was at that point only known to be used by Naruto, Naruto's summon partners the Toads, previous villain Kabuto, and Juugo, a member of The Rival Sasuke Uchiha's team. Hashirama and Minato (the First and Fourth Hokages) were later revealed to have the ability, but both became incapacitated, and the last Toad was forced to leave the battlefield, leaving only Naruto and Sasuke (through Juugo's assistance) present and capable of harming the enemy. By this point, the only additional contributions made by the alliance were using Naruto's power to serve as an extra seven pairs of hands to help him weaken the villain, which was instantly reversed later, and dying instantly due to the God Tree summon of the enemy Madara Uchiha.
  • The third arc of YuYu Hakusho has Kuwabara, Kurama, and Hiei so weak that they can barely dent Big Bad Sensui when attacking him all at once. This is despite the fact that Kuwabara has a weapon that's capable of cutting through absolutely anything, including dimensions, in a single stroke.
    • Averted with the fourth and final arc, which eschews yet another save the world plot in favor of some (very violent) Demon World politics. A group of Demon Kings and their companions have power which greatly outstrip that of the main cast, yet none of the main cast have any real interest in winning the tournament which will allow them to rule the entire Demon World. They fight instead to resolve personal issues, and since they don't necessarily have to come out as the victors, Yusuke, Kurama, and Hiei can still lose a few battles without weakening their badass image.
  • Digimon Frontier, has Takuya and Koji using the powers which required everyone else to lose all of their power (Susanoomon even required Koji to give up his power the first time, though the second time averted it by requiring everyone to combine both their power and bodies together).
    • As far as main characters go, in Digimon Savers, none of the primary four became useless. Normally, only the protagonist and his rival/best friend's partners get the most powerful forms. In Savers, the four primary protagonists's digimon all get to the highest possible evolution. The main character, however, is still the only one whose partner gets a special weapon at his second most powerful evolution (or most powerful if Burst Mode doesn't count as a new evolution).
  • In Slayers no one except Lina is powerful enough to kill a bad guy because only she has the Dragon Slave and Giga Slave. Much of this is because Slayers is RPG based, and Lina's the Sorceress. The characters are fully aware of this. In one battle, Gourry and Zelgadis make ready to fight the Big Bad, telling Lina: "There's no way we can beat him; the best we can hope for is to hold him off until you regain your strength." With added emphasis on Get better fast.
    • Averted in the fourth series, Slayers Revolution, with Pokota being at least at par with Lina, if maybe just somewhat weaker (but even crazier). Their squabbles provide much of the plot dynamics.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! and Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, the one-on-one duel nature of the show means that this trope is handled differently: occasionally characters besides Yugi or Judai will face the Big Bad... and you know they're going to lose, because only Yugi and Judai can beat them.
    • Averted in Joey's duel with Marik. While Joey ends up losing, it takes Marik cheating, using a God Card, and his Egyptian Rod to win. Even then, Joey only loses by default because he collapsed from exhaustion and was unable to complete his final move.
    • Averted in the manga version of GX, when Manjoume defeats the initial villain David Rabb before Judai duels him. Before that it was Subverted by Reggie (who takes over as the main villain after David's defeat) who intentionally loses to Misawa.
    • Averted during the Fortune Cup and Dark Signer arc of Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, where each character is able to more or less equally contribute to the fight against the bad guys. Following that, various other characters, mostly Jack and Crow, being defeated to set up Yusei as the big hero becomes increasingly common, and you can count on one hand the number of duels that Aki, Ruka, and Rua have gotten since then as well.
  • Transformers Victory, where all the good guys are Team Cannon Fodder, and serve to get beaten up until Star Saber shows up and kills everyone with Stock Footage.
  • Mahou Sensei Negima!: In the Mundus Magicus arc Ala Alba get hit with this HARD. Throughout this arc Negi is the only one that can stand toe to toe with the Big Bad while all the other members even when they gang up on said Big Bad seem to barely faze him, even when they hit him with a fricking Kill Sat. Even when characters state that Ala Alba is strong its hard to believe when Negi is a walking embodiment of Spotlight-Stealing Squad in fights where everyone else's fights are ignored in favor for Negi's.
  • Averted in One Piece. Despite Luffy being the strongest, the other Straw Hats get their fair share of battling while Luffy usually takes on the villain that only he is capable of beating. It's what makes them such a team.
  • In the fourth season of Sailor Moon, this happens to any sailor senshi who doesn't have 'Moon' in their name. Even after they receive their 'super' upgrade from Pegasus, they spend most of their time standing/running around, performing ineffectual attacks, and saying "Sailor Moon!" And when they do actually do something, they do one attack to stun the enemy, then Sailor Moon finishes them off.

    Film 
  • Name a single traditional horror film where anyone else but the Designated Hero survives until the end. Somewhat averted in modern horror films by the Anyone Can Die rule seeing more frequent application.

    Literature 
  • The last two Animorphs books did this to all of the auxiliary Animorphs, who were attacking heavily-armed Yeerk ships head-on, distracting the Visser while the original crew & Ax successfully pulled off a more covert battle.
  • Warhammer 40,000 novels are known for pulling this one frequently. Any army/division/company/strike team/squad/ship/fleet/planet/solar system not the protagonist's own will either serve no role in the story or be destroyed.
  • Sun Wukong in Journey to the West literally has to do everything himself. His two (arguably three) combat-capable allies do little more than get kidnapped (and swim).

    Live Action TV 
  • Whenever you see an SG team with a number larger than one, or composed entirely of non-Americans, in Stargate SG-1, at least one of that team's members will not be coming back through the gate. This is especially bad for teams made of Russians. Russian SG Program? Entire base slaughtered. Russian SG team? Dead, except the hot chick. New Russian officer? Possessed by Anubis twice, then dead via Heroic Sacrifice. Russian Battlecruiser? Destroyed in its first battle. The only position with a higher Red Shirt rate on the show is the ship captains.
    • SG-3 under Col. Reynolds avoid it by being THE Colonel Makepeace's old unit.
    • In Stargate Atlantis, the Marines serve this role. Go ahead, try to find an episode where a team of Marines doesn't suffer a Total Party Kill. They must replenish their supply all the time because Sheppard is always asking for a team of marines to go offworld with him and get killed.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000: Happens a lot with stories involving the Imperium. Think of it this way: the PDF are the National Guard, the Imperial Guard are the US Marines, and the Adeptus Astartes are SEAL Team Six. If the Imperial Guard are protagonists, then the PDF serve as this. If the Astartes are the protagonists, usually the Imperial Guard serve as this.
    • Da Ork's Gretchin are literally this trope, with one of their jobs being AMMO.
    • Closer to this trope, some 40k armies allow you to field a retinue for your HQ on the table. In many cases, especially the members bought for their supporting abilities, the retinue is simply a bunch of guys only on par with the Elite choices at best (and quite often without the Elite's vast array of optional weapons), and equal to the much weaker common Troop choice at worst.
      • Averted by Space Marines and Orkz, because Space Marine command squads are supposed to be the best of the best in a company of Super Soldiers, and Ork Nobz have "acquired" (read: bullied and/or killed for) the best possible equipment any Ork could have.
    • The Kroot serve as this for the Tau. Their battlefield role is pretty much "charge anything that gets close and die horribly to buy time for the Fire Warriors to move to another position". Compared to the assault troops of other races, they're pretty horrible and not exactly expected to win their engagements.
    • If the manipulative Eldar are protagonists, usually, everyone else serves as this.

    Video Games 
  • The entire Gallian army in Valkyria Chronicles. At one point in the story, every last one of them is vaporized as collateral damage in the Karmic Death of their leader; absolutely nothing changes, except said leader isn't there to harass the militia captain anymore.
  • Some scenarios in Age of Mythology's campaign pit Arkantos and Co. against forces consisting mostly or entirely of myth units. Sucks to be a human soldier during these parts.
  • The 8 mavericks in Megaman X 2 are only there to keep X busy long enough for Serges, Violen, and Agile to resurrect Sigma. After you trounce two of the mavericks, the three realize you're tearing through them too quickly and join the fray to slow you down.

    Webcomics 
  • Gets a Lampshade Hanging in MS Paint Masterpieces, an unusually faithful fanfic sprite comic adaptation of the classic 8-bit Mega Man games, in which the inaction of the world's human armed forces against the evil Robot Masters is explained by showing that they were not inactive at all - merely unable to keep up with the super-powered robot hero. The elite American squadron sent to fight the Robot Masters has a reputation as a suicide squad, sent on dangerous missions with a low expectation of survival. It is led by Colonel Fodder, who wisely chooses to sit most of every mission out. The team is called Fodder Force. And just in case you missed the joke the first time, the Fodder Force has a Chinese counterpart called the Red Shirt Brigade.
  • Likewise lampshaded in this Adventurers! comic.
    Karn: Psst, can you keep him busy for about five turns?
    Tesla: I have both lower defense and less HP than you.

    Western Animation 
  • He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002) had most of the secondary teammates as cannon fodder when they were together as a group. This came after a flashback opening for the pilot episode as well as the remaining events of the pilot that showed them as being effective and powerful allies. After He-Man arrived, most of them would just wait for him to arrive and beat the bad guys. Most of them got A Day in the Limelight episodes to showcase their individual skills, which helped balance it out.
  • Dragon Booster
    • The main hero, Artha, is overpowered, being a legendary hero and all, and so his teammates were relegated to the background, but they still managed to do something in the early episodes. However, as the series went on, they went from being somewhat useful to totally useless, requiring Plot Tailored to the Party episodes to be written for them to be useful without being abducted and brainwashed by the bad guy.
    • Lance, Artha's 10 year old brother, made things a little more jarring as, by the fact of being 10, it made sense for him to not be as included. To see him more included in some episodes (even if he was not the hero of the day) such as Wraith Booster and a few others, than Kitt and Parm (the "best racer in down city" and a genius who are both Artha's age) was a bit jarring.
  • If a Teen Titans episode focuses on one member, the other Titans will easily be defeated or unable to participate in the final battle for some reason. Examples include "Only Human", "Transformation", "Fracture", "Deception", "X", "Spellbound", and "Titans East". In most case, however, it involves Worf Had the Flu cases, as it's clearly shown in various other episodes they are just as competent as each others.
  • This was a major problem in Ben 10: Alien Force and Ben 10: Ultimate Alien; the Power Trio of the protagonists consisted in Ben, Gwen and Kevin. Ben possess the most powerful weapon in the universe that grants him the ability to shapeshift into various aliens each with their own powers, and, unlike in the previous show, he had near-perfect control over it; Gwen had magic powers and the ability to go One-Winged Angel, but was still learning to use it at that point and usually limited the use of her powers to Hand Blast and barriers; finally, Kevin's ability was only to turn his skin into rock or metal and shapeshift his hands into weapons. As a result, in a lot of episode, Kevin and Gwen would only fight for a few seconds before being quickly defeated so Ben can deal with the situation alone. This was fortunately toned down in Ben 10: Ultimate Alien, but it became so bad that the next sequel, Ben 10: Omniverse, ended up having the two of them Put on a Bus and replaced by Hypercompetent Sidekick Rook, while Ben's difficulty to use the Omnitrix properly was brought back.


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