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- 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 overall narrative structure of every one Z's sagas could be summed up as "major characters of varying degrees of importance lose against the main villain one by one (if they're lucky, they'll be able to kill a secondary enemy or two) until Goku is able to step in, fully recovered from whatever last held him back and stronger than ever, to finally defeat them," with the exception of the Cell Games, where after initially seeming to play this straight, he has Gohan do it instead. In the Namek Saga, this happens twice, and in the Buu Saga he ends up ultimately stealing the torch back from his son!
- 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.
- Tien Shinhan is even worse! He was once one of the strongest fighters in the world and could handle anyone thrown at him in Dragon Ball, only being explicitly surpassed by Goku in their fight towards the very end of the classic series. In Dragon Ball Z his big moment is just slowing down Semi-Perfect Cell so Androids 16 and 18 can escape, needing Goku to arrive and save him and Piccolonote . And then comes Dragon Ball Super where he can Goku have a "2 on 2" fight with Gohan and Piccolo, where Tien could barely sand up to Gohan, who had long given up on training, while Tien himself has been training non-stop and has his own dojo. Krillin is a stronger fighter than him and that's mostly due to him being Goku's best bud! He also, in his own recruitment episode for the Tournament of Power, ended up getting his ass handed to him by Master Roshi, who had been trounced by Tien the very first time they fought in classic Dragon Ball and had long, LONG ago openly professed that he Can't Catch Up and left the action behind. Come the actual tournament, his fans were annoyed, but not remotely surprised when the early episode of his elimination saw him taken out insultingly easily by an opponent he had on the ropes.
- 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.
- Exaggerated 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 weaknesses 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.
- YuYu Hakusho:
- The third arc 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).
- Misty and Brock from Pokémon became this starting with Johto Journeys, going from competent sidekicks to tag-a-long comic relief. They'd sit on the sidelines while Ash and his Pokemon would do the main stuff. This is why Misty was retired with Brock eventually leaving as well.
- May, Dawn and Iris note ended up no better, though.
- Serena had it even worse due to lacking power in her team against threats that demanded powerful creatures. If there was a small chance she would do badly against Team Rocket or any other enemy, it was remedied by having Ash around or someone else that was clearly stronger than her, robbing her from personal victories. One episode even had her fight a trainer who wanted to challenge Ash (who was sick) and somehow she thought it was a good idea to wear his clothes and pretend she was him, which the trainer bought completely. Even when she copied all of Ash's tactics with Pikachu and she had a clear chance to win, Ash miraculously got better in the next 7 minutes once Team Rocket arrived to interrupt the battle (notably, to add more insult to injury, they had a really long ass introduction compared to the same one they always used) and promptly took the battle and attention away from her (though said battle never concluded). This was the same for Clemont, even though he is a gym leader.
- 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! 5D's, 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.
- This tends to happen with the Battle Lovers bar Scarlet in Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE!. Being a magical boy series which parodies its Distaff Counterpart, it takes this cue from Sailor Moon.
- Downplayed in Tokyo Mew Mew. Each member of the team is powerful in their own right, but the most powerful attack they can produce is when the other four girls give up their weapons to power-up Ichigo's.
- A common problem in superhero team comics is that, due to characters being chosen more because of Popularity Power than how they would work on a team, members of the team can often become glorified Cannon Fodder. Skilled writers will create plausible situations where all heroes will be useful. Bad writers crash headfirst into this trope:
- The Justice League of America gets this problem a lot, so much so that it’s permanently stained the reputations of some members. Superman alone is so powerful that he can make many heroes feel utterly superfluous if handled badly. Older series like Superfriends were really bad about this, so you would have characters like Superman handling everything while others like Aquaman would just get beat up by villains and feel useless.
- The Avengers get hit with it almost as often, though that team’s members have largely avoided having their reputations tarnished by it (except poor Hawkeye). The inherent problem is that, like the Justice League, the power disparity between the various Avengers can be ridiculously huge; Badass Normals like Black Panther or the above-mentioned Hawkeye can feel useless when put next to people like The Mighty Thor or Captain America.
- As a general rule, if Batman is on a team, he will steal the spotlight at some point and he will make other heroes feel pointless. Ironically, Batman actually used to be on the receiving end of this for a long time, with many joking about how out of place he felt on the Justice League. Grant Morrison’s seminal JLA run did a lot of work to dispel that problem... and may have inadvertently created the “Bat-God” issue in the process, or at least made it more pronounced.
- On good days, the X-Men are a diverse ensemble where everybody gets moments to shine. On bad days, they’re just there so Wolverine has somebody to talk to while he’s stealing the show, or to get smacked around so Wolverine can have a Big Damn Heroes moment.
- In the early days of the Fantastic Four, Susan Storm was the physical embodiment of this trope. Stuck with a stealth power on a team that had no real use for stealth, her role in stories tended to amount to getting captured by the villains. Even Stan Lee thought she was The Load; her forcefield powers were eventually introduced purely to put an end to this and ensure she could fight alongside the rest of the family.
- Under bad writers, the alien Green Lanterns will feel like nothing but Red Shirts used to feel in the background or die to show how dangerous something is, while the human Green Lanterns will do everything important. The sheer fact that there are multiple human Lanterns reeks of this trope; canon had previously held that every species only had one Lantern, two at most, until it was decided that Earth somehow warranted multiple Lanterns. Fortunately, this seems to have lessened a great deal since the start of the Geoff Johns run.
- Throughout Sailor Moon: Legends of Lightstorm, Lightstorm constantly trains the Scouts specifically so that this doesn't happen. And since all of them are able to kill entire squadrons of Negaverse drones on their own, it seems to be working.
- 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 avoids 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.
- 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.
- 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. And the main characters barely shed a tear over the hundreds of their fellow countrymen who died.
- 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 Mega Man X2 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.
- Gets a Lampshade Hanging in MS Paint Masterpieces, an unusually faithful fanfic sprite comic adaptation of the Mega Man (Classic) 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.
- 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 their teammates.
- 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 and the sense to choose forms based on the situation rather than trying to always use his favorite form unless forced to go with something else; 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.
- Rufus and Amberley of The Dreamstone were strangely enforced versions of this, given they were inexperienced muggles of a group of heroes that otherwise won the Superpower Lottery. Still the two were always sent to stop the villains plans first and usually fail or get kidnapped, likely to kill some episode time before the elder heroes solved the problem rather quickly. During the later points of the series Rufus and Amberley could at least often stop some schemes on their own.