The Big Bad Wannabe is a villain who fashions themselves as a significant threat but can't back it up when it comes to the crunch. The absolute level of menace varies widely, from an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain having a good day, to a villain who could legitimately be the Big Bad if the real Big Bad wasn't even more badass than they are, but within a story they are (initially) presented as a big deal.
There are a lot of ways of building up a baddie. In a Slice of Life story, a school bully might just talk tough. In a more action-oriented work the wannabe might beat up a tough hero to look even tougher: The Worf Effect.
There are also many ways of revealing the villain is an over-inflated threat. A school bully might run from a real fight. In the second example, Worf Had the Flu an unfair circumstance gave the villain the early victory. Sometimes it's just a matter of scale; the heroes catch a murderer, but just a copycat, not the real mastermind serial killer they were thought to be. Alternatively, the real Big Bad might prove they are Eviler than Thou as they outdo the wannabe, or even kill the wannabe. Those that fall under this trope are also extremely vulnerable to Pretender Diss, both from actual Big Bads and their enemies. Sometimes they may be a Disc-One Final Boss, but in other cases, its made clear early on that there is a bigger threat lurking around.
Contrast with Team Rocket Wins. Compare with Smug Snake vs The Chessmaster or Magnificent Bastard, and The Starscream. See also Dragon-in-Chief. See also Not-So-Harmless Villain for when the wannabe actually is more dangerous than they appear. Subtrope of Paper Tiger.
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Fan Works
- Films Live-Action
- Live-Action TV
- Video Games
- Western Animation
- Black Mask in Batman: Under the Red Hood. He's actually pretty competent, but becomes the Unwitting Pawn in Red Hood's scheme to get hold of the Joker and try to force Batman to kill the Joker. Worse, when Black Mask frees the Joker (under duress), the Joker has Black Mask and Ms. Li Bound and Gagged!
- DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp: The cowardly and greedy Dijon knows full well that he's just the lackey of the ancient sorcerer Merlock, but when he accidentally gets control of the genie's lamp he abandons his master and briefly takes over Duckburg. Merlock sneaks into the palace by hitching a ride with the Ducks and demonstrates who the real villain is.
- The Duke of Weselton in Frozen fancies himself as the mastermind, planning to exploit Arendelle for its riches but is unable to hide his intentions. When Elsa runs away and causes the eternal winter, he tries to restore the kingdom for his own benefit. He sends his two bodyguards on Prince Hans's rescue mission to kill Elsa, but Prince Hans saves her. Hans then proceeds to frame Elsa's accidental freezing Anna's heart as intentional murder, leaves Anna to die and sentences Elsa to death, so he can claim the throne for himself. This turns the Duke into a complete non-entity.
- Trixie in My Little Pony: Equestria Girls Rainbow Rocks. She and her band are a significant challenge to the Rainbooms, and Trixie is enough of a Smug Smiler and bully to them to definitely be called antagonistic. At one point, Trixie even causes a Near-Villain Victory for the Dazzlings by trapping the Rainbooms beneath the stage they perform on. But, the Dazzlings are interested in winning the Battle of the Bands for sinister reasons (namely, to brainwash the school and Take Over the World) whereas Trixie just wants to win to rub it in everyone's faces. And, Trixie only trapped the Rainbooms because of a Batman Gambit on Adagio Dazzle's part.
- Ratatouille: After being ousted from the restaurant when Linguini claims his inheritance, Skinner is reduced to a minor nuisance compared to the real threat to Linguini's rising success: Anton Ego. While Skinner does lay the foundation for the restaurant's eventual closing (namely calling in a health inspector) and even traps Remy with plans to force the rat chef into becoming his business partner, the real climax is Rémy cooking up to Anton's standard and proving him wrong on his disdain for Gusteau's philosophy; Rémy's rat family even ensures Skinner's attempts to sabotage that are thwarted quickly.
- Many times when a popular face wrestler is on a title reign, a monster or such will typically be built up to challenge him. He'll start out by utterly smashing jobbers before plowing through the midcard with a few easy victories over established, popular superstars along the way, but by the time the big showdown at the pay-per-view rolls around, the heel will usually lose decisively to the popular face and will be booted back down to the midcard, rarely if ever seen again in the main event. Examples include the pushes received by Snitsky, Chris Masters, and Umaga, among many others.
- This is a recurring problem for Jon Moxley. From thinking himself king of the Heartland Wrestling Association, even with member of his own "crew" gunning for his title, to assuming he could just walk step into NEWP and start running through the roster, to threats of arson on his first day at CZW, to blabbing about world take over schemes as if he was the undisputed leader of KAMIKAZE USA in Dragon Gate. His insistence on being "the baddest man on the planet" despite constant back up from the rest of The Shield shows not even WWE could beat this trait out of him.
- Candice LeRae in All Pro Wrestling. While she was savvy enough to at least wait until ChickFight's functional mascot Cheerleader Melissa was on hiatus before proclaiming herself "Queen", it didn't change that she usually got beaten up and or stretched out by incoming wrestlers. Who would then show up but ODB?
- Joey Ryan in regards to Pro Wrestling Guerilla and Championship Wrestling From Hollywood, where trying to convince him he is anything but the biggest money-making star is nothing but an exercise in frustration.
- Nikki Storm is a relentless, terrifying, indomitable monster in her own words. In practice, relentless is the only part that's true. Her rants can seem intimidating at first but she has a tendency to talk a lot more than needed till they start to become comical, camera angles often hide that she's pretty tiny by wrestling standards and she tends to get kicked around buildings because of these things.
- The Dresden Files RPG introduces Domocles Ravenborn, something of a subversion because he is a very legitimate and deadly threat if you get into a fight with him, but also a bully who folds under pressure. He's the ultimate poser, but with actual power, if he knew what to do with it.
- Magic: The Gathering: Averru makes an 11th-hour attempt to become a Big Bad in Scourge by draining the true Big Bad of her power. She gives it to him all right.
- In Red vs. Blue: Revelation, this is the role taken by Agent Washington. Determined to get out of jail no matter what, he turns evil, teams up with the Meta and goes on the hunt for the Epsilon AI. However, although he has a good start, he ends up getting his ass kicked by the Reds, and finds himself constantly bickering with the Meta and Doc. Ultimately, the Meta turns on him and Wash needs the Reds and Blues to fix things. Afterwards, he has a HeelFace Turn and joins Blue Team.
- RWBY: Adam Taurus has the incredibly lofty goal of Faunus ruling the world, but his actual ability to implement that vision is lacking. In his first appearance outside of the trailers he's already been forced into a "partnership" with Cinder, and provides her with troops to do her dirty work for the first five volumes. His violent tendencies and shortsightedness lead to the Albain twins having to pick up the slack when it comes to strategy and public relations, his assassination attempt on the Belladonnas and cowardice at the Battle of Haven result in him losing all of his supporters, and that's not even mentioning how utterly insignificant of a threat he is compared to the immortal and centuries-old Salem. With no allies remaining, the once-feared revolutionary is reduced to single-mindedly stalking his former lover-turned-obsession, dying at the hands of Blake and Yang.
- In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, King Radical is a major villain and the Big Bad of the final Story Arc. However, in "Futures Trading", there's an alternative future where dinosaurs from space have taken over the Earth, and there, he's been stuck fighting against them instead of following his own Evil Plan. Thus, ironically, all he can manage to be is a not terribly powerful Big Good leading La Résistance.
- Darths & Droids: In the "Revelation of the Sith" campaign — based on Revenge of the Sithnote — the Game Master had planned General Grievous and Nute Gunray as major villains, but this changes when the players take the plot Off the Rails. Ben, playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, insists on going after Grievous early and manages to kill him solo, prompting the GM to make a funeral pyre for Grievous's character sheet and extensive plot development notes. As for Gunray, the players never take the hint to go deal with him until they have changed the plot to the point that he's become insignificant enough to be easily killed, overshadowed by the real villain, the Player Character Anakin Skywalker.
- Possibly subverted with the "The Enemy Let Slip" campaign (based on on The Empire Strikes Back) revealing that Gunray actually survived as a computer virus, becoming quasi-immortal in the process. By the time of "The Forced Away Kin" (based on The Force Awakens), he's the Greater-Scope Villain commanding the First Order, with Snoke and Kylo Ren as his minions. Time will tell if he's more of a threat this time around.
- The Condesce from Homestuck. She's definitely a physical threat to the Main Characters. However, despite this and her rampant egomania, she's hopelessly outmatched in every way by Lord English, the true Big Bad. She's not even that intelligent really, simply relying on her insanely strong powers (which she only has because she was lucky enough to become empress) and big army to bully others into following her. When she loses said army, she ends up being reduced to Lord English's lackey, preparing things for his arrival in return for ruling Earth as a cheap, half-assed replacement of Alternia. The Alpha version of Jade plastered English's face all over merchandise to mock the Condesce by constantly reminding her of how pathetic she really is. Despite all of this, she still manages to be strong enough to act as the True Final Boss of the webcomic, and the last villain to be killed off. She still manages to be a match to three God Tier players and a particularly stylish alien vampire.
- Klonoa: Dream Crusaders: Tenebrae Hue starts the conflict with his grand ambitions to use dream power for nefarious purposes. But then he accidentally summons an ancient evil who teleports everyone to various locations, leaving Hue angry, confused, and probably frightened as he's stranded with Lolo and the King of Sorrow.
- Lupin Madblood of Narbonic, who tries to defeat Helen Narbon or take over the world, and never comes close to succeeding. Once he was thwarted by a gerbil. Okay, it was a really smart gerbil, but still.
- The Order of the Stick:
- Nale tries to be a Chessmaster, but events have repeatedly shown that while he's pretty good at putting plans together, they ultimately tend not to work out. His first scheme would have succeeded if not for Haley making an almost impossible shot with her bow. His second scheme, in which he impersonated Elan, would have also succeeded if Elan had remained as dumb and incompetent as ever, instead of taking a level in badass since their last encounter. And, more generally, if Nale didn't constantly trip over his megalomania. Later, he finally manages to actually kill Malack, but this results in Durkon being released from Malack's control and killing Zz'dtri, his last loyal ally on the field. He then proceeds to taunt his father about it, right in the middle of his father's army and in the presence of one of Tarquin's powerful companions. Tarquin tries to offer Nale the chance to reconcile, but Nale brags about how he managed to kill Malack without Tarquin's help, complains about how much he resents his father and rejects his Last-Second Chance. Tarquin finally proceeds to show Nale just how quickly he would have died without his protection, by stabbing him without a second thought and having his Psion Laurin disintegrate his corpse so he can't be brought Back from the Dead.
- Daimyo Kubota tries to usurp Hinjo's position, culminating in him ordering the assassination of a pair of former commoners who were promoted to nobility. The wife is pregnant. When the plan fails, he murders Therkla, his own number two, with poison just to give himself time to escape and frame her. He then surrenders to go on trial and use his aristocratic talents to turn around and slander Hinjo, but Vaarsuvius just disintegrates him, simply because there's more important things to do than deal with him. His status as this is cemented by the fact that he just doesn't stack up against Xykon and Redcloak, and is naive enough to think that taking the city back from Xykon will be a trivial matter.
- Elan and Nale's father Tarquin truly believes he is the real Big Bad, and that Xykon is just the end-goal of some minor sidequest, and that Elan, not Roy, is the main protagonist. In their final confrontation, after Tarquin killed Nale (mainly because he was a distraction in the conflict between himself and Elan), Elan flat-out refused to fight, capture or engage with Tarquin in any way and just left him in the desert without any sort of climactic confrontation, which was probably the worst thing he could have done to him. Tarquin is left screaming after a departing Elan to come back and "finish the story". Even among his own party, Tarquin is not the leader. Neither Malack, Laurin, or Miron have any interest in doing what he says, they mostly just put up with it because Tarquin's narrative logic assists in their own personal motives, and is quite profitable to boot. He has to cajole and run on a system of favors in order to get them to do anything for him, and his military prowess is stated to come from elsewhere in the party. Even Julio Scoundrél only considers him one of his "B-list villains".
- In Powerpuff Girls Doujinshi, we have several examples of this: First, Mojo Jojo — the Girls' canonical Arch-Enemy — nearly succeeds in killing them with a monster, only for them to be saved by Jack, at which point Mojo is captured by Bell and forcibly "recruited" to work for the Darkstar Council. Then, when they arrive at the Council's base, they're greeted by Zim, who for a moment seems to be pretty high up in the organization, since he's sitting on a throne and giving a Motive Rant about their goals... then, Dr. X, the real Big Bad shows up, and tells Zim to get out of his chair and get back to his janitor duties. Later on, Mandark shows up and appears to be a major villain, but it's quickly made apparent that he's nothing but a pawn that Dr. X is manipulating through his mental instability.
- Black Licorice from The Last Mystical Legend Of The Fantastic Fantasy Trigger Star is a living embodiment of this trope. He starts out burning a city to ashes for the sake of being evil, causing the main character to seek revenge against him. He then turns out being extremely weak, unable to beat even his own mooks. He is less evil than the main character. In an actual fight against the main cast, they point out how weak this enemy was and that it couldn't be the real Black Licorice-at which point he pretends being a mook, flee, and burst out crying wondering what's going to happen to him.
- Incubus from Kill Six Billion Demons is a white-haired evil swordsman, a Satanic Archetype and one of the Seven Black Emperors who rules Creation. Being a Dream Walker he's the only one of them to have direct access to Allison's mind and the only one who knows she's Zoss' intended Successor. His ultimate goal is to manipulate Allison and five of the Demiurges into re-igniting the Universal War, casting Creation into one final battle where the others will die, either at the hand of Allison, the seventh Demiurge (Jagganoth, an Omnicidal Maniac and Incubus' ally), or his own. Unfortunately for Incubus, Allison ends up taking the Prophecy of the Successor way Off the Rails and he fails at manipulating her, and then Jagganoth decides to jump the gun and attacks all the other Demiurges on his own, forcing Incubus to team up with Allison and the Demiurges against Jagganoth as a bit player.
- Unsounded: Hetr, who despite being little more than a murderous Mook is convinced he will be regarded as a pivotal figure by future historians. This is ultimately spoofed with his Lame Last Words: quoth Emil, "Don't worry, no one's gonna look them up."
- Dr. Linksano from Atop the Fourth Wall appears from another universe and tries to take over ours, but all of his plans end up failing without Linkara even noticing. After the review of Warrior 2 and 3, he retreats at the sight of Lord Vyce's approach, which he said was the reason he fled his universe. After Vyce's defeat, he makes another attempt to attack Linkara, but The Entity appears to kill him. After he is brought back from that, Linkara just hires him as a tech-expert and he becomes a (so far) loyal ally.
- Sir Pentious in Hazbin Hotel thinks of himself as a legitimate challenger for the rule of Hell, but while he is dangerous, he's really just another gangster fighting for territory. When he goes up against Alastor, one of the real powers in Hell, he's handed a swift and humiliating defeat. Alastor doesn't even know his name.
- In the Oxventure, the adventure "Corn Ultimatum" has the bandit leader McCluskey, who manages to intimidate a village into giving him tithes of corn and crops and has a fortress of bandits; however, the village is entirely made up of noncombatants and his men are demolished by the combined forces of the Oxventurers Guild, Rust-on-the-Harbour (an assassin) and a Treant, who barely break a sweat taking him down.
- The Perfect Castlevania Timeline: The segment about Dawn of Sorrow presents Dario Bossi and Dmitrii Blinov in this way. Both of them believe they can out-perform Soma Cruz as a Dark Lord candidate. It ends with Dmitrii dead, Dario a fugitive from justice, and Soma as Dracula incarnate.
- Discussed in So This Is Basically... Kingdom Hearts:
- The Piraka of BIONICLE are introduced brainwashing a whole village of Matoran to do work at a volcano in an attempt to get an Artifact of Doom, committing several Kick the Dog moments purely For the Evulz, and taking out the veteran Toa heroes who showed up. In addition, leader Zaktan knew Big Bad Makuta's Evil Plan and swore to use it to his own advantage, and there's The Reveal they were all Dark Hunters who fought and killed for a living, including against various other Toa in their careers. Turns out they were manipulated by Makuta from day one, and eventually got beaten by a rookie team of Toa (albeit a team formed out of Matoran far tougher they were used to and they gravely underestimated). They were shortly afterward mutated into sea snakes and captured by the Hero Secret Service. They're imprisoned in a fish tank. Zaktan tried to offer his knowledge of the gambit in exchange for parole, leading some other heroes to Makuta — but when they get there, Makuta blows him up, and he goes missing for a while.
- Subverted later on, when a group of Skakdi (the Piraka's species) performed a ritual sacrifice, during which they threw the remaining Piraka snakes and various other beings into a vat filled with Mutagenic Goo — along with, unknown to them, Zaktan's still living particles. The result is a god-like fusion who has become one of the several new Big Bad expectants. Or is this a Double Subversion, as we don't know for sure if this being can even be considered to be the same as the Piraka (or just Zaktan)?