A story deals with a major crisis/event threatening the populace of a society, nation or world, but the Muggle people in that world have next-to-no agency in determining the events of said story.
Simply put, this trope treats humanity as if it were one, amorphous blob — that our species is only as strong or capable as our social elite. If our best and brightest aren't involved in an outcome, then no one is. When this trope is in play, entire societies rise and fall and entire worlds (or universes) crumble while the common people are barely (if at all) involved or considered at all aside from throwaway lines that glue the welfare of the people with that of the state, like "Protecting the kingdom" or "Humanity's fate depends on us".
A Depopulation Bomb somehow never slows down the production of goods and services and the economy is never affected by a populace or environment being wiped out...or, in the rare event that it does, it's only mentioned in passing until the people in charge figure out alternative means. When attacks or disasters result in comparatively low casualties/damage or get undone via a Reset Button, then no one cares and nothing needs to change. You would think that even the threat of annihilation would traumatize the populace and have far-reaching consequences, but in fiction, the civilian population just forgets about the near-miss like it never happened. Failing to save people is used only in the context of how much it makes The Hero feel bad. Civilian decisions exist only to inform the protagonists if their task got easier or harder.
Stories that revolve around Humanity on Trial tend to be especially guilty of this. Whatever verdict some deity or race of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens decides upon for our race — all from a single trial and never more — almost always depends on the specific individual or group of people they just so happen to judge on behalf of humanity, and that individual or group is always taken as absolute proof that either Humans Are Good or Humans Are the Real Monsters, never in-between. Every other human being, whether good or bad, has no say in the trial whatsoever.
Apathetic Citizens (in the context of large-scale threats) is usually either a Deconstruction or Parody of this trope. In that trope, attention is paid to the fact that people know about what's happening but don't feel obligated or motivated to do something about it. In this trope, little-to-no mention of that is ever brought up; those people are simply irrelevant. If they are brought in to fight the crisis at hand, they will typically form a Red Shirt Army. Survivorship Bias is also at play; if some unremarkable, nameless individual does manage to step up, then they are no longer unremarkable or nameless. Ordinary people don't matter; but this person does, so he is consequently no longer "ordinary".
Here are a couple of easy litmus tests for the trope:
- In a World with massive, city-destroying fights or with villains who can punt a football stadium into space, do people still live in big cities with massive skyscrapers that get toppled with frightening regularly? For Real Life context, a large number of people were terrified to go into tall buildings after 9/11 alone.
- Consider two kings starting a war over a crown: does the fact that "the kingdom was saved" in the end take more precedence over the fact that every other place in the country was ravaged or destroyed, and everyday citizens had their lives destroyed? This is usually why to justify the trope, one of the kings will be an Evil Overlord, whose rule would be even worse than the price of victory.
This trope is among the Acceptable Breaks from Reality and an Undead Horse Trope. Since fiction tends to tell the story of a small cast of characters, all or most conflict revolves around those characters. This is especially true if there's a huge gap of power between ordinary people and the people who are relevant. This trope often overlaps with, but is not equivalent to, The Main Characters Do Everything (because the people doing everything here might not be the protagonists).
- Apathetic Citizens: The civilian population isn't concerned with whatever the problem is, even though they should be.
- The Chosen One: One person can do something about the problem. Everyone else either exists to support them, hinder them, or aren't relevant.
- Conservation of Ninjutsu: The "elite" warriors are the ones who win everything. The further you go from "elite" to "commoner", the less effective they will be in the overall conflict.
- Hero Insurance: Destroying buildings, neighborhoods, or even whole towns is okay as long as it's ostensibly being done to "save" people.
- Hero Stole My Bike: Taking things from other people for the cause of saving the day is written off as either acceptable or necessary (if it even comes up again afterward at all).
- Kleptomaniac Hero: Being a protagonist or Player Character means that if something exists in the story, it's meant for you to have—even if it isn't yours.
- Masquerade: Civilians have no say in the conflict because they don't know there is a conflict to begin with and both sides do their damnedest to keep it that way.
- A Million is a Statistic: Civilians only matter if they have names and faces. A large number of them are just a number.
- Rule of Empathy: If the story focuses on a military conflict, and the protagonists are either soldiers or leaders in the conflict, the only characters that are depicted as suffering or dying are ones whom the protagonists are invested in.
- Straw Civilian: Only those from the military are treated in a sympathetic light, anyone not them are apathetic at best, or ungrateful at worst.
- Survivorship Bias: When the story focuses on survivors of a bad situation, they had "something" that helped them survive (even if it was just sheer random good luck). Everybody else just didn't "had it", and that's too bad. Survivors being in the military is a typical way to justify them being in the frontline of the disaster.
- What Measure Is a Mook?: Low-ranking (or enlisted) soldiers are pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of the conflict.
- What Measure Is a Non-Badass?: Characters who can't put up a fight, especially against the powerful cast, are pretty irrelevant, uninteresting, or downright annoying.
- Who Will Bell the Cat?: A group of people (typically civilians) will realize that someone brave will need to step up and stop whatever's wrong. The problem is, it's none of them.
- Dragon Ball: Becomes more and more prominent as the story goes on, with fights occurring for the fate of Earth's citizens without them even knowing. Examples include the Red Ribbon, Piccolo Daimao, 23rd Tournament, Saiyan, Android, Cell and Buu Arcs: typically the villain will show up, make mincemeat of at least one city and sometimes the world's military, and then humanity collectively panics until Goku and friends save the day as they're the only ones who can stand up to them. This is also prominent in Future Trunks' timeline: Trunks is the only person left who can put up a decent fight to the Androids, while humanity has to hide in whatever safe spaces they can find.
- Ultimately gets subverted in the grand finale of the Buu Arc: humanity chip in for Goku's Genki-Dama, but only after they're convinced by Mr. Satan, himself a strong but otherwise average human being, helping destroy Buu for good.
- Hunter × Hunter: On many occasions, bad guys casually kill background characters in broad daylight, simply for being in the way or saying the wrong things. While the series does frequently point out how messed up these bad guys are for them to have such a nonchalant attitude toward killing people, the general public itself seems to recover from these incidents and go back to normal life remarkably quickly. The Phantom Troupe is the clearest example of this, causing a night-long noisy, messy war against the police and the Mafia all over Yorknew City, and also killing any civilians who have something they want—even if it's just a beer. Rather than the citizens getting into a panic, they just hide somewhere and re-emerge when the conflict is over. It's as if normal humans in this series are so desensitized to people dying in public that they treat it as merely inconveniences rather than tragedies.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Particularly in Part 3, anyone who accompanies the heroes and is not a Stand user or a child is likely to die to the hands of the Villain of the Week. In most cases, they have nothing to do with the conflict except for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or worse, coming to the aid of the heroes. Though it makes sense for the heroes to be more concerned with defeating the villains, as stopping to help the victims will likely get them immediately targeted, after it's over, they have a tendency to simply move on and forget anything ever happened. Part 4's Josuke Higashikata is notable for being an aversion; as a Nice Guy, his fighting style involves taking every effort to avoid any collateral damage to anybody, even if he harms himself in the process.
- Naruto: Played straight as a razor both in this show and its continuation: it is established repeatedly that Konoha has both a civilian government and a separate Ninja government run by the Hokage, both of which work together to make the town function on a day-to-day basis (and it's also shown that other Villages are not nearly this much democratic and also mentioned that Ninja, as mercenaries, depend on looking good to potential customers, which is one of the big reasons the Chuunin Test is a Tournament Arc), but in the end it just seems that if you are not a Person of Mass Destruction you don't have any say whatsoever in how things are run. An egregious example of this involves Orochimaru, one of the Big Bad Ensemble of the series, a man responsible for a hefty amount of atrocities incuding the personal assassination of two Kages (one of them being the Third Hokage, Naruto's father figure), causing wars, terrorism, Mad Scientist experiments on many people... and by the time Boruto happens he has earned a pardon from Naruto (now the Hokage) for his actions in the Fourth Ninja World War and afterwards and there is absolutely no mention of what the civilian government of the Hidden Leaf feels about having one of the world's greatest terrorists living among them.
- The Authority goes both ways about this, both times applying hefty amounts of violence to achieve results:
- The Authority likes to play world police and get rid of threats, and they give absolutely no shits about what the governments have to say (as the page image shows, one time some random passerby tries to ask Midnighter what is going on and the very next panel we see he's been knocked out and his arm broken because Midnighter really Hates Being Touched).
- In one arc, the Authority discovers that some experiments the government did caused a dimensional distortion and the end of the world is one week away... and what they do is broadcast a world-wide message in which they threaten to hurt or kill any superheroes that try to fix this and order the governments to do so, because this is their shit they need to clean up. We never find out how they did it, but the fact is that they did.
- Marvel Universe
- The Avengers (Jonathan Hickman) deconstructs the idea of the "Superhero as World Police" trope. While the concept was arguably deconstructed first with the creation of The Illuminati, this run on the title took the trope as far as it can go. In the wake of multiverse-destroying "incursions" that threaten their universe, the Illuminati decide to keep the public unaware of it. What makes this special is that the Marvel Universe isn't exactly unused to an apocalypse every other week, and this isn't the first time that the heroes have been so outclassed in power that they had no idea how to stop it. For this reason, members of The Illuminati get called out by everyone who finds out about it. Blue Marvel, in particular, tells Reed Richards and Black Panther that a plurality of voices and ideas from humanity would have been the right thing to do. Black Panther seems to have listened, as The Ultimates (2015) were formed specifically to deal with problems similar to what The Illuminati faced, but with input from civilian authorities.
- The Secret Wars (2015) series (which is the official ending to Jonathan Hickman's run), however, ends with this trope pretty much in full display. With the multiverse destroyed, Reed Richards and his family (wife Sue Storm, son Franklin and daughter Valeria) take it upon themselves to remake the multiverse, creating entire universes from scratch, completely alone. The story pretty much acknowledges this is playing God, but argues that Reed and his family are the best people for the job.
- Runaways (Rainbow Rowell): In the "That Was Yesterday" arc, the team is given one week to prepare for a mass extinction event that will kill every other human on the planet. Not only do they refuse to warn any actual superheroes about the threat, they don't even bother to give a heads-up to their few civilian friends, instead choosing to spend their last week searching for a way to Take a Third Option.
- 2012: Scientists learn that global catastrophes are coming in the titular year, so the world governments turn to the richest 1% to secretly fund the construction of giant arks to ensure mankind's survival. The rich are promised seats onboard, with a conscious decision to avoid telling the public for fear of causing a panic and possibly dooming or sabotaging the construction of the arks.
- Avengers: Endgame: The question of how exactly the victims of Thanos' snap will be brought back to life is left as an Avengers-only matter and they're essentially seen running Earth with no mention of civilian government backlash or input at all. Even though bringing back trillions of people all over the universe (and specifically not reverting time to back to when they were all wiped out five years ago) would have enormous consequences for every society, the decision making doesn't extend beyond less than a dozen superheroes. Afterward, the only notable side effects are some increased homelessness and logistical confusion over people's ages with hardly any civilian response to what happened (the next Marvel movie addressed some of this, albeit not particularly deeply).
- D-War: The main characters spend much of the movie fleeing from the dragons. Each time they find a new place to hide or to recover, the dragons eventually find them and kill most to all of the people there, and the main characters flee to somewhere else and let the cycle repeat. Nothing is ever spoken about these innocent people who perish just because they happen to be in the line of fire, nor do the heroes ever make any effort to warn them or help them—they're just there to show how dangerous the dragons are, and once they die, they're no longer part of the story.
- Star Wars: One of the criticisms levied at the prequels is that we're told about how awful the titular wars are, but see no signs of it otherwise. In the original trilogy, we're shown the Empire brutally murdering Jawas, Luke's aunt and uncle, and any others who come in contact with R2-D2 and C-3PO. In The Phantom Menace, we're told about the Trade Federation's blockade of Naboo, and that "people are dying", but never see any of it.
- The Stormlight Archive: Subverted. The story focuses on the Magic Coming Back and re-founding the legendary Knights Radiant to save the world from Odium; however, they can't do it without the cooperation of the rest of the world, who have very good reasons not to trust them. Dalinar's efforts to avert the apocalypse are hobbled by the fact that his fellow Warrior Princes have alienated most of his own nation's citizens, that his country is infamous for having waged brutal wars of conquest, and that few people trust him not to be the ruthless Blood Knight that he used to be.
- In Derek Robinson's Battle of Britain-set epic A Piece of Cake, a Hurricane pilot is grilled as to why he didn't make a greater effort to point his doomed aircraft away from a town when he bailed out. (It crashed into a reesidential street killing five people). The pilot frankly replied that all he was concerned about was saving his own life, that he hadn't considered anything else at all, and besides they're in the same war as we are, so they'd better get used to the risks. Sir. Civilian or not.
- Game of Thrones tries to avert this by showing some events from the perspective of lower born characters and not only the highborns, and integrates the reaction of the people heavily into seasons three to five by often bringing up the way Margaery Tyrell and the Sparrow are beloved by the smallfolk while the selfish Cersei is despised. However, as the show becomes more action-focused and centralized in later seasons, smallfolk characters become few and far between, and after Cersei kills off many of the people loved by the general populace in a giant explosion that also destroys a major centre for religious faith at the end of season 6, smallfolk reaction is rendered completely irrelevant as despite all the warnings from previous seasons we never once get any indication that the smallfolk of King's Landing are unhappy about this and the one reaction we DO get (from Hot Pie) verges on Apathetic Citizens.
- Chernobyl: Deconstructed. This attitude not only creates even more needless victims of the incident than if the situation had been treated with the necessary seriousness, but ultimately drives the population of the USSR against the government and contributes to the fall of the Soviet regime.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation: The ship has families on board, even schools for the children, but at the same time it's Starfleet's flagship. During several episodes, the ship is in harm's way and little is said about the families on board. In "The Best of Both Worlds", Riker as acting Captain decides to ram a Borg, taking the crew and their families down with the enemy with no input on their part.
- BattleTech runs on this trope. Despite the average planet in the Inner Sphere having a population of several billion, planetary civilian governments are not given much respect. Whomever controls the military forces on the planet is the real leader (sometimes it's a civilian government, but more often it's a noble or someone from the military). This is even worse in the Clans, since they have a Fantastic Caste System that puts warriors on top and puts the labor caste (basically anyone who works in any sort of production job) as more or less a slave.
- Warhammer 40,000:
- Planetary defense forces are commonly seen as (and quite often are) inept and barely able to serve as a speedbump against whatever's invading them while the Imperial Guard does the work. Especially if they're the kind of backwater who haven't seen any real threat except the occasional rebellion or coup for millennia. Other worlds get their soldiers tithed by the Guard but still get little respect since their PDF consists of what even the Imperial Guard (whose take on the Cannon Fodder approach to warfare involves literal trillions of soldiers) didn't want.
- Averting the trope is why the Tau empire is able to make such sweeping progress whenever it conquers an Imperial world: by giving all humans good living conditions and medical care, they instill the kind of loyalty the Imperium needs armed men to ensure. Of course, it's entirely possible the Tau secretly sterilize their human members, but that's still a better deal than Imperial citizens get.
- Final Fantasy XIII:
- This is a Justified Trope in XIII, since it's a plot point that humans on Cocoon are overly-dependent upon the Fal'Cie, the machine-like gods that created and rule their world. As far as humanity was concerned, before the events of the series, they had no problems to do anything about. This was what the Fal'Cie wanted, since their purpose for creating Cocoon (and wiping out the humans that existed on the planet of Gran Pulse) was to essentially farm enough human lives so that sacrificing them all would cause the gates to the Afterlife to swing open, forcing The Maker to come and see what the heck went wrong.
- Played straight in XIII-2, where it's learned that The End of the World as We Know It happens roughly 400 years after the present day. This, too, is somewhat justified in that a divine entity chose two specific people to deal with the issue, but ven after the protagonists inform some influential people about this, the rest of humanity is never brought on board with the problem aside from one organization created by one of the main characters. In fact, said character and his assistant put themselves in stasis (twice) so that they can make sure the project is still going smoothly centuries later and then lead everyone to the fulfillment of the plan on the day of reckoning.
- And then the trope really gets played its straightest when all of this is rendered completely meaningless by a Diabolus ex Machina that causes another end of the world as we know it. Regardless of the centuries of efforts and toilings of the (considerably few) humans who dealt with the issue, it is all made meaningless by one man whose life is literally chained to a goddess.
- Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII further zig-zags the trope. By the time our heroine appears as their savior, the people of the world have been alive for 500 years, and since no children can be born, the world has stagnated and been in decline for a long time. While guaranteed immortality sounds like a good gig, it means that some peoples' misery (such as the sick or ones stuck in the body of a child) are tired of living like this, and are actually looking forward to the fact that The End Is Nigh. Thus, they put their trust completely in the hands of the Savior. The ending implies that the new world the Savior helps create is the "real" world, but we never get any real information of what this means for the souls she saved.
- Mega Man X: Despite our robotic heroes trying to quell the robot rebellion known as "Mavericks" to protect humanity at large, the only human we see is Dr. Cain — and even he disappears in the fourth game onward. The game also never explores about the human perspective of the war, especially considering one of the themes involved (and carried to Mega Man Zero) is how humanity respects reploids (the robots) less and less. This persists until Zero 4 where we finally see a group of humans who have vocal opinions about reploids and their "petty wars".
- Resident Evil: Zig-Zagged Trope. In Resident Evil 4, we learn that when word got out about what the Umbrella Corporation were doing, their stocks plummeted and the public basically picked them apart at the seams. Further, new government divisions were created to specifically handle new threats in "bio-terrorism". However, by the time of Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6, we see that this at best only delayed most of the problems at hand. In fact, now cities (or massive parts of them) get destroyed regularly with new outbreaks.
- Invoked and justified regarding the details and circumstances regarding the Grimm. The truth about the Grimm and the origins of the Huntsmen Academies is part of an Awful Truth that is kept secret by Ozpin and the other headmasters, along with others who are part of a Benevolent Conspiracy. The Grimm are attracted to negative emotions, so their reasons for keeping it secret is that the existential dread and panic that would come from knowing the truth would doom major cities to forever be magnets for Grimm. Thus, the civilian populace remains completely ignorant of the truth, relying on the Huntsmen to defend them from Grimm while a few people fight the real threat, Salem and her faction, from the shadows.
- Also played straight regarding Faunus civil rights efforts. Onscreen, there are very few examples of any organized efforts to fight for the rights of the Faunus aside from the White Fang and the Belladonnas. The White Fang support violent resistance, while the Belladonnas support peaceful protests and marches. However, after the leaders of the White Fang (Sienna and Adam) are killed, we never see any more large-scale, organized efforts again — not even in Atlas/Mantle, where Faunus discrimination is at its peak. We're told that the Belladonnas have absorbed many remnants of the White Fang and are presumably taking action elsewhere, but we're not shown it.
- In a video about The Hunger Games and fictional revolutions, YouTube channel "Just Write" mentioned this trope (albeit not by name) as one of the common pratfalls of writing revolutions. Because stories by default focus on a Protagonist or small group of people, it's very difficult to write an interesting and nuanced collective revolution, whereas the people actually take intelligent and aggressive action to overthrow their oppressors. Most writers opt to limit the general populaces' role to generic riots or ineffectual protests to clear the way for the aforementioned protagonist to do all of the work. He thus praises the final Hunger Games book for having its revolution be a collective action, whereas protagonist Katniss's job is mostly symbolic or limited to things that only she can do.
- WhatCulture did a video on horrifying implications in comic books, with the very first listed being the seemingly little concern that Gotham civilians (and comic book civilians in general) have with merchandising the likenesses of supervillains. They compare it to people in the real world gleefully consuming merchandise created from the likenesses of mass-murdering terrorists.