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Could Have Been Messy

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"I sure am glad I'm a cartoon!"
Mokuba upon falling dozens of stories to what could've been an untimely end, Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series

Know what's cool? Fist fights, shoot-em-ups, sword fights, fireballs and explosions!

Yep, any good cartoon, action movie, or TV series has to have at least one of the above, forget all that "True Art Is Incomprehensible" junk — and any series with all of them will be bloodless beyond belief.

Especially if it's for kids/pre-teens, you just have to to make sure to stay on the Media Watchdog's good side and not let anyone spill blood, die, or get mauled. Not a problem, really—our hero is already an expert at dodging; otherwise, he'd be toast!

However, the more the hero gets shot at, sliced, and stabbed without getting anything worse than cut or singed hair, the louder that niggling little voice saying "Y'know, if he'd been half a second slower" gets. Then, of course, you eventually start to wonder at the morality of the heroes for using clearly lethal attacks against opponents with playful and innocent abandon simply because (or rather, you assume because) they know they'll dodge the attack.

Taken to extremes, these shows often have to take a time-out for a Very Special Episode to prove that, in fact, those red lasers, swords, or (censors forbid) guns are not in fact toys, and can kill people. Our heroes will learn a valuable lesson about not running with atomic-powered scissors, and they'll use their weapons or powers with more restraint—until tomorrow's episode.

The trope origins lie primarily within Comic Books, whose fantastical nature easily allowed passage of such action-oriented, reality-bending situations. With the generally less restrictive Japanese broadcasting, the trope tends to be less apparent with anime/manga, which regularly features bloodletting and dying. Nevertheless, even here Could Have Been Messy is instinctively applied towards main protagonists or other characters that the writer simply doesn't want to let go of just yet.

Could Have Been Messy enables (or is enabled by) several other tropes:

Contrast Violence Is Disturbing, when they do show all the dangers inherent in violence and make them horrifying and Gorn, when seeing the damage caused by the violence is actually part of the appeal.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Fullmetal Alchemist:
    • While the Elric brothers' attempts to avoid killing people drag out fights to near typical Shonen lengths, whenever anyone else, like say the bloodthirsty, revenge-driven anti-hero Scar, joins a fight, blood-soaked bodies begin littering the ground within seconds.
    • Roy Mustang averts this. Whenever he steps up, things are very messy, a la: that's a very nice everything you have there Envy be a shame if something were to kill it all with fire over and over again.
  • My-HiME: In the first chapter of the manga, Natsuki and Mai seem to fight all out with some very lethal looking elemental attacks. When cornered by Duran, Mai refuses to budge, preferring to take the attack. The presence of some young children behind her and the subsequent oh-crap reaction seem to imply that Duran's attack was going to be quite lethal, which is interesting considering neither Mai nor Natsuki really seemed like the type to murder the other out of pique... So you gotta wonder what would have happened if Tate were one second too slow...
  • Negima! Magister Negi Magi does this a lot, especially early on. Later in the series, it's averted, although mostly in regard to male characters. The idea is even directly referenced when Jack Rakan copies the ultimate Shinmeiryu technique, which bypasses all of Negi's barriers and obliterates a bunch of stuff behind him, also nicking Negi on the forehead. Jack admits that if he had been off by an inch or so, Negi's head would have been split in half.
    • It comes back with during most battles with the "Fatettes" (not counting Tsukuyomi/Setsuna where it's kinda justified), where lethal force is regularly exchanged: Razor Wind, explosive fire, etc. Even in the "final" battle against them, it's hard to remember Fate issued a no-kill order when one sees how Homura fights.
    • Also averted in regard to Robots and any other artificial construct that could survive being torn in half.
  • Trigun: This can become especially hard to swallow when an absurdly competent fighter uses lethal weapons but feels that Thou Shalt Not Kill. Subverted when Merlyn and Millie walk in on his shirtless moment, revealing that even skill and luck doesn't save him every time. Vash's chest is covered with old wounds and scar tissue and part of his chest is held together with steel mesh bolted in place as a result of enemies that managed to wound him before he dealt with them non-lethally. He'd be dead by now if he was actually human
  • The Kid Heroes of Nurse Angel Ririka SOS frequently get roughed up, but blood is very rare. In a few episodes where they sustain what are clearly meant to be grievous wounds, this can become jarring.
  • In The Castle of Cagliostro, Goemon slices and dices with his metal-cutting katana and Jigen blasts away with an anti-tank rifle, yet neither one of them is ever actually seen to kill anyone with said weapons. Even when Jigen shoots out a car's tire with his Magnum, we see thugs go flying but not actually any dying. Averted with Lupin's wound and the deaths of the count and his thug in the clock tower.

    Comic Books 
  • Captain America's shield seems to have the same "selective edge" than the Batarangs mentioned above. That's very good for Cap, who values everybody's life.
  • Justified in Marvel Universe hero Black Knight's case, whose sword really has a selective edge due to magic.
  • In Supergirl storyline The Killers of Krypton, Kara's extremely sharp and powerful alien axe fails to hack or even cut anyone, despite being wielded by someone strong enough to chop one planet into half, and being an empathetic weapon which is constantly fueling her fury.
  • The Mighty Thor: Thor's hammer Mjölnir doesn't have an edge, but the same principle still applies, given that he's capable of caving in a mountain with it. It was mentioned by another character that Thor never strikes a mortal, no matter how strong, with his full might, but even so, it ought to be punching Mjolner-shaped holes through most enemies.
  • X-Men villain Avalanche can easily create earthquakes and turn buildings into rubble. However, it used to be explicit that his power didn't work in human flesh, explaining why people didn't become Made of Plasticine around him.
  • Paperinik New Adventures: While it is a Disney comic starring Donald Duck (even if one created by the Italian branch) it always allowed Xadhoom free reins in killing Evronians; however, when she started seeing and attacking humans as Evronians due to cerebral damage, Donald pointed out how lucky they are that the energy she uses to kill Evronians is painful but not lethal to Earthlings.

    Films — Animated 
  • In Turning Red, Ming causes 100 million dollars worth of damage to the SkyDome and yet apparently none of the tens of thousands of concertgoers suffer so much as a scratch.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day: The T-800 does this to a bunch of cops with a Gatling Gun to prove he's not a bad guy anymore. After shooting up squad cars with the minigun and a grenade launcher, his HUD notes "0.0 Casualties."
  • X2: X-Men United:
    • Pyro fails to actually kill the cops, and Wolverine manages to avoid stabbing any humans unless they invade his home. Cue cheering when he is finally given an "acceptable" target.
    • Even when Stryker's men invade the school, Wolverine stabs about 10 dudes full in the chest with both blades, yet somehow spills no blood whatsoever.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy: Batman seems to realize he can use all the lethal force he wants because the writers are just going to make everyone miraculously survive, keeping his code intact. This is actually pointed out in-story by Alfred: "It's a miracle no one was killed!" Yes it is, Alfred. Yes it is.
  • Lampshaded in Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), when a police car is smashed by a wrecking ball through a concrete barrier while chasing the protagonists. Because they were the protagonists, they make sure to show that no cops were killed.
    Det. Drycoff: "You alright?"
    Cop: "I think so..."
    Det. Drycoff: "Are you sure? 'Cause you just went through a wall."
  • The Hallelujah Trail: Parodied with seven different groups having a heated five-way firefight at close quarters in the middle a blinding sandstorm.
    Col. Thaddeus Gearhart: (It's) A miracle of the highest order that so many bullets could miss so many people in so small an area in such a short space of time.

    Live Action TV 
  • Robocop The Series made Murphy a Technical Pacifist, but that doesn't prevent him from shooting a Bullethole Door under a crook's feet.
  • Daredevil (2015) plays this very similarly to the The Dark Knight Trilogy example above, with Matt using what is obviously lethal force and the writers having his targets live anyway, so he won't break his code. They even go out of their way to have someone mention that a man Matt threw off of a roof slipped into a coma rather than dying. The difference is that the show doesn't skimp out on the blood and guts.

  • In the opera Carmen, when Don José fires a warning shot at Escamillo, the latter looks at the sudden hole in his hat and muses, "Quelques lignes plus bas et tout était fini."note 

  • Lampshade Hanging in El Goonish Shive, when the goo monster nearly drills into the heads of Ellen and Nanase; the latter has to remind Justin that Grace saved her life.

    Western Animation 
  • To say the least, Avatar: The Last Airbender breathes this trope, as the creators are anything but shy about throwing in so-called "close call" after close call to pump up the feel of otherwise clean, kid-friendly fight sequences. Particularly glaring within the first season, in which we're constantly reminded how "the Avatar must be captured alive", and yet anytime a Fight Scene rolled around... Honestly, in the season finale, where would we be if Aang was two seconds too slow for that hammer swing?
    • A great deal of the show involves people shooting fire from their bare hands at other people. A grand total of two people ever take skin damage, one by accident and quickly healed, the other by the local equivalent of having his face pressed against a hot stove for a few seconds.
  • All of the Saturday Morning Cartoons we grew up on. All of them.
    • The Transformers regularly shows giant robots fighting each other with massive laser cannons - while normal Human folk fight right alongside. Nobody ever gets squished. Not until the traumatoriffic movie did any Transformer actually DIE from a laser blast. Interestingly, the bio cards that came with the Transformers toys often revealed decidedly non-lethal weaponry - that thirty-foot steel warmachine's fifteen-foot-long 'laser cannon'? Yeah... more often than not, they were listed as being something like an EMP pulse cannon, that would disable robot targets but not, for some reason, blow them up. (This is the older toys, from 25 years ago, I don't know what the current toys say about their guns.)
    • Both He-Man and Skeletor have massive fuckoff swords. Everybody in the He-Man universe has massive fuckoff swords, axes, bazookas, fists, necks, faces, and all of them are covered in rivets and blades. Any actual injuries caused on the show are only - only - caused by mighty He-Man face punches and that thing he always did where he swung the giant monster around by the tail and threw it off into the distance - such great distance that the giant monster would have hit the ground like a paper bag filled with guts. We never saw such a thing.
    • G.I. Joe. Two massive, well-armed military organizations firing what appear to be fully automatic laser assault rifles at each other, with approximately zero accuracy. Again, almost all of the actual casualties come from face punches.
      • The aerial combat where every exploding Cobra plane was accompanied by a mook in a parachute.
  • Played straight in Conan the Adventurer. Conan carries a weapon made of Thunderbolt Iron that will send any of the serpent-men he strikes back to Another Dimension (his allies have similar weapons), but all he ever seems to do against normal human opponents is body-slam them. This is not the case in the original material.
  • In The Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man constantly engages in nick-of-time Deadly Dodging, otherwise he'd have been pulped into a fine mist before the first episode ended. (Justified in that he has Spider-Sense and super reflexes for just that reason— to avoid getting hit.)
  • In Spider-Man: The Animated Series, and probably elsewhere, Shocker's gauntlets have an unusual property. While they smash through walls and destroy buildings easily, whenever he gets a direct hit on Spider-Man, the effect is limited to a hard sucker punch. While it's true that Shocker can control the force of his concussive blasts, there's no reason not to assume that they're on the "kill setting" whenever he's aiming them at Spider-Man. Possibly Justified, as in an episode when Peter Parker lost his powers and got hit by the blast, he remarked that it should have killed him suggesting his powers (including super-toughness) are returning.
  • This is why the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon used Mecha-Mooks. In the 2003 cartoon, where most of the enemies are human, notice how Leonardo and Raphael (the heroes using sharp weaponry) always kick their opponents.
  • It's the same thing with Samurai Jack. He only uses his sword to its full potential against robots and Aku, who seems to be made of pure evil and therefore has no blood. Whenever he fights a living being (not often) he somehow finds a way to not actually cut them, if he even uses his sword at all. It does at least deconstruct it: it is messy. Very, very messy. Honestly, the way robots come apart, oil spurts like blood and internal workings spill out akin to disembowelment. If it were living beings, it'd be Gorn. And what do you know? Season 5, aired on [adult swim], features living humans (and other creatures) ending up on the sharp side of Jack's weaponry. A major element of the season is Jack coming to terms with having killed someone, as he thought the mooks attacking him were just more robots.
  • In Teen Titans, bladed weapons and explosions are taken more seriously than, say, goofy laserfire, but none hit the mark unless the target is Made of Iron or the attack is ensured to somehow be nonlethal. Despite retaining the typical pacifistic heroes role, the Titans themselves rarely hold back during action sequences. Particularly glaring with Robin, who wielded explosive discs as a standard weapon; imagine a police officer substituting a hand grenade for his billy club.
  • Rambo: The Force of Freedom, rather than go with the not-so-family friendly approach of having wars with casualties, shows wars where nobody dies. At least Rambo is somewhat consistent with his portrayal in the first movie.
  • The Pink Panther cartoons took this to extremes sometimes, with two characters continually blasting each other point blank with blunderbusses, resulting in nothing more than blackened skin. Even for a cartoon, it gets ridiculous after the twentieth shot to the face.
  • Looney Tunes. Even getting smashed by a 2000-ton rock, blown up by dynamite, or sliced julienne-style was of little lasting consequence. Even the few times where someone actually died, you usually saw them as spirits not much later, treating the whole thing more like an inconvenience, or Breaking the Fourth Wall to remind us it's just a cartoon and nobody was really hurt.
  • Gargoyles. Despite the titular creatures having claws that can carve stone, the strength of several men to each individual, and being native to a period of time in which wars were quite savage and bloody, no permanent damage is ever inflicted during their battles - even when those battles involve guns, swords, or explosives (which most do). The only things ever actually destroyed are of course robots or cybernetic parts. May be a deconstruction, since this also allows multiple villains to continue harassing the gargoyles indefinitely, and the gargoyles do explicitly convert to a more pacifistic approach as they integrate further into modern society.
  • Kim Possible: Shego's energy blasts have been shown to cut through metal; but when they hit a living opponent the worst they do is knock them down.

    Real Life 
  • WW2 tank commander John Foley describes two "could have been VERY messy" near-misses in his autobiography Mailed Fist. In the first, he cheated death twice: a direct hit from a Tiger tank struck the front of his tank, passed right through the fighting compartment, and exploded in the engine. He was initially fortunate in being able to bail out of a brewing tank - one set on fire by an enemy hit - with most of his crew (the co-driver was killed). Going back to view the wreck later with a salvage and recovery team, he charted the passage of the shell through the tank and realised it must have passed straight between his legs as he stood in the commander's position; he reflected that there had been a strange rip, as cleanly cut as if done with a razor blade, in the inner thigh of his trousers. He'd just been too preoccupied to notice it at the time. On a second occasion, a German sniper aiming for his head - the only part of him exposed and visible from outside the tank - missed him by inches. The bullet impacted on the inside face of the commander's hatch and shattered into thousands of globules of molten lead, which sprayed him in the face and hair, missing his eyes. Foley fell back into the tank with his face a mass of blood from hundreds of tiny pinpricks from the tiny lead fragments - none of which had the power to penetrate more than skin-deep, but which gave the illusion of a far more severe wound. He described it as like a combination of sunburn and very minor shaving cuts and was able to continue, otherwise virtually unharmed. (His machine-gunners got the sniper; Foley remembers parking up the tank, investigating, and taking the dead German's unit badges as a souvenir.)