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Power does not always sit on the throne.
"Any man who must say 'I am the king' is no true king. I'll make sure you understand that when I've won your war for you."
Tywin Lannister to Joffrey Baratheon, Game of Thrones, "Mhysa"

Just because you're officially in charge, that doesn't always mean you're really in charge.

The Dragon-in-Chief is a version of The Dragon who serves as the de facto Big Bad of the story, even if they're technically not at the top of the bad guy hierarchy. They're nominally subordinate or in service to another villain, but typically so much smarter, stronger or more skillful, and just as evil if not more so (and almost always scarier) that it's clear who's really the biggest threat in the story. This character tends to have almost no respect for the Big Bad due to their comparative lack of vision, courage or common sense.

The supposed main villain, for their part, is often a Big Bad Wannabe as they overestimate The Dragon's loyalty or too afraid to keep them in line. It could also be that the Big Bad is more of a Puppet King being manipulated by subordinates, and the Dragon finds this set-up preferable to taking charge personally. The Dragon-in-Chief is not simply the main villainous driving force behind the plot, even if they did not initiate it, but they are such to the point that if the Big Bad pushes them aside the entire operation is rendered less competent. The Hero treats, or comes to treat, The Dragon-In-Chief as the actual main villain of the story, and very often It's Personal with the Dragon.

The Dragon-In-Chief will typically think the Big Bad either lacks ambition, or is just an idiot. They may start off as junior partners in the Big Bad's business: after years of hard (but fun) living as a dangerous felon, they have found themselves steady employment with the Big Bad and hope to take over the business some day or retire on the fortune made from their latest Master Plan. This is when they start to complain about their master’s unambitious and/or just plain incompetent way of running things, though the Big Bad might retort that their way is from experience and The Dragon's ways will ultimately lead to ruin. Occasionally, their warnings turn out to be right. It is occasional that the Dragon-In-Chief truly is loyal to the ostensible Big Bad, but in occasions like these their superior is liable to be done in either before the Dragon-in-Chief is, or afterwards in a Post-Climax Confrontation. In these occasions, the Villainous Friendship between the two may be one of their most dangerous assets—a deadly inverted version of The Power of Friendship.

The Man in Front of the Man is a related, but different trope where the position of the The Dragon as the actual Big Bad is kept hidden until The Reveal, thus The Dragon is less likely to act like a true Dragon-in-Chief in order to keep the jig up from the audience as well as the in-universe characters, including the supposed Big Bad, who might not be aware that they are being manipulated. The Dragon-in-Chief doesn't need this theatre, making their position as the true Big Bad clear from the start.

When a character fills this role because the Big Bad is merely physically absent from the main story, and/or not as important to the hero, then the superior is a Greater-Scope Villain (if the Dragon is operating entirely or almost entirely on their own).

See also Hyper-Competent Sidekick, Dragon Ascendant, The Starscream and especially the Big Bad Wannabe, whom Dragons-in-Chief usually work for. Compare/Contrast The Heavy, which is usually simply The Dragon to an off-screen Greater-Scope Villain, but not necessarily a Dragon-In-Chief in themselves.

Important Note: this does not simply refer to any Dragon that is physically superior to a Non-Action Big Bad or Greater-Scope Villain who can be dispatched with relative ease. Plenty of physically weak villains present far greater moral, psychological or other challenges to the hero and their actions drive the character arcs of the protagonists. note  It is these roles that must be supplanted for a Dragon to truly ascend to Dragon-in-Chief. Please be sure the character actually fits this criteria before adding them as an example.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Akame ga Kill! has a chain of these. The nominal ruler of The Empire, The Emperor, is an easily manipulated boy who just does whatever Prime Minister Honest tells him to, while Honest lets General Esdeath do as she pleases in fear of her retribution.
  • Berserk:
    • The Godhand as a whole technically serve the Idea of Evil, but their master is a Greater-Scope Villain who does not take direct action or even appears aside from two chapters (one of which was removed from publication for giving too much away), and is only vaguely alluded to. As such, the five beings who make up the Godhand are the effective leaders of the enemy forces and the ones directly behind all the horror of the series. In addition, while Void is the first, oldest, and technically their leader, the other four are treated more like equal partners who do their own things than subordinates.
    • During the Siege of Doldrey mini-arc, the fortress is under the command of General Boscogn of the Purple Rhino Knights and his boss, Lord Gennon. However, Gennon is a civilian with little military experience whose tactical decisions are universally blunders. It's General Boscogn who is actually treated as the leader, being a Four-Star Badass and one of the few humans to outmatch Guts in a fight. Tellingly, when Boscogn dies, the army's morale disintegrates, despite Gennon still being alive and in the field (and futilely shouting at them to stand their ground).
    • The Conviction arc has Bishop Mozgus. The Arc Villain is the Egg of the Perfect World, an Apostle that has arranged various events so that he can be the focal point of Griffith's reincarnation. The Egg is a poor combatant and only makes a handful of appearances during the arc, and many characters don't even seem aware that it exists. His most powerful Apostle Spawn, Mozgus, serves as the de facto main antagonist, due to being very active throughout the arc, meeting or battling the protagonists many different times in many different forms, and being far stronger than the Egg once his transformation has kicked in. This is a shakeup from prior arcs, where Apostle Spawn were generally minor players and far weaker than their masters.
  • Amshel of Blood+ is the de facto leader of Diva's Chevaliers, and he's the one who engineered the events which allowed Diva to become a threat in the first place. He's smarter, more ambitious, and more level-headed than Diva is. But being a Chevalier, he doesn't have the kind of unique, raw ability that Diva possesses, so he puts up a facade of subservience while manipulating Diva and his fellow Chevaliers into getting him what he wants. Diva isn't bothered by any of this because she just doesn't care about such larger schemes. Nor does Nathan, the only Chevalier who's explicitly more powerful than Amshel.
  • The anime adaptation of Brynhildr in the Darkness makes Chisato Ichijiku this, as Director Takachiho, his boss, has less focus and is more of a Greater-Scope Villain, while Chisato is the one who directly oversees the efforts to capture the heroes. Chisato also turns out to have his own plans and betrays Takachiho.
  • This is common in Dragon Ball Z:
    • In the Red Ribbon Army, there is Officer Black, who is much more competent and threatening (and has more morals) than Supreme Commander Red. When he finds out how petty the wish Red planned with Dragon Balls was—making himself taller—he kills him.
    • Frieza may be the second son of King Cold, but he is also a much more talented warrior, and keeps the Planet Trade Organisation's army in line by simply being its public face, as well as being The Dreaded. Even the God of Destruction, Beerus, acknowledges Frieza's talents, designating him as Universe 7's Agent of Destruction. Dragon Ball Super: Broly implies that King Cold might have relinquished control of the organisation to Frieza precisely because of this trope.
    • Although Dr. Gero is the creator of the Red Ribbon Androids, he is aware that he would not be able to control many of his creations through sheer fighting prowess alone, which necessitated the need for him to construct a Shut Down Remote to subdue them should things go awry. Unfortunately for him, both Androids 17 and 18 are aware of this, so when Gero reactivates them in order to kill the Z Fighters pursuing him, they destroy the Shut Down Remote while he was distracted. With the Shut Down Remote destroyed, Gero could no longer order either android to do his bidding, and was shortly after killed by Android 17 in a particularly brutal fashion.
    • The original Broly was kept in check by his father, Paragus, using a mind-control device, due to the former's much greater fighting prowess combined with an extreme thirst for destruction; this led to Paragus deciding to use his mind-controlled son as a way to rule the universe. Upon meeting Goku, Broly's intense hatred enabled him to begin bypassing the device's workings over an extended period of time, ultimately destroying it and freeing him from Paragus's control entirely. Soon after that, Broly would kill Paragus when the latter attempts to pull a Screw This, I'm Outta Here.
    • Kid Buu was summoned by Bibidi a long time ago to wreak havoc on the universe, but the latter could not control Buu directly until after Kid Buu absorbed the Grand Supreme Kai, turning into the less violent Majin Buu as a result, which enabled Bibidi to seal him inside a cocoon. When Majin Buu reemerges from the cocoon, he was initially unaware of just how weak Bibidi's son, Babidi, was, and obeyed the latter fully. It was during an encounter with Goku, when the Saiyan openly voiced wonder at why someone as powerful as Buu would obey someone like Babidi, that made Buu realise he was merely a tool for the wizard's ends, causing him to kill Babidi shortly after this encounter.
  • Mard Geer of the dark guild Tartaros in Fairy Tail is the de facto guild master, yet he's actually the The Dragon to Master E.N.D. However, E.N.D. is currently sealed within his Book of Zeref, which is the entire goal of the arc: Mard intends to revive his master and return to the role of Dragon, and he is utterly devoted to the goal, even willing to destroy all the magic in Earthland just so he can remove the seal on the book. After the fall of Tartaros and Mard's death and failure, however, Zeref reveals that in reality E.N.D. was never really Tartaros' leader. Mard Geer had found E.N.D.'s book and used it as the rallying point for the other demons to follow his leadership alongside his power. The plan to awaken the most powerful Etherious was still legitimate to gain his aid in killing Zeref, however.
  • Flint the Time Detective: Officially, the Dark Lord is the Big Bad and the cause of the Time Shifters being lost in time. But he spends nearly the entire series in the Land of Dread, not getting involved in the action himself, resulting in Petra Fina, his Dragon, to be the villain who actively takes on the protagonists and causes most of the conflicts they face.
  • Fushigi Yuugi: Nakago serves the Emperor of Kutou who seems to be the Big Bad. However, it is Nakago who commands the Seiryuu warriors against the heroes, Nakago who is easily the biggest threat to the heroes physically and strategically, and Nakago whose schemes drive the story forward (both the overall story of the war between kingdoms and the personal story of the heroine Miaka). The Emperor is so irrelevant as a threat that it turns out the entire war was part of a scheme Nakago enacted so that he could kill the Emperor himself, which makes so little difference to the threat facing the heroes that they are not even aware when Nakago succeeds.
  • Hellsing: In the 2001 GONZO anime the Big Bad is a vampire named Incognito. Although he allegedly has a superior, that character is never seen and Incognito acts very autonomously. Additionally, he supplies the big threat to Hellsing as after he's killed in the climax, a blurb of text is given to let the audience know his master was caught and silenced.
  • Kill la Kill:
    • Satsuki Kiryuin is the Student Council President of Honnouji Academy who rules over it as a dictator, so much so that the actual principal is little more than her figurehead, powerless to disobey her. She was put there by her mother, REVOCS CEO Ragyo Kiryuin, but Ragyo is more of a distant menace while Satsuki is the one directly antagonizing Ryuko. She even betrays and kills Ragyo halfway through... at which point this is actually subverted, as Ragyo revives herself and, after an epic battle, easily knocks down Satsuki to put her own plan in motion, making it clear that she really is the villain of the series.
    • Ragyo Kiryuin is herself this. She technically serves the Primordial Life Fiber, but it gets no speaking lines and doesn't even seem to do anything without Ragyo willing it to. While it must have some form of consciousness, Ragyo is, for all intents and purposes, the one with the plan. Notably, in the final episode where it is killed by the heroes, Ragyo continues with her Evil Plan anyway and is able to revive and fuse with it.
  • Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Archbishop De Villiers, the mastermind behind the Empire-Alliance war, is far more involved in the schemes of the Terraist Church than the Grand Bishop. De Villiers strings along the organization for his own benefit and with the death of their "leader" quickly places a brainwashed pawn in his place to take power in all but name.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: Gihren Zabi is nominally subordinate to his father Degwin, but despite this Gihren touts a bigger Cult of Personality than his father's and wields more direct control over Zeon through his positions as Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces than Degwin does as the actual Sovereign. By the time the show has gotten started, Gihren has isolated his father from the people, cut him out of the running of the war, and turned him into little more than a figurehead. When Gihren decides he has become a liability, Degwin dies a horrible death by Wave-Motion Gun.
    • In Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, Anavel Gato is this to Admiral Delaz and the Delaz Fleet, being the main person carrying out Operation Success and the one whose success the operation hinged on. Sure enough, even when Delaz gets killed it does nothing to impede Gato from finishing the plan.
    • The Titans as a whole are this to the leadership of the Earth Federation Forces in Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. They're technically just an elite branch of the EFF, but they effectively function as their own faction, and several of their leaders harbor ambitions of their own for ruling the Earth Sphere.
      • Also present in Zeta is Haman Karn. While Mineva Lao Zabi is technically the head of the Zeon remnants at Axis, because she's only 8 Haman Karn serves as her Regent for Life and is the one who actually runs things, to the point where she has her own Cult of Personality built around her.
  • Naruto:
    • Zabusa is this to Gatou. Gatou may be a billionaire shipping magnate and crime lord, but he stands no chance of defeating Team Kakashi without this badass missing-nin.
    • Tobi aka Obito Uchiha is this to Madara. A large part of the plan of Madara is based around Obito and without him, Madara's entire plan completely falls apart. Thus with Madara dead for most of the series (and the 17+ years prior), Obito was the one actually pulling the strings behind the Akatsuki and Pain, as well as the person who actually started the war. When Madara resurrected on war, he joins to Obito and forms a Big Bad Duumvirate with him. But it did not last long, as Obito outsmarts Madara by becoming the Ten-Tails Jinchuuriki and displacing him in a second plan. And as written in the trope description, Madara became the main villain again only after Obito was defeated and had a Heel–Face Turn.
    • Black Zetsu is this to Kaguya. This genius planner and devoted minion/son spends millennia manipulating the entire ninja world in order to enact the plans necessary for Kaguya to return. Even after she regains her original form, Black Zetsu has to handle most of the planning, with her having barely any idea how to strategize against the heroes without him. And as if to prove this stance further, after the heroes succeed in sealing Kaguya away, Naruto makes sure to hunt Black Zetsu down and seal him in the new moon as well in order to prevent him from resurrecting Kaguya at a later point and to end her threat once and for all.
  • Negima! Magister Negi Magi:
    • Chigusa has been implied to have been a simple pawn; even her actual dragon was defeated by an overpowered Vampire arriving on scene. The arc was effectively over with the defeat of Fate Averruncus.
    • A lesser example is shown later with Dynamis actually being the real boss of Cosmo Entelechia. However, Dynamis is still plenty powerful and very clever, so he realizes he needs to stall Ala Alba from getting to the more dangerous Fate. And succeeds. He himself is working for the Lifemaker, who spends most of the series being sealed.
  • One Piece:
    • Rob Lucci is the Dragon-in-Chief to Spandam, since, despite being leader of the CP9, Spandam is vastly inferior to Lucci (and the rest of his team), and it's Lucci that Luffy ultimately has to defeat to secure a proper victory. Averted after the time skip, when the two have been re-assigned to Cipher Pol Aegis 0... with Lucci now Spandam's superior.
    • Eric the Whirlwind serves this role for Commodore Nelson Royal, as well as being a Starscream. Nelson Royal is an extremely fat man who can't even walk anymore — though apparently he's at least reasonably competent at naval warfare, and hires Eric the Whirlwind to do his dirty work, since they share the same goal. By the end, Eric kills Nelson.
    • One could argue that Admiral Akainu is this. Though he's considered the main antagonist of the Marineford Arc, he was still under Fleet Admiral Sengoku's orders. Nevertheless, he causes the most damage to Whitebeard and his allies, from deceiving Squad, to provoking and killing Ace.
      • Akainu and Sengoku are an interesting case. Both are extremely powerful and dangerous antagonists (and it's anybody's guess who's the stronger of the two), but if Akainu is more dangerous, it's because Sengoku is ruthless but ultimately on the side of good despite opposing the Straw Hats, whereas Akainu is completely psychotic and without remorse (not that Akainu doesn't think he's good).
      • After the timeskip, Sengoku retires and Akainu is promoted to Fleet Admiral, but he's still a Dragon-in-Chief. Now it's to the Five Elder Stars, the ruling council of the World Government, who don't bother getting involved in the wars fought on their behalf and whose ability to put up any sort of fight is completely unknown. Given that Akainu is a madman and basically a walking volcano, it's likely that even if they can fight he's still more dangerous than all five of them combined.
    • The World Nobles are the Chiefs to the Marine's dragons, as while the Marines as a whole are Hero Antagonists, they're still at the beck and call to the Nobles, who are the epitome of cruelty and evil (slaveholding and genocide being among their crimes) and set draconic laws for which the punishment is death, all while hiding behind immunity from justice for their deeds because their ancestors were the ones who civilized their world. Assaulting (or just angering) a World Noble immediately makes you one of the greatest enemies of the law even if the reason for it was an unambiguously good deed as Luffy learned when he punched out a Celestial Dragon at a slave auction in a single blow. However, the reason the Nobles are so feared are the Marine Admirals, the Nobles themselves are actually the physically weakest characters in the story.
  • Team Rocket's Mimikyu is rare case of a Pokémon acting as this in the anime series. It's by far their most competent and sinister capture, able to match and routinely overpower Ash's Pikachu. While Mimikyu voluntarily joined the Terrible Trio however, it only joined out of its vendetta with Pikachu, otherwise it fights independently and even ignores Jessie's commands altogether when not facing an opponent it is interested in. Like Team Rocket's other Pokemon however, Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas, and after a while it started to bond with Jessie and obey her in select circumstances.
  • Pretty Cure:
    • Double subverted with Kawarino from Yes! Pretty Cure 5. While the Non-Action Big Bad Desparaia is much powerful than him and he is loyal to her, Kawarino is the greatest threat to the heroines and he's the most evil and the most competent villain in this season. The only reason why Desparaia accomplishes her goal is because of him, her strongest and most loyal employee. While Kawarino is the most difficult villain the girls have to face in this season, the only things Desparaia does during the Grand Finale is summoning Mooks, blocking the attacks with a barrier... and undergoing a High-Heel–Face Turn. And that's not only that: Kawarino survives the team's Finishing Move. Kawarino was also responsible for the invasion and destruction of Palmier Kingdom, the homeplace of the mascots. And he's pretty much responsible for enslaving its inhabitants.
    • In Smile PreCure!, Joker plays this role. While he is technically just the highest-ranking subordinate to the Big Bad Pierrot, Pierrot spends almost the entirety of the series in a dormant state, and doesn't show much in the way of personality the two times he's active. Joker, meanwhile, is the one who spends the whole time running around, directing Pierrot's other minions, hatching schemes, displaying gleeful sadistic cruelty to both the Cures and to his own allies, and doing his best to make the Cures' lives a living hell. He even goes out on his own terms rather than being vanquished by the heroines.
  • Princess Candle: Lord Swey, as a noble, technically serves the Queen and Crown Prince who banished Princess Skw'ah to a convent and thus started the conflict, but whereas those two have only two scenes and stay in the sidelines, Swey is the one who drives the plot with his own plan to forcibly marry Skw'ah — and he has made it no secret that he has no loyalty to the royal family and plots to usurp them once he has become Skw'ah's husband. Ultimately, he becomes Flora's Arch-Enemy and the Final Boss of the series, while the Queen is quickly dealt with afterwards.
  • In Rurouni Kenshin, it seemed that Shinomori Aoshi was this; once Kenshin arrived on the scene, he began openly disrespecting Kanryuu, the real Big Bad. He proves to be Kenshin's biggest challenge and nearly kills him. However, Kanryuu manages to get ahold of a Gatling gun... And for once in shonen, guns aren't worthless.
  • Sailor Moon S: Pharaoh 90, despite being an Eldritch Abomination, is completely helpless until its Co-Dragons Professor Tomoe and Mistress 9 free him.
  • Shangri-La: Ryoko Naruse uses her position as president of Atlas Corp to gain control of Japan, and while Lord Hiruko is the official ruler of Atlas, and the Prime Minister officially runs Japan, both of them are basically her figureheads, something she makes clear when she later takes the position of Prime Minister for herself.
  • Str.A.In.: Strategic Armored Infantry has Ralph Werec, the protagonist's once-idolized older brother and the best pilot either side of the war has ever had, and Vivian Medlock, the immediate superior he's got around his finger. Ralph is clearly Medlock's Dragon for much of the series, but he, not her, is always presented as the main antagonist. Ralph ultimately leads the Final Battle, while Vivian gets screwed over.
  • Tail Star: The Black Queen might be a Physical God with the power to destroy any country instantly using her bare tentacles, but it's clear from her hysterical paranoia and periods of collapse that her calm and mysterious second-in-command is running the planet.
  • Legato to Million Knives in Trigun, Legato proving to be more badass and actually manages to drive Vash into killing him. This is especially true in the anime since it ended before it go around to the points where Knives got more active after Legato's death, in which Legato can be considered the anime's actual Big Bad with Knives as a distant Greater-Scope Villain.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • The Big Bad of Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way vs. Canon is Tara Gilesbe, but Jenny is far smarter and far more dangerous than Tara can ever hope to be.
  • Played with in The Immortal Game. General Esteem is a much more serious threat than his direct superior Prince Empyrean who, despite being a Physical God, is a Royal Brat Harmless Villain. When Empyrean is finally confronted by the Mane Six, he goes down easily, as opposed to Esteem, who is fought multiple times and is ultimately only defeated for good when Twilight Sparkle taps into the full power of the Elements of Harmony and becomes a Physical God herself. On the other hand, Esteem's real master, Empyrean's father Titan, is far and away more dangerous than any other character in the story; even his avatars are magnitudes more powerful than Esteem.
  • Gumdrop Giggles from Duel Nature is vastly more threatening than her supposed boss. Especially once she murders him to unseal the Sealed Evil in a Can.
  • General-Admiral Makarov from the Shining Armor Arc of the Pony POV Series. While he's just the leader of the military serving Father Deer, the Hooviets' alleged God-Emperor, Makarov is the de facto Big Bad for the arc, considering he's an extremely powerful Super-Soldier directly out for Shining Armor's blood. On top of this, it's stated he's playing his higher ups as his pawns and is actually an Equinoid Abomination called the Shadow of Chernobull who is granting the Hooviets' desires for a Super-Soldier and world domination. In fact, it turns out that Father Deer actually doesn't exist, being a fabrication by the Hooviet Empire to cover up the existence of their true deity, Mother Deer, who's disgusted with them and leading La Résistance against them.
  • Hard Being Pure: Despite Haeten being the de-facto leader, it's Astrex who's the driving force behind Blue Moon's operations. Not only are her powers fit for reconnaissance, she is deadly enough that Phobia's plan hinges on disabling her as fast as possible.
  • Queen of All Oni: Flashbacks to Tarakudo's rebellion show that Hiruzen was this to the Oni Elders. Hiruzen was so strong and skilled that Tarakudo only defeated him because Ikazuki defied orders and intervened in their duel to help him; the Elders, on the other hand, were so decrepit that Tarakudo easily killed them.
  • Queen of Shadows: The Yojimbo is this to the Queen of the Shadowkhan. While there have been six Yojimbos and 98 Queens (counting the one Jade has replaced), this has always been the case — the Queens are inherently physically weak, being meant to rule and create new Shadowkhan, while the males are fighters (with their abilities varying between them, but always being vastly more skilled than the Queens).
  • Hachin: Bataar's half-brother,Unegan, is the main villain of the story, but the far greater threat is the ghoul that he summons to do his will. And it turns out to be the one calling the shots.
  • Webwork: Tarakudo is more powerful than Jade is, even in her Jorogumo form. However, due to still being sealed, he's utterly reliant on her to do anything in the mortal world. Ms Hartman is quick to lampshade this in her "The Reason You Suck" Speech to him, pointing out that he needs Jade more than she needs him, and that the day she realizes that, Tarakudo will be left with nothing.
  • In Ghosts of the Past, General Lukin is the official head of the Red Room. However, everyone (including Lukin himself) is aware that the true brains of the operation is his resident Evil Genius Sinister, who is also the most literally powerful person in the whole organisation, save for Maddie, who's firmly on his leash; the only reason he doesn't take official control is that he doesn't want to.
  • In The New Adventures of Invader Zim, Zim gains a new ally in the vampire Norlock, who quickly becomes his chief minion. He happens to be much physically stronger, smarter, and more outright malevolent than Zim is, to the point it's clear the only reason he's not taking charge is because he's content to play Evil Mentor and guide Zim towards being a greater villain. When he ultimately gets fed up, however, he turns on Zim and nearly kills him.
  • In Dinosaur King: Retold, Dr. Z is the nominal leader of the Alpha Gang. However, it is clear to everyone (including Dr. Z himself) that his Evil Genius underling Seth is really the one in charge; he's the main strategist and both times the heroes face him directly, they nearly die. The only reason Seth doesn't take official control is that he doesn't feel like it... yet.
    • Brontikens serves as another case of this for most of Season 1. Of the Alpha Gang's dinosaurs, he is by far the most powerful and is far more menacing and competent than Dr. Z ever was — it's clear the only reason he serves Dr. Z is because it better serves his own agenda.
  • This is a standard route to power in Farce of the Three Kingdoms. Cao Cao plays this role to Liu Xie quite openly, and Zhuge Liang plays it to Liu Bei more subtly (though when Liu Shan inherits the throne, he drops all pretense). This is mainly due to characters who take the throne typically not lasting long.
  • In Home, after Entrapta's parents died, her uncle Coda has been running Dryl until (and even after) she comes of age, Entrapta allowing it because she has no political savvy and is more interested in her experiments. When Hordak moves in with Entrapta and begins acting in the kingdom's politics, Coda sees him as a threat to his authority and the kingdom's stake in Etheria's politics, especially considering Hordak's history as an Evil Overlord.
  • In the finale of Prehistoric Earth, whilst Percival von Grimm is the orchestrator of both the park's sabotage and the dinosaur-trafficking operation in the finale, it is his lieutenant Frank who acts as the story's most prominent antagonist due to Percival himself being largely too uninvolved and isolated from everything going on at the island where the titular Extinct Animal Park is located. That being said, von Grimm is still able to intimidate Frank at times and, when he finally gets personally involved, he convinces all of Frank's men to betray him in exchange for money, before then ordering him left to the mercy of the main characters immediately after tasing Frank into submission.
  • In the Magical Girl Crisis Crossover Shattered Skies: The Morning Lights, Joker is a mix between this and The Heavy. Chaos is the actual Big Bad, but as it is a Sentient Cosmic Force without physical form, it's Joker's job to serve as its public face and lead the Legion of Doom composed of magical girl villains, monsters, and antagonists from across the five universes.
  • In The Legend of Korra fanfic Varium Fortune, Hiroshi came up with the plan to destroy the Triple Threats, but Asami is the one who is carrying out said plan. She also changes the plan repeatedly, such as recruiting Korra instead of killing her.
  • Resonance Days establishes right out of the gate that the supposed Big Bad Oblivion is simply a figurehead, and the true villain is her second-in-command, the incubator Reibey. In the prologue, the previous Oblivion kills herself, and Reibey gloats that he'll replace her soon enough. By the time the fic proper starts up, the new Oblivion is an easily manipulated young girl. That said, however, it's implied that there might be more to the story; The original Oblivion, who's been missing for the past who knows how long, was a genuine friend of Reibey, until they had a falling out. He supposedly became a lot worse after she disappeared, so there might be some aspect of Replacement Goldfish too.
  • In the Turning Red fic Turning Red: Secrets of the Panda, Jason Vaugn, while being a follower of Xióngmāo shāshǒu, still serves as the main threat to the heroes, and is the one leading the crusade against the Lee family.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Aladdin: The Return of Jafar, Jafar plays this in an incredibly obvious version of this trope as Abis Mal's genie. He curtails any authority Abis Mal may have had with Jackass Genie tactics and threats of giving him a Fate Worse than Death, and sets up the whole plan to best Aladdin himself. He knew how to be this all too well from being the Sultan's second-in-command for a big part of his life. In most of the first film he had almost complete control over the kingdom by hypnotising the Sultan and being more actively in charge of running the kingdom. But the Sultan was not malevolent so Jafar wasn't a full example then and he was too egotistical to accept being the hidden power for too long anyway.
  • In BIONICLE 3: Web of Shadows, Sidorak leads the Visorak horde but his viceroy Roodaka is more competent by far. Technically both serve Makuta, but he's sealed inside a crystal at this point. Sidorak is an inept oaf but the Visorak loyally follow him, while Roodaka easily manipulates Sidorak by appealing to his vanity and terrorizes the Visorak into slavish obedience. Sidorak also wants to marry Roodaka, which makes him easier to control. And then there's Vakama, a former hero gone rogue. He becomes The Dragon to Roodaka but pretends to serve Sidorak, who appoints Vakama the new horde leader thanks to Roodaka's urging — all so she could take over from both. This confusing hierarchy bites both villains in the ass. By the end, Sidorak's incompetence leaves him dead and Vakama has a change of heart, using his power to disband the horde, overthrowing Roodaka before she could overthrow him.
  • Grimmel the Grisly from How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World plays this role to the remnants of Drago Bludvist's army. They hire him to deal with Hiccup and the dragons, but it is quite obvious that Grimmel is a much bigger threat than the Warlords who hired him. He also backstabs them at the end and they can't do natch about it.
  • Justice League: Throne of Atlantis: Orm leads Atlantis to war against the surface. Black Manta reveals that the whole thing was his idea and that Orm was very easy to manipulate.
  • In My Little Pony: The Movie (2017), Tempest Shadow is working for the Storm King, and on top of being a more serious antagonist than her boss, she's the more immediate threat to the ponies. That said, the Storm King is competent enough that he was able to conquer most of the world outside Equestria before Tempest joined his ranks, and he becomes a legitimate threat when he gets the Staff of Sacanas working and, perhaps out of savviness to this trope, effectively backstabs Tempest.
  • Planet 51: General Grawl is this to Professor Kripple. Whilst Kripple is the brains of the operation, it is Grawl who is the most immediate threat to our heroes, since he is the one who is commanding the soldiers searching for Chuck.
  • Nigel from Rio. While his owner Marcel still drives the plot to some degree, Nigel is the more direct threat and far more menacing and evil than Marcel, while also serving as the lynchpin for Marcel's entire plan.
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut:
    • Saddam Hussein was more or less this to Satan. They are in a homosexual relationship, and Satan calls him his partner in evil, with Saddam emotionally abusing him and comes out as the main antagonist of the film. When the boys hear Saddam Hussein and Satan are coming to Earth, the boys seem more scared of Saddam. When Saddam and Satan finally arrive on Earth, Saddam tells Satan that he's better seen and not heard. Of course abusing Satan only goes so far, and he gets a very nasty end for it.
    • Sheila Broflovski is this to Bill Clinton. Although Clinton presides over America during its war against Canada and persecution of Canadian-Americans, he only shows up in a single scene in the entire film, a televised speech where he announces the declaration of war against Canada, the execution date of Terrence and Phillip, and appoints Mrs. Broflovski as his "Secretary of Offense". However, as soon as Clinton makes the announcement, Shelia Broflovski immediately steals the spotlight from him and antipathetically shoves him aside. Even before her appointment as Secretary of Offense, Mrs. Broflovski was a more plot-relevant antagonist than Clinton, as the founder and leader of "Mothers Against Canada", where she was the one who riled up Americans against Canada in the first place during her Villain Song, "Blame Canada". Unlike Clinton, Mrs. Broflovski was physically present during the Final Battle, where she personally kills Terrence and Phillip. After Satan and Saddam Hussein are unleashed, they both hold her responsible for enabling their return.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Accountant (2016), while Lamar may be the Big Bad, the mercenary he hired, Braxton, serves as the biggest threat in the film. He is the one who does all the heavy lifting, is responsible for the planning, and is also the only one who can match Wolff, his brother, in hand to hand combat, while Lamar stays out of his way and remains a Non-Action Big Bad. Braxton himself doesn't really like Lamar at all and lets his brother shoot him without a fuss after they've both fought each other to exhaustion.
  • In Angel Has Fallen, vice president Kirby is the mastermind behind the assassination attempt on President Trumbull and subsequent Frame-Up of Mike Banning, and hopes to get further blame for the whole mess pinned on Russia for the sake of the two nations going to war and allowing America to come out of the whole business with its geopolitical power increased. But for all Kirby's ambition, it's his righthand man, Mike's old army buddy Wade Jennings, who proves the bigger threat due to Jennings being the one who does all the heavy lifting and has far more screentime. To further emphasize all this, Jennings is defeated and killed by Mike over the course of a brutal final battle while Kirby is placed under arrest for treason by Trumbull with little fanfare.
  • The Jabberwocky (which, for bonus points, just so happens to resemble a dragon) is by far the bigger threat compared to the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland (2010), given that Alice's goal is to slay it and as soon as she does, all of the Red Queen's followers abandon her and she's quickly banished.
  • Though Parker Selfridge is the nominal leader of the human forces in Avatar, the main antagonist of the film is Colonel Quaritch, who runs his mercenary army exactly how he wants to and ultimately becomes the real power in the operation — and it's clear they both know it. About the only things that keep Selfridge in place are the fact that he's paying, and that Quaritch can't be bothered with the administrative details. At the end of the movie, Quaritch is killed in an epic battle, while Selfridge is subsequently shipped off-planet with a minimum of fuss.
    • A deleted scene made this explicit. In it, Selfridge threatens to terminate Quaritch with a phone call to Earth. Quaritch, who is much larger than Selfridge, grabs his nominal superior and points out that Earth is a very long way away. The scene was probably cut from theatrical because this dynamic was already extremely obvious.
  • The first Beverly Hills Chihuahua made a nice comparison between the Big Bad and his Dragon-in-Chief. The Big Bad, Vasquez, who runs the dog fights in Mexico City is technically in charge but his pet dog, El Diablo, is de facto the main villain of the story. He is more of a direct threat to the heroes who are also dogs, and certainly has a lot more screentime and interacts with them personally. Plus, he also has a personal history with Delgado whose partner El Diablo killed many years ago and was responsible for Delgado being thrown out of the police force. While Vasquez is El Diablo's owner and he was the one that technically gave orders to him, he barely has any screentime and would not really be that much of a threat without El Diablo around to provide extra muscle.
  • In the Martin Lawrence film Black Knight (2001), Percival (played by Vincent Regan) is 100% the bigger threat compared to his master, King Leo. He's the only one who distrusts The Hero early on (King Leo trusts him completely), and he's the final enemy who's defeated at the end of the movie. During the rebellion, he kills King Leo out of annoyance for his cowardice.
  • In Blade Runner 2049, even though Niander Wallace is nominally the Big Bad, he doesn't do anything to actively antagonize the main heroes, and in fact rarely leaves his building. The real threat of the movie is Luv, who actively confronts the heroes and is the one that K fights and kills in the climax.
  • Cyrus Grissom is this to drug lord Francisco Cindino in Con Air. Cindino is Grissom's employer, but Grissom is the only prisoner on board with a gun, and is the main authority figure Amongst the escaped convicts. When Cindino betrays him, Grissom executes him and becomes the Big Bad proper.
  • The Dark Knight Trilogy:
    • The Joker in The Dark Knight offers to work as a Psycho for Hire for the mob to take out Batman, but he really wants to use their money to bring chaos to the streets and become Batman's archenemy. He doesn't think highly of the mob and believes the city deserves a better class of criminal... so he takes over. In a decidedly hostile way.
    • Bane is this to John Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, carrying out the latter's plans for usurping Wayne Enterprises but being far more imposing than him, and once Bane has full control of Daggett's resources, he disposes of Daggett altogether. He also has shades of this for Talia al Ghul, in full charge of the plan to disrupt and destroy Gotham while she remains hidden, though it's possible they are equal partners rather than Bane being fully subservient to Talia.
  • Simon Phoenix is this in Demolition Man, until he's finally had enough of Dr. Cocteau. While Cocteau programs Phoenix to be unable to kill him, he neglects to do this for the other criminals Phoenix has released. Oops.
  • Stephen in Django Unchained is a rare loyal example. He is far brighter than his nominal master Calvin Candie, and all but runs his slave-staffed plantation for him. He also proves to be a much bigger threat than Candie, discovering the protagonists' plan and dismantling it effectively, while Candie remains in the dark about their intentions until Stephen tells him. He also outlives his master, and while Lara Candie then becomes his new superior, he's still effectively in charge and Django's main target.
  • Elysium: Kruger, who, albeit subordinate to Delacourt, is the main villain in the story. And by the end he becomes The Starscream as he kills Delcourt and takes over her conspiracy for himself.
  • In Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard hires Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud to extort money from his father-in-law, but gradually loses control over them as the film progresses, beginning in their first scene together.
  • Ramon Rojo is this to his elder brother Miguel in A Fistful of Dollars. Miguel is the Don of the family, but Ramon is a much more dangerous fighter, and is the true power of the family.
  • Gangs of New York:
    • Bill "The Butcher" Cutting works as The Dragon for Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed, but that doesn't mean their views don't clash. The Butcher doesn't much like that Tweed keeps wanting to bring in these "foreign hordes" of Irish workers, while Tweed thinks Cutting's semi-racist views are outdated. But while Tweed might be the Mayor, it is Cutting who runs the gangs and therefore Cutting who has the monopoly on violence. As Hero Amsterdam is on a mission of vengeance against the Butcher and since Tweed is merely corrupt, and not murderous, Cutting serves as the main villain of the story. The cagey Tweed manages to outlive him and survives the film.
    • Tweed wasn't even mayor— as the Boss of Tammany Hall, the main Democratic Party institution of New York City, he was himself a bit of a Dragon in Chief to the Mayor and actual elected officials in the city. At the time of the film's setting, he not only wielded the most political influence in the city, but also was one of the largest landowners, and was a director for railroad, banking, printing, and hotel companies. Effectively, he controlled the city completely during the height of his power, despite not holding any elected government position.
  • In Godzilla many of the recurring kaiju villains in the early 60's-70s Showa period, such as Gigan, King Ghidorah or Mechagodzilla, were nominally subservient to various alien invaders. However the kaiju in question were the only reason that the aliens in question were a threat. Once the kaiju were defeated by Godzilla the aliens usually were beaten quickly.
    • In Godzilla vs. Gigan the Nebulan space roaches were actually killed off before Ghidorah and Gigan were even beaten.
    • In the later 90s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ghidorah is the only reason the Futurian time travelers are a threat. Once he's defeated by Godzilla, they go down quickly.
  • In Halloween Michael Myers is cursed by Dr. Terence Wynn to kill his own family, but has no respect for Dr. Wynn, and kills his followers as well.
  • In Inglorious Basterds, Colonel Hans Landa is the biggest threat to the Allied plan to kill Adolf Hitler and the other Nazi leaders, but ultimately betrays his masters and allows the plan to go ahead to further his own Evil Plan.
  • The son of Viktor Cherevin, Aleksandr, is this by the third act of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
  • The James Bond film series:
    • Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE are nominally working under Red China in You Only Live Twice, but are clearly the dominant ones in the pair, as seen when Blofeld openly extorts money from them.
    • The title character of The Man with the Golden Gun, Francisco Scaramanga. He's the world's premier assassin but in the film he has started to work with Corrupt Corporate Executive Hai Fat in their plot to sell stolen solar tech. He's obsessed with 007 and thrilled when their paths cross (since he hopes to duel him to the death), but gets tired of Hai Fat, who freely admits to being out of his league with the secret agent. Ultimately he kills Fat and steals the tech (and his company), only to be unceremoniously shot by Bond by the end of the film.
  • John Wick:
  • In The Karate Kid Part II, there's Chozen to his uncle Sato. While Sato is a rich industrialist and the one calling the shots, he is rivals with Miyagi, whereas Chozen bullies Daniel throughout the movie. When Miyagi and Daniel save Sato's life, Chozen refuses to help them. After Sato has a Heel–Face Turn and disowns Chozen for his cowardice, Chozen gets consumed with vengeful fury and becomes the Final Boss of the film.
  • Hitman Benedict in Last Action Hero is this to mob boss Tony Vivaldi. He hates his boss for his stupidity and especially for his idiotic quips, which often make no sense. Benedict kills him halfway through after Vivaldi's plan fails (which he blames entirely on Vivaldi) and uses the magic ticket to start an inter-dimensional crime spree.
  • The Last Boy Scout: Marcone is the Big Bad, but he's a pudgy old man who prefers to stay on the sidelines and never battles the heroes head-on. He's dwarfed in both screentime and threat level by his right-hand man Milo, a psychopathic mercenary who has a personal hatred for Joe and a violent streak a mile wide.
  • The Last of the Mohicans: Huron war captain Magua technically works for the French General Montcalm, but his vendetta against the family of Colonel Munro is central to the film's plot as it pits him against the main characters, the Mohicans. For the film's third act, Montcalm drops out of the film when Fort William Henry falls, allowing Magua to take center stage.
  • In The Last Starfighter, Commander Kril is nominally under Xur's command by the order of the Ko-Dan emperor, but he's much more "main villain" material than the whiny, overly theatrical and tantrumy Xur. He later ascends after getting tired of Xur's antics and repeated screwups.
  • Lethal Weapon 4 has Wah Sing Ku. He's trying to free his bosses, the Four Fathers, from prison, and one of them actually includes his older brother. With the Four Fathers in prison, Wah Sing Ku is the actual mastermind of the plot, as well as the most badass and dangerous character in the movie.
  • Little Evil: Reverend Gospel, leader of Satan's cult, acts as this due to his master being stuck in Hell.
  • The Long Kiss Goodnight has Timothy. The Big Bad at first is Daedalus who is killed halfway in the movie, which then Timothy becomes the Big Bad. However, he also works for the corrupt CIA boss Leland.
  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park: Once the InGen team gets on Isla Sorna, lead hunter Roland Tembo makes clear that he's in charge of the expedition, not his Too Dumb to Live boss, Peter Ludlow, who tries to set up camp in the middle of a dinosaur game trail. Said boss is perfectly fine with this.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • In Iron Man 2 Ivan Vanko is recruited by Justin Hammer as the only one who knows how to mimic Tony Stark's Iron Man tech. But he constantly berates Hammer for the quality of his Iron Man knockoffs and at the end of the film he takes control of Hammer's battle drones and becomes the final villain.
  • Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One: Gabriel acts as this to the Entity. While the Entity is in several ways more dangerous than Gabriel, it's still limited in the degree it can interact with the physical world since it only exists in cyberspace. Gabriel thus is the de facto main antagonist Ethan has to fight.
  • In Mortal Kombat (2021), Sub-Zero serves as the biggest threat to the protagonists. Shang Tsung is still more powerful, but the sorcerer abstains from direct conflict, leaving Sub-Zero as the more immediate threat whose defeat concludes the film's plot, as well as Cole's character arc.
  • Jim Taylor's political influence is what keeps Senator Joseph Paine in power in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  • Nash to McDuff in National Security. He does most of McDuff's work and is also responsible for Hank's partner's death. In the climax, he's the last villain to be killed after McDuff's death.
  • Freddy Krueger is this to the Dream Demons in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. The Dream Demons gave Freddy his powers, and Freddy states that he works for them, but they seem to be letting Freddy hunt and kill whoever he wants to, and they presumably can't harm the children of Elm Street directly. Krueger himself had Jason Voorhees in Freddy vs. Jason. By the beginning of the film, Freddy has lost his powers and is trapped in hell, so he disguises himself as Pamela Voorhees, and manipulates Jason into killing the children on Elm Street, thus reviving fear of Freddy Krueger and allowing Kruger to regain his powers. However, Jason won't stop killing, so Freddy ended up with a rival to contend with.
  • No Country for Old Men: Anton Chigurh is nominally just an assassin working for The Cartel and their associates, but his bizarre set of principles and unflinching focused on completing the job at all costs, to the point of killing other people sent by his employers when they get in his way, make him the most dangerous villain in the film.
  • Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West is a cold blooded killer who is now working as muscle for a crooked (he's handicapped) railroad mogul who has a dream of expanding out West (so he can see it). The violent Frank makes it clear to his face he wants to take over the business and doesn't care about his bosses' dreams. Their plans hit a snag when they have to get rid of a widow with land and a house in the way of the track. She is defended by a mysterious harmonica playing cowboy who, it turns out, is really after Frank. Cue epic western masterpiece. Subverted somewhat though, in that the Big Bad is able to convince all of Frank's men to betray him in exchange for money, and would have succeeded in having him assassinated were it not for the hero's interference.
  • In Oz the Great and Powerful, Evannora — the future Witch of the East — is the villain responsible for the threat the characters face, but her actions turn her sister Theodora into the more ruthless and insane Wicked Witch of the West.
  • The Patriot (2000). Colonel William Tavington takes his orders from General Cornwallis and his direct subordinate, but he's by far the biggest threat in the film to Martin and the militia as the British troops' field commander, a more vile villain, and much better at hunting them down.
  • Davy Jones became this in part three of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy to Lord Beckett. He had formerly been the Big Bad in part two, but was forced into servitude due to Beckett's leverage (Jones' Cursed Heart). In the final battle, Jones seizes his opportunity to regain control of his ship, where he promptly kills Mercer, Beckett's regular Dragon. Beckett himself is this trope to King George II, since Beckett is serving as his duly appointed representative in the campaign against piracy. However, the fourth film revealed that King George was nowhere near as intelligent as Beckett was.
  • Rock N Rolla: Archy is initially Mob Boss Lenny Cole's intelligent, competent, pragmatic, loyal, Noble Top Enforcer, and a major player in Lenny's everyday operations. However, having witnessed several instances of Lenny's abhorrent conduct, after learning of Lenny's betrayal, Archy finally retaliates against his employer and usurps him.
  • Rio Lobo: Sheriff Hendricks poses the main threat to the characters, displays the most ruthlessness of the villains, and is onscreen far more than his boss.
  • Peoples Hernandez is this to Walter Wade Jr. in Shaft (2000).
  • In Shane, the titular character warns his friend that gunslinger Jack Wilson is more dangerous than his boss, Rufus Ryker.
  • Alexander Minion in Spy Kids, who seems to be just the the dragon of the main villain but ends up betraying him to make a fortune and turns out to have been the one who pushed him into evil in the first place.
  • Star Wars:
    • Word of George Lucas is that Darth Vader was intended to be this early on (possibly sharing the spot with other Imperial officers). Traces of this remain as late in the game as the A New Hope novelization, which describes The Emperor as a weak-willed man controlled by ambitious underlings. The actual movies as released, however, make it plain that while Vader is incredibly powerful and evil, the Emperor is worse on every imaginable scale.
    • In the prequel trilogy, Darth Vader was initially well on his way to becoming this when he first joined The Dark Side: his powers were growing so rapidly that even the Emperor himself theorized that Vader would soon eclipse his own abilities and potentially overthrow him. However, after Vader suffered his near-fatal injuries on Mustafar (including having all of his natural limbs amputated), his powers with the Force were greatly reduced and he was never able to exceed the Emperor's skills again (without help).

  • Renegade Russian Colonel Yegor Viktorvich Zakharov from Dale Brown's Act of War, who acts as the head of operations for the GAMMA eco-terrorist group. While Ruiz recognises his military talent, he doesn't realise that Zakharov is a Deceptive Disciple, and neither do us readers for some time.
  • In Animorphs, even before his promotion to Visser One, Esplin 9466 AKA Visser Three serves as by far the most horrifying and powerful of the Yeerks. For a significant portion of the series however, he is outranked by the original Visser One. The series is roughly half over before he is assigned full control over the invasion of Earth and he does not become Visser One until the final installments. Even then, he is under the orders of the Council of Thirteen, the high command of the Yeerk Empire.
  • Anno Dracula: In an Alternate History World War I, Vlad III Dracula was supreme commander of all Central Powers' armies despite having the title of Graf (Count in German) and being technically outranked by Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Franz-Joseph, Tsar Ferdinand and Sultan Mehmed V, he was considered the real mastermind of the conflict as he sought revenge for being deposed from Great Britain. Ironically, some characters lament that without him, this war would have never happened.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Korn, from Catch-22, to Colonel Cathcart. He easily manipulates Cathcart throughout the novel, and most of the schemes are his idea. He remains Cathcart's subordinate due to lower rank and because he doesn't want to take the fall if something goes wrong.
  • The Dawn of Yangchen: Although the Unanimity combustionbenders (Thapa, Yingsu, and Xiaoyun) are working for Zongdu Henshe, it's made very clear that the three of them hold the real power as Henshe's ineffectual on his own. They even force Henshe to increase their payment twentyfold or else they'll sell him out to the Earth King.
    Thapa: I bet you thought you held all the tiles. Funny thing about that. Once you play your tiles, you no longer hold them.
  • The ogre Grand Lord Golgren from the Dragonlance Minotaur Wars and Ogre Titans trilogies is this to the Ogre Grand Khan, being much smarter and more charismatic than his boss and being capable of overthrowing him at any time, only keeping him around because he likes the perks his current job has. And then he decides he wants his boss's job too. The Grand Khan is dead in hours.
  • In The Dresden Files, Lara Raith appears to be this to the world at large after breaking her father's will. Of course she's actually just using her father as a front while running the show herself.
  • Arguably Martel from The Elenium by David Eddings. Though the Big Bad, Azash, is far more powerful, he's too much of an Eldritch Abomination to understand humans well enough to effectively plot against them, and his high priest is, to put it bluntly, an idiot. As a result, Martel's scheming drives the vast majority of the plot, while at the same time he is the hero's rival, Worthy Opponent, and Shadow Archetype. He definitely fits this role in relation to Primate Annias, as it's made quite clear that Annias's drive for power would go nowhere without Martel's resources, skills and brains to back it up.
  • The drama of Emilia Galotti by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing centers on the trial of the titular character and her family which is caused by the lecherous intentions of the prince of Guastalla, Hettore Gonzaga and his obsessive attempts to seduce her. In order to do so he has his conniving chamberlaine Marinelli take matters into his own hands and gives him absolute freedom to act in his stead. Everything that happens afterwards and makes it a tragedy is really Marinelli's doing and the Prince is less than enthusiastic when he finds out that his courtier's schemes include a few dead bodies as the most practical solution to ensuing problems. But... he only protests very weakly and shows just a little resistance towards the more wicked Marinelli which makes his slightly less the villain than the absolutist order that he represents and the ambition of those who wish to get this order on their side.
  • In the Forgotten Realms Hunter's Blade series, Obould and Gerti are the dragons working for the very manipulative band of drow that set the whole plot into motion. However, Obould takes a level in badass and very quickly takes charge of the situation. Three of the four drow think they've still got control of the situation, but after Obould puts Gerti in her place, there's little room for debate about who's running the show.
  • The In Death series: Ceremony in Death introduces Selina Cross as the Big Bad and Alban as The Dragon with a cult of Satanists. However, Alban kills off Selina in an You Have Outlived Your Usefulness manner, reveals that he was actually in charge, and that the cult was supposed to be just a long-term con that evidently turned into Serious Business.
  • In The Lightbringer Series, King Rask Garadul initially seems to be the Big Bad, but once his lieutenant the Color Prince formerly known as Koios White Oak is introduced partway through the first book, it becomes obvious he's by far the more dangerous of the two. The Prince ends up arranging for Garadul to die in battle at the end of the book, leaving him in sole command of their collective forces while turning the king into a martyr he can use to fire up his followers.
  • In The Malloreon by David Eddings, Nahaz is Dragon-in-Chief to both Urvon, who is completely insane, and his Bastard Understudy, Harakan, an Evil Sorceror who needs Nahaz's Demons to both do his fighting, and help him maintain his Mengha persona in front of the Demon-worshipping Karandese. Without Nahaz, both their plans would quickly fall apart, and it's worth noting that he both outlives Harakan (who originally summoned him) and dies in the exact same moment as Urvon, who he drags into hell with him. No one who has read this will be surprised to learn that Nahaz has his own agenda, which would more or less have resulted in the end of the world if successful.
  • Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has authority over her asylum that is unchecked even by her superiors.
  • In Project Tau, Dennison is this to Mason. Technically, Mason is in charge of the labs, but he shows no interest in the day-to-day running of the facility, much less the Projects' training, preferring to leave that all up to Dennison.
  • Ghend is this in The Redemption of Althalus by David Eddings, as his boss, Daeva, is never encountered, due to rules against the gods interfering personally in human affairs. As a result, it's Ghend who drives the plot, and the story ends with his defeat.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms:
    • Dong Zhuo's ascent from western provincial warlord to Imperial Chancellor and almost-Emperor was contingent on swaying the warrior Lu Bu to his side by offering Red Hare and some gold, as he'd been the mightiest warrior and bodyguard for the one court official who stood up to him. Unfortunately for Dong Zhuo, a man who could be swayed by worldly things could be swayed by worldly things again — such as the hand of Diaochan, a dancer and adoptive daughter of the Minister of the Masses — and eventually Dong Zhuo's advisor Li Ru outright tells him: "Sir, you aspire to be ruler of the empire. Why then for a small fault do you blame the General? If he turns against you, it is all over."
    • This could apply to quite a few people, actually; most of the big movers and shakers of the story were not kings or emperors. Cao Cao, as another Imperial Chancellor, is probably the most powerful person in the story. Even Zhuge Liang, Chancellor of Shu-Han, was the one really calling the shots for most of the kingdom's existence.
  • In Septimus Heap, Simon Heap serves this purpose in Flyte on behalf of Dom Daniel, who is still only a pile of bones.
  • The Silmarillion: How does a demonic godlike spirit with whole nations and armies ready to die for him deal with a superior army of mortal men? He simply allows them to win and believe that they took him prisoner in front of their king and pleads loyalty and subservience to him which is only the first step into stroking his ego. Afterwards it is not long before, through useful suggestions and generous doses of flattery, he climbs socially from a defeated and assimilated enemy to the king's most trusted advisor. He shows why he is called "Sauron the Deceiver" by making the king dependent on him and by preying on his arrogance and selfishness. He should know about these better than anyone.
  • In the backstory to Skulduggery Pleasant, the Big Bad Mevolent fought a war in an attempt to bring back the Faceless Ones, whom he worshipped. However, his Dragon Lord Vile was implied to be even more powerful than he was, and was not trying to bring back gods — he simply wanted to see if he could kill them.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • King Joffrey is not really the power on the Iron Throne in: his mother and his grandfather are... the thing is, whenever Joffrey does manage to slip his leash and do what he wants to do (when it doesn't conform to what his family wants) the results are usually horrific.
    • Varysnote  and Littlefingernote  are not really Dragons to Joffrey, but do wield significantly more power in court than might be otherwise suspected, and both shore up the way King's Landing works in such a way that it begins to crumble when Littlefinger leaves his role as Master of Coinnote .
    • Really, the consistent thread in the work seems to be that the Hand of the King's true job is to do all of the work in managing the affairs of the kingdom while the king tackles whatever addles his own mind. Tywin ruled where Aerys was insane, Jon Arryn and Eddard Stark mitigated Robert's drunken stupor, and Tywin and Tyrion tried their best to limit the lackadaisical sociopathy of Joffrey. As Robert says, "the King eats, and the Hand takes the shit."
    • Mace Tyrell is Lord Paramount of the Reach and Head of House Tyrell. However, in both of these fields he's clearly behind someone else. In the military side, his bannerman Randyll Tarly is the one that really wins his battles for him and most of the Tyrell dynastic politics is dealt with by his scheming mother Olenna. However, this may be exaggerated, Olenna mentions in her first scene that her son barely takes her advice, and that she was against him crowning Renly Baratheon in his bid to usurp the Iron Throne due to Renly marrying Mace's daughter.
    • Historically Aegor Rivers "Bittersteel" seems to have been the prime mover behind the Blackfyres during his lifetime, convincing his half-brother Daemon Blackfyre to rebel against their legitimate brother Daeron II, and then aiding Daemon's sons in their further attempts to take the Iron Throne. Aegor even founded the Golden Company to aid them.
  • Star Trek: In the novel "Probe" the Romulan Star Empire is officially led by an Emperor, with his legate being the official second in command. However, by the 23rd century the real leader of the Empire is the Praetor, who is officially ranked third in the power structure of the Empire.
  • In Warrior Cats, Big Bad Tigerstar's son Hawkfrost serves as the main villain for the New Prophecy arc. However, unlike usual, Tigerstar is every bit as powerful and cunning as Hawkfrost, but is severely hampered by the fact that he's dead and communicating through the afterlife.
  • Zones of Thought: A Fire Upon the Deep has Steel, who represents shades of just about every variant of this. Before the events of A Fire Upon the Deep, he was a Dragon with an Agenda bordering on The Starscream to nominal Big Bad Flenser, but by the time the story starts, he is a Dragon Ascendant who took over after Flenser left to invade a neighboring territory. In an amusing reversal, Flenser returns early in the book, weakened, and fulfills the exact same roles to Steel while he schemes to regain his power.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Season 2 of The 100, Cage Wallace is the Big Bad since he took over Mount Weather and put them into an unresolvable conflict with the Main Characters. However, his father, Dante, is clearly the more intelligent and capable leader, to the point where Cage has to actually beg him for advice when the heroes march against them. The only reason Dante's not the Big Bad is because he's either too smart or too moral to start an unnecessary war, and only helps his son outmaneuver the heroes because Cage, left to his own devices, would lead them all to ruin.
  • Mara Morales in BIA is the personal assistant of Carmín.The original Alpha Bitch of the show, but the series later shows that Mara is actually more cruel and harmful to the protagonists and to Carmín herself. Carmín later under goes a Heel–Face Turn and Mara becomes the new Alpha Bitch.
  • In the Battlestar Galactica (1978) episode "The Lost Warrior", Apollo comes upon a town on the planet Equellus that is being intimidated by a man named Lacerta, whose lead enforcer is a lone Cylon Centurion nicknamed Red-Eye. Lacerta's authority is completely based around the fact that he tricked Red-Eye into believing that he was the Imperious Leader and that Red-Eye's armor is immune to the weapons that are at the townsfolk's disposal (his armor is covered with numerous dents from failed attempts to kill him). Once Apollo kills Red-Eye, Lacerta's hold over the town is broken and he flees.
  • Chuck: Shaw ends up as this, after coming back from the dead and downloading an intersect into his head. His superiors are all senior bureaucratic types, like General Beckman, and they don't interact with Chuck or his team in any way other than getting captured at the end of the Season 3 arc.
  • Cobra Kai: Terry Silver is this to John Kreese in both The Karate Kid Part III and his long reappearance in Cobra Kai Season 4. While Part III is all about Kreese's revenge on Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, it's Silver that does all the work on his war buddy's behalf (i.e., hiring Mike Barnes as Daniel's rival and tormentor, Silver himself tormenting Daniel through torture as his Evil Mentor). Cobra Kai makes things a bit more complicated; Kreese wants to remain as the current Cobra Kai's main sensei despite re-recruiting Silver as a "partner", going as far as to use guilt-tripping and Vietnam War flashbacks to assert control over his war buddy. Silver himself over time becomes a much bigger threat due to his greater access to resources still as a wealthy businessman, his more pragmatic approach when it comes to fighting (as proven through his victory by proxy in a sparring match featuring Robby against Kenny), his combat skill vastly surpassing Kreese (given his bout against Johnny), and ultimately his influence in the tournament going behind everyone's back in bribing the referee to guarantee Cobra Kai's victory. All of this reaches its peak with Silver betraying Kreese and moving forward with his ultimate plan: expanding Cobra Kai.
  • Dark Desire: Initially, Darío was supposed to be the main antagonist of the first season due to his unhealthy obsession with Alma. However, he is later revealed to have been employed by Esteban who instructed him to use Alma in order to get to Leonardo, who had Darío's father unjustly thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit, but Esteban himself also seeks revenge on his brother out of envy. As the season progresses, it is clear that the two hate each other.
  • Defiance: Stahma Tarr, wife to the Castithan Don Datak, was implied throughout the first season of the series to be the real brains behind their operation. Datak, while not stupid by any means, was short-tempered and prone to reacting with violence to any perceived disrespect. Stahma, meanwhile, was quiet and calculating, able to subtly manipulate her husband to what was best for the family. By Season 2, with Datak imprisoned, she's dropped all pretense and is running things herself, making it clear to her weak-willed son Alak that she's only allowing him to appear to be in charge because the male-dominated Castithan society won't let her be.
  • Doctor Who: Played with. Davros is little more than a pet for the Supreme Dalek upon his return in Series 4, but it's his plan for the Reality Bomb his creations are following. Also, Dalek Caan needed him to recreate his species. All of this, combined with his personal enmity with the Doctor, makes Davros effectively the face of the Dalek threat.
  • In Fringe Season 1, Nina Sharp is set up as this to William Bell. Turns out, while both are morally gray, they are both without a doubt good.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Lord Tywin Lannister is this on several occasions.
      • He serves as the Dragon-in-chief to his grandson, the incompetent teenaged fool of a King Joffrey Baratheon, who he is technically only the Hand to, and not even that until Season 3. Perhaps best exemplified by the Season 3 finale in which Joffrey claims that it was his father who won the war while Tywin "hid under Casterly Rock!" In response to this challenge, Tywin just sends Joffrey a Death Glare, which Joffrey quickly buckles under after a just few seconds of attempting to keep eye contact. Tywin then casually declares that "the king is tired", and has Joffrey sedated and dragged off to bed despite Joffrey very insistently protesting that he isn't tired.
        Tyrion: You just sent the most powerful man in Westeros to bed without his supper.
        Tywin: You're a fool if you believe he is the most powerful man in Westeros.
        Tyrion: A treasonous statement. Joffrey is king.
        Tywin: You really think a crown gives you power?
      • He was also The Dragon as Hand to King Aerys until he resigned. When Robert's Rebellion tilted in favor of the rebels, Tywin became The Starscream and slaughtered Aerys' grandkids.
      • This is further cemented when Tommen names him Protector of the Realm, which is a title reserved for the King; the kid knows who really runs things.
    • Olenna's role as Dragon-in-Chief of House Tyrell is played up in the TV adaptation to the extent where most other Tyrells are barely characters once she appears. On the military side, Randyll Tarly is Mace Tyrell’s top general and is the only commander who dealt a loss to Robert Baratheon.
    • There are times when Dagmer straight-up tells Theon what to do, and Theon does it.
  • Two of the biggest public enemies of Gotham and future enemies of Batman started out as nobodies who needed the support of more influential individuals in order to ascend and fulfill their nefarious potential. Both were more intelligent and competent than their supposed bosses, and that's why it worked.
    • On the side of organized crime, the Penguin knew that it was in his best interests to become a member of a powerful criminal's court and then supplant him, which is what he did with Don Sal Maroni and Don Falcone. While neither of the two were incapable, they were just out of their league when it came to scheming.
    • On the side of deranged maniacs, Jerome Valeska (more or less the Joker until his brother succeeded him in the role) became a part of Richard Sionis' circle because he had nothing better to do and was attracted to serial killers like him while they were both incarcerated in Arkham Asylum (even though Sionis treated it more like a vacation).
  • Jikuu Senshi Spielban: Queen Pandora, although acting as a Mouth of Sauron for Guardian Deity Waller, is the one who directly leadds the Waller Empire and gives orders to the other Waller generals almost all of the time, while Waller never leaves his liquid pool and can only give orders through Pandora. And then it turns out Waller was a completely made-up illusion by Pandora and that she's the real real Big Bad all along.
  • Justified:
    • Theo Tonin is the Big Bad of the fourth season, but never appears in person, leaving his left-hand man, Nicky Augustine, to coordinate the search for Drew Thompson (while he and his right-hand, Elias Marcos, make tracks for Tunisia). Augustine succeeds in antagonizing the entire cast, turning Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder against him, and by the last episode of the season, everyone's goals have shifted from "putting Theo in prison" to "getting rid of Augustine."
    • In Season 5 episode "Shot All to Hell" Theo returns to the USA to kill Mr. Picker, the man who murdered his son, Sammy. However, since Theo has been rendered an invalid by his heart condition, it's Elias Marcos who does the heavy lifting of the episode, and poses the actual threat to the cast.
  • Kamen Rider
    • Kamen Rider BLACK has Shadow Moon as this to the Creation King. The Creation King stays off-screen for most of the series and is revealed to be an immobile floating heart, while Shadow Moon is the one who publicly leads Gorgom and serves as the most formidable threat to Kamen Rider Black.
    • Kamen Rider Ryuki has Kamen Rider Odin. He's by far the strongest of the 13 Riders in the Rider War and while acting as the representative of Shiro Kanzaki, who himself is a highly intelligent Chessmaster, Kanzaki's plans required Odin to win the Battle Fight on his behalf.
    • Similar to the Ryuki example above, Kamen Rider Blade has the artificial Undead Kerberos, created to be Hiroshi Tennoji's player in the Battle Fight. Kerberos is easily the strongest of the Undead in the Battle Fight and Tennoji's plans were reliant on Kerberos achieving victory. Subverted later when, as the the final step of his plan, Tennoji fuses with Kerberos and gains all of his powers.
    • Kamen Rider Den-O has the Death Imagin to Kai. The Death Imagin was created by Kai from the last of his memories to serve as the keystone of his Keystone Army of Imagin and it's the Death Imagin's defeat that causes all of the other Imagin, as well as Kai himself, to dissolve away.
    • Both villainous groups in Kamen Rider Gaim have one.
      • The Yggdrasil Corparation has Ryoma Sengoku/Kamen Rider Duke, who all of the New Generation Riders follow while keeping Takatora Kureshima/Kamen Rider Zangetsu, his nominal boss, as an oblivious figurehead. It's Played With though since Takatora is still the strongest fighter of the bunch, and when Ryoma finally decides to move against him he needs to bust out every other New Generation Rider in order to take him down.
      • The Overlord Inves have Redyue, who leads the Inves invasion and is a much more active villain than her king, Rosyuo, whose apathy and sorrow over his wife's death means he can't be arsed to do much. It's Played With though in that while Rosyuo is still more powerful than Redyue given his possession of the Forbidden Fruit (which Redyue plots to steal from him) and in the end is the one who gets the last laugh, revealing to Redyue that the Overlords' Forbidden Fruit was already withering when she backstabs him.
    • Kamen Rider Drive has Sigma Circular as this for its creator Tenjuro Banno. Banno as Gold Drive is no slouch, but his plans to digitize the world hinged entirely on Sigma. Notably, the Final Battle is with Sigma, not Banno, who instead gets killed by the Secondary Rider an episode before, and the conflict isn't resolved until Sigma, still attempting to carry out Banno's plans in spite of his death, is brought down.
    • Kamen Rider Build: Kamen Rider Grease is this for Prime Minister Tajimi. Tajimi is the ruler of Hokuto and the one who ordered the invasion of Touto, but it's Grease who spearheads said invasion and whom she's relying on to defeat Build.
  • In the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Cuba Libre", Joel Grey plays a Badass Senior who is definitely a Magnificent Bastard and openly defies Det. Goren in his role as the Big Bad... until Goren does some psych profiling and discovers that the evil gang leader Joel's character has been relying on to carry out his hits is really The Chessmaster, and has been using him in an elaborate scheme to get out of jail. Goren cracks the case by getting the two to turn on each other, after telling him how the gang leader imagined the feisty old man as a puppet, sitting on his knee.
  • Lizzie McGuire has this zig-zagged with Claire Miller to Kate Sanders. While Kate is usually the main antagonist of the series, Claire was even worse. This is best demonstrated when Kate breaks her arm and Claire takes over the cheerleading squad. She starts treating everyone as if they are below her and shows Kate no sympathy, until Kate's arm healed and she took back her place as head of the cheerleading squad. Whenever Kate has Defrosting Ice Queen moments, Claire would also pressure her into not befriending Lizzie again. It should be noted that Kate's Heel–Face Turn in the movie was likely because of the lack of Claire's influence.
  • Mr. Gold in the first season of Once Upon a Time. Technically, Mayor Mills rules over Storybrooke with an iron fist, but he's the Bad Samaritan with a Chain of Deals that has everyone in his back pocket, mayor included. Plus, he's the Storybrooke identity of Rumplestiltskin, who is the Greater-Scope Villain in the Big Bad Ensemble. He's also the one who created the curse for Regina, but did it for his own reasons. He even invokes this idea in Storybrooke to get Emma elected as Sheriff over Regina's personal pick, by getting her in a position to finger Gold himself in a crime but admit there is no hard evidence to prove it. He tells her later that, to win, she needed to do more than stand up to Regina, she needed to show she would take even him on to convince enough people, and thanks her for being the woman he expected her to be.
  • Person of Interest: In the episode "Root Cause", cyberterrorist and Professional Killer Root is technically working for congressional aide Pete Matheson. Matheson hires Root to assassinate his boss Congressman Delancy, but Root is the main threat for the episode since she hires the hitman and organizes the search for a Fall Guy. When the Frame-Up job fails, Root kills Matheson and flees, though not without getting useful information on the Machine and causing trouble for the main characters for a couple more seasons.
  • Power Rangers:
    • For Power Rangers in Space, Astronema takes on this role in the grand scheme of things. She is the strongest foe in Dark Spector's inventory but secretly plots against him behind his back, and she would have likely been the one to kill him if Darkonda didn't beat her to it. And ultimately the heroes never face Dark Spector directly, and Astronema remains their primary enemy to defeat by the end. (Another reading of the show is that Astronema is the Big Bad while Dark Spector is the Greater-Scope Villain.)
    • In Power Rangers Samurai, Serrator becomes this for a good chunk of the second half. The regular Big Bad, Master Xandred, is more of The Brute and is perfectly willing to let others come up with battle strategies — which lets Serrator direct the enemy forces to further his own schemes. Of course, when Serrator makes a misstep, Xandred gets ticked enough to remind people why he's the Big Bad, nearly turning Serrator and the Rangers into smears on the wall.
    • In Power Rangers Megaforce, Admiral Malkor is set up as the Big Bad at first, but the conflicts the Rangers face are mainly caused by Vrak, whose proactiveness and threat level effectively make him a co-Big Bad to Malkor rather than just his Dragon.
  • In Season 2 of Primeval, Helen Cutter aligned herself with Oliver Leek. Despite being the brains of the mission, Leek was very easily intimidated by Cutter's psychotic disposition and was frequently threatened if his plan didn't deliver. When Leek finally made a power play and grown a backbone against Helen, she was savvy enough to instantly abort the mission, finding more dignity in performing an Enemy Mine with the protagonists than becoming Leek's lackey for real.
  • The Prisoner (1967) gives us a revolving-door version of this. Within the Village, Number Two's authority is absolute and he functions as the episode's Big Bad, but he still answers to a Number One who we never see. The twist is that Number Two gets replaced pretty much Once an Episode (and the twist on THAT twist is that each new Number Two acts almost as if he's had the job all along).
  • Resurrection: Ertuğrul: Titus absolutely counts as this: although he is subservient to Grand Master Petruchio Manzini, he’s shown to be far more competent and enabled for face-to-face combat than his supervisor and gets significantly more screen time, too. It is Petruchio’s unwillingness to fight his enemies head-on that primarily fuels Titus’ anger toward him and eventually leads to Titus’ promotion to Grand Master.
  • Gatehouse from The Shadow Line. While he's technically subordinate to the leaders of Counterpoint, he's the driving force of much of the plot, and he's undoubtedly the main antagonist. And in the end, he ends up killing his bosses and becoming a Dragon Ascendant.
  • Stargate SG-1: Lord Yu's First Prime, Oshu, ended up basically running Yu's domain for him after his master, the most ancient of the current crop of Goa'uld System Lords, began to go senile. Oshu stayed loyal to his master right up until they were both killed by the Replicators.
  • Super Sentai:
    • Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger: Chief of Staff Damaras to Prince Warz Gill. Damaras is The Strategist, a powerful warrior and a renowned military leader of Space Empire Zangyack. Warz is... "the Emperor's idiot son." As such, it's Damaras who poses the main threat on the Zangyack side most of the time and the one who plans out their more effective operations.
    • Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger: With Deboth sealed, Hundred-Faced High Priest Chaos leads the Deboth Army in his stead for the time being. When Deboth is properly revived he starts off a feral beast and Chaos still has to steer things. Eventually though, Deboth assumes his Transcendenterfly God form and is able to take full command of the army, subverting this trope.
  • At the end of the second V (1983) miniseries, Diana claims that she really was the driving force behind the Visitor invasion of Earth and that Admiral John was a useless figurehead who only held the crown. A disgusted John notes that she can have it, as it will only make her the queen of a poisoned realm after she annihilates all life on Earth with a nuclear bomb. She later ascends to Big Bad level in the weekly series.
  • The Vampire Diaries:
    • In Season 1, John Gilbert serves as this to the Founders Council.
    • Season 3's Big Bad Esther was menacing on her own, but she molds Alaric into this, combining his evil alter ego with mega-powerful vampirism. Alaric, when his good side is in control, kills Esther for threatening Jeremy and Matt, but Evil Alaric still tries to carry out her plan..
  • From Seasons 1-3 of The Wire, Stringer Bell. Stringer is technically second-in-command to Avon Barksdale (in their drug-trafficking operation) but is the brains of the organization and as early as the first season he is often (but not always) controlling the direction that their criminal empire goes. Some of the Barksdales' underlings liken Stringer to the Queen and Avon to the King in Chess, calling Stringer the "get shit done piece" who gets his hands dirty to keep Avon out of danger. During Avon's incarceration from the end of Season 1 until midway through Season 3, Stringer takes full control of all operations, and takes a number of actions that Avon would have never approved of while keeping Avon in the dark about what is happening. These orders include the secret murder of Avon's nephew D'Angelo, and making a treaty with Avon's hated enemy "Proposition Joe" Stewart. However after Avon gets out of prison in the third season and especially in the last few episodes, it's shown that Stringer is not as thoroughly in-control as he had imagined.

    Pro Wrestling 
  • This is a very common trope in wrestling, especially with the classic "Manager and Monster" dynamic used in classic examples like Bobby Heenan & André the Giant or Paul Heyman & Brock Lesnar (or anyone Heyman manages, really). While the Monster Heel will technically be subservient to and taking orders from the manager, and the manager might help his client out with dirty tricks, the manager is a Non-Action Big Bad in a medium all about action, so his monstrous client is clearly the real threat to overcome.
  • Faarooq was the leader of The Nation of Domination, but after taking in Rocky Maivia, he quickly found himself outshone by what he would become: the most electrifying man in all of entertainment, The Rock. After The Rock was awarded the Intercontinental Championship, he bought every single member of the Nation a Rolex watch, except for Faarooq, whom he gave a blown-up picture of the new champion. Faarooq wanted to kick him out as a result, but this only resulted in The Rock taking over the group and taking it in a new direction.
  • Kevin Sullivan may have been the leader of the Dungeon of Doom, but he was never among the more formiddable members. Meng was generally Sullivan's Dragon and could have easily been a Dragon in Chief if he'd wanted to, but despite being an uncontrollable monster, Meng wasn't an ambitious uncontrollable monster. The Giant, however, was a Dragon in Chief, and when Sullivan failed to treat The Giant with as much respect as The Giant wanted, he ditched the Dungeon for the nWo.
  • During the nWo angle in WCW, Eric Bischoff was clearly in charge of the nWo and served as their corporate guy and their mouthpiece, but Hollywood Hogan was also in charge, giving most of the orders, and getting the belt on him was one of the most important goals of the group.
  • Team No Respect was the brain child of FMW's deluded commissioner Kodo Fuyuki, but the men who actually ran the group were "The World Class Tag Team" Gedo and Jado.
  • While Christopher Daniels was the leader of The Prophecy, Xavier was the one to beat Low Ki for the Ring of Honor Championship belt, thus allowing for all title matches to be free of that pesky Code of Honor.
  • Perro Aguayo Jr. was a textbook example of being the "de facto" big bad. He was the one who ran Los Perros del Mal in CMLL, who later spread to AAA and eventually started their own promotion. However, it all went back to seemingly small time PDM player Héctor Garza, who turned Aguayo evil in the first place.
  • Awesome Kong for Raisha Saeed in TNA, and wherever else the two showed up together. Saeed seemed to be able to get Kong to follow her orders, partially because her plans usually ended up working, and partially out of sheer bossiness. Saeed directed ambushes, Saeed put together the Kongtourage, Saeed insisted Kong continue to attack opponents after matches had ended, and was the crazier of the two but also far less personally threatening. When Awesome Kong demanded an end to the entourage, there was no argument. When Saeed's plans stopped working, Kong dropped her... off the Impact stage, and went back to doing her own thing.
  • While Ric Flair was the driving force behind Fourtune, it being a group he started in the vein of The Four Horsemen, Flair was no longer an active wrestler. This made AJ Styles responsible for getting most of the actual work done, then Styles became the leader when Flair deserted the group, which then became Fortune.
  • AJ Styles was also the man to beat in Bullet Club, even though he was not the leader (that would be "Machine Gun" Karl Anderson, who was there more often) because he was the one to defeat Okada Kazuchika for the International Wrestling Grand Prix (IWGP) Heavyweight Title, while Karl Anderson was an IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champion.
  • Truth Martini had been running his house for twelve years up to that point, but the man responsible for bringing The House of Truth back into Ring of Honor was Jay Lethal, who began to overshadow Martini to the point Lethal's HOT membership became an afterthought when Donovan Dijak broke away from the group and put Martini in the hospital.
  • World Wrestling League President Richard Negrín is also the leader of The Gentlemen's Club, but it's doubtful anyone would be talking about his little stable if it wasn't for El Patron Alberto World Heavyweight Champion of not only WWL, but also AAA Mega Champion!
  • All Elite Wrestling has been doing a very slow burn towards this end with Dr. Britt Baker, D.M.D (AEW's woman's division's top heel) and Jamie Hayter, Baker's Dragon. Baker is booked to be fairly badass herself, and Hayter follows her lead without objection. However, several of Hayter's losses have been when interference by Baker and Rebel backfire, several of Baker's losses have been when Hayter wasn't around at all, and Hayter has clean victories over a couple women that Baker has always struggled with. Baker for her part treats Hayter as almost an equal and is very careful not to antagonize her.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Chess, the Queen is the most powerful and active of the chessmen. It has the most dangerous, dynamic and far-reaching moves and its capture can be a brilliant coup by the opposing player. Still, the game is not over nor lost until the relatively passive King surrenders or is immobilized via checkmate.
  • In the Freedom in the Galaxy boardgame, Redjac, the leader of the Imperial Knights, is that — although he takes care to let neither Puppet King Emperor Coreguya nor his Royal Brat daughter Thysa Kimbo become aware of it.
  • In Paranoia, one thing High Programmers worry about (besides everyone gunning for their job) is that some of their Violet-clearance underlings are instead conspiring to pull off this trope by tampering with the Ultraviolets' communications.

    Video Games 
  • Armello has Zosha, who is The Dreaded assassin for the Night Mother and is acting on her behalf. While Zosha is slated to also claim the throne for her employer, claiming it for herself is also up in the air.
  • Assassin's Creed:
    • Cesare Borgia from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. His father, Rodrigo, is the game's Big Bad, but Cesare is the most visible antagonist and the one that poses the biggest threat to the Assassins. He also believes Rodrigo lacks vision for being content with consolidating his power in Rome following his failures in the previous game, rather than proactively trying to conquer the rest of Italy. Like many of the examples on this page, he eventually kills his father and takes over as the proper Big Bad. Granted, this is about the time where all of his plans go to hell and back.
    • And in Assassin's Creed III: Charles Lee is this to Haytham Kenway. More like the other way around: Charles Lee is the figurehead and most prominent public figure the templars had, and he was the spearhead of his plans, displaying authority both with the general public and within the order itself, however, it was Haytham Kenway who came up with the ploy, appointed Lee on the position of power, but takes a backseat to the plan itself, merely aiding the templars on his own, much like the assassins player characters usually do.
  • In Batman: Arkham Origins it was originally said that mob boss Black Mask would be the Big Bad, but it turns out that The Joker had impersonated him and sent out the 50 million dollar bounty on Batman. One of the assassins, Bane, proves to be the most feared and ends up fighting him several times. And while the Joker could intimidate most of the other assassins, Bane was immune to his threats and threatened him in return (which the Joker found amusing). Notably, the true Final Boss is Bane for the third round, and the gameplay ends with you beating up Joker as a Post-Final Boss with mostly Action Commands.
  • Lord Yuna from Breath of Fire IV was one of the minions of Emperor Soniel, but the latter has all but an insignificant role in the story (in fact his only scene in the game has him getting killed by Fou-Lu), whereas Yuna is pretty much behind most of what happens.
  • Cannon Dancer: While Jack Layzon is technically the Big Bad and the reason Kirin is out for Revenge, he has no fighting skill whatsoever, and even dies in a cutscene, without fighting back. The three assassins he hired, all Kirin's former comrades, are the actual threat.
  • Castlevania: Death occasionally fulfills this role. Though Dracula is still considered the main villain of the series, it's often Death that helps to revive him and pose the major threat to the heroes.
  • Dawn of War:
    • Sindri. While Lord Bale appears to know about and share his goal, it is clear that Sindri is the one in charge. He is very disrespectful of Bale, at one point even being openly annoyed at him interrupting a ceremony. Even when Bale threatens him, he just responds sarcastically. But despite all this, Bale appears to think he is the one in charge. In the end he is betrayed and left to die, while Sindri reaches his goal alone, which was clearly the plan all along.
    • This dichotomy is played up again in Dawn Of War II: Retribution. Eliphas the Inheritor is the leader of the Chaos Warband, and sorcerer adviser Neroth (who even has the same voice actor as Sindri). In this case however, Eliphas is shown to actually be mostly competent, just occasionally more interested in self-preservation and personal power than the overall battle plan. Neroth hangs around to ensure he sticks to said plan. And when Eliphas gets too lippy, Abbadon the Despoiler psychically intrudes on their conversations to remind both of them who's really in charge.
    • Eliphas served as this role in the previous Dawn of War II expansion Chaos Rising as well. His master, Araghast the Pillager, is certainly a competent villain, but Eliphas successfully betrays him and proves to be more dangerous than he ever was.
    • Assuming you play as the Dark Eldar in Soulstorm Tahirl will play this role to the leader the Dark Heart Kabal, Asdrubael Vect, since Tahirl is the character the player controls and upgrades, and Vect won't even take part in a battle outside of the Dais of Destruction.
  • Namir is this to Zhao in Deus Ex: Human Revolution he is an effective, powerful, and plain-out scary fighter to his fragile boss.
  • Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening's Vergil to Arkham. While Arkham manipulates Vergil and does out-gambit him, it's blatantly obvious in the storyline that he was nothing without Vergil backing him. As soon as Arkham makes his move and gains Sparda's power... he degenerates from a copy of Sparda into a near-mindless demonic blob. His powers are easily destroyed by both of Sparda's twins and he's summarily shot by Lady.
  • In Devil Survivor, if you go the morally ambiguous Naoya Route, Naoya becomes this to you (not that you're exactly incompetent without him). You are the one who is going to become the King of Bel, but you don't actually start calling the shots until Babel is defeated at the end of the 7th day; Naoya is the one who makes the plans and gets you to where you need to be.
  • In the Dragon Age: Origins DLC The Darkspawn Chronicles, the Hurlock Vanguard arguably counts, as it is the one that leads the Darkspawn offensive and defeats the alliance created by King Alistair, while the actual leader of the horde, the Archdemon, is too preoccupied doing battle with Alistair to really take part in the active conflict. In the game proper, it and the Hurlock Emissary are closer to CoDragons, as both lead the Darkspawn army.
  • Dragon Quest V: While King Korol is the High Priest of the Order of Zwugzwang, Ladja very much gives off the impression that he is the true force behind it and is thus the direct antagonist for most of the game. This is further proven when he effortlessly destroys Korol after he fails his mission.
  • In The Elder Scrolls series, this is the case for the Dark Brotherhood, an illegal organization of assassins whose membership mostly takes a sadistic glee in killing and who practice a Religion of Evil. Because the Night Mother is the "official" leader of the Dark Brotherhood, the Listener (the one she communicates with from the Void) is in charge of the organization but is technically subordinate to the Night Mothernote .
  • EXTRAPOWER: Star Resistance: Mensouma is one of Co-Dragons of Dark Force. But as Dark Force isn't fought in this game's story, Mensouma is functionally this. He is the more capable Dragon between him and Undata and is the last member of the Dark Force Army fought in game, as the boss at the end of Stage 5 and technically through stage 6 when he takes control of the Shakun Star central computer. For characters whose rival fight is at the end of Stage 4, this technically makes him their final boss too.
  • Fallout:
    • Fallout 2 has Frank Horrigan serving as this to President Richardson, the head of the Enclave. President Richardson, despite being the Big Bad, is weak, gullible and naïve, while Horrigan is a ten-foot-tall, near invincible, homicidal maniac. He's also a rare example of The Dragon aspect of this trope being played completely straight, as Horrigan is completely devoted to the Enclave's genocidal agenda.
    • Fallout 3 has Colonel Augustus Autumn, who serves as this to Enclave President John Henry Eden and a foil to Frank Horrigan. Most of the Enclave is loyal to him, and won't hesitate to disobey orders from the President himself to obey Autumn. He's also willing to countermand Eden's authority if he thinks Eden's decisions aren't in the best interest of the Enclave. At the same time, his dialogue during the final battle suggests he's not personally interested in taking over the Enclave himself, and his disobedience of Eden's orders are much more in the vein of "loyal opposition". That changes if you reveal the extent of Eden's insane plans to him, though.
    • Fallout: New Vegas: You can be this, should you side with Mister House. If you end the game with Evil Karma, the ending slide even states that House "afforded [the Courier] with every luxury at his disposal in the Lucky 38, partly out of gratitude, and partly out of fear."
  • Final Fantasy:
    • Seemingly invoked with Final Fantasy IV, where despite Baron and the King being the enemy for the first third of the game, it's Golbez, the captain of the Red Wings, that everyone is worried about. However, it later turns out not even Golbez is the real bad guy, but Zemus. Golbez was actually brainwashed. Golbez subverts the trope with regards to Baron; as it turns out, he had the King killed and replaced with one of his subordinates by the time the player returns to it. Thus, Golbez was in charge the whole time, hence he's assumed to be the presumed Big Bad for most of the game.
    • Gestahl in Final Fantasy VI is The Emperor of The Empire, but it's Kefka, his court mage, who leads the Imperial forces in every run-in you have with them. He goes on to become a Dragon Ascendant by kicking Gestahl to a Disney Villain Death (after humiliating him by having the Warring Triad zap him with lightning) before absorbing the powers of the Warring Triad to become a god.
    • In Final Fantasy X, though it turns out all of Yevon is evil and corrupt, before and after this it's Seymour who serves as the game's main villain besides Sin. Sin itself is also this in a way, being the beast the game centers around before The Reveal that Sin (or rather, the current incarnation of Sin) is just Jecht as the Final Aeon under the control of Yu Yevon. Even before he unveils his true agenda, Seymour is Mika's.
    • Final Fantasy XII, Emperor Gramis is the leader of the Arcadians, but everyone is worried about Vayne, Gramis' son and a ruthless, power-hungry politician that has everyone worried about another war. He eventually kills Gramis and assumes the throne.
  • Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War: Prince Julius. He's being manipulated by Manfroy and was specifically "bred" by him for his plot to resurrect the dark god. The point being for Julius to eventually take his rightful place as the dark god for himself... which he does, seizing all effectual control of his kingdom and acting as the game's Final Boss. (It's technically subverted in the final chapter where he outlives his father Arvis, who was a contender for the Big Bad role. Manfroy, on the other hand, either is killed prior to fighting him, or dies in a cutscene should the player ignore the plotted line and somehow kills Julius without the Naga tome -such as by berserking the nearby Elite Mook carrying a HP to 1 spell-).
  • Played with in God of War II; the Sisters of Fate are older and said to be even mightier than Zeus, as their power to manipulate fate is unchallenged and their decree unquestioned — it was them who declared that the Titans would lose the Great War against the Olympians. It just so happens they benefit Zeus the most. Its only after defeating them that Zeus can be confronted.
  • You as Aldo Trapani in The Godfather: The Game sit on the line between The Dragon-normal and this. While you're undeniably loyal to Michael and he's the one with the plan, he's no active gunfighter like Sonny. Since It's Up to You, his plans would surely fall apart without you to help pull triggers as needed. For that matter, if you accept it as Canon, much of the actual movie couldn't have happened without you being in the right place to help out the characters.
  • The Shadow Dancers in the Gradius series. Most of them are usually confronted just before the Final Boss, but due to them always going down without very little effort, these serve as the psuedo-Final Boss of each game.
  • Grand Theft Auto:
    • III: The game’s Villain Protagonist Claude, is a pretty effective enforcer for his bosses, be it Salvatore Leone, the Kasens or Donald Love. However it's implied that Claude is using them more as a means to his own ends - his revenge quest against Catalina - than the other way around. Notably, he helps Donald Love start a war between the Yakuza and the Cartel and has a tendency to turn against and even kill some of his bosses. When Asuka Kasen learns of Claude's history and vendetta towards Catalina, it becomes more like the Yakuza are helping Claude in his fight than the other way around.
    • Vice City: It’s own Villain Protagonist Tommy Vercetti starts out as one top enforcers for the antagonist Sonny Forelli, and was sent to Vice City in the first place to run a drug trade on Forelli's behalf. Throughout the game, Tommy branches off on his own, becoming the kingpin of Vice City, while Forelli spends most of the game in Liberty City, being duped over by Tommy. When Forelli finally goes after Tommy for branching out, Tommy kills Sonny almost as soon as he shows up. It also turns out Sonny threw Tommy under the bus years earlier, because he feared Tommy would turn against him and had growing power and reputation in Liberty City's underworld. Which ironically cemented Tommy's disloyalty to Sonny.
    • Liberty City Stories: Massimo Torini is the mastermind and overseer of the Sicilian Mafia's invasion of Liberty City. However, he is the Caporegime under Salvatore Leone's uncle, the actual Don of the Sicilian's. The Mob War and just about every conflict in the games second half can be traced back to Torini's manipulations, and his influence makes it so Toni Cipriani and Salvatore can’t go after him until Torini starts gunning for them. Salvatore's uncle only gets involved once in the whole game; arriving from Sicily to make sure everything is square with his nephew once Torini is killed.
    • IV: The game's antagonist Dimitri Rascalov was this to it's Disc-One Final Boss, Mikhail Faustian, under Liberty City's Russian mob. While Faustian is an emotionally unstable, hotheaded and short sighted man, Dimitri appears to be a more pragmatic and competent second in command. Dimitri soon facilitates Faustian's murder; ostensibly because Faustian having the son of a more influential mobster killed, but in actuality so that Dimitri can usurp control from Faustian. Afterwards, Dimitri becomes a more prominent figure in the Russian mob, bringing them into power in Liberty City, when he's not going out of his way to antagonize Niko.
    • V: The three protagonists Michael, Trevor and Franklin, end up being this to the two main antagonists, Steve Haines and Devin Weston, who they have to do several jobs for. Steve and Devin are virtually helpless without the protagonists on their side, and later make the mistake of going over Michael and Trevor. The conflict between Michael and Trevor has more effect on the plot than either antagonist. It should be noted, Steve or Devin can only win in endings were Michael or Trevor are killed; and even then, they need help from Franklin, who can Take a Third Option, which is getting Michael and Trevor to make amends, at which point they go after the antagonists. It's later revealed this third option is canon.
  • In Halo Wars, the Arbiter Ripa 'Moramee is the main villain, while subordinate to the Prophet of Regret. His orders come the Prophet, but he commands enough authority as a general to be as much of a military threat, and is far more powerful physically as well. Fortunately for Regret, 'Moramee is a straight example of this trope, fanatically and unwaveringly loyal to the Hierarch and the Covenant he stands for. Regret himself isn't fought until the events of Halo 2, as a Disc-One Final Boss.
  • In Jade Empire, Death's Hand is believed by Silk Fox to be controlling her father, Emperor Sun Hai, and that he is the one responsible for all the atrocities committed by the Lotus Assassins. But, as it turns out, the Emperor is actually making everyone think this in order to obfuscate his own agenda. Death's Hand has no free will, it's all her father's doing after all. He is, however, a pawn of Master Sun Li, his brother.
  • L.A. Noire: The Suburban Redevelopment Fund is a conspiracy to extort millions from the Government by Leland Monroe. While Monroe is the leader of their syndicate, his new recruit Dr. Harlan Fontaine, quickly becomes the syndicate's key planner, and is less afraid to get his hands dirty than Monroe; arranging for homes to be set on fire to buy out their lands, and one of LA's top drug distributors. Fontaine is more level headed and ruthless than Monroe, and keeps nearly everyone in the dark about his involvement; Monroe is considerably ineffective when he goes after the protagonists, being put out of commission by Jack Kelso, almost immediately after trying to have him killed.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Cole might be a servant of Malladus, but he's the one running his faction's plans while the demon is sealed. Even when Malladus is freed, he has to sit out the action and leave things to Cole due to his not being used to Zelda's body.
  • In Lost Eden, the Tyrann, not Moorkus Rex, are the genuine threat. Moorkus Rex never leaves his lair, lies literally every time he opens his maw, and underneath the fearsome exterior is a tiny little mouse, which the tablets reveal at the end.
  • A variation occurs in Mass Effect, as it is revealed later on that Saren Arterius is not actually the Big Bad in control of an invincible ship, but the ship Sovereign is the true villain and Saren only its Dragon. To outsiders it would seem that Sovereign is a Dragon in Chief, but they both knew that Sovereign was the master and Saren just his most valuable minion. By the time of the sequel, two years of 'verse time later, nobody believes that Sovereign was in charge. Everybody's back to blaming Saren for everything, not seeing the threat that's staring at them.
  • Metal Gear:
    • Ocelot could be the trope example in the page description. Not only does he trick his supposed allies into believing they are in charge not one, not two, but three times, he also does it in only two games! (Liquid, Gurlukovich, Solidus) In the third game he's a Dragon with an Agenda but really just got the Big Bad's trust to steal from him. In the fourth game, he takes the role of the actual Big Bad but not to much surprise at this point, he isn't. He's not the trope creator of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder for nothing. In the first game he may have genuinely wanted Liquid to succeed. He certainly did nothing to stop him, and his only "treachery" was not being there at the end (fat lot of good he would have done with only one hand), and selling the Metal Gear design to various countries after the events of the game are over, something that might actually have furthered Liquid's goal anyway. At one point he tells Snake that he greatly admires Liquid and that he is the one man who can make his dreams come true, and while he lies and says the dream is the revival of Mother Russia, he does briefly admit that his real motivations was to reignite conflict because it was the only thing that allowed humanity's emotions to be revealed, something he feels the current age was suppressing, which are actually very similar to Liquid's goals, or more specifically Big Boss's goals.
    • Liquid himself fits this trope too, if only in spirit, in regards to Big Boss (even though he technically isn't Big Boss's dragon due to Big Boss being dead/in a coma/in hiding during the events of the game). Although he intends to bring about Big Boss's dream, he hates Big Boss for his role in his creation, and also implies that he's really only bringing about Big Boss's goal in order to further tarnish his already soured reputation ("Now I'll finish the work that father began. I will surpass him... I will destroy him!").
    • In fact, Liquid once saved the world with the help of Dragon-in-Chief Psycho Mantis... then he almost destroyed it. To elaborate, in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Psycho Mantis effectively becomes the Dragon when Skull Face used him as the control system for Metal Gear Sahelanthropus, a perfected humanoid Metal Gear with nuclear launch and nuclear kamikaze attacks. This effectively gave Psycho Mantis the most power in XOF, but Skull Face wasn't worried because Psycho Mantis' powers enslaved him to whoever had the most hatred in their psyche, and Skull Face was living hatred... until Liquid came along, filled with rage at recently learning he was a defective copy of Big Boss (truth was more complicated) and had a better hatred projection due to the lack of myelin sheaths in his neurons. So the Dragon-in-Chief defected to an even worse villain, Liquid, and helped him in his plans to repair Sahelanthropus and escape from Diamond Dogs, before setting up a showdown with Diamond Dogs and XOF on a remote island with the end goal of Liquid killing Big Boss himself.
  • General Korbut in Metro: Last Light. While he's "merely" the head of the Red Line's military and therefore a subordinate of the communist state's leader Moskvin, he's the one who organized all the events of the story, including the final assault on the Rangers' main base at the end of the game. He's also responsible for putting Moskvin in power in the first place, having orchestrated the death of the Red Line's previous leader to install Moskvin, and uses this knowledge to make Moskvin comply with his plans.
  • Klim of Metro Exodus's Sam's Story. Tom is the obvious leader of his own gang, but Klim, his right-hand, is the one who runs the whole events of the DLC in the first place. Having plans to depose Tom and take the U.S.S. Mayflower by force to start another nuclear war, he is the overall main threat to Tom, Sam and Baranov.
  • Surprisingly, the Genma Triumvirate of Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams are both this and not at the same time. They fit as The Dragons of Hideyoshi, but it is clear early on that they're simply using him as a means to an end and revive their god who they're truly The Dragons to.
  • Red Dead Redemption II: While the game's key conflict is the downfall of the Van Der Linde gang, especially their leader Dutch, Micah Bell ends up being the ultimate antagonist. Micah is the most vicious of the Van Der Linde gang, lacking any of their virtues, whilst manipulating the increasingly unstable and short sighted Dutch following his partner Hosea's death. Besides being the proverbial Devil on Dutch's shoulder, all but running the gang through a despondent Dutch, Michah plans on selling the gang out to the Pinkertons, before branching out and starting his own gang. While Michah is soon killed by John Marston, the aftermath of his betrayals and manipulations carry on well after his death, with former members such as Dutch, Bill and Javier as murderous shadows of their former selves.
  • In Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, Sergei Vladimir is the de facto Big Bad, carrying out Evil Cripple Ozwell Spencer's orders for him. When Sergei dies, Spencer is left with no allies and no support, and in the following game, is killed by Wild Card and series Big Bad Albert Wesker.
  • Saints Row:
    • Tanya Winters and Warren Williams in Saints Row and Chief Monroe to an extent. While Benjamin King is the long time Vice Kings leader, Tanya and Warren have exerted significant control over the gang, respectively with their prostitution ring and record label. Chief Monroe pulls many strings in Stilwater by sharing a lucrative agreement with the Vice Kings, and at the end of the game getting the player to do their dirty work.
    • The Boss in the first game is much, much tougher than Julius, so much so that Julius tries to kill them because he's so frightened of their growing power.
  • Shin Super Robot Wars: In the Earth Route, Lu Cain gives orders to the Ze Balmary Empire, but gets his orders from Laodecia. In fact, Laodecia never makes an appearance in the Earth Route.
  • Galcian in Skies of Arcadia. He is subordinate to Empress Teodora, but he's the biggest threat to the protagonists, has more military support from their nation and kills her to become the main villain proper.
  • First Kar'Ukan in Star Trek Online is a de-facto version, with Loriss as a Non-Action Big Bad. Technically, being Dominion, they are all under the Founders, but circumstances have cut them off from that, leaving them to operate on their own. Loriss, as a Vorta, speaks for the Founders, making her Kar'Ukan's superior, but he (being a Jem'Hadar First) is the military leader and much more physically imposing. The military leader aspect becomes important when the Federation arranges for a Founder to show up and order them to stand down. Loriss complies and transports to the Founder, Kar'Ukan refuses and orders a last stand, with his Jem'Hadar following his lead.
  • Sword of Mana and Final Fantasy Adventure: Dark Lord rules The Empire, but he is simply a powerful but mundane Black Knight. His archmage Julius is the one providing the knowledge and magic necessary for Dark Lord's plans to gain the Mana Tree's power. And does just fine carrying out those plans alone once Dark Lord is dead.
  • In Tenchu Z, Shigi is much more of a threat than his boss, Lord Ogawara, and pretty much the actual antagonist in the game. While the latter is no slouch in combat skills, Shigi has just stronger and better ninja tricks up his sleeves.
  • Touhou Project:
    • Touhou Eiyashou ~ Imperishable Night: Eirin Yagokoro serves under Kaguya Houraisen, but is the mastermind behind the game's events and is much stronger than Kaguya, although she holds back her power out of respect for her mistress. She even has a tougher boss fight than Kaguya in-game.
    • The second-to-last bosses of most 'games are some kind of Number Two to the last boss, but in Double Dealing Character, the last boss, Shinmyoumaru, is an innocent child and the second-to-last boss, Seija, is a Treacherous Advisor who tricked her into causing chaos. Shinmyoumaru is apprehended by the heroes as every previous last boss has been, but Seija escapes to star in her own Gaiden Game, her fate uncertain.
  • Cecile in WinBack. Also The Starscream.
  • In Wadanohara, the traitor Sal/Syake-san is more of a direct threat to the heroes, and kick-started the game's plot in the first place. The traitor is a more personal villain to Wadanohara and Samekichi, while their employer wants revenge on Princess Uomi. This is mostly justified as he is the only Dead Sea inhabitant who wasn't sealed away.
  • World of Warcraft:
    • Deathwing in Cataclysm. The Old Gods are the real Big Bad, but due to their imprisonment by the Titans, they can't use the bulk of their power and are mostly limited to slowly corrupting and influencing the inhabitants of Azeroth. Deathwing presents a much more immediate threat with his titular Cataclysm, and is the driving force of the expansion's plot, to the point where he's the Big Bad of the expansion while the Old Gods are a distant Greater-Scope Villain. Unlike most examples of this trope, however, Deathwing actually is loyal to his masters. Also, he happens to be a literal dragon.
    • In Warlords of Draenor, Blackhand is the Dragon-in-Chief to Grom Hellscream. Though technically only the second-in-command of the Iron Horde, he leads the strongest clan and owns the foundry that crafts their war machines. When he takes to the field personally in Talador, he kills both Vindicator Maraad and Orgrim Doomhammer. His eventual death in the Blackrock Foundry also marks the point where the Iron Horde begins to fall apart; without him, their remaining forces crumble and the surviving warlords betray Grom and join Gul'dan in a desperate attempt to save themselves from the heroes' forces. It is also worth noting that in the main timeline, Blackhand did outrank Grom, so Grom being made Warchief over him is likely just a result of Garrosh's meddling.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! Reshef of Destruction, while Reshef is the overarching threat, he's also a Sealed Evil in a Can. His servant Sol Chevalsky leads the villains to kill/defeat the protagonist and revive Reshef.

    Visual Novels 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • The final villain of the second Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game, Matt Engarde, does not dirty his own hands, but rather, hires an assassin to carry out his murder plot. The assassin himself is a very gentlemanly and honorable person, which helps tie up the case for Phoenix.
    • For most of Ace Attorney Investigations 2, there are two rivals opposing you- the prosecutor Yumichiko Ichiyanagi/Sebastian Debeste and the judge Hakari Mikagami/Justine Courtney. While Ichiyanagi is nominally in charge of the investigation, he's an incompetent idiot whose arguments are usually nonsensical and easy to tear apart unless Mikagami is feeding them to him. She's far more dangerous, both in that she's a whole lot smarter and that she presents more of a threat to Edgeworth.
  • Gilgamesh in Fate/stay night. He is vastly more powerful than Kotomine, the actual Big Bad of the Fate route, and he is by far the greater threat to the heroes. When he dies in Heaven's Feel, Kotomine lacks the capacity to carry through with his plans on his own. In Unlimited Blade Works, he becomes the Big Bad after Kotomine is killed. Atypically, Kotomine is still probably more effective as the Big Bad, because he is a cunning and ruthless planner, whereas Gilgamesh's massive ego prevents him from using his power effectively most of the time.

    Web Animation 

  • RWBY: Played With regarding Adam Taurus. While he’s below White Fang’s High Leader, Sienna Khan, Adam was the de-facto face of the organization, overshadowing her as a “hero” to the Faunus. While Sienna initially encouraged Adam's violence, Adam became a lot more extreme than Sienna, opting for Faunus supremacy over Kahn’s goals for equality. When Sienna tries to rein him in, Adam murders her and usurps the White Fang completely. Where this gets played with is, while Adam is a lot more ruthless than the pragmatic Sienna, he’s not as competent. Prioritizing his vendetta against Blake over the actual cause, Adam being hot headed and short sighted, as well as his betrayal's selfishness leads to him being ousted from the White Fang, entirely.

  • Captain Adrian Snow of Archipelago is definitely The Heavy, The Protagonist has a personal beef with him, and he officially leads the villains while the Non-Action Big Bad remains sealed away. In the end, Snow eats him and becomes The Big Bad until he's finally defeated.
  • Darths & Droids restores Darth Vader to this position (see the Star Wars example above in the movies section) by making Palpatine a good man who (through Vader's manipulation of both him and the Jedi Council) evolves into a Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • Deconstructed in the prequel book The Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness, which shows what happens when a villain is nominally subservient to a Well-Intentioned Extremist. Xykon is initially The Dragon to Redcloak: despite being more brutish and less intelligent than his "boss", over the course of the story he evolves from The Dragon to Dragon-in-Chief to Big Bad, by virtue of his total lack of moral compunction... though the fact that he's a lich with access to a wide array of arcane spells while Redcloak is a mere (albeit high-level) mortal cleric might help, too.

      In the comic proper they have a complicated relationship. Redcloak is the one Xykon's hobgoblin army recognizes as their leader, despite Xykon being more powerful and the de facto boss. And there are definitely hints that Redcloak will turn into The Starscream once their goals irreconcilably diverge (meaning when ritual to control one of the Gates is carried out; once that's done and Redcloak's god has control of the Gate, it won't actually matter if Xykon kills him on the spot, he'll still have won). On the flip-side, Xykon is far more powerful, dangerous and evil, and has shown more cunning than Redcloak gives him credit for. Further, Redcloak is visibly horrified when he realizes he's becoming more like Xykon, and regards working with him an extremely unpleasant necessary evil. Also, Redcloak himself is The Heavy for The Dark One, his Greater-Scope Villain God of Evil, so he is technically The Dragon to somebody else.
    • Within the Empire of Blood, General Tarquin holds this position: the Empress (an actual dragon) is more concerned about where her next meal is coming from. Tarquin's band of six adventurers fills this in various places all over the western continent. Each of them prop up governments and switch around as the situation demands. Since kingdoms in the region are routinely overthrown, the group preempts this by doing the "overthrowing" themselves, i.e. killing off their current figureheads periodically and installing new ones.
    • Tarquin himself has his own Dragon-in-Chief, but it's unusual in that Malack is his appointed successor, and Tarquin fully expects him to take over as the Empress' Dragon-in-Chief. He just wants a bigger statue.
  • Weak Hero:
    • Donald's not technically in charge of the Yeongdeungpo Union, but his boss Chungil is so impressed with his talents that he allows Donald free reign. In fact, Chungil doesn't even show up outside of phone calls until the third season, and even then he still only acts a supervisor while Donald does all the heavy lifting.
    • Forrest served as Number Two for Hyeongshin High up until Myles Joo was excommunicated by the Union, after which he becomes the new Number One and reveals that he was the one who was keeping things running anyway- Myles was no more than a figurehead.

    Western Animation 
  • In Adventures of the Gummi Bears episode, "Toadie the Conqueror", when Igthorn seeks out a legendary suit of invincible armor, only to discover its pint-sized (it wasn't said, but apparently the original wearer was a midget), Toadworth dons it and gains its power. Igthorn has Toadworth Curbstomp the forces of Dunwyen and Igthorn takes over easily. However, once Toadworth realizes he's now more powerful than Igthorn and reflects on all the abuse he's received from the Duke up to that point, he pulls a The Dog Bites Back combined with Dragon Ascendant. Fortunately, thanks to Zummi, things go back to status quo by the end.
  • Amphibia: Since the Core lacks a good host to move around before it takes over Marcy, King Andrias takes center stage as the out-and-out main threat. In the lead-up to the final battle with him and his army, none of the heroes are aware of the Core's existence beyond Mother's Olm's vague explanations to Sasha and Anne, because she herself doesn't fully understand what it is, and as far as everybody outside his palace knows, Andrias is the main threat and driving force behind the invasion, when in actuality, he's merely the physical agent of the Core's will before it becomes Darcy.
  • Barry Dylan in Archer is this to Odin head, Len Trexler and later Nikoli Jakov, head of the KGB. More so to the latter. He is the Arch-Enemy of Sterling Archer, and when he is in Jakov's services, he eventually becomes a cyborg and plots to ruin Archer's life. To get support for this, he usurps Jakov as head of the KGB, and has his men hunt Jakov down, event though as we see later, Barry is more then capable of hunting him down himself. It turns out his motive for this is to hurt Archer who was bonding with Jakov under the assumption that Jakov was Archer's father. Then after he steals Archer's One True Love, she takes on this role before usurping him officially.
  • In the 2006 revival of Biker Mice from Mars, the Catatonian army that replaces Lawrence Limburger, Dr. Karbunkle, and Greasepit as the main villains is led by Hannibal T. Hairball, a diminutive runt who is so stupid that it's a mystery how he got in charge. His older brother Cataclysm, on the other hand, is his second-in-command, but is the one who usually gives orders because he's a lot smarter than his brother.
  • Black Knight from the third season of Generator Rex has this relationship with her superiors, the Consortium. On paper, she is the Consortium's subordinate and is carrying out their Evil Plan. In actuality, Black Knight is running the show. She has control over Providence, calls all the shots, and it becomes clear that she could easily take over anytime she wants to. In fact, she does just that in the Grand Finale, with the Consortium being unable to do anything about it.
  • In the spin-off of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy Underfist: Halloween Bash, there is Bun Bun who actually leads on Alpha Bitch Mindy into taking over the world on his account by manipulating her feelings and letting her act as if she in charge.
  • Shego of Kim Possible is almost this to Drakken. The only thing that stops her fulfilling all the criteria is that for most of the series, she lacks the ambition to become the bigger threat — she (mostly) helps Drakken carry out his schemes rather than invent and execute any of her own. But we know she has the power to completely overthrow Drakken if she wants to — see A Sitch in Time. What stops her is that Drakken is a significant threat in his own right, and still drives the plot of most of their stories. Without her around he's somewhat less competent, but that's just as likely to make him even more dangerous as his plans are more likely to Go Horribly Wrong (case in point, creating advanced killer robots that end up turning on him). He is more scientifically savvy than Shego — she just has a lot more common sense and can actually fight on a near-equal level with Kim.
  • Skeletor is Demoted to Dragon in The New Adventures of He-Man, since he has to ally with a pre-established army, the Evil Mutants led by Flogg, upon his arrival to the Tri-Solar Galaxy. However, Skeletor manipulates Flogg so much that he may well be still in charge. An episode where the Mutants go to invade Primus while Skeletor goes his own way to face He-Man has a piece of dialogue that pretty much sums up the relationship between Skeletor and Flogg:
    Flogg: When you return, I will be King of Primus!
    Skeletor: [to himself] No, Flogg, when I return, you will be mine. Primus will be mine. The whole Tri-Solar Galaxy will be mine! And He-Man will not be.
  • The Simpsons:
    • Parodied in "C.E.Doh" . It turns out Mr. Burns is actually the de-facto head of the Nuclear Power Plant. He placed a Canary as the head of the power plant, that way if he got the Plant in trouble, the Canary would take the fall. Homer lets the canary go and Mr. Burns eventually become the official head of the Plant before returning ownership to Burns and holding an "Everything is Back to Normal BBQ".
    • Played straight with Fat Tony. He's the second-in-command of the Springfield Mafia under Don Vittorio DiMaggio, but DiMaggio appears so rarely that Tony might as well be The Don himself.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Occasionally, the lieutenants of designated Arc Villains fall into this:
    • The most notable is General Kalani to King Sanjay Rash in the Onderon arc. Rash is pathetically inept as a leader, while Kalani is a much more competent and dangerous threat, to the point he could have won the war had General Tandin not undergone a Heel–Face Turn. Once the war is declared lost, Kalani even shoots Rash dead without being ordered.
    • After the death of Minister Lom, the Pyke Syndicate is run by Marg Krim. Krim happens to be Weak-Willed enough to be vulnerable to a Jedi Mind Trick, while his majordomo Fife is much more strong-willed, competent and on-the-ball.
  • Star Wars Rebels: Grand Admiral Thrawn is, on-paper, a subordinate to Governor Pryce. However, due to Thrawn's peerless strategic genius, he ends up being the far bigger threat to the nascent Rebel Alliance. Later on, when Pryce makes a mistake that has the potential to irreparably derail Thrawn's long-term plan for victory in the war, and then throws a parade to distract from it, he throws all pretenses about being her subordinate out the window, seething that she will be dealt with by him in time. The only officials he's shown answering to are Tarkin and the Emperor himself, and even then he seems to have enough authority to act with impunity.
  • Nihilus, the Roman Centurion, from The Story Keepers plays an incredibly obvious version of this trope to Emperor Nero. While Nero gives orders, Nihilus is much smarter and more cunning than his Emperor and he is more of a direct threat to Ben the baker and the children. When they escape Rome, Nero no longer is a threat to them while Nihilus keeps pursuing them.
  • Black Beetle to the Reach Ambassador in Young Justice (2010). The Ambassador is Magnificent Bastard and in the Bad Future he's shown have succeeded in conquering Earth and pulling an Eviler than Thou on The Light, but he's still a Non-Action Big Bad, while Black Beetle could defeat most of the protagonists on his own. Black Beetle serves the Ambassador out of law and tradition, but when it's clear the Ambassador's schemes have failed the Beetle effortlessly deposes him and takes over the Reach delegation.