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Gravity Is a Harsh Mistress

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"I know this defies the law of gravity, but, eh... You see, I never studied law."

Sometimes gravity doesn't work. Or doesn't work immediately. Or evenly. Or fairly. This takes the following forms:

  • Gravitational Cognizance: A character will not fall until they realize they should be falling. For example, running unknowingly off the edge of a cliff — or walking on the underside of a diving board. Especially dense or focused characters may need to have another character point out their vulnerability. This will also likely happen when someone tells them, "Don't Look Down!"
    • An occasional variant has a character, upon realizing their situation, desperately start scrambling back where they came from, often managing to reach the original ledge before gravity can notice. Some characters may even be able to run all the way across to the other side without gravity affecting them, as long as they're not made aware of their physics-defying adventure.
    • In some platforming video games, this is an actual game mechanic. Often dubbed "Coyote Time" in honor of poor Wile E. Coyote himself, the concept is an aid to make platforming a little less frustrating and feel a bit better to control by allowing players an almost imperceptible amount of time to jump even after they've gone off a ledge (the period where players more often than not don't realize they've already gone off the ledge before they pressed the jump button to begin with), making timing jumps a bit more forgiving.
  • Creeping Gravity: Also known as Gravity Waves. Gravity will affect a character's body in sections i.e. legs, then torso and finally head. The character will demonstrate neither tissue damage nor pain as a result of this distortion, only on hitting the ground.note 
  • Varying Gravity:
    • On more than one occasion in some cartoons, a character who was falling to earth gently via parachute was handed an anvil... by another character who was falling at the exact same rate... and immediately went into a terminal velocity plunge.
    • Characters will fall faster than a dense object — ensuring that the object lands on them. Everything falls faster than an anvil.
    • Sometimes gravity will even shift around the relative positions of objects. For example, a character and an anvil are falling side-by-side, when suddenly the anvil starts falling a bit slower and moves laterally so it is now directly above the character's head.
  • Dramatic Gravity: Reactions can vary depending on how gravity can be suspended. One example is a character will be suspended from the gravity just enough time to give one last comment to your opponent. Said gravity can also be suspended while a badly spooked character bobs up and down in mid-air while screaming.
  • Out on a Limb: Gravity is less powerful than other physical forces, including friction, tension, torsion and all the rest. Static electricity appears to be the most powerful physical force. This allows objects to be stacked on top of each other across an unlimited space or height, maintaining stability even if the branch or beam they are standing on is sawed in half, so long as the pieces are touching. This also allows characters to balance an unlimited number of objects in their hands.
  • Counter-intuitive Gravity: Items which should fall don't, when items that shouldn't, do.
    • The traditional case is a character chased up a tree and out onto a limb, as above. It is reasonable for them to trust their weight to a branch while the chaser is cutting through it, because sawing the branch off will make the tree fall. The section being removed (and the character on it) remains suspended in mid-air while the rest of the item (plus whatever object or structure had been supporting it) falls, presumably forever.note  Diving boards and bridges are also prone to this effect. This is also why sawing a hole in the floor from below someone's feet may not pan out the way you expect.

The trope is named for a line from The Tick, riffing on the title of the novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, which is in turn a play on the sailors' saying "The sea is a harsh mistress", which probably goes back to The Bible "The Law is a harsh master" (Romans 7, 1-6).

See also Gravity Is Only a Theory, Variable Terminal Velocity, Not the Fall That Kills You…, Gravity Sucks. Gravity as a "power" that is easy to create is covered by Artificial Gravity and Gravity Master.


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  • A variation can be found in this 1991 ad for Nissin Cup Noodles. The moa jumps out of the way before the humans reach it, leading to them running off the cliff; then, when the moa stomps its foot, they fall.

  • GG Bond: In a Season 5 episode, GG Bond emerges from a bathroom rocket flying through the air and doesn't notice for a few seconds that he's not standing on anything, only falling when he does realize he's in midair.
  • Happy Heroes: In Season 2 episode 21, Big M. jumps through an open window to escape from the Supermen's dorm. Big M. doesn't realize he's too high up in the building to land safely until Little M. points this out, at which point the slow-motion jump is interrupted by him falling to the ground abruptly.
  • Motu Patlu: In "Pilot Training", Motu runs off the flying car and into the air to grab his mango from a bird that has taken it. Motu does not realize he's in midair until the bird motions toward the ground to indicate this, and he falls only after realizing this.
  • Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: In Pleasant Goat Sports Game episode 4, Dark Handsomey and White Handsomey fall for a trick from Wolffy and Wolnie that involves them being sent through a fake stadium that's actually a cardboard cutout, leaving them walking over the edge of a cliff. It takes them a few seconds to notice they're standing in midair, at which point they actually fall to the ground.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Doraemon: Nobita and the Island of Miracles ~Animal Adventure~ have Nobisuke accidentally walking off a cliff while trying to hide from the villains, and staying in mid-air for a few seconds until he realize he's not touching anything. Then he drops. But luckily a sleeping saber-toothed tiger is there to break his fall.
  • In GO-GO Tamagotchi! episode 7a, when Mametchi and co are traversing the maze-ified Tamagotchi School, Miraitchi walks out of a doorway and onto thin air for a couple of seconds before noticing and quickly running back through where she came, colliding into the others when she does.
  • Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade: Akko and Sucy, while flying a broom in tandem to avoid the giant's hands, manage to evade its attacks by rapidly climbing upwards... only to find that the giant has swatted their broom away from them.
  • Some episodes of Pokémon have this trope occurring at one point. Even the bonus clips from the Japanese version of Sun and Moon aren't safe; during the bonus clip after the episode where Nebby is introduced, Ash's Pikachu notices Nebby crawling towards the edge and leaps to grab Nebby, only to overshoot his jump, leaving poor Pikachu floating in midair for a good few seconds, then flailing and screaming before gravity finally takes hold of Pikachu and sends him crashing to the ground, much to Nebby's enjoyment.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds:
    • It should not have taken several minutes to fall down a three story elevator shaft. Right, episode 12?
    • In Episode 64, there should not have been nearly enough time for the Savior Star Dragon to catch both Crow and Jack before they hit the water.
  • In Digimon Fusion the group is teleported into the forest zone several hundred feet up in the air. There's more than enough time for Shoutmon to swim in the air. They don't realize that they're in the air until one of them decides to look down, then gravity kicks in. Funnily enough it kicks in seperately for each character.

    Comic Books 
  • A Monica's Gang story had Nimbus coming home to find his brother Nick Nope, whose name indicates he loves behaving differently, suddenly walking on the ceiling as he decides it has more room. Once Nimbus reminds him that due to gravity, he shouldn't even be there, Nick Nope crashes to the ground.
  • Super Mario Adventures:
    • The Mario Bros. emerging out of a pipe whose exit is in a cloud.
      Luigi: Yikes! Where's the bottom?
      Mario: Every pipe has its fitting!
    • In true Super Mario World style, when Yoshi gobbles a blue shell, he sprouts wings. The Bros. hop aboard, but in the fray, they lose track of Bowser's rocket. Mario and Luigi start arguing, and Mario asks Yoshi for his opinion. Bad idea.
  • Suske en Wiske: In "Het Eiland Amoras" (Amoras Island) and "Het Wondere Wolfje" (The Miraculous Wolfy), people only fall when they notice the ladder beneath them has disappeared.
  • The Thrilling Adventure Hour: Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars opens as Sparks is about to fall upwards due to the local Artificial Gravity being disabled.

    Fan Works 
  • The Many Worlds Interpretation: Penny discovers this when, via HEX and the Travelling Engine, she becomes the First Woman On The Moon. Failing to take the lower gravity into account, she takes a step and is flung against the force-bubble generated by the Engine, thus sustaining a small bruise to her upper arm
  • Sorrowful and Immaculate Hearts: Discussed during a Seinfeldian Conversation in "Gone Fishing". Clark says he isn't usually conscious of how his flying ability operates, and describes it with the words "I just don't fall", and Bruce responds by accusing of being a cartoon character who doesn't fall until he learns about gravity.
  • Most of the variations can be found in the short story Star Trek meets the Roadrunner
  • Lampshaded by Christopher in Superman and Man when he attempts to fly:
    "Good Lord," he breathed. He looked below him. Nothing there. Like a Warner Brothers' cartoon character, standing on nothing without harm. Better not visualize that too much, because they always started to fall when they figured out where they were.
  • Universe Falls: In "Three's a Crowd", Steven and Dipper fuse into Stepper in mid-air when Steven's levitation powers accidentally kick in, and Stepper falls to the ground as soon as he realizes he's several feet above the ground. Justified, in that Steven hasn't gotten a handle on his new power, and certainly not using it when fused with another person.
  • Wreck-It Ralph 2: Rancis, distracted by his feelings for Vanellope, slows down as he drives up a loop-de-loop. He stops at the peak — and only then does Sugar Rush II's physics engine decide to kick in.
  • In XSGCOM, one of the things done with transporters is beaming Sectoid engines out of their craft, resulting in them stopping in midair and falling like a rock. This is actually known as the Wile E. Coyote maneuver.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Emperor's New Groove: It takes several beats after the rope bridge breaks for Kuzco and Pacha to realize they're going to fall to their death before dropping.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: While in Toontown, Eddie escapes into a men's bathroom, which is out of order. After a few seconds of Delayed Reaction, he discovers himself in open air miles high in the sky and only then plummets countless stories. And his hat stays suspended in place when he does finally start to fall, forcing him to grab onto it to keep it with him.
  • In Turning Red, when Mei and friends celebrate on Tyler’s roof, they jump up in celebration, and remain suspended for an extra second upon hearing to their horror that they got the date of Toronto’s concert wrong.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Big Lebowski: The Dude has a flying dream which ends when he notices he's holding a bowling ball and promptly hurtles groundward.
  • Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle: The raccoon dangles in mid-air for a bit when Harold flings it out the car window.
  • In Looney Tunes: Back in Action, the spy car, flying towards "Mother", suddenly plummets out of the sky when the fuel begins running low. Just before it hits the ground, however, it suddenly screeches to a halt in mid-air about five feet above the ground. Bugs says "Huh. Out of gas," and the screen fades to black... only for Kate Haughton to exclaim that physics don't work like that. Immediately, the car slams into the ground, prompting an exasperated "Thanks, toots," from Bugs.
  • In Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, Mike has just pulled off (after ripping it apart) the Hubble Telescope and goes to release it "gently, like a sparrow into the night sky", only for him and the Bots to watch as it suddenly drops (complete with the sound of a wire being cut) and hurtles to Earth as a fireball. Mike lampshades this while the Bots taught him for breaking the Hubble.
  • Spider-Man 2 has a non-animated example where, after Peter Parker decides to unquit being Spider-Man, he tests his powers once again by roofhopping. At first, he seems to be doing well, and he proudly proclaims "I'M BACK! I'M BACK!," but midway, gravity gives out and he plummets to the ground, luckily with only a sore back.
  • Star Trek: Generations: Worf has a Gravitational Cognizance moment after Riker says, "Computer, remove the plank."

  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy flying is the art of deliberately abusing this trope. Specifically, throwing yourself at the ground and missing, and then making sure not to think about the fact that flying is impossible, or else gravity will glance in your direction and demand to know exactly what the hell you think you're doing.
  • The Ur-Example is used in Paradise Lost. Satan flies boldly out of the gate of Hell through Chaos as he begins his odyssey to destroy Eden. The whole thing is quite dramatic until the Devil realizes he's fluttering his wings in a void without any air to fly through, causing him to drop "plumb down" thousands of fathoms like a cosmic Wile E. Coyote.
  • The book "Sniglets", which was filled with "any word that should be in the dictionary, but isn't" had a definition for this. "Wiley's Law", which allows someone to defy gravity if they're a) in a cartoon, and b), don't look down and don't realize they're not on solid ground anymore.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Book of Pooh: In "Double Time", Rabbit places himself on an accelerated schedule to get all his chores done because he thought he lost a day (when in reality this was all Pooh's fault). At one point, he is seen in the air flying with Kessie so that he can talk with her. Kessie points out to him that he's not a bird and cannot fly, and he falls to the ground.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Partners in Crime", the Doctor tries to Save the Villain by telling her that from her employers' stance, she's no longer needed and knows too much. This just as she's being beamed up. She doesn't listen... until the tractor beam shuts off. She has half a second to look up, then down, then give an absolutely delicious Oh, Crap! face before gravity takes over and she plummets to her doom.
  • The Goodies. In "The Movies", Bill Oddie is acting in a silent movie and jumps through a window, only to find himself hanging off a window ledge many stories up... until Tim and a camera crew roll past and he realises he can sit up on the wall...until he falls backwards through the window he came through.
  • In an early episode of Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, Don "Doc" Dogoier is going through a "trial of courage" with Kai Ozu in order to be granted the Great Power of the Magirangers. Said trial includes him taking a leap of faith across a large cliff. Don jumps and seems to have succeeded... only for the camera to pan away and reveal he's floating in midair, forcing Kai to grab him before he plummets to his death.
  • The Red Green Show loved to use this for slapstick effect, particularly on the Adventures with Bill segments.

    Puppet Shows 
  • In The Muppet Show, one of Gonzo's outro stunts involves reciting the seven-times table while holding a grand piano over his head; partway through, he gets lost and stops to count on his fingers — and the moment he realises this means he's no longer holding the piano (but not a moment before) it falls on him.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, some Elemental Planes have "subjective directional gravity," which essentially means that "down" is whichever direction you think it is. As in the above example, some mental gymnastics make it a very effective method of getting around within those Planes.
  • Naturally, this trope is in full effect in Toon, the tabletop game of golden age animated cartoons.

    Video Games 
  • In A Boy and His Blob, sometimes, when screeching to a halt at the edge, the Boy will suddenly stand in midair. In true cartoon physics fashion, he will gradually look down, realize his situation, and fall, usually to his death.
  • In Broken Age, after Vella flies through a cloud and loses her bird she doesn't begin to fall until she can comically look below her; she then instantly drops.
  • Celeste: Coyote time is (ab)used in speedruns to extend Madeline's jumps or compensate for mistakes.
  • Gravity in Dwarf Fortress is subject to Good Bad Bugs like the rest of the game. One notable bug is that thieving creatures can steal stepladders while the ladders are in use, resulting in the poor dwarf just hanging around in thin air, unable to use the no-longer-present stepladder to get down, until another dwarf enters the area and the game remembers that they're supposed to fall.
  • The Legend of Zelda:
    • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, despite being a fairly serious game overall, uses Gravitational Consciousness in one instance. If Link uses the Stasis rune on someone on horseback (such as a Bokoblin), the rider remains magically locked in place while the horse runs off. When the rune (and thus the magic) wear off, the rider floats in midair for a second with a visible question mark over their heads, then falls to the ground.
    • In The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, if an enemy knocks you off the edge of a bottomless pit, you hang in the air for a second before falling. The same is true for them if you knock them off the edge.
    • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: Link has a few frames before he falls into a pit (bottomless or not) so a player with extraordinary reflexes can abuse this feature with the Pegasus Boots (whose startup animation gives him temporary "invisibility" to falling) to run on thin air.
  • One of the animations in the Puyo Puyo Pachislot arcade game features Amitie entering a door that leads to the sky and staying in place for a second or so before realizing she's not standing on anything and falling.
  • Road Runner's Death Valley Rally features every variety (most often, the Coyote falling with a Bomb Whistle after floating momentarily in midair) in quite a few of the end-of-level vignettes - not surprising given that it's starring two of the classic Looney Tunes characters, including one of the most famous victims of this trope. Averted during play of the levels themselves, where both the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote will fall like normal.
  • In Super Mario 3D World, after beating Bowser in the first and penultimate battles with him, the bridge gives way along with his car. It takes a couple seconds of Bowser hanging in midair and flailing comically before gravity takes him as well.
  • In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the scene where Nate wakes up on the train includes an instance of second-hand Gravitational Cognizance. At first, as he looks groggily around, everything seems normal, but then he looks out the window and realizes the train car is hanging vertically — and it is at this point that things start falling past him, having apparently waited until he was aware of the new direction for "down".

    Web Animation 
  • During the DEATH BATTLE! between Harley Quinn and Jinx, the two fight while on a roller coaster in an abandoned amusement park. The coaster detrails and the two are left hanging in the air over a long drop outside of their cars. The two fall into a large tent below, laughing the whole way.
    Jinx: Well, that's unfortunate.
    Harley: [Nods]
  • In the Pokémon: Twilight Wings episode "Buddy", Hop's Wooloo runs off to try and prove it can be like a Charizard. The last thing Wooloo tries to do is fly, done via jumping off a ledge of a cliff while running. Of course, Wooloo stops in midair for a good few seconds, then helplessly flails about before falling shortly after, causing it to uncontrollably roll very fast to Milo's farm.

    Web Videos 
  • Dragon Ball Z Abridged: Vegeta asks Dr. Briefs for a ship with an artificial gravity of 500 times Earth's gravity. He and Bulma lampshade how insane the request is.
    Bulma: How exactly you gonna work when your body collapses?
    Vegeta: Please, the prince of all Saiyans does not colla[collapses]
    Bulma: Oh look, the prince of all two Saiyans on the ground!

    Western Animation 
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy: In "Mirror, Mirror, on the Ed", Ed runs into Eddy, knocking both of them into the air over a large drop. Eddy is angry with Ed and doesn't notice until Edd warns the two about the "improbable alert". Eddy runs back, but he and Edd have to pull Ed back when he decides to try and jump to the other side from his levitating position.
  • Garfield and Friends:
    • One episode had Garfield pursued by a dog, including on the ceiling, until the cat asks him how he is standing upside down, given that he lacks the claws to cling in this position. The dog then realizes his violation of gravity and falls.
    • An U.S. Acres segment analyzing Zany Cartoon tropes discussed it. First, Orson shows a clip of Roy simply falling off a cliff. Then one of this trope in full force, Booker chases a worm, walks off a cliff, but only falls when he notices he's standing on air. Then Orson mentions how in real life falling off cliffs can gravely injure people, which a Roy covered in bandages handily agrees.
  • Kaeloo: In "Red Light, Green Light", Mr. Cat launches Quack Quack several feet into the air using a bazooka. Quack Quack enjoys the sensation of flying for several seconds until he looks down, at which point gravity suddenly takes over and he is sent plummeting to the ground below.
  • Many cartoons (especially the older ones) will often play this trope for laughs. This is especially true for Looney Tunes who is able to master the trope for enemies who tried to get rid of the characters, only for them to end up getting the karma they deserved.
    • The traditional trope is explained by Bugs Bunny in the aforementioned "High Diving Hare" short. At the end of the episode, Yosemite Sam tries to saw off the end of a diving board, with Bugs on it. However, the diving board ladder, and part where Sam is, fall down, leaving Bugs and the end floating. Bugs remarks "I know this defies the law of gravity but eh, you see, I never studied law," suggesting ignorance of the law of gravity equals it not noticing you, thereby allowing the situation.
    • The Road Runner and Coyote lampshades this trope in a cartoon where they use signs to communicate the same thing.
    • In one short featuring Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny as preschool children, Elmer hangs over a long drop. When Bugs points out that gravity should be pulling him down, Elmer casually walks back to safety by pointing out he hadn't learned about gravity yet in school. Bugs then sneaks a book into Elmer's hands that explains the concept to him, leading to the fact that he just stepped over the edge again. This time, he drops like a stone.
    • In an episode of the spin-off series Tiny Toon Adventures, the characters invoke this trope to pass over a gorge by stepping on thin air without looking down. Makes you wonder after a while why anyone looks down at all.
  • In The Penguins of Madagascar, toward the end of "I Was a Penguin Zombie", Private, Kowalski, and Rico tackle Skipper off a rooftop after they don't believe he was telling the truth about not being a zombie, as Kowalski says, "Nice try, zombie!" Then they all get a second to realize they're not on the roof before falling down and ending up at the vet with broken flippers.
  • The Pixar short Red's Dream demonstrates gravitational cognizance when the clown realizes he's no longer on Red.
  • The Simpsons invokes this at the end of "Bart the Daredevil", when Homer accidentally gets on Bart's skateboard and launches himself across Springfield Gorge, but plummets straight down at the peak of the jump.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • In "Snail Mail", when the plane is about to hit the ground, it stops in mid-air because SpongeBob discovers the plane ran out of gas. When Patrick refuels the tank, the plane hits the ground.
    • In "High Sea Diving", SpongeBob's first attempt to dive to the surface ends with him plummeting to the ground. Sandy then explains that he needs anti-gravity to dive up.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Cartoon Gravity


Bowser Boss Fights

After beating Bowser in the first and penultimate battles with him, the bridge gives way along with his car. It takes a couple seconds of Bowser hanging in midair and flailing comically before gravity takes him as well.

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