Subtrope of More Than Meets the Eye. A character is not as tough as their physical appearance and/or personality suggests. Basically the opposite of Hidden Badass, though they can and oftentimes do go the route of the Cowardly Lion or the Cornered Rattlesnake.
Paper tiger is a literal English translation of a Chinese phrase, meaning something that seems as threatening as a tiger, but is really harmless. This Chinese colloquialism is similar to the English phrase "its bark is worse than its bite". Which is not always a good thing.
The phrase is an ancient one in Chinese culture, but sources differ as to when it entered the English vocabulary. It is found translated to English as early as 1836, in a work by John Francis Davis.
This usually falls under the following subtropes:
- Big Bad Wannabe
Not the evil overlord they seem to be.
- Boisterous Weakling
Talks and acts like a big shot but is shown to be a wealking.
- Dirty Coward
Acts imposing but is shown to be a coward when confronted.
- Face of a Thug
Because Good Is Impotent in fiction, they are likely to be this.
- Fake Ultimate Hero
If they are supposed to be a mighty hero.
- Fake Ultimate Mook
If they are in a video game, then they're probably one of these. The Anticlimax Boss is likely to be this as well.
- Faux Action Girl
If they are a woman with a reputation as a fighter, but none of the skills to back it up.
- Miles Gloriosus
If they brag about being a badass but prove to be a coward when faced with real danger.
Compare with Feet of Clay, which is when they purposely claim to be more Badass then they are, Contrast this to Badass on Paper, where the character isn't very impressive in person but actually performed all the impressive feats that are the basis for his or her reputation, Mugging the Monster for the complete opposite (finding that a weak looking individual is much more dangerous than they seem) and The Worf Effect, as it seems that this applies to the Worf him/herself in context, whereas The Worf Effect refers to the over-arching phenomenon of "stock 'tough' character handed ass by tougher one."
- One Piece:
- Bellamy the Hyena bullies other pirates on the island of Jaya and has spring-based powers with enough concussive force to destroy buildings. Protagonist Monkey D. Luffy and his first mate Roronoa Zoro let themselves get beat up by Bellamy, under the idea that he has not wronged them. Once he does, however, Luffy challenges him, and Bellamy gets stopped cold with a single punch. While Bellamy was strong, Luffy and Zoro were way out of his league, and he ignored all evidence to the contrary. This includes finding both Luffy and Zoro's wanted posters, and then immediately dismissing them as fakes, despite the fact that their bounties were both much higher than his own.
- The fake Straw Hats, who talk a good game while nobody spotted the ruse, but they fall apart even faster than the crews they'd hoodwinked when push comes to shove. Luffy uses Conqueror's Haki to knock the fake Straw Hats out all at once, and then the fake Luffy gets knocked out later, exposing the ruse.
- Dragon Ball
- In the English Funimation dub, Majin Buu calls Vegito exactly this during their fight. He is very much mistaken though.
- Zigzags with Hercule Satan. For an ordinary human, he is quite powerful and would have been a contender in the original Dragon Ball. However, he is horribly weak compared to the monsters in Z. That doesn't stop him from boasting about his strength and challenging the likes of Cell and Buu, both beings so powerful that they can kill him without even looking at him. Hercule is also dismissive of the previous champion, Goku, calling him a paper tiger more or less. Still, Hercule has the heart of a true hero, if nothing else.
- In the original Dragon Ball, Oolong is this in his first appearance. He uses his transformation magic to intimidate people, but as he himself notes using transformation magic to become a powerful monster doesn't give you the abilities of that monster.
- Zoonama pulled the same trick in Dragonball GT, intimidating a nearby town by claiming he could cause earthquakes, when in reality he only had the ability to predict them.
- Raijuta Isurugi from Rurouni Kenshin boasts all the time about his skills at kenjutsu, and how it should always be a murderous technique. In the end, he's revealed to be a phony Sore Loser who never actually killed someone.
- The Military Police Brigade in Attack on Titan only accept the top ten recruits of each trainee class so their members are inherently the best and brightest the military has to offer. But their tendency to neglect their training and serious duties has left them the least capable branch and Jean noted when on a mission to save the captured Eren, its members are easily devoured. In comparison, the Survey Corps and the Garrison are more experienced and prepared to fight Titans.
- Medabots features Banisher. Looks badass, sounds badass, decked out with cool weapons, and in general gives off an Implacable Man vibe. Too bad his weapons and tactics are expressly designed for counterattacks only, not to mention his armor being next too useless. In their first battle, Metabee ends up taking him down with a single shot, as Banisher had to wait for Metabee to make the first move and didn't expect him have such a strong gun.
- In Gundam Build Fighters Try, the Gundam Tryon 3, a Double Zeta Gundam made up to be like a Super Robot, was declared this by its first opponent in the Gunpla Battle Nationals. It easily proved it wasn't.
- One-Punch Man: King, the fourth-strongest hero (his rank was given on the basis of singlehandedly defeating several high-tier enemies), an unflappable giant who only needs to show up to terrify lesser monsters with his Death Glare (augmented by a triple scar over his eye) and Badass Arm-Fold, assuming they didn't hear the unceasing pounding of the King Engine and run away. His Power Level caused the recording device to fail (like Saitama's and a nonpowered guy). On top of all that, he's an awesome gamer, once defeating 30 opponents in a row including a former pro gamer. He's a completely normal person who simply happened to be nearby when Saitama destroyed said high-tier enemies and was thought to be the winner, as Saitama hadn't registered with the Hero Association yet). His frozen expression comes from it being the only way he can prevent himself from displaying the pants-wetting terror he feels, keeps his arms crossed because he doesn't know what to do with them, and the "King Engine" is just his unusually-loud heartbeat (in the anime, represented by big drums), which is always beating in panic because he's well aware of how easily he could be found out. The power-measuring device fails when the levels are too high and too low, the designer just misattributed the cause in his and Saitama's case. He is legitemately a very good gamer though (as he spends his free time doing nothing but playing), and has at least has enough courage to agree to bait a monster into attacking him (with Saitama in ambush).
- In Jojos Bizarre Adventure, Dio Brando starts off as this before using the Stone Mask. As a kid, he often beat up Jonathan and humiliated him, but Jonathan was too timid to stand up to him. The final straw was when Dio kissed his girlfriend, Erina, and then attacked her for immediately washing her mouth out with a muddy puddle. When Jonathan found out, he finally fought back and made Dio cry.
- Sword Art Online: Sugou Nobuyuki talks a big game and boasts of his so-called godhood, but for all of his bravado, he sucks at combat and has nothing but his Game Master privileges to keep up with Kirito. Best shown when Kirito pulls off his Heroic Second Wind and uses Kayaba's ID to strip Oberon of them; he summons Excalibur, the Infinity +1 Sword of the game, and gives it to Sugou before taking up his own sword. Even with the strongest weapon in the game, Sugou is no match for Kirito in a straight fight, fails to land a single hit, and goes down in a matter of seconds.
- The Seven-Faced Widow in Big Trouble in Little China is a Phony Psychic who turns out to have very little power at all, certainly far less than people believe. She has managed to kill or drive mad numerous opponents in her time, but only because they were all too scared to challenge her directly, instead steering clear so she could manipulate and destroy them from afar. When Jack does challenge her directly she proves unable to accomplish much of anything at all.
- Jonathan Hickman's Avengers: The Builders ultimately prove to be this. Despite their extremely advanced technology, physically they're quite weak and rely on their Alephs and Gardeners to fight actual enemies. This is highlighted by what happens when the Avengers personally meet one for the first time; after he goes on an arrogant rant about how superior his kind are and how humanity deserves to die, Thor casually kills the Builder with two hits and the Avengers proceed to easily rip apart the ships and soldiers that accompanied him.
- God is portrayed this way on Preacher. He's meant to be a parody of the wrathful God of the Old Testament, the one that will condemn you to an eternity of suffering if you defy His holy word. He attempts to do this but all His bravado and arrogance banish as soon as the person facing Him doesn't buy his threats. The best example of this occurs in His last appearance when He returns to Heaven and finds the entire Heavenly Host murdered by the Saint of Killers. God's attempt to intimidate the Saint stop immediately when He finds Himself looking into the barrel of the Saint's revolver. Gods tries to plead, saying that He will restore the Saint's family if He's allowed to sit upon His throne once again. The Saint chose "rest" instead and fired, killing God. He then takes his rest upon God's empty throne..
- In A White Knight in Bayville, Mystique turns into "The Thing with Teeth" while fighting Xander. But while it's great for scaring her minions, Xander is an experienced demon hunter and punches her in its weak point, causing Mystique to collapse in pain.
- While facing several Naruto-like creatures (born of a genjutsu bringing people's worst fears to life) in Black Flames Dance in the Wind: Rise of Naruto, Naruto's female clone Akiko outright calls them Paper Tigers once she realizes that since they're born of civilians fear of Naruto (who know nothing of what he's capable of), said creatures simply fight like drunken civilians.
- Lex Luthor uses this trope by name in A Spark of Genius when describing the new superpower Romania, claiming it's leader The Leviathan won't act against Krasnia just for knocking down some of it's defensive towers. He's wrong (Romania conquers Krasnia within an hour of their attack) but he was also likely just trying to pacify the rebels he was dealing with.
- In All the Roofs of Uncertainty Jason mentally compares Rourdan deciding to ignore the obvious threatening tension between himself and Batman and walk past them to do her job to treating them like paper tigers.
- In Pokémon Reset Bloodlines The Sensational Sisters' strongest team is actually extremely weak due to months of inactivity. Despite containing the likes of Cloyster, Poliwrath, and Kingdra, Ash considers it more of a challenging second gym battle than an eighth gym battle like it's supposed to be
- America's Stepbrother, America's Enemy V2.0: Despite being one of the most terrifying totalitarian regimes in all fiction, Oceania is reduced to a ridiculous pushover when faced with the Yanks with Tanks circa 2014. As the Forever War between the three superstates is just a song-and-dance routine meant to waste resources, fought by poorly armed and poorly motivated conscripts backed up by cumbersome Schizo Tech vehicles, and Zerg Rush is the only tactic the Oceanian leadership seem capable of using, even though time and time again they just die in droves at minimal cost to their American opponents.
- In For Love of Magic, when Harry's girlfriends (Tonks, Luna, and Fleur) face Bellatrix in combat, they realize that she's not nearly as dangerous as she's portrayed. While Bellatrix is remarkably fast, her reputation as Voldemort's most dangerous follower is due to her cruelty rather than her power or skill. As a result, the three take her out without much trouble.
- From Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Nick Dean. He's the ultimate cool dude, the girls all dig him, and he's supposed to be tough. His part of the plan is to take care of the Yolkians' main deity, Poultra, while the others rescue their parents. One look at his competition, though, and he screams like a little girl.
- The nihilists in The Big Lebowski. Despite them appearing dangerous, threatening to cut off the Dude's "johnson" and cutting off a toe, they're completely useless in an actual fight, with Walter taking out all three of them effortlessly. They never even performed any of the ruthless crimes they claimed.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939). When the Cowardly Lion first appears he acts in an aggressive manner, charging the group and challenging them to a fight. When he tries to attack Toto, Dorothy smacks him on the nose and he starts crying. Granted, the Cowardly Lion also turns out to be a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass later on.
- In The Naked Gun, one of the members of the council of evil calls America "a paper tiger."
- Eponymous Paper Tiger where the boastful British private tutor Walter Bradbury loses his cool and is ultimately, extremely humiliated but finally redeems himself in the eyes of his student Koichi Kagoyama when, faced with immense danger that would cripple anyone with fear, his innate courage begins to shine to his own disbelief.
- In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the press corps call Jefferson Smith a "paper tiger" to his face, telling him that he was only appointed to fill a seat in the Senate and vote the way Senator Payne wants him to, which chafes the idealistic young senator.
- The Shawshank Redemption: Byron Hadley, is an abusive prison guard who beats a helpless, terrified inmate to death. However, when he was dragged off to prison for his crimes, he apparently broke down and cried.
- The Federation's military in Starship Troopers is brutally xenophobic and gung-ho but also spectacularly incompetent. Their first assault on Klendathu turns into a panicked rout after only a few casualties.
- In American History X, Cameron plays the part of a tough, experienced Nazi leader, but Derek learns that he snitched on two of his men to cut a stint in prison to two months. When he threatens to turn Derek's younger brother into a hardened white supremacist, he goes down from one punch from the older sibling. A deleted scene has him scorning a black man for dating a white girl from the safety of his seat, but getting beaten up by gangbangers almost as soon as he leaves the restaurant he was in.
- In Let the Right One In, Conny (or "Kenny" in the American remake) sadistically torments Oskar ("Owen" in the remake), and on some occasions, threatens him with murder. However, when Oskar fights back by smacking him with a rod, he cries like a little kid and resorts to having his older brother fight his battles for him.
- The house robots from Robot Wars were imposing in stature, had fearsome designs and were hyped up as terrifyingly powerful death machines. However, not all of them were all that much more powerful than the average contestant:
- Sir Killalot's drill-lance lacked the piercing power to do any damage and was only really useful for picking disabled opponents up (something which occasionally ended up with Killalot faceplanting from the weight of the opponent). On the plus side, at least his claw was quite powerful.
- Dead Metal's buzzsaw, while emitting impressive showers of sparks, rarely amounted to any serious damage.
- Matilda was one of the worst examples back when she had a chainsaw for a tail. Despite her dinosaur-like form and Glowing Eyes of Doom she was next to harmless, especially as robot armors became too tough for the chainsaw to even scratch. The producers eventually allowed Razer to utterly mangle Matilda during a match and used it as a pretext to upgrade her with a very powerful flywheel which took her soundly out of Paper Tiger territory.
- Sgt. Bash had two weapons, neither of them useful: a pincer which was not as powerful as Killalot's and a flamethrower which never really did anything aside from constantly setting Diotoir's fur on fire.
- Harry Potter:
- Dudley pretends to be tough in front of his friends, but when they're not around, he throws temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way. By Order of the Phoenix, he gains quite a bit of muscle after having to go on a diet, but he uses it to beat up little kids.
- Draco Malfoy is shown to be this. He is easily bested in fist fights by Hermoine and tried to have Buckbeak executed for scratching him. It gets Played for Drama in Half-Blood Prince when he is ordered to kill Dumbledore, but he has cold feet and starts crying.
- Osten Taylor from Pearl Islands was a buff bodybuilder who had absolutely no idea how to rough it out in nature, almost drowned in a challenge, became convinced that a pelican was out to get him, and ended up being the first contestant to quit Survivor.
- Crystal Cox in Gabon, the six-foot-three Olympic gold medalist who had one of the single worst athletic performances in the series, culminating in her missing a slam dunk on a basketball hoop that's shorter than she is.
- NBCs One World: ex-delinquent Jane ended up feeling this way. Normally strong, tough, streetwise, with a smart mouth, a camping trip with their guardian and the other girls brought out a side of her she never really expected: being terrified of puny little creatures and insects of the woods.
- The Ultimate Fighter: Occasionally a fighter will look very formidable in the gym, or at least talk a good game, only for him to completely underperform during his fight.
- Parodied/discussed in Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin comes across the term in a book he's reading for homework and asks his tiger Hobbes what the definition is. Hobbes responds that it's a tiger with a newspaper route, much like a paperboy. One Beat Panel later:
Calvin: "...This book makes no sense at all."
- Star Control 3: K'tang are funny. Without their titans, they're even MORE cowardly than the freaking spathi!
- Drakath from DragonFable looks and sounds tough, with a cool cape, neat sword, and quickly established rivalry with the player character. After an introduction fight, he proceeds to spend the rest of the story arc constantly being embarrassed, outwitted, terrified, and handily defeated. Even his boss Sepulchure regularly screws with him. Does a 180 and becomes a Knight of Cerebus after fusing with the Ultimate Orb and becoming a giant dragon of darkness.
- From Tales of Monkey Island, Bugeye is a bald, tattooed pirate who disrespects the main character and generally talks tough. But once you need to get information out of him, you find that the slightest bit of pressure will make him squeal.
- Sir Prancelot of Scufflewick from Drakensang: he wears a full plate armor, has a cool winged helmet and wields a large two-handed sword. He's also a complete wimp who won't admit his failures and runs away from goblins.
- In Ace Combat 3: Electrosphere, UPEO itself is regarded as one of these, especially highlighted in the mission "Paper Tiger". To further push the point, their planes are obsolete hand-me-downs from both General Resource and Neucom, which are the only things making them anywhere near a relevant military force that can keep the two corporations in check.
- The Nali of Unreal are 7 feet tall, have four arms, and are quite muscular. They are also completely incapable of fighting and get easily destroyed by anything that attacks them.
- It's pretty clear Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir in Dragon Age: Origins is not the political powerhouse he might portray himself as. Highever is openly rioting against him, Redcliffe and nearly the entire Bannorn is warring against him, and according to Bodahn, the Darkspawn burn down Gwaren, his own fief, leaving him with Denerim under his military occupation and Amaranthine, which Dragon Age: Origins Awakening reveals was increasingly divided because of what Arl Howe did. Actually losing to him at the Landsmeet pretty much requires the Warden to actively avoid the political sidequests, or for them to go out of their way to be a jerk to people they're trying to win over.
- Behemoths in Final Fantasy XIII look threatening when first encountered, with their large size and 20,000 hit points. They turn out to be easy to stagger, and it is also easy to perform sneak attacks on them.
- The first boss of Gundam Breaker 3 is Tiger, piloting what can only be described as a Zeonic chimera. Most fans know that the appearance of larger Zeon mobile suits is a bit of an 'Oh, Crap!' moment, especially if you realize that its base frame is a Sazabi. He talks a big game and tries to intimidate you while fighting, but as it turns out he's really just a seal-clubber who picks on newbies for easy wins. Misa even calls him out on this and offers to face him, but he shows his yellow streak and refuses to fight her—and after seeing how his big, slow mobile suit and its telegraphed, easily avoidable attacks has a hard time against your Mook Mobile Starter Equipment, it's not hard to see why he's a coward who won't face an opponent with even the slightest hint of experience.
- The Greenskins in Total War: Warhammer are Blood Knights to the extreme and have generally great combat stats but their leadership is generally awful, meaning that they will turn and run when the scrap doesn't go well. Fighting might be fun but losing sure isn't, and they are not a species widely known for their discipline or martial training.
- In We Happy Few, while breaking into the military camp, Arthur jumps onto one of the tanks the Germans left behind... and crashes straight through it. Turns out the tanks are made of papier-mache, and that the Wellies sacrificing their children to the Germans to avoid their wrath was All for Nothing.
- Danganronpa 2 has Gundam Tanaka, the self-proclaimed "Overlord of Ice", who grandiosely threatens anyone who mocks him...and that's all he does. He's not even a Big Bad Wannabe, because he does absolutely nothing villainous until the fourth chapter, and even then the other characters doubt his actions were maliciously motivated.
- From the same game, there's Hiyoko Saiyonji, who relentlessly bullies Mikan and never goes a day without making a rude comment to her other classmates. However, whenever people verbally retaliate against her, she starts crying and hides behind Mahiru.
- From Danganronpa V3, there's Miu Iruma, who delivers rude comments to everybody left and right, but immediately starts quivering when people tell her to stop.
- In Minion, Count Antonie's vampiric powers make it nigh-impossible to kill him...but merely beating him up is dead easy.
- King of One-Punch Man fame. In addition to inadvertently taking credit for the actions of the protagonist (meaning people think he can kill giant monsters with one punch), his always stoic expression and Rugged Scar make him so intimidating that not even the S-ranked heroes dare to get on his bad side. But really he's just a weak and cowardly Otaku.
- The Sanity Circus: Steven is one of a race seemingly created to combat the Scarecrows, and after the skill shown by Luther already it seems that he is just as talented himself. He certainly has no trouble painting himself as the best thing under the Sun. However, when he finally comes face-to-face with Posey, he freezes on the spot before turning and running for his life, abandoning Fletch and Attley.
- Played for laughs in One Minute Melee where Joke Characters Hercule/Mr. Satan from Dragon Ball Z and Dan Hibiki from Street Fighter get into a confrontation. Both are unsure if they could take the other guy, but both also don't want to have to back down and have their reputation destroyed. The result is two paper tigers egging each other on and trying to outbluff each other until they have no choice but to fight it out. Enjoy.
- Interestingly, when the aforementioned two meet in Death Battle, this is one of the deciding factors in determining a victor. Despite both men being way out of their league in their respective canons, Mr. Satan can actually back up his talk as he's strong enough to pull three buses, punch through the side of one and tear a phone book in half in addition to being a legitimate World Tournament Champion. Dan, however, cannot back up his talk as all of his attacks are pathetically weak and his one canonical win — against Sagat — was done out of pity to prevent him for continuing his suicidal Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- In Dragon Ball Z Abridged, when Vegeta and Freeza start fighting, the latter scoffs at the former's power, claiming that it was "a paper tiger against a storm".
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Hakoda tries to pick a fight with a tough-looking prison inmate by shoving him, but instead of fighting back the inmate says "that hurt my feelings!" Averted a few minutes later when someone starts a prison riot, causing that same inmate to scream, "Forget controlling my anger!" and rushes out to fight with everybody else.
- Dave from Dave the Barbarian. As the Theme Song states, he's "huge, but a wimp".
- Johnny Bravo. He's a pretty muscular-looking guy but he's always getting beaten up by the women he flirts with. Which is especially weird considering in the very first episode he was able to successfully wrestle A CROCODILE! Though, in fairness, just because he doesn't fight back doesn't mean he can't. After all, Johnny's not an asshole (to that degree at least).
- Tiger in Skunk Fu!. Formerly a powerful warrior, after losing to Dragon, he's become a cowering wimp.
- Major Man from The Powerpuff Girls. He's hugely muscular and has all the standard superpowers, but is reduced to a quivering wreck when put against a real threat and has to create fake ones.
- The Simpsons: Bart develops a crush on his new next door neighbor Laura Powers. However, she instead falls for the bully Jimbo Jones. Bart sends a knife-wielding Moe Syzslak after Jimbo, who tearfully begs for his life, prompting Laura to break up with him, having exposed himself as a weakling.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Bulk Biceps. He's surprisingly sensitive, in spite of his brawny physique; In "Rainbow Falls", he starts crying after Fluttershy accidentally hit him in the face with a horseshoe.
- The Pontiac Fiero is a prime example, with exotic and stylish bodywork reminiscent of an American Ferrari, but The '80s smog regulation made it slow as molasses and it used the same suspension setup from GM's land yachts. It became the base for hundreds of kit cars to make it look like an actual Ferrari or other exotics, but more often than not leaves the mechanics completely unchanged. On the plus side, it's just as realistically "reliable" as a Ferrari thanks to the car's notorious reliability issues such as spontaneously bursting into flames.
- The King Snake, which has a red, black and yellow pattern that's similar to the highly venomous Coral Snake, but the King Snake itself is harmless to people. There's even a saying that goes with this: "Red touches yellow, kills a fellow; red touches black, you're okay, jack." Please be aware that this phrase only applies to species native the US. In Central and South America, the different coral and king snake species are much harder to tell apart.
- Sandra Felton, who founded the Messies Anonymous resources for people struggling with extreme disorganization, used this expression to describe a dresser in her house that hadn't been cleaned out in years. Now she was afraid to tackle it, worrying about what she might find. What kind of horrible "keep it or toss it" decisions would she have to make? She sweated it out for a while, then finally worked up the courage to take a look. "It turned out to be a paper tiger."
- "Quaker Guns" are fake cannons or guns made out of cut logs or broomhandles. The intent is to intimidate a hostile attacker or defender through deception into delaying their attack, not attacking at all, or surrendering without a fight.