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 in reality is 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:
- Anti-Climax Boss
A boss that turns out to be extremely easy to beat, despite anything the plot may imply.
- 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 weakling.
- 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 fraud when faced with real danger.
- Smug Snake
Has a huge ego but is shown to be wholly inept at backing it up.
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."
- 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 that its members are easily devoured. In comparison, the Survey Corps and the Garrison are more experienced and prepared to fight Titans.
- Dragon Ball
- In the English Funimation dub, Majin Buu calls Vegito exactly this during their fight. He is very much mistaken though.
- Zigzagged with Mark Satan/Hercule. For an ordinary human, he is quite skilled. 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. Satan is also dismissive of the previous champion, Goku, calling him a paper tiger more or less. Still, Mr. Satan 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 Dragon Ball 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.
- In Final Fantasy: Lost Stranger, Cindy makes a show of talking down to the heroes and mocking them while refusing to move from her spot at the top of the Mysidian Royal Cathedral after stealing Invis and Reflect. While this makes her seem absolutely confident in her abilities to the point that she doesn't lift a finger against the heroes, Shogo correctly deduces that she cares for her sisters far too much to simply watch them get hurt after he counters their Reflect with his Mirror Mail. He then concludes that she's standing up there alone because she can't move, lest she dispel Reflect because of how much effort it takes to cast and maintain.
- 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.
- In JoJo's 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. After the Stone Mask turned him into a vampire, though, this is averted, with extreme prejudice.
- Telence T. D'Arby from Part 3 is revealed to be this compared to his brother Daniel. Both have the power to steal people's souls if they defeat them in a game, but the former also has the ability to read the opponent's mind by asking yes-or-no questions. However, when the heroes managed to circumvent their tactics, Daniel just kept playing and tried different tactics, while Telence became so demoralized that his Stand automatically released the soul that he captured.
- 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 to 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.
- 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 sees through their ruse, but when it comes time to back up all that talk, they fall apart even faster than the crews they'd hoodwinked; Luffy knocks out all but one of them with a single Conqueror's Haki punch.
- Judge Vinsmoke, ruler of Germa 66 and Sanji's father, constantly boasts about himself and his family's power while spouting his Social Darwinist ideals... until his own back ends up against the wall, at which point he turns into a blubbering loser begging for somebody to save him. And when the Straw Hats fight him, the mighty and unstoppable Judge has to cheat outrageously to win, including using Human Shields. To really put how weak he is in perspective, he lives in a World of Badass where countless people are capable of super human feats through pure strength and skill.... and yet for all his boasting he relies entirely on an advanced suit to do anything close to being impressive.
- 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).
- Rebuild World: Conversed Trope.
- Sibea, the slum lord who Akira kills in self-defense near the beginning and installs Sheryl to replace, is noted by public opinion to have been this, only good for waving guns around, in comparison with the very deadly and ruthless Akira who quickly becomes The Dreaded in his place.
- A while later a Knowledge Broker spreads rumors that Akira is this for letting himself get pickpocketed. This torments him and drives him as a Slave to PR to get revenge on said pickpocket. When this rumor causes some hunters to think Akira guarding Sheryl's relic shop means its easy pickings for robbery, Akira defeating them ends the rumor.
- We eventually find out that a certain character has been this. The Rival Katsuya. In Akiras final showdown with him, Akira is exhausted with one arm blown off, and no support from Alpha, while Katsuya has a squad at his back, and Akira still wins. The reason people thought Katsuya was strong was his unconscious More Than Mind Control from being an Old World Connector.
- Sword Art Online: Nobuyuki Sugou 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, and due to Kirito disabling his Amusphere's pain inhibitors, he suffered permanent damage in real life. It happens again in real-life, where he goes from smugly gloating about how he's going to kill Kirito and continue his research to bawling his eyes out and wetting his pants the minute Kirito turns the tables on him again.
- 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.
- In one of the last storylines of Hitman, Tommy finds himself being targeted by a skilled gunman who's the son of a master assassin who was the only man Tommy truly feared and who he defeated by just sheer luck. Tommy sees the kid on video at gun ranges, not even looking at the targets yet hitting the bulls-eye every time and knows he's in trouble. In a big battle, the kid gets the drop on Tommy, gun pointed at his head, absolutely no way he can miss, smirking as he pulls the trigger...Click. He's forgotten to remove the safety. It hits Tommy that this guy was only shown firing at paper targets and the reality is that he's never shot a real person in his life and was using his father's fame to make himself look more fearsome. Tommy just grins as he empties his own clip in the punk's face.
- 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 attempts 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 choses "rest" instead and fires, killing God. He then takes his rest upon God's empty throne..
- The Ultimates: Ultimate Abomination looks tougher and meaner than the silly original Abomination with his Ear Fins, but ends up folding to the Hulk like a cheap paper plate.
- 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.
- Downplayed in Fate/Starry Night. Ritsuka summons a Shadow Servant of Scáthach when he is about to get speared through the chest by Lancer. The sight of his mentor freezes the Child of Light in his tracks, especially since she's dual wielding Gáe Bolgs. But he quickly realizes that this construct lacks the overwhelming bloodlust of his mentor, and while it puts up a fight against him, Cú dispatches it relatively easily.
- 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.
- The Devil's in the details: When pitted against the Murdock Family and its honorary members, Nick Fury tends to be more bark than bite, either being grossly outmatched by them in certain categories or just generally falling into bad luck.
- In "Returning Home", Nick tranquilizes Ned and threatens Peter's class when they keep getting interrupted. Having none of it, Peter threatens to beat Nick within an inch of his life if he acts on it. Nick then finally admits that he needs Peter more than Peter needs him.
- In "Pear Shaped", Nick tries having Matt Murdock kidnapped in order to have him convince the other Defenders to join the initiative. Unfortunately, they tranquilized him with insulin, the dosage nearly putting him in a coma. He was so embarrassed that he dumped Matt at a Jersey hospital.
- In "Bar Flies", they kidnap Foggy to convince Matt to help them find the other Infinity Stones. Having known about their failed attempt at kidnapping Matt, he essentially intimidates them into letting him go by listing the sheer number of criminal offenses he can have them put away with, not to mention the fact that all this would do is piss Matt off more.
- In "Office Work", Nick tries kidnapping Karen for the same reason (despite warning that he is even less likely to succeed with her by Foggy), only for her to beat the kidnappers' faces in as soon as she regains consciousness. She doesn't even tell her coworkers where she was that day, instead cashing in her vacation days.
- 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.
Cindy: My... hero?
- 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.
- 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.
- It (2017):
- Pennywise/IT is really good at acting or looking scary, but ITs only really dangerous if youre actually afraid. IT feeds on fear and any other emotion repels it, so if youre not scared or even just fight through the fear, ITs a total pushover. When the kids overcome their fear and start beating IT up, IT breaks down crying like a pathetic loser and runs away into the sewers.
- Henry Bowers is an older and taller bully backed up by loyal thugs, so he easily puts a scare into the Losers. However, after he tries to shoot a cat, his father intervenes by taking the gun and firing several rounds to humiliate him in front of his friends and demonstrate how quickly Henry will fold in the face of someone who's not already scared of him.
Butch: Look at him now, boys. Nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.
- 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.
- 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.
- In The Naked Gun, one of the members of the council of evil calls America "a paper tiger."
- The 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 The Paper Tigers, the Three Tigers are this by the events of the movie. While they were the best in their prime, by the time the movie begins, they are all middle-aged, out of practice and out of shape. Danny has become afraid of confrontation and has trouble focusing, Hing has gained weight and has a leg injury, and while Jim is the most physically capable, his skill has atrophied.
- 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.
- 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.
- In Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, the Wozzle, supposedly a powerful monster, keeps the residents of Waka-waka in line through fear alone. When Leonard and Alan investigate they find that the worst thing it has ever done is kick someone in the bottom.
- 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 Hermione 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.
- Honor Harrington: The Solarian League is the biggest, richest star nation in the galaxy, with the biggest navy... but the League is so feared that its navy hasn't fought a proper war in centuries at the beginning of the series, and so when it goes up against Manticore and Haven, two countries that have been fighting a Lensman Arms Race against each other in addition to their actual war, curb-stomping ensues.
- The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Despite putting up an image of a tough guy from the hood, Will gets his ass handed to him quite often throughout the show. He even got knocked out by Carlton once while the latter had his hands glued to his head and on two occasions Geoffrey was able to physically overpower him.
- 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.
- Victorious: Jade constantly tries to appear tough and hardcore. She has no problem pushing other people around. However, whenever there's real danger, she either bolts or bluffs.
- 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."
- In the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition module Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus, there's an NPC who, if he's killed when first encountered, can later be encountered in Hell after he's been transformed into a high-ranking type of Devil. However, if the players attack him he won't actually put up any fight at all due to being an abject coward, even though a Devil of his type would ordinarily be an extremely dangerous opponent.
- Paranoia supplement Acute Paranoia, adventure "The Harder They Clone". The doorman at a nightclub looks like a character in The Road Warrior: huge, black leather tunic, rippling muscles, and scars. It turns out the PCs can easily kill him since he's unarmed and unarmored.
- 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 Dahl Corporation from the Borderlands franchise has a militaristic theme and aggressive marketing campaign that is contrasted by their nasty habit of turning tail the second anything goes even slightly wrong with any of their business ventures, leaving behind their soldiers and war material in their haste to retreat. Their cowardice plays a big role in the backstory of Pandora and Elpis, due to Dahl abandoning their civilian workforce and the huge amount of convict labor they brought to Pandora and Elpis, resulting in the omnipresent Bandits found on either planetary body.
- In Bug Fables, Wasp King's right hand man General Ultimax is a big bulky hornet, who looks stronger and more intimidating than his wasp soldiers. However, he's actually a cowardly wimp who, without troops or tank to support him, goes down fast, and his only method of direct attacking is a barrage of slaps which can be easily blocked for no damage.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Several weapons with high stats also grant passives (called Paper Tiger and Silk Tiger, no less) that lower the equipped character's max HP.
- 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.
- In Pokémon Sword and Shield, one potential Pokemon that can appear in Max Raid Battles is Shedinja. Dynamax Shedinja starts off the battle by putting up an eight-bar barrier, the largest barrier any Raid Boss in the game has (even more than Dynamax Mewtwo when it was around)... but even as a Max Raid Boss, one hit is enough to take Shedinja out.
- As for the franchise as a whole, Onix fits squarely in this trope. It is one of the largest Pokémon, and has an imposing appearance and sky-high Defense stat. However, all of its other stats are horrible (except for its speed, which is passable but nothing to write home about), so it can't do much damage and any competent Grass or Water-type can brush it under the rug.
- Star Control 3: K'tang are funny. Without their titans, they're even MORE cowardly than the freaking spathi!
- In Subnautica: Below Zero, this is the gimmick of the Cryptosuchus. This marine predator resembles an armored, paddle-footed dinosaur, its fearsome roars can be heard an unnerving distance, and whenever it spots a potential meal or threat, it goes into a frenzy of snapping jaws. But the instant it faces any resistance, it turns tail and swims away, so you can fend one off with a nick from your basic survival knife.
- 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.
- 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. As such, they are a common threat in the game, but weathering the Greenskins' initial charge typically means you've won half the battle already.
- The Warriors of Chaos also have a problem with low leadership and mass routs (or at least the underlings do), ironic as they are such a powerful and terrifying force. Justified in that the Warriors of Chaos are utterly individualistic and each warrior in a Chaos horde is only out for their own individual glory; a Chaos warlord can only bring these warriors together under him by convincing them he is favoured by the Dark Gods, and if he is killed in battle then the warriors under him take it as a sign that they have offended the fickle gods somehow and their convictions melt away like snow in midsummer.
- 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.
- 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-mâché, and that the Wellies sacrificing their children to the Germans to avoid their wrath was All for Nothing.
- Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair:
- Gundham Tanaka, Card-Carrying Villain and self-proclaimed "Supreme 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.
- Hiyoko Saionji, 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. Though this may be less Paper Tiger and more Wounded Gazelle Gambit, since Hiyoko looks about 5 years younger than she actually is and is well aware that she can easily get away with acting like a horrible bitch because of it.
- Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony: Miu Iruma, who delivers rude comments to everybody left and right, but immediately starts quivering the moment anyone shows even the slightest resistance. Of course, she's also a masochist who gets off on being insulted and verbally degraded, so it's highly possible that the whole reason she acts rude is to get people to be rude to her back.
- Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair:
- hololive: V-tuber Calliope Mori is The Grim Reaper (technically an apprentice under The Grim Reaper, but still). She likes to wear a leather cape with Spikes of Villainy all over, carries a massive scythe, typically tries to put up a tough front, and her debut rap is a profanity-laden piece about how much she loves killing people. She is also preciously awkward, is plagued by self-esteem issues, succumbs to Cuteness Proximity over cats, gets flustered to the point of near-tears when she receives high donations, doesn't know how kazoos work, has technology go to hell in a handbasket around her, and, almost insultingly, tends to be the first to die when the group plays multiplayer games.
What can I say, I'm attracted to death. Death and me are meant to be, listen. Either I'm killing folks or I'm getting killed. I'm in a dedicated relationship with death, I am.
- El Goonish Shive: As a result of her heritage as a descendant of Pandora, Diane has an innate affinity for spells related to magical weapons, the bane of aberrations. However, she has yet to be given a Power Tattoo, and thus does not currently have any spells. When Nanase expresses fear that Diane's affinity will make her a target for aberrations seeking to eliminate a potential threat, Mr. Verres points out that while most aberrations get spells to detect those with an affinity for weapon-summoning, only a few can tell the difference between the potential for an affinity and the ability to cast spells relating to it. The rest will steer clear of Diane, since they have no way of knowing that she isn't actually a threat to them yet.
- 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.
- DEATH BATTLE!; this is one of the deciding factors in determining a victor in "Hercule Satan vs. Dan Hibiki" (released after the One-Minute Melee example below). 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".
- Played for laughs in 1 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Tiger in Skunk Fu!. Formerly a powerful warrior, after losing to Dragon, he's become a cowering wimp.
- 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.
- 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.
- Some harmless animals superficially resemble dangerous animals; this is known to biologists as "Batesian mimicry".
- Many stingless insects, including various flies and even a species of moth, look a lot like wasps or bees.
- Some flies, moths and jumping spiders look like jumping spiders.
- The milksnake, which has a red, black and yellow pattern that's similar to the highly venomous coral snake, but the milksnake 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 to the US and Canada. In Central and South America, the different coral and milksnake species are much harder to tell apart. This trope also only applies to kingsnakes with regard to their danger (or lack thereof) to humans and potential predators. When it comes to other snakes, the kingsnake is much more dangerous than the coral snake; their name comes from the fact that they eat all other snake species within their habitat (including both coral snakes and rattlesnakes; the kingsnake is immune to their venom).
- The Hognose snake will imitate a cobra when threatened, but if that fails it will immediately resort to playing dead.
- 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.
- World War 2's Ghost Army. It was an fake US army group, entirely staffed by Hollywood actors, architects, and artists, all dedicated to convincing the Nazis that the D-Day invasion would hit Pas De Calais at a different time than the Allies actually planned to hit Normandy. To this end, the Ghost Army built "planes" out of plywood, empty bunkers, and literal balloon tanks. They put these fake forces around totally empty headquarters that broadcasted a constant stream of nonsense over their radios. King George the VI made an official inspection visit, where he made a show of inspecting these fake forces and real soldiers bussed in for the visit, which was then broadcasted through the world via daily newsreels. From German spyplane photos, these objects appeared to be real planes and tanks, convincing the Germans to focus their defense efforts away from the real landing target, Normandy.
- For decades, Syria's air defence systems were lauded as one of the most advanced in the Middle East. Even during The Arab Spring and the subsequent civil war that decimated the army, the air defence forces were still feared. This reputation started to dissipate after the systems proved themselves woefully inadequate against the increasing number of Israeli airstrikes in the country that targeted Iranian assets, culminating in a 2018 incident when the Syrian Air Defence shot down a Russian surveillance plane. Although the systems received upgrades after this incident, the performance has not really improved and the reputation took on a downright comedic turn when the air defence forces accidentally bombed Cyprus in 2019.
- The Afghan National Army was generally bigged-up in reports as an army as strong as any, with modern weaponry, a viable air force, and 180,000 soldiers with more in various security forces. However, the actual size of the army was vastly exaggerated, due to the presence of "ghost soldiers" (soldiers who have been killed, deserted, or are otherwise rendered unable to fight, but are still listed as active so that their officers can pocket their paychecks), the air force was heavily reliant on American support to function, and a lot of equipment, due to Americans not wanting to leave advanced weapons in a place where insurgents could seize them, was Cold War-era at best. Individual troops also often had little real loyalty to the actual government, perceiving them as merely the biggest fish in the pond, and were poorly trained, ill-supplied, and ill-led. High attrition rates (it's estimated that around 10-20% were lost every year) and a very corrupt leadership wreaked havoc on morale and cohesion, and this wasn't helped by the actual competent troops being sequestered off in the Commando Corps, which, though far better, were too small to conduct large-scale armed actions without being bled dry. Nearly all reports omitted or downplayed these facts, due to the idea that admitting the real state of the army would reflect poorly on all involved. Consequently, after the US began pulling out in 2021 and left the army to fight on their own, the government loudly boasted that they would earn a sure victory, and even the more cynical often predicted they would be able to hold out against the Taliban's May offensive for at least a year or two; instead, they crumbled in under four months, with many divisions surrendering without a fight.
- The Iraqi Army, in the run-up to the The Gulf War, was considered a formidable force, being the fourth-largest army in the world, heavily equipped and battle-tested after eight years of war with Iran. However, unbeknownst to Western observers, the Iraqi Army was riddled with problems. Much of their equipment was obsolescent in comparison to the Coalition militaries and the multinational sourcing of the equipmentnote complicated supply and maintenance, leading to availability problems. Worse than the equipment deficiencies, however, were the human deficiencies. Most of Iraq's large army consisted of conscripts with little equipment, worse training, and absolutely no desire to be there. And even their best formations shared with the conscripts a complete lack of what Coalition militaries called "basic soldiering skills", most notably any sort of initiative whatsoever. The result was that, once the ground phase of the war began, the conscripts folded like tissue paper in the face of Coalition attacks and elite units like the Republican Guard died where they stood, having done almost nothing to even slow the Coalition.
- Iraq's air defense system was devoted significant attention after the experience over Vietnam, with Baghdad in particular being on paper far better defended than Hanoi. In practice, however, the Iraqi system was badly over-centralized, making it overly easy for American F-117 strike aircraft to decapitate the entire system in the opening phases of the air campaign. It also meant that Iraqi SAM and anti-aircraft operators were completely unable to shoot accurately without centralized control, whereas the Serbians several years later were able to keep being a nuisance. And finally, lack of experience with dealing with strike packages the size of the ones the US Air Force could field often meant the network was paralyzed just from the sheer number of aircraft flying in a sort of accidental DDOS.
- Also devoted significant attention were Iraq's fleet of T-72 tanks, which in Soviet hands were capable machines capable of taking on the latest Western tanks. However, Iraq's T-72s were not Soviet T-72s, being downgraded in capability upon export - and more importantly, manned and led by Iraqi troops that, as already mentioned, were not skilled enough to make proper use of them. As a result, Coalition tanks and American Bradley cavalry fighting vehicles tore through them with few losses.
- Iraq had the sixth largest air force in the world prior to The Gulf War, with over 750 fixed-wing combat aircrafts. Many of these aircrafts were however old and outdated, leaving only 170 aircrafts (MiG-29 and Mirage F1) comparable to Coalition aircraft. The pilots flying the planes were also considered worse than their Western counterparts, with only one third of all Iraqi pilots meeting the standards of Western pilots (for example, Iraqi Mirage pilots trained in France had a failure rate of 80 %, but those who failed were still qualified to fly upon return to Iraq). The end results were 36 Iraqi aircraft shot down in aerial combat, 68 fixed wing aircraft and 13 helicopters destroyed on the ground and between 115 to 140 Iraqi aircraft fleeing to Iran.
- As noted in The Guns of August, the Austrian navy leading into World War I looked fearsome on paper but proved to be this. Based at Pola at the head of the Adriatic, it boasted eight capital ships including two new dreadnaught-class warships plus the expected complement of support craft, but its leadership and crews were unprepared for war and proved inactive, freeing the British Mediterranean fleet to focus on the German naval threat in those waters.