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Retroactive Idiot Ball

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This character's action makes complete sense. You watch the movie and you understand his motivations. He either had to kill his mentor or let his son die. It's as simple as that.

Except that it's not, because in three years, there's going to be a prequel that reveals a Third Option that our hero definitely should have known about.

This trope is when a later installment in a series or franchise introduces a piece of information that the character should know, that retroactively makes the character's actions seem unnecessary, obviously misguided, or downright dumb. Headcanons rationalizing the character's actions abound, but Canon itself makes no attempt to explain it. It's like they were hoping no one would notice, or maybe more that they didn't notice themselves. The powers that be may come up with an explanation when pressed, but no canon, in-universe explanation exists.

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If the out of universe explanation for an action is "because that power hadn't been invented yet", "because the writer hadn't written the prequel yet", or "because [character who definitely would have known how to solve the problem] didn't exist until the Interquel", and there's no In-Universe explanation provided, you probably have this trope.

This often results from either a deliberate Retcon (whether the implications of the actions get changed intentionally or accidentally is another matter), a universe receiving an unexpected expansion, such as a Prequel or a lore-heavy spin-off. It is especially common in franchises with huge universes that span many different writers who may not always be on the same page, and in series where installments don't take place in the order they're released in, where a character may learn a piece of information in a later addition that they appear to "forget" for audience members who consume the media chronologically rather than in release order.

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Compare Idiot Ball, where the character's actions didn't make sense even when they were first written, Series Continuity Error, where canon contradicts itself, and Continuity Snarl, where the continuity is so complicated that no one can keep it straight. Often caused by an Ass Pull, but can also result from a revelation that had solid build up if the series has been going on long enough. Can result in a retroactive example of Forgot About His Powers if a character has powers that weren't added until later additions to the series.

As this trope requires explaining plot points of at least two works, all of the examples below are spoilers.


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Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Z:
    • When Goku came back to life in the Saiyan Saga, he went with the Flying Nimbus towards the battlefield to save his friends. The beginning of the next arc would reveal Mister Popo has a magic carpet that is faster than the Nimbus, making you question why he didn't bring that up. Possibly making toast or something.
    • After his training with King Kai is complete, Goku is forced to run all the way back down Snake Way in order to reach the Otherworld check-in station, and thus return to Earth. Later, during the Cell saga, Goku asks for King Kai's help in locating the Namekian's new home, stating that he will use his Instant Transmission technique (which he learned from the Yardrat race in the interim) to go there and recruit a new Guardian of Earth. King Kai then reveals that he knows the same technique. This of course raises the question of why King Kai couldn't have used that technique to bring Goku straight to the check-in station himself.
    • The Cell Saga also introduced the Hyperbolic Time Chamber that's located on The Lookout, which allows the people inside to get a whole year's worth of training in a day. Yet this also begs the question why it was never used before, considering there have been times where the cast knew in advance when a threat was coming. The Earthlings had a whole year to prepare for Vegeta and Nappa's arrival on Earth, and everyone was warned about the androids three years in advance.
  • Naruto: The premise of the series revolves around the fact that the title character, Naruto, is hated and shunned by the rest of Konohagure because they believe him to be the Nine-Tailed Fox that destroyed their village and killed several villages—including the beloved Fourth Hokage. It's revealed that Naruto is not the fox, but an innocent child that was chosen to contain the fox, and also, Naruto is the son of both the beloved Fourth Hokage as well as a member of the esteemed and respected Uzumaki family...who for generations have acted as the vessel for the fox to protect the people. This raises the question of why no one, including members of the Konohagure leadership who should know better, told the people who Naruto's parents were. The reason is Hand Waved as "because the Hokage's enemies would have targeted Naruto", but this still makes little sense because Naruto himself came very close multiple times to going down the same path as many of the series' villains due to the treatment he received. Further, every clan in Naruto has enemies, and if people knew who Naruto was, they would have more inclination to protect him.
  • My Hero Academia: When Izuku first receives One For All from All Might, his body naturally has a lot of difficulty adjusting to suddenly having a powerful Quirk, leading to him repeatedly breaking his bones while attempting to use it properly. It's eventually revealed that Toshinori, like Izuku, used to be Quirkless as well, and secretly used a variety of support equipment while his body was getting accustomed to it. Naturally, this begs the question of why Toshinori never considered looking into any support equipment for his successor until after Izuku sustained injuries serious enough to risk permanently rendering his arms unusable.

    Comic Books 
  • Superman: When Superman was first created, little about his home planet of Krypton was known other than the fact that its technology and genetics were far more advanced than our own, and that the planet died suddenly without giving its people enough time to evacuate. As Superman gained more New Powers as the Plot Demands and new details about Krypton were introduced, it was suddenly revealed that most (if not all) of the entire Kryptonian population were not only aware that they gained godlike Combo Platter Powers on planets with comparatively lower gravity, thinner atmospheres and yellow suns like Earth, but that the entire reason Jor-El sent his son to Earth was so that he could enjoy these benefits. In turn, this made the entire Kryptonian species look like morons for staying put on one small planet where they were basically Muggles until the moment it blew up. Later retcons then established that Kryptonians had once formed a powerful empire that attempted to conquer and colonize other planets, but somehow failed at it and were forced to retreat back to Krypton. But yet again, this backfired as readers began to wonder how a space-faring race with the potential to become Flying Bricks ever managed to screw up that badly.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Star Wars:
    • In The Phantom Menace, the Trade Federation is blockading Naboo is to get the Galactic Republic to lower/remove the taxes on trade routes, but Attack of the Clones established through the “Military Creation Act” plot point that the Galactic Republic doesn't have an army. With the knowledge presented in the sequel, the Trade Federation would have been better off blockading or invading Coruscant instead to protest the taxes.
    • In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon is fatally injured from his battle with Darth Maul, and as Obi-Wan cradles him he painfully tells him it's too late to save him and that he'll have to train Anakin in his stead. Anakin's very motivation throughout the Prequel Trilogy and especially Revenge of the Sith is to obtain the power to prevent Padme from dying. The Rise of Skywalker establishes that Force Healing is very much a thing and can not only heal fatal injuries of others, but can even bring back the recently deceased, albeit at cost. Even worse, while Rey has a Hand Wave in that she learned it studying sacred Jedi texts that weren't made available to most, Kylo Ren picks it up easily after watching her do it to him, saving him from the same sort of stab wound that did in Qui-Gon. There's little practical reason to why this skill wasn't widespread taught amongst the Jedi Order at its height.
    • Leia kisses Luke on the mouth in The Empire Strikes Back. Return of the Jedi has her tell Luke that she's always known they were siblings.
    • Obi-Wan’s ghost in The Empire Strikes Back tells Luke that he cannot interfere if Luke decides to confront Darth Vader. The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, and an episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars show Force ghosts interfering with the physical world, so Obi-Wan could have done a lot to help out Luke during his fight with Vader.
    • Han and Leia choosing to pass on the Solo name rather than the Organa name never made a ton of sense considering that Alderaan was a matriarchal society and Organa is the name of a royal house and of one of the few remaining Alderaanian bloodlines, but it makes even less sense after Solo revealed that Solo wasn't even Han's original last name and was given to him as a placeholder by an Imperial officer.
  • For Marvel Cinematic Universe

    Literature 
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban explains that Harry's parents were killed because the spell they used to hide their location needed a Secret Keeper and that the man they entrusted to the role happened to be The Mole for Voldemort. Except that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows reveals that there is technically nothing preventing you from being your own Secret Keeper, which is why the good guys' headquarters' location remained a secret for so long. Which really makes one wonders why the Potters didn't chose that option, since they knew they were hunted.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Once Upon a Time
    • Rumplestiltskin goes through the trouble of creating the Dark Curse, which requires, among other things, sacrificing the thing you love the most, and spends years grooming someone to be evil enough to cast it, all so he can follow his son to the Land Without Magic. Later seasons reveal that there are any number of MacGuffins he could have acquired that would have allowed him to freely traverse realms.
    • Multiple characters are motivated and deeply affected by the death of a loved one. Early seasons reiterate that death is the one thing magic can't fix. Both Rumplestiltskin and Regina start down the path of evil after seeing a loved one die. Halfway through season 5, we learn that the Underworld exists and you can go there and rescue dead loved ones, and the characters have apparently just known this the whole time.
    • Then again, Hades will try to stop you by sabotaging the only way you could do it and I doubt Zeus is gonna let you pass multiple times
  • Supernatural: Season 6 involves Crowley trying to find Purgatory, desiring to take all of its souls to empower him, going to extreme lengths, including trying to capture the Alpha's and angering Eve. Season 8 however, reveals that not only do Reapers have the power to go to Purgatory and Crowley has a corrupt one on his payroll, but there is backdoor from Purgatory into Hell (where Crowley is king of). Even if one assumes he didn't recruit him till later, it begs the question why he never simply kidnapped a reaper to interrogate them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Through all but the very last edition of Warhammer, the story of the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith was more or less the same: Malekith wanted to become Phoenix King like his father had, but was judged too amibtious to deserve it, and when he tried to force the issue (by assissinating the previous king and jumping into the Flames of Asuryan) he got horrifically burned and was rejected by the gods, which lead to him and his followers starting a bloody civil war, splitting from their kin to become the Dark Elves and starting the millenia-long conflict between them and the High Elves. And then the End Times revealed that Malekith had actually been worthy all along but had jumped from the Flames a few seconds too soon and all the next Phoenix Kings had been usurpers and cursed by the gods. Why the actual gods themselves (at least two of which have living incarnations in the world, but all of them could communicate with the world to various extents) never bothered telling anyone at the moment (which would have avoided the elven civil war, kept the elves unified, and all in all prevented an enormous chunk of the world's problems from existing) or at any point during the thousands of years in-between was never explained, nor was how the long line of supposed "cursed" High Elven kings managed to reign more or less adequately throughout.

    Video Games 
  • Batman: Arkham Knight: In the main game, the Joker infected were locked up in one of Batman's hidden hideouts in Gotham, but the hideout was discovered and stormed by Harley Quinn. Except the "Race track" DLC, released months after the game, reveals that Batman has a secure facility miles away from Gotham that he uses as a race track. Which makes one wonder why he didn't think of locking the infected there.
  • Knights of the Old Republic: Darth Malak pursuing Bastila for her Battle Meditation doesn't make sense anymore due to the sequel establishing it as a Force power that any Jedi or Sith can use;note  he would have been better off just using it to bolster his forces himself. The Jedi Council valuing Bastila for the same reason also doesn't make sense anymore since any of them could've used the power themselves.
  • Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth - Hacker's Memory: The game is a midquel that is supposed to take place during the original Cyber Sleuth and has many instances of the protagonists interacting closely with many main characters of the main game. For the first half of the game it remains somewhat plausible since the protagonists operate in separate fields. However after Arcadiamon is awakened there is absolutely no excuse for all the main characters of Cyber Sleuth to not mention this top tier monster threat at all, especially when it starts killing digimon (which both Nokia and most of the Royal Knights would be actively working to prevent). Somewhat less obvious is the takeover of Eden by the Eater Network even later as this is not mentioned or applied late game to the original game.
  • Mass Effect:
    • In Mass Effect, Sovereign decided to ally with the geth and the rogue Spectre Saren, acting in the shadows, in order to manipulate the Keepers of the Citadel into giving the other Reapers access to the Milky Way. Except that Mass Effect 2 reveals that there was an entire species of Slave Mooks he could have used to do so rather than going to the trouble of allying with Saren.
    • Worse, the "Arrival" DLC also shows that the entire plan of opening a pathway into the Citadel wasn't needed, as its ending cutscene shows the Reapers arriving at the edge of the galaxy on their own. Which means that The Reapers could just come to the Milky Way via entirely normal means (sure, it takes them around three years to do so, but they wasted several decades relying on Saren anyway) rather than the risky plan they used in the first game.
    • To make matters even more nonsensical, Mass Effect 3 reveals that rather than just being built by the Reapers, the Citadel itself is actually the AI that led and created the Reapers in the first place, which really brings the question as to why all this convoluted mess to take control of the Citadel when it was already on their side.
  • Mortal Kombat:
    • MK11 reveals that Kronika has been the true villain all along, and that the various resets, reboots and retcons have all been her doing to undo the work of Raiden, who has continually been a thorn in her side, especially with the help of Liu Kang. Which means that only in this game did she get the idea to reset all of time back to the dawn of creation and remake the universe without Raiden in it. This is despite the fact that, in Mortal Kombat: Deception, both of them had been killed and she had the perfect opportunity at the time to reset everything without Kang or Raiden to stop her.
    • MK9 establishes that while the Elder Gods don't care if Shao Kahn conquers other realms, they are very much against him trying to merge them, to the point that when Raiden realizes this and lets Shao Kahn win, the Elder Gods intervene and kill him on the spot. This fact renders the plot of most of the other Mortal Kombat games moot, as merging the two realms was Shao Kahn's entire goal, and the heroes could have Won by Doing Absolutely Nothing.
    • This retcon also makes the Elder Gods themselves look idiotic; it's implied that the Mortal Kombat tournament and its rules were directly set up to thwart Shao Kahn's goal of merging all realms into his own, as merging realms carries the risk of reawakening the One Being and ending all life everywhere...which makes no sense when it's revealed that the Elder Gods can simply kill Shao Kahn any time they want, and that the invading forces in a Mortal Kombat tournament have complete control over the proceedings. This results in ridiculous deck-stacking like having all the Earthrealm fighters eliminate each other while the Outworlders merely wait, flat out ignoring the results of a previous match and letting a loser rechallenge someone else, and even forcing one participant to face two opponents. Even worse is the blatant cheating; the entire premise of Mortal Kombat II and the second act of Mortal Kombat (2011) is Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn demanding a "double-or-nothing" tournament after Liu Kang's victory. The lack of any oversight or enforcement on the very rules they imposed to prevent this very thing from happening makes the Elder Gods look incompetent or at the very least lazy.
    • MK11 retcons Sindel into being an Evil All Along Gold Digger who was murdered rather than committed suicide. This has several consequences:
      • Earlier in the same game, Shao Kahn states that the only reason he let Kitana live as a child was to appease Sindel so she would become his queen and even created Kitana's clone Mileena to have a "true daughter". This makes no sense after The Reveal, because Sindel honestly couldn't care less about her daughter and was actively pleased to have a "superior lover" like Shao Kahn. He could have killed Kitana years ago and been done with it, and Sindel would have gladly given him more.
      • In MK9, it was established that Sindel created wards and died to prevent Shao Kahn from invading Earthrealm. The reveal that she was both evil and murdered by Quan Chi begs the question of why she would prevent her darling husband from conquering the Earthrealm. If Quan Chi did it to stop Shao Kahn, then he actively allowed a rival to prolong his death, since conquering Earthrealm and merging it with Outworld would have led to the Elder Gods killing Shao Kahn anyway. Aftermath impies that this was all part of some nebulous Long Game that Shinnok and Quan Chi were planning, but it leaves unanswered why Sindel created the wards to thwart Shao Kahn in the first place.


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