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Shapeshifter Swan Song

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"Stop it, stop it, turn them off! I can't control it! I can't be all of them, not all at once!"
Shapeshifters are showoffs. Even the insidious infiltrators like to use their abilities to inspire awe and fear. It's no surprise then that dying is no exception. When a shapeshifter bites the dust, they have a veritable swan song of shape shifting as they slide through every single shape they've stolen throughout the episode or movie. Much like the life-flashing-before-your-eyes thing, it may be considered a realistic survival reflex.

It'll also happen if their powers are short circuited, they're critically injured or KO'd. After their swan song they'll settle into their original form and body, often to the surprise of everyone else, especially if said form isn't human. Someone will usually go "This Was His True Form", and look suitably mournful if it was a friend they lost to The Virus. If the purpose of the swan song is to inform the audience who the shapeshifter posed as (and that they were, in fact, a shapeshifter) this becomes a case of Viewers Are Morons.

In shows aimed towards kids or ones where the shapeshifter is especially smart, expect the shapeshifter to possibly survive, thus rendering this trope a bit confusing as the viewer wonders why there's the equivalent of death convulsions going on for a character who will later turn out to be fine.

A special case of Super-Power Meltdown. May happen to a Clipped-Wing Angel. See also Shapeshifter Mashup and Perpetually Protean. No Immortal Inertia is similar but for immortals. Compare Shapeshifter Identity Crisis and My Life Flashed Before My Eyes.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Kinnikuman, this is how the Choujin King 100 Ton is defeated. 100 Ton uses cue cards in order to take different shapes, but when Kinnikuman throws all of the cards into the ring, 100 Ton starts to reflexively transform into every form at once, making his body unstable enough for his opponent, Terryman, to strike a crucial, finishing blow.
  • A possibly unique inversion in Pluto: one flashback reveals that the "ultimate A.I." robot failed to come to life in the first place because it was shifting through so many personalities and faces that the hardware just couldn't keep up until it was given a strong hatred to focus on. Played straight when said A.I. learns the truth about itself and goes into a Villainous Breakdown.
  • In the Ranma ½ anime, one-shot villain Copycat Ken's breakdown resembles this.

    Comic Books 
  • In the Disney Comics adaptation of the Dracula storyline, Dracula had a great deal more shapes than just a bat, a man and a wolf. In the climax, as the protagonists complete a ritual to rob him of all his powers, he frantically goes through all the shapes he can think of trying to escape. However, since it wasn't a deadly ritual (Disney oblige), the hilarious result is that it takes effect at the most embarrassing time imaginable, trapping Dracula as a slippers-wearing flying ostrich with a wolf head for all of eternity.
  • Hound: Morrigan diminishes from a gigantic monster bird to a bird with the head of a woman and finally to an ordinary-sized hooded crow when Cú Cullan throws the Gae Bolga at her.
  • In the Death World of Marvel's Ruins (where nobody has Required Secondary Powers), Mystique goes through an epic one resulting from her Shapeshifter Identity Crisis causing her to forget to take her meds for managing her Power Incontinence, and her brain implodes in the end.
  • The comic book series Runaways does this with the Skrull Xavin a couple of times when we're getting to know him/her, although it's a case of short-circuiting (probably the Skrull equivalent of going into shock or throwing up from pain or whatnot), not actual death.

    Film — Animation 
  • When Mater in Cars 2 accidentally smashes the light used to disguise himself while infiltrating the Lemon meeting, he cycles through all his previous disguises before being entirely unmasked.
  • Non-lethal example: Randall, The Dragon from Monsters, Inc., goes through several camouflage forms when Boo strangles him.
  • Wreck-It Ralph: After The Reveal, King Candy / Turbo keeps glitching back and forth between forms, up until his death in the Cola Mountain explosion.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The Dummy Dopant from Kamen Rider x Kamen Rider W & Decade: Movie Wars 2010 goes through these before entering its true form. These include a priest, another Dopant, a pop idol singer, Shotaro's deceased mentor, and said mentor's alter-ego, Kamen Rider Skull.
  • In Pokémon Detective Pikachu, a Ditto goes through this during the climax after being hit with the Psycho Serum "R".
  • Split and Glass (2019) have one each in spirit, even if not quite literally.
    • In Split, calling out the full name of Kevin Wendell Crumb causes the core, original Kevin personality to emerge, but at the cost of inciting all the other personalities to fight for control. Kevin gets to talk for a minute asking Casey to get a shotgun and kill him, and in quick succession Barry, Orwell, and Jade beg her not to, with Hedwig, Patricia, and Dennis regaining control, saying they locked Kevin away and they prepare to release the Beast once again.
    • In Glass (2019), the combination of calling out the name and Casey's touch manages to bring Kevin back from the Beast. When he is promptly shot, a flurry of personalities get their final words before Kevin holds onto the light one last time.
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, after the T-1000 falls into the molten iron, it morphs into its various forms as it thrashes and screams, then begins to distort and warp in rather Body Horror-esque ways as its shapeshifting breaks down, even sprouting multiple heads out of its body at one point.
  • An interesting non-magical example occurs in Tropic Thunder with the dedicated method actor Kirk Lazarus briefly playing previous roles before reverting to his original identity.
  • X-Men Film Series
    • X2: X-Men United: When Stryker's Dark Cerebro is turned against Earth's mutant population, Mystique is overwhelmed with terminal agony, causing her to shift wildly between her various identities. The Chris Clairmont novelization indicates that the attack was killing mutants by literally turning their own powers against them, and that Mystique will continue shapeshifting until she loses her grip on all sense of identity and dissolves into goo. Thankfully, Magneto is able to deactivate the machine before things get any worse.
    • X-Men: First Class: Invoked when Darwin's body goes through one state after another to adapt to Shaw's energy cherry-bomb about to go off inside him. His body ultimately gives out. Or did it...? The comic book version of Darwin survived having his entire body destroyed, and eventually generated a new one.
    • Downplayed in X-Men: Apocalypse. As she is being throttled by Apocalypse, Mystique's scales flutter in waves down her body. Yet again, she survives.

  • In Animorphs, this reflex could actually save your life, as shapeshifting regenerates your body. In a more specific example, Rachel has an "allergic reaction" to the crocodile morph, and blacks out, morphing from creature to creature without "demorphing" human in between, something normally not possible for morphers. Downplayed in that the end result wasn't fatal, just incredibly unpleasant, and resulted in a crocodile bursting out of her.
  • Deltora Quest: When ols, the Shadow Lord's shapeshifting spies, are killed, their disguise breaks down, causing them to briefly take on their natural, shapeless form intermixed with chaotically emerging and subsuming traits of every shape they've taken over their lives.
  • Discworld:
  • The defensive version occurs in Galaxy of Fear: Ghost of the Jedi, as a villainous Shi'ido is too injured to shapeshift properly. He's not actually dead.
    In a desperate attempt to save himself, the Shi'ido was shapeshifting into every form he could think of. But nothing could save him. With a wordless cry, Gog fell away from the ladder and Tash watched his gray form shrink into the void.
  • In the setting of Harry Potter, using Riddikulus on a boggart while it's surrounded by many people will cause it to go through a frantic spate of reflexive transformations, helpless to settle on a single guise, so it can be safely locked away.
  • Perhaps the earliest example, maybe the Ur-Example, in Eric Frank Russell's 1940 "I, Spy" (also published as "Spiro", and "Venturer of the Martian Mimics") the alien shapeshifter is trapped by a rising flood of deadly water and frantically shifts between shapes trying to escape. The main character comments that the alien's home planet must not have birds.
  • It culminates in a psychic battle between Bill and Pennywise based on an ancient ritual of dominance. The monster cycles wildly through all his horrifying faces in a futile attempt to escape.
  • Lilith's Brood: The profoundly depressed ooloi Aaor loses control over its ability to manipulate its own DNA, causing it to shift into ever more biologically simple forms over several weeks. It regresses to a sluglike creature by the time it's rescued, and restoring its original form is an uphill battle against its body's urge to dissolve into single-celled organisms. They succeed in healing it.
  • A story in The Martian Chronicles may be the Trope Maker, if not the Ur-Example: the title character of "The Martian" appears to whoever sees him as a lost loved one. When he's surrounded by a crowd of people, who all need to see somebody different, the results are not pleasant.
  • Dean Koontz' Shadowfires features this — at the end, the regenerating, mutating villain shifts through a variety of forms as his metabolism burns out. His accelerated metabolism consumes him, leaving a pile of goo. (Koontz likes to do this to regenerating characters.)
  • "The Shunned House" has an especially horrifying example. As the monster (a sort of vampire that feeds off its victims' life energy rather than blood) dies, it displays the faces of its victims, ending with the narrator's beloved uncle, who had tried to help him destroy it.
  • In The Silmarillion, Sauron is caught in a headlock by the hound Huan, and flips through several forms in an attempt to escape. He fails, and only escapes by shedding his body.
  • In the Scottish ballad Tam Lin, Janet, pregnant with Tam Lin's child, must drag him from the procession of fairies taking him to his doom, and hold on to him as he shapeshifts, until he turns into a burning coal, at which point he can be dropped into a well to return him to human form. It makes more sense in poetry.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
    • In the season 3 finale, it is Subverted. The team attempts to kill Hive by subjecting him to a machine which dredges up hidden memories, causing him to become lost in the personas of his past victims. However, they are unable to finish him off, and he has enough of his mind left to carry out the remainder of his plans.
    • In the episode "Heavy is the Head", Carl Creel goes through one when hit with a Power Nullifier, turning into a series of different materials in quick succession before being Taken for Granite.
  • Inverted in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the First Evil's (re-)introduction as as a Big Bad starts with a shapeshifting rundown of past archvillains. In the finale, the First slinks away unseen when its plan starts to go bad, and is never heard from again.
  • Happens to Everyman in The Flash (2014) when he is injected with a serum that nullifies his abilities. Interestingly, he ends up stopping as Iris West rather than his original appearance. Then again, he later admits that he can't even remember his original appearance.
  • A few variants in Heroes:
    • When a real shapeshifter shows up, it still doesn't happen, handily enough for Sylar, whose form he'd taken before dying.
    • In a season finale, Peter uses his own copied shapeshifting power to overload Sylar's, causing him to shift through all the forms he had taken. This distracts Sylar long enough for Peter to jam an elephant tranquilizer syringe into his throat. Also a Moment of Awesome.
  • In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "The Undead", an evil shapeshifting witch comes to the satellite to threaten Mike and the bots. Unfortunately, she seems to be suffering from some severe indigestion, resulting in this trope. She gets stuck in the form of a bottle of bleach.
  • At the end of Roswell's first season, the protagonists use alien technology to heal a shape-shifting associate, who promptly exhibits this trope.
  • Averted in Supernatural. If you kill a doppelganger, they will stay in their last form. This becomes a plot point several times.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959): In the episode "The Four of Us Are Dying", a man who can alter his face to look like someone else's goes through a convulsive process of his face taking on the shape of each one he impersonated, while he lies dying from a gunshot wound.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A recurring villain in a series of published Eberron adventures has something akin to this happening to him near the end of the last module; Grasp of the Emerald Claw. Garrow, a changeling cleric who has been dogging the party to retrieve the MacGuffin starts to lose control to said Macguffin (which is now sentient), causing him to shift through the various guises he's used to fool the party: a vampire, a half-elf airship captain, a dumpy-looking woman and a few others that he would've used before ever learning of the party. This happens at the start of his last meeting with the party (at least in published material).
  • In the Ravenloft setting, the doppelganger darklord Sodo is cursed to be in a permanent state of this trope, never able to settle on a form.
  • Polymorphine, a drug in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, induces this by default. The Callidus assassins train themselves over a lifetime to use it for proper shapeshifting.

    Video Games 
  • The Binding of Isaac: Used as a boss mechanic in the fight against Delirium, Afterbirth+'s Final Boss. Throughout the fight, he shifts into other bosses you've fought that run. The lower his health is, the more rapidly he changes. Once he's at about 5%, he'll swap between bosses several times a second, giving off this feeling. Inverted for his actual death animation, which has him in his Shapeshifter Default Form, with the room itself flicking between different chapters instead.
  • Castlevania
  • In this video of "The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku" from Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA, the title character can be seen cycling through various "modules" (costumes) as she's being deleted.
  • In Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, before you fight King Boo, he is seen rapidly morphing into various characters.
  • Metroid:
    • In Metroid Fusion, the SA-X starts to do this... but doesn't quite finish, instead becoming a Clipped-Wing Angel mix of its previous hosts, namely Samus herself and the Hornoad that infected her in the opening.
    • In Metroid Prime 3, Gandrayda shifts through the forms of various other bosses as well as copying Samus herself as you fight her. Once she goes down, she rapidly cycles through the various other boss forms before lingering on Samus's own form as it is (suit upgrades and all) for a good long moment. This leads to a particularly striking moment with the real Samus, by this point badly corrupted by glowy blue Phazon energy, standing victorious over the image of her own uncorrupted self in the midst of her death throes. Samus is seemingly affected by this nightmarish death, as she looks away and does nothing to stop Dark Samus from absorbing Gandrayda.
  • Mortal Kombat:
    • In the original Mortal Kombat (1992), defeating the final boss Shang Tsung—who has the ability to become any other character and use his or her moves—results in his effectively shedding all the characters' forms before he dies. It's less a song than a curtain call though, as each character separates from his body (with name announced) and combusts. This also happens to Shao Kahn in MK3 and its updates, except Kahn isn't a shapeshifter like Tsung.
    • He plays it straight in the opening to Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. Every time Liu Kang hits him near the end of the fight, he transforms into another character, looking disoriented the whole time, as though it's a survival reflex as described on the top of the page.
  • A more mundane version in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies: the phantom, during their Villainous Breakdown, starts tearing off every single mask they have in an effort to find what their true face is, as they have spent so long impersonating others that they've forgotten their own identity. Just as they finally make it to the last one, they're shot by a sniper, and collapses out of sight before the player can see what they look like.
  • The Shining Trapezohedron from Sundered, upon being defeated in the Resist ending, transforms into a succession of human and not-so-human faces as part of its Villainous Breakdown. It settles on a face with an enraged expression and too many eyes, which can only glare impotently at Eshe before she blasts it to hell with the Valkyrie Cannon.
  • Happens to a shapeshifting hench in the Tex Murphy game Under A Killing Moon, except the guy starts out in his own form and ends up as a gooey blob.

    Web Animation 
  • In Fandeltales: The Cursed Prince (WARNING: NSFW) by Newgrounds +18 artist Derpixon, the succubus and professional Shapeshifting Seducer Herzha meets her match in Prince Amont, who has the stamina to avoid having his life drained and outlast every single shape she wears while screwing him. As such, at the very moment of final climax, Herzha shifts wildly between several different forms, before passing out. Unfortunately, she's not fully defeated, as Amont soon discovers.

  • A survived example: Ariel in Drow Tales, having a high sorcery ability that lets her shapeshift, cycles back through several people she imitated as she tries to control herself enough to close the gaping wound resulting from Kalki slashing off her arm at the shoulder.

    Web Original 
  • The Adventure Zone: Amnesty has a pretty horrifying example with its fourth Abomination simply known as The Shapeshifter. After being shot with the Narf Blaster by Ned, the Shapeshifter devolves into a literal pile of human viscera clawing at the ground with constantly growing and deforming hands.
  • A comedic version happens in several of Markiplier's Prop Hunt videos, where a Prop (usually Mark, but others do it on occasion) will panic and try to run away from the Hunters while rapidly transforming into other props.

    Western Animation 
  • 2 Stupid Dogs: In the Super Secret Secret Squirrel short "Chameleon", Secret Squirrel must track down an art thief chameleon with camouflage powers that let him remain Hidden in Plain Sight. Secret eventually figures out his weakness and tricks him into a room full of abstract and surrealist art; the clashing colors, confused perspectives, and abstract shapes found in modern art cause Chameleon's shape-shifting powers to go haywire, allowing Secret to capture him easily.
    Chameleon: not art!
    Secret Squirrel: Everybody's a critic.
  • Happens to Bowser in The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, after Iggy and Lemmy/Hip and Hop build him an amulet that endows real-world mushrooms, flowers, etc. with the powers of those from the game. He goes a little crazy, mixing and matching Powerups (a fiery orange Bowser in a Kuribo shoe and raccoon tail), and when he's defeated, the amulet malfunctions, causing him to blink through several different forms (raccoon, frog suit, orange (fire powerups on the NES made you a lot more orange!)) and odd combinations before finally rocketing him into a manhole.
  • The Amazing World of Gumball,
    • In one episode Gumball attempts to take Penny on what he considers to be the perfect date, with the intention of proposing to her. This being the show it is, however, nothing goes over too well. The evening eventually culminates with poor Penny choking on the ring Gumball slipped in her drink, causing her to rapidly change between forms.
    • A non-lethal example of this trope also comes into effect in "The Shell", when Penny, who believes herself to be a monster at the time due to her newly-gained Involuntary Shapeshifter status, is snapped back to her senses with a kiss from Gumball.
  • The second half of Clayface's introductory episode in Batman: The Animated Series, "Feat of Clay: Part 2", has Bats lure him into a room filled with TVs showing all the roles he'd played in his former life as an actor. He starts convulsing and turning into them at random; when he panics and starts smashing the TVs, he's electrocuted. However, at the end it turns out the whole thing was an act, or at least the dying part, and Clayface survived, making this a subversion. Clayface inadvertently clued in Batman to this, because he couldn't resist making an aside about having wished for a death scene that good in his movies.
  • In Ben 10: Omniverse, during the series finale, Ben rapidly switches through nearly all of his alien forms while trying to contain the detonation of Maltruant's modified Anihilaarg. This turns out to be an emergency feature of the Omnitrix: if the wearer is about to die, it will shift through all available alien forms until it finds one capable of surviving the given situation.
  • At the end of the C.O.P.S. (1988) episode "The Case of the Crook with a Thousand Faces", the shape-shifting robot Shifty ends up tricked by the C.O.P.S. into taking on their forms, resulting in the robot rapidly cycling through various forms and then shutting down.
  • In an episode of Darkwing Duck, the villain, who is a Chameleon, goes through one of these when she is exposed to warm temperatures and her metabolism speeds up, resulting in her turning into an actual chameleon.
  • Happens in the Futurama episode "A Bicyclops Built for Two" to Alcazar, a shapeshifter who uses his powers to juggle several different women of different species in simultaneous relationships, including Leela. Being confronted by all of them at once leads to him rapidly changing his appearance to appeal to each one, and to them beating the crap out of him so bad he starts to mix up aspects of the different forms before giving up and showing his true form: that of a dog-sized cricket.
  • Gravity Falls:
    • In the episode "Into the Bunker", Dipper, Wendy, Soos, and Mabel fight a shapeshifter and eventually push it back into the freezing chamber where it was originally contained. It turns into a flame to try to avoid freezing and tries to use large, muscular forms to break out, making it seem to fit the "survival reflex" variety. Also, when it finally freezes, it turns into Dipper and screams in agony in order to taunt and intimidate him.
    • Bill Cipher, the Big Bad of the series, gets one during the Grand Finale "Weirdmaggedon Part 4: Somewhere in The Woods". When he's being erased, he starts glitching up and changes between multiple different forms, each of which are arguably more horrifying than his Shapeshifter Default Form, although retaining his triangle/pyramid motif.
  • In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's Season 4 finale, Tirek goes through this as he is depowered by the Mane Six's Rainbow Power super laser.
  • Minor example: In the ReBoot episode Painted Windows, Bob uses Paint of all things to remove Hexadecimal's mask. He then gets a Hannibal Lecture from all of Hexadecimal's faces as she starts to overload.
  • The Simpsons: The Terminator 2: Judgment Day example above is spoofed in "Treehouse of Horror VI" when Groundskeeper Willie (as a Freddy Krueger expy) turns into many things at once, after having been trapped in quicksand and desperately trying to get out.
  • Happens to Chameleon in Spider-Man: The Animated Series. In this case, it's his belt malfunctioning after Spider-Man attacks him, as he needs the technology to shapeshift. The Chameleon is taken alive and arrested by SHIELD.
  • In the Static Shock episode "Junior", Edwin Alva Jr. becomes the villain Omnifarious and utilizes a belt filled with modified Bang Baby gas in each pellet, giving him a different power each time he bursts one, with intent on using it to try and destroy his father's company. In the episode's climax, he bursts all the pellets at once to turn his father's HQ to rubble. Unfortunately, he ends up overloading on the dosage, resulting in him mutating randomly and out of control before finally turning into stone. Fortunately, he's restored to normal later on.
  • Inverted in Steven Universe. The Gems are a One-Gender Race of living jewels who create human-looking bodies around themselves to see, hear, speak, move around, etc. If their human forms are mortally damaged, they dissolve the forms back into their gems to regenerate, and once they're ready to be used again, they regenerate them with a new design. They quickly cycle through their past regenerations as silhouettes while doing so before settling on the newest one. In addition, in the episode "An Indirect Kiss", Amethyst's gem is cracked. It's a potentially fatal injury that only the late Rose Quartz had the ability to heal. As the crack worsens, she has trouble keeping her physical form together and speaks backwards.
  • In one episode of Sym-Bionic Titan where the Monster of the Week is a shapeshifting ghost, during the climatic battle, it morphs through all the forms it took on with each punch from Titan before eventually exploding.
  • Minor superhero Chameleon of The Tick suffers a mild form of this when he accidentally tries to conceal himself on some plaid curtains.

    Real Life 



When cornered by an enhanced Ditto, Tim doses it with R gas, causing it to lose control of its shapeshifting.

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