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Superweapon Suspense Subversion

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In fiction, as in real life, the use of a Superweapon is likely to carry with it certain drastic consequences. In a setting where such weapons are present, they serve as a source of tension... and nothing ratchets up the tension like the implication they may actually be used. One way to evoke some of that tension without actually taking a step towards Armageddon is for a work to imply that a Superweapon is about to be launched, only to later reveal that something else is happening. Perhaps the warhead malfunctioned or simply wasn't armed. Perhaps what was launched was a conventional weapon that for some reason required unusually strict launch procedures. Or perhaps the characters were in fact following the correct procedures to launch a fully functional WMD, but are ultimately revealed to have simply been participating in an exercise. In the latter case, this trope will overlap with Danger Room Cold Open; additionally, the scene may also serve as the setup for a Meaningful Echo later, when the same procedures are again being followed - only this time it's made abundantly clear that it is not an exercise. Empty Quiver may occasionally be this trope's inverse, if the characters involved with the incident are unaware they are handling a live nuclear weapon.

Contrast Superweapon Surprise, where the weapon in question wasn't revealed in the first place.

As this trope involves subversion of audience expectation, unmarked spoilers are ahead! - You have been warned!


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  • A commercial for Pepperidge Farms has a pair of military men receiving an order to "set them all off". Unfortunately, one of them can't remember the code...until his superior tells him he gave it to him at breakfast. Now he remembers due to the Pepperidge Farms pastry he had for breakfast. Cut to what appears to be a missile launching...then pull back to reveal it's a lawn sprinkler.

    Comic Books 
  • The Punisher MAX: At the end of the Mother Russia arc, Frank, Martin and Galina (the little girl they were sent to rescue, or rather the bioweapon in her blood) escape a Russian missile base by launching a nuclear missile at Moscow, which sends the Russians and Americans into a frenzy (the Russians think Arab terrorists are behind it, the Americans weren't expecting their operation to start World War III). Then the warhead deactivates and the engines turn off, allowing the three to bail out and parachute to (relative) safety.

  • In Avengers: Endgame the audience has watched every single good guy be defeated by Thanos wielding the Infinity Gauntlet - he snaps his fingers, the gesture that resulted in a literal World Half Empty in the last movie and which he claims is going to remake the universe this time around.. only for absolutely nothing to happen, as the Infinity Stones that power the gauntlet have all been swiped during the last, desperate assault by Iron Man.
  • K-19: The Widowmaker opens with the crew of the titular submarine preparing to launch one of its nuclear missiles... until a short circuit in the missile control console prompts the captain to angrily snap, "The drill is over!" at which point the sub is revealed to be running an exercise while still in port. This serves as the setup for an Ironic Echo later, when the crew are preparing to actually fire a test missile; while it's made abundantly clear that said missile carries only a dummy warhead and will impact in Soviet territory, tensions within the crew and doubts about the sub's reliability make for an atmosphere of far greater suspense and anxiety.
  • The Mouse That Roared: The Film of the Book adds one visual fakeout to the original novel (see Literature) by suddenly cutting from one scene to a mushroom cloud:
    Narrator: Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the end of the film. However, something like this might easily happen, and we thought we should put you in the proper mood.
  • In The Rock, General Hummel threatens to unleash rockets filled with VX gas on San Francisco if his demands are not met. When his deadline passes, he launches one of the rockets towards a nearby NFL stadium... only for it to land harmlessly in San Francisco Bay. When his Marines question what happened, he reveals that it was all a bluff.
  • Early in The Sum of All Fears, the US President and his cabinet are seen preparing to order a retaliatory nuclear strike against Russia, only to be interrupted by a phone call from the First Lady; the President then drily asks the others if they can continue "some other time..." Sets up a Meaningful Echo at the film's climax, when the President is contemplating a very real retaliatory strike in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation at the Super Bowl, and is seen going through the same procedures as in the beginning of the film.
  • In Three Kings. While trying to escape with the gold, the main characters come under fire from an Iraqi mortar, and are horrified to see the mortar shells bursting in a cloud of colored gas. Cue frantic searching for gas masks and other protective gear, until the Special Forces colonel leading the group stops one of them from injecting an antidote to chemical weapons, stating that what they've been hit with is simply a particularly nasty form of tear gas.
  • WarGames:
    • The film opens with two USAF airmen reporting for their shift in a missile control bunker suddenly confronted with the prospect of having to order a launch. It is ultimately revealed to be a Secret Test of whether such personnel would in fact carry out their orders in a crisis.
    • A brief one occurs late in the film. As soon as WOPR gets the launch codes to the ICBMs, the screens in the War Room depict missile tracks originating from the US... cue a momentary panic until it's established that WOPR is still running simulations.
  • X-Men: Apocalypse: Bolstered by Professor X's Psychic Powers, Big Bad En Sabah Nur commandeers every nuclear launch officer on the planet as People Puppets and forces them to launch their entire arsenal... harmlessly into space. It's not benevolence, but to prevent them from being used against him.

  • Occurs twice in the Dale Brown novel Chains of Command:
    • Midway through the book, Colonel Darren Mace and Major Rebecca Furness watch helplessly as a Russian jet overflies their base and drops something that, between its appearance and the fact that the Russians have already used nuclear weapons elsewhere, they are convinced is a parachute-retarded nuclear bomb. Cut to the next chapter, where an incredulous US President is told that the aircraft actually dropped leaflets.
    • A second, downplayed example occurs in the book's climactic mission. Prior to takeoff, Furness and Mace are inspecting two nuclear weapons that have been loaded aboard their aircraft when they are interrupted by a pilot from the allied Ukrainian Air Force. To their horror, they discover that neither he nor anyone outside their direct chain of command is aware of their nuclear attack orders, and the three pilots rush off to correct this oversight. The mission is launched, and Furness and Mace release their weapons... only for it to be revealed that a last minute switch has been made - a nuclear attack is still taking place, but it is the Ukrainian pilot who will carry it out.
  • In the Alternate History novel Germania by Robert Conroy, German scientists are depicted feverishly working to create an atomic bomb able to be carried by a V-1. In the novel's climax, the V-1 with their bomb is launched to no effect; the scientists are implied to have sabotaged their own project.
  • An in-universe example occurs in The Jessica Keller Chronicles: Auberon. While conducting commerce raiding operations, Jessica launches a missile that has a slight radioactive signature at a Fribourg Empire planet, which airbursts in an unpopulated area, causing significant panic and tying up Imperial resources. The panic was all she was after, as the "warhead" was ice and gravel that had been irradiated just enough to show up on sensors. Made funnier by the color commentary provided by her chief engineer as the missile goes in.
  • The Mouse That Roared derives much dramatic tension in its second half from the possibility that the diplomatic complications resulting from the Duchy of Grand Fenwick's unexpected seizure of a nuclear bomb from the United States might set off a nuclear war. At the end of the story, the bomb is accidentally set off, but luckily it turns out to be a dud.
  • In Red Storm Rising, much secrecy surrounds "Operation Doolittle" - it's slowly revealed that the mission involves a number of Los Angeles-class submarines sneaking extremely close to the Soviet coastline to launch Tomahawk missiles armed with... something other than their normal high explosive warheads against an unspecified target. Unusual care is taken in checking the components of each and every missile to be used for faults, and a technician even notes that the guidance systems being installed are used almost exclusively with nuclear warheads. It's not until the missiles reach their targetsnote  and start to release their payloadsnote  that the true purpose of the raid is revealed: to destroy Soviet naval bombers that have been decimating allied convoys and render their airfields unusable.
  • In one of the Treehouse books, Andy and Terry have a large red button in their treehouse but they've both forgotten what it does. Both of them are wondering What Does This Button Do? but are nervous that it'd cause an explosion, especially since a seer predicted something big and red exploding. However, when Mr. Big Nose's big red nose explodes, Andy and Terry wonder if it's safe to press it and if the seer simply predicted the nose explosion. Jill tells them not to press it but then Mr. Big Nose's baby granddaughter presses it. It turns out that all it does is make rainbows come out of everybody's noses.

    Live Action Television 
  • Doctor Cooper is a Well-Intentioned Extremist during The Bionic Woman episode "Doomsday Is Tomorrow," in which he issues a worldwide ultimatum: abandon all nuclear weapons, or a cobalt bomb will irradiate the upper atmosphere, rendering the Earth's surface unlivable for hundreds of years. Once Jaime Sommers surmounts the Malevolent Architecture of the scientist's base to reach the device, she discovers that no nuclear device exists. The "bomb" was merely the bible passage from Isaiah 2:4. In a deconstruction of Worthless Treasure Twist, the people in charge of the mission still believe that the "weapon" is real after she tells them and Jamie has to Race Against the Clock to provide further proof that it was just a bluff to avoid them accidentally starting World War III.
  • In Legends of Tomorrow episode "Here I Go Again", Zari finds herself stuck in a "Groundhog Day" Loop and is forced to relive an hour that ends in the ship blowing up. After disabling the timeloop and finding the bomb itself, she performs a Heroic Sacrifice by using her wind powers and a force field to shield the rest of the Legends from the blast. However once the countdown hits zero, no explosion happens. It's then revealed to be all a Secret Test of Character and that Zari was in a simulation the whole time.
  • Played for Drama in Preacher, where one of the heads of the Grail is explaining their plot to Take Over the World to Starr. A few minutes before midnight on December 31, 1999, every nuclear missile on Earth will launch simultaneously. The missiles-
    Starr (interrupting): Fail to detonate.
    Starr: You don't want the kingdom of Heaven. You just want to inherit the Earth.
Starr passes the test, and is inducted into the higher ranks of the Grail.
  • The episode "Bomb" of The Young Ones has an airplane drop what the 4 roommates think is an unexploded atomic bomb on their house; as a result, Neil builds a bomb shelter out of a cardboard box, Mike tries to sell it, Rick tries to use it as a bargaining chip to make Thatcher "do something for the kids", and Vyvyan tries to make it explode. At the end of the episode, it's revealed that it wasn't a bomb, but an airplane egg, with a toy plane "hatching" from the bomb.

    Video Games 
  • The final boss of Binary Domain activates a nuclear strike on his and the protagonists' current location, knowing that he's the only one who can deactivate it if things don't go his way. After his defeat, he's willing to accept his fate, but nothing happens. He then learns that the computer AI in charge of the launch has evolved to properly judge if "Human intention" can be trusted, and called off the launch after determining that it would've been used for rather petty purposes.
  • Downplayed in Modern Warfare 2. When Price boards a Russian ballistic missile submarine and launches a nuclear missile, the nuclear warhead is real, armed, and targeted at Washigton, but it does not destroy the city; Price is merely using the warhead to create an EMP effect there that will reduce the fighting to infantry combat.
  • Trails Series: Cold Steel I opens with an In Medias Res scene where the party tries to stop a terrorist group from firing hijacked railway cannons on Crossbell, which would devastate the city and probably provoke a war. Our heroes seemingly fail, complete with a Futile Hand Reach and a Big "NO!". The first half of the game leads up to this scene, and then it turns out that cannons were loaded with blanks as a final safeguard, and the party arrives just in time to stop terrorists from loading genuine rounds.

    Web Original 
  • In the opening of episode 3 of the Extra History series on the Cuban Missile Crisis, as tensions run high between Russia, Cuba and America, Dan describes a Soviet bomber dropping a bomb 20 times as powerful as the one used on Hiroshima ... it's a standard atmospheric test taking place in the Arctic Circle, was scheduled before the crisis began, and has almost no impact on the crisis itself.

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of the Alf cartoon (where he reminisces about his life on Melmac) had Gordon accidentally get recruited into a spy mission while his younger brother and his friends play a spy game connected to a collectible card game. (Collect all the cards and you win a trip.) Gordon encounters the Big Bad and discovers he has a giant missile in his hangar. Gordon fails to stop the villain's countdown, but it turns out it's just to find the last card of the collectible card game. The missile is just a model he built when he was younger.
  • In Ben 10: Alien Force episode "Above and Beyond", the Plumbers Helpers realize the satellite they are on is plummeting towards London and would potentially kill millions of people. The one solution they come up with is to blow up the satellite before it crashes, but since their ship got blown out of the airlock that means they would blow themselves up with it. They use three Plumbers Badges to gain authority to perform a self-destruct, but as the countdown hits zero there's no explosion. It's then revealed everything was a Secret Test of Character and their mentor Max was watching the whole time to which he congratulates their bravery and puts the satellite back into orbit.
  • In The Powerpuff Girls episode, "Bang For Your Buck", Mojo Jojo is having a Garage Sale, and the Girls and the Gangrene Gang compete to get $100.00 to buy what looks like a giant laser. Mojo eventually sells the laser to The Mayor, who believes it to be a snow-cone machine. He turns on the laser, and it aims at him, ready to fire. As it turns out, it really was a snow-cone machine, as it fired flavored ice.
  • The Simpsons: In "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming", Sideshow Bob acquires a 10-megaton nuclear bomb and threatens to use it to destroy Springfield unless television is outlawed. When Krusty the Klown defies the ban, Bob detonates the bomb and a close-up of a mushroom cloud is shown... before the camera zooms out to show the blast radius was barely bigger than a human being. Bob then examines a piece of the bomb's casing, reads "Best Before November 1959" and realises the bomb's nuclear material has long since passed its useful half-life.