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Third Act Stupidity

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This is when for most of a work, the hero or the villain has been reasonably smart in their actions. But if that character acts just as smart in the climax, it would be over in a minute. Time for this Sub-Trope of Idiot Ball.

For example, a cop protagonist has done just about everything with their partner, until it comes time to confront the murderer, and then the cop does it all alone.

Or on the villain's side, this bad guy has been one step ahead of the police the whole time, and whenever a cop gets close, that cop dies. But now it's the climax, so the villain does stupid things to drag this out (even if the villain does come out on top).


A Villainous Breakdown, Honor Before Reason, and Revenge Before Reason might be confused for this trope, but are not, as those are logical progressions of events in the story.

Compare Monster Threat Expiration, Pride Before a Fall, Third-Act Misunderstanding, Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?, and You Can't Thwart Stage One.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Death Note: Light starts out being Crazy-Prepared and doing everything possible to preserve his secret, but as he starts buying into his own hype, he starts viewing himself as invincible and stops being so careful. After the Time Skip, he's gone from erasing his own memory, trusting in the brilliance of his planning to ensure L's death while cementing his own complete innocence... to hiding the Death Note in storage and really hoping no one finds it while he's not looking.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam AGE: Zeheart Galette seemed to get more and more stupid and crazy as the third generation went on, culminating in ordering Fram Nara into a suicide attack that didn't work, and then killing some of his own men. He then took to a Mobile Suit battle in a blind rage and got killed in ten seconds, despite having both a machine and the piloting skills to make him a match for the main characters.
  • Dragon Ball Z:
    • The Namek Saga is notable for the guerilla-style tactics that the heroes are required to use throughout: Krillin and Gohan are no match for most of Frieza's elite henchmen, Vegeta is slightly higher up the power scale and ascends higher but is still forced to play it smart to outwit the godlike Frieza. By the end of the saga, Vegeta throws all this careful planning aside and stupidly goads Frieza into transforming, arrogantly believing that Frieza wouldn't get that much stronger; it costs him his life. Not that he had much choice at that point, since Frieza had cornered them and was going to kill everyone regardless, but goading Frieza into transforming faster instead of trying to delay him until Goku could get there to help wasn't exactly a smart move.
    • Throughout the Cell Saga, Cell is The Chessmaster and a No-Nonsense Nemesis who runs circles around the Z-Fighters and repeatedly outsmarts them since, as he's created from their DNA, he knows how they operate and think; he even manages to achieve his goal of attaining his Perfect form by exploiting Vegeta's ego and desire for a challenging fight to get Vegeta to help him do so. But after defeating both Vegeta and Trunks in his Perfect form, he lets his ego and pride overcome his common sense, setting up a fighting tournament just to test his skills and giving the Z-Fighters ten days to prepare and grow stronger just so he can have more fun fighting them. However, this is somewhat understandable given the nature of the character. What really cements him as this is when he discovers Gohan's hidden power and does everything he can to piss Gohan off so he can unleash said hidden power and receive a real challenge, just as Goku intended; keep in mind that this is the exact same trick Cell used on Vegeta to get him to help Cell absorb Android 18, and then mocked him to his face for being so stupid as to go for it. Later, in his frustration, he does the exact same thing he mocked Trunks for earlier: buffing up his muscles to crush his opponent with raw power, at the expense of his speed.
  • A Failure Is the Only Option example takes place in just about every Generation in Pokémon with Ash. He will defeat all the Gym Leaders (or befriend them, or both), gain all of the badges, defeat Team Rocket whenever they show up, dismantle the resident criminal organization (unless it's Team Rocket itself, but he will still put a stop to the Team's current plan), save the world and beat a few Olympus Mons. But once he gets to the League, unless it's not canon to the games (like the Orange Island League), he will ALWAYS LOSE! And after that, he will promptly go back home, leave all his Pokémon at Professor Oak's lab except for Pikachu, go to another region and repeat the process from the beginning.

    Comic Books 

    Films — Animated 
  • In Hercules, Hades has managed to get Hercules to agree to give up his super-strength in exchange for Megara's survival and safety. So, what does Hades then do? While he's taking over Mount Olympus, he sends a giant Cyclops to attack Hercules, who will likely be with Megara, thus making it highly likely that she will be harmed in the crossfire. Granted, he did reveal some awful truths about her which likely broke them up, but it is still a risk not worth taking. And since the deal is immediately nullified if she's harmed, he has effectively ensured that his plan will fail.
    • However, it goes even deeper. If Hades had sent any of the other four titans, who are always shown going for quick kills, then Hercules would likely have died before Phil came back to inspire him. Even if they didn't, a lava monster, for instance, would have been harder to kill through guile.
  • This happens in Scooby-Doo! and the Witch's Ghost. The gang go to help a man named Ben Ravencroft clear his ancestor's name because she was accused of being a witch. Once they find her book, he reveals that she was one. As he tells them that he's going to release her from the book, get magic powers, and basically destroy all, they only give him the "You won't get away with this" speech and WAIT FOR HIM TO SUMMON HIS POWERS!! Of course, they're not going to tackle him before he reads the book aloud, otherwise the movie would be over.
  • Sakharine of The Adventures of Tintin is a very smart villain, preparing for many different disasters, keeping enemies alive only when their information is needed, being careful to not commit open robberies of the MacGuffins, and pulling a I Surrender, Suckers on the good guys. Then when threatening to destroy the treasure map, he chooses to monologue at length about how the heroes have failed to beat him, buying enough time for Tintin to sneak around and steal it from him.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Birds features a scene where the protagonists are safely boarded inside the house. The birds attack but can't get in. Melanie inexplicably decides to wander upstairs. In doing so she finds a room that the birds have gotten into and attack her. Tippi Hedren even asked the director what her motivation would be to walk up the stairs, and he simply replied "your salary".
  • Near the end of Red Dawn (1984), Jed gets the drop on Colonel Strelnikov by sneaking up behind him. But instead of just shooting him, he first announces his presence with the line "You lose". This gives Strelnikov enough time to open fire on Jed before he dies, inflicting critical injuries.
  • The original ending of A Perfect Murder (the remake of Dial M for Murder) was an aversion of this. The wife shoots her husband for trying to have her killed, and fakes a struggle. Since she had evidence he planned to have her killed, the police shrug it off, and she actually commits the perfect murder. But it was decided that the audience couldn't morally identify with her, and then we had the wife doing this trope.
  • Once Upon a Time in Mexico: The Femme Fatale spots her ex-boyfriend wounded in the street from a distance; the sensible thing to do would be to snipe him, as she was perfectly capable. But instead she goes down to talk to him, so that they could have a dramatic final exchange and so that Sands could shoot her.
  • None of the characters in Hellboy II: The Golden Army make intelligent decisions in the third act, which lead to the villain getting the MacGuffin and the Love Interest dying (although critics felt it didn't hurt the overall film).
  • The movie Underworld when the Big Bad has rendered the hero completely helpless and has him on the floor at his feet... but then walks away to deal with another problem. The hero of course recovers and saves the day.
    • Of course, the Hero is the spitting image of his dead daughter — a daughter he'd already been mortified by having to kill before. It was possible he wasn't able to bring himself to deliver the killing strike this time.
  • In Draft Day, the Cleveland general manager (Kevin Costner) is tricked into an epically bad trade by the Seattle GM. That level of stupidity happens about once every 20 years. The movie is about Costner dealing with the fallout amid team politics, etc. Then, in Act Three he manages to pull off two even more unlikely trades - one against the now-suddenly stupid Seattle GM.
  • Camp Nowhere: After having spent the entire movie managing to keep their fake summer camp from being discovered, and after spending most of Parents' Day fooling the parents, the kids start celebrating their victory before the last group of parents has left. Had the kids paid ANY attention to their security monitors, they would have noticed debt collector Polk at the front gate. Things then go From Bad to Worse when Polk runs into Mud's dad, as it eventually leads to the ruse being uncovered.
  • Vantage Point: Veronica, who has killed or helped kill dozens of people, including children, ruins the terrorists' plan because she can't run over a little girl. At this point the terrorists had succeeded at everything. All they had to do was literally drive away in triumph.
  • Poltergeist. Steven and Diane Freeling acted with reasonable intelligence throughout most of the movie - not perfectly, but then they had no experience with this type of terror. However, after managing to rescue Carol Anne from a demonic ghost, they decide that Diane, Robbie and Carol Anne will stay in the house overnight. Not only that, but they let Robbie and Carol Anne stay alone in the same room that Carol Anne was originally stolen from. Would you take that kind of risk with your kids?
  • Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds is made out to be a smart mind, but in the final chapter he decides to trust his opponents' words and delivers himself to them without a backup plan.
  • Early in Saw I, Adam tries to get a tape recorder that's far out of reach. Doctor Lawrence Gordon suggests using his shirt to snag it. Later in the film, Lawrence is trying to reach a phone just inches away. He takes off his shirt and uses it as a torniquet while he saws off his own foot to free himself. Both characters completely forget his earlier suggestion.
  • This ends up getting Played for Drama in Avengers: Infinity War courtesy of Thor. Thanos, having spent the entire movie searching for the Infinity Stones, finally gets his hands on all of them. He's prepared to cull half the universe until Thor drives Stormbreaker right into his chest, wounding him pretty badly. It's at that moment that he decides to drive the ax through the Mad Titan's chest, driven fully by vengeance over the slaughter of his people...and it's with those few moments that Thanos snaps his fingers.
    Thanos: You should have gone for the head...

  • Double-subverted in Artemis Fowl: Artemis specifically refers to the "third stage of operations" as the time not to get careless, and of course things go wrong anyway.
  • Thrawn in his Star Wars Expanded Universe trilogy. The author has openly admitted that he couldn't think of any way, realistically, for the good guys to win against the relatively intelligent and cautious master strategist, and that he had to take up the Idiot Ball for the last few chapters to give the story its happy ending.
  • The Lies Of Locke Lamora has a case of this when Locke and Jean take on the Falconer, who can use magic to control people whose true name he knows. The Falconer realizes that "Lamora" is a fake name, but it never occurs to him that "Locke" is also assumed, which of course it is. Without any part of Locke's true name, the Falconer's spell fails, allowing Lock to overpower him.
  • In the novel Some Kind of Hero, the main character spends the entire book telling everyone how dangerous her supervillain ex-boyfriend is and how under no circumstances should they touch him, even for a moment, since his superpower is to manipulate the powers of anyone he's touching, including in ways that are lethal, like removing Required Secondary Powers. At the end of the book, he's finally arrested and being sent to prison for his crimes when he asks if she'll give him a goodbye kiss. She inexplicably obliges, and he steals all her powers.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: In the third-season episode "Maveth", the current head of Hydra is holding Simmons hostage while her partner, Fitz, is off performing a dangerous mission on his behalf. At one point, Simmons overhears the evil scientists making a mistake in their calculations and corrects them, stating explicitly that she helped only to ensure Fitz's safe return. Instead of using this leverage to his advantage, the evil mastermind, who has for decades orchestrated an elaborate plot leading up to this very moment, informs Simmons that he has no intention of letting Fitz return alive, thus eliminating any incentive for her to cooperate with him.
  • Charmed: Zankou, S7's Big Bad, is smart enough to come up with cold-blooded torture that weakens the sisters' confidence enough so he can steal the Book of Shadows. However, in the finale his IQ seems to plummet and the sisters manage to goad him into doing something stupid so they can attack him. It was a shame because he was one of the few worthy opponents they had up to that point.
  • Part of the fun of Columbo was zig-zagging this. He seems like a fool, and even seems to fall into this, but it's all an act. The irony is his act is an attempt to invoke this trope, seeming careless, stupid and oblivious so his enemies will slip up and Columbo can nail them.
  • In the Criminal Minds episode "Our Darkest Hour", the detective helping the team on the case, Matt Spicer, forgets protocol at the end of the episode, leading him and Morgan into Spicer's house without waiting for backup, allowing the Unsub to trap them, kill Spicer, incapacitate Morgan, and kidnap Spicer's youngest daughter. It's justified in that Spicer was dealing with an issue in his family, which the Unsub had targeted once before and killed everyone except for him.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In "The Brain of Morbius", the Doctor defeats and captures Morbius by the middle of the last episode, deciding to remove his brain and return it to the Time Lords. It's fairly logical for him to threaten Solon, the Mad Scientist responsible for giving Morbius his new body, into doing the job for him. It's less logical for him to leave Solon alone to do the job and go and check on Sarah in a room with a lock on the door. To the surprise of no-one but him, Solon locks them in and revives Morbius.
    • "The End of Time": The Big Bad tells the Master in the most insulting terms that the moment his plan (which the Master is an essential part of) succeeds, the Master will be killed. While the Master is standing next to the machine that forms another essential part of the plan. He also passes up numerous opportunities to shoot the Doctor despite having previously shown a willingness to kill people for disagreeing with him; and the Doctor isn't part of his plan. (Admittedly, said villain is the definition of arrogant...)
    • The Monks trilogy of Series 10 technically has Third Episode Stupidity. "Extremis" establishes them as all-seeing, Reality Warper villains planning for every possible contingency in their plan to conquer Earth, which pays off for them in "The Pyramid at the End of the World". They show up at a point where humanity is doomed to be wiped out — unless they give up their freedom to the Monks — and the Doctor is in a vulnerable state due to blindness that he won't admit to others. The Doctor stops the crisis but ends up endangered, and his companion Bill sells out humanity to save him in hopes he can save the day again! With that, "The Lie of the Land" picks up six months later with the Monks having brainwashed most of humanity into believing them to have always been benevolent superiors. But despite their amazing powers they manage to miss the Doctor's faked loyalty to them, his companion-assisted escape, and the resultant plan to undo them and put up very little of a fight against the good guys, with only a few tertiary characters perishing. Once their hold over humanity is broken, they... leave. The episode works to justify this by having a character who's previously dealt with the Monks explain that they don't think through holding on to their power once they have it, but that still comes after two episodes in which they were nigh-omnipotent and the Doctor legitimately had no hope of outwitting them.
  • Game of Thrones: In "The Long Night", the Night King feels the need to personally assassinate Bran Stark, despite the fact that his death will destroy all other undead and there being no stated reason as to why he specifically needs to kill Bran. It's even acknowledged by the heroes that there's no way they can defeat the army of the dead in a straight-up battle and their only chance is to kill the Night King before they are overrun. Had he just stayed off the field and let his minions deal with Bran, or at least waited until the battle was over to do it himself, he would have won. And it's not like he even needs to worry about Bran escaping, since Bran is paralyzed from the waist down and can barely move, and the Night King had previously put a mark on him that lets him always know where Bran is. But despite all that, for no clearly explained reason, he still insists on showing up in the middle of the battle, giving the heroes their Instant-Win Condition.
  • Harmon Rab and Sarah Mackenzie of JAG are often guilty of this. When it came time for the episode climax, they often confronted the bad guy alone. They are partners yet seem to forget that when it comes to one of the very reasons law enforcement has a partner system.
    • Especially since they are lawyers and not NCIS agents. Mac was a Marine, and a badass one at that, but still.

    Video Games 
  • This happens every now and then in the Batman: Arkham Series.
    • Hugo Strange in Batman: Arkham City. He spends most of the game and the prequel comics matching wits with Batman, who has a lot of trouble genuinely messing with his plans because Strange has studied him so thoroughly. In the last third of the game, Strange takes a hostage over a video screen, forcing Batman to stay still while he lectures him and his goons fill the room. Instead of forcing Batman to not fight back for the sake of the hostage, Strange just lets him go, allowing Batman to knock out all of his men. And despite how familiar he is with Batman's tactics, when Batman begins climbing the tower to his control room and his thugs can't locate him, Strange just assumes he's fallen off. Arguably, his lackluster security and decision to control the prison with WayneTech equipment and having his headquaters on a tower without emergency exits extend to a larger timespan that the third act, but his actions near the climax are more notable.
      • Not to mention the fact that Strange reveals in the opening cutscene that he knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but fails to use this as a way to stop Batman's advance. That he doesn't do it at any time is bad enough, but it's especially egregious in the climax, considering it's one of the few times Batman is taking direct action against Strange's plan, rather than dealing with a peripheral issue.
    • Batman: Arkham Knight ultimately plays this trope straight, but not without some heavy zig-zagging first. By the endgame, Scarecrow has scored a major victory by covering Gotham City in the Cloudburst fear toxin, and plans to do the same to the entire American East Coast. Scarecrow is content to sit back and watch Batman suffer; but his Dragon, the titular Arkham Knight, who knows full well how dangerous Batman can be and specifically joined up with Scarecrow so he can get even with the Bat, is having none of it and decides to go after Batman himself. After the Knight reveals himself to be Jason Todd and is taken out by Batman, Scarecrow continues with his initial To the Pain plan as though nothing happened. Unbeknownst to Scarecrow, however, The Joker, who has been serving as Batman's Enemy Within for much of the game, begins taking over Batman's psyche the more Bruce is exposed to the fear gas. Even though Scarecrow manages to get Batman to unmask himself on national television, he still loses because he's so intent on breaking Batman through fear that he inadvertently allows Batman to win through fear toxin; first by allowing Joker to take over, then by showing him a Bad Future where the Monster Clown Attention Whore dies alone and forgotten, allowing Bruce to regain control.
  • In BlazBlue, Hazama/YuukiTerumi fell hard on this trope. He spent BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger standing on the sidelines of the "Groundhog Day" Loop, memorizing everyone's patterns, carefully manipulating events, setting up lots and lots of preparations and playing Xanatos Speed Chess with Rachel Alucard, one of the few besides himself with Ripple Effect-Proof Memory, for the chance of breaking the time loop with a head start, all without letting slip he's a bad guy. And at the end of the first act/game, the loop is finally broken, all of his plans play out smoothly and everything ends in his advantage... In BlazBlue: Continuum Shift, he has a spell come into effect that allows him to observe all timelines of the Continuum Shift, effectively allowing him to choose the exact timeline in which the protagonists hold the Idiot Ball, he successfully forges Kusanagi: Sword of the Godslayer, outmaneuvers Takamagahara, and finally gets to declare himself the winner of the second act/game. Hey, I told you he was Crazy-Prepared... However, come BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma, he makes several stupid, amateurish mistakes that ultimately end up getting him killed by the heroes midway through the third act/game... In BlazBlue: Central Fiction, the final act/game of the series, it turns out that he narrowly survived, and while he does wise up, he's ultimately forced to wait in the shadows for a perfect opportunity to rear its face before he can act...once he does, however, he achieves a harrowing Near-Villain Victory and is only narrowly defeated and killed after a long, hard-fought battle.
  • Sam and Max Save the World: Situation: Comedy: The final puzzle would be much easier if Sam and Max could just leave their seats to knock Myra unconscious, but the sheer force of personality of "America's Mom" means that when Myra tells them to stay seated, Sam can't bring himself to break the social conventions of a talk show. Meanwhile Max, who normally wouldn't care about that sort of thing, would rather take the chance to talk about himself at length.

    Visual Novels 
  • Yoshiyuki in Da Capo II develops this during the Koko route. While he's never super perceptive about love, in this route he basically goes out of his way to be as incompetent as possible about the matter until the point the stupidity starts to edge into jerkassery. The most likely reason is that there's no real dramatic story set up for Koko; she loves Yoshiyuki, pretty much always has and has nothing seriously wrong with her life.
  • In Fate/stay night, this is the (self-acknowledged) critical weakness of Rin - she gets all the little things right, gets all the middle-sized things right, and then screws it up when it really counts. This helps contrast her with Shirou, who's the opposite.

    Western Animation 
  • In the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko tells Katara that he can beat Azula alone, which turns out to be true and is about to one-hit Azula the same way he did a few episodes back with his father (and at that time he was unprepared). Then he makes the mistake of taunting her. Katara makes the mistake of standing too close to the action. Result? Azula fires at Katara and Zuko is taken out of commission shielding her from the lightning, leaving Katara to finish what he started.
    • It wasn't the taunt in of itself that was Zuko's mistake. He taunted Azula for the specific purpose of drawing out her lightning attack. You can even see Zuko preparing to redirect the lightning. Zuko's mistake (aside from just wanting to show off that he had one technique that Azula didn't) was that he underestimated how lucid Azula still was. Even in her Villainous Breakdown, she still thought clearly enough to realize that targeting Katara, not Zuko, was the best move.
    • Luckily he survives, and because there are standard sportsmanship rules in an Agni Kai, Zuko still won the moment she attacked a spectator. However, you've still got a paranoid lunatic shooting lightning everywhere and, Agni Kai or not, she has to be stopped, so on with the show!

    Real Life 
  • The Siege of Syracuse during the Second Punic War. To defend his city, Archimedes had designed defensive weapons such as ship-sinking cranes, ballistae, onagers, and possibly even a heat ray made of focused mirrors. They were so successful that eventually the defenders became overconfident and got drunk on duty, during a festival of Artemis, allowing a group of Romans to breach their defenses and take control of the outer walls.


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