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Villainous Underdog

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"Curses... foiled again!"

"Superman vs. Lex Luthor. One is an utterly invincible, immortal god with infinite strength; the other is, uh ... a balding middle-aged man with the strength of one Gene Hackman."

Everybody loves a good David Versus Goliath situation. Watching the heroes triumph over apparently insurmountable odds is something we not only enjoy, but anticipate seeing. It's why tropes like Underdogs Never Lose exist in the first place. So what happens then, when the underdog is the villain?

It's a lot rarer than the opposite, but on occasion you will find a story in which the villain(s) are outmatched, outgunned, outnumbered, or just generally outclassed by the heroes they face off against. In-series and out, the heroes are favoured to win, and have such a clear advantage that it's amazing the villains are able to pose any threat at all. In fact, that's where most of the drama in such a situation comes from—watching as our antagonists, whether through bravery, tenacity, brains, or sheer dumb luck manage to give our heroes a serious run for their money. Alternately, the trope may be Played for Laughs, with the whole point being watching the villain fail spectacularly.

Please note that this isn't just about cases in which the hero is a better fighter than the villain. A Non-Action Big Bad who has thousands of henchmen at his disposal can still be the Goliath to a lone hero's David (though were said Non-Action Big Bad to challenge the hero to a Duel to the Death this trope might be in effect). This is about cases in which an objective look at all factors reveals that the villain, rather than the hero, is at a significant disadvantage across the board.

Expect to see a lot of Villainous Valour in a situation like this. For more general David & Goliath battles see, well, David Versus Goliath. Often comes up in a Brains Evil, Brawn Good situation. Might overlap with Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain if Played for Laughs. See Invincible Hero for the kind of protagonist who is almost guaranteed to have one of these in his Rogues Gallery.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In the Millennium Falcon war of Berserk, this role falls to Ganishka, whom the people of Midland see as a wicked conqueror that the Hawk of Light will vanquish. To those within the story, Ganishka seems like anything but an underdog; he's the ruler of the world's largest empire, a Sorcerous Overlord, has access to a massive pool of manpower backed by demonic troops, and is a demon himself with the ability to become a living storm. But he's going up against Griffith, who is essentially the incarnated form of one of the Powers That Be—and with that in mind, all the material strength in the world isn't going to save him, when causality itself is angling for him to lose. (Of course, Griffith is himself only a hero in the eyes of the people—and Ganishka is far stronger than the actual hero, Guts.)
  • Dragon Ball Super: Broly has the eponymous Anti-Villain in this role. Broly possesses raw power that is well in excess of Goku and Vegeta, but lacks the training to draw on it. A large part of why he lasts as long as he does against them is because they don't fight at full strength out of the gate, giving Broly the chance to draw on more power. Except the more power Broly draws on, the the more he becomes a mindless berserker. When Goku and Vegeta eventually find Broly's power too much to overcome individually they fuse into Gogeta, a warrior with power outstripping Broly's and none of his madness. Broly's friends realize there is no way he can win, so the climax of the movie is instead about their efforts to save him from Gogeta.
  • One of Toonami's promos for Dragon Ball Z referred to it as "the only show where the villain is the underdog, and The Hero is the baddest man in the universe."
  • Gate: The Empire and pretty much everyone from the Special Region. Coming from a medieval setting, their technology is behind the JSDF by two thousand years and as such, the Empire are unable to kill a single Japanese soldier, let alone win any of their battles. Even upgrading their army with Armored Trolls and using guerilla tactics turn up useless. To make matters worse for them, the JSDF quickly gain the help of other kingdoms as well as having a powerful mage and a demigod within their ranks.
  • Gundam:
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure:
    • Diamond is Unbreakable: The final villain of the arc, superpowered Serial Killer Yoshikage Kira, is flat out weaker than the likes of Josuke and Jotaro in close combat, and thus has to rely on clever bomb placement rather than just trying to brute force his way to victory. In fact, he receives some storylines from his perspective where his identity is almost exposed by random civilians, forcing him to use all his wits to escape or destroy the evidence.
    • Likewise, Enrico Pucci of Stone Ocean possesses a Stand that, while not weak, is not suited for direct combat with powerhouses like Star Platinum, Stone Free, Weather Report, and Diver Down. While Pucci still manages to be a threat with clever uses of illusions and his subordinates’ Stands, he is outclassed by his opponents until the end of the Part.
  • Sicks, the Big Bad of Majin Tantei Nougamineuro starts off the manga considerably weaker and outgunned by Neuro, only initially spared by the demonic Neuro's insatiable curiosity and utter distaste for taking human life. To carry out his genocidal plans, Sicks uses his men to force Neuro to expend energy and make him weaker in the human world to the point Sicks can defeat him.
  • Medaka Box: Kumagawa Misogi is specifically designed as this trope. As the supposed weakest being in the world, he can't seem to truly win against anyone, let alone the eponymous Invincible Hero protagonist. Ironically, this is part of his mentality, as he can't even imagine a scenario where he may win, but he manages to score many small victories as the series goes on.
  • My Hero Academia:
    • Tomura Shigaraki is this at the start of the story. Despite having a deadly Quirk and being the leader of the League of Villains, he's a relatively small-time villain who's at a disadvantage against most of the pro heroes who teach the protagonists. This becomes especially clear after his mentor All For One is defeated, leaving him with nothing but a handful of followers, struggling to survive. It stops being the case after the League of Villains merges with the massive Meta Liberation Army, and Shigaraki himself acquires a copy of All For One's eponymous Quirk, turning his new Paranormal Liberation Front into a threat to Japan.
    • Gentle Criminal, the Arc Villain for the Culture Festival arc, is a small-time criminal who uploads videos of himself to the internet. Despite that, he ends up being a deceptively difficult opponent for Midoriya, thanks to his Quirk and his partner La Brava's assistance.
  • In Naruto, Madara Uchiha briefly fits the bill as he faces down the Allied Shinobi Forces, the Protagonists, and the nine Tailed Beasts by himself while having no eyes. He gets slapped around for a bit before he recovers one of his eyes and promptly becomes overpowered again.
  • One Piece:
    • Enel, despite calling himself a god and playing the role convincingly well, finds himself no match for protagonist Luffy, as Luffy's rubber powers render him completely immune to Enel's electricity powers. When the two fight, Enel has to completely rely on indirect uses of controlling electricity but manages to keep up with Luffy in that way.
    • An even-more lopsided case is Wapol, whose power is definitely more deadly than it seems, but in all other respects is woefully outmatched by Luffy. His spotlight arc might well be the only one where the island's general environment poses more of a danger to the heroes than the actual villains do.
  • One-Punch Man: Anyone who goes up against Saitama is severally outmatched and far less powerful, even other ultra powerful beings. Garou's goal is to become the ultimate villain, and In a World… of Badasses with Espers, Ninjas, Bodybuilders strong enough to lift tanks, Cyborgs, and a Comically Invincible Hero as the main character, he certainly had his work cut out for him - even improving himself against each hurdle he comes across. Lord Boros would count too, being the first antagonist to survive a single punch from Saitama. As would "Monster King" Orochi. However, both eventually died.
  • Team Rocket quickly became such in Pokémon: The Series. As Ash and Pikachu quickly developed into one of the most powerful and competent battlers in the show's universe, Team Rocket were established as Ineffectual Sympathetic Villains with weaker Pokemon and battle skills, thus often attempted to capture the heroes' Pokemon via scheming and gadgetry. Meowth is a blatant case since, as a Pokemon, he has barely any battle competence. He can't even use Pay Day, which is the signature move of his species.

    Comic Books 
  • Superman:
    • Lex Luthor. Where Superman verges on being a Physical God, his Arch-Enemy is an unpowered human, distinguished only by his wealth, manipulative and technological brilliance, and need to dominate and lord over others. Fully aware of the power differential between himself and "the alien", Luthor views himself (or at least presents himself to the world) as a Promethean figure, stealing fire from the selfish gods in order to empower humanity.
    • The majority of Superman's foes during The Golden Age of Comic Books, with very few exceptions, were not superpowered. Examples include Toyman (a criminal with weaponized toys) and the Puzzler (a criminal specializing in intellectual parlour games, not unlike the later Batman villain The Riddler in style and abilities). This was so prevalent that, for his run, Mort Weisinger mandated that Superman be given foes that pose a challenge to him, starting with Brainiac though even then Luthor was a common foe thanks to his popularity. By the Post-Crisis era and especially in the 21st century, Superman had a ton of foes who consistently matched or outmatched him through the use of physical might (e.g. Mongul, Darkseid, Doomsday, Cyborg Superman, Ultraman, Zod and his Phantom Zone goons), technology/specific power counters (e.g. Metallo, Atomic Skull, Parasite, Warsuit Lex Luthor), or both (Brainiac), averting this trope. Brainiac is particularly notable as the Last Stand of New Krypton arc had him killing tens of thousands of Kryptonians with his ship and robot army, despite all of them being explicitly identical in power to Superman, and later flooring Superman in a brief fistfight. Against post-2008 Brainiac, Superman is in fact a consistent underdog.
    • Part of what made Mr. Mxyzptlk a Breakout Villain was that he was one of the first characters to completely invert this for Superman. While Superman has incredible power, Mxy is functionally omnipotent—the only reason he doesn't just snap his fingers and make Superman explode is that he's The Trickster and is therefore content to just screw with him. In some continuities, even his sole weakness (saying his name backwards) is something he made up on the spot to make their bouts remotely fair.
    • Supergirl: Most of Kara's enemies until her public debut were gangsters, scammers and other terrible but non-powered people who never even figured out who caused their downfall.
  • Shazam!: Captain Marvel is one of the few characters to be as powerful as Superman. His personal nemesis, Dr. Sivana, is an old man who walks with a cane, and whose Mad Scientist schemes rarely work out the way he plans them. The original version of Mr. Mind is an even bigger example, since like Sivana he's a Mad Scientist but he has the body of a tiny caterpillar, and for all his genius literally can't do anything without the aid of his minions. More recent versions of the character have given him awesome mental powers and have him content to manipulate things from the shadows more often.
  • The Flash has the potential to be the most powerful character in DC thanks to the Speed Force, and his potential to move at even the speed of light makes him nigh-unbeatable to many if not most. His Arch-Enemy is Captain Cold, an unpowered human armed with only a cold gun he built himself, and other than that he only has his fellow Rogues to count on (who similarly are unpowered villains centered around a gimmick). It takes careful planning, Improbable Aiming Skills, and the help of others for him to actually pose a threat to the Flash.
  • Batman is a super-genius techno ninja who mastered every martial art on the planet, and has access to billions of dollars worth of military-grade resources including heavily-armed planes, armored cars, and submarines, as well as many sidekicks with similar skills to his. His archfoe, The Joker, is a (usually) physically unimposing clown who doesn't have a fraction of the money, weaponry, sanity or training available to him, and whose minions tend to be knife and pistol-toting street crooks who melt in the face of organized resistance.
    • This trope could extend to most of Batman's classic Rogues Gallery (e.g The Penguin, The Riddler, The Scarecrow, Catwoman, Two-Face, Hugo Strange...), since unlike Bruce Wayne, none of them have tons of money to back their operations (except maybe the Penguin), and they don't even have the benefit of knowing Batman's true identity. Even most of his super-powered foes like Killer Croc, Man-Bat, or Poison Ivy can seem like this, as their already low-level metahuman powers are further limited in execution by their lack of combat skills and resourcesnote  compared to Batman (plus they tend to be Dumb Muscle). Some of them however avert this. Bane and Deathstroke for example are experienced, skilled fighters who have Super-Strength that Batman lacks, and thus he needs to fight dirty or have a good plan ahead of time to not be stomped by them; Bane also often has a big gang of minions while Batman fights alone. The most notable exception in Batman's rogues gallery though is Ra's Al-Ghul, who is richer than Batman and has an army of trained minions, fighting skills on par with Batman, immortality-based powers, and a vast international network of resources and clients, plus he knows who Batman really is.
  • Spider-Man possesses great innate strength, speed, agility and reflexes, and has to hold back almost all of his strength because he refuses to kill anyone. A lot of his villains consist of tough but ordinary humans, guys in fancy suits that give them abilities to fight Spidey but still aren't as strong, and other people who do have superpowers that are still below Spidey's level in terms of brains. It's clear that Spidey could kill most of them any time he wanted with very little effort. The fact that he's against it, along with the fallout due to his being a Hero with Bad Publicity on a good day, prevent him from doing so. Villain groups like the Sinister Six formed specifically because one villain alone can't beat him, but they could when together... actually, they still can't even then. Other times, they have to manipulate, weaken and fight dirty to stand more of a chance against him. The primary exceptions within his Rogues Gallery are his archenemies: Norman Osborn (aka the Green Goblin), his second Arch-Enemy Doctor Octopus, and the Venom Symbiote, when bonded to specific hosts. Kingpin thought this trope didn't apply to him until Peter beat him almost to death in prison.
  • Criminal mercenary Mark Scarlotti, alias Whiplash I/Blacklash I, was an athletic man who wore a Kevlar bodysuit and had a pair of titanium whips. He typically used these to fight Iron Man, whose sci-fi arsenal practically defines There Is No Kill Like Overkill. That Scarlotti was a going concern for forty years is a testament to sheer persistence, bravery, and a fair amount of luck.
  • A common trait in The Golden Age of Comic Books was that even Physical God heroes would fight Street thugs and Those Wacky Nazis, who had one superweapon at best.
  • In the Disney Ducks Comic Universe, the extremely wealthy ducks such as John D. Rockerduck or Flintheart Glomgold are usually overshadowed by the slightly more fabulous wealth of competitor Scrooge McDuck. Plus, whenever they go on a treasure hunt, the rich villains tend to go alone, whereas McDuck normally brings his family as backup.
  • Aquaman, despite his Never Live It Down status for only serving a purpose if the problem involves water in Superfriends, is a very dangerous, outright feared individual by many heroes and villains. The King of Atlantis has control over all sea life, including fictional sea monsters, and is a very powerful man capable of easily killing someone when under 500+ atmospheres of pressure. His arch-enemy is Black Manta, a normal human who needs a suit of Powered Armor just to try to keep up with him. Also remember that in almost every case, Black Manta is fighting Aquaman in the ocean. This means that he's fighting The King of the Seven Seas in his home playing field.
  • Practically all of Zatanna's enemies fall into this, mainly because she's so absurdly powerful as quite possibly DC's strongest mage. She can do practically anything so long as she recites them backwards. Theoretically, she could end any fight in a second just by trapping them in her hat, destroying their soul, or turning them into a small fluffy bunny forever. Her enemies are often not anywhere near as powerful, and have to leverage other factors, prevent Zatanna from being able to speak, or have Zatanna suffer a Drama-Preserving Handicap to keep the story from ending the moment she casts a spell.
  • A number of Wonder Woman villains qualify, especially the ones created during the Golden Age. While Diana is a superpowered Amazon princess with not only an entire nation at her beck and call but Post-Crisis also the favor of the Olympian Pantheon, many of her villains either have no powers or aren't as powerful as her if they do.
    • In the Silver Age Priscilla Rich, the original Cheetah had no superpowers and her post-crisis counterpart is often at the mercy of a malevolent deity who torments her.
    • There is also Veronica Cale, created during the Greg Rucka run, who is an Expy of Lex Luthor and uses her brains and resources to combat Wonder Woman.
    • Dr Poison is a regular human who is a scientific genius in fields of chemistry and is very good at engineering poisons and chemical weapons.
    • The original version of Zara, the Priestess of the Crimson Flame, had no superpowers and merely used technology to give the illusion she had pyrokinesis. Her Post-Crisis version does have internal pyrokinesis... which would be fortunate for her if fire immunity wasn't one of Diana's powers.
    • Both Minister Blizzard and Blue Snowman are normal humans who use freeze rays, though in the Golden Age Snowman did back hers up with a proper Weather-Control Machine, suit of Powered Armor, and a bunch of matching robots.
  • This is a significant factor in why most of Marvel's Hero vs. Hero events throughout the 2000s and 2010s fell completely flat. In virtually every case, the "wrong" side had the deck stacked so much against them that it was hard to see them as anything but persecution victims:
    • The Anti-Reg side in Civil War, a hard-scrabble Ragtag Band of Misfits facing a superpowered army with the total backing of the US government, an authoritarian intelligence agency and a civilian population largely made up of Ungrateful Bastards and Hypocrites who demanded that people with superpowers all become glorified government slaves.
    • The X-Men in Avengers vs. X-Men, the last survivors of a Dying Race taking a last ditch gamble to save themselves from extinction and protect an innocent teenage girl from being assassinated by the government.
    • The X-Men again in Inhumans vs. X-Men, where they are facing extinction due to a poisonous gas released by the mad king of a band of superpowered elitist isolationist jerks, who will defend said poisonous gas with their lives, or more accurately, with the X-Men's lives.
  • The arch-enemy of the Hulk has this with both his arch-enemies:
    • Army general General Thaddeus E. "Thunderbolt" Ross wouldn't usually be considered an underdog since he has a literal army on his side but, well... he's fighting the Hulk, who is effectively an unstoppable force of nature. The stakes of their conflict are not usually about Ross making a dent in the Hulk so much as about their fight getting out of control and resulting in collateral damage, or about Ross' interference preventing the Hulk from dealing with a worse villain.
    • The Leader is no stronger than an ordinary human, but he's spectacularly intelligent. Like his DC counterparts Lex Luthor and Doctor Sivana, he can even the odds against his super-strong nemesis with cunning schemes and bizarre scientific inventions. He rarely confronts the Hulk directly, preferring to be The Chessmaster and manipulate the Hulk and any number of unwitting pawns for his own ends.
  • Some of Thor's enemies can come across as this in the early Journey into Mystery comics given the sheer number of Combo Platter Powers Thor possessed. From being having Super-Strength to summoning gale-force winds and lightning bolts to transforming the very elements, Thor's human rogues seem more than a little underpowered compared to him.

    Fan Works 
  • Abraxas (Hrodvitnon): In this Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) fanfiction, Alan Jonah and his paramilitary are basically this to San and Vivienne Graham. They're ultimately mere mortal men up against a newborn Kaiju, and thus they rely on psychological tactics, heavy ammunitions, a lazer cage, and Viv and San's movement-crippling Body Horror to keep them contained when the duo are in their defective first hybridized form. But the more psychologically secure Viv and San become and the stronger they grow, the less of a threat Jonah and his men become.
  • The Mountain and the Wolf: Villain-on-villain example where the Wolf is bigger and stronger than Gregor Clegane, and the other people he slaughters are even weaker. He himself is well aware of the disparity in combat ability and frequently complains about it to other people (as the High Executioner of Chaos, he has no say in who the Chaos Gods want dead, and says he's often sent to kill weaklings unable to give him a good fight).

    Films — Animation 
  • None of the main villains in Frozen (2013) have the capabilities or manpower to fight an emotionally unstable Snow Queen. One tries to send his guards against her only to have them frozen to the wall while the other resorts to psychologically breaking her to the point that she does not try to defend herself when the villain proceeds with the killing blow. The two guards themselves briefly manage to endanger her with their crossbows, but only because she was taken aback by the fact they would try to kill her, and she quickly neutralizes them the moment she fights back seriously.
  • As shown in The Incredibles, Incredibles 2, and various other Incredibles media, almost everybody with actual superpowers became heroes, while almost everybody who became a villain is at best Badass Normal, at worst a Non-Action Big Bad. Despite the power discrepancy heavily siding in the heroes favor, the various villains manage to be formidable threats through development of technology that puts them on par with actual supers and skillful use of both said tech and Combat Pragmatism.
  • The Rat, the main antagonist of Lady and the Tramp. In spite of its intimidating and scary design, it's still a normal rat. Both Lady and Tramp can intimidate it and, unless it's cornered, the rat never tries to fight back and flees. (Just like a real rat.) During its climactic battle with Tramp, it's clear that the rat has a disadvantage in both size and strength. However, it still manages to fight back several minutes and to be a threat to Jim Junior's life.
  • Part of the premise behind Megamind: the titular Villain Protagonist has lost to his nemesis so many times that he expects it. When he actually wins, he has no idea what to do with himself.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Frankenstein (1931) portrays Frankenstein's Monster as one. He might be strong, but, unlike in the original novel, he can't move very fast and has a brain defect that leaves him unable to form complex thoughts. Once his existence is discovered, he gets killed fairly quickly and easily.
  • Gladiator: While Emperor Commodus is at least somewhat adept with a sword, it's clear that between them, General Maximus is the superior swordsman by a long shot due to his status as a war veteran and a general. Because of this, Commodus keeps throwing one deadly gladiator after the other at Maximus, before mustering enough courage to personally face Maximus in the arena. Still, he has to resort to handicapping Maximus by secretly knifing him fatally before the fight to make the odds at least somewhat equal. He's still no match for the hero.
  • Godzilla:
    • Godzilla: Final Wars: Zilla during his fight with Godzilla (who has an Atomic Breath, larger size and thicker hide), in a Take That! at the 1998 Godzilla film.
    • MonsterVerse: Given that this is a franchise where Titans (Kaiju) which are literally beyond humanity's ability to control or effectively destroy exist, the human Big Bad Wannabes are this to the heroic Titans such as Godzilla or Kong when they seek a direct confrontation with them, and the main threat they present comes not so much from the threat they pose to the heroic Titans' lives but from their ability to put them at a disadvantage or exacerbate their situation with the villainous Titans who do pose a threat. Notable examples include Colonel Packard in Kong: Skull Island attempting to kill Kong with manpower (and releasing Ramarak in the process), for which Kong squashes him like a bug; and Apex Cybernetics in Godzilla vs. Kong plotting to use Mechagodzilla to kill and usurp Godzilla and being responsible for provoking Godzilla's rampages on population centers due to their creation's Ghidorah-derived organic parts emitting a signal, only for Apex to suffer Hoist by Their Own Petard when Ghidorah's leftover subconsciousness hijacks Mechagodzilla for itself and makes it destroy them.
  • James Bond: Any film made after the Cold War (i.e. the Brosnan/Craig era), is a film with a villainous underdog, since James Bond has the backing of the British and sometimes the American governments behind him, whereas the villain is usually a shady organization, an unhinged billionaire or a rogue terrorist with not even a fraction of an actual nation's potential. At least before 1990 several Bond villains benefited from the occasional support of the Soviet Union or Red China. Downplayed in Die Another Day, where the Big Bad takes over North Korea in a bloody coup, armed with a superweapon that can directly challenge the Americans.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Loki in The Avengers (2012); up against a walking armory, his older brother who happens to be the God of Thunder, and The friggin Hulk! He has to rely almost entirely on wit, intelligence, and trickery to be a threat.
    • Same goes for Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a sentient AI that is only able to gain strength by hijacking Tony Stark's technology, and even then, the Avengers kick his butt every time he meets up with them. The only reason Ultron becomes a threat is because he's lucky enough to always find a way to retreat from a losing battle and hide for long enough to figure out what to do next. Even then, Ultron loses the "perfect body" he had created to inhabit to the Avengers, which gets its own sentience and fights on the Avengers' side. In other words, in the film's climax, Ultron is fighting in an imperfect form against his perfect form AND several Marvel A-list heroes. What If…? (2021) demonstrates what would happen if Ultron DID acquire his perfect form. It's not pretty.
    • The ultimate example, however, has to be Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. He is a former military colonel, but other than that he is an average joe with nothing but his wits and The Power of Hate. Doesn't keep him from being the first villain to achieve his goals at the end.
      Zemo: I have experience, and patience. A man can do anything if he has those.
    • Played with in Spider-Man: Homecoming, where Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, openly sees himself as the "little guy" against the power and influence of Tony Stark/Iron Man; he was originally a law-abiding blue-collar citizen until after the events of The Avengers (2012), when his small company's legal salvage contract with the city of New York was voided by the Department of Damage Control (a venture between the US Government and Stark's company), which bankrupts Toomes and convinces him to change his company into a gang that scavenges advanced (and often alien) technology left over from the Avengers' various battles to sell on the black market. However, precisely because of their difference in power levels, the Vulture and Iron Man never actually confront each other even once; Toomes openly tells his crew that they need to lay low and avoid directly facing Iron Man, who he realizes is far more powerful in a fight than anyone in his gang, and Stark himself dismisses Vulture as "below the pay grade" of the Avengers when given warnings by Spider-Man. As such, while Toomes fits this trope in terms of his place in the setting, his flight suit and advanced alien weapons make him the overdog compared to our actual protagonist Spider-Man.
    • Black Panther: Erik "Killmonger" Stevens also qualifies. Although he is a Wakandan prince, Erik had lost both of his parents at a young age, endured the worst of American racism, and grew up in the crime-ridden slums of Oakland. Yet despite his disadvantaged background, he managed to graduate from MIT and join the US Navy SEAL. In contrast, the hero T'Challa was raised in a life of luxury and privilege, has the backing of the royal family, and was sheltered from the suffering experienced by many Africans.
  • The Big Bad of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a lone scientist whose Oddly Small Organization seems to consist solely of himself and one loyal henchman. Said scientist manages to come within a few seconds of destroying the world, using nothing more than his own personal martial skills and a modest amount of capital for buying intel and services from mercs, which was likely acquired from selling his worldly possessions and going underground.
  • Star Trek:
    • Part of what made Khan Noonien Singh such a compelling antagonist in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was that he commandeered a ship (the Reliant) that was equal or inferior to Kirk and the Enterprise, and still almost managed to win the ensuing battle before Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew used their greater experience to outwit and defeat Khan.
    • In a similar vein, the Klingon Big Bad Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock fully acknowledges that his confrontation in a Bird-of-Prey against the Constitution-class Enterprise should not have gone nearly as well as it did, and reasons that he dealt the hastily-repaired and stolen starship a more serious blow than he thought. He then pushes his luck by ordering his crew to board and commandeer the Enterprise, not anticipating that Kirk and crew were willing to self-destruct their vessel to stop it and the Genesis data from falling into the wrong hands.
    • Dr. Tolian Soran in Star Trek: Generations is just a lone El-Aurian with considerable knowledge of stellar physics and technology seeking to bring himself step-by-step back to the Nexus, up against one of Starfleet's most distinguished and experienced crews on the Enterprise-D, not to mention the eventual return of Captain James T. Kirk from the 23rd century. And he even manages to temporarily win on Veridian III, before Picard seeks out Kirk in the Nexus and returns to Set Right What Once Went Wrong, and even then Soran still manages to be the Hero Killer for Captain Kirk.
      • That goes for his transport, the Duras sisters and their Bird-of-Prey as well. It's outdated by about 20 years against the Galaxy Class Enterprise and Lursa scoffs when Soran suggests they just attack that they're absolutely no match for it. They manage a clever sabotage plot that manages to cripple it briefly allowing them to fire at it with impunity but it withstands over a dozen blasts and once Riker and Data have righted the situation destroys their ship in a single shot. Howvever they did manage to damage the warp drive enough that it shortly after the battle it gives and blows out the drive section, forcing the crew to evacuate and crashing the Saucer onto the planet leaving the Enterprise unsalvageable
    • Heavily averted by the reboot Trek series of movies produced by J. J. Abrams. In all three films so far, the Big Bad physically outclasses any of the heroes while wielding a Nigh-Invulnerable giant starship or swarm of drone ships.
  • In the film version of Fifty Shades Freed, the villain is Jack Hyde, Anastasia's former supervisor who attempted to rape her after she refused to sleep with him. He does have a talent for blackmailing people, but he doesn't have nearly the resources available to the billionaire Christian Grey, who can easily afford to hire security. They're still worried, though, because Jack Hyde isn't stupid and they don't know how or when he plans to move against them.

  • The Yeerk Empire in Animorphs are this to their great nemesis, the Andalites: nearly all of their technology is stolen, they are reliant on other sentient creatures to act as hosts and suffering from a critical shortage, their original homeworld is blockaded, and towards the end of the series, it becomes clear that they cannot afford to lose Earth. (Of course, they certainly aren't this relative to the Animorphs themselves.)
  • Meletus in the Apology of Socrates is a rare example of one who actually wins in the end. He can't seem to open his mouth without showing himself to be a total buffoon, and it's obvious that Socrates can and does run circles around him in an argument, but Socrates' pompousness and flagrant contempt for his accusers pisses the jury off enough that he gets convicted and killed anyway.
  • Wendy Alec's Brothers series retells the Bible story with the emphasis on the War in Heaven between God's five sons. Four remain loyal, but the fifth, Lucifer, is the bad apple in the divine orchard. Lucifer's rebellion is retold, but every time he challenges his brother Christos, he inevitably gets Curb Stomped.
  • Harry Potter: During his teen years, Severus Snape was an aspiring Death Eater and Dark Arts practitioner, while the Marauders were later Order members. So he was the villain to their heroes, but Snape was the underdog in their conflict, he was poor, came from a bad home, and pulled himself and made himself as smart as he could by his own efforts, while the Marauders always attacked him 2-or-3 on 1, and James and Sirius at least were rich, while Remus and James came from families that cared for them.
  • While he's not a true villain, Hector in The Iliad is a good example of an underdog Hero Antagonist. Though a strong and valiant warrior, he is nevertheless fully human, while the hero Achilles is a nigh-invincible demigod.
  • Jedi Quest has gangster Granta Omega. Unlike his father, Xanatos, who was an ex-Jedi, Omega was born not only without Force powers, but without any connection to The Force whatsoever. Using his status as a "Force Blank" to his advantage, Omega launched a number of plots against the Jedi, typically acting through agents, and using his apparent undetectability to make good his escape. No match for a Jedi in a direct engagement, Omega did his best to make sure he never faced them one-on-one, using deception, hired guns, and bioweaponry to even the odds in his favour.
  • The villain in Maskerade is just a regular guy, going up against a pair of witches who were last seen sending The Fair Folk packing. What lets him still be somewhat effective is that witches have rules against trying to right purely mundane wrongs with magic - that way lies becoming a Wicked Witch - so they have to limit themselves to providing support for the efforts of the more human-sized heroes in defeating him.
  • Redwall: Any time that a non-wildcat Big Bad went up against a Badger Lord, this trope came into effect, given that badgers were not only many times the size of most of the villainous species, but were possessed of the Bloodwrath as well. Feragho the Assassin and Swartt Sixclaw got around this problem by ensuring they always had an army at their backs when confronting Urthstripe the Strong and Sunflash the Mace. Gabool the Wild got around this problem by dropping Rawnblade Widestripe into a pit with a deadly scorpion. Damug Warfang got around it by running as far as he could in the other direction from Lady Cregga Rose-Eyes. In the end, almost all of them wound up in personal duels with the Badger in question, and it was a rare occasion on which one of them would acquit himself well.
  • The Thrawn Trilogy is set five years after the Battle of Endor and during that time the once mighty Galactic Empire has been reduced to holding just a quarter of the galaxy being vastly outgunned and outresourced by the New Republic. While the new leader of the Empire Grand Admiral Thrawn is able to find a few resources and individuals to even the odds a little, mostly the Imperials are only any threat at all because of Thrawn's personal strategic and tactical brilliance.
  • The Wheel of Time: The Forsaken Sammael Can't Catch Up with the good guys. In The Dragon Reborn he is a distant, terrifying figure who the heroes have to run from rather than face, and the fact that he's taken over an entire kingdom is treated with horror. In The Shadow Rising he is on equal footing with the heroes, as by then Rand has a kingdom under his control as well. In The Fires of Heaven he's definitely on the defensive, since Rand now commands a Badass Army to end all Badass Armies, but he still manages to come across as a semi-credible threat by forming a Villain Team-Up with a few of his fellow Forsaken and working on a plan to draw Rand into a trap. In The Lord of Chaos and A Crown of Swords... well, he spends those running around frantically trying to put together some kind of plan for not getting Curb Stomped, and Rand's main concern doesn't seem to be so much how to beat him but how to beat him while minimising his own losses.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Smallville: Most villains, particularly early on. Given Clark's Nigh-Invulnerability, most battles end as soon as he is able to track the Villain of the Week down, and he is more likely to be injured by the town's Kryptonite deposits than by one of them. As the show goes on, increasingly powerful villains who avert this appear (most notably Brainiac and Major Zod), though his two most dangerous foes, Lex and Lionel Luthor remain schemers to the end.
  • Fargo: Season 2 has the police up against the Kansas City Mob and the Gerhardt crime family in a Mêlée à Trois. Mike Milligan, a low level Kansas City enforcer ascends to a major threat after his boss Joe Bulo is taken out in a gun battle with the Gerhardts while on a hunting trip, before the Kansas City heads lose faith in him, and pull out their support, leaving Mike with no resources beyond the guns he has and only one henchman (Gale). The police and Gerhardt family never find this out and still see him as having the entirety of the Mob's backing. All the while Mike and Gale scramble to find some sort of edge on their enemies. The penultimate confrontation at Sioux Falls, ends with the true Big Bad, Hanzee Dent, tricking the police and his own employers, the Gerhardts, into thinking they're attacking Mike and his men, when in actuality they just end up killing each other. Mike only shows up when the fighting is over, and he ends up being the winner of the Mob War. His reward: an office in accounting.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • Christianity: Satan is generally portrayed this way in traditional Christian scripture (in contrast to much of popular culture, which basically makes him a God of Evil in his own right). He's certainly a far lesser power than God, and has no hope of succeeding in his plans for building his own throne in heaven. In fact, in traditional folklore Satan only really has some advantage over normal humans because of his powers of seduction. As well, Archangel Michael is prophesized to curbstomp his ass in the final battle.
  • In The Mahabharata, the Pandavas and Kauravas are both evenly matched in general. But Karna versus Arjuna is the major exception. The story expects you to root for Arjuna who is the heroic figure, backed by Krishna. Yet Karna, despite being cursed by fate and bad luck proves to be a great warrior solely by merit, skill and ability. Karna gets defeated by the Pandavas by a complex Gambit Pileup, manipulation and divine intervention.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Haystacks Calhoun made a career as a traveling face, often dwarfing even the mightiest heels of any given territory, such as Pampero Firpo in Detroit.
  • No matter how over matched any of the "villains" of wrestling are, more often than not there is still some doubt as to whether the (often comparative) heroes will win simply because it only takes three seconds to end a match and sometimes not even that many. Honky Tonk Man, for example, retained his Intercontinental Championship against superior opponents by making use of a guitar and getting himself disqualified, as titles don't change hands by DQ. His luck finally ran out when, at SummerSlam, he issued an open challenge to anyone on the roster and was promptly and effortlessly defeated by the aptly named Ultimate Warrior.
  • Mr. Fuji put the Orient Express in this situation when he got rid of Demolition in favor of Akio Sato and Pat Tanaka, who really weren't ready to inherit Fuji and Demolition's feud with The Legion of Doom.
  • Many popular but utterly outmatched "baby faces" find themselves targets for belittlement, bullying and torture by larger/better connected "heels". Against more equal opponents, the heels can win by cheating. So in comes the big monster of the baby faces, to finally give those no good dirty cheats what's coming to them. An example of this pattern includes Jack Evans-Homicide-Samoa Joe (the succession of faces) against the heel Ring of Honor Champion Bryan Danielson (squashed the first, paid someone off to handle the second, found himself facing the wrath of the third)
  • Baby face wrestlers on paths of revenge and or pursuit of titles often get matched up against unpopular opponents unrelated to their goals for the catharsis of seeing hapless heels get destroyed and to build up anticipation for the faces getting to what they really want. Examples include "Portugal's Perfect Athlete" Shanna, who CZW\WSU owner DJ Hyde put between himself and Nevaeh/Jessicka Havok as well as The Kimber Bombs, who happened to be in the way of Jessicka Havok and Madison Eagles, who were pursuing the Canadian Ninjas in SHIMMER.
  • Veda Scott almost never has the physical advantage over her opponents, leading her to try to scheme her way to winning matches, with surprising level of positive results.
  • Jade Chung dealt with this during her wrestling career, facing wrestlers that, at the time, were out of her league skill-wise. It showed in her win/loss record being significantly tilted towards the latter end of things.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • This is occasionally seen in battles with the Forces of Chaos vs. Tau. Unlike humans, the Tau cannot be corrupted or influenced by Chaos, their technology is such that they basically outgun and outrange every other force, and, they don't backstab each other/sacrifice their own units every ten minutes.
    • Chaos Cultists are these by definition. With skills that equal those of the lowest-ranked Imperial Guard grunts, and armor that is inferior to that of every other unit in the game, Cultists get by on numbers and luck.
    • Imperial propaganda tries to portray the various xeno species as this — like Eldar using antiquated tech, or Tau spooking when they hear loud noises, or orks being easy to defeat in close combat. It falls apart the second the troops enter combat.
  • Mutants & Masterminds' Freedom City setting has August Tiberias Roman, archfoe of The Centurion, and the resident Lex Luthor stand-in. Where Centurion was based on Superman, and could fly, lift hundreds of tonnes, and shrug off cannon fire, Roman was merely a very well-connected and careful Mafia don, whose crimes could never be traced back to him. Their enmity lasted from Centurion's 1938 debut, until his death in 1993, at which point Roman, having made it to old age and outlived his nemesis, retired.
  • Exalted: Among the various Exalted types, Solar - the type meant to be played by the PCs, is generally (and canonically) the most powerful, once they rack up enough experience. Meanwhile, the typically-antagonistic Terrestrial and Sidereal Exalted are considered the weakest, but they make up for it with sheer number and resources. Or, in the latter case, extreme age and subtlety.
  • Chronicles of Darkness: By default, any game featuring Monster Hunters as antagonists will be this (excepted obviously in their own game, where they are the protagonists). The protagonists of the various other gamelines all are supernatural creatures with a wide arsenal of supernatural powers, meaning Hunters, being regular humans, will lose in a direct fight, and have to rely on their guile, smarts and skills to keep up.
    • Beast: The Primordial plays with this trope, in that the game isn't quite a classic Hero vs Villain situation; the game focuses on a struggle between monsters known as Beasts and Heroes out to slay them, but has the Beasts as the protagonists, while Heroes are depicted as Knight Templars. As a result, players find themselves as Humanoid Abominations with their own personal Eldritch Location and devastating powers, while the "villains" of the game are comparatively weaker, more human-like beings with only a slight Healing Factor and a handful of gifts to help them against Beasts. This means smarter heroes usually rely on their smarts and guile to defeat the opponent.

    Video Games 
  • Borderlands 2 has Professor Nakayama, who is such a no-name villain that Sir Hammerlock and the Vault Hunters don't even bother to take him seriously. The fight against him begins out of pity, and the moment you defeat Woundspike, Nakayama begins to panic. It's on Sir Hammerlock to remind him that he's the villain and should pull himself together while he blubbers about how unmatched he is against you, calling you, at one point, a "Walking Apocalypse". Appropriately, after defeating Jackenstein, Nakayama tries to bluff against you... and then immediately falls down the stairs with his health dropping until death. You can only watch in pity as he takes himself out.
  • Captain Syrup, from Wario Land II steals from Wario at the start of the game, and is running for her life from him the rest of the game. Wario is completely invincible in this game, what with it being impossible to get a Game Over. The hero, if Wario can even be called one, can't have much more of an advantage over the villain than this.
  • Arguably, the Institute in Fallout 4. They have the worst armour in the entire game, their laser weapons are frankly pathetic in comparison to the Brotherhood of Steel's (and up against crude pipe weapons, they fare rather poorly), and they have limited manpower. Synth-power, on the other hand, they have in spades, and if it wasn't for their ability to mass-produce these disposable minions and drown threats in them, they wouldn't have anything going for them. They don't even have Powered Armor, despite logically being able to produce suits superior to those of even the Enclave. Justified as their super-technology is done For Science! rather than for world domination, and indeed their only goal is to build a functional nuclear reactor so they don't have to rely on the surface any more, which paints them in a much less villainous light than previous Fallout villains.
  • If you play smart and approach the challenges in Hoyle's Magestic Chess in the right order, you should always be able to start every challenge with more material than your enemies, up until the final fight of each chapter. Even the main villains of Chapters 1 and 2 don't have full armies.
  • Goro Akechi from Persona 5, though neither part of the trope becomes clear until the end of the game: though he appears a powerful figure early on, being the Detective Prince beloved by the public and having the backing of the police behind him, it eventually turns out that he is defying the police and the Phantom Thieves in order to serve Shido, only to then be revealed that he is only helping Shido become Prime Minister as the first part of his revenge plot to build him up before tearing him down. In the end, all of his seeming sources of power are just people he was trying to take advantage of, and neither the Phantom Thieves nor Shido were fooled — when it comes down to it, he was just one teenager with a tragic past and zero allies. And sure enough, in the end, it becomes clear that even if the Phantom Thieves weren't able to beat him in a fight, Shido would have taken him out soon after, anyway.
  • The plot of Heroes of Might and Magic III is about Queen Catherine of Enroth liberating her homeland of Erathia from invading rivals, and the nation of Nighon, the primary aggressor, counts. They manage to destroy the city of Cloudfire in the opening cinematic, but lose every battle against Catherine and the player character's forces. In fact, their greatest success, taking the city of Steadwick, is portrayed as a last-ditch Capital Offensive that's a race against time; if you don't complete the mission in three months, Catherine will arrive to reinforce the city, making victory impossible for Nighon. The main threat they pose is in causing other opportunistic rivals to try to seize territory from Erathia.

    Visual Novels 
  • Dennis from Double Homework starts off as a nerd with next to nothing against the protagonist. In fact, the protagonist finds Dennis’s initial offers to collaborate on getting girls extremely presumptuous.

    Web Comics 
  • The Order of the Stick: The Linear Guild tends to be this to the Order of the Stick. Their character builds are less optimized than the Order (except for Thog), they're nowhere near as loyal to each other, and it's pretty clear they'd lose in any straight-up fight. They remain a credible threat only because of Nale's scheming, and even that tends to backfire. Pretty much the only time this is averted is with Leeky Windstaff, who was actually able to fight about half the Order solo and hold his own, and that's mostly because he's a 3.5 druid, a notorious Game-Breaker class.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Elmer Fudd of Looney Tunes is a particularly infamous (and unintentional) case, since he was so meek and incompetent against Bugs Bunny that even some of the Warner Bros creative team started to think Bugs was coming across more as a petty bully than a defensive trickster. As such the series went through a long list of more challenging opponents to rectify this, though almost all of them still fit this trope.
  • The setup of The Dreamstone. The Land of Dreams consists of the almost omni powerful Dream Maker and an army of magic crafting Wuts. Viltheed consists of the powerful but inactive Zordrak and his incompetent and powerless Urpney army, who were usually reliant on some eccentric gadget of Urpgor's to invade the Land of Dreams, which was usually disposed of easily. As such many episodes' tension was reliant on the heroes making the questionable tactic of sending Muggles, Rufus and Amberley to handle everything, and even they usually trounced the Urpneys to the point of Unnecessary Roughness.
  • Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons are built around this concept, with the smart, but horribly unlucky coyote being thoroughly overmatched by the super fast, equally smart, and ungodly fortunate Road Runner. Physics itself is always on the Road Runner's side, meaning Wile E's schemes are doomed from the start. A large part of this is, of course, because in the words of Chuck Jones "The audience's sympathy must always remain with the coyote."
  • Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. While Sylvester certainly isn't weaker than Tweety, he's no match for Granny or Hector and has to find ways to sneak past them in order to get at the bird. That's without getting into his fights with Speedy Gonzales or Hippity Hopper.
  • The title character from Samurai Jack is the greatest warrior on the entire planet, frequently having hordes of villains coming at him at once, and beating them soundly, and having a magic sword that slays evil. Despite ruling the entire world and virtually being a god, Aku actually has to constantly hide his lair around the world to avoid Jack, because he always loses any encounter between them. By Season 5, Aku has slipped into a depression after discovering Jack is immune to old age, meaning he'll be hounded for eternity by an unbeatable samurai wielding the only weapon that can kill him.
  • Many of the villains from The Powerpuff Girls are like this, what with each one of the Girls being almost on a Superman level of power. Notably, though, are the members of the Gangreen Gang, who are pretty much just five teenagers with no real powers other than being slightly stronger than normal people... but still being a whole lot weaker than the Girls themselves.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Prince Zuko is consistently going up against Aang, a child who has the ability to become a Physical God with the potential to master all four elements. Even at the start of the series, when Aang only has access to air, he's still regularly shown as able to outmatch Zuko in a fight. Additionally, in the first season, Zuko finds a rival in Zhao, who also wants to catch the Avatar. While Zuko only has a single ship to his name, Zhao is promoted to Admiral and commands an entire fleet, making Zuko a definite underdog in the race to catch the Avatar for the Fire Nation.
    • The Legend of Korra:
      • In a world where some people are born with Elemental Powers, some of those who are not come to resent being second-class citizens and start a revolution as the Equalists. They use Power Nullifier martial arts techniques and put up a real fight against Korra and her allies. Though their leader, Amon, turns out to have powers himself, it's still played straight for the rest of the group.
      • Though the main four members of the Red Lotus are very powerful benders, the fact remains that there are only a handful of them, and they are up against all world governments as well as the Avatar. When kidnapping Korra, they have to plan out a strategy to defeat people who outnumber them, very much like the heroes have when up against powerful villains.
  • The Legion of Doom in Super Friends. Only a handful of its members are actually superhuman, and even their powers are just copies of what individual Super Friends can do. Meanwhile, the Super Friends significantly outnumber them, almost all of them have powers, and they have more than enough gadgetry to counter the Legion of Doom's Mad Scientists. The only reason the Legion of Doom can be a threat at all is a mixture of Offscreen Villain Dark Matter, taking the initiative, and the fact that the Super Friends are phenomenally stupid.
  • Cozy Glow from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic ends up as a season finale villain despite being a Pegasus filly with no special physical or magical abilities. She still comes very close to succeeding, and her role in the finale almost treats her like the protagonist as she overcomes each obstacle and spanner in her path with wits, charisma and sheer daring.
  • Plankton from SpongeBob SquarePants. He may be a Gadgeteer Genius, but he's also the size of a golf ball on a good day and can routinely be defeated by simply being picked up and tossed out of the Krusty Krab. His own restaurant, the Chum Bucket, is also shown to be a failure.
  • Cad Bane from Star Wars: The Clone Wars was indisputably the galaxy's top bounty hunter during the Clone Wars conflict, and was often hired by the Separatists and other disreputable clients for special tasks that required him taking on Jedi, despite having zero Force sensitivity himself.
  • The Transformers: Due to the cast of characters being formed on what toys were being sold on the shelves rather than narrative stakes, the heroic Autobots actually outnumber the Decepticons on season 1, since more "good guy" toys were sold than "bad guy" toys.. The Cons only had Megatron, Soundwave and his cassettes, the Seeker trio and the Reflector trio initially. At least in Season 2, while still having less toys (and therefore unique characters) than the Autobots, the Decepticons' numbers were bolstered by a Clone Army of Insecticons which were replaced by the Sweeps during Season 3.


Video Example(s):


The Rat

In spite of its intimidating and scary design, it's still a normal rat. Both Lady and Tramp can intimidate it and, unless it's cornered, the rat never tries to fight back and flees. (Just like a real rat.) During its climactic battle with Tramp, it's clear that the rat has a disadvantage in both size and strength. However, it still manages to fight back several minutes and to be a threat to Jim Junior's life.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (7 votes)

Example of:

Main / VillainousUnderdog

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