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Withholding the Big Good

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The Big Good is the biggest force for good in a given setting. Usually, such a Big Good is key to the story from the beginning, or very nearly so, making their presence known throughout the entire story (even if they aren't capable of intervening directly). However, not having such a Big Good present from the start makes a powerful statement to the audience. Such a character might be withheld for a number of reasons. A Crapsack World might need to be established as sufficiently crapsack, so the audience looks forward to the arrival of the Hope Bringer as much as the other characters do. Perhaps The Bad Guy Wins so completely that finding the will to find the Big Good (or become the Big Good) is a Herculean task in and of itself.

This trope is less about a character's power level, and more about their position (in-universe, to the fans, or both) as the Big Good, The Paragon, The Cape, the Hope Bringer, or all of the above. If a work's most heroic, steadfast, stalwart, and truly good-hearted character does not appear in a situation where they otherwise really should, odds are the creator is making some kind of statement about the power of their presence (or absence).

Heroic version of Orcus on His Throne. Compare Achilles in His Tent, for when a hero deliberately chooses to sit out the action. See also Deus Exit Machina, the general trope for writing the most powerful hero out of the plot in order to preserve drama. Contrast Superman Stays Out of Gotham, where characters don't appear in a story where they would be a big help simply because it's not their story to appear in. Compare The Cavalry, Big Damn Heroes, and Deus ex Machina for when a character arrives right in the nick of time to save the day, and The Worf Effect, when a powerful character is defeated handily just to prove this Big Bad is truly dangerous and serious.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Lindy Harlaown doesn't show up until episode seven. Before that point the story had been a simple Magical Girl vs Dark Magical Girl tale, so her introduction (and by extension, the introduction of the TSAB) gives the audience the idea of a much larger setting.
  • One Piece: The closest thing that the show has to a Big Good, Whitebeard, only shows up after the end of Jaya arc (around 200+ chapters in). He's one of the "Four Emperors", the 4 strongest pirate crews that are among the biggest threat to the World Government; he's also the World's Strongest Man. He only gets to showcase his capabilities much later, in the Battle of Marineford, where he and his crew come to rescue one of their commanders, Ace, from execution; he alone causes more damage to the Marine troops and the Marineford building itself than any of his crew or allies combined. However, Whitebeard gets killed by the whole Blackbeard Pirates gunning at him at once, and the battle gets stopped by Shanks, another of the 4 Emperors, who becomes the "new" Big Good of the story.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V during the final parts of the Fusion arc, Yuya finally succumbs to Zarc's influence, reviving the Big Bad while taking out the hero in the process. It doesn't get better as due to Leo's rushing, Ray's revival is stopped. Thus from episodes 136 to 139 the Lancers, their allies, some of the dimension's strongest duelists and even Leo himself face Zarc and he shows why he's called Supreme King Dragon. Zarc spends each of these episodes completely crushing the heroes easily. Zarc came extremely close to winning if not for Reira channeling Ray to save the day.

    Comic Books 
  • In the original Runaways series, The Avengers would have been really helpful against the Gibborim and the Pride, but they don't show up until just after the kids win...just in time to separate them and ship them off to foster care. The Runaways have never forgiven the Avengers for this, even after Nico and Victor became Avengers themselves.
  • In The Transformers (IDW) arc, Infiltration, Optimus Prime didn't appear until the very last page, and one of the running threads of the arc was whether or not he should be summoned from Cybertron by the small recon team of Autobots on earth. This happens, but they wonder what's taking him so long to get there. The in-story explanation was that Prime was actually busy fighting Thunderwing in the simultaneously running Stormbringer arc. The actual reason given by the publisher was that they didn't want to bring Prime out right at the start, so he could keep a level of mystique and gravitas as long as possible.
  • It happens in some Superman stories:
    • The Death of Superman: Superman dies in the first arc, remains absent during "Funeral for a Friend" and reappears at the end of "Reign of Supermen", right in time to prove who's the real Man of Steel and stop the murderous Cyborg Superman.
    • Supergirl: Being Super: Superman isn't heard of until the last pages, when one character mentions news reports of a flying strongman hero operating in Metropolis. Supergirl finally meets him in the flesh in the very final page.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Zig-Zagged in the MCU in general. Captain America was the last hero to get a solo movie in Phase One, but it established him as the first superhero in the MCU (discounting the Asgardians who visited Earth centuries prior). Still, the Big Good was withheld for sixty years due to "Doing time as a Cap-sicle."
    • Avengers: Infinity War: Captain America enters the film at the start of Act II. The Russos originally wanted to hold back Cap until halfway through the Battle of Wakanda, but Marvel execs and audiences wanted to see Marvel's Big Good in the movie much earlier.
  • Justice League (2017): Superman doesn't appear until halfway through the movie. Justified, what with him having died in the previous film, necessitating a reason for him to get better. Still, he doesn't show up to the final battle until it's pretty thoroughly engaged.
  • Star Wars:
    • Averted in the Original Trilogy. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda enter the narrative exactly when they're supposed to, serving as mentors on Luke's Hero's Journey.
    • Luke Skywalker is absent until the last thirty seconds of The Force Awakens, and his absence drives the plot. In The Last Jedi, Luke has relinquished his role as Big Good, coming to believe the Jedi do more harm than good. It isn't until the film's climax that he returns as the Hope Bringer of a galaxy far, far away.
  • The roguish Time Bandits are lured into the clutches of the Evil Genius, who would exploit their map of creation to remake the world to his liking. Though the Bandits are able to escape and summon The Cavalry from far and widenote , nobody comes close to vanquishing the Evil Genius. No one even harms him. Then, the Supreme Being shows up in person (he'd been seen as a Demon Head only until the climax), whereupon he thwarts the villain, recovers his map, and saves the world. Because he'd planned it that way, or so he says.
  • TRON: Legacy: It takes half the movie for Kevin Flynn to be found in the Grid, and even longer for him to do anything. In his case, he believes the only way to beat Clu's game is not to play, forcing Clu to introduce a new variable (Kevin's son Sam) to force Kevin's hand.

  • Animorphs: The Ellimist is the Sufficiently Advanced Alien who arranged for the protagonists to get their powers and does what he can to prevent the Yeerks from taking over the Earth, but cannot act directly (his Evil Counterpart Crayak does the same: the last time they physically fought, they ended up wiping out entire star systems, and both emerged greatly weakened from the struggle). His first appearance is in the seventh book to deliver a Secret Test of Character, and continues to appear intermittently to aid the team (such as restoring Tobias' morphing ability or sending them to save another planet and neutralize Crayak's shock troops).
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Aslan typically refrains from showing up until a climactic point in each book.

     Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: The Vorlons are initially presented as the Big Good, but midway through the series we're shown they're just as bad as the Shadows (and the Shadows aren't quite as Always Chaotic Evil as we've been led to believe). Around the time we figure this out, we're introduced to Lorien, the first First One, the one who taught the Vorlons and the Shadows and gave them their mission to guide the Younger Races to maturity. Lorien's involvement brings a conclusive end to the cycles of Shadow Wars, making him the true Big Good.
  • Supergirl:
    • Superman is referenced a great deal, but for all practical purposes does not appear for the entire first season. He IMs Kara a few times, but his one brief appearance (not even showing his face, and he's "onscreen" for all of five seconds) is in an episode about Kara wanting to establish herself as her own hero and her own person, not an adjunct to Superman, as just his cousin and part of his legacy. Part of the show's female empowerment message to be sure, but also a message for anyone who's felt overwhelmed by someone else's shadow. It's also part of the show forging an identity for Supergirl herself beyond "Superman's Distaff Counterpart", which is largely all she's been in comics for decades. Basically, withholding Superman is about letting Supergirl become her own Big Good, and an equal one to Superman, on her own terms, in her own way, and in her own time. Superman shows up again for the first season finale, where he immediately succumbs to the Big Bad's mind control, being Worfed to keep the story focus on Kara.
    • From season two onward, Superman starts showing up in person, at which point it shifts more to "Superman stays out of National City" - he's either busy back in Metropolis or outright off-planet.


    Tabletop Games 
  • One of the first things novice players of Chess learn is to not rush forward with their strongest piece, the Queen, simply because it is such a valuable target and the Queen gains its offensive power from its sheer maneuverability while being no harder for any other piece to actually remove if they get the opportunity. In an early-game board cluttered with other pieces it is thus relatively easy to trap a Queen in a situation where it will be at risk, or possibly even a liability to the player controlling it — but later in the game, when the board is less cluttered from pieces being removed, the Queen can run amok and be nigh-impossible to trap, threatening multiple pieces at once.

    Video Games 
  • Zigzagged in Dawn of War III. Jain Zar, as a Phoenix Lord, would be capable of ending the Enemy Civil War between the two Eldar factions with just a few words of authority, but doesn't because it would mean the Eldar would never rise to the challenges facing them and start Holding Out for a Hero to solve their problems instead. So while she is physically present in the story and will fight for the player's faction, she is still vastly less significant than she could be.
  • Injustice: Gods Among Us: While many heroes from the "Prime" universe cross over into the "Injustice" universe to help Batman's Insurgency against Superman's Regime, Prime!Superman himself doesn't come until the final Story chapter. Justified by Injustice!Batman not wanting a second Superman running around, since one didn't exactly work out for his Earth. Once Prime!Superman joins the fray, he ends the Regime pretty quickly.
  • Injustice 2: Played With. After Superman went evil in the first game, the Injustice universe flat-out lacks a Hope Bringer. Batman tries, but, well. . . he's Batman, so it's not going very well. The Justice League is still functionally nonexistent, with a number of heroes dead, in hiding, or swearing off using their powers. Superman is still in prison after the events of the first game, though Batman lets him out due to things crossing the Godzilla Threshold. Superman and some of his former allies still think the Regime was a good idea, and once the threat of Brainiac is dealt with, the player has the final choice to see the Regime or Insurgency fully assert control. Where this trope comes in is that Kara Zor-El/Supergirl has arrived on Earth sometime between the events of Injustice: Gods Among Us and this game, and has been taken in (and lied to and manipulated) by Regime allies Wonder Woman and Black Adam. During Supergirl's Story Chapter, she becomes horrified by the Regime and what it stood for, placing herself firmly on Batman's side, and by the end of the game (if Batman's ending is chosen) has vowed to become the Big Good Superman was supposed to be. Thus, the Big Good of the Injustice universe, Supergirl, is withheld until the game's Story Mode epilogue.
  • Mortal Kombat 9: The Elder Gods don't get involved with the game's story until Shao Kahn starts merging Earthrealm with Outworld after the invasion and the weakening of Earthrealm's side at the hands of Sindel. Only after this, they empower a beaten-down Raiden, allowing him to cast out the Outworld emperor and forcing the Outworld forces back to its home realm.
  • In Tales of Xillia 2, Chronos traps the Lord of Spirits Milla Maxwell in the void between worlds to prevent her from interfering with his plans for humanity. Matters are made even more difficult when Elle accidentally brings a different Milla into the prime dimension.

    Western Animation 
  • This is the backstory to Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Avatar has been missing for over a century, allowing the Fire Nation to declare war on the rest of the world amongst other crimes. When Katara and Sokka accidentally do stumble upon the new Avatar, Aang, it takes a whole episode for him to admit to them who he is because he never really wanted to be the Avatar.
    • Team Avatar resolves to intentionally invoke this leading up to the invasion during the solar eclipse. Aang got shot with lightning by Azula and is presumed dead by the world at large, so they figure it will be an advantageous way to hide and have the element of surprise on the Fire Nation.
  • In season 4 of The Legend of Korra, Avatar Korra is so weakened by Zaheer's poisoning that she has to recuperate in seclusion in the South Pole for three years, learning how to walk again alongside other basic tasks. Even when she recovers well enough to set off on her own again, her PTSD from her past battles is so intense that she only gets back into action halfway through the season, when the Arc Villain Kuvira has already cemented her dictatorship over the Earth Kingdom (now Earth Empire).
    • Korra is further discouraged because it seems to her that all of her friends and associates seem to be doing fine keeping world affairs in order without her.
  • In the pilot two-parter of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Princess Celestia is completely absent, only sending Twilight Sparkle to Ponyville via a letter and is nowhere to be found when her sister Nightmare Moon returns. It's only after Nightmare Moon is defeated that Celestia finally shows up to make amends with her sister. Turns out she could no longer wield the Elements of Harmony needed to defeat Nightmare Moon, and sending Twilight to Ponyville to make friends was her plan to create new wielders for them.