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'The Reader': But are The Plague Dogs then to drown
—Richard Adams, The Plague Dogs
Making your villains a credible threat to your heroes is what makes any conflict interesting. In some series, most notably Science Fiction and High Fantasy, it may even be necessary for your villain to be a threat to the entire world. A powerful villain and flawed heroes will make for a good story, so it stands to reason that in a lot of stories, the villain is more powerful than the heroes in some capacity.
But there is a balance to it.
Eventually, the villain is so many orders of magnitude above the heroes that there's absolutely no chance for them to win with any of the capabilities we know them to have. We all know what's coming: a Deus Ex Machina. The heroes aren't going to save themselves; the author is going to save them.
This Audience Reaction describes a situation in which, when you should be thinking, "How are the heroes going to get out of this one?" you're instead thinking, "What contrived plot device is going to arise at the last minute and rescue them?"
The major criteria for this trope are as follows:
- The villain, threat or situation must be much more powerful than the heroes;
- The heroes must not have previously shown that they have powers or skills that would help them escape this situation, and
- The situation must ultimately be resolved with a Deus Ex Machina.
See Like You Would Really Do It, for when the author subverts the expectation and doesn't come to the rescue.
Anime and Manga
- Phibrizo from Slayers Next: The credibility point was broken about at the point where he killed all of Lina's friends without much effort at all, then backpedaled, said he only killed their bodies, and then threatened to destroy their souls as well. And then we got the very literal Deus Ex Machina...
- Digimon has a habit of this:
- Digimon Adventure: Myotismon (Vamdemon) gets more and more powerful, shrugging off the heroes' best attacks...so the Upgrade Artifacts spontaneously generate energy chains to hold him in place. Apocalymon, the final enemy, is so powerful that he can destroy both universes in one shot if he feels like it. Again, Upgrade Artifact Ass Pull to the rescue, as they form a force field to contain the explosion.
- Digimon Adventure 02: Averted to the very end, until the final enemy, who feeds on sadness, is defeated by "hopes and dreams." While it's not completely out of the blue like the season one examples, it's still pretty lame. It would probably have been better received if the dreams in question weren't invented wholecloth for the episode with no previous explanation. (Okay, Jou at least got a Retcon where he decided to enter the medical profession after all...in a drama CD...after spending a good portion of season one convincing his parents to let him do something else.)
- Completely avoided in Digimon Tamers, but Digimon Frontier gives us the way the kids suddenly became indestructible near the end. Power levels get DBZ-ish, and you have Lucemon slamming the heroes into the ground so hard the moon they're on is destroyed with enough force to take out the two other moons. The kids...just aren't hurt. The villain's final defeat made enough sense, but to last long enough to do make it happen, unprotected humans were simply not being hurt by world-destroying forces.
- Mega Man NT Warrior falls into this in Stream: when the main villain's Dragon is already pretty much invincible, and her boss can erase Earth and violate every natural law with a thought, how are the heroes supposed to win?
- That's how the Shaman King manga ended. By the look of it, the heroes are completely screwed. Due to Executive Meddling, the series was canceled, and fans were left with a No Ending, or worse, a presumed Downer Ending.
- The author has since released the ending, which is fairly satisfying.
- This is one of the primary problems with the "Chapter Black" arc of Yu Yu Hakusho. Sensui walks in and shatters the Sorting Algorithm of Evil with a power level far beyond anything Yusuke could possibly obtain in the short amount of time he has before the portal to demon world opens. Cue the last minute Deus Ex Machina bloodline power up.
- This is then horribly subverted by revealing the sides were uneven in the other direction - King Enma's men show up and seal the portal with a minimum of fuss. All of the damage was for nothing.
- The final Big Bad of Gash Bell, Clear Note, happened to be so far above the rest of the cast, that previously-established rules of the story had to be broken into pieces to allow his defeat. Basically, just about every previously-banished mamono temporarily comes back to lend the titular character their strength.
- Bleach: The Big Bad is an insanely powerful Master of Illusion (in that both his illusions and he himself are insanely powerful), so he essentially has most of the cast mind-controlled and could beat most of them even if they weren't. When the protagonist finally shows up to pull a Big Damn Heroes, he can't even scratch the bastard, who then goes on to get several more power upgrades. Ultimately, he's only beaten by the hero gaining so much power that he has to immediately lose them so as not to destroy the plot.
- Also the technique that Ichigo uses to defeat him is never even hinted at prior to Isshin training him in it. That's in addition to the fact that there actually several points at which the villain could have been reasonably defeated but was saved by a Diabolus Ex Machina.
- The last episode of Eureka 7 begins with the Scub Coral command center destroyed, with Eureka now forced to become the new command center...except that Dewey Novak gave her a virus that will spread to destroy the rest of the Scub Coral on the planet. Meanwhile, Scub Coral antibodies are threatening the good guys. Just when everything seems set for a Downer Ending, The Power of Love transforms the Nirvash and Renton goes off to save Eureka and the day.
- This happened recently in Magical Record Lyrical Nanoha Force, in a pretty Goddamn stupid way. The heroes are currently getting pummeled by the Huckebein, a group of people who specialize in Anti-Magic, forcing them to use ridiculous weapons that don't work right, in a sort of in-universe example of Fake Difficulty. To make matters worse, their leader suddenly shows up and proves how strong she is by one-shotting three heroes in one chapter. How are they going to get out of this? Why, she just lets them go, of course! The only reason the protagonists have any kind of victory (grabbing the Living MacGuffin after they disappear) is because she can apparently predict the future, so what they do doesn't matter.
- A commonly made prediction within the Berserk fandom. Guts' mission of killing the Nigh Invulnerable Big Bad Duumvirate of the Berserkerverse already seems impossible enough. And with the Idea of Evil thrown into the mix -
- It's common in Fairy Tail for Natsu to win the final battle of any given arc by means of random temporary power-up. The first time was against Jellal, when it turned out he could eat Etherion, then with Zero when Jellal gave him a special magical boost. It's Double Subverted in the Tenrou Island arc where Natsu is losing and suddenly gets the ability to also use lightning from Laxus only to continue to lose, but then it turns out that the Exceed who wandered off earlier stumble upon the Big Bad's weakness.
- The real Uchiha Madara from the current Naruto arc. Not only does he have the Eternal Mangekyou Sharingan, Mokuton, and Rinnegan, three of the most broken abilities in Naruto, PLUS is a nigh-unstoppable super-zombie. Currently has the five kages battling him, and working together they've barely managed to momentarily inconvenience him.
- The X-Men storyline Dark Phoenix had to have Jean have a split personality (before the Retcon), or else there would be no way to stop it.
- This was a mainstay in the Tintin series, especially in the earlier albums. Tintin's reputation for smarts and ingenuity is only half-earned, because it was convenient luck that tended to save him most often.
- Sluagh is the second book in the DAYD canon, focusing on Neville Longbottom. In it, a 22-year-old Neville takes the remaining members of Dumbledore's Army into battle against another Dark wizard, and Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione and Neville's new wife Hannah are brutally, horrifically slaughtered. Except the first book in DAYD canon had an epilogue that contradicted all of that, so you just knew there'd be a big magic Reset Button lurking somewhere...
- Played for Laughs in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Our heroes only survive the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh because the animator suffers a fatal heart attack.
- Avatar had the RDA forces right on the edge of victory--the Na'vi army had been almost completely wiped out and the RDA's explosives-laden transport was within spitting distance of the sacred tree--when Eywa finally summoned all the planet's pterodactyls(sp?), giant hammer-heads and other beasts to create enough diversion for Jake Sully to drop some RDA grenades into the transport's engines, bringing it down.
- "He didn't get out of the cockadoody car!" Present in both the film and the novel, Misery gives us a meta-example of the story's villain lecturing its protagonist about the evils of pulling contrived crap like this. She tells a story about how her experience of serialized action films was ruined when a hero clearly shown in a car plummeting to his death at the end of one serial is shown not in the car doing something else at the beginning of the next even though it couldn't have happened that way. The story's author protagonist admits that although this forces him to travel through very complex circumlocutions to fully justify what happens in the novel he's writing for the villain, it ultimately makes for a better story.
- The original Thrawn trilogy of Star Wars books by Timothy Zahn would be a good example. Although the Imperial and New Republic forces were mostly equal on paper, Grand Admiral Thrawn held the initiative and never let go for an instant. 2 3/4ths of the three books were dedicated to the heroes struggling not so much to win as to survive. At the climax of the final book, Luke and Mara were trapped on Thrawn's clone world at the mercy of Joruus C'baoth and the majority of the Republic navy were warping right into a massive trap at the site of their planned counterattack against Thrawn's forces. Only a series of increasingly catastrophic and unlikely setbacks in the final quarter of the third book allowed the heroes to win the day. The author himself even commented that writing a plausible ending was difficult because he had "written himself into a corner" by establishing Thrawn as such a Magnificent Bastard.
- In the Sword of Truth series, the last eight or so books have a constantly advancing horde of Imperial Order soldiers advancing little by little across the New World. The heroes have minor victories here and there, and during the fighting retreat led by Kahlan under Operation F*** Your S*** Up, the D'Haran army slaughtered the Order by the dozens for every casualty they took, but the Order had the sheer numbers to overwhelm all opposition. In the end, the Imperial Order had cut right through the middle of the Midlands and had advanced to D'Hara, where the only army of consequence left in the New World was holed up in a city on a plateau surrounded on all sides. Even sending cavalry into the Old World to pursue a policy of total war as part of Operation F*** Your S*** Up Twice barely made a dent (partly because said cavalry was fought off by a witch riding a Dragon). The only way the heroes managed to pull out a victory was to find the MacGuffin from the first book and eventually use it to create an entirely new world (which is, incidentally, implied to be Earth) and magically banish everybody that shared the Imperial Order's philosophies there to live out their lives without magic, wonder or the hope of an afterlife. Essentially, the sort of world they were trying to create in the first place.
- The Nights Dawn Trilogy by Peter Hamilton paints the heroes into a corner with its galactic Zombie Apocalypse, and then has to end with a literal Deus Ex Machina. The Naked God is a machine with godlike powers, used to save the human race.
- He does it again in the Void Trilogy, perhaps even more literally - The Anomine machine makes a protagonist, Gore, into a god. Subverted in that the god powers are not actually used; the fact that they can exist is enough to convince the Firstlife to un-create the Void.
- Early in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Arthur and Ford are thrown out of an airlock without spacesuits. The narration explains the maximum length of time one can expect to survive in that situation, and the sheer improbability of being rescued during that time, at which point they are rescued by a ship that runs on improbability. Douglas Adams admitted that he wrote the situation with absolutely no idea how to get them out of it, and came up with an improbability-based solution as a result of watching a TV show about judo.
- In the final book of his Dark Tower saga Stephen King does this literally by sending his characters a letter to warn them of a trap. He even Lampshades it in the note with a sentence to the effect of "Here comes the Deus Ex Machina!"
- This is a staple of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The author seems to have created the House of Azath for exactly this purpose.
- It's made clear at the climax of The Lord of the Rings that it's impossible for anyone to destroy the Ring willingly.
- The Harry Potter series uses this in the first book. Harry's about to be killed by Quirrel, but his mother's love protects him from harm. However, to J. K. Rowling's credit, Lily's sacrifice plays a MASSIVE significance in later books, and this may have been the best and only way to invoke it convincingly.
- As indicated in The Plague Dogs, the book seems about to end with the dogs miserably drowning, to the point where the Reader intervenes and begs the Author to save them. The Author obligingly pulls a Deus Ex Machina out of his...backside.
Live Action TV
- Somewhat the attitude some Stargate SG-1 fans had about the practically god-like Ori. In fairness, though, the writers have found reasonably believable ways for the Ori to be battled — but the eventual resolution in The Ark of Truth was nevertheless a Deus Ex Machina, involving an impossibly convenient and previously unmentioned piece of Lost Technology.
- "Reckoning" suffers from this. Clusters of Replicators? More Dakka, or the disruptor introduced at the season start. A galaxy-spanning swarm of Replicators that almost instantly adapts to weapons used against them? Meh, let's use the previously unmentioned Ancient superweapon that wipes them all at once.
- Doctor Who had this in a number of finales of the new series. Unlimited armies of Daleks and Cybermen? Easy, use something that takes them all out at once. The Master rules the Earth? Another army of Daleks with the power to DESTROY! REALITY! ITSELF!? Donna develops 1337 Time Lord hacking skills and...they explode, somehow. The Master has turned everyone on Earth into copies of himself? The Time Lord President Rassilon fixes it with a flick of his wrist.
- Babylon 5, where the only way to stop both the Shadows and Vorlons was to yell "What The Hell, Cosmic Superbeings" at them and tell them to get lost.
- Unlike most other examples both BigBads motives were to help the younger races, the only reason it qualifies is the author was needed to make them listen.
- Buffy's final battle with the First Evil is spectacularly anticlimactic, seeing as the army of Elite Mooks is easily defeated by two separate Ass Pulls. The fact that the Big Bad is incorporeal, and cannot be directly fought (thus shooting down any chance of a satisfying Boss Battle to begin with) does not help matters.
- Inverted in Power Rangers Dino Thunder the last Monster of the Week is able to survive a Deus Ex Machina style Finishing Move. Except for the fact it doesn't it dies and the footage is then played backwards to revive it. They then pull another Deus Ex Machina to kill it by sacrificing their zords even though they still had Megazords they hadn't even used yet.
- Later in the episode the Big Bad is shown to be Not Quite Dead and in the ground battle survives a hit from the Red Rangers Battlizer gets up, and proceeds to split into 4 copies. Which they can only stop with a type 3 Deus Ex Machina (the episode seemed to love those). Worse the one time they had used that type 3 it wasn't in the real world, it was in a comic book world making it a type 2.
- Supernatural gets like this sometimes. The Winchesters have no magical abilities of their own and routinely go up against demons and monsters with telekinesis or other powers that render the boys' weapons (even the magical ones) totally useless. Yet somehow something always allows the boys to pull out a win.
- Dick Tracy: Chester Gould's seat of his pants writing style meant that he would often put Tracy in death traps without necessarily knowing how he would get out of them. Part of Gould's genius was being able to work his way out of his traps without resorting to this trope, but one Death Trap is worth mentioning: Tracy is put in the bottom of a deep pit the villains have dug in the ground, and a boulder only slightly smaller than the diameter of the pit is dropped in, slowly but steadily grinding its way down to crush Tracy. Any attempt to dig around the boulder will make it fall faster, and none of Tracy's allies know he's in the trap. Gould's admitted this one stumped him, and suggested to his editor that Tracy ask Gould himself for help, as a giant hand would come in and free him. His editor shot this down because... well, because it was a terrible, terrible idea. In the end, Tracy escaped by digging down and coming across a mine shaft, which he escapes into just as the boulder is about to crush him. An obvious lucky escape, but at least not a logic breaking one.
- Dragonlance (Chronicles) may be an example of this. The Armies of Evil (tm) not only have better troops, including the draconians, which can kill even when dying, they also have dragons and gods. If not because a pretty obvious Deus Ex Machina or two (some of them in the form of an actual god, even) the heroes would have lost, and died.
- Dragons can become this if handled improperly in Shadowrun, and BOY do Game Masters seem to handle them improperly.
- Half-Life 2 Episode 2, the Combine Advisor. Something that can throw people with telekinesis and suck out brains? Scary. Something that flies, throws people with TK, paralyzes everyone around it, eats brains, that I can't harm or avoid, and it hates me, and knows where I am? No longer frightening, it's in Deus Ex Machina's hands now. Since Half Life doesn't do cutscenes, they have to make do with Scripted Event Power To The Max.
- Free Space 2 has this happen as part of the Hopeless War against the Shivans. In the first game, the Shivans were powerful, frightening, but eventually defeatable. The sequel has an enormous juggernaut: the Sathanas make an appearance and scare the crap out of everybody, before it is shot down in a one-on-one duel with The Alliance's equivalent ship, the Colossus (and the Sath had to be crippled beforehand for the Colossus to stand a chance). Then over 80 more juggernauts make their way toward Terran space. And it's hinted that this is not that large a chunk of the Shivan armada, as they pretty much just sacrifice this fleet to blow up a sun.
- Mass Effect has this in full effect in its finale. Despite the fact that the Reapers underwent steady Villain Decay from their implied strength throughout the series (Granted, this was all based on the conversation with Sovereign), and the numerous advancements in the technology of the races of the galaxy over the course of the series, it took a blatant, literal Deus Ex Machina to actually defeat the Reapers. To make matters even worse, the Deus Ex Machina comes in the form of a Shocking Swerve done as terribly as possible, directly contradicting the core themes, characterizations, and events of the series before that point, and invariably destroys the Mass Relay Network, effectively destroying the entire ME verse with no foreshadowing whatsoever, for no other reason than because the Star-God-Child says it has to happen. Sadly, this somehow ended up being so much worse than 70+% of the fanbase thought it would be (since this trope was in full effect long before the game even released), because it went leagues beyond laziness or ineptitude, and veered into blatant malpractice and false advertising.
- For those wondering where the "false advertising" comes in: The entire series hinged on the concept that "every choice you make matters." Down to choosing which lines to use in the inspirational speech you give to your crew at the launch in the first game. When it comes down to the final choice in the final game of the trilogy? Paragon, Renegade, Neutral, doesn't matter, you either choose the genocide of all "synthetic life" in the galaxy which includes biological creatures with cybernetic enhancements (about 1/3 of space-faring civilization, including you,) mind controlling the Reapers, or merging all artificial and biological races in the game into a new cyborganic form of life. And yes, you (apparently) die in each one of these, the Relay Network always explodes, the Normandy and its surviving crew crashes and is stranded. The only real "influence" is to how horribly damaged Earth is.
- The Shadow Rise boss battle in Persona 4 has this happening. The Shadow analyzes you and makes it impossible to hit her. After a few turns of attacks missing, a cutscene ensues where she tries to kill you. The only reason you are saved is because Teddie unleashes an awesome power and kicks her ass. Then, you fight his Shadow
- Final Fantasy IV, during the final battle with Zemus/Zeromus, the heroes are initially defeated, only for their friends to revive them through prayer.
- The Fate scenario of Fate/stay night has a badly wounded Shirou and Saber facing down Berserker, a mythological hero who comes back to life the first twelve times he is killed, and cannot be killed twice in the same fashion. Shirou is on his last legs, Saber has no mana left and is badly wounded and Berserker still has five lives left after having lost six to Archer and one to Rin. Berserker charges...and Shirou is suddenly able to magically create a copy of the magic sword he had been dreaming about throughout the route. The sword, which has up to this point only existed as an image in a dream, turns out to be able to kill Berserker seven times over with a single blow and stop him mid-charge, saving our heroes.
- This is kind of how the characters survived a particular situation in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. Layton, Luke, Flora, Celeste, and Prime Minister Bill Hawks are in Layton's car, which has just driven off the edge of the Big Bad's Humongous Mecha and is plummeting to the earth. Only then does Layton flash back to something that Don Paolo said, which was not previously shown (and, given the events of their conversation that were shown, seems improbable at best). Pressing a button gives the car the Eleventh-Hour Superpower of turning into a plane, and they're able to fly to safety.
- You cannot defeat Giygas. Seriously, the final battle of Earthbound is unwinnable by any normal, in-game means. You have to invoke Paula's Pray ability, which before now has only had certain randomized and often dangerous effects. She calls on many of the characters you've seen so far in the game, but even their support is not enough to defeat Giygas. Only after she calls out in desperation for anyone to help does the player finally pray for Giygas to die, effectively saving the party with the sheer force of wanting to win the damn game. Your Mileage May Vary on whether this is stupid or awesome.
- Invoked in Homestuck, where the Handmaid tries to break a fifth wall to allow Andrew Hussie's Author Avatar to save her from the current narrator. The author literally charges in to rescue her like a Big Damn Hero but ultimately fails. She escapes from the current narrator, but is immediately caught by his master, who's even worse.
- Invoked a second time when Hussie rescues Spades Slick from the destruction of the troll universe offscreen.
- Global Guardians PBEM Universe: This was a regular occurrence in the Golden Age campaign. However, being set in The Golden Age of Comic Books, the players knew that this would happen frequently going in, and eventually started suggesting bigger- and more-over-the-top ways to implement this trope.
- In the fourth season of Teen Titans Slade came Back From the Dead, with fire powers and immortality that let him manhandle all the Titans without breaking a sweat. And he was nothing compared to the Big Bad Trigon, who turned the entire planet into a fiery hellscape within seconds of entering our world. It's only through a handful of plot contrivances that the Titans even survive until the finale, and they only win in the end by Raven suddenly becoming the most powerful being in the universe.
- Of course, this is somewhat foreshadowed by Raven being the Demonic Invaders's daughter and heir all along, with the Super-Powered Evil Side you might expect.
- What about Season 3. Brother Blood has the Titans all but defeated, but his obsession with trying to tap into Cyborg's mind allows Cyborg to tap into his mind and copy his powers. And that isn't the contrivance: it's the excuse that's supposed to justify the real contrivance: his apparently magical summoning the parts of the ruined Cyborg-based robots to himself to repair himself by will alone and suddenly kicking the ass of the previously unbeatable Brother Blood. He explained it as being possible because the robots were made from Cyborg's own blueprints. This also serves to let us know It Only Works Once.
- Actually, he said that Cyborg's Heroic Willpower allowed him to overpower Blood's attempted Mind Rape and temporarily hijack Blood's Psychic Powers. Blood may have set himself up for this by turning himself into a cyborg using Cyborg's blueprints, allowing Cyborg to hack into him when he tried to do it.