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"And was this fellow, Oz, a powerful dinh? A baron? Perhaps a king?"

Again, the three of them exchanged a glance from which Roland was excluded. "That's complicated," Jake said. "He was sort of a humbug--"

"A bumhug? What's that?"

"Humbug," Jake said, laughing. "A faker. All talk, no action."

After infiltrating the fortress of evil, fighting off hordes of Mooks, successfully navigating the Death Course and laying the almighty smackdown on The Dragon, you finally reach the Evil Sorcerer's inner sanctum. You charge in, ready to face the Man Behind the Man and kick some ass...

Wait a second, since when was Baron Von Ruthless a bedridden feeble old man with leukemia? And why does he have a dry ice machine?

Sometimes the Big Bad is disappointingly small. Sometimes the Ultimate Evil is far less ultimate than you were led to believe. Sometimes The Man Behind the Man is just the The Man Behind the Curtain: a villain who falls depressingly short of their own hype. More deserving of a slap across the face than a pummeling (but even that might kill them), they are not even a remotely credible threat to the heroes. You want to hate them, but all you can muster up is pity.

If this happens in a serious story, expect the audience to be ticked when they find out the long-awaited big fight is going to be really one-sided, if it happens at all. Of course, really crafty Men Behind The Curtain make sure that the hero is significantly weakened by the time they get to him, either through exhaustion from fighting everyone before him or doing something very sneaky and underhanded to him before the fight begins. Then again, there may well be Truth in Television Justification for this; after all, a commander without an army is effectively useless. Of course, Tropes Are Not Bad; in a cynical-realistic show with Anyone Can Die and Reality Ensues in full force, it would be jarring if the enemy is thoroughly outmatched but still poses a threat in person.

Anticlimax Boss is a Video Game-specific subtrope. For the inverse of this trope, see Fluffy the Terrible. Contrast with Villain Decay and Authority Equals Asskicking. Has surprisingly little to do with Curtain Camouflage or the Dramatic Curtain Toss, though some examples may have those as well.

By this trope's very nature, all examples will be SPOILERS. You have been warned.

Examples of The Man Behind the Curtain include:


Anime

  • Magic Knight Rayearth: After much, much difficulty (involving more than one Hope Spot and tearing the heavens asunder,) the Magic Knights finally defeat Zagato. Too bad they didn't account for the "helpless" princess they were supposed to protect. Killing him unleashes a terrifying power on her part.
  • In the Cowboy Bebop episode "Brain Scratch," the mysterious and sinister Dr. Londes turns out to be an internet persona created by a paralyzed and semi-comatose teenaged boy in a hospital.
  • While his People Puppets are incredibly powerful, and he is capable of unbelievably terrifying deeds by proxy, Nagato, AKA Pain has been revealed recently to be...a withered near-skeleton of a man incapable of standing upright or moving on his own and constantly at death's door.
  • In Afro Samurai (manga only), Afro has murdered his way through the ranks of those who either covet his Number 2 headband or are protecting the current Number One, only to find that his target died long ago.


Comic Books

  • Yellow Claw in "Agents of Atlas" turns out to just be a feeble, dying old man whose schemes turned out to be just a desperate publicity stunt to advance the career of his chosen heir.
  • In "The Hard Goodbye", the first Sin City story, Marv kills his way through hitmen, gangsters, a police death squad and a silent and deadly farm boy cannibal killer to get to the man behind the murder of Goldie...who turns out to be a really little old man who isn't nearly as imposing as his fearsome reputation as a Cardinal would lead one to believe. The big bad cowers and dies screaming as Marv exacts his revenge on him.
  • The infamous Adversary in Vertigo Comics' Fables turns out to be... Geppetto, still as happy and kindly as ever, but turned megalomaniacal after he was requested to help overthrow and replace one too many evil dictators with wooden stand-ins from his magic grove (the same one he carved Pinocchio out of). While he's gathered quite a gaggle of evil Fables under his thrall, without his authority and his magic wood, he's actually quite pathetic.
  • Mr. Mind: The head of the Monster Society of Evil turns out to be an intelligent bespectacled worm. Not a big worm, or even a mind controlling worm (that's retconned in later) but a normal sized green worm. With glasses. Kids must have laughed...


Film

 Oz: PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!

  • In Fritz Lang's Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933), the orders to the criminal gang are given their orders by a mysterious boss behind a curtain. One mook who tried to take a peek was found dead before the curtain. Another finally manages to pull it aside, only to find a cut-out silhouette. The voice the gangsters heard was in fact a recording.
  • In Equilibrium, Brandt is initially depicted as a competent foe able to keep Preston on the ropes during a practice spar. When they fight for real, however, he dies in three of Preston's invisibly-fast strokes before he can even move to defend himself.
    • Subverted immediately afterwards: Big Bad DuPont, who appears to be a harmless bureaucrat, proves competent enough in Gun Kata himself to fight Preston in single combat pistol-against-pistol, and lasts longer than all the previous well-armed mooks combined.
  • Subverted in Ultraviolet, also directed by Kurt Wimmer, where Vice-Cardinal Ferdinand Daxus also initially seems doomed to a quick defeat but proves an able combatant against Violet, who has thus far been virtually unstoppable.
  • Halfway through M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, we discover that Those We Do Not Speak Of, the bogeymen who hold the entire village in fear, are merely a ruse by the elders to keep the people in line. This is subverted when Ivy is let in on the secret and is attacked by one of these creatures anyway. And then that is subverted when we (but not Ivy) see that the creature was actually the town's Ax Crazy man in a costume.
  • Jigsaw from the Saw series has a reputation as a dangerous murderer, but is revealed to be a fairly weak man with brain cancer, only able to operate because of his manipulative skill.
  • Done literally in 10,000 B.C. - we only see the man in question for the briefest of moments, but it's long enough to confirm that not only is he not a god, but he's a pasty old white guy.
  • The 1989 version of Batman. When Batman finally confronts the Joker at the top of the Church he beats the everloving shit out of him with no trouble. Its only when Batman attempts to save the Joker from dying that there's trouble. Contrast this with the 2008 Joker/Batfight where even though the outcome is largely the same, the Joker still gets a few good pipe shots in.
  • In Crank: High Voltage, the man who stole Chellios' heart (and whom narrative convention would suggest is the Big Bad) is the legendary leader of the Chinese Triads, played by David Carradine. About 2/3rds of the way through the film he's revealed to be a wizened Dirty Old Man who has about 2 minutes of screen-time and is promptly and anticlimactically lured to his death by two odious comic relief characters. The film's real "Big Bad" is a completely unrelated, entirely different character who seemingly comes out of nowhere in the final reel.
  • Star Wars: Return of the Jedi subverts this -- we're meant to think of the Emperor this way, as being unbelievably sinister despite being totally helpless and weak, right up until he suddenly unleashes the Force Lightning. (This is a great cinematic moment that has been totally diluted for modern audiences thanks to the proliferation of Force Lightning in the video games and such.) The Emperor seems set up to be Yoda's opposite. Physically unimposing, but near God-like powers when he actually chose to use them. One of the Star Wars RPG books speculated that a no holds barred Jedi duel between Yoda and The Emperor could devastate a planet. The actual fight only thrashed a building, but was nevertheless awesome.
    • One Expanded Universe novel sums up the precise nature of the Emperor quite well in a short description: "A shell of a human in a hooded cloak... more energy than flesh". Sure, his physical form is weak and unimpressive- but he's so far gone into The Dark Side that this form isn't even the "real" him any more, just the shell that holds him.


Literature

  • The trope title and the page quote both refer to Oz, the Great and Terrible, who, as everyone now knows, proved to be neither. While in the film his disguise was a fiery hologram, in the book he changed disguises every day. (A giant head, a beautiful woman, a dragon, and a fireball.) In the sequels, though, he does become a bona fide wizard.
  • Malkariss from the Redwall novel Mattimeo. He spends his life inside a giant carving of a polecat that amplifies his voice. He's really so old that he's practically helpless.
  • Randall Flagg, Mordred Deschain, and the Crimson King from The Dark Tower. Stephen King even foreshadows this in the quote at the top of this page, which occurs right before a scene in which Flagg reenacts the exposing of The Wizard of Oz.
    • Flagg and the Crimson King are two cases where The Man Behind the Curtain overlaps with Villain Decay. In previous novels like The Stand and Insomnia, they were presented as competent and terrifying, but Stephen King subsequently changed his mind about the nature of evil and set these villains up to be exposed as humbugs in the final volume of The Dark Tower.
  • The Star Trek novel Kahless is, essentially, a "demythologization" of the Klingon legends about the titular character. When Kahless finally confronts his traditional enemy, the tyrant Molor, he discovers that Molor is not an invincible warrior--just a dying old man.
  • Mr. Foreclosure, the villain of The War Between The Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, is an ant. Not even a giant ant.
  • In Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce, Blayce is called "The Nothing Man", because that's what he is: a short, weak, fidgety, acne-ridden slimeball. And yet he killed hundreds of innocent children to fuel iron killing machines with their souls...
  • Werner von Aargau in Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard. His contract with the nephilim - having one of them physically implanted in his body to link their species with humanity - has kept him alive for the last several hundred years, but didn't stop him from aging. He is now spliced into the fabric of a building in such a way that he cannot be killed without Taking You with Me.
  • The demon Quetzovercoatl in Terry Pratchett's Eric. The Nightmare Fuel demon who's the basis of an entire warlike religion turns out to be all of six inches tall. To add insult to injury, he's killed seconds after appearing on earth.
  • The Authority in His Dark Materials is revealed to be a frail, old and hopelessly senile angel sealed inside an almost indestructible crystal cage by his servants to keep him alive. He's even lost the ability to speak, but seems happy when the protagonists unwittingly kill him without even realizing who he is.
  • Malazan Book of the Fallen: When Adjunct Tavore Paran meets the Whirlwind Leader Sha'ik in a duel on which the whole destiny of the Whirlwind rebellion, the battle is...short. Sha'ik has left Felisin to her own feeble powers, and she is ruthlessly killed in a few blows.
  • Cronal from the Star Wars Expanded Universe is a subversion- he hides behind holograms and body doubles to disguise the fact that physically he's a frail old man on life-support, but he's such a powerful darksider that he doesn't need a working body to kill you.
  • The Tooth Fairy in Hogfather, although it's not precisely villainous.
  • In Barbara Hambly's Sun Wolf And Starhawk novel The Ladies of Mandrigyn, the whole world fears Altiokis the Wizard King, shadowy ruler of a mighty empire, the greatest wizard the world has ever known, immortal, invincible... It turns out he's a third-rate magician who captured something by luck in his youth; by some combination of his own cretinous nature and the mind-corroding effects of the alien power, he's become a vicious, dull-witted, infantile glutton who whiles away the centuries indulging his base appetites.


Live Action TV

  • In the Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Fear Itself", Buffy and company must fight their way through a haunted house where the decorations have been brought to life as monsters by the influence of Gaknar, a primordial fear demon. When the demon itself is brought forth, it is so tiny that a fearsome-looking picture of it shown earlier proves to be actual size. There's an Aesop -- the standard "The only thing to fear is fear itself" moral, hence the title.
  • Lost's Jacob, who runs the Others from a secret cabin and can apparently only speak to Ben, is such a strai ght execution of this trope that the episode in which Jacob first appears is in fact titled "The Man Behind the Curtain."
    • Subverted: There was no man behind the curtain - Ben never spoke with Jacob, who doesn't really live in the cabin. Whoever Locke heard, it wasn't Jacob...and he wasn't in charge. The actual Jacob appears only two seasons later.
    • It turns out it was actually Jacob's brother, who is actually the Black Smoke, which means it's subverted to hell and back as it's therefore the Unkillable Monster behind the curtain. Just to rub salt in it, the image that Locke sees in that chair is actually a vision of his dead self, a reference to the Monster plotting Locke's death. Jacob did use to live in that cabin, and the Monster is old and manipulative enough to really be in charge, in a sense, even if nobody realizes it.
  • Star Trek' Balock, from the episode "The Corbomite Maneuver," has the appearance of a human child. When he communicates with other ships via the viewscreen, he uses an intimidating puppet.


Video Games

  • The Feeble Files adventure game has one of these, although it's not a person who you'd know about before you reached the final "dungeon." The CEO of Omnicorp, the man behind the Omnibrain, the ultimate source of all the torment in the galaxy is a senile old guy who was actually asleep for the last several centuries while a strategy game AI ran things for him. He dies instantly when a frustrated Feeble punches him in the face.
  • Bob the goldfish in the Earthworm Jim series.
  • Emperor Murod in the original Summoner, despite being served by legitimately intimidating and nasty lackeys and being responsible for actions of gross evil... is just a feeble old man. On top of this, he's an Anticlimax Boss, even after pulling a One-Winged Angel out of nowhere.
  • Subverted in Advance Wars - Dual Strike with CO Von Bolt, a feeble old man. But since all of the actual combat is between replacable mooks, and Von Bolt is a strategic genius with a devastating CO Power, he's still pretty threatening.
  • No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle is all about Travis fighting his way to the man responsible for the murder of Bishop, Jasper Batt Jr.By the time you reach him, he reveals himself as a tiny, weak, buck-teethed man who is only capable of fighting you with his rocket-racecar-desk and robotic bats.
    • Though this is subverted rather gloriously as after he is first beaten he pumps himself full of steroids transforming into the hulking Batt-man.And if you can beat that, he somehow bloats up to the size of a blimp to crush Travis.
  • In Darkened Skye, the Big Bad Evil Overlord Lord Necroth is widely known and feared as "He Whose Face Must Not be Glimpsed". It turns out that Necroth is really an inch-high maggot using a giant megaphone to communicate with his followers. Skye even has to use a shrinking spell to enter Necroth's throne room to confront him. Skye even remarks "He Whose Face Must Not be Glimpsed. That's because he's too small to see! You're Lord Necroth? You're nothing more than a pathetic little..." Despite being The Man Behind the Curtain, Necroth is not an Anticlimax Boss, as he does put up a reasonable fight (since the heroine is also only an inch high at that point). Possibly a Shout-Out to Mr. Mind, above
  • In Final Fantasy X, The Man Behind the Curtain, Yu Yevon, is described in the third act to be the controller of Sin. This feat gives the impression that his power must be immense, yet he is revealed in the final battle to be nothing more than an insect. A spectral insect, but an insect nonetheless.
    • Most of his feats were done in ages past, and he's degenerated so much he's really quite defenseless on his own. In his prime, however, he was likely the greatest summoner the world has ever known and created TWO Epic Level Summons with his skills. At the same time. He's also the father of Yunalesca, another contender for being the greatest summoner since she created the Final Aeons, another Epic Level Summon AND she knows how to make more of them if need be. After 1000 Years of Epicness, it seems to have finally decayed Yu Yevon utterly.
  • Ozwell E. Spencer is one of the original founders of the Umbrella Corporation. His company has been producing every strain of The Virus under the sun, and executives, especially the founders have a tendency to go One-Winged Angel as soon as the hero shows up. When we meet Spencer, he's a terrified, feeble old man who is on life support twentyfour hours a day. Who gets killed by Wesker before we even get to fight him.
  • The Collector in Little Big Planet (not to be confused with those Collectors) spends the entire game one step ahead of the player, hiding in the background and snatching away various objects and NPCs with a giant robot and an Evil Laugh. Once you've finally chased him to his bunker and defeated his robot, however, he turns out to be a tiny little guy - smaller than Sackboy, even - and all he really wanted was some friends. Needless to say, he's immediately forgiven, and everything ends on a happy note. What kind of game did you think this was?
  • Parodied in one of the joke endings of Silent Hill 2, where it is revealed that the unseen entity jerking James around and forcing him to relieve the most painful memories of his life is... a shiba inu dog. Roll credits!
  • Fallout New Vegas has Mr. House, the enigmatic genius who controls the Vegas Strip with his army of robots, who nobody has ever met in person and is rumored to be the oldest political force in the Mojave Wasteland. He turns out to be a shriveled, almost-mummified 261-year-old Howard Hughes Expy sealed in an iron lung, who dies of multiple viral infections if you so much as open the case he's shut in.


Webcomics

  • Played with in this Dr. McNinja guest comic.


Western Animation

  • Mad Mod in Teen Titans turns out to be a feeble old man running a simulator. The version they were going after was actually a hologram.
    • Subverted by Brother Blood, who looks like a frail old man relying on personal charisma and Mind Control powers to make himself seem dangerous- and then Cyborg gets into a fistfight with him, and he turns out to be one of the most dangerous hand-to-hand combatants in the show.
  • Mr. Big in Rocky and Bullwinkle always cast an enormous shadow because of a flashlight he always kept with him, but ended up being one or two inches tall, and can be picked up with two fingers. It is later revealed, in his last appearance, that not only is his shadow effective enough that he can take over the moon with it, he is still strong enough to beat up a full-sized person.
  • In an alternative ending of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Oogie Boogie ended up being Dr. Finklestein, who was trying to teach Sally a lesson and was jealous that she chose Jack over him.
    • As it was, Boogie turned out to be ... practically a Hive Mind collected of thousands of little bugs, who when they were split apart could only squeal "My bugs! My bugs!" over and over.
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