Could Have Been Messy

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"I sure am glad I'm a cartoon!"

Mokuba upon falling dozens of stories to what could've been an untimely end, Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series

Know what's cool? Fist fights, shoot-em-ups, sword fights, fireballs and explosions!

Yep, any good cartoon, action movie, or tv series has to have at least one of the above, forget all that "True Art Is Incomprehensible" junk—and any series with all of them will be bloodless beyond belief.

Especially if it's for kids/pre-teens, you just have to to make sure to stay on the Media Watchdog's good side and not let anyone spill blood, die, or get mauled. Not a problem, really, our hero is already an expert at dodging, otherwise he'd be toast!

However, the more the hero gets shot at, sliced, and stabbed without getting anything worse than cut or singed hair, the louder that niggling little voice saying "Y'know, if he'd been half a second slower" gets. Then of course, you eventually start to wonder at the morality of the heroes for using clearly lethal attacks against opponents with playful and innocent abandon, simply because, or rather you assume because they know they'll dodge the attack.

Taken to extremes, these shows often have to take a time out for a Very Special Episode to prove that, in fact, those red lasers, swords, or (censors forbid) guns are not in fact toys, and can kill people. Our heroes will learn a valuable lesson about not running with atomic powered scissors, and they'll use their weapons or powers with more restraint. Until tomorrow's episode.

The trope origins lie primarily within Comic Books, whose fantastical nature easily allowed passage of such action-oriented, reality-bending situations. With the generally less restrictive Japanese broadcasting, the trope tends to be less apparent with anime/manga, which regularly features bloodletting and dying. Nevertheless, even here Could Have Been Messy is instinctively applied towards main protagonists or other characters that the writer simply doesn't want to let go of just yet.

Could Have Been Messy enables (or is enabled by) several other tropes:

Examples of Could Have Been Messy include:

Anime and Manga

  • Fullmetal Alchemist provides an especially intriguing example. While the Elric brothers' attempts to avoid killing people drag out fights to near typical Shonen lengths, whenever anyone else, like say the bloodthirsty, revenge-driven anti-hero Scar, joins a fight, blood-soaked bodies begin littering the ground within seconds.
  • In the first chapter of the Mai-HiME manga, Natsuki and Mai seem to fight all out with some very lethal looking elemental attacks. And even when cornered by Duran, Mai refuses to budge, preferring to take the attack. The presence of some young children behind her and the subsequent oh-crap reaction seem to imply that Duran's attack was going to be quite lethal, which is interesting considering neither Mai nor Natsuki really seemed like the type to murder the other out of pique... So you gotta wonder what would have happened if Tate were one second too slow...
  • Mahou Sensei Negima does this a lot, especially early on. Later in the series, it's averted, although mostly in regard to male characters. The idea is even directly referenced when Jack Rakan copies the ultimate Shinmeiryu technique, which bypasses all of Negi's barriers and obliterates a bunch of stuff behind him, also nicking Negi on the forehead. Jack admits that if he had been off by an inch or so, Negi's head would have been split in half.
    • It comes back with during most battles with the Fatettes (not counting Tsukuyomi/Setsuna where it's kinda justified), where lethal force is regularly exchanged: Razor Wind, explosive fire, etc. Even in the "final" battle against them, it's hard to remember Fate issued a no-kill order when one sees how Homura fights.
    • Also averted in regard to Robots and any other artificial construct that could survive being torn in half.
  • This can become especially hard to swallow when an absurdly competent fighter uses lethal weapons but feels that Thou Shalt Not Kill, like in Trigun.
    • Except for the fact that it's his "absurdly[-high] competen[cy at] fight[ing]" that allows him to avoid killing anybody until he gets broken.
      • Subverted when Merlyn and Millie walk in on his shirtless moment, revealing that even skill and luck doesn't save him every time. Vash's chest is covered with old wounds and scar tissue from enemies that managed to wound him before he dealt with them nonlethally.
      • "old wounds and scar tissue" nothing; part of his chest is held together with steel mesh bolted in place. If he wasn't an Alien, he would be dead.

Comic Books

  • Similarly, the anything but restrained Wolverine never actually managed to successfully shank anything that wasn't mechanical or otherwise inhuman in both X-Men: The Animated Series and X-Men: Evolution. And thus the use of the trope allowed writers to feature the very archetypal character of the "kill-at-the-drop-of-a-hat anti-hero" without having him ever actually kill anyone.
    • Even in the movies, where he is allowed to cut loose, there's a surprising lack of blood. Perhaps most notable is an instance in the first movie where he accidentally stabs Rogue in the chest. From her back, you can see the exit wounds, but when you see her from the front next, the front of her shirt is still entirely intact, and there isn't so much as a blood stain on her or the shirt.
      • Averted in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Uncaged edition) where Wolverines claws do exactly what you always wanted them to. Very, very messily.
    • There's a truly preposterous example in Wolverine and the X-Men where, filled with rage at Sabretooth, he pops his claws ... and uses them to slice off a tree branch he can use as a club! Sabretooth is Wolverine's Evil Counterpart and fights between the two in comics become a showcase of Good Thing You Can Heal.
  • Captain America's shield seems to have the same "selective edge" as the Batarangs mentioned above. That's very good for Cap, who values everybody's life. Justified in Black Knight (Dane Withman)'s case, whose sword really has a selective edge due to magic.
  • X-Men villain Avalanche can easily create earthquakes and turn buildings into rubble. However, it used to be explicit that his power didn't work in human flesh, explaining why people didn't become Made of Plasticine around him. More recently though, his powers have been indicated to work on people.


  • The Terminator does this to a bunch of cops with a Gatling Gun to prove he's not a bad guy anymore. After shooting up squad cars with the minigun and a grenade launcher, his HUD notes "0.0 Casualties."
  • In a similar vein, even Pyro fails to actually kill the cops in X-Men II, and Wolverine manages to avoid stabbing any humans unless they invade his home. Cue cheering when he is finally given an "acceptable" target; see above.
  • Batman seems to realize he can use all the lethal force he wants because the writers are just going to make everyone miraculously survive, keeping his code intact.
  • Lampshaded in Gone in Sixty Seconds, when a police car smashed by a wrecking ball through a concrete barrier while cashing the protagonists. Of course, because they were the protagonists, they make sure to show that no cops were killed.

Det. Drycoff: Are you OK?
Cop: Yeah, we're fine.
Det. Drycoff: Are you sure? Because you just went through a wall!

Live-Action TV

Web Comics

  • Lampshade Hanging in El Goonish Shive, when the goo monster nearly drills into the heads of Ellen and Nanase; the latter has to remind Justin that Grace saved her life.

Western Animation

  • To say the least, Avatar: The Last Airbender breathes this trope, as the creators are anything but shy about throwing in so-called "close call" after close call to pump up the feel of otherwise clean, kid-friendly fight sequences. Particularly glaring within the first season, in which we're constantly reminded how "the Avatar must be captured alive", and yet anytime a Fight Scene rolled around... Honestly, in the season finale, where would we be if Aang was two seconds too slow for that hammer swing?
  • All of the Saturday Morning Cartoons we grew up on. All of them.
    • Transformers regularly shows giant robots fighting each other with massive laser cannons - while normal Human folk fight right alongside. Nobody ever gets squished. Not until the traumatoriffic The Movie did any Transformer actually DIE from a laser blast. Interestingly, the bio cards that came with the Transformers toys often revealed decidedly non-lethal weaponry - that thirty-foot steel warmachine's fifteen-foot-long 'laser cannon'? Yeah... more often than not, they were listed as being something like an EMP pulse cannon, that would disable robot targets but not, for some reason, blow them the hell up. (This is the older toys, from 25 years ago, I don't know what the current toys say about their guns.)
    • Both He-Man and Skeletor have massive fuckoff swords. Everybody in the He-Man universe has massive fuckoff swords, axes, bazookas, fists, necks, faces, and all of them are covered in rivets and blades. Any actual injuries caused on the show are only - only - caused by mighty He-Man face punches and that thing he always did where he swung the giant monster around by the tail and threw it off into the distance - such great distance, mind you, that the giant monster would have hit the ground like a paper bag filled with guts. Of course, we never saw such a thing.
    • GI Joe. Two massive, well-armed military organizations firing what appear to be fully automatic laser assault rifles at each other, with approximately zero accuracy. Again, almost all of the actual casualties come from face punches.
      • Let's not forget the aerial combat where every exploding Cobra plane was accompanied by a mook in a parachute.
  • Played straight in Conan the Adventurer. The titular hero carries a weapon made of Thunderbolt Iron that will send any of the serpent-men he strikes back to Another Dimension (his allies have similar weapons), but all he ever seems to do against normal human opponents is body-slam them. This is not the case in the original material.
  • The Spectacular Spider-Man's titular hero constantly engages in nick-of-time Deadly Dodging, otherwise he'd have been pulped into a fine mist before the first episode ended. (Justified in that he has Spider Sense and super reflexes for just that reason—to avoid getting hit.)
    • In this series, Spider-Man: The Animated Series, and probably elsewhere, Shocker's gauntlets have an unusual property. While they smash through walls and destroy buildings easily, whenever he gets a direct hit on Spider-Man, the effect is limited to a hard sucker punch. While it's true that Shocker can control the force of his concussive blasts, there's no reason not to assume that they're on the "kill setting" whenever he's aiming them at Spider-Man. Possibly Justified, as in an episode when Peter Parker lost his powers and got hit by the blast, he remarked that it should have killed him suggesting his powers(including super-toughness) are returning).
  • This is why the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon used Mecha-Mooks. In the new one, where most of the enemies are human, notice how Leonardo and Raphael (the heroes using sharp weaponry) always kick their opponents.
    • It's the same thing with Samurai Jack. He only uses his sword to its full potential against robots and Aku, who seems to be made of pure evil and therefore has no blood. Whenever he fights a living being (not often) he somehow finds a way to not actually cut them, if he even uses his sword at all.
    • Samurai Jack does at least deconstruct the hell out of it: it is messy. Very, very messy. Honestly, the way robots come apart, oil spurts like blood and internal workings spill out akin to disembowelment. If it were living beings, it'd be Gorn.
      • And that was the point. They weren't allowed to have actual blood, so they replace it with oil from robots.
  • In Teen Titans, bladed weapons and explosions are taken more seriously than, say, goofy laserfire, but none hit the mark unless the target is Made of Iron or the attack is ensured to somehow be nonlethal. Despite retaining the typical pacifistic heroes role, the Titans themselves rarely hold back during action sequences. Particularly glaring with Robin, who wielded explosive discs as a standard weapon; imagine a police officer substituting a hand grenade for his billy club.
  • The Rambo cartoon series. What do you mean, it's not for kids? Pssh. Let's just have wars where nobody dies. At least the main character is somewhat consistent with his portrayal in the first movie.