It's a standard setup to have heroes race to stop the nigh unstoppable villain before he becomes all-powerful, unseals his true potential, or gets released. However; more often than not, the heroes fail. So, how's the average Farm Boy hero supposed to take on Excruciant, the Omnipotent! without getting turned to a fine red mist within five seconds of opening the door?
Give the baddie a Drama-Preserving Handicap.
To make things more interesting, a handicap is given to that person or organization to give the other a fighting chance. Sometimes this becomes the Kryptonite Factor. Sometimes a person will feign having a handicap and reveal I Am Not Left-Handed. Other times it's a simple moral code holding them back.
This actually works both ways. Heroes who've won the Superpower Lottery, are unstoppable, Deus Ex Machina types, or just plain badass may be injured (either by being worn down by Mooks on the way or just from falling down the stairs at home), hit with Green Rocks, or accosted with their Weaksauce Weakness to make the more modestly powered villain (or his Mooks, if he's a non-combatant) an actual threat. Clever antagonists will use tactics and plans that can bring about these handicaps (or advantages to themselves) either by injuring their enemy to the point of barely being able to stand or using Geo Effects. Sometimes the hero himself chooses to be Willfully Weak for any of several reasons...but when he gives his World of Cardboard Speech, the villain better be running.
This is often a more ideal solution than using Deus Exit Machina or randomly depowering the character, as it can keep him in the cast with his normal power intact. Related tactics include Amnesia Danger, Forgotten Phlebotinum, and How Do I Shot Web?. This is the opposite of Eyepatch of Power and Disability Superpower, where the handicap is the power. Almost every Enemy Civil War story is about this, as are a lot of Right Hand Versus Left Hand stories where the heroic factions would normally be able to beat the villains if they worked together.
Anime and Manga
- In the final mission of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS, since Fate was now unrestrained by a Power Limiter, Fate was forced to fight Jail and two of his Numbers Cyborgs under heavy Anti-Magic Field conditions to give them a better chance. That, and she was still holding back her full strength since she was planning to catch up to Nanoha afterwards.
- In supplemental materials after the end of the main events of the second season, Nanoha and Fate suspect the Wolkenritter held back to avoid killing them, not wanting Hayate to be responsible for murder.
- The Nanoha Force manga implied that Signum may now suffer from this because, despite having rised up from her hospital bed, her body hasn't fully recovered yet from the heavy injuries sustained during her fight with Cypha. It's also implied the possibility of her spinal injuries leaving permanent sequels but that's yet to be confirmed.
- Jun Misugi from Captain Tsubasa is both a brilliant player and the local Ill Boy.
- Bleach: Orihime has the power to reject physical events in a manner characters in-universe have speculated to be akin to time-space manipulation or completely rejecting the reality of the event having ever happened. The only thing controlling this power is her personality. If she doesn't believe she can do something, she can't. If she doesn't think of trying something because she's been raised or led to believe it's impossible, she doesn't even think to try it. Her kill-attack is also kept under control by her personality which is unsuited to battle in the way other characters are until she takes a third option and incorporates the kill attack into her much more powerful defensive shield, making it a pretty powerful Attack Reflector and marking her evolution from The Medic to Combat Medic. In short, her state of mind is her major limit.
- In the Ryuuguujou arc of Gintama, Gintoki and Katsura were turned into old men before they can see any action, by Tamebako G, a device that can turn anyone into old people. The only reliable fighters at the time was Kagura and Kyuubei, and later the rest of the main characters were turned into old people as well. Had the device never exist, the arc could have easily ended in one episode. Of course, the great moment and Gintoki's Rousing Speech will never happened as well if that's the case.
- In Ranma ½, Akane Tendo injures her hand before fighting the Dojo Destroyer. What should have been an easy battle for her (given the foe's fighting style) ends up putting her on the defensive, all to allow Ranma (who had run out on her earlier) to come back to help her and defeat the enemy in a single panel.
- Another deliberate instance (and even lampshaded) is found in the Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics tournament. Normally, Ranma is far, far above Kodachi's league—but the rules of the sport state that contact without use of a tool is forbidden, and thus Ranma is restricted to the use of tools instead of his own style.
- This is true for most of the Martial Arts and Crafts Ranma gets involved in. None of the bizarre martial arts practitioners have Ranmas level of skill (With the possible exception of the Martial Arts Tea masters, whom he never faces in a direct battle), as Ranma is capable of mastering the art fast enough to win the rematch, or sometimes the first match.
- Ranma's girl form sometimes counts, as Ranma is physically weaker as a girl. However it's usually also noted that he's faster that way too, and considering Ranma's specialty is speed, this doesn't come up unless he really needs that last extra bit of strength.
- His biggest problem in the girl form is usually shorter reach, since as a girl his (her?) arms and legs are shorter.
- Saint Seiya's Gold Saint of the House of Virgo, Shaka, is already unbelievably powerful. But he's constantly handicapping himself by keeping his eyes closed, to avoid going all-out on his enemies. The Bronze Saints are explicitely warned not to let Virgo Shaka open his eyes, for they will be doomed otherwise. Naturally, Phoenix Ikki proves so resilient Shaka is forced to open his eyes and stop meditating, at which point he focuses all of his attention on swatting down the bothersome pest... and Ikki then manages to turn Shaka's own attacks agqainst him in a Taking You with Me.
- Pain vs. Naruto could have been considerably one sided in Pain's favor had he been allowed to kill Naruto instead of merely capture him alive.
- Similarly, Deidara holds back against Gaara, and except for one explosive he drops on the village to divert Gaara's attention, doesn't use many powerful bombs. When he goes up against Sasuke, whom he doesn't need to take alive, he uses powerful explosives while trying to kill him.
- Zoro of One Piece IS this trope. He's incredibly tough, but almost every one of his significant fights has him either injured from a previous battle, not in possession of all of his weapons or even handcuffed to a friend.
- Arcueid from Tsukihime suffered the Up to Eleven version of this—in the very first scene she appears in, she gets sliced into 17 pieces. She did recover, but she's weakened enough that she needs her "killer"'s help to fight.
- At one point in Gokusen, Action Girl and Badass Teacher Komiko catches a nasty cold. Then she makes it worse by singlehandedly beating up an entire CLASS of delinquents (her own, incidentally). So when a repeat antagonist (whom she has swept the floor with twice already) suddenly pops up, she essentially collapses from the fever halfway through the battle.
- Roy Mustang is one of the most powerful protagonists of Fullmetal Alchemist, easily able to defeat Envy in single combat. However, due to his fire-related powers, he's useless when wet, and coincidentally the first fight against Scar is during a rainy day. Later, an injury from his fight with Lust starts acting up just in time to prevent him from helping against Gluttony. Even worse, at some point he goes blind, and thus he cannot use his fire powers. Riza, his Friendly Sniper bodyguard (and who had barely survived to having her throat slit in the same incident that left Roy blind) solves this via using her uncanny accouracy and sharp eyes to direct Roy's attacks for him, telling him where to aim.
- Bradley is over 60 and he's still that hard to beat. Scar only won because he was half dead already. Not to mention he WOULD have killed him if not for the sun, and even then he almost killed Scar by stabbing him using his broken sword held with his TEETH.
- Envy's shape-shifting could have become a Story-Breaker Power in the more cloak-and-dagger portions of the plot, of which there are many. Good thing Envy doesn't pay much attention to detail... or have much control over its temper or its desire to punt puppies.
- Hohenheim is limited by ethics. At the outset, he was exactly as powerful as Father, if what the latter said about how he had split the souls evenly between them was accurate, but actually using that power would have required using the tormented souls of his destroyed civilization as an energy source. After taking centuries to get to know every single one of his souls, he's even more powerful because they're all working in concert, but by then Father has increased his own power.
- Goku from Saiyuki could beat nearly every enemy they have to fight if he took off his power limiter, however this also results in him attacking anything that moves. Hakkai too is very powerful without his limiters but can't remove them often thanks to the minus wave, and at least partly not wanting to.
- Mad hatter from Pandora Hearts would negate the rest of pandora completely as it can destroy anything from the abyss, however Break coughs up blood and keels over nearly everytime he uses it so he can't do it too often.
- In Yu-Gi-Oh!, Joey would have actually beaten Marik if not for the fact it was a Shadow Duel that made him pass out from the pain.
- Rurouni Kenshin: Because Sanosuke would Curb Stomp Battle almost any opponent not at Kenshin or Saitou's level with his new technique, it manages to put immense strain on his hand so he has trouble facing foes weaker than he's been fighting.
- Pretty much everyone in Soul Eater has this. Black Star has his horrible showboating which prevents him from being a good assassin. Death the Kid has his symmetry fetish. Stein has his insanity. Free, who is an immortal werewolf with the eye of the most powerful witch alive manages to stop himself in his first appearance, not to mention purposefully getting himself locked up in prison for 200 years. Shinigami is tied to one spot.... The list is pretty much endless...
- Kazuya, arguably the main protagonist of Freezing has the unique ability to use talents like a Limiter without... well, limitations, including dispelling other Limiter's Freezing abilities and applying his own, which... well, freezes just about anyone in place. Unlike every other Limiter, he does not need to be linked to a Hot Amazon Pandora in order to use his abilities. Moreover, his power is considered significantly stronger than any other Limiter shown thus far, overpowering top-ranked and multiple limiters at any time. This should allow him to settle just about any problem in an instant, but he constantly seems to forget his powers even exist, to the point it drastically affects the storyline. And that's when he's around or left conscious during a fight.
- In Pokémon Special, Yellow, among her arsenal of powers, can boost her Pokemon's strength by roughly fifty levels. There are two reasons why she's unable to curb stomp anyone in her way: 1) using her powers makes her drowsy rather quickly and 2) she has to be properly motivated. As she is a Martial Pacifist who prefers healing to fighting, this comes rather hard to her.
- Another Pokémon example, this time from the anime. Ash could easily beat the Cerulean Gym if he used Pikachu, but he's facing Misty and Pikachu doesn't want to battle her, so he's forced to use his non-Electric Pokemon.
- Batman pretty much is this trope. Think of how often he comes into contact with all sorts of alien technology, high-tech outfit technology, and super-scientists with all sorts of awesome nonlethal crimefighting gadgets...and consider that he still uses mostly what he can make himself. He's either incredibly arrogant or incredibly thick in order to perpetuate the Rule of Drama.
- One reason given for this is that Batman doesn't want to rely on something that he doesn't know that won't go out of control. Alien technology can be manipulated by aliens, foreign tech could be a trap, and if anything happened to that tech he would be at a serious disadvantage. And given that he's a billionaire, he could make anything that he needs.
- Superman can type a hundred pages a minute, and do any number of other tasks at super-speed. But he can't fight at super-speed. The in-universe explanation for this is that he holds back to keep from injuring anyone else. The real explanation for it is simply that someone with the strength of the Hulk and the speed of the Flash could never even be challenged, let alone defeated.
- The real reason becomes especially evident when the villains with Superman's powers, who have no reason to hold back, also face the same problem.
- Spawn has a suit of Necroplasm that pretty much lets him do anything. However, he's only got 9999 units of power, and when they're gone, he's dragged to hell. When the creators stopped keeping track of how much power he had left, it became an Informed Flaw and drama was no longer preserved.
- Although he was never more than a C-list character, Sleepwalker had a major advantage in that he could focus his warp beams directly on any human opponent, which would turn them into Noodle People and force them to experience Your Worst Nightmare over and over again. The reason Sleepy didn't do this was because all the members of his race swear a very strict oath to never use their warp vision on living beings. The sole exception is when people are being used as People Puppets, at which point hitting them with a Sleepwalker's warp beams actually frees them from the demonic possession.
- Doctor Strange routinely deals with planet-eating megamonsters and walks without blinking through Acid Trip Dimensions, but he's still a human being who needs the free use of his hands and voice to cast spells. Attacking him physically is a routine method of effecting a Deus Exit Machina.
- On the other hand, he has enemies that could and would easily squash him like a bug, except that they prefer to play cat-and-mouse with him and prolong the fun. This gives Strange enough time to spot their weaknesses and exploit this knowledge to defeat them.
- Enter the Dragon had Bruce Lee as a literal unstoppable fighter. No one, not even the impressively skilled Big Bad, could reasonably match him in a fight. So he not only used claws built into his prosthetic hands, he trapped Lee in the famous Hall of Mirrors to balance out the odds.
- The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe has the battle between Aslan's army and the Witch's go decidedly in her favor. Having both great combat skills and a petrifying wand, no one could get close without dying or being turned to stone. Seeing her headed straight for Peter, Edmund nearly dies to destroy said wand and give Peter a fighting chance. He was still losing, but at least it wasn't a curbstomp.
- The exact same thing also happens in the book, but the fact that it's related to the other characters after the fact rather than being described in the narrative prevents it from functioning as a Drama-Preserving Handicap.
- Superman Returns had Luthor threaten Superman and the lives of everyone in the North Atlantic with a Type 0-1 disaster by creating a giant Kryptonite island, stabbing supes with Kryptonite (and lodging a piece of it inside of him), letting his goons beat him up, and finally dumping him into the ocean. Yet still, Supes manages to lob the island into space and fly back to a Metropolis ICU. It's arguable whether this worked for the viewers.
- In Disney Animated Canon's Peter Pan, Hook calls Pan a coward for flying away instead of facing him man to man. He gives his word to not fly and they fight. Although Hook gets the upper hand, Peter wins the day with his agility and quick wit.
- In Return of the Jedi, the plan is to stop the completion of the second Death Star. When it all goes to hell, it's revealed that the Death Star's superlaser is already operational, at which point it starts picking off the Rebel Alliance's capital ships one shot at a time. Lando Calrissian then suggests engaging the Imperial Fleet directly in ship-to-ship combat, correctly guessing that the Death Star would hold its fire to avoid destroying friendly ships.
- In Rocky Balboa the odds of the fight between the current champ, the youngster Mason Dixon and the pushing "50" Italian Stallion is evened when Dixon breaks his dominant hand in the second round. Dixon chooses to put his career at risk and has to go the distance with a star that's powered by a chanting crowd of baby boomers
- It's pretty clear in Gladiator that Maximus would utterly destroy Commodus in anything resembling a fair fight. So, Commodus invokes this trope with a dagger to Maximus' lung before they go out to duel in the Colosseum. Commodus still never lands a blow on him, but it at least looks like Maximus is working hard.
- In Thor, the hero gets stripped of his power for being a Jerk Jock. Even after regaining them, he is reluctant to use his full power against his brother.
- In both Iron Man movies, Tony is weakened before the final battle. In the first, his improved arc reactor is removed and he's forced to use the inferior prototype, severely limiting the suit's power. In the second, he uses up his best weapon on the Hammeroids before he fights Vanko.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe Thrawn/Zahn trilogy, there's a whole planet covered in animals that block out the Force, so that Luke can't go around using all his Jedi powers. Thrawn, ever the tactical genius, carries one of these animals around with him to avoid Force attacks.
- Luke later does this to himself in the Zahn dulogy due to his concern over falling to the dark side. It does however give him the advantage of greater foresight.
- In first book of the The Dark Tower series it is clear that King's titular Gunslinger is an unstoppable force of death and destruction after he guns down several dozen enraged assailants. By the end of the book it is clear that Roland has no equal. King fixes this by mutilating Roland's primary hand to make him more dependent on his friends.
- Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series is one of the most powerful magic users in in-universe history to the point of having several of the gods so worried about his ambitions that they actively work to sabotage him in an effort to save their skins. The only thing that really prevents him from being able to pull off his plans sooner is his exceedingly frail constitution and a nagging cough; for much of the Chronicles, he's simply too physically weak to survive the strain of casting the spells necessary to his plans. He gets better, though.
- A Certain Magical Index:
- Index's habit, the "Walking Church", initially has extremely powerful defensive enchantments. These are nullified partway through the first book, forcing her to stay away from danger.
- Accelerator, one of the series' most powerful characters, suffers severe brain damage. To even walk again, he's reliant on a special electronic choker. He can use his power by switching the choker to a hyperactive state, but this drains the battery so quickly that it only lasts 15 minutes (30 minutes, after an upgrade). The choker's signal can also be jammed or interfered with. Even with these limitations, he remains one of the most powerful characters.
- Othinus, a Physical God who can rewrite the universe on a whim, undergoes a Heel Face Turn. She ends up shrinking into a tiny fairy with no appreciable magic power.
Live Action TV
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a first season episode featuring a living ventriloquist dummy named Sid. They both think the other is the bad guy, but a wooden dummy versus the slayer is not so much an Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny as it is a curbstomp. So the writers specifically had Sid drop a chandelier on Buffy so that she was restricted and he had somewhat of a fighting chance.
- In Season 6, Willow's power grows immensely, way before she nearly destroys the world. But in Season 7, where she could use it to solve many if not most of the Scoobies' problems, she won't because she was afraid of the dark power.
- Willow was pretty powerful in Season 7, but the reason she was so powerful at the end of Season 6 was because she absorbed a metric fuckton of magic and transformed into her Super-Powered Evil Side. Without that, she wasn't much stronger then at the end of Season 5, when she could barely manage to hurt Glory.
- A particularly satisfying example was the demon known as the Judge, whose DPH was disguised as an ancient threat: "no weapon forged can kill him." As Buffy points out, "That was then; this is now." And she blows him apart with a rocket launcher.
- Technically that still held true. He was blown up but didn't die. Were his pieces to be put back together he could reassemble and carry on. Angel took a piece of the Judge to a place where the Sun is always shining so that no vampires could get it.
- In Season 6, Willow's power grows immensely, way before she nearly destroys the world. But in Season 7, where she could use it to solve many if not most of the Scoobies' problems, she won't because she was afraid of the dark power.
- In Heroes, Peter was given a severe handicap in Season 2 in the form of total amnesia about himself and his powers. Because, y'know, having someone who can read minds and Time Travel would kind of kill the plot if the person were competent.
- Sylar got hit with this one, too; being powerless for the whole second season (we ultimately find out it's due to a virus). He's better as of season 3, but Word of God says that he lost all the extra powers he had up to that point (keeping only telekinesis) and had to start acquiring new powers from scratch.
- In the season six finale of NCIS, viewers find out DiNozzo survived a fight with Mossad assassin Michael Rivkin because Rivkin was drunk.
- Sam, the Reaper, had had his hand broken right before he could beat the Devil in a game of coin-tossing and win his soul back. By an angel, no less!. Although the drama was preserved just fine, it turned out to no purpose, as it was the last episode before the show got cancelled.
- Some of the sixth rangers of Power Rangers get this. For example the first Green Ranger was shown to be able to fight the Red Ranger to a standstill and even take on the entire team at once. Then Rita used the Green Candle to sap his powers, forcing him to stay on the sidelines unless he was really needed. The Gold Ranger and Titanium Ranger had similar disabilities.
- In the Supernatural episode "Mommy Dearest" the villain Eve is able to suppress Castiel's angelic powers, effectively turning him into a normal human. He gets them back after Eve is killed by Dean, and proceeds to wipe out all of her remaining Mooks in about three seconds.
- Makuta Teridax and his Brotherhood in Bionicle let the main characters live (and on occasion helped them out) because they knew that fulfilling their mission was a key element of their plan. But to keep the fans from finding this out too soon, most Makuta were outfitted with such handicaps. The three Phantoka Makuta got blinded, and the Mistika team members suffered Mode Lock and lost several of their powers due to a mutagen. Icarax, the Makuta who wanted to have it his way, and so didn't bother following rules, got devolved into his pre-Energy Being state, causing him great pain as there was no space left for his muscles and internal organs in his special armor.
- In Golden Sun, the heroes are able to fight Saturos (previously a Hopeless Boss Fight) in the water tower, since the tower weakens his magic, and strengthens the water mage (who he is weak against).
- In Super Smash Bros.. Brawl, the final boss has an attack that instantly turns all of the heroes into trophies a little while before the final battle. Right before the battle begins, Sonic appears and attacks the boss's wings, weakening this attack considerably (though it's still almost a OHKO).
- In Metal Gear Solid, Gray Fox's last heroic deed is to take out Metal Gear REX's exterior vision modes, forcing the pilot to open the cockpit in order to see and giving Snake a legitimate weak point to fire at.
- World of Warcraft often does this to justify players being able to kill a certain Big Bad. Some raid bosses have been weakened by another force, sometimes NPC's join the fight on the players' side, and some quests give you an item that will turn an elite mob into a normal one.
- Many of the hardmodes and achievements require you not to activate the handicap and still win the fight.
- In Dungeons and Dragons Online, there is a very early quest, where you are level 1 or 2, where you destroy a crystal, which was allowing a mind-flayer to control a dragon. This is a clever way to allow a low level player to defeat enemies which otherwise would curb stomp the PC in one blow.
- In Sluggy Freelance, you'd think Torg having a sword that can kill anything with one strike would make him pretty much unbeatable against the various aliens and demons he comes up against. It has a double-catch, however, since it (a) needs to feed on the blood of the innocent to gain that power, and (b) depending on the enemy, will need to hit a specific part of their body in order to kill them. (Fortunately, unpowered, it's still a pretty sharp normal sword that will work against non-superpowered opponents.)
- Order of the Stick
- Ultra-powerful post-splice Vaarsuvius is literally the most powerful mage to have ever existed...as long as he/she holds on to the splices. Good thing one of them slips away BEFORE the elf goes to fight the Big Bad, Xykon, or else the series would have ended in a curb stomp.
- Also happens repeatedly during Linear Guild confrontations, as lampshaded by Roy here. Roy seems to be outright defying the trope in that comic, but it ends up being played straight again a dozen strips later, when the Linear Guild attacks immediately after Vaarsuvius is incapacitated by a trap.
- Whateley Universe example: Bladedancer. She's the Handmaid of the Tao. If the Tao gives her enough power, she's pretty much unbeatable. But the reader never knows whether she's going to get any help from the Tao, in which case she's just a mere baseline with a really cool sword.
- In Danny Phantom, Danny uses the specter deflector on Vlad to weaken him to make it a fair fight. Later episodes show them pummeling each other on equal terms due to Danny's Character Development.
- Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League weakened Superman severely so he couldn't curb stomp everything and the other members of the league could be useful. This also gave most supervillains a (vague) chance against him, since he felt pain from most attacks (more Heroic Willpower than Nigh Invulnerability.)
- Superman: The Animated Series used Kryptonite Factor everywhere of course. They also used the Parasite to sap Supes' strength, and in one episode they removed yellow sunlight so Luminus could fight Superman one-on-one.
- He did receive a major buff at Justice League season 2, since so many fans complained he became a superwimp. He can still be physically exhausted (see "Secret Society") but it takes a LOT more effort.
- And of course it was eventually revealed that he was inhibited the whole time out of fear of hurting others.
- Justice League occasionally did it for other characters too. A good example is where Wonder Woman was poisoned to give Black Manta Captain Ersatz Devil Ray, an entirely original character not related to Aquaman, a decent chance against her in hand-to-hand.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: At the end of Season Two, Aang undergoes spiritual training that will allow him to enter the Avatar State at will. With that ability, Aang would've been able to take on Fire Lord Ozai then and there and end the war. So naturally, the first time he tries to invoke this power, he's nearly killed when Azula blasts him in the back with a lightning strike. When Aang recovers, he finds his injuries have blocked his chakra, sealing hm off the Avatar State. He doesn't get it back until the Grand Finale (the end of Season Three).