"Kill him, and you martyr him. You make him a legend. But break him, humiliate him, terrify him, and hold him up for the word to see? Then he's nothing but a man."When someone dies fighting for a cause they believe in, it can create a powerful symbol for others to rally around. The character's message may not have been all that effective while alive, but once their enemies kill them, others take notice of their example and agree with them, and begin to rise up. In works of fiction, some characters are aware of this and take efforts to avoid it. This trope is whenever someone could kill their enemy, and perhaps does, but it is addressed that their death could make them a martyr for their cause and prompt even more people to rise up to follow their legacy than rose up to follow them in life. Regardless of if the character actually dies or not, the story treats this as the truth — if they die (or at least, die before their enemies can discredit them), their enemies will have it even worse from those that take up the cause in their name. Compare Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?, which this trope may be the answer to. See also Nice Job Breaking It, Hero! and Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!, which may overlap with this trope if the character does die and become a martyr, and Pragmatic Villainy, which this trope is likely to be an instance of.
— Scarecrow, Batman: Arkham Knight
open/close all folders
- In the Fall 1152 storyline of Mouse Guard, this is the reason why the traitor Midnight is not killed or executed. As the Guard realizes that his death would make him a martyr, he's banished instead.
- Batman: The Cult: Batman faces the immortal (via regular Blood Bath) cult leader Deacon Blackfire. Blackfire faces him in a ring of his followers, and actually wants Batman to kill him in front of them to invoke this trope. Batman realizes this and instead breaks his pedestal in front of all of them by hitting him in nerve clusters for maximum pain until Blackfire can't handle it anymore. Seeing their messiah as just a man, his cult kills him.
- Undercover Brother. Mr. Feather and "The Man" are discussing General Boutwell (who is black) and his possible run for the Presidency of the U.S.
The Man: Now Boutwell might be President?!... I want the White House to stay white. Eliminate him!Mr. Feather: But, sir, if we kill him, we'll only be making him a hero.
- Inverted in Monty Python's Life of Brian: the People's Front of Judea could have rescued Brian from dying on the cross, but they decide to make him a martyr instead. He doesn't take it well.
- In Batman Returns, when Catwoman and Penguin have their team-up, Catwoman shoots down Penguin's initial suggestion of turning the Batmobile into "an H-Bomb on wheels" by pointing out that Batman would have even more power as a martyr, and that the best way to destroy him is to destroy his reputation.
- Explained to the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files: Fight the Future to explain why Agent Mulder is not just shot by the Government Conspiracy. As long as he's alive, he's just seen as a crazy FBI agent Reassigned to Antarctica. If he dies (especially in a "mysterious" fashion, as the Cigarette Smoking Man is wont to do), he'll become a martyr to the Conspiracy Theorist circle, which could give them some problems down the road.
- In the live action Masters of the Universe movie, Skeletor gives this as his reason for not outright killing He-Man immediately (though it's obvious there's ego involved, too).
Evil-Lyn: The people wait for He-Man. They believe he will return to lead them. For you to rule completely he must be destroyed.Skeletor: If I kill him, I make him a martyr, a saint. No, I want him broken first!
- Gladiator: This trope is the reason why Commodus doesn't just kill Maximus after the latter is revealed to be still alive. The whole point of Commodus's Bread and Circuses act is to keep the people of Rome from realizing how bad a ruler he actually is. Maximus openly defies Commodus, but at the same time, he's so popular among the people that killing him would make Commodus in turn unpopular.
Commodus: And now they love Maximus for his mercy. So I can't just kill him, or it makes me even more unmerciful! The whole thing's like some crazed nightmare.Falco: He is defying you. His every victory is an act of defiance. The mob sees this, and so does the senate. Every day he lives, they grow bolder. Kill him.Commodus: No. I will not make a martyr of him.
- In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the plot is driven by the need to stop Mystique from killing Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinel program, because his death at the hands of a mutant will only drive others to finish his work. In addition, since Mystique is captured when she does it, they are able to adapt her mutation to give the Sentinels Adaptive Ability, which made them unstoppable.
- The reason why Ramses exiled Moses in The Ten Commandments.
- HYDRA's S.H.I.E.L.D. mole agents are a Slave to PR for this reason when they manage to capture Captain America and his cohorts in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Brock Rumlow tells one of his agents to stand down when he's about to execute Captain America in broad daylight because they know if they're seen doing the deed by anyone, it'll expose them and turn Steve into a martyr.
- Nodded to in Avengers: Age of Ultron. When Quicksilver complains that Ultron and Wanda aren't being direct about the Avengers, Ultron rhetorically asks if he wants to make them martyrs.
- Tango & Cash: The reason why Perret manages to convince the other criminal leaders that his plan to set up the titular pair of Cowboy Cops is the best (even if they complain about how complicated it is, and instead of just tossing as many assassins as it takes to kill them) is that if they just up and die, while they are still respected by the public and the LAPD as hero cops, the response will be an increase of difficulty in their criminal enterprises courtesy of crusading cops—but if they are disgraced as a set-up for the kill...
- This is why Achimas, one of the world's top Professional Killers, is contracted to assassinate General Sobolev in The Death of Achilles. Sobolev was preparing a military coup in Russia, so his enemies required him dead and his death to be a shameful one, because otherwise his aides would have turned him into a martyr and carried out his plans even without him.
- Katniss in The Hunger Games becomes this trope for her selfless and pacifistic behavior in the games, instead of killing her opponents like is expected, but with the unrest she causes, killing her would just make tensions worse. The Film of the Book even directly has Haymitch warn Seneca "Don't kill her. You'll only make a martyr of her."
- In George R.R. Martin's early short story "And Death His Legacy" (collected in Dream Songs) the protagonist assassinates a right-wing demagogue during one of his sermons, which inspires his already fanatical followers to continue his work and the movement grows. "My God, What Have I Done?."
- And in The Mystery Knight, a Blackfyre usurper is allowed to live for this reason, though also because if they cut off his head, the next-in-line of succession will take over the role. This way the current Blackfyre is their hostage, hampering any future attempts by the Blackfyre rebels to take the Iron Throne.
- In Isaac Asimov's short story In a Good Cause�, after a man is arrested for attempting to kill the ambassadors of an alien race (he hoped to unite the human factions through an Enemy Mine situation), he asks whether he's going to be shot without a trial. Instead, he is told that he'll only get a few years... they don't need a martyr, so everyone else is going to be shot instead, creating the impression of him being a state witness.
- From Russia with Love. James Bond is aware that the Soviets are plotting something, but doesn't think they're planning murder because they could just assassinate him. Turns out they are planning to kill him, but in a way that will create a public scandal. In this case the scandal is the object though, rather than Bond's death. Bond is a nuisance, but the real object is to discredit British Intelligence.
- The Stormlight Archive:
- The Way of Kings: Discussed. Kaladin organizes the bridgemen, turning them from slaves waiting to die into real, professional soldiers. Gaz promises to assassinate him, but his superior says that is a terrible idea, as it will just turn Kaladin into a martyr. Bridgemen have the most dangerous job in the army, so it's better to just let him die on the field. Of course, they are both unaware that Kaladin has magical powers that haven't been seen in centuries, and thus is extremely unlikely to fall to something as minor as arrows.
- Words of Radiance: Sadeas knows better than to assassinate Dalinar; even though Dalinar's reputation is at an ebb, he is still a respected general and leader. Killing him out of the blue would just make people flock to the ideals he's been espousing, which Sadeas hates. Instead, his wife's spies find the written records of Dalinar's visions and release them to the public (edited slightly to seem more ridiculous). Then he tries to assassinate Dalinar, since no one will care if a madman dies. This backfires when Dalinar survives the assassination, wins the war, and proves everything he's been saying is true. Sadeas still plans to politically undermine him, however. He makes the mistake of telling Dalinar's son, Adolin, this while they're alone. Adolin snaps and kills him.
- At the end of the Stargate SG-1 episode "Icon", Rand Protectorate loyalist leader Jared Kane guns down the religious extremist leader Soren. Daniel Jackson tells him he may have just created a martyr.
- In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Angel 1", the ruler of a matriarchal society sentences a male former member of the Federation named Ramsey and two accomplices to death for revolutionary activities. The crew of the Enterprise can do nothing to help them as far as legalities are concerned (a rare case where they abide by the Prime Directive), but Riker advises Mistress Beata of the possible consequences, saying her actions are trying to hold back evolution, which can't be done, and warns her that she'll make a martyr out of Ramsey. At the last minute, Beata relents, and simply chooses to have Ramsey exiled.
- In Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harmony has become an international celebrity who's making Buffy and the Slayer Organization's lives miserable, making vampires seem like misunderstood good guys and the slayers look like Nazis for unfairly hunting them. Still, Buffy orders her troops to let her live, for this very purpose.
- More than once in the course of Babylon 5, Sheridan is targeted for actions that try to turn or discredit him rather than kill him, for exactly this reason.
- The Syndicate in The X-Files lets Mulder repeatedly get away with poking his nose into their various ventures because Mulder has a reputation in the world-wide community of conspiracy nutters and killing him would just serve as a message to everyone that he was digging in the right direction. By letting him live, the conspirators are basically Keeping the Enemy Close, preferring one they already know to the hundreds to thousands that would replace him if something happened to him.
- Tyrant: This concern is why Jamal, the new dictator of Abbudin after his father's death, is so careful about dealing with liberal protestors in the capital's public square. He knows full well that using violence to crack down on political dissenters will simply rally more people to their cause.
- Game of Thrones Has Roose Bolton use this against Ramsay's suggestion of killing Jon Snow because of a potential claim on the North. After all, killing the Lord Commander of an extremely well known and politically neutral organization over a tenuous claim that's against his vows anyway may not be the best way to pacify an already very pissed off North. Of course, that doesn't stop Ramsay from trying it anyway. Twice. And guess who was right? Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!.
- In Flash Gordon, Ming has captured Barin, the leader of one of the cantons on Mongo, and plans to execute him publicly for defiance. Knowing that Ming heeds the prophecies spoken by a fringe cult on Mongo, Flash and his friends infiltrate the cult, knock out the real members, disguise themselves, and fake the ritual (involving a cult member being stung by a scorpion-like creature, mumbling something that sounds like gibberish before expiring, and another member translating it). The chosen message is vague, but Ming immediately realizes that it warns him that, by killing Barin, he would be creating a martyr for the other cantons to rally behind. Instead, he opts to keep Barin imprisoned until he can find another solution. Interestingly, his Dragon turns out to be a secret member of the cult and is aware that the "prophecy" is fake. However, he is secretly working to bring Ming down.
- Warhammer 40,000: Averted in the background for the Deathleaper, a Tyranid special unit. It had already infiltrated the world of St. Caspalen, and knew that killing its leader, Cardinal Salem, would make him a martyr to the Imperials, stiffening their resolve. So it continually attacked the Cardinal's bodyguard, brutally slaughtering them but leaving him untouched, until the man finally snapped and committed suicide. Left leaderless, the planet was an easy win for the Hive Fleet.
- Discussed in Starcraft II. Raynor tells Tosh that Arcturus Mengsk chooses to marginalize him with the media and paint him as a fanatical terrorist because he knows just killing Raynor will make him a martyr for rebellious sentiment. Tosh agrees, but points out that if Raynor causes enough trouble/becomes a big enough threat Mengsk will risk it and simply kill Raynor.
- in StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Valerian uses this to stop Nova from assassinating General Davis.
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Tulius lampshades this when the Civil War questline is completed for the Imperials, that by killing Ulfric they may have just created a martyr for rebellion against the Empire and the worship of Talos.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, Mr. House discusses this with regards to NCR's President Kimball. Kimball's seven-year stalemate, militarily against Caesar's Legion and and politically against House in the Mojave has ruined his public image, so when House takes over the Mojave and ousts both the NCR and the Legion from the region, Kimball will take the blame from NCR's people. But if Caesar's assassins kill Kimball, he'll become a martyr for the Mojave once House takes over the region, which is why House wants him kept alive so when he takes over, he can negotiate peace with NCR.
- In Legacy of Kain, Kain accidentally falls victim to this trope in the first game. To prevent a tyrannous king called The Nemesis from taking over Nosgoth, he travels back in time to kill him as a young boy, William the Just. However, Moebius the Timestreamer uses the death of a young and beloved king to galvanize the humans of Nosgoth into exterminating the vampires, and when Kain returns to the present, he finds his race almost extinct thanks to Moebius's crusade.
- In one of the alternate timelines Booker and Elizabeth visit in BioShock Infinite, the alternate Booker never found Liz but instead joined Vox Populi, died fighting, and was posthumously turned into a martyr by the Vox Populi leaders. Moreover, when Booker Prime suddenly appears and everyone thinks he is Back from the Dead, said leaders actively try to off him again, because he is more useful to them dead than alive.
- In Batman: Arkham Knight, this is why Scarecrow does not want to kill Batman right out of the gate. Killing him as he currently is would only solidify his status as a symbol of hope to people, whereas breaking him and holding him up for all the world to see before killing him would turn him into just another man and destroy that legendary status. This leads to friction between Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight, who doesn't care what Batman's legacy will be after he's gone, he just wants him dead.
- Anti Bunny: Nailbat. The mayor's robot has Nailbat broken and defeated... only for the mayor to order the robot to take him alive. The robot questions this until the mayor explains that new Nailbats can be created out of ordinary citizens who witness a martyr. The robot can kill Mors... but to kill Nailbat, he has to arrest him and have him judged by court and paraded by media, until no one wants to be Nailbat anymore.
- A twisted version of this is the end of Tarquin's story in The Order of the Stick. Tarquin, an absolute slave to the idea of Genre Savvy, knows that the only good story is one that ends with the villain defeated in a grand final battle, making them immortal. Elan defeats him, and then drops him on a rock in a desert, refusing to kill him - and thus ruining the story. Instead of a grand death at the hands of a hero, Tarquin is a bad joke, a pathetic loser defeated and left to wallow in his own pity.
- In The Legend of Korra, Amon only takes bending abilities from criminals and jerkasses before taking over the city for this reason. When Korra challenges him to a duel and he ambushes her with a group of chi-blockers and has her at his mercy, he actually tells Korra that taking her powers at this point would only make her a martyr, so he lets her go unharmed (albeit terrified).
Religion and Mythology
- Jesus Christ is probably the Trope Codifier of arguments for this. The Romans crucified a popular, charismatic, and inspirational outcast preacher (the single most humiliating version of the death penalty in their laws, to boot) in a tiny backwater occupied province. In doing so they established the cornerstone of a religion that made it to the heart of the capital within the generation of Christ's death and would conquer the Roman Empire. Though the teaching of Christianity is that this was invoked: the reason The Christ was brought to the Earth was to redeem mankind's sins and show the way by dying in martyrdom.
- Most historians believe that Abraham Lincoln's assassination was the worst mistake pro-Confederacy John Wilkes Booth could have ever made, not only because it ruined any chance of a peaceful reconstruction, but because it made Lincoln a martyr to his cause.
- When Erwin Rommel began conspiring against Adolf Hitler near the end of World War II, he stated to his rebel group that he was against the plots to assassinate Hitler because that would make him a martyr. He instead pitched the idea of arresting him and putting him on trial.
- A common argument against the death penalty. Punishing heinous crimes, particularly ones motivated by anti-social political ideologies, with a public (or well-publicized) execution can be the kind of herostratic fame and validation the perpetrator was after in the first place, possibly inspiring other mentally unbalanced individuals to go out and commit equal or even greater crimes. Leaving the perpetrator to a long life, rotting in jail, where they and their crimes will die forgotten is arguably a Cruel Mercy that denies them what they want.