Poor Gon from Hunter × Hunter can't catch a break sometimes. In his last Hunter exams he only passes because his rivals have pity on him. As a result, he spends a lot of the next volumes training to overcome his weakness. He decides to help his friend Kurapica in his fight against the Genei Ryodan but he is kidnapped. After Gon is released and Kurapica stops his plans, Gon keeps training and becomes the first person to beat the Greed Island game. Things were looking better for him as he met his first teacher, Kite, and started exploring with him. In a short time later, his teacher is killed by the enemies known as Chimera Ants and Gon goes on a quest to defeat the Chimera Ants under the belief that Kite managed to survive. When learning Kite's situation is hopeless, Gon goes through so much angst that he sacrifices his life to get revenge on Kite's killer. He succeeds but his condition is left so bad that Killua spends an entire arc searching for a method to save his life.
Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion embodies this trope perfectly. Every awesome moment he has is negated by an even worse failure shortly after.
Due to the amount of loved ones you see die / go evil in their line of work, even the "successful" characters feel like this. Kakashi outlived his entire team and couldn't stop Sasuke's heel turn. Jiraiya watched Orochimaru become a serial killer, outlived his teacher and first student, and failed rather spectacularly at helping Nagato / Pain. Despite being two of the most feared warriors on the planet, they both consider themselves trash under their kooky exteriors - Jiraiya feels that training Naruto is the only thing in his life he did right.
Naruto himself feels like this from time to time, especially in the first mission he's in after the Time Skip, in which he arrives too late to save Gaara. He laments this failure in addition to his failure to bring Sasuke back, and remarks that he believes his training over the Time Skip seems to have made no difference.
Yamcha from Dragon Ball suffers this way due to The Worf Effect. Early on, he was used in each Tenkaichi Budoukai to show off how amazing some new character was. This continued with successive new enemies killing or almost killing him first to prove their threat level. After Android #20 impaled him through the chest, Yamcha decided just to call it quits for the day and start rocking a yellow Miami Vice suit. He still ended up being murdered (again) by the Big Bad an arc later, though.
In Dragon Ball Z, every non-Saiyan fighter (or more specifically, every fighter not named Goku or Gohan) suffers this by the start of the Frieza saga. Even Piccolo who gets two hefty powerups, is still only good for holding off a major foe for an episode or two before being disposed of. Vegeta suffers a similar fate, despite being a Saiyan and second in strength to Goku. Vegeta practically exists to show that being a Saiyan with cosmic levels of power still isn't enough to make a dent in the enemy for long, you have to have heart like Goku has.
While neither got to beat the main villain, Vegeta and Piccolo both did get to off minor villains in the android arc (androids 19 and 20) and the movies, and win against Cell's weaker forms, until he transformed and trounced them.
While Clare from Claymore is introduced as a badass demon hunter with a cold attitude, it appears most of the reason for her existence the entire rest of the series is to show how much more awesome her comrades are than her.
As a matter of fact, most of the heroes in the series spend the majority of their battles being Curb Stomped and horribly mutilated by every other baddie they face. It's not even an uncommon occurrence for the warriors to outright lose their fights, or even die without ever having their conflict resolved. Though one could argue that this makes the series a tad more realistic — if you were to go up against an army of all-powerful demons with only half their blood keeping you anywhere close to even footing, you'd damn well better expect them to mop the floor with your half-breed ass.
Though, many of Clare's early failures are justified by the revelation later on that she focused all of her training on fighting Awakened Beings — while all the Claymores tend to get curb-stomped by them, she's usually able to fight far above her weight class when they're involved.
From Black Lagoon, one gets the sense the author is a sadist from the fact that Rock is never going to learn that trying to do good in the Crapsack World he voluntarily entered will always end in tears.
Kuro from Kurokami ends up falling into this, since she rarely wins, and the few times she DOES win is either against very early opponents, due to a Deus ex Machina, made moot anyway by plot events, or several of these at once. Probably because, much like Yuusuke Urameshi, even she has problems catching up.
The Royal Knights Saga of Digimon Frontier turned every one of the heroes into this.
Some view WarGreymon from Digimon Adventure as one due to his tendency to spend entire fights helpless and get allies killed in the Dark Masters arc. To elaborate.
Against MetalSeadramon, Zudomon has to bring him to the surface to prevent MetalSeadramon from drowning WarGreymon. Whamon has to sacrifice himself since WarGreymon can't free himself on his own power.
He's pretty useless against Puppetmon too, to the point where he did nothing. He basically spends the whole fight under his control. MegaKabuterimon does most of the actual damage, crippling Puppetmon and driving him off while Garudamon destroys his weapon.
Mugendramon is probably the worst example. WarGreymon only managed to win due to a Deus ex Machina on Hikari's part.
He's not that important in the Piemon fight, since that was HolyAngemon's debut. That did not stop astute fans from noticing that Piemon was able to destroy his armor effortlessly, but unable to cause even superficial damage to Andromon.
Ladies and gents, let us introduce Saya Kisaragi of Blood-C. Taking Failure Hero to a whole new level. If there's a monster attack, and she has to save you, it's time to make peace with whoever you pray to, because you are screwed. She does manage to save a girl from the Eyeball Elder Bairn in the park, but scares her to death when she tries to help her while covered in blood. Considering the ultimate fate of the town, however, this probably didn't amount to much. She does become perfectly competent in the movie. Her incompetence from the TV series is brought by Fumito's doing.
Kinnikuman in his early appearances was so pathetic that monsters wouldn't even bother attacking Tokyo if he was the only hero they'd get to fight. Fortunately for him, things start improving for him in the first Choujin Olympics arc.
The crew of The Bebop rarely successfully takes down a bounty (And never as the focus of an episode). The bounty either dies, or accidentally turns themselves in, or so forth. Or if they do take down a bounty properly, they wind up doing so much collateral damage that they have to spend the reward paying fines, repairs or medical bills.
Luffy from One Piece get hit with Failure Hero status hard in the Sabaody, Impel Down, and Marineford story arcs. First, he failed to protect his crew at Sabaody from an admiral and his subordinates and they all nearly died only to be saved by Kuma who traumatized Luffy by separating his crew one at a time before his eyes before sending him off. Just when he was ready to reunite with his crew he finds out that his older brother is about to be executed in less than a week, forcing him to break into the most dangerous prison in the world to save him. He is then defeated in said prison by the warden and left to die by poison. Luffy is saved, but it cost him ten years of his life and because it took him so long to recover he failed to reach his brother in time before he is transported to his execution ground. After fighting his way out, Luffy escape the prison, but he had to leave behind one of his friends to do it. When Luffy finally reached the war zone, he is promptly beaten up by every strong person there and is pushed passed his physical breaking point. He is forced to risk his life further by taken more adrenaline just to keep going. When Luffy did finally succeed in saving his brother, Ace died in his arms saving him from a killing blow from one of the admirals. To say the least, Luffy had a terrible week. The entire experience convinces him and the others that they're not yet ready for the New World, and they spend two years training.
In the second season of Princess Tutu, Duck sees herself as this due to being locked out of the loop and feeling unable to help anyone or stop what's happening.
Invoked In-Universe with Sakura Hagiwara from Wanna Be the Strongest in the World. Since her debut in Pro Wrestling, she has done nothing but lose, in the same way: She is put on a Boston Crab hold and dragged away from the rope, and, unable to get out of the Boston Crab, she gives up. She had 50 losses this way so far. Her fans diminish with each loss, and the audience starts booing her... until she got dragged into a Training from Hell where she's forced to stop giving up or else her mentor will break her bones via Boston Crab (doesn't take 'give up' for an answer) and afterwards, she would avoid the booing and instead being cheered despite her losses. Rinse and repeat 15 times afterwards until she gets her own Finishing Move and then she started avoiding the trope.
Shuzo Matsutani from Now and Then, Here and There attempts plenty of heroic stuff, but doesn't accomplish anything at all. In the first episode, he fails to rescue Lala-Ru from the giant robot snakes, then he is captured and tortured. Ultimately, it's Lala-Ru who defeats the Big Bad, not Shu. And the final shot gives the impression that Shu should have just stayed home and not talked to Lala-Ru on the smokestack. Remove him from the series and very little would have changed.
The first season of Hell Girl tries to shake up its formula of every Victim of the Week using the Hell Correspondence to damn both their tormentor and themselves to hell by introducing Hajime, a tabloid reporter who discovers the Hell Correspondence and starts trying to prevent people from using it. Except that nothing really changes, because he fails every single time. The only person that he manages to stop from using it is his own daughter.
Princess Hime/Cure Princess of Happiness Charge Pretty Cure is this, especially at the beginning. Her first appearance has her being knocked into a transition transformed stage by a Monster of the Week, who ends up being destroyed by another Cure, who promptly lays her ass out for being The Load. Three episodes later, she's still this as the Rookie Pretty Cure Megumi/Cure Lovely is racking up some pretty impressive kills while Hime's on her back. It seems that Chypre was a little premature in "Weakest Pretty Cure in History" calling.
Superheroes in general have this problem, due to the effects of Joker Immunity in regards to villains. Due to popularity, all of the most well-known villains will be unlikely to be truly killed or defeated, as all they need is a Hand Wave whenever a writer wants to use them again. Regardless, a few heroes have it worse than others. (see below)
Spider-Man unfortunately was thrown headlong into this trope after the events ofOne More Day took away his only consolation prize for his life of misery and failure. Many fans still aren't happy about it at all. Spider-Man in general can be quite easy to Flanderize into one of these; whilst his life has not been without its difficulties, many of the poorer writers who have handled his character tend to forget about his successes and reasons for optimism (which he is not entirely without) and make him 'all failure, all the time'. While the appeal of the character has always been the struggles and losses, when written badly, he's just a total loser instead of an example of a relatable, grounded superhero.
The truth is that he's mostly a self-pitier with low self-esteem. Even during his nerd years, he had beautiful girls throwing themselves at him. He's been a successful photographer and a pretty good high-school teacher and that's underachieving due to his time as Spider-Man keeping from using his genius-level intellect to build a career as a scientist.
When Doctor Octopus took over Peter's body in the Superior Spider-Man saga, Otto's aghast that Peter has all of this potential and had squandered it, deciding he'll be better than Peter. Superior, even. He ends up creating an army to protect New York with, creates his own company, and gets his PHD, at the cost of his friends, his family and the goodwill of New York City. When the Goblin King struck and brought everything down around his ears, Otto's forced to realize why Peter was the true "Superior" Spider-Man: because of all of his smarts and power, he sabotaged himself from using it greatly because he felt he didn't deserve being successful because of the great cost it came with it - With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.
Empowered frequently crosses into this trope. Especially in her earliest stories. She is a perennial loser who is constantly getting captured and tied up by supervillains, even bush leaguers like Glue Gun Gil and regular old non-super thugs. In fact it isn't until about the middle of the vol. 1 that the reader actually sees Emp succeed at anything. Even when she does succeed it often backfires on her or her victory goes unnoticed by her fellow capes. Like when she defeated a supervillain that had taken out most of the Superhomeys by ramming him with a Humvee she ended up tangled in the seatbelt and Major Havok, despite being unconscious at the time, took credit for Emp's victory. Then again when the Capey's were besieged by Fleshmaster aka dWARf! Emp single-handedly defeated him and saved the day!...And then her teammates promptly accused her of being the real mastermind behind the whole thing. All that being said, in the latest volume Emp went up against Deathmonger and totally mopped the floor with him. Major Havoc doesn't believe her and call BS on the whole affair, while Captain Rivet is skeptical, but the Superdead defended her and named her as their liaison with the superhero community, so that has to count for something.
Jon/Skeleton Man from Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose is this in spades. Besides the fact that he's in a world full of dragons, witches, The Fair Folk and worse, his ineptitude is legendary. The most notorious example is probably when he's forced to stop pursuing a cadre of homicidal ghosts because they refuse to tell him the address of their next victim. His only consistent victories are over grave robbers and vandals (which are surprisingly common in Salem).
Tarot has shades of this. Over the course of the series, her effectiveness in battle is heavily degraded to the point where she can be stripped naked in a duel with her Evil Counterpart, a random fish minion in her own home, and animated snowmen. She'd have died several issues ago if not for the fact that her opponents need her for something, taunt her, or are Too Dumb to Live.
The titular character of Captain Alcohol fights several villains and only defeats one of them. In fact when he attempted to save a Damsel in Distress, he had to be saved by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The titular protagonist of Rat-Man. He rarely wins, most of his victories are ridiculous (he defeated the Mud Man by getting him to clean his shoes before entering) or are made meaningless by his own idiocy (an early story shows him inflicting a Curb-Stomp Battle on a gang that had kidnapped an orphan for ransom, only for him to pay the ransom. The gang's boss can't move due the sheer idiocy of what has just happened), the few that aren't end up getting him worse than before, and when he finally has defeated both The Shadowand the Bigger Bad Mr. Mouse, the Sequel Hook reveals that he's about to become the new host of the Shadow.
In The Adventure Through Runescape, the main protagonist Mainiac97 is always forced to rely on another character to save him from whatever predicament he falls in. Did we mention that he's the main character?
Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At no point in the narrative do they even come close to stymieing Frank at anything he wants to do. In fact, if the credits didn't identify them as "a hero" and "a heroine," most people probably wouldn't even notice.
Both Professor Anbronsius and his assistant Alfred from The Fearless Vampire Killers are so terrible at their jobs of vampire hunting, they fail in killing a single vampire, but they end up spreading vampirism to the rest of the world by bringing a vampirized Sarah along with them.
Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Absolutely nothing goes his way throughout the film, and his attempt to save his friends at Cloud City ends with them saving him.
Huff in Stone Cold. All his plans to stop the Brotherhood with proper police procedures fail, and while he shoots all the bad guys by the end, their big plan succeeded.
In the movie Inferno, the main character Mark does absolutely nothing that contributes to the villain's death. The villain died in a fire that she unintentionally set through one of her murders. All that Mark did was explore the building and escape it while it was burning down.
Captain Picard in Star Trek: Generations fails a lot. Upon gaining the ability to transport himself to ANYWHERE in time and space, Picard chooses to go back minutes before Soren launches his missile, instead of say going further back and just arresting him or going back even further to save his brother and nephew who died in a fire which is established in the same damn movie! So, his family stays dead, his ship stays destroyed and he gets Captain Kirk killed because he apparently wanted a macho last minute action movie confrontation. The expanded universe explained that Picard knew that the further you go back in time, the greater the chance that you'll screw everything up in horrible fashion, and he wanted to avoid that risk as much as possible, but still...
James Bond in Skyfall. Bond fails at every objective he has during the movie: he leaves the MI6 agent to die; loses the MI6 hard drive; allows an assassin to kill a politician; fails to get information from said assassin; fails to protect the mole; falls into Silva's trap; fails to stop Silva escaping; fails to stop several deaths in Parliament; loses Skyfall Manor; kills Silva instead of letting him rot in prison; and finally fails to protect M. The only positive thing that can be said is that he survives. In a sense this is exactly the way Ian Fleming first conceived of Bond.
Indiana Jones succeeds at very little in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He loses the golden idol to Belloq at the beginning of the film, which perfectly exemplifies Indy's failures throughout the rest of it: the Nazis are always a step ahead of him or manage to turn his successes into their own, culminating in the Nazis obtaining the Ark of the Covenant, the very thing he had been trying to prevent the whole time. Indeed, it's possible that, without him, the Nazis would never have obtained the Ark at all. Indy doesn't even get to save the day at the end, since it's the Ark itself, not Indy, that defeats the villains. Finally, he can't even keep the US government from locking the Ark away instead of putting it in a museum. This isn't to knock on Indy, though, because it's clear that he gives everything his absolute best, and we love him for trying.
A lot of people love to point out that the entire flick would have ended the exact same way had Indy just stayed at home, but don't forget he at least saved Marion who otherwise would have been tortured to death by Toht.
Reid in The Lone Ranger may have killed the bad guy, but he utterly failed to save the Commanches from being massacred, although given their historical fate, there's an overlap with Doomed by Canon here.
When the bird apocalypse happens again in Birdemic 2: The Resurrection, Bill gathers together his survivor friends and decides that he needs to rescue as many people as possible, before demonstrating that he's absolutely horrible at it and should've just holed up somewhere. Despite traveling around to numerous locations, his group only manages to save one person, who just dies later (hell, at one point he goes into a silent film theater to see the audience under attack by birds...and then just leaves without even trying to save anyone.) Near the end of the movie, his group finally reaches a zoo that the birds aren't attacking (apparently because the zookeeper understands that they're attacking because of global warming...or something.) Rather than camp out and wait for things to die down, Bill ignores his complete failure of a track record and decides that he has to find more survivors, before leaving and getting two more of his group killed before the end of the movie (one of which dies within seconds of them leaving the zoo.)
Ed Greenwood's Falconfar trilogy, at least the first two books.
Live Action TV
Heroes can't seem to write a good guy who isn't one of these, with Peter and Mohinder getting the worst of it (and Hiro beginning to catch up). On the rare occasions they aren't carrying the Idiot Ball or Villain Ball or doing a Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, they're up against opponents heavily favored by Diabolus ex Machina. It's no coincidence that characters like Angela Petrelli, Noah Bennet and Sylar — ranging from morally ambiguous to downright evil — tend to be extremely popular, given that they have been shown actually succeeding at their goals on a fairly regular basis.
It feels like the Writers constantly throw the idiot balls at Peter because, let's face it - if he actually knew how to use his powers correctly he would be a God-Mode Sue, while the others... the writers just don't know how to write dramatic tension.
Torchwood. They can't straight-up win the day ever, ending up with Pyrrhic Victory at best. By the end of Children of Earth, three of the initial five main characters are dead, one's on effective maternity leave and one's buggered off into space.
This trend continues right into Torchwood: Miracle Day. As of episode five Jack has lost his immortality, Ester has gotten her sister separated from her children by child care services, Oswald Danes refused to fight Phil Corp, Rex destroyed the throat of the one man who could give them information on the villains, Vera has been burned alive and Gwen has her father set up to go down the same route.Go Torchwood!
Ninja Warrior competitor Katsumi Yamada has not only never managed to obtain Total Victory, but from the 14th tournament on he hasn't even manage to complete the first stage. The fact that he's focused his life completely on this (which cost him his job and his family) makes it all the more heartbreaking. Nevertheless, he is considered an All-Star and fans (as well as the other All-Stars) continue to cheer him on for him to one day reach on top of Midoriyama.
Wallander seems to be this, especially in the Kenneth Branagh version. He's basically a Swedish Shinji Ikari. The moment something goes right for him in his personal or professional life, it is certain to ultimately end in tears. Usually Wallander's, who cries in literally five out of six episodes of the six-episode series. Because he fails. All the time.
Pity the Science Patrol in Ultraman. It's their lot to spend the first twenty minutes of every episode throwing everything they've got at the Monster of the Week to absolutely no effect, until Ultraman shows up and saves the day in the last five minutes.
This is Lampshaded in an episode of Ultraman Tiga, where the team's leader comes to resent Tiga a bit for always having to bail them out; but by the end of the episode, he's decided he's okay with it.
Played With as the Ultramen are there to protect the Earth, but really want to fight alongside humanity as equals.
Mebius usually gets to kill the Monster of the Week at the end of the episode, GUYS often helps pull his butt out of the fire during the battle, are usually the ones to neutralize the monster's special abilities, and often get to score monster kills in the beginning and middle of the episode. In fact, due to one particular episode, they actually end the series with a kill count higher than Ultraman's.
John Wiles's tenure producing Doctor Who edged into this. "Mission to the Unknown" (the handover episode) was a Bottle Episode where a bunch of people die at the hands of Daleks and the Doctor never shows up. "The Myth Makers" is a comedy story that ends with most of the endearingly well-characterised guest characters being slaughtered in a sudden, horrific bloodbath and the time travellers having no choice but to abandon them to escape. "The Daleks' Master Plan" ends with every heroic guest character dead, two companions Killed Off for Real, and the remaining companion saying What the Hell, Hero? about the Doctor's methods. "The Massacre" involves Steven having virtually no idea what is going on for most of the story and the Doctor failing to save anyone's life from an atrocity he knew was going to happen. Only "The Ark" has a happy ending and that features the Doctor ruining everything just by arriving on an alien world by spreading an alien virus to the last remaining humans, and his attempts to fix this problem end up causing a race Happy In Slavery to Turn Against Their Masters. The Doctor is straight back to having a generally more competent role once Innes Lloyd takes over, and "The Celestial Toymaker", "The Savages" and "The War Machines" all show him using his intelligence to create a relatively happy ending.
There was a baseball game that Charlie Brown's team won. He was doing a happy dance like you would not believe. He was happily proclaiming "I won! I won!" The person he was saying this to responded "You won?"
The first full-length movie with the Peanuts gang, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, specifically revolved around Charlie Brown's role as an eternal failure, demonstrating that even when he wins, he ultimately loses.
The cast of Funky Winkerbean comes a close second though, especially in recent years.
Averted in Garfield, where Garfield's owner Jon finally gets the girl of his dreams after 28 years. In these 28 years, however, all of Jon's plans to get a relationship fail horribly. Even when he scores a date, you can bet that either he, Garfield or the environment would ruin it.
Tom the Dancing Bug sporadically features Sam Roland, the Detective Who Dies. Each appearance gives us another case of Sam dying before solving the crime. Sometimes before answering the phone to get a new case.
The newspaper comic version of Spider-Man has always been this. He's utterly incompetent and completely ineffective. It's not at all unusual to have a street thug get the drop on him and knock him out with a piece of debris they found nearby — despite the fact that his Spider-Sense should make this virtually impossible. He's often shown more likely to just sit around and watch TV and many of his storylines have even resolved despite Spider-Man's involvement.
Cited as one of the main reasons why WCW went under in its later years; every single Face that tried to go up against the Heel stable NWO invariably got ruthlessly squashed, including Sting, Ric Flair, and even in one of its most infamous moments in history Goldberg, who was a Showy Invincible Hero before.
It was almost a ridiculous cycle of kicking the dog and then yanking its chain just to get it back into kicking range. Sting seemed to have the nWo beat... and then it resurged. Ric Flair returned and the Four Horsemen were reformed... and they did nothing. Bill Goldberg was, well, Bill Goldberg... and Nash beat him with outside interference. Nash was all right though, because his nWo was opposed to Hogan's... and then the Finger Poke of Doom happened.
Ring of Honor had a case where a number of factors combined to create a team of Failure Heroes. Early in 2007, longtime tag team partners Austin Aries and Roderick Strong split, with Strong forming the No Remorse Corps alongside hot new talents Davey Richards and Rocky Romero. Aries, the Face in this feud, teamed up with the less established wrestlers Matt Cross and Erick Stevens. Unfortunately, Aries was soon forced to leave ROH for a few months due to contract obligations with TNA - leaving Cross and Stevens woefully outmatched by the No Remorse Corps. Wrestling logic dictated that the NRC get the early advantage in the feud, but without Aries around, Cross & Stevens had no credibility to begin with. By the time Aries returned, Cross and Stevens had already lost to the NRC so many times that nobody could get excited about their comeback.
In TNA EV2.0 had been this since day one, whether if it was during their feud with Fortune (led by Ric Flair) or Immortal (led by Hulk Hogan). Whatever victory they managed to obtain was only short-term as they lost many of their key members, including the FBI, Sabu, Rhino, and Raven.
Ted DiBiase Jr. has slowly become a Failure Villain. Lampshaded by his girlfriend Maryse, who even accuses him of causing her to lose matches by association and outright calls him a loser.
On the 1/26/11 edition of NXT, however, he did finally managed to score a win. Who? Daniel Bryan! Cleanly. And Maryse actually complemented him! And his rookie Brodus Clay won the Fatal Four Way elimination match! ...But wait! That match Brodus won? The winning rookie had the opportunity to switch Pros! Brodus then pointed out all of DiBiase's failings before ditching him for Alberto Del Rio. And to add insult to injury, he takes him out with the Tongan Death Grip!
As of recently DiBiase has leaned more into Face territory and started to gain more actual victories. He's still in mid card placement, but still at least he can get clean wins every once and a while.
MVP went through a similar situation during a heel run, losing every match he had for a very long period of time (albeit for different reasons ranging from legitimate failures to outside interference and flukes). Story actually implied he was becoming backrupt as a result of this, leading him to gradually gain audience sympathy and eventually get cheered with great enthusiasm as he finally started to gain wins as a face.
Depending on codex and writer, the Imperial Guard of Warhammer 40,000. Conscripted by the billion, given laughably inadequate equipment, following moronic plans by incompetent (if not outright traitorous) generals and of course, executed whenever they complain, piss themselves at the horrors they're facing or think of a way to win that isn't the way the Imperium has been doing for the past few thousand years. All for nothing, as the Imperium steadily crumbles further.
Anytime an army is victorious over Chaos could count as this, as the Ruinous Powers are actually strengthened whether or not they win (one is worshipped whenever blood is spilled, another by both pain and pleasure, one has so many Xanatos Gambits running that the failure of one just means another can now function, etc.).
Leo of Zone of the Enders. Despite some victories, things still get destroyed all around him, and the end of the game is a humiliating defeat. He has better luck in the sequel, but that's when he's not using Jehuty.
However, you can save plenty of civilians from BAHRAM if you're good enough, you prevent Jehuty from falling into BAHRAM hands, and you save the colony from destruction before you're defeated by Nohman.
Rameses. There are even conversation choices where you can stand up to the bully, insult the toadie, or defend The Woobie, but the PC will nearly always reject them with a variation of "Why bother? I couldn't do that anyway."
Lampshaded in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The main character Raiden is told before the ending that all his actions have been scripted and defeating the Big Bad would just help the group that has been forcing people to against their will. As a result, before the final fight against Solidus Snake, Raiden tells the Patriots AIs he prefers not to fight and is threatened with the death of his girlfriend and an infant if he is murdered. In the end Raiden has to defeat Solidus, leaving the other conflict open for the next games.
Raiden becomes this in Mortal Kombat 9. His actions to change the future only makes things worse, he loses the trust of Liu Kang, gets many heroes killed through his indirect actions to change the past and only barely wins the battle because the Elder Gods arrive to help him at the last moment.
Leonard in White Knight Chronicles, the actual main character of the game. Despite being possessing the power to transform into an indestructible 20 foot tall walking tank whenever he feels like it, he consistently fails to achieve his goals or take any action that isn't a direct response to the actions of the antagonist. He allows the Princess he's supposed to be saving to get kidnapped in front of his eyes multiple times, even allowing to her to get recaptured after rescuing her for about 15 seconds. He is consistently fooled by the bad guy's spies and infiltrators, and can't wrap his head around the fact that every time his friend Kara disappears, the evil Black Knight appears. He suffers a Heroic BSOD and outright quits the party for half of the second game. Then, in a misguided attempt to save the day, he parachutes back into the party during a crucial battle underleveled, underdeveloped, and undergeared and usually gets the entire party killed as a result of the player being forced to field an unprepared character. And finally, he leads the charge into the final dungeon and defeats the Big Bad Wannabe, only to wind up fulfilling the real Big Bad'sEvil Plan and become the final boss himself via a Grand Theft Me. He's last seen limping off screen slumped over someone else's shoulder, with the Princess he spent the last game repeatedly failing to rescue having killed the Big Bad herself when everyone else wasn't looking.
The goal of the game in the Interactive Fiction title Inhumane is to enter a pyramid full of traps and get killed by every single one. Even if you succeed in all of this, the throwaway in-joke about the author's math teacher destroys your mind when you try to exit the pyramid with the treasure.
Hawke in Dragon Age II. Fails to save his/her sibling in the beginning. Fails to save his/her mother from a serial killer. Fails to stop the Qunari attack on Kirkwall. Fails to prevent the Mage/Templar War. Basically, every major story quest will have the worst possible outcome and the player's choices will make no difference.
Mike Dawson in Dark Seed 2. While he was competent and knew what he was doing in the first game (even if it was only because the player used a walkthrough), in the sequel he seems to struggle with things that shouldn't really be too problematic, and gets himself into situations that could be easily avoided. His attempt to stop the Dark World invasion, something he achieved handily in the first game, is implied to be badly botched. The ending is left ambiguous, but it doesn't end well for him, either way.
In Assassin's Creed III, Connor fails all of his longterm goals even though he manages to kill all of his enemies. He finds out the hard way that the world does not run on Black and White Morality and that killing people doesn't always make problems go away. His only victories are re-starting the all-but-dead Assassin Order in America and successfully hiding the MacGuffin away for his descendant to find. Oh, and living long enough to become Desmond's ancestor, but that was a Foregone Conclusion because the life of an assassin who dies before siring heirs couldn't exactly be relived through the Animus.
Collar 6 struck the protagonists with this for its second major arc. Any fight was either lost or interrupted, which lead to them getting captured twice. The first time, they would've spent the entire arc in captivity if their maids hadn't come to bail them out. Ultimately, they could have stayed home and the whole thing would have worked out for the best, if the bad guy's plan didn't require kidnapping Laura and a sudden Bigger Bad that required stopping.
Homestuck: anything that KarkatVantas wasn't guaranteed to fail at due to You Can't Fight Fate, he managed to bungle on his own, with the exception of calming Gamzee down and a few other things. When tasked with creating a universe-frog, he wasn't patient enough to do the job right and ended up giving the poor thing cancer (although waiting any longer may have made the game unwinnable, due to the black king becoming exponentially harder to beat the longer the game goes on). When he tried to lead his group to victory, he managed to keep at most five of them alive from a group of twelve. His efforts to prevent the creation of a Hero KillerGod of Evil were kicked in the head by destiny, and his dating life has been kind of consistently disastrous. Even his childhood dream of joining the Threshecutioners was doomed from the start due to a) his mutant blood colour and b) the destruction of the universe, and his efforts to learn programming ended up killing his lusus. It's no wonder the guy hates himself so much, and is so consistently pissed.
Ironically enough, many of his failures seem have side effects that turn them into successes, for example, the robotic Aradia clones that came from doomed timelines that were attributed to his failures were essential to win, and Aradia also states the the Mobius Double Reacharound virus was essential to winning as well. Similarly many of his successes turn into horrific failures- the ectobiology that he was initially successful with later making the game unwinnable, for example.
Other examples include Calming Gamzee prevented the other trolls from offing him, and considering Gamzee is one of the main sources of problems for every group of protagonists...this... isn't a good thing. Not only that, Vriska speculates that if attaining Godhood is related to attaining your species equivalent of maturity, then Karkat's efforts to keep his murderous race of friends together may have kept most of them alive for as long as it did, but had he been a BAD leader, half of them would have killed the other half but the survivors may have gotten FAR more power as a result.
In Red vs. Blue we get Tex who was created from the Director's memory of his dead girlfriend. Since said girlfriend died in battle, the memory and thus Tex herself have that failure deep seated within them. As a result, despite being perhaps the most badass character in the entire series, she fails just about any mission that has actual importance no matter how hard she tries.
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Statless And Tactless: Kyle is styled like an archetypal pulp-era adventure hero, very much the group's most obvious good guy. He's also spread so thin on skill points that he's pretty much incapable of succeeding in any task he attempts.
Racing cartoons tend to have one of these characters:
Wacky Races' Dick Dastardly, despite being as lukewarm a Villain Protagonist as you can possibly get, definitely falls into this trope. Even in the rare instances he conquers his obsession to cheat he still manages to become a Boring Failure Hero. He actually managed to win once, even to the narrator's suprise.
His Expy Phantom Fink suffers the same problem; when he does win, the prize is absolutely horrible.
No matter who wins in Yogi's Space Race, something happens to make the prize undesirable. One wonders why the racers keep coming back.
The protagonists of Ed, Edd n Eddy. Not only do Eddy and his crew fail at their attempts to scam kids, they also completely fail at legitimate ventures or even completely innocent goals like gaining a little respect from their friends. The constant teasing and harassing of their Jerkass neighbors only rubs salt into the wound.
In the movie this is subverted. The other kids finally accept the Eds into their group after seasons of turmoil.
The title character of The Buzz on Maggie. Mostly everything she tries to accomplish fails, or backfires in her face.
The main theme of The Venture Bros., where all the characters are failures, both heroes and villains.
It really says something when even the most badass character on the show, Brock Sampson, is a failure. Brock was a promising college football player who had to quit school because he accidentally killed a man on the field. Then he goes off to OSI, where he gets paired with a guy tagged as a crazy conspiracy theorist by the department. Despite being as awesome as he is, he gets assigned guard babysitter duty to Dr. Venture, a washed-up, sociopathic Omnidisciplinary Scientist, and his Cloud Cuckoo Lander kids. He's viewed as just about as much a waste of great potential in his field as Dr. Venture in his own. On top of everything, he can get any woman on the planet, except the one woman he actually loves.
Chuck Jones' interpretation of Daffy Duck was meant to represent a polar opposite of Bugs Bunny, constantly attempting to take on The Ace role, be it a super hero, a western sheriff or a detective, only to get his ass handed to him by even the most incompetent of villains, with real heroes Bugs or Porky usually clearing things up. Other directors occasionally placed Daffy as a bumbling hero as well, though it varied whether he was an actual failure or not.
One of the major problems most fans have with Young Justice is that no matter what the heroes do, it almost never matters. They usually end up soundly defeated, and on the rare occasions that they do win, it just furthers the villains' goals somehow.