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I Should Have Been Better
EMT: Hey Peter, good job saving that girl today.
Peter: Her mother died. I should have gotten there sooner.
EMT: Should have...? Peter, you got there faster than is humanly possible.
Peter: I should have been faster.
Heroes

It's an old standby: The hero has done his absolute best, saved everyone he possibly could...but not everyone. Someone died, nearly always in a way completely outside the hero's control. He went above and beyond the call of duty, but it wasn't enough.

Can lead to Training from Hell, Heroic BSOD and, in rare cases, Jumping Off the Slippery Slope. See also Chronic Hero Syndrome. Friends will often respond with, "You Did Everything You Could."

Related to Guilt Complex or My Greatest Failure.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • In Marvel Comics, this is the cause of The Sentry's mental problems. He has the power of a million exploding suns, but whom does he choose to save and whom to let die?
  • Batman. It's his shtick; he wasn't able to save his family as a child, leading him to become the criminal-pulping badass he is today. All in the name of trying to make sure no eight-year-old boy every has his parents taken away by a punk with a gun, ever again. This is a highly unlikely event that he'll succeed, but we still love the journey.
  • In one short series of Peanuts strips, Snoopy attempts to write a book which he titles, Things I've Learned After it Was Too Late.

    Fan Fiction 
  • RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse: Princess Luna starts off the Grand Galloping Gala with one of these, delivered to the town of Ponyville, for letting her Night Court get out of control.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The famous scene at the end of Schindler's List in which Oskar Schindler laments that he could have saved more than he did if he'd thought to sell more of his possessions, in particular his Nazi party lapel pin (which is gold):
    Oskar Schindler: I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!
  • Star Wars: Anakin Skywalker feels this way in Attack of the Clones after failing to save his mother in time.
  • Rather poignantly stated in the first Superman film, about Clark's father, Jonathan Kent: "All these powers, and I couldn't even save him."
  • In Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker loses his powers for whatever reason, but then decides to run into a burning building anyway to rescue a little girl. After fighting his way through the blaze and saving the girl, the firefighters praise Peter's heroics, then talk amongst themselves about someone else on one of the upper levels who wasn't so lucky. By the look on his face, it's clear that Peter doesn't feel very heroic about that. It's less of a "I should have saved him too as a de-powered normal person" and more a case of "I could have saved him if I still had spider powers"
  • Happens to Indiana Jones at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Elsa Schneider sets off an earthquake by taking the holy grail past the temple’s seal. Indiana manages to grab her just before she falls in a crevasse and is about to pull her up to safety. But Elsa, consumed by greed, uses her free hand to reach for the grail below her. Indiana struggles to hold her because the leather glove on her hand is too slippery. He desperately tries to get through to her, but she’s too obsessed with the grail. The glove finally slips off and she falls to her death. Afterwards, he looks back at the collapsed temple with regret that he couldn’t save her.

    Literature 
  • In The Dresden Files, Harry goes through this from time to time, especially as it relates to Susan getting put on the road to vampirism by the Red Court, courtesy of Harry's dose of Chronic Hero Syndrome. The fact that he was usually lucky to have survived himself does little to help him cope.
  • Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive does this a lot. He starts off as a surgeon's apprentice who gets depressed everytime a patient dies, then he becomes a soldier and gets depressed and puts himself through Training from Hell after his brother is killed in battle, then he ends up a slave stuck in a causality heavy job and tries to save the members of his crew and gets depressed when a number of them end up dead.
  • The hero of the Cybernarc novels goes through this twice in the first book, once when his squad is ambushed by drug smugglers and again when the same smugglers attack his family. Both times he does everything he could have done, but still feels guilty that he didn't save everybody.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Peter Petrelli of Heroes, as the page quote indicates, falls into this a lot.
  • The X-Files: Fox Mulder expresses this sentiment in the first-season episode "Young at Heart": on his first field assignment for the FBI, he hesitated to shoot a criminal, who killed the hostage and an FBI agent. Although subsequent investigation proved that he did everything right, he could never forgive himself.
  • A sort of example that does involve wanting to be better, but not for heroic reasons: Angel and Spike, being the only two vampires with souls, have a deep rivalry when Spike makes the switch from the show Buffy to Angel in the fifth season. At one point, they fight over what they believe to be a cup of extreme suffering, destined to be drunk only by the true champion of the world. It turns out to just be a fake chalice filled with Mountain Dew. After Spike beats Angel, even after the drink is revealed to be a fake, Angel expresses this, feeling he should have wanted it enough to beat Spike.
    • In Buffy's "After Life," we learn that Spike has been feeling this way about Buffy's death and has some serious guilt over it.
    Spike: Uh, I do remember what I said. The promise... to protect her. If I'da done that... even if I didn't make it... you wouldn't have had to jump. But I want you to know I did save you. Not when it counted, of course, but, after that. Every night after that. I'd see it all again... I do something different. Faster or more clever, you know? Dozens of times, lots of different ways... Every night I save you.
  • One episode of 7Days involves Frank on a time-critical mission to save his boss from capture (and from taking a Suicide Pill to avoid interrogation). Along the way, Frank witnesses a shootout between gangsters, where an innocent civilian dies in the crossfire. Problem is, if he saves the civilian, he doesn't reach his boss in time. If he focuses on his primary mission, he sees the civilian die. Frank is eventually able to voluntarily invoke enough Groundhog Day Loops to save both.
  • The title protagonist of Doctor Who has lamented many times about the people and even whole races he couldn't save, including the Nestene, the Time Lords and even the Daleks and Davros, his greatest enemies. At least two occassions in the more recent series have seen him save the world/universe at the cost of losing a companion, leading him to decide he will be better by performing a Heroic Sacrifice for them.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Captain Picard reveals to his brother he feels this way about his experience at the hands of the Borg.
    Picard: They used me to kill and to destroy and I couldn't stop them! I should have been able to stop them! I tried. I tried so hard! But I wasn't strong enough! I wasn't good enough. I should've been able to stop them. I should, I should.

    Video Games 
  • In a very meta way, speed runners often have this opinion of their successes. Sure, they just beat their personal record (or world record if they're really good), but after the dust is settled they can only think of every minor mistake they made on their run that added precious seconds to the clock. A much more lighthearted example of this trope, of course, because nobody would follow speed runners if they stopped trying for better times and they all enjoy what they do, even when they fail.
  • Mass Effect

    Web Comics 
  • MegaTokyo: Yuki has a variant of this in the unMod Bonus Material after she saves the girls and the police officers, but not the traffickers. It's not clear whether she could have saved everyone, and chose not to, or she couldn't save everyone and prioritized the victims. Either way, her innocence has been tarnished.
  • Digger, after killing He-Is, berates herself for being unable to prevent Ed's death.
  • In Our Little Adventure, speculated as the motive for Julie's anguish over Pauline's death.
  • Vaarsuvius in The Order of the Stick went into a deep Heroic BSOD after V's magic was depleted in the Battle Of Azure City, rendering V incapable of saving hundreds of Azurites. Best seen in this quote:
    Durkon: V, no one blames ye for runnin when ye ran out o' spells.
    Vaarsuvius: Of course not. Fleeing at that point was the only sound tactical decision. I am saying that I am to blame for my magic not being powerful enough to avoid that situation in the first place. I could have saved the lives of countless soldiers with only a slightly greater application of arcane force, but I did not possess the requisite capacity.

    Web Original 
  • In Worm, Eidolon is the single most powerful superhero on the planet. Capable of selecting and using any three powers at once, he is essentially the entire reason why humanity is still alive in the face of the Endbringers. However, in spite of all his power, he has never been able to kill any of the Endbringers, and humanity is slowly being ground down. To make things worse, his powers are slowly fading. It gets to the point where he hits himself with this after every major fight.

    Western Animation 
  • Aang of Avatar: The Last Airbender feels this heavily at the beginning of Season 3, after the fall of Ba Sing Se. Somewhat justified, in that his initial Refusal of the Call meant he wasn't around to stop the war 100 years ago when it began (and he wasn't there when his people, the Air Nomads, were wiped out in a genocidal first strike by the Fire Nation). This time, he was there at Ba Sing Se and still couldn't save the city from begin conquered.
  • While it's usually never spoken of allowed, many versions of Optimus Prime of the Transformers multiverse appear to take their failures very seriously.


I Regret NothingI Regret This IndexI Wished You Were Dead
Hope SpotDespair TropesLook on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!
I'm Not a Hero, I'm...Hero TropesIt Sucks to Be the Chosen One
I Shall ReturnStock PhrasesI Should Have Done This Years Ago
I Let Gwen Stacy DieGender Dynamics IndexMangst

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