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Martyr Without a Cause
Why is Tony Stark
sacrificing himself today, folks? We're taking all bets! note
"You Optimuses Heroes are heroic
do love to sacrifice yourselves, don't you?"
; it goes without saying. So it shouldn't come as a surprise when one makes a Heroic Sacrifice
or takes the shot
to protect a friend or loved one; even his allies might form a Hero Secret Service
to protect him before facing the Big Bad
Then, there's heroes who seem to have a near suicidal
insistence on being the one to die... even if the situation isn't all that dire!
They'll put the Overprotective Dad
and Mama Bear
to shame in their zeal to ensure no one around them but themselves is in any risk. They'll discourage alternate plans for a given threat if any friends have to be in the slightest danger, even if they increase the odds for success and their own survival, and said friends are willing to take the risk. If someone gets hurt (or his little sister forbid, dies
) he'll be eaten up with guilt
. This is often the Character Flaw of a Messianic Archetype
, and often combines with Chronic Hero Syndrome
Expect friends, family, and loved ones to scold him repeatedly on this risk-hogging behavior, and villains to use Flaw Exploitation
to make the most of it by engineering threats. If it's that kind of show
, expect an episode or two about how the hero needs to learn to trust his teammates
, and realize he can't control fate and protect them from all harm.
Generally, this is also part of the motivation for why a hero will give themselves up without a fight when a love interest
is held hostage at knifepoint
and give said love interest up afterwards
, to save them from any perceived danger.
Occasionally, such a character may be a member of a Martyrdom Culture
for whom death is not necessarily a bad thing, potentially resulting in misunderstandings when dealing with those with different backgrounds.
See Honor Before Reason
for the idea behind this trope, and compare Suicidal Pacifism
. For the more depressing and less heroic version of this, see Death Seeker
. This may be the fate of a Small Steps Hero
if they can't rescue an innocent without sacrificing themselves.
Compare Inspirational Martyr
when they do have a clear cause.
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
- Legion of Super Heroes's post-Zero Hour continuity gave Leviathan (Colossal Boy) something of this mentality, resulting in tragedy when Shrinking Violet attempts to use the Emerald Eye of Ekron to give her teammates their "hearts' desires". Leviathan's heart's desire turns out to be "to die a hero".
- Yorick from Y: The Last Man. He had an actual death wish for a while, being the last man on earth and all, but he got over it after a session of good old-fashioned S&M-themed psychiatric assistance.
- Tony "Iron Man" Stark's third answer to everything appears to be "Electrocute/asphyxiate/experiment on myself" right after "Build more guns" and "Jump in front of the thing being aimed at my better armoured teammate famous for his use of a shield." Given the amount of awful shit he's been subjected to it's quite possible that another trope is at play here.
- Interestingly, the Avengers film makes this part of his Character Development: Captain America initially calls him out on his un-willingness to to sacrifice himself (while Stark claims he can always Take a Third Option), making his (almost) sacrifice to save the city from a nuke at the end a pretty big turning point for him.
- Cable. He made himself a giant target to prove to the world that things could be better if everyone put aside their differences and worked together— to kill him. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for that meddling Deadpool and his pesky insanity! (Well, the dying part anyway.)
- It seems that, following the ending of Avengers vs. X-Men, Cyclops seeks to be this way. Why? Because he wants to be the martyr for the reborn mutant race
- This is actually a symptom of a personality disorder known as Primus apotheosis in the The Transformers IDW. The affected individual ends up idolizing Optimus Prime way too much and instead of being merely willing to risk their lives for the sake of others in need, as Prime would, they go out of their way to find even the most minor of 'noble sacrifices' which would cost them their lives. This problem is widespread enough to affect 1 in every 50 Autobots (and the occasional Decepticon).
- This is an extremely common quality for the lead character in Peggy Sue fanfics, due to the very nature of a Peggy Sue. Knowing that their True Companions have failed once before, they insist on going it alone to protect them and conceal their knowledge. They do this even though the knowledge they possess makes them the least expendable, as their death will likely seal everyone's fate.
- Averted in A Very Potter Musical: As in the original Harry Potter, Voldemort asks Harry whom he will be using as a human shield this time. Harry has already told everyone not to interfere, but Ron steps forward to volunteer before Hermione yanks him back.
- Destiny Is A Hazy Thing. One of Naruto's Internal Monologues points out that Sakura's obsession with Sasuke might lead her to this.
- Escape from The Hokage's Hat: Naruto natch. Due to his crappy childhood, No Social Skills and Chronic Hero Syndrome the kid is so messed up he feels the need to save EVERYONE and being unable to do so means he's useless (in his mind). When Hinata calls him on this and points out she protects him because she WANTS to and Shizune says they care and are trying to fight with him not for him, he has a hard time processing these facts because he doesn't consider himself worth it.
- In the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the hero Will Turner seemed to have a curiously puppyish eagerness to sacrifice himself if that was at all likely to help matters. Jack even congratulates him as their fortunes take a dire turn, "And you get to die for Elizabeth...!"
- In Secondhand Lions, Hub McCann expresses little interest in waiting to die of old age, and it is strongly implied that he possesses a severe deathwish, as his only love died years before. However, he is old and retired to a ranch with his brother, and those impulses cause him to risk his life for no reason.
- In Letters from Iwo Jima, the main (Japanese) characters' platoon is ordered to fall back and fortify another position after the American troops have broken through the first line of defense. Their Lieutenant disobeys and orders his men to take their own lives instead. The main characters refuse and instead fall back, reasoning that it makes sense to go down fighting rather than kill themselves pointlessly, especially since those were their orders anyway. This was because of the heavy tradition of honor in the Japanese military. Although suicide to avoid dishonor was a respected gesture, any general worth his salt would consider it a waste to make his officers commit suicide for their failures - however much of a good incentive for avoiding failure it may be.
- Red Planet seems to have a spaceship full of people only too happy to sacrifice themselves for no apparent reason. You'd think NASA would pick astronauts who wanted to, you know, come back.
- Played for Laughs with Forrest Gump's lieutenant. One of Lieutenant Dan's relatives died in each war since the American Revolution and he wants to live up to that. He doesn't. Die, that is. When he meets Forrest again after the war he's extremely bitter about it. Although, in the original book's sequel Gump and Co., he gets killed by friendly fire in the first Gulf War.
- Steve Rogers has quite a bit of this in Captain America: The First Avenger, desperate to join the army because he can't stand the idea of not risking his life along with other soldiers (even though he was rejected 4F for a laundry list of perfectly valid health reasons) and diving on a (dud, but he didn't know that) grenade to protect his squad when it wasn't exactly out of the question to just flee along with everyone else. However, it's explicitly pointed out by Bucky, who sarcastically remarks "sure, you have nothing to prove" that he takes stupid risks and it's partly because Steve has self-worth issues due to his frailness.
- Taken further in the sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where he tells Agent Hill to blow up the helicarrier with him in it, and making no attempt to even try to escape. And let's not forget that he is perfectly willing to die by the Winter Soldier's hands once millions of lives are no longer in jeopardy.
- Jean Grey in X2: X-Men United, who sacrifices herself while holding back a giant wall of water to allow the rest of the team time to escape. There were at least three other team members (Storm, Iceman, and Nightcrawler) with powers that would have been useful in this situation, and with all four of them working together, they at least stood a chance of getting everyone out alive. She never gave them the chance to try. In the original script she just does it from inside the jet.
- Harry Potter has elements of this, sometimes exasperating his friends.
- Making it worse is that Voldemort quickly figures that out. In one of the few times he shows any savvy, he uses Harry's willingness to rescue loved ones by sending fake memories of capturing Sirius Black in Order of the Phoenix. By the time of The Deathly Hallows, Voldemort accuses Harry of letting others die protecting him in order to guilt-trip Harry into sacrificing himself during the Battle of Hogwarts.
- All Tamora Pierce heroines have this as a defining quality, to the exasperation of their various comrades.
- So far, none have succeeded.
- In Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Rand al'Thor suffers badly from this, at least if it's a woman on the line. He wangsts on endlessly if even a single woman is killed and he is sort of to blame — regardless of whether said woman was trying to kill him and everyone else around him. This is much to the reader's chagrin, since most women in Wheel of Time are jerkasses whom no reader would miss.
- Bella in Twilight is a variant—it's not that she wants to be a hero, it's that, as other characters sometimes lampshade, she blames herself for anything and everything that goes wrong. This leads to the same type of self-hatred (if not the same quantity) as The Atoner, and while she doesn't often have the opportunity to risk her life, she clearly considers herself more expendable than those around her, particularly Edward, but also her mother, father, unborn baby...
- The title character from Percy Jackson and the Olympians does have the tendency to put the deaths of his friends right on his own head.
- In fact, he's explicitly told that is his fatal flaw, that he will always do anything to save a friend. Percy doesn't get how that's a flaw.
Live Action TV
- Buffyverse: Angel. If there's no evil around to throw himself in front of protecting innocents, he will either run out and find some more or he will wind up defending lesser evils while tormenting himself for doing so. It's a complex.
- The three Winchesters in Supernatural are all quite prone to this. It's even gotten to the point where when one dies, another family member will make a Deal with the Devil (and they know they'll pay a high price) to bring them back to life. The Yellow Eyed Demon even comments that they make it "too easy". In all three cases, however, the motivation hovered somewhere between this and that of the Death Seeker — (Sam's death-wish stemmed from the loss of his girlfriend, John's from the loss of his wife and the realization of the damage he'd done to his sons, and Dean's from... oh, everything.)
- Dean is particularly gifted in this area. In Faith, he willingly doesn't fight back against a Reaper who came to kill him in exchange for another (because he thinks she deserves to live more) and then seems disappointed and upset when the Reaper is stopped, he tries to sacrifice himself to stall the Seven Sins in 3x01 (much to Sam and Bobby's displeasure), deliberately uses himself for bait to catch the MotW's attention, and so on. All of the Winchesters run the fine line between this and the Deathseeker but Dean's is even finer than most.
- Doctor Who: The Doctor is known to get so passionate so as to put himself right in the face of death to save someone or something he cares about, be it a group of people he's barely met or one of his companions.
- The Tenth Doctor does this the most, daring the Daleks to go ahead and kill him in Evolution of the Daleks after they impassively murder a man who made an honest heartfelt plead for mercy. He also does this in The Poison Sky, when he is prepared to destroy an entire Sontaran Fleet, which is about ready to end all human life. But being so determined to give his enemies a chance to make a better choice, he insists that he goes up with the bomb to give the Sontarans a chance to surrender.
- This fact is even addressed in a Fourth Series episode, "Turn Left", where the Doctor dies before he can regenerate. Earth is then pretty much shot to hell, the Torchwood team all dies, and various other happenings occur that weren't supposed to.
- The episodes does show the Earth could survive without the Doctor for a while, but only because he was able to teach former companions what they needed to know to save the world. Even then the world took substantial damage before it finally ended.
- The Doctor's tendency to do this is parodied in one of the comic strips, wherein in order to defeat the monster he steals a helicopter equipped with canisters of nerve gas and plans to make a suicide crash-run into the beast itself. After his farewell speech to his friends, one of his friends points out that the helicopter comes equipped with an ejector seat, which he then sheepishly uses.
- In the finale of the "Silence in the Library" two-parter, the Doctor explains that he'll have to hook his brain up to a computer and fry his brain to save the day. River Song then knocks him out and handcuffs him to a pole so she can sacrifice herself instead. He proceeds to throw a fit about someone else sacrificing their life for the good of others, without any apparent irony.
- There are MANY instances of this in the classic series as well, though the most egregious might be in "Mawdryn Undead" when he's willing to sacrifice his life so the villains can succeed in their plan (which happens to be their own deaths), in order to save two companions from extreme aging/de-aging (depending on which direction through time the TARDIS travels). Luckily the Brigadier touches himself (not in THAT way)...
- Zhaan does this in an episode of Farscape. Somebody had to activate the separate-the-ships sequence, so of course the one person too weak to even bother trying to cross back into Moya is the one they choose to do it. Given the twenty-minute before-death speech, why couldn't they just get a ten-foot pole and press the buttons from across the room?
- Because the writers needed to find a way to write Zhaan out of the series, due to the fact that her actress's health was being severely damaged by all the blue body paint she had to wear. You'll note that in the season leading up to her death, Zhaan tended more and more towards full-body clothing whereas in the first season she'd been seen mostly (sometimes entirely) naked. Virginia Hey's kidneys were reacting startlingly badly to something in her makeup. One might call it Executive Meddling, if one considers her doctor to be an executive. In any case, the character was already dying, so, as she reasoned, why risk anyone else's life if she was going to be dead in a few weeks at most anyway.
- In Babylon 5:
- Commander Jeff Sinclair actually gets called out for this by the fourth episode of the first season.
- Delenn's willingness to sacrifice herself at the drop of a hat is one of her defining characteristics.
- Paradoxically, it was Delenn's willingness to die that saved her and Sheridan from the Vorlon's inquisitor. He expected Delenn to simply be another "I'm the one to do this because I was born for a special destiny"; instead she flatly states that she's just doing what she can in the circumstances she's in, and it doesn't matter if she dies in the process (and even if she fails miserably) because someone else will just step up and take her place. Turns out the Vorlons were more interested in making sure they had a cause than a hero/martyr.
- Stargate Atlantis:
Sheppard: It's not like it's the first time. How many suicide missions have I flown?
McKay: I don't know. I lost count.
- Jack from LOST always insists on personally going on the most dangerous missions, despite being the doctor and unofficial leader of the survivors, and thus arguably the most indispensible one. He especially insists that Kate never ever risk her life by coming on these missions, despite the fact that she's handy with a gun and a skilled tracker.
- Malcom Reed on Star Trek: Enterprise is obsessed with dying heroically, moereso than other security chiefs in Starfleet. He apparently got this from an great-uncle in the Royal Navy who sealed himself in the engine compartment of his crippled nuclear submarine to allow the rest of his shipmates to escape.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer Faith is a firm believer in redemption by death, particularly in Angel. It comes to a head in "Orpheus" where its revealed she was a little too willing to go along with Wesley's dangerous plan.
- One episode of This Is Wonderland involved an ex-cop, played by Ron White, who was caught in a self-destructive cycle after someone shot a gun at his face. The gun didn't go off, but he seems to have felt that it should have.
- Kryten of Red Dwarf is practically made of this trope. Whenever danger threatens he offers to kill himself and save the crew, this being the only logical solution. (Such as suggesting he be loaded into the reverse-thrust tubes so that his body be used as decoy fodder for a pursuing spacecraft.) Rimmer will then agree immediately.
Lister: Sit down, Kryten! I'm not doing me own smeggin' laundry...
- Stefan from The Vampire Diaries fits this trope. He constantly offers himself up to be sacrificed in the place of others or puts himself in the most dangerous situations in order to protect others from getting hurt or killed.
- Elena as well. She wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice herself in order to protect the people she loves.
- Bonnie could also classify as well. She often puts her life in the line of fire for everyone.
- Mage: The Awakening has a Legacy called the Tamers of Void, who train themselves to be martyrs, then spend the rest of their lives looking for a cause to die for. If they become powerful enough and are still alive, they can get the ability to bring someone back to life, in exchange for their own death.
- The Imperium in Warhammer 40,000 has this trope as official government policy, with phrases like "it is better to die for the Emperor than live for yourself" as their mottos. Naturally, considering the setting, Senseless Sacrifices abound. May be justified, as there's plenty more where that came from.
- The old World of Darkness game, Hunter: the Reckoning, has the aptly-named Martyr creed. Their abilities all aid others at the cost of damage to themselves, and they tend to be pretty short-lived because of it. The book mentions that at least some Martyrs, if not all of them, have egotistical ideas of martyrdom, and it isn't fighting the good fight or the salvation of mankind that drives them, as much as it is the desire for sympathy, attention, and praise; they tend to make good vehicles for the deconstruction of Mary Sue tropes.
- Cyrano de Bergerac: This trope is Lampshaded, Deconstructed and justified with Cyrano. Lampshaded by Le Bret when Cyrano fights against one hundred men when all Ligniere asked was to sleep at his house. Later, Cyrano will rescue De Guiche's white scarf from enemy lines… just so he can boast to De Guiche. Cyrano is badass enough to survive and win, but then the play deconstructs this trope showing how this attitude arises not only in perilous situations, but in all aspects of the life of a person: Cyrano throws away every chance of glory or love he has. Le Bret continuously scolds Cyrano about this attitude. Cyrano simply says that he is trying to live without compromises, but the sad truth is that this trope is justified because Cyrano's attitude is the logical conclusion of a badass without any self esteem raised in a Martyrdom Culture.
- In Final Fantasy X, the resident Cid's first instinct when presented with any problem seems to be "catastrophically crash the airship into it". Other characters treat this with a mixture of humor and exasperation.
- Rikku Lampshades this when they learns Guado and fiends have infiltrated the airship:
Cid: Fiends! There's nothin' to do but-
Rikku: (in a mock Cid-accent) -but to destroy the ship and all go down together! You gotta learn a little restraint, Pops.
- All of Yevon is based on this. Not only do the martyrs' sacrifices not work, they give the local Eldritch Abomination a new host body.
- In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, both the heroine Micaiah and the king Pelleas display definite traits of the trope; Pelleas is quite happy to discover his death means freeing his country from the Deal with the Devil he unwittingly signed, and Micaiah can prevent this by throwing herself in front of the weapon meant for him.
Micaiah: No, I'm fine, really. I'm just confused... Is the goddess telling me that I'm not worthy to become a martyr for Daein?
Pelleas: Or maybe she is saying that you're just too important to lose... But this is my fault! It was all because I signed that blood pact! I can only amend my mistake by giving my life!
- It doesn't help that Micaiah's special ability is Sacrifice. She can take her own HP and transfer it to an ally. For a mage character with low HP and defense, this doesn't work too well...
- One of the biggest strikes against Fallout 3 is that you inexplicably turn into one of these in the ending by going into an irradiated room, instead of sending in one of your radition-immune companions to do it instead. Broken Steel remedies this, in addition to adding a Playable Epilogue quest line (though choosing the option to let a radiation-immune character do the job is considered a cowardly option by the narrator rather than a practical one).
- Subverted in Kingdom Hearts II, Axel will sacrifice himself during a cutscene to save you from hordes of Dusks, even though they aren't much of a threat and you could continue fighting for hours. This is a consequence of Gameplay and Story Segregation because all the characters act as though the nobody 'horde' was incredibly dangerous even though they're small fry as far as the player is concerned by that point.
- In the second Shadow Hearts, Gepetto accuses Yuri Hyuga of being this.
- In Turgor Sister Death becomes this halfway through the game. Partly justified as it's a Heroic Sacrifice / Driven to Suicide.
- Alicia of Valkyria Chronicles. As soon as she realizes she has a Suicide Attack up her sleeve, she goes and tries to put it to use against an enemy vehicle that she had almost crippled with a regular attack.
- Shirou Emiya of Fate/stay night, to an intentionally infuriating degree. Many characters call him out on this, and it comes back to bite him in more ways than simply being smeared across the pavement. Archer, and by extension Shirou himself, is a walking deconstruction of this trope, as is most clear in the Unlimited Blade Works route in the Visual Novel. The big reason this comes across as stupidity is because the anime never explains Shirou's behaviour like UBW does. In one rather disturbing example, Shirou is stabbed in the arm, and he's more concerned that Rin is now covered in his blood than the fact that he's got a giant stab wound in his arm.
- Rikk Oberf in Fans! has an obsession with ensuring that the people he cares for come to no harm in his adventures, and seems inclined to do this at times.
- Torg of Sluggy Freelance will literally sacrifice himself at the first hint that any one of his friends might be in danger if he doesn't. This actually puts his teammates in a lot more danger because every time he tries this, they (duh!) have a mad scramble to rescue him. Then he yells at them for putting themselves in danger while he was trying to die, but is too stupid to take the hint that they're going to keep saving him. They're all messed up that way.
- In Homestuck, after achieving God Tier, it's become a Running Gag that John repeatedly tries to sacrifice himself to save people on the basis that he's now immortal, even though he's repeatedly reminded that a Heroic Sacrifice would invalidate his immortality.
- Transformers. Optimus Prime (in various incarnations) has heroically sacrificed himself so many times, it's become a running joke. Of course, given that he's guaranteed to come Back from the Dead it may be some sort of Genre Savvy.
- This was deconstructed in the text story Prime Spark, where, after dying in the show, Armada!Prime meets the ghosts of his Generation 1 and Beast Machines counterparts; both tell him that it's more important for a leader to lead his troops than to sacrifice himself for some perceived mistake.
- This tendency may have hit its limit way back in the 1980s Marvel comic in which the big red truck sacrifices himself after discovering he has accidentally cheated in a computer game.
- To make it worse, here's how he "cheated": Megatron dodged one of his shots, which hit an opaque, featureless structure in the background. This structure happened to be a building in which some civilian models were. That's right! Despite winning and Megatron admitting defeat, Prime found out he accidentally hit some non-sentient non-people inside a video game, and that prompted him to forfeit for "cheating" and TEAR HIS OWN HEAD OFF IN FRONT OF EVERYONE.
- It should be noted that the situation that inspired the page quote was an aversion. While Optimus was going to attempt a near-suicidal mission by ramming a Kill Sat with an exploding stasis pod, but he had every intention of bailing out before he could die. Megatron sabotages the pod, which turns this into an unintentional Heroic Sacrifice. (Don't worry, Optimus got better.)
- In Code Lyoko, Aelita is always ready to sacrifice herself when the situation becomes too much to handle for the heroes. Somewhat justified in that, throughout seasons 1 and 2, she's the only reason Team Lyoko keeps the Supercomputer on instead of just cutting the juice to finish off XANA — and also, Aelita believes she's an artificial being and not a human. She actually makes the Heroic Sacrifice in the episode "Just in Time", although Jérémie manages to bring her back. Even after learning she's human after all, she still tries to cut off the Supercomputer in the season 2 finale "The Key".