The hero and bad guy have had a big fight on the top of a building, which has resulted in the bad guy being knocked over the edge. He hangs there by his fingers, helplessly.
The hero is then motivated (or more cynically, contractually obliged) to attempt to save the villain's life, even putting himself in mortal danger in the attempt. This is presumably done so that the hero can be shown once again to be noble and just. Sometimes they may strongly wrestle with the notion; the temptation is not just to let him die, but consider himself blameless for not directly causing the death. If no one will realize that the hero could have saved him, What You Are in the Dark may come into play. While some heroes take the philosophy of If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Himvery seriously, many take it even further, thinking that letting someone die via inaction on their part is almost as bad.
A notable part of this trope is that, often, the villain refuses the hero's help because he can't bear owing his life to the hero, or would rather cause his own death, presumably out of ego or "honor".
Sometimes this happens when the villain is facing a cruel fate at the hands of a greater evil who disgusts the hero even more, leading him to shout "Even he doesn't deserve that!" or something of the type.
If the villain does accept the hero's help — even if they begged for it — more often than not, they will be complete ingrates and keep trying to kill the hero, sometimes even immediately. In fact, sometimes the villain will use the opportunity to try to kill the hero — leaving both the hero and villain in mortal danger. This generally results in Karmic Death.
On other occasions, the villain will continue pursuing their overall evil goal, but will now refuse to harm the hero out of grudging recognition of their debt. They may even return the life-saving favor at a later point, although this may wipe the slate clean in their eyes (saying that they're "even" at that point) and make it okay for them to resume their attempts on the hero's life.
In between, the hero may say Think Nothing of It in the knowledge that the villain will indeed think nothing of it. On the villain part, a more upright antagonist (usually an Anti-Villain) may leave the hero be for the moment but warn him explicitly that "it doesn't change anything!" In the worst of cases, the villain turns out to be an Ungrateful Bastard which leaves the hero (and the viewers) wondering why he bothered. Some villains (mostly Card Carrying Villains) even use things like this as "proof" that Good Is Dumb.
In more serious situations, the hero may be unable to save the villain's life but will still not let them suffer Dying Alone.
Usually a moment of Genre Savvy (with just a touch of Lampshade Hanging); the heroes are fully aware that this is the ugliest part of their job. An Anti-Hero may specifically not do this, just to emphasize their difference from a "true" hero. On the other hand, if a character whose position was formally on the villain/Anti-Hero fence does this, it can establish them as less of a villain.
See also Sword over Head, where the hero saves the villain by not doing anything. Contrast Villainous Rescue, which is the opposite situation.
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Anime and Manga
Goku from Dragon Ball Z does this, or at least tries to, constantly. Sometimes it works (like with Vegeta), other times it doesn't, as Frieza proved.
To be fair, it didn't even work with Vegeta initially; whilst on Namek Vegeta was still his ruthless and egotistical self, and the dishonor in being spared by a lower-class warrior only fuelled Vegeta's desire for revenge, which culminated in his massacre at the World Martial Arts tournament during the Buu saga.
It didn't work on Dr. Gero either. But that was an ad-libbed throwaway line in the dub. Goku was trying to take down the whole of the Red Ribbon Army when he was a child. But obviously he couldn't get everyone.
In the Sailor Moon anime, the titular heroine saves several enemies, including the greatest foe she ever fought, Galaxia. In the manga, not so much (though she does still save Galaxia, even though Galaxia dies anyway shortly afterward).
Earlier on, Nanoha intervenes to help Fate while she is performing a highly dangerous attempt to seal the Jewel Seeds that fell into the ocean, splitting the seeds with her and telling her that she wants to be friends with her.
In A's, Fate intervenes during a fight to save Signum from a desert monster, causing Amy to tell her that her job is to capture her. Signum notes that she won't thank Fate because she destroyed the monster and prevented her from getting its Linker Core, but Fate takes it in stride, noting that she has to interfere with the "bad guys".
During a sequence in The Daughter of Twenty Faces, a villain attempts to kill Chiko with an axe while atop a speeding train. She overextends, stumbles, and is hanging on for dear life against the wind. Chiko attempts to save her, but...
Vash The Stampede, in Trigun, has done this on many occasions due to his Thou Shalt Not Kill mantra, often giving foes that he's injured first aid. This culminated in him saving his twin brother, Knives Millions, even after vowing revenge on him for his entire life after he killed thousands of people and, more importantly to Vash, his maternal figure Rem.
Examples of this include the episodes "Pikachu Re-Volts", "Freeze Frame," and "Throwing in the Noctowl".
Though to be fair, Team Rocket have saved Ash's life several times in the movies, in part because they admit they wouldn't have much a life without chasing him.
In "The Stun Spore Detour," even after James and Meowth attack Misty and try to steal her cure for Ash and Tracey's stun spore paralysis (that Jessie also had), she realizes they were trying to help Jessie out and leaves some for them. Later, when Jessie still wants to attack the "twerps," James and Meowth refuse to help her.
Train from Black Cat does this after his final battle with Creed. After successfully knocking Creed out, Creed starts falling off the roof they were fighting on. Train manages to grab onto his hand, but starts slipping himself. His reason being that he can't let Creed die now, since Creed must live and repent for his sins - especially after Train has gone through the trouble not to kill him during the fight. Leon eventually saves them both by using manipulating the wind to allow them to stay afloat.
It's done once... no twice... no, in every other fight in Rave Master, starting with Haru trying to stop Shuda from falling which he has to do again later on after a Face-Heel Turn from Shuda and leading up to opting not to save the world about 15 volumes early by not killing Lucia and going to great lengths to keep Hardner alive after Lucia comes up from behind and skewers him (Haru really should have finished him off the first time he got the chance)
Haru likes to attempt this in Rave Master. It works once, but it usually fails. Reasons for this vary. Once the villain has already bled too much and there's just no way he could live. One time the man he's trying to save from a huge fall inverts the Life or Limb Decision and cuts his arm off so he'll fall anyway. It's a mystery whether Lucia chose not to be saved or was doomed anyway, or even if he really died, actually.
In the Zanpaktou Bleachfiller, Muramasaenters Ichigo's soul and fights his inner Hollow. When he's about to win, Ichigo jumps in and saves his Hollow.
Ichigo didn't really have a choice in the matter. His Hollow is still part of his soul and makes up a large portion of his power. Not only that, but Zangetsu was working for Muramasa at that point and wouldn't allow Ichigo to use bankai and was using it himself against Ichigo. He'd've been screwed without his Hollow.
Shortly after defeating Grimmjow, Ichigo protects him from being finished off by Nnoitra, and Nnoitra notes that Grimmjow is quite pathetic for letting an enemy save him.
In the Soul Society Arc, Orihime saves Makizou Aramaki from being blown up by some Squad 12 members who have been turned into living bombs, prompting him to wonder why she did it and why she is crying over the detonated shinigami.
Transformers Armada had a few of these. The most notable one being Optimus holding onto Galvatron's remaining tread to survive the pull of Unicron's gaping maw. Galvatron eventually cuts himself loose, letting himself die to destroy Unicron's only source of nourishment at the moment.
In Kämpfer, Natsuru saves Shizuku from Akane since he's not a sociopath. He demands that Shizuku leave Kaede alone.
Subverted in Fullmetal Alchemist. When Mustang is about to finally kill Envy, Hawkeye, Ed, and Scar intervene before he can land the final blow. However, this was not because they wanted to save Envy, but because they didn't want Roy to give in to his rage. They had every intention of taking out Envy themselves.
In the 2003 anime version, Ed desperately tries to prevent the younger Slicer brother from committing suicide, but fails. He later yells at Lust not to kill the older brother, stating that "he's still a human being", but his pleas fall on deaf ears.
In Pretear, insterad of killing Takako/Fenrir, Himeno tries to redeem and save her in the Grand Finale. She succeeds.
Kenzo Tenma of Monster, given that he's perhaps the best example of Dudley Do-Right Stops to Help, does this a lot. There is more than one scene where he takes an antagonist to the hospital at gunpoint. This turns out better for him than it does for most of the people on this page, too. With one probable exception.
In Karakuridouji Ultimo, a corrupt politician named Iruma is killed by his own douji, Jealous the Envious, while the heroic Yamato can do nothing but watch in shock. Later in the series, Yamato hits the Reset Button, sending everything back to the first chapter. The second time around, Yamato knows Jealous's attack is coming and prevents Iruma's death.
In One Piece, Luffy carries Robin out of the collapsing tomb, despite her being resigned to death after her last lead on the Rio Poneglyph turned out to be useless. She reasons that as he forced her to live when she wanted to die, and she has no place to go or return, he should let her in his crew, and he does.
Earlier, Luffy had Zoro rescue Smoker before the lot of them drowned. Luffy says he doesn't think Smoker's a bad guy despite the fact that he is ruthlessly hunting down the entire Straw Hat crew across the Grand Line.
Luffy is right about Smoker. He is not the bad guy. He is actually the good guy since the Strawhats are pirate and as a marine it is Smoker's job to hunt them down. As for Robin, she did save Luffy's life twice before he save her from the tomb, so they were technically not enemies since she have been undermining Crocodile nearly the entire time.
In YuYu Hakusho, Kuwabara fights one of the seven psychics, called "Sea Man". He fights the villain, barely escaping death, and manages to land a nice slash on him at the last minute. Instead of leaving him to die (like he said he wanted to), he saves Sea Man's life, and brings him back to his allies to be patched up. Sea Man proceeds to become The Woobie and makes a Heel-Face Turn.
In Sonic The Hedgehog The Movie, the final fight scene culminates in Metal Sonic falling into lava after saving the Old Man and the President, upon which Sonic jumps down, much to everyone else's protests. With Knuckles trying to hold Sonic back (fearing Metal would drag Sonic down with him), Sonic offers his hand to Metal to try and pull him out. Metal reaches... then smacks Sonic's hand away, uttering one last sentence before sinking down under: "There is only one Sonic."
At the end of volume 22 of A Certain Magical Index, Touma puts Fiamma of the Right into the last working escape pod on the falling star of Bethlehem. This is a 50 km structure very high into the atmosphere that lost more of its floatation power. Though partially justified since Touma wanted to stay behind and make sure it didn't crash on land, since that would have caused immense damage.
Touma in general has a habit of doing this more often than not: he will punch someone's lights out for doing bad things, then turn right around and offer to help them with whatever problem was motivating their villainy. Accelerator believes this is what makes Touma truly heroic: he saves everyone in a situation, not just the victims.
In Mai-Hime, Natsuki stops Shizuru from finishing off a Child-less Nao, having come to realize that she and Nao are Not So Different.
This is usually how Kimba from Kimba the White Lion deals with villains once they're down or about to be killed; this even extends to saving the man who killed Kimba's father before he was born. Most of the time however, the character's rescue causes him or her to do a Heel-Face Turn.
Done beautifully in Monster Rancher. In Episode 35 , Naga, one of the chief villains, is blasted through a wall by Mocchi and is now hanging onto the edge of his castle above a deep canyon. Holly reaches her hand out to him and tells him to take her hand. Genki and Mocchi do the same. Suezo is reluctant because Naga destroyed his village, but eventually extends his tongue with the others' hands. However, instead of taking their hands, Naga says "So that's why you're all so strong" and lets go, falling to his death.
Exception: Jason Todd, Batman's second, short-lived Robin, was implied (but not shown) to have pushed a rapist to his death. At any rate, he had the skills to save the man and chose not to.
When he returns as the Red Hood, he puts Batman in a situation that fits this trope intentionally: he takes the Joker hostage and uses him as a human shield, leaving Batman with only a kill-shot on Todd himself, then demands that Batman either kill Joker right then and there or save the villain by killing his former sidekick. Batman takes a third option and uses a ricochet to disarm Todd with a batarang, SAVING BOTH VILLAINS.
Subversion: Marshal Law, seeing the thoroughly horrible Batman parody Private Eye dangling over a meat grinder, deliberately walks too slowly to save him and calls out from several meters away, "Here, take my hand." Then he pretends (very briefly) to be sorry when the villain gets ground. Marshal Law is the very model (or, depending on your interpretation, The Parody) of a Nineties Anti-Hero. Although he does this after realizing that his hero worship of Private Eye got his partner and only real friend killed and that Private Eye was much worse than any real criminal.
Similarly subverted in Catwoman at the end of the "Relentless" arc, where Black Mask begs her to save him from falling off the balcony of his penthouse, despite the horrific and irrevocable acts he has spent the arc performing on her family and friends. She stands back and watches him fall, apparently to his death.
Batman, himself, has taken this trope to ridiculous extremes - to the point of once performing CPR on The Joker. Considering how CPR actually is, it's kind of a win-win situation: Joker lives to keep Batsy all heroic and stuff, and Batman gets to ensure this by more or less beating the shit out of him again. And in that case, it was less saving the Joker than saving Nightwing from the knowledge that he killed a man in cold blood.
In Batman: Devil's Advocate, Batman saved the Joker from the death penalty. He went out of his way and against the advice of everybody to prove Joker innocent of the crime he was scheduled to be executed for. It ended with Batman saying something like "And from now on, whatever you do, you'll know that you only live because of me. What's the matter? Don't you appreciate the joke?" Seeing as this also means that the Joker is free to carry on murdering people due to Batman's intervention, the joke may be on him.
That's the cynical interpretation of it. The point of the story was to show Batman's dedication to justice. In all likelihood, the Caped Crusader was aware of the cynical implications as well, but did it anyway.
Another important point is, if the Joker had been executed for a murder he didn't commit, the case would have been closed and the true murderer would have gotten away scot-free with no-one ever the wiser, possibly to kill again.
In Batman: Cacophany, the Serial Killer Onomatopoeia (who targets superheroes, though he doesn't mind killing other people for fun either) stabbed The Joker in the heart after their villain team-up failed and prepared to flee — but waited a few seconds because he wanted to see whether Batman would save the Joker or let him die to pursue Onomatopoeia. Batman chooses the first option despite strong protests from Jim Gordon whose wife and daughter were murdered and crippled by The Joker respectively. When The Joker asks him why he did it, Batman explains that due to One Bad Day he can't bear to see anyone die in front of him if he has the power to stop it.
In a Detective issue called "The Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels," Batman risked his life to save an escaped prisoner who was condemned to death. He almost died in the process, but the criminal saved him.
Captain America to Baron Zemo, Lord knows how many times: "Your HAND, man! Give me your hand!" Astonishingly, this eventually pays off, when Zemo surprisingly returns the favor at the cost of his face becoming scarred in a battle with Moonstone.
Played straight in Daredevil when Daredevil dragged the sociopathic Bullseye out of the path of a subway train, and then subverted in a later story when (under severe provocation) he let go of Bullseye's hand when he was dangling over a long drop. Joker Immunity preserved Bullseye's life, but he wound up in a hospital bed, completely paralyzed. (...for a while.)
Daredevil also desperately tried to save maniacal Super Soldier Nuke after he realized that he wasn't even aware of his surroundings and needed all the help he could get.
Played straight in Huntress/Spoiler: Blunt Trauma when the Spoiler helps her father, the Cluemaster, escape when he tells that her temporary partner, the Huntress, is "not like that overgrown ferret and his brat. She's gonna kill your old man if she gets the chance."
In another story with the Spoiler, she and Robin are put in a building about to be demolished by the Baffler. Except he knocks himself out, so he ends up there as well. The two manage to save themselves but Robin points out they need to save the villain as well, much to Steph's dismay. Yet when the Baffler says they could become a team, the duo beat him up and leave him for the police.
Scrooge has saved a fair share of villains throughout his life:
In Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge comic "The Horseradish Story," the villain who has attempted to swindle Scrooge out of all of his billions and then kill all of the ducks is about to drown in the ocean after his unsuccessful attempt of drowning his helper. Scrooge at first acts as if he is not going to help, but gives in at the last minute and rescues the guy.
Another notable case, in the comic "The Great Wig Mystery", was of a villain who tried to use a Frivolous Lawsuit to get Scrooge's fortune. In that story, Scrooge explained to his family he never expects any kind of gratitude from the villains he saves. He simply doesn't want their deaths to make a weight on his conscience.
Not a physical fight that led to it, but in the first ElfQuest graphic novel there's a dramatic moment when Rayek falls off a stone bridge and is dangling by his fingertips... Cutter thinks what will soon become a Catch Phrase of his ("No elf must die!") and crawls out to help him. Rayek isn't grateful, but blasts Cutter with the full fury of his hate before backing off the bridge, leaving the acrophobic Cutter there to figure his own way off. (It gives Cutter the resolve to pass the test he'd been unable to do before, winning the final battle between him and Rayek. Way to go, Rayek.)
There have been several stories about Superman saving Bizarro World from destruction, even though that planet is dangerously insane. He just can't stand seeing anyone lose their homeworld, no matter how bad it is.
He's also saved Lex Luthor's life on several occasions, even though Luthor's ultimate goal in life is to kill Superman. In fact, Superman and a lot of the Justice League will beat the crap out of villains and then immediately check to make sure they're okay.
Averted in at least the early arcs of Judge Dredd. Dredd has no problem with killing when the situation calls for it, and deliberately lets members of the Angel Gang die when he could have saved them.
Empowered once saved a Punch Clock Villain who was guarding her. She saw with her X-ray vision that he had an aneurysm and was in mortal danger.
When tied up, Empowered noticed the aneurysm and warned him. After convincing him to go to a hospital, she sat in the waiting room with the mook's family as emergency surgery was performed, fully intending to allow him to tie her back up again afterwards should he so choose. Particularly moving in that Empowered's father died of an aneurysm.
Subverted and dissected ruthlessly by Mr. A, as seen here.
According to The Invaders, this is how Hitler died. The Golden Age Human Torch broke into Hitler's bunker during the Seige of Berlin, offering to let Hitler surrender to the Americans rather then the Russians (who apparently would have been more merciful.) Hitler refused and attacked the Torch, prompting the Torch to kill Hitler in self-defense.
Subverted in Bookhunter. Agent Bay is pursuing a book thief (in possession of a priceless antique Bible) across rooftops. The thief misses a jump, and Bay shoots a power line in order to swing down on the cable... but he catches the book and lets the thief fall.
Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four saved the life of Galactus, even after the latter had almost killed him and tried to drain the lifeforce of the earth. This prompted Galactus to (temporarily) declare that he would not attack Earth again, out of gratitude. However, Reed later wound up on trial before an interstellar court and nearly executed for his actions after Galactus consumed the Skrulls' home planet, killing billions.
That was neither the first nor last time. Spidey has saved Jonah's behind so many times - with absolutely no gratitude from Jonah after all of it - you have to wonder why he bothers.
Shortly before the Gathering of Five arc in the Spider-Man comics, Spidey actually had to rescue Norman Osborn, and this Trope can be combined with What You Are in the Dark for that occasion. The Kingpin sent Nitro the Living Bomb to assassinate Osborn, which resulted in him, Spidey (in his civilian identity as Peter Parker) and Norman's little grandson Normie trapped in an elevator that was about to collapse, both of them pinned. Norman, being the Magnificent Bastard he is, actually took this time to gloat a little, telling Peter that he had no idea whether or not the security cameras were still working, and telling him that any displays of Super Strength by Peter could possibly give him away to anyone who was watching. Of course, Norman was just as strong, but claimed he was unwilling for that very reason. (Or maybe he was waiting until the last second, or was actually unable to free himself, just too proud to ask for help. We may never know.) Eventually, Peter had to take the chance to save Normie (and found out quickly that the security cameras had been quite broken by the explosion) and might have considered leaving his enemy to fall. But when Normie begged him to save his grandfather, he relented, and helped get Norman out. Even then, Norman couldn't help but goad him a little, telling him that if he had done nothing he would have been victorious in their feud. (And this would be a very large turning point in it; Norman would perform the Gathering of Five to gain more power to prevent things like this again, would be driven far more insane, his identity of the Goblin would be revealed, and his enmity with Spider-Man would become much deadlier than before.)
Discussed with Marvel villain The Hood, whose hood and shoes gave him superpowers through increasing amounts of Demonic Possession. He was sent to murder Doctor Strange, who realized at once what was going on and tried to talk him down. Later, when it was obvious that the demon was more than Hood could handle, his associate tried to send him to Strange for help due to this trope. "I bet he'll help you. Even after everything. He has to, right?"
In the Archie Comics Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures, the titular foursome are forced to save Shredder from being possessed by Krang. Shredder is PISSED that he now owes his life to the Turtles. He disappears for a long time (both in-universe and in real life), and when he re-appears to kidnap Splinter, Leonardo passionately reminds Shredder that he owes the Turtles his life. Shredder relents and releases Splinter, warning that they're now even...
In Pedestal, the narrator tries to pull one of these on Nick as he's falling into lava. He doesn't succeed and ends up falling as well until Arceus shows up.
Turnabout Storm: The antagonist confesses to the crime, creating a straightforward road for Phoenix to get a Not Guilty veridict. But he feels something's not right about the confession, and following his Crusading Lawyer ideals, he stops the Not Guilty veridict in order to further question her and uncover the truth: That she is also completely innocent of the murder.
At the end of the Rise of the Guardians fic Guardian of Light, the main character Helen has Pitch at arrow point with the chance to kill him. She instead chooses to let him live, thus saving him. She also earlier prevented the Guardians from beating the crap out of him.
In Beauty and the Beast, Beast saves Gaston...from Beast. He's holding Gaston over a ledge of the castle, but instead of dropping him, he puts him back on solid ground after Gaston begs for his life and says a firm Get Out. Gaston doesn't listen and tries to kill Beast again, at which point he slips and gets his Disney Villain Death. Still, Beast got to show how much of a good guy he had become.
At the climax of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Frollo knocks Quasimodo over the edge of the cathedral but is pulled along with him. Despite having just found out that Frollo killed his mother, Quasi doesn't let go of the cloak by which Frollo hangs. As Esmeralda desperately tries to pull Quasimodo back up, Frollo (who refuses to drop his sword, even to save himself), manages to swing himself to a handhold before attempting to finish them both off, at which point karma kicks in.
Very pointedly averted, however, in the novel. Not only does Quasimodo deliberately push Frollo off of the cathedral (and not even in self defense): when Frollo manages to cling to the building briefly and attempts to pull himself back up, the narration points out that Quasimodo could easily have reached out and helped him. Instead he just stands there and watches him fall.
Attempted in Tarzan. Tarzan had only meant to incapacitate Clayton, tying him up in vines. Clayton, however, is in an Unstoppable Rage and starts slashing through them...except for the one around his neck. Tarzan sees the problem before Clayton does and tries to warn him: "Clayton! Clayton, don't!" He doesn't listen, plummets downwards, and Tarzan zips after him. Unfortunately, he's not fast enough, and by the time he reaches Clayton, he's already hanged himself. One look at Tarzan's face and you know he really did hope to save him...
In the sequel Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Aladdin seems to try to save Sa'luk from falling off a cliff at the end of their duel to the death, but fails. Sa'luk proves to be Not Quite Dead and later returns to menace the protagonists further.
The Lion King II: Simba's Pride. Kiara does this to Zira when she's trying to pull herself up. Kiara offers a hand (paw?) to Zira to pull her back up, but she swipes at her and falls to her death in the raging flood below.
What was originally intended was Kiara saying "Zira! Give me your paw!" and Zira shouting "Never!" and letting go, falling to her death! Unsurprisingly, Executive Meddling changed the scene, since suicide is not exactly a topic Disney is known to touch on.
Woody and Buzz save Lotso in Toy Story 3 from a shredder without hesitation, even though it was Lotso's fault in the first place that any of them was in a life-threatening situation. Lotso doesn't returnthe favor.
In The Princess Twins of Legendale, Eve tries to save Queen Dume from falling to her death despite knowing how evil she is now. Dume jumps over the tower edge and attempts to take Eve with her, though Eve survives with Dawn's help.
Bruce Wayne is training with an order of ninjas, and upon being asked to kill, he refuses. Consequently, Bruce blows up the palace and escapes with his unconscious mentor in tow. The reason behind this is ostensibly Turning the Other Cheek. The multiple ninjas who died in the explosion aren't mentioned again. Bruce blows up the palace only after being informed that the League intends to destroy Gotham City (and has been training him for that very purpose). He likely blew up the palace to save the city, not the murderer. He presumably rescued his mentor because he considered him a friend.
Bruce: I saved your life. Ducard: I warned you about compassion, Bruce.
Later in the movie, this trope is subverted as the train Batman and Ra's are on heads swiftly to a very deadly crash, Batman declares, "I won't kill you... but I don't have to save you," and escapes the train alone. Fans are sharply divided over this, with some thinking it's way out of character for him, while others seeing it as simple, pragmatic, and heroic (that Batman is responsible for the train being about to crash also complicates matters of responsibility for the death).
In The Dark Knight, it's played straight with the Joker. Not so much with Two Face, but that was accidental; Batman was trying to save a child's life more than trying to kill Two Face.
Batman Forever, with Robin saving Two-Face. It turns out it was a bad idea, as he gets captured and used in a Sadistic Choice by The Riddler to determine Batman's identity. When Two-Face falls to his death later, he doesn't get saved.
1989's Batman subverted this trope, with Batman of all people killing the villain as he tried to get away. The Joker was escaping by climbing up the ladder to a waiting helicopter. Batman fires a set of bolas at him, causing the Joker's leg to be tied to a very heavy statue. As the helicopter pulls away, the statue drags the Joker down to his doom.
Technically, he didn't kill him, rather than stop him from getting away. It was the fault of the helicopter pilots and their Plot-Induced Stupidity. The irony is that Batman did have the full intent of killing the Joker earlier during their fight. So he fails to kill him when he's trying, but does kill him when he's not trying to.
Precisely. Batman tied the Joker to the statue. Had the statue remained intact, he would have been pulled off the ladder and been left dangling for the police. Even if you take into account that Joker demonstrated the upper levels of the clock tower were less than stable ("They don't make 'em like they used to!"), even BATMAN could have hardly known the statue he'd tied Joker to would BREAK OFF AND TURN INTO A WEIGHT...
In Batman Forever, Bruce feels remorse for killing the Joker, suggesting he did it on purpose.
You can feel remorse for causing an accident ...
His speech about revenge implies that he viewed it as revenge, not an accident.
Earlier in the film, Batman grabs Napier's hand as he's dangling above a for-all-we-know fatal chemical bath; it's left ambiguous whether Batman drops him or he merely slips to his "death". The Joker's later claim (you MADE me) notwithstanding.
Averted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At the climax, Indy tries to pull Schneider out of the crevice, but she's so obsessed with reaching the Grail that she refuses to give him her other hand, and eventually slips and falls to her doom anyway. The exact same thing almost happens to Indy a few minutes later when his father tries to pull him out, but common sense wins over, and he abandons it.
Nero: I would rather suffer the end of Romulus a thousand times. I would rather die in agony than accept assistance from you!
This is possibly the only example that doubles as a What the Hell, Hero? moment, given Nero's status.
Spock: Captain, what are you doing? Kirk: Showing them compassion. It may be the only way to earn peace with Romulus. It's logic, Spock, I thought you'd like that. Spock: No, not really. Not this time.
Although Kirk knew what Nero's response would be. And he's all too happy to oblige him.
Inverted in Blade Runner, in which Roy Batty saves Richard Deckard. Deckard is an anti-hero and Batty is an anti-villain.
Subverted in the trope-heavy GoldenEye. Bond catches his nemesis by the wrist just before he falls to his death (from his own superweapon, no less). "For England, James?" "No, for me" and he lets go. The villain survives the fall long enough to also die in a spectacular explosion.
A deleted scene from Iron Man 1 shows Tony trying to save Obadiah after both their suits have been disabled, but Obadiah grapples the wrist of Tony's suit to drag Tony down as well, and Tony is forced to eject his glove so he doesn't die.
At the end of In the Line of Fire, Horrigan tries to save the assassin Leary from falling off an elevator, noting when Leary asks him that he doesn't want to, but it's his job.
Averted in Race for the Yankee Zephyr (1981). The villain and his chief henchman are squabbling over the aircraft and its cargo of gold bullion, even as it sinks beneath a lake. Disgusted by their behaviour, the hero refuses to save them from drowning despite the Damsel Scrappy imploring him to do so.
Memorably averted in Darkman, where the final Climbing Climax ends with Westlake catching the villain (by his ankle, for a change) just before the latter can fall to his death from a half-built skyscraper. Hanging helplessly, the Big Badconfidently points out that Westlake can't possibly drop him, because then he wouldn't be able to live with himself. But unfortunately for him, this hero's been learning to live with even worse things, all through the film...
Butch does this for Marsellus Wallace, the man who wants him dead for not throwing a major boxing match, from Pulp Fiction. Pulp Fictionbeing what it is, though the two of them do fight, Butch then saves Marsellus from even worse guys.
Played with in Thor when, during the climactic battle between Loki and Thor, they crash through the wall of the Observatory and onto the Bifrost, Loki rolls over the edge and is left clinging to it by his fingertips. As they are brothers, Thor does not hesitate to reach down and help him, but it turns out that it is only one of his illusions.
Also, the whole point of the battle in part was to prevent Loki from exterminating the Frost Giants, the deadly enemies of Asgard.
In the movie Safety Patrol, Mrs. Day, one of the two robbers, nearly falls into a Hades crater, and Scout and the other kids try to save her. They succeed, and she is arrested shortly after along with her son Bert Miller.
In The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, one of the punk gunslingers loses his balance as he makes his way down to a rail (to kill our hero, Ford Fairlane). Zuzu tries to save him... by grabbing the gun in his mouth to pull him back up. Guess what happens next.
In the Spiderman movies, both the original trilogy and reboot, Peter Parker frequently tries to talk the villain down, since most of them are actually friends of his, so he desperately doesn't want to have to fight them.
In Kick-Ass 2, Kick-Ass grabs the Motherfucker's hand as he's dangling over a shark tank. They argue about it, and the Motherfucker repeatedly swats at Kick-Ass's hand until he can't hold on and Motherfucker drops. The Stinger reveals that he did survive, at the loss of his limbs and dick.
This is actually the heroes' main objective in X-Men: Days of Future Past, because if Mystique kills Trask, it will trigger the awakening of Sentinels which will bring about the apocalypse. Although they succeed, Trask doesn't get off a Karma Houdini as he is arrested for selling military secrets.
Lampshaded by Ron's utter disgust at the fact that they saved Malfoy. After the second save, Ron punches out Malfoy just to try to feel better about saving him.
Actually, not so much as a way to feel better - when he puinched Malfoy, Malfoy was stilltrying to appeal to Death Eaters he saw running about, claiming he was still on their side so they would spare him and generally being a two-faced coward even after members of the Order spared him.
Also, Harry's saving of Peter Petigrew, back in Prisoner of Azkaban comes back, when Peter hesitates when he's attacking Harry.
Which is immediately followed by Harry and Ron attempting to stop Pettigrew's own silver hand from strangling him. They fail.
The Star Wars novel Sacrifice has a subversion. During Lumiya's duel with Luke Skywalker, she falls off a ledge. Luke (who decades earlier was romantically involved with Lumiya before she became a Sith, and thinks she's the one who murdered his wife) grabs her hand, saying "I'd never let you fall." Then he decapitates her.
"Come with us. We can have you reprogrammed." "No. If they can find a way around my brainblock, if somehow my memory was downloaded, it would be fatal for me – and my master. We have much to answer for. Better to kill me now." "It’s not your fault. You didn’t program yourself." "I am what I am, Jedi. I don’t think there can be any salvation for me." "There’s been enough killing. I’m not adding to it today."
Tash tries this with Gog in Galaxy of Fear, first saying he's too hurt to escape by climbing a ladder, then lunging and trying to grab him when he falls, but she fails. He lives anyway.
The Batman novel "Fear Itself" double subverts this when it has Batman try this with Scarecrow when Batman, the Love Interest of the week, Scarecrow, a henchman, and the body of a guy Scarecrow had just killed are trapped in a burning house. Initially, Batman does leave Scarecrow to die in the mess he created ... But after he rescues the Love Interest and the Henchman, as well as carrying out the dead victim's body, he goes back for Scarecrow. He apparently doesn't succeed, but they Never Found the Body and we all know what kind of record the Bat Rogues have with death. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we love Batman.
In Night Watch, Vimes has already set fire to the HQ of the Cable Street Particulars when he remembers that one of them is still inside, strapped to a chair in their own Torture Cellar. Vimes runs back in, deciding to at least give the man a chance to escape. He's already dead, and Vimes ends up in a swordfight with his boss.
It's complicated. Vimes is perfectly happy with traitors being hanged, it is the burning he can't stand. Vimes will NOT rescue a villain from quick death; he WILL rescue villains from torture.
In Scaramouche, Mme. la Comtesse de Plougastel stops Andre-Louis from killing the Big Bad, the Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr.
In Dark Life, Ty saves the outlaw Shade from being hanged by angry settlers—despite the fact that he still has broken ribs from his last encounter, AND the fact that only way to get the settlers to listen was by telling them all his most dangerous secret.
In Rip Tide, it's a little different. At the beginning, the Drift surfs are the villains, but by the time he saves them at the end, Ty's realized that they were never actually the bad guys.
There's a version in the Provost's Dog book Bloodhound; having finally caught, outfought, and subdued the Big Bad in a flooding sewer, our protagonists have to keep her from drowning and later have her healed of her injuries, despite the fact that open wounds that then got tainted with sewage are extremely difficult to treat. However, this is not a second chance: they want her put properly on trial for her crimes so she can be executed in good time.
In Darke, Septimus has to rescue his opponent Merrin Meredith after the Dragon Duel.
The conceit of Smallville is that Clark Kent unwittingly saves his archenemy's life when he rescues Lex Luthor from drowning. The novelty later wore out as Clark saved Lex about a hundred other times over the course of the show, even after he officially becomes evil.
He sometimes also tries to save other villains, but convenient Karmic Death usually is his friend.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: In the episode "Annihilated," Elliot Stabler is the first to learn that a man killed his wife and kids and staged it to make his wife look like the killer. When Elliot finds him on the hospital roof as if he's preparing to jump, he plays along and talks him down as if he still thinks he's a victim on the verge of suicide. As soon the guy comes down from the ledge, Elliot cuffs him. When the perp asks what he's doing, Elliot responds, "I don't know. I should've thrown you off the roof."
In "Redemption" Elliot and "Hawk" chase a particular horrific serial killer across rooftops. Elliot then finds Hawk standing and watching as the serial killer desperately clings to a ledge (Hawk may or may not have pushed him). Elliot has to convince him to save the killer, citing If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him. It works.
In "The Underwater Menace", the Second Doctor has just escaped from a sinking underwater civilisation along with his companions, and then announces that he's going back in, because he can't leave the Mad Scientist Professor Zaroff (who caused this mess, and who had been trying to blow up the Earth just because he could) to die. Justified in that the Doctor apparently knew and admired him before the mess, and the fact that Zaroff's evil was apparently down to madness rather than actual malevolence - with a bit of help, he might have changed his mind about wanting to kill everyone on the planet. Maybe.
Subverted in "Planet of Fire", in which the Master is burning in a volcano. He holds out a hand to be rescued, and the Doctor refuses. Twelve years later, the same characters played the trope straight, with the Doctor extending his hand and the Master refusing and then falling into a black hole, making him Deader than Dead...until he comes back in "Utopia", proceeds to take over the world, gets shot, and then enjoys the satisfaction of dying just to spite the Doctor, who is pleading with him to regenerate and live on. After a thorough cremation, the Master is now Deader than Dead. Again... well maybe. Probably not.Definitely not.
Generally, the Doctor will want to find a peaceful solution for everyone. "I can help you!" is probably the first thing he says to any enemy (including Cybermen and Daleks). His plan generally boils down to having the enemy stop doing whatever horrible things they're doing, and letting him transport them back home or to a planet where they can live in peace, or possibly enter a mutually beneficial diplomatic relationship with the humans or other dominant species on the planet they're visiting. Sadly, very few take the offer.
In "Journey's End" he tries again, this time with Davros. He mentions that he tried to save him even during the Time War when something called the "Nightmare Child" swallowed his ship. He does it again after stopping his plan, perhaps in response to Davros's big Not So Different speech earlier (or because he knows Davros's track record for surviving explosions anyway).
In "The End of Time" this trope is invoked yet again, when the Doctor repeatedly pleads with the newly-returned Master to let him help with the Master's mental illness. For once, the Master seems to be on the verge of accepting the Doctor's offer, but subsequent events drive him to follow the other doomed Time Lords back into the Time War. Who knows what attitude he'll have the next time he's alive again.
To be fair, The Master was following them to make sure they couldn't escape and he ended up saving the Doctor from them as well.
In "Flesh and Stone", the Weeping Angels beg — or demand, even — that the Doctor do this for them by throwing himself into a crack in time to spare their lives. Unfortunately for the Angels, they hadn't actually given him much of a reason to do so; he refuses, they fall in and cease to have ever existed.
The Series 7 episode "Asylum of the Daleks" is apparently based around the main Dalek Parliament capturing the Doctor so that he can save them from an army of insane ones.
Subverted in the Stargate Atlantis episode "The Prodigal" Michael teeters on the brink of falling off the top of Atlantis to his awful demise. Teyla not only doesn't pull him up, she actually kicks his hands to hasten his death. This is what happens when you mess with Mama Bear.
The 'in the dark' portion doesn't work, since Sheppard is just offscreen.
In one episode of Bones, Booth tries desperately to save a serial killer who doesn't want to be saved. His failure sends him into a deep depression, until he is forced to see a psychiatrist.
Farscape has an interesting subversion - Moya's crew launch a dangerous, risky mission to save Scorpius. Until they reach him and John asks him what he told his captors - when Scorpius swears he said nothing, John cheerfully says to a shocked Aeryn "Kill him and let's go." They then get distracted squabbling about who ought to kill him and he survives.
Eh, they never really intended to kill him, they just wanted to scare him into telling the truth.
In season 3, episode 3 of Primeval, villainess Helen Cutter is trapped in the burning ARC building (caused by an explosion in her failed takeover attempt). Nick Cutter, being the hero as well as Helen's husband, rushes into the building and frees her. As thanks, Helen shoots Nick, killing him for real.
The Fugitive had the necessity of this as part of its plot: the one-armed man has to live or there's no evidence that Richard Kimble is innocent. He also saved Inspector Javert Phillip Gerard quite a few times, which paid off in the finale when Gerard finally catches him, but in exchange gives him 24 hours to search for the real killer.
Averted big time in Xena: Warrior Princess during the second appearance of her archenemy, Callisto. After Callisto murders Gabrielle's husband in cold blood, then almost burns Gabrielle at the stake, Xena finally catches up with her in a furious chariot chase which culminates with the both of them stuck in a quicksand pit. Xena uses her whip and chakram to pull herself to safety, then simply stands there and watches as Callisto is pulled under, screaming. Callisto eventually comes back, though.
Reinforced big style, "Strike me down and I shall arise mightier than before." The next four seasons are Xena wangsting and paying off infinite karmic punishments.
Callisto becomes a God and in season 5, she is promoted to the Archangel sitting on Jehovah's right hand on high.
Finale damns Xena to the deepest pit of Hell for all eternity and all the episodes about Xena's reincarnations in the 20th century are retconned out of existence.
In one episode of Criminal Minds, "Elephant's Memory", Reid goes against orders to try to save a serial killer with whom he sympathises.
In the season 3 episode "Tabula Rasa", a serial killer is chased by the team to the top of his apartment building. He tries to jump across to the building opposite and ends up hanging off the edge of the roof. Morgan jumps after him, makes it onto the roof of that building, and then the serial killer loses his grip. And falls several stories. And ends up in a coma for about four years.
Happens lots of times in The Dukes of Hazzard. Boss Hogg is often double crossed by whatever thugs he hires for his latest scheme, and who comes to his rescue? The Duke brothers, of course.
In the TV-movie for Nickelodeon's Cousin Skeeter, the villain is about to fall into what looks like an incinerator. The protagonists make a run for it, except Skeeter, who runs back for him while yelling "I got a conscience, man, I'm sorry!" and tells the villain to take his hand. The other characters go back to help pull when it looks like Skeeter isn't strong enough.
And in this case, the villain is so astonished/moved that they would bother to help him, that he immediately pulls a Heel-Face Turn and helps the protagonists return home. (After giving Skeeter an alien medal as thanks.)
LazyTown's Sportacus will usually do it for Robbie Rotten. In at least one episode, "LazyTown's New Superhero," Robbie then betrays that help by trying to leave Sportacus stranded on top of the billboard hiding the entrance to his lair, the same one that he was trapped on top of.
Peter makes Neal do this in the White Collar episode Company Man.
In Prison Break, both Michael and Sara keep others from killing the villains, and sometimes even help them.
Fridge Logic: off-screen, Robin must also insist that we must not confiscate the Sheriff's money because that would make us as bad as him because next week, the Sheriff has hired a whole new army of Mooks for Robin to slaughter.
Subverted in the Angel episode "Shells": Knox murders Fred, and tries to bring about the reign of an Eldritch Abomination. When the heroes arrive to stop him, Angel makes a big speech about rescuing Knox. But Wesley, filled with grief over Fred's death, guns down Knox in cold blood. Angel angrily says to Wesley "Were you even listening?"
Angel being Angel, and the whole message of the show is "everyone is capable of, and deserves, a chance at redemption, this is played straight sometimes, as Angel often tries to save villans. In Season Two, when he refuses to do this at a critical moment letting a load of Wolfram and Hart lawyers be killed by Darla and Drusilla, his friends make it clear that he's at the brink of the Moral Event Horizon.
On sister series Buffy, when Willow turned evil, Buffy and the others went to great lengths to save her intended victims, Jonathan and Andrew (who were minor villains at the time). As she explained, it was only for their sake indirectly:
"I'm not protecting you, Jonathan. None of us are. We're doing this for Willow. The only reason it happens to be your lucky day? Is because Willow kills you, she crosses a line, I lose a friend."
Used several times in 24: Jack Bauer has to save the life of Nina Meyers during Day 2 because she knows where the nuclear bomb is being held, on Day 4 Jack tries to stop Marwan from committing suicide so he can tell them where the warhead's target is ( though Marwan falls to his death anyway), Jack and Renee Walker have to prevent Tony Almeida from murdering Alan Wilson in Day 7, and Jack himself has to be stopped from murdering Big Bad Yuri Suvarov during Day 8.
In Wicked, Elphaba spends quite a lot of time trying to save her increasingly unstable sister, despite the fact that said sister has always hated Elphaba. In "No Good Deed", Elphaba realizes how pointless her attempts have been.
In the epic module Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the Player Characters might inadvertently rescue one of the most notorious villains in the history of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Sometime prior to the events of this module, Zuggtmoy, the Big Bad of the original Temple of Elemental Evil module, was captured by the villains in this one, transformed into an altar, and forced to serve as a shrine in the Tabernacle of Utter Darkness, a location in the Temple of All Consumption. This nightmarish, evil room is usually one of the most dangerous places in the Temple, and the PCs risk their souls being imprisoned for eternity if they lose the battle that will likely take place here. However, if they first visit the actual Temple of Elemental Evil, there's one place where one of them hears Zuggtmoy's voice pleading to be released, telling him a way to do it, and promising three wishes if he does. (She does not reveal who she is.) If the character does this when he does get to the room, and Zuggtmoy is freed, the biggest danger of the place is eliminated, and he does indeed get the three wishes. (However, Zuggtmoy does leave a giant Violet Fungus behind to attack him and his friends, although given the monsters they'd have to defeat to get there, it's doubtful one like that would be a problem.)
In the final stage of Bastion, The Kid comes across Zulf being nearly beaten to death by his fellow Ura. He then has the option of giving up his Infinity+1 Sword for Zulf's body, who he'll be forced to lug back while the Ura continually attack him. Eventually however, they'll be so impressed by your courage and tenacity that they'll all stop, with the one who decides to attack you getting killed by his comrades.
Batman does, however, try to save Hugo Strange after he gets stabbed. He also actually manages to save Harley Quinn from an exploding building in the DLC. She's not grateful.
In BioShock 2, if Delta continually demonstrates mercy to others and saves little sisters, when Sofia Lamb is drowning in the end, Eleanor states that while her mother believes that people are beyond redemption, Eleanor has decided from the player's actions that anyone can be redeemed if given a chance, and saves Sofia's life.
In the ending where you harvest the little sisters but still show mercy, Eleanor still saves her, but cites Cruel Mercy as her reason for doing so.
At the conclusion of Devil May Cry 3, Dante attempts the Take My Hand version of this. A quick sword slash to the palm tells him what his would-be-rescuee thinks of the idea. However, it's more about the villain in question being his twin brother than being noble and just, and the rescue was refused as his brother specifically wanted to go to the demon dimension that the fall was taking him to.
Disgaea 4 plays with this trope. After Nemo realizes that Artina was alive as an angel, he realizes the error of his ways and plans to disappear along with fear the great. Valvatorez goes off to stop that, but he argues that he's not saving Nemo, he says that just disappearing is too good for him and that he can only repent for his sins if he stays alive.
Geese Howard from Fatal Fury dies this way. Terry (the hero) tries to save him, yet Geese simply smiles and lets go. It isn't until much later on that we figure out why: Geese knows that Terry will be racked with guilt for the rest of his life, because with Geese's death, Terry will have orphaned Geese's son Rock the same way Geese orphaned Terry and Andy.
In Grand Theft Auto IV, Niko is ordered by Vlad to kill Ivan. After following him up the rooftops, Ivan will slip and barely hang on to the edge. The player may choose to invoke this trope and allow him to go into hiding, or let him fall and finish the job.
Ivan is far from being a villain. The mission is called "Ivan The Not So Terrible" for a reason.
In one of Heavy Rain's possible finales, Jayden gets the opportunity to do this for Shelby, right down to the villain hanging off the edge of a tall building by his fingertips and continuing to attack the hero if he decides to save him.
Justified in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep: Aqua saves the life of Master Xehanort. The thing is, Xehanort was possessing the body of her friend Terra, and letting Xehanort die would kill Terra as well. Aqua was out to save Terra from the beginning, so this (combined with the fact that Terra is Fighting from the Inside) was the logical choice. Unfortunately, this turns into a Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, as Terra can't break free, Xehanort's backup plan is in effect, and Aqua can't do anything to stop it.
In coded, Data-Riku saves Maleficent and Pete.
In Knights of the Old Republic you get a chance to either see a young Sith college entrant and already a major jerk being tortured to death or save him at the expense of being tortured yourself. Here we face the better version of the trope as he repays his debt to you straight away by freeing you from the torture and siding with you in a battling the torturer.
This happens in Last Scenario when Hilbert decides to save Big Bad Castor after the final boss fight of the game. He wouldn't have done it (he even says so) if he wasn't convinced by Ethan and Zawu.
A variation occurs in SUDA 51's No More Heroes. In this case, our Anti-Hero, up-and-coming assassin Travis Touchdown, has already dealt a fatal wound to his opponent Destroyman by impaling him through the chest with his beam katana. Nevertheless, Destroyman begs Travis to help him. Travis, who has already fallen for Destroyman's tricks a couple of times before, rips the weapon violently out of his chest. As his final vindictive act, Destroyman whips around and opens fire on Travis with his nipple-mounted machine guns (yes, really); he suffers his Karmic Death immediately thereafter, however, as Travis simply cleaves Destroyman from crotch to skull while bullets whiz past on either side of him.
It fails, and the villain's hand slips out of our protagonist's and he falls down a cliff. However, he survives and comes back to try and kill the protagonist and his parents later - he only manages to stab Kori.
In the ending of Zone of the Enders, Leo and Aida consider rescuing Viola, only for Viola to interrupt, saying that rescuing her would be adding insult to injury.
In the Mass Effect series, a Paragon Shepard will attempt this several times before the final showdown with Saren in 1 and the Illusive Man in 3, before being forced to convince them they are heavily indoctrinated, which causes them to commit suicide. In the first game, a Renegade Shepard can also pull off this feat.
In the Citadel DLC, Paragon Shepard will attempt to Take My Hand of her/his evil clone.
Ni No Kuni does this combined with a plan that's way complicated. The Great Sage Alicia (Allie), after finding out that her savior became The Dragon Shadar, decides that she'll go to an alternate timeline, absorb one of Shadar's souls, and become his mom. Said son then becomes the protagonist Oliver.
Mega Man 10: After defeating him, Mega Man discovers that Dr. Wily has fallen dangerously ill and unhesitatingly decides to take him to a hospital to get treatment. It pays off, as Dr. Wily leaves behind a big stockpile of Roboenza antidotes when he makes his escape.
Played straight later when Elliot hesitatingly defends Jerk Jock and school bully Tony from a supernatural attacker despite a great deal of animosity between them.
Lampshaded in Digger, during the troll bridge story. Not that Grim-Eyes is really a villain. Digger's prey and she did break her mother's spear... But then we run into the ethical question of eating things that talk. It's complicated.
Digger: Now, I could probably work up a good explanation for why I caught the hyena, who had, after all, been trying to kill me for awhile now. I could tell you that I was hoping to earn her gratitude, or point out that Surka was still attached to her ankle. These are all good and valid reasons. The fact is, though, that when people fall off cliffs, you grab for them. It's just a reflex.
Utterly subverted in Sam and Fuzzy, when Mr. Blank ends up dangling from the edge of a skyscraper after a last-ditch attempt to kill Sam, and states openly that he knows that Sam hasn't got it in him to let him fall to his death. Sam replies that he is utterly correct... And then stands aside and lets Fuzzy punt him off instead, stating that "but I bet he's ok with it".
Arguably done in The Young Protectors during Kyle's date with Duncan - better known as "The Annihilator". The two are attacked during a lunch date in Hong Kong by two vigilante heroes targeting the Annihilator, and Kyle winds up beating the crap out of one of them after said vigilante causes plenty of destruction to civilian property and recklessly endangers said civilians in his pursuit of Anni.
The Evil Overlord List states that a villain should be grateful if the hero saves his life and should the hero fall into his power, the Evil Overlord should make it clear that he will square the debt by sparing the hero just this once, a life for a life. This not only encourages heroes to save his life but also prevents the Evil Overlord from being bound by a perpetual oath not to harm the hero.
This was something of a hallmark of early Superman cartoons. The 1941 shorts "The Mad Scientist" and "Mechanical Monsters" each end with Superman grabbing Lois and the villain as the building blows up and leaping to safety.
Batman: The Animated Series: Batman's second encounter with a villainous ninja, Kyodai Ken, ends with the ninja stranded on a rock in the middle of a lava flow. Despite all that has passed between them, Batman throws a line and offers to try and pull him to safety. The rescue is refused, and the ninja presumably dies seconds later.
In an earlier episode, Batman saves a villain called the Sewer King from being hit by a subway train. When the astonished villain asks why, Batman responds that he leaves judgment and execution to the courts. Batman is still sorely tempted to make an exception here, what with the nature of the otherwise silly-looking villain's crimes.
Which was that he used children for his crimes, and abused them if they didn't do it perfectly.
Another episode has Batman saving an unconscious Joker from an exploding building - probably unnecessary, given Joker's history with big explosions.
Actually, given his history with big explosions, that's a very good reason to save him. Somebody really ought to install a homing beacon on him...
Lampshaded in an early episode, where The Joker is hanging over a pit of molten metal.
Joker: Batman! You wouldn't let me fry, would you?
Batman: (Considers it)
Joker: BATMAN! (Batman pulls him up)
Batman's expression during the moment is priceless.
An interesting subversion happens during the three-part "World's Finest" episodes in Superman: The Animated Series. The Joker has just accidentally set the huge flying wing he, Harley Quinn, Batman, and Lex Luthor are all on board to exploding; Superman turns up, Batman tells Superman to get Luthor, he's got Quinn... exeunt omnes through Superman's entrance hole... without making even the slightest effort to save The Joker, who's on the far side of what's functionally a minefield. Granted, it did give us the immortal lines after the plane had gone up in a fireball the size of a small city:
Harley Quinn: PUDDIN'!
Batman: At this point, he probably is.
That scene came across as practicality on Batman's part - he knew he only had time to save one person, and Harley was closer and less of a threat to the world at large, so she got chosen. If Harley hadn't been there, you know he would have gotten Joker out of the plane.
True enough, but Superman could have saved both Joker and Luthor with ease.
Yeah, well, he can't do those things. Because he's not an super-bulletproof alien from another planet that can defy gravity. But you know what he can do?
A variation happens between Superman and Lobo in the Superman: The Animated Series episode "The Main Man". Lobo was in no danger of dying, but he had been captured by the Preserver along with Superman, and couldn't escape his cell on his own. Superman offered to help, so long as he promised never to bother the Earth again. Once Lobo agreed and told him that "the Main Man's word is as good as gold", Superman broke him out.
In the Justice League episode "Twilight", this is averted by Superman of all people. When Darkseid tells the League that Brainiac is trying to assimilate Apokolips, Superman refuses to help and the rest of the League has to convince him otherwise. After Darkseid's inevitable betrayal, Superman actually hunts him down to personally kill him. And he succeeds — Darkseid remains dead all the way to the finale of Unlimited four seasons later.
Also subverted in the earlier episode "The Enemy Below." Orm ends up dangling off a ledge over a high drop, screaming for help, after trying to kill both his brother Aquaman and his infant son as well as untold numbers of people by melting the polar ice caps. Aquaman reaches down...and grabs his nearby trident instead, while Orm falls to his death.
Aquaman: I believe this is mine.
Avatar: The Last Airbender : Prince Zuko, an Anti-Villain, is fighting Admiral Zhao, a full-fledged villain, when the latter is suddenly seized by the Ocean Spirit. Even though Zuko hates Zhao's guts, he yells, "Take My Hand," because he's just honorable like that. Zhao refuses Zuko's help and suffers Karmic Death.
Naturally, Aang, the hero, has saved Prince Zuko on a number of occasions, including in the unaired pilot. His friends don't always approve.
Aang: Wait — we cant just leave him here.
Sokka: Sure we can...
Even MOMO saves enemies which wanted to eat him five minutes earlier.
Good-naturedly mocked in the Sequel SeriesThe Legend of Korra: Korra and Mako just happen to come across the imprisoned Tarrlok while staking out Amon's headquarters. Tarrlok sarcastically quips, "I don't suppose you're here to rescue me?" They're not the least bit interested in doing so.
That's not entirely true, Korra did honestly consider freeing him. Only Tarrlok warned her not to do so, in order to insure that no one would know they had spoken.
Reversed in Teen Titans: Slade, the villain, saves Robin, the hero, from falling off a roof, purely because Slade loves messing with Robin's head.
It's revealed later that Slade had plans for Robin. Robin would have been useless dead.
Happens again in the fourth season, when Slade arrives at the end of the final battle in time to save the Titans from the ominous-looking sphere of electricity that Trigon had trapped them in.
The Perils of Penelope Pitstop: In the episode "North Pole Peril", Penelope rescues the Hooded Claw after a yeti throws him off a cliff. Naturally, she regrets it later.
Audience-based subversion: There was once an Action Man advert where Dr. X was hanging off the edge of a building, about to fall to his death, and viewers voted whether Action Man should save him or not. They voted no, and Dr. X fell to his death.
Reversed in Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?, where the titular crook would actually save ACME detectives Ivy and Zach if one of her schemes unintentionally put them in peril. Naturally, they return the favor, and she refuses, but only because she's wily enough to have a backup escape plan just in case.
Spoofed in The Simpsons, after Bart has just saved Sideshow Bob's life:
Sideshow Bob: You saved me, Bart!
Bart: Yeah - I guess this means you won't ever try to kill me again, huh?
Sideshow Bob: [Sinister] Oh, I don't know about that. [Bart cringes back fearfully] Joking, joking!
Dr. Blight: You've got to save me, Planet! It's in your hero's manual!
Captain Planet: For once, she's right.
An episode of ReBoot had both Bob and Megabyte both fighting for survival in a glitched-up Game, which culminated in Megabyte being trapped by the User's character. Bob saves him, and later in the episode, successfully resolves a standoff by reminding Megabyte that he owes him. The indisputable highlight, though, is the way Megabyte finally asks for help...
In one episode of the X-Men animated series, Juggernaut starts an all-out attack on Xavier's mansion, but is stopped when somebody else steals his powers. Cain Marko then starts to die, requiring the X-Men to find the Ruby of Cyttorak to restore his power and save his life. They do, and Juggernaut repays them by stopping the attack and leaving.
Cyclops: We're going to save the Juggernaut's sorry life. And don't bother telling me you don't like it.
The Super Mario Bros. Super Show features a subversion in its Christmas Episode. Bowser, who has taken Santa Claus captive at this point and is threatening to throw him into the icy water below, stupidly causes an avalanche. Mario uses his plumbers' snake to rescue St. Nick, but instead of doing the same for the Koopa King, he gestures to the reptile that he'll just have to jump into the water himself (which he surprisingly survives).
Lampshaded a bit in Kim Possible in this exchange from "Gorilla Fist.":
Ron: So you want to tell me again exactly why we're going back?
Kim: 'Cause it is the right thing to do.
Sensei: (wisely) A weed that never grows does not need to be cut down.
Ron: Hmm, yeah, that's a good gardening tip. So why are we doing this again?
Yori: What Sensei is saying is that even though Monkey Fist is bad, he has not done us wrong this day. It is our honor to save him.
Ron: Oh, we're rescuing the bad guy!
Kim: Yeah, but it sounds better the way he says it.
"Rewriting History" has Kim get Drakken and Shego away from an invention that would have probably killed them, with Drakken then saying "We never speak of this again!" She also dives in and saves Drakken from drowning in "Cap'n Drakken", proving she's that big a damn hero once and for all.
Averted when a crook robs the Senor Seniors. Rather than ignore their efforts against the con artist to regain what is rightfully theirs, Kim tries to capture them. Technically, she was trying to save the crook from Senior's revenge, so she did save a villain, just not the ones who for all intents and purposes had built their wealth legitimately and treat villainy as a hobby.
In the episode "Black Sand", Aladdin tries to save Mozenrath from falling off the palace into his black sand trap. Obviously, Mozenrath attempts to pull Aladdin down with him, but ends up falling into his own black sand.
In the episode "The Hunted," Genie has to save Mukhtar, a Genie Hunter, from a man-eating Venus flytrap in Mozenrath's citadel. He then says "Saving people we might not like. It's a good guy thing!" Afterwards, Mukhtar seems to be an Ungrateful Bastard and betray Genie to Mozenrath, but after reflecting on what Genie did for him for a while, comes back and helps save Genie and defeat Mozenrath.
Amusingly, Perry is also prone to rescuing Doofensmirtz from much less serious situations, such as in "Brain Drain", where Perry saved Doofensmirtz from embarrassing himself in front of his daughter and her friends, and "Run Candace, Run", where he convinces Doofensmirtz to ask his ex-wife for money so he doesn't lose his building.
Doofensmirtz is also one of the few villains that has no problem with thanking the hero.
In an episode of Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes, Mr Fantastic briefly considers leaving Mole Man to be eaten by the monsters he was trying to control, before concluding "I think they'd take away our superhero licenses".
In an episode of The Spectacular Spider-Man, Spidey finds himself saving Tombstone from the Green Goblin. He seriously resents this.
In an episode of the animated series SM rescues Jameson from the Scorpion (who, by the way, was created by Jameson to hunt down Spidey). Naturally, That Doesn't Change Anything, and SM later ruminates in amusement that "It's like Sherlock Holmes rescuing Moriarty".
In the 80s show, Jameson is in trouble at one point and begs Spider-Man to save him, promising to stop printing bad things about him. After he's rescued, he immediately tells Spider-Man that he was lying and gloats about it. Spider-Man says that he wasn't fooled. If Jameson had kept his promise, then he'd be surprised.
Back into Spider-Man: The Animated Series, the trope was occasionally subverted. Peter Parker (he didn't have time to change clothes) once saved Wilson Fisk from the Hobgoblin but Spidey didn't know back then Fisk was the Kingpin. In a later episode, he saved an old man he'd later learn was the mob boss Silvermane. Spidey even commented he'd give him back to Doctor Octopus if he knew the truth back then. Considering how Spidey learned Silvermane's identity, who can blame him? He once knowingly saved the Scorpion from danger, playing this trope straight, but he made it clear to Black Cat (and the viewers) he's only doing it because it was Spidey's own fault the Scorpion was in that danger in the first place.
Courage the Cowardly Dog rescues his callous, mean and generally Jerk Ass owner Eustace on a regular basis. To his credit, he does this most reluctantly and only so as not to upset Eustace's cute and caring wife Murriel whom Courage adores. Every plunge into the maw of death to retrieve the Ungrateful Bastard is preacted with a mournful lament: "Things I do for love!"
He-Man saves Skeletor's life a lot of times (or his henchmen and other villains) in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983). He even lampshades this once in one episode of the remake, saying, "I'm probably going to regret this later..." before he rescues Evil-Lyn (and he does). Still, what Skeletor was about to do to her was beyond cruel (he was going to offer her body and soul to an Eldritch Abomination) so you can't blame him.
The Smurfs end up doing this to Gargamel on various occasions, one reluctantly being when Gargamel accidentally turned himself into a statue while the Smurfs rejoice afterward, Papa Smurf being the exception.
Jake and/or the members of his team on Jake and the Never Land Pirates always offer this to Captain Hook when he inevitably gets into a sticky situation. Hook, however, always refuses, claiming that he doesn't need help. Jake and the others don't try to press the issue.
Subverted by Posey in Mission Hill when she's threatened by a pimp for taking away with her (unfortunately printed) "healthful release" massage. When he pulls his back out of place she uses her massage techniques to fix him, then pushes him off the building.
Posey: I didn't want him to fall off the roof and not feel it.
Subverted in Transformers Prime. When both Bots and Cons get caught in a cave in, the Autobots consider rescuing them. They choose not to, reasoning that not killing them in cold blood is good enough. Played much straighter in "Operation: Breakdown."
In Young Justice, Superman tries to save Kroleteans about to be destroyed by a bomb hidden in their volcano base. They don't believe him and keep attacking, so he fails.
In The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Captain America nearly sacrifices himself to save Madame Viper from the Super Skrull. When Henry Gyrich asks what he's doing, Mockingbird responds with "He's being Captain America!" Viper returns the favor by helping the Invisible Woman save Cap, though she's back to being a bonafide villain after the Skrull invasion is foiled.
Mike tries this toward "Red" in Motorcity, who refuses his help. Turns out he's still alive.
Generally speaking, wounded enemy soldiers are not killed after the battle, but are instead captured as prisoners of war and given medical attention. (This may even be codified in the Geneva Conventions, although some nations ignore these rules.)
There are good reasons to do this. If you treat prisoners well, they are more likely to give you useful information. Enemy troops are also more likely to surrender if they know they won't be shot after they lower their weapons.
Also, if you treat captured enemy soldiers humanely, the opposing forces are more likely to return the favor when capturing your soldiers.
Police officers often have to save the lives of criminals who have been injured while fleeing (or even been shot by the very police who must now save them).
Whether or not President Barack Obama is a "hero", many people do see Vladimir Putin as at least somewhat villainous, and an antagonist on foreign policy (Iran, Syria, Ukraine, etc.) However, when asked by a little girl if he thinks Obama would save Putin if he were drowning, Putin agreed, calling Obama "a decent and courageous person". When asked the same question the week after for Time magaznie, Obama said "absolutely" and added "I'd like to think if anyone were out there drowning, I'd save them."
The Hippocratic Oath: Every doctor in the world has to swear a Hippocratic Oath that they will help any patient, regardless of their beliefs, ideologies, race, ethnicity, gender,..., even if they are criminals or military enemies.
The Death Penatly: Opponents of the death penalty also argue that no criminal deserves to be killed for his crimes. They are in favor of punishment, but feel that murdering a criminal would be inhuman and just put themselves on the same level as the criminal himself.