"They can be a greatpeople, Kal-El, if they wish to be."
Bart: Being a star is every patriotic American's dream. Milhouse: Not mine. It's a sham, Bart. You get up on that movie screen pretending to be a hero, but you're not. The real heroes are out there, toiling day and night on more important things! Bart:Television.
In many works of fiction, the hero does good deeds on a level that would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone in the real world to emulate. They stop wars, dismantle criminal syndicates, Save The World so often it becomes part of their regular schedule, and never shy away from performing a Heroic Sacrifice (sometimes even giving their lives for the greater good several times). Yet if the hero runs into a firefighter, volunteer worker, or soldier (if they're on the idealistic side of the spectrum), the hero will often make a comment along the lines of, "You guys are the real heroes."
The idea of such a scene is usually to pay tribute to real life heroes, who may not have their own TV shows or look like supermodels, but still give of themselves to save other people's lives. This is a noble motive on the writer's part, but it can create some problems if the story's Fourth Wall is firmly in place. The characters don't know they're fictional, after all; from their perspective, Superman tossing a nuclear bomb into outer space is no less real than a firefighter saving someone from a burning building. This can make the audience wonder why the story's hero considers him/herself a lesser hero than some guy who's never even saved the world once. If the main character is a superhero, writers justify this by pointing out that rushing into danger takes a lot more courage if you're not Nigh Invulnerable. Of course, this doesn't explain people like Batman and Green Arrow who are just Bad Ass Normals.
On the other hand, there's nothing that suggests that the various heroes have to be at odds with one another. Cops who handle Mooks, firefighters who fight blazes after a big showdown, and emergency workers who take care of wounded Innocent Bystanders can free up the protagonist to deal with the Big Bad who's causing all the problems to begin with. Likewise, these same emergency workers might appreciate the help of the superheroes-being a firefighter is dangerous at the best of times, but having to dodge the attacks of a flame-spitting Pyro Maniac while trying to fight the fires he started risks becoming a suicide mission unless someone can actually deal with him. The basic point is to pay reverence to the mundane heroes who risk their lives to save others in our world.
Contrast Never Be a Hero.
Parodied spectacularly with the series of Budweiser commercial "Real American Heroes". Was renamed "Real Men Of Genius" post-9/11, when paying sincere respect to The Real Heroes was a national obsession and mocking that sentiment seemed tasteless.
A great number of comic books companies and creators rushed to publish stories featuring The Real Heroes in the aftermath of 9/11. And with good reason. Of course, they probably shouldn't have been set in the mainstream superhero universes considering that A) it didn't make sense that it happened, and B) even if it did, the average supervillain does things 10 times worse a couple of times per week, so seeing Doctor Doom and Magneto (especially Magneto, who you may recall is himself a terrorist who has repeatedly tried to kill many nonmutants) cry over it when they've blown up countries was more Narmful than anything.
The fact that a few months before 9/11 most of the Marvel Universe did not bat an eyelid when 16 million mutants were killed in Genosha did not help, especially as that should realistically concerned Magneto (and not just him) a lot more.
Superman: Doomsday: Superman and Lois discuss a reporter who is going to Afghanistan to cover the war. Superman says that, because he's invulnerable, he's not putting his life on the line when he does what he does, as opposed to the people who are fighting fires, fighting for freedom, and bringing the truth of such feats to the world. He even explicitly states that he's not brave, he just can take a bullet better than others. Of course, the reporter that sparks this discussion is Clark Kent.
Played with in Watchmen as the police and normal citizens eventually grow to resent the costumed vigilantes who take the hero-ing business into their own hands. This fake PSA advertising the movie mentions "real American heroes" who "don't need to wear masks", and at one point a group of rioters is seen with a sign reading "Police, not masked freaks". (The film version changes this to the honestly somewhat snappier "Badges Not Masks".) You can kind of see where they're coming from.
Though the one hero who quit the business before the civilians came to resent the superheroes, Ozymandias, retains a lot of public respect after his retirement in his public identity as Adrian Veidt, to the point of even being able to sell action figures in his own image.
Interestingly, the original Nite Owl was a cop, moonlighting as a costumed vigilante in his spare time.
A City of Heroes fan story published in the monthly comic had a short tale about a hero defeating a gang of Trolls that were threatening a young couple - the hero denied that he receive any praise for what he did, as the Trolls were of no threat to him, but instead drew attention to the fact that the young man stood up to the thugs, protecting his girlfriend - even though he could have been killed with a single punch.
Samaritan from Astro City says this when receiving an award from the fire service. He really believes it, though he wishes he could skip the ceremonies and spend more time saving civilians instead.
There's also a poster seen in one story of the Silver Agent next to a police officer. "Silver Agent says salute your local heroes!"
And the story "Since the Fire", written for one of the 9/11 benefit books, is all about this.
When Metropolis featured a non-powered superhero, Gangbuster, he and Superman had a talk in this vein: Gangbuster has actually run into fights joining Superman, when he was in far more danger than Superman was, and Superman tells him that he deeply admires it and wonders whether he would do the same without his powers.
For the record, he did, literally assuming the Gangbuster identity himself when he briefly lost his powers. Also, Gangbuster eventually crippled himself and died alone.
The new Power Girl series manages to squeeze it in, and it does not even seem too Anvilicious, it actually makes perfect sense given the context. Power Girl is unconscious and lying in the middle of a large blast crater, being tended to by firefighters and EMT's. When she regains consciousness while being carried off on a stretcher they put her down and work to clear away the growing crowd of onlookers taking pictures while one firefighter helps her walk away. He says that he rarely gets a chance to help somebody like her ("Like me?" "Yeah...a hero") and she replies "I can say the same thing about you."
Naturally, there's no reason that superheroes and "ordinary" heroes have to be antagonists. One issue of Iron Man has Firebrand set fire to a homeless shelter while trying to kill Iron Man and Captain America. Cap and James Rhodes (who's serving as a Costume Copycat in wearing the suit for Tony Stark) concentrate at first on protecting the inhabitants of the shelter, but once the emergency crews show up Iron Man leaves them to take care of the fire and the wounded while he keeps Firebrand from doing any more damage.
Gotham Central explored the implications of this trope in depth, as we see how frontline police officers deal with the costumed psychopaths that infest the city like a plague...as well as the hero who fights them.
One of the hooks behind The Order is that the team was chosen from a group of volunteers, all of whom were in one way or another some kind of "hero" in civilian life. Meaning that a guy who developed advanced prosthetics and a decorated war hero are now superheroes, too.
A couple of Spider-Man comics published in the early 1980s took a decidedly more grim look at this trope:
One issue involved police officer Joey Macone, who's known for his recklessly heroic actions on the job. The risks he takes are putting a serious strain on his marriage, and his wife is afraid he'll get himself killed. Macone helps Spider-Man defeat the Beetle, but it literally costs him an arm and a leg as the Beetle's punch breaks both of these limbs. The story ends with Macone sitting in a wheelchair and getting a medal from the police commissioner, but his wife is still extremely upset and Peter Parker gets a firsthand look at how stressful a cop's life can get.
Another issue featured Spidey helping a pair of beat cops fight a gang of gun smugglers. Spider-Man saves one of the cops from being shot, but the other officer isn't so lucky and gets killed by the gun runners. Spider-Man is naturally torn up about it, and the surviving officer points out that makes six of them: Spider-Man, the surviving officer, and the dead officer's widow and three children. The wall-crawler feels lower than ever after hearing this, but the surviving officer reminds him that Spidey saved his hide. As for the officer who was killed, the cops know the risks they take when they put on the badge.
Ultimate Spider-Man has a scene where Peter Parker and John Jonah Jameson have a talk about heroics. He claims (in a surprisingly non-brash way) that Spider-Man is just a punk in a costume while people like his son (an astronaut) are truly doing good for this world. Ironically, this is just before the Daily Bugle starts praising the Wall-Crawler.
Mostly subverted in JLA: Act of God, where every superbeing is depowered. They do pay some lip service to this trope but when Supergirl (Linda Danvers) tries to continue fighting as a cop, she gets tired of doing the paperwork and decides to join some other depowered heroes to learn the Bad Ass Normal school of fighting. In this story, guys like Batman are the Real Heroes.
Thor's hammer, Mjolnir, cannot be used or even lifted by any but the "worthy". History shows that this worthiness is not a common trait (even among the Avengers, only Captain America has been able to wield it), but a random paramedic, not even named, once picked it up and handed it back to him.
More recent comics will take a slightly subtler approach by having the hero work side-by-side with the rescue worker in mutual respect for each others abilities. It doesn't grind the book to a halt so the hero can praise them, but shows that police and firefighters are courageous and risk their lives, even in the comic's universe. One such example is from 52 where Steel uses his super-strength to support a burning building about to collapse so firemen can rush in and carry out the people inside.
This trope was invoked in a series of variant covers for Marvel Comics from July 2011. With the theme of "I Am Captain America" (released to coincide with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger), the covers featured people of various professions(police officer, fighter fighter, judge, soldier, teacher, paralympic athlete, etc), with each illustration incorporating elements of Captain America's shield or uniform.
"Don't you ever say that to me, ever again! That is a repellent statement. It's a vomitous insult to every cop, every fireman, every soldier who steps up to fight for those who can't! I am sorry for your loss, but if you genuinely believe that only the death of a loved one can motivate a human being to take up a cause...then get your pathetic, cynical ass out of my way so I can do my job!"
The Tear Jerker Fan Fic "February 1, 2003" has Superman telling Wonder Woman that HE can fly into space without any threat of personal harm, which is why he admires non-powered astronauts who do it regardless.
At the end of Mystery Men, The Shoveler said this to the TV reporters interviewing him.
The Avengers took time during the climactic battle to show ordinary fire fighters helping people from destroyed buildings and tending to their wounds and the NYPD doing their best to shoot down the Chitauri with just their service pistols.
Captain America also directly requests their help in protecting people in ways the Avengers just don't have the numbers to do. Once they get a demonstration (on the Chitauri) they leave the asskicking to him and help protect the civilians.
Plus, there's Gary Oldman as Commisioner Gordon. Nuff said.
Robocop implies with the cops depicted as brave working stiffs who have to manage an future urban war zone. As for the title character, Alex Murphy always regards himself as one of them and his comrades come to accept him as simply a tougher comrade who can safely take on the tough stuff and draw their fire as his fellows maneuver for position.
After the finale of It Came From Beneath The Sea, the protagonists listen to a radio broadcast that congratulates "the unsung heroes" of the attack on San Francisco: the civilian defense volunteers, the crossing guards and the street railway employees.
Spider-Man (2001) had the citizens of New York helping Spider-Man, by throwing things at the Green Goblin, while they shout motivating lines such as "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!". Although it's never acknowledged, this actually saves not just Spider-Man's, but also Mary Jane's, and a group of kid's lives.
An unusual variation of this happens in Spider-Man 2. Upon narrowing stopping a train from plummeting and falling of it's track, Spider-Man faints and is brought into the train by the citizens he just saved. Taking his mask off, they see that the hero who saved them, and has been saving New York all this time, is actually a teenager, who looks just like any other. Like the above example it's unacknowledged, but it's showing that, despite Peter having super-powers, he's still a normal teenager, who has a normal teenager life. Yet, he's the person who puts his life on the line constantly, to save them, time and time again. It's a rare example of the unappreciated fact that super-heroes are still (for the most part) humans who go out their way to help the "everyday folk", being acknowledged.
In the novelization of Superman Returns, Superman thinks to himself as he saves a jet:
Perhaps, he realized, that one of the reasons he hated that term savior applied to him was that he believed he wasn't taking real risks doing what he did. Most of his actions, he felt, weren't life-threatening. He was invulnerable; almost nothing except for kryptonite could harm him. But policemen, firemen, people like these astronauts, they put their lives on the line every time they tried to help mankind take yet another small step forward. They were the real heroes, and he wished they received the acclaim they deserved.
In The Pale King, the IRS employees are likened to policeman, firefighters, and other emergency service members in a few places. Chapter 17 is a single paragraph that explains the idea, and the IRS seal depicts the mythical hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera.
Played in Witchblade, The Savage Dragon and Rising Stars - main characters from the first two, and one from the third have superpowers and fight crime not as superheroes, but cops.
Inverted by Dwight Schrute on The Office: "No, don't call me a hero. Do you know who the real heroes are? The guys who wake up every morning and go into their normal jobs and get a distress call from the commissioner and take off their glasses and change into capes and fly around, fighting crime. Those are the real heroes."
The Japanese Toku series Tomica Hero Rescue Force and its sequel, Rescue Fire, both had episodes dedicated to the team learning about/assisting Hyper Rescue, a real life rescue organization that inspired both shows. Naturally, Hyper Rescue ended up receiving a good amount of praise.
The Eric Bogle song "Our National Pride" was written after a group of volunteer firefighters were killed battling a bushfire in Victoria. It is all about how these people, and not athletes, deserve to be called heroes.
In the tabletop roleplaying game Silver Age Sentinels, Officer Promitheus (super-liaison between NYPD and the local superhero team) lampshades this, pointing out that people hope a superhero will save them, but when things go wrong, they call the police.
The Imperial Guard sometimes get viewed in a similar light by Space Marines. They have no power armor or bio-augmentation to aid them, yet they still hold strong against the untold horrors and abominations that threaten humanity.
Near the end of Doctor Horrible's Sing-along blog, Captain Hammer sings a song with this message. Unfortunately, his massive ego prevents him from going too far with this, repeatedly pointing out just how much cooler a hero he is:
"Everyone's a hero in their own way/In their own not-that-heroic way."
"Everyone's a hero in their own way/You and you and mostly me and you."
This is pointed out in the Less Wrong article Superhero Bias. What shows you're heroic is that you're willing to put yourself in harms way even if there's relatively little at stake and you have a high chance of getting killed. This is not something that tends to happen among superheroes.
This was pretty much the premise of the kids' show Higglytown Heroes. Although there were no superheroes in that show, it was all about "normal" people being heroic for different reasons.
Parodied in an episode of The Fairly OddParents. The first time Timmy needs a number of regular adults with jobs to help him (such as a firewoman to help him against Francis or a milkman to give him some milk when he has a mouth full of peanut butter) they're distracted by Cosmo, who is currently in cat form. They end up helping to take down Nega-Chin.
The Looney Tunes short "Super Rabbit" had Bugs Bunny receive a supply of Supercarrots that turn him into the titular Super-Rabbit. At the end of the cartoon, he loses his carrots to the bad guy and his horse after he unwittedly dropped the case and carrots midflight (and running out of power), at which point he says, "Hmm, this looks like a job for a realSuperman!" He then runs into a phone booth and emerges wearing a Marine uniform, then he marches off to fight in World War II.
The Marines were so thrilled by this, they made Bugs Bunny an honorary Marine Master Sergeant.
Taken to a logical conclusion in the Rescue Heroes cartoon based on the toyline, where the characters are a team of firefighters, police and other professions (mountain climber, construction worker, doctor) who operate like superheroes, who focus on disaster relief and rescues around the world rather than fighting crime. (no, not a superhero version of the Village People) All we know is that it had a theme tune that made me believe it.
We'll leave that to Kingdom Come, shall we? (Look close and don't blink.)
Police Officer: I just want to thank you Justice League guys for turning out in force. It means a lot to us.
Green Arrow: Hey, we can't thank you enough—you're the real heroes.
Done in an episode of the The Super Mario Bros. Super Show when Mario and Luigi find a way to return to New York. Unfortunately, Bowser and the Koopas follow them, and Bowser decides to conquer Earth along with the Mushroom Kingdom. Fortunately, the NYPD is there to help Mario and Luigi fight the Koopas.
In the episode of The Simpsons where Milhouse is chosen to play the Kid Sidekick in the new Radioactive Man film, Milhouse responds with the above quote after being sick of shooting the picture and running away. Bart however responds that they are all pathetic losers who have done nothing of value and that the true heroes are the Van Dammes and the Stallones.