"You're pathetic. One of the best minds on the planet and you waste it for years, doing magic tricks — then trying to best a man who'd never really harm you, despite your endless provocation. But that's the difference between my husband and me. He doesn't understand revenge. Me? I can't decide which of the many ways I can hurt you I'm going to use."
Every single character who comes into contact with some kind of weird Green Rocks that give them superpowers.
Sue Storm/Invisible Woman from Fantastic Four is the poster girl of this trope. (Literally— See the top level page.) Originally the Invisible Girl, she was very meek,note She practically lived in a classic feminine drawing-back-in-surprise pose. C'mon, you've seen it before. Leaned sorta backwards, hand raised just so, probably saying "Oh!!" in reaction to whatever it is. You'll find female victims doing it just before fainting at the sight of the bad thing the heroes are up against. and her power was only personal invisibility. She was so useless (not many opportunities◊ for stealth◊ came along), the best her writers could say in response to constant fan outcry against The Load (even in-universe◊) was, "Having a pretty girl around makes the boys fight harder." Her force field power was added (less than two years after her introduction), and she gradually became better and more versatile with it, especially under John Byrne. More dramatic was the shift from her original meek personality to her current confident one, which her new choice of codename signifies. These days, Doctor Doom himself considers her the strongest of the Fantastic Four.
The main point where this became truly noticeable was, you guessed it, her name change. The reason for this was the culmination of quite a few arcs: after another time-traveling stint, her, Reed and their kid, Franklin, damn nearly ended up in the hands of Mephisto, and the arc immediately after had a Dr. Doom fallback destroy their entire home apartment building. The proceeding arc was the biggest reason: where the Psycho-Man kidnapped Sue and turned her into Malice, a Brainwashed and Crazy evil version of her using her force field powers with incredible strength, including substitutes of gravity crushing attacks and the ability to cut off a person's air supply with those powers. It took the rest of the FF with some assistance from Daredevil to snap her out of that, and when they went to capture the Psycho-Man, he ended up capturing them and subjecting Sue to incredibly traumatizing Mind Rape, where she believed that her incompetence caused the death of her family, which she retaliated by killing the Psycho-Man with his own mind-raping devices. At the very end of that arc, she replaced the "Girl" part with "Woman" to reflect on the fact that all those events killed the innocence in her.
If one character from the Marvel Universe is more entitled to being the poster boy/girl for this trope than Susan, It's Richard "Nova: the Human Rocket" Rider. Nova spent most of his time being one or Marvel's poster boy for brash, reckless and inexperienced rookies trying to show off in front of the big leaguers and tending to get in the way. Then came Annihilation. And with it enough raw power to drive him insane without special training and mental shielding with help from the Nova Corps' Worldmind. And the Annihilation War itself had given Rider experience, a much more serious attitude after witnessing the horrors of the Annihilation wave, and a whole lot of respect after he managed to end the entire Annihilation War by ripping Annihilus inside-out in retaliation for what he did to the rest of the Nova Corps. Oh and immediately prior to that he managed to survive a massive omni-directional blast from an enraged Galactus at near point blank range. A blast which was so powerful it encompassed and destroyed more than 3 Solar Systems. Since then Steven Rogers has made him a member of the Secret Avengers, and Nova become the defacto commander-in-chief for any organized resistance against major interstellar conflicts, with even the biggest and baddest that space has to offer deferring to him. Needless to say, barring his Marvel Adventures counterpart (which put him in the Avengers), Richard was never portrayed as a childish attention grabbing wannabe ever again.
Joke character Hammerhead from Spider-Man got this treatment, as part of becoming The Dragon for Big Bad Mr. Negative. He got a reinforced skeleton (made out of canonical Nightmare Fuelnote that is, it actually gives Spidey nightmares...despite the fact that he never actually saw it) and strength and durability upgrades including a Kevlar throat. The very first thing he does is utterly stomp Spidey. As Peter is lying on the floor with a dislocated jaw, he says "Why aren't you a joke anymore?"
Spider-Man writer Fred Van Lente has been doing this in general with a few F-list villains, taking them and making them into genuinely capable threats. The best example is the Spot, who is developed by Van Lente into a mute killer who's been driven insane by his being trapped in an alternate dimension and who can now only communicate by writing in his own incomprehensible language of dots. We also see just how legitimately terrifying the powers of even the lowliest super-villains can be. More recently, Van Lente has been writing background stories featuring some of the classic Lee/Ditko/Romita villains in the new Web of Spider-Man series that began in late 2009.
The Spot always had what should have been extremely dangerous abilities. He was just too stupid to use them effectively.
In their first encounter, the Spot beats Spider-Man badly. In their next encounter, Spidey knows what to expect and has the endurance to take his "only" normal human level hits until the Spot has used his powers too much and has given an open spot for him to attack. Thus he is only defeated by his overconfidence.
This predated Fred Van Lente's work. The first definitive example of the modern age of Spider-Man comics was Scorpion, formerly an incredibly dim C-List villain at best, becoming the new Venom and thus gaining not only knowledge and experience of how best to fight Spider-Man, but also getting a considerable physical boost despite already being physically (if not mentally) capable of going toe-to-toe with Spidey.
After a pretty successful stint as Venom (see Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers), he is back as the Scorpion in an even MORE powerful scorpion suit. Spidey still bests him, but he certainly has the powers to be a threat these days.
Spider-Man's writing team is making all his classic villains either take a level in badass or be replaced by stronger and more dangerous counterparts (Vulture, Rhino). Doctor Octopus took control over all of New York's technology with his last appearance, Chameleon (written by, already mentioned above, Fred Van Lente) returned to his original ways, becoming a perfect — and dangerous — impersonator and assassin. Electro can now turn into lightning and destroyed the Daily Bugle building, Sandman can make multiple copies of himself (some of them are murderous), Mysterio took control over the Mafia Maggia with his tricks. Not so classic White Rabbit has been turned from a complete joke into a dangerous drug dealer and crazy killer and together with the Spot and a bunch of C-List Fodder villains — Scorcher, Speed Demon, Bloodshed, Squid, Lightmaster, and Answer — almost destroyed Mr. Negative's criminal empire and defeated his immortal servants and Hammerhead (they lost only because Negative brainwashed Spider-Man and sent him to fight them).
During Peter David's run on Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man (shortly before One More Day), he put Betty Brant through this trope. The highlight has to be saving Flash and Spidey from Arrow using a shotgun with silver bullets (she's a Daily Bugle reporter).
Spider-Man is all about taking a level in badass. That's essentially what happened to Peter Parker from the very start!
And in Spider-Island, after losing his spider-sense and having to learn how to fight without it (Spider-Fu), it has returned and now Spider-Man is even more dangerous! Baddies beware.
He's done this multiple times over the course of his career as he has grown from a raw teen hero into a mature adult one. He's added tools, refined his webshooters, even gotten training from Captain America (who had pointed out to him that relying on instinct in a fight isn't always a good idea.)
Mary Jane Watson started off as just a flirtatious, free-spirited love interest for Spider-Man. As time went on, she became his main love interest, and was strong enough that she once beat one of his enemies up with a baseball bat and hardly ever gets captured; she seems well able to defend herself from villains and even rescued Spider-Man when she needed to.
Grunge of the newly rebooted Gen 13 series is a slightly different example. He starts out as your more-than-average nerd with genius IQ and photographic memory. And the first name... Percy. So he starts working out, hides his book smarts and his photographic memory, starts using his middle name, trains in martial arts and starts skateboarding. And turns into a stereotypical 'stupid' musclebound frat boy slacker by the start of the series when we first see him. And then he gets superpowers.
Storm from X-Men is an interesting example; she started off as a fairly strong Claremont Woman, but a bit unsure of herself. After some time with the team and a radical makeover in Japan, however, she became less an African Proper Lady and more of an ethnic Action Girl. She still used Spock Speak, however, and continues to do so to this day. Also, when it comes to her claustrophobia, finding herself in an enclosed space went from "instantly paralyzed by post-traumatic flashbacks to her parents' death" to "really uncomfortable, but the desire to get the hell out makes her all the more motivated to get the job done."
It happens with anyone from X-Men, perhaps due to the 'school' theme. When a character is first introduced, he or she will be able to use his or her power in its most basic, obvious form (shoot Eye Beams, make stuff fly around, etc.) but as they get better and better at using it, power and proficiency will increase, as well as the ability to make the Required Secondary Powers work for you. Next thing you know, the girl who can walk through walls is standing on air* It's never explained why an Intangible Man doesn't fall through the floor, but you can use the ability to do so even if not on an actual floor. "Down" is what you make of it, as the floor wasn't what was holding you up before you stepped off of it. By pretending she's on stairs, Kitty can even walk into the air. while threatening to make an intangible object tangible while inside your skull, or the guy who can make ice proves what a person who truly has control over water and temperature can do.note And his greatest feats are not his maximum potential, which is said to be on par with Phoenix. If anyone's existed longer than ten years, you'll barely recognize them in their first appearances. Even Nightcrawler once had a much shorter range, ran out of energy for teleporting quicker, and taking passengers was an extremely dangerous and extremely agonizing strain.
There were signs of Antoine's improvement were as early as Issue 23, which both had the first hints at romance between him and Bunnie, and Antoine both showing bravery and generally behaving a lot better. His capability in combat was already starting to be established by this time, as in the very next number, not only does he fight as well as Patch/Evil Antoine, who didn't have the cowardly personality, he also easily dispatches Boomer/Evil Rotor.
Sonic: Remember your old yellow streak? Antoine: Oui. I recall it all too well. Sonic: Because I totally could bring it up right now. Antoine: I know. Sonic: I've got a list. Antoine: Stop eet.
Evil Sonic, Sonic's Evil Twin (duh), is nothing more than a minor pest, at best. He spends his time either playing underling for more powerful villains, or behaving like a glorified thug. However, when the new writer comes into the comic, Evil Sonic gets jacked up on chaos energy, gets a makeover, changes his name to "Scourge", and proceeds to kick his threat level up a notch. It doesn't stop there, however — after a few "inspiring" words from Sonic, he returns to his home dimension, applies himself, and conquers his own version of "Moebius" in a matter of DAYS.
Amy Rose went from a young, innocent Damsel in Distress in the Sonic CD issue to a mallet-swinging force to be reckoned with by the Sonic Adventure arc. While she was previously repeatedly rejected a Freedom Fighter status, she eventually proved herself after single-handedly turning the tide in a handful of battles and is now essentially in the same capability tier as Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles.
Yorick in Y: The Last Man starts as an inept loser who's often beaten up by women (including his sister) but with the help of some traumatic incidents, and training by Agent 355, becomes more adept at defending himself. Subverted also in one scene when a non-action character suddenly whips out a sword in an apparent elevation to Badass, only to be easily defeated by the more experienced villain.
Lawrence Dobson from Firefly received a Level of Badass in the Serenity comic books.
In the Villains United and Secret Six comics, former Batman whipping boy Catman has graduated to a capable threat, fighting the Caped Crusader to a standstill in one issue.
Just to give you an idea how big the change was, the last time we saw Catman before Villains United was Archer's Quest where he was a fat slab doing grunt work for the Shade. First scene with him in Villains United has him, very fit, leading a pride of lions and telling the Secret Society of Super Villains where they could put their recruitment drive.
This is more a case of Rescued from the Scrappy Heap. When he first showed up in the Silver Age, Catman was a skilled fighter who took on Batman and nearly won. Later writers just made him more and more pathetic (the crowning example would be Green Lantern 80-Page Giant #1, in which he is captured by G'Nort. A ringless G'Nort).
Speaking of Batman villains, Black Mask was a D-list villain (Batman sent "Batgirl" (Huntress) to defeat him in No Manís Land), then came "War Games"; at the end of that mini series, Black Mask became crime lord of Gotham City.
In the first issue of G.I. Joe: Cobra, we watch Chuckles gain Badass XP in a training sequence with Jinx.
Chuckles has always been badass in the comics. He has consistently been shown as a competent combatant, and as a veteran undercover agent he's one of the most skilled intelligence analysts and operation planners in G.I. Joe. On top of that is the undercover work itself, where his Nerves of Steel show best. The problem is that most people take one look at him, and decide he's a joke based purely on appearance.
In the Marvel Universe, Anthony Davis was a second-rate C-List Fodder supervillain known as the Ringer, who was humiliated by Spider-Man before being unceremoniously murdered along with 17 other supervillains by the villain-killing Scourge. A later retcon would reveal that Davis was Not Quite Dead when he was found by a group of agents from the technological terrorist group A.I.M., who were investigating the site of the massacre to steal the technology of the dead villains. He got better when A.I.M. turned him into a cyborg with advanced laser weapons and teleportation powers. Now calling himself Strikeback, Davis proved to be a much better fighter than he ever was as the Ringer, defeating the Vulture, Stegron, Boomerang and Swarm one after another when he reappeared in the Spider-Man comics.
The 1st volume of French comic Dungeon revolves around initially helpless and cowardly lead character Herbert the duck Taking a Level in Badass over and over again. By the end, he has a magic sword he's one Great Deed away from being able to wield, that, if touched by another, will turn him into one of its previous bearers to defend itself — unfortunately, not all of them are awesome, and it can be exploited by forcing him to cycle through forms too quickly to actually react — can't be killed by normal means because his heart was first removed, then eaten by a Bewmew — granting it a soul, and the now-sapient... blob-thingy now acts as his loyal servant and bodyguard in thanks — and is a master of the stick and the feather — since he's a duck and covered with feathers, this means he can dismember and eviscerate opponents completely unarmed.
An issue of Ambush Bug from the 1980s once listed a bunch of corny Silver Age characters that should never be mentioned again because they could not possibly work in modern comics. Grant Morrison has since made them all awesome.
In the Incredible Hulk book (the one written by Greg Pak), Bruce Banner took a level in Badass. Proving he's not as useless as people think he is.
For that matter, the members of the Intelligencia all took one. The members? Red Ghost, M.O.D.O.K., Leader, Mad Thinker, and Wizard. The fact that these guys (who apart from the Leader, have become jokes in recent times) have become credible threats and being able of capturing Doom, Black Panther, Hank Pym, Beast and Reed Richards is nothing short of impressive.
Seems to be standard for a character when they're managed by Geoff Johns. The revamping of throwaway Green Lantern villain Black Hand being a prime example.
Valkyrie from Ultimate Marvel. She started out as a delusional superhero wannabe. Then she kicks the crap out of Venom and nearly cuts him in half with a sword and gives a few A-list villains like Magneto a run for their money.
Same thing with the other "Ultimate Defenders" who started out powerless and now all have powers.
This is really less taking a level in badass, and more Jeph Loeb forgetting he was writing in the Ultimate Universe.
In Final Crisis Aftermath: Run!, the Human Flame gets tired of being a joke villain and decides to take so many levels in badass that he will never have to run away again. He takes too many of them and ends as a monster so big, that he cannot move under his own weight.
More a subversion. The Human Flame desperately wants to be a badass, but as hero and villain alike both note, he's really just a selfish, dimwitted slob and most of the carnage he causes is out of stupidity, not real supervillainous skill. He probably kills more people by accident than some of Batman's rogues have on purpose.
The New Mutants/X-Factor/Excalibur/X-Men/X-Factor (again)/X-Force/X-Factor (for a third time) character Wolfsbane seems to have this intermittently, from killing someone and beating up Feral in the original X-Factor series to eating her father and clawing up Mortis' throat (with an accompanying SHRRIP! sound effect) in X-Force, and now she's been given some Asgardian powers to help her survive the Asgardian wolf baby in her stomach. She tends to veer wildly between taking this trope to heart and being The Woobie.
Fellow New Mutant member Cypher underwent some severe level-up after coming Back from the Dead. Originally, his mutant power was "read and understand any language", meaning he was simply an Omniglot when he died in the 80s. Revived in the 2000s, we learn that "language" includes "body language", meaning he can predict his opponents' moves and actually held off all his old teammates single-handedly. It also includes computer language, making him an imminently skilled hacker and programmer, as well as letting him "read" the structure of a building and discover the easiest way to destroy it.
Cypher could do the computer language thing prior to his death - but it's much more impressive now. Cypher just debuted a decade or so too early.
Donald Duck took a level in badass back in the 60's in the Italian Disney comics, when he stumbled upon the suit and equipment of an old-time gentleman thief/vigilante, and used it to create his own secret identity of Paperinik. At first he just used it to get even with Uncle Scrooge and other people who crossed him, but pretty soon he started working as a superhero, keeping the streets of Duckburg safe at night. Then he took another level when he got his own series and was suddenly fighting alien invasions, mad scientists, and major disasters on a regular basis in Paperinik New Adventures.
In the same vein, you also have Gosalyn and Launchpad. At the end of the first storyline, Gosalyn has control of the Gizmoduck suit, becoming Gosmoduck, and Launchpad is given Quackwerks by Scrooge McDuck, giving him a literal army of robots at his disposal.
For a long time, the Purple Man was just another gaudily-dressed C-List Fodder villain who would turn up every 5 years or so to get his ass handed to him by Daredevil. Then the writers realized what a guy with his level of Mind Control powers could really do. Cue a year-long storyline, in which the Purple Man secretly took over a Fortune 500 company (whose chairman was the father of Daredevil's girlfriend), used its resources to wage a campaign against Daredevil, framed the chairman for his crimes (eventually driving him to suicide), broke up Daredevil's relationship, and mind controlled four of Daredevil's toughest enemies into trying to kill him all at once. A toned-down preview of what The Kingpin would later do in "Born Again." The Purple Man was never a joke in any Marvel book again.
Before that, he was an Adaptational Badass in X-Men, as a Villain with Good Publicity (and good makeup to hide his purple skin) who was mind-controlling the X-Terminators as his personal army. Using his real name instead of ever calling himself "The Purple Man" helped a lot, too, when it came to being taken seriously. (When your real last name is Killgrave, you don't need a villain handle!)
Iron Man. Extremis. Which would be good enough on its own, but then he got the Bleeding Edge armor. And if I read what just happened in Invincible Iron Man correctly, he's just taken a whole other level by upgrading his armor with some dwarven/Asgardian magic.
Oh, you know, Iron Man's armor power doubles every 18 months. Look at Armor Wars. One chapter before last, the big bad easily beats him. Last chapter, he builds a new armor and easily beats the villain. Or look at the modular armor's debut (destroys a robot which previously defeated a dozen armors). But Iron Man stays at the same power level compared to Hulk or Thor.
Bucky Barnes - just compare his depictions before Brubaker's run on Cap to Brubaker's depiction of the character. Just how many levels of badass did Bucky take? He became Captain America.
DC crossover Underworld Unleashed Nero offers to grant wishes in exchange for souls and makes this deal available to the villains first. Many of them use this opportunity to take levels in badass. For example, Blockbuster, a big dumb guy, wished to be a Genius Bruiser and eventually ended up as the crimelord of Bludhaven in the Nightwing title years later.
For the last several years, DC has been trying awfully hard to shake the famous notion that Super Friends put forth about Aquaman that he's useless outside of his ability to talk to fish. A lot of his appearances try a bit too hard to show off what a rugged badass he is to the point that he may as well have a neon sign over his sign reading "Do you guys think I'm badass yet? Guys? Please?" Although comic book readers know that he's come a long way since his Super Friends incarnation, the mainstream has unfortunately yet to care or notice; you can still catch the stock "Aquaman is useless" joke from time to time.
Issue #2 is the first time that the audience gets to see the changelings use something besides direct combat. They are much more dangerous outside of a melee, using indirect attacks to divide their enemies and turn them against each other, without them even realizing that the changelings are attacking them.
Happens Slower than usual in Sonic the Comic, but brutally obvious if one re-reads the comic a bit. Amy is the most obvious example, with her transition from girly to outright dangerous Adaptational Badass and second in command of the Freedom Fighters, however Johnny Lightfoot, Shorty the Squirrel and even, to a limited extent, Porker Lewis. Johnny, Shorty and Porker began as cute, clothes-less little Mobians, and eventually gained rather badass outfits in Shorty cause his Cybernik armour, and in Johnny and Amy's case, a combat staff and a repeating crossbow.
Illyana Rasputin. Aka Magik I. Originally a normal six year old girl, she winds up ruling Limbo, which is for all intents and purposes a duplicate of Hell as a teenager. And that was in her backstory. One wonders how scary she could have been had she not been killed off in the mid-90s. And now shes back, more powerful, more manipulative and with much few morals.
Snow White, in Fables, certainly qualifies. She started out as a helpless, hunted girl, spent years as a sex slave for seven perverted dwarfs, and eventually became one of the most Badass people in a comic full of them. The first indication that the times, they were a-changin' was when she learned swordplay from her husband...and went on a Roaring Rampageof Revenge against the dwarfs, nearly setting off a human-dwarf war.
Shockwave, once a good-hearted but weak senator becomes one almost tragically when he is disfigured and his mind warped to become devoid of emotions, becoming the ruthlessly deadly cyclops we know and love.
Devastator combines this with Adaptational Badass. His debut in Transformers: All Hail Megatron established him as powerful, but Omega Supreme took him down easily. After the Constructicons get an upgrade and Prowl is brought in to forcibly replace the deceased Scrapper Devastator is even more powerful than ever defeating Superion and going toe-to-toe with Monstructor who's own debut had him tear Omega apart.