Stevie Wonder began his career as Little Stevie Wonder, recording undistinguished albums of soul and big band covers under the creative control of Berry Gordy's Motown. At the age of 21, he threatened to quit the company unless he was allowed to do things his own way. Motown gave in, and Stevie Wonder went on to record a string of innovative albums that made him one of the key stars of the 1970s.
Aron Ralston, upon whom 127 Hours is based. He spent three days with his arm trapped under a boulder, dying, then chopped his own arm off and legged it. He survived, obviously.
Audie Murphy, first when a German machine gun nest pretended to surrender then killed his friend. He killed them, captured the machine gun and several grenades and turned them on the Germans, destroying anything wearing the wrong uniform, then shut down completely. His biggest distinction was his Medal of Honour incident, where the tank destroyers supporting his company were almost completely wiped out, so when he ran out of ammunition in his M1 Carbine, he jumped on a burning tank destroyer and kept firing its turret mounted machine gun until it overheated and stopped working.
On top of all that, remember that he had malaria for most of the war!
Many of the most famous of war heroes come from rather humble beginnings. Simo Häyhä spent his life before the Winter War farming and hunting and started military service in a militia. Eddie Rickenbacker was the son of Swiss immigrants who was only educated until the age of 13 and nearly died in several varied accidents. Michael Wittmann was the son of a farmer and began his military service as a private.
Niki Lauda. Just being a driver in Formula One during the seventies required a fair amount of badassery given the dangers involved with the sport (an average of two drivers killed or badly wounded per season). Within the measures of the sport, however, he was less daring than most other drivers and relied heavily on preparation and optimizing his car to minimize the risks. In 1976 he crashed at the Nürburgring track (having previously tried to get the race cancelled because of the risks involved) and was caught in his burning car for over a minute, receiving severe burns and damages to his lungs due to inhaling toxic fumes. His injuries were so bad that his wife brought in a priest to administer Last Rites. Lauda was back on the tracks a mere six weeks after the crash, very nearly won the championship that year and went on to win the following year. The man is a living legend for a reason.
Fred Ettish, a karate instructor, was totally and humiliatingly curb-stomped in 1994 in UFC 2. He returns to CFX-Gladiator Evolution, 15 years later, then 53 years old, and proceeds to demolish his opponent, who was almost 30 years younger than him. This naturally makes him a Badass Grandpa.
Henry Rollins used to be a scrawny, bullied kid. In the tenth grade, he bought a weight set, hospitalized one of those bullies, and grew up to be a lot of things.
Countries (and their militaries)
Genghis Khan and the Mongols. He started off his "career" as a vassal to one of his father's friends, the tribes largely fractured and nomadic. By the end of his life he was the leader of a mighty, united Mongol Empire, becoming the scourge of the known world. His hordes carved out conquests that stretched from Siberia to Italy.
Portugal was this, back during the Age of Discoveries. They basically had to go into this direction. In the North and East, there was Castille, waiting for a reason to invade. In the South, Portugal conquered Ceuta, just a little fort no one cared about. They did, however, discover a few little islands, and decided to explore more of the African coast. And the rest is history.
The Continental Army at Valley Forge. Marching in from a nasty defeat at Brandywine which cost the fledgling United States its capital, they wintered at Valley Forge, one of the geographically worst sites in the State of Pennsylvania to camp an army through the winter. There they trained under Von Steuben, a Prussian veteran, who ensured that by spring they could face the British Redcoats on nearly equal terms.
The Kingdom of Prussia. What started out as merely one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire went and unified Germany by 1870.
Canada in World War I. Before entering, Canada was just some British colony overseas that no one really knew about. Afterwards, by the end of the war, German soldiers knew that if there were Canadian soldiers placed, they better prepare for an offensive attack.
During the war, the Germans referred to Canadian forces as Storm Troopers, the name used by Germany's own elite assault troops, who are responsible for pushing the Western front back to the position attained in 1914.
Their army had one during the Great War. While its standing army was one of the most professional forces the isles have ever produced, it was miniscule. However, with a mass recruitment drive and a realization that the Royal Navy could not end the war quickly, the Army turned from a highly-drilled minnow to a juggernaut that equaled the French and German Armies - and, more than that, for all the talk of "lions led by donkeys", it was the British Army that most enthusiastically adopted the new technologies and concepts that WWI necessitated. By 1918, the tiny British Expeditionary Force had metastasized into the world's most mechanized army and the world's largest air force.
Similarly, the US military took a level around this time. Having learned valuable lessons from the Spanish-American War, the Americans worked hard at improving the logistical capability of their Navy, including performing maintenance while underway that previously had to be done in port, meaning the US Navy spent far less of its time in port than most other navies of the time, including a squadron of destroyers sailing across the Atlantic and reporting for patrol duty the day after their arrival in Ireland.
Meanwhile, the US Army underwent a massive expansion program for the war, including effectively building an air combat branch from scratch. Before WWI, the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps, had no fighters or bombers, and only a handful of planes and pilots. With the outbreak of the war, a rapid expansion plan was put into action, which included receiving equipment and training from the British and French (of the first four American fighter squadrons, two started with Canadian commanders, and the other two filled their ranks with veterans from the LaFayette Escadrille). By the end of the war, the newly formed US Army Air Service had nearly 80,000 men, 740 planes, 35 balloon companies, and 71 Ace Pilots.
Then America took another one during World War II. Before the war, Denmark had a larger standing army than the USA. Then America split the atom, and from there, became one of the two superpowers that would define the rest of the 20th century. (Technically, America actually harnessed the explosive power of splitting the atom. The first actual atom split was accomplished by a New-Zealand-born Brit, Ernest Rutherford.)
The Supreme Court took its level with Marbury v. Madison. It went from being the least powerful branch of the U.S. government to being able to nullify the actions of any of the other two (due to vagueness of the Constitution). Having a Chessmaster in John Marshall as a Chief Justice didn't hurt either.
The Soviet Union in 1943. Before this time, it had a heavily outdated army devastated by internal strife, a populace that was uneducated and starving and a drought of scientific and technological progress. Hitler's armed forces almost destroyed the Soviet military, but after numerous counter-attacks (the most famous being Stalingrad) and a handy Russian Winter, the Soviets steam-rolled and conquered the Germans and invaded Japanese-held Manchuria. After that, they became a scientific, economic and military superpower, for a long time the only one capable of competing with the United States and the first nation to send a man into space.
Japan, 1850-2000: A fractious, feudal archipelago that had closed itself off from most of the world and known no war for 300 years, very likely to be merely the next target for colonialisation by the western superpowers; while known from some European sources from centuries prior for apparently having tons of gold, no one except their select few trading partners knew what really went on, and besides, for the longest time it had been overshadowed by its giant neighbor (and by that time, the newly designated-Chew Toy-of-the-western-powers-of-the-week) China. Then Matthew Perry crashed in with his giant, towering black ships billowing smoke, and the little country, seeing how behind they were, and also the once grand China's downward spiral into chaos at the hands of western powers, it scoured the world, pretty much modernised everything it can, and became a great power, being able to treat on equal terms with the likes of the United Kingdom, the French Empire, the German Empire, and the United States. It also managed to send Russia into civil war by winning a war against it, and leveraged its power into an empire of its own in the Pacific and parts of mainland Asia, becoming a highly militaristic society, the resulting army notorious for its extreme brutality and ruthlessness, and when others criticized it for its expansionism, it decided to literally walk out of the League of Nations. Even after losing in WWII, Japan goes from an economy and country in shambles which had quite literally been burned to the ground to an industrial and technological power-house that dominated the computer and car-manufacturing industry. Also, for a long time, it was the one of the very few, if not the only, First World countries not predominantly Caucasian. And as of 2014, while going through a long period of recession, it is still the third biggest economic superpower; a far cry from the backward, isolated, and unknown archipelago it was a mere 150 years ago.
South Korea. In its formation, it was a small weak nation that got stomped by its Northern brother, having previously been occupied and exploited by the aforementioned Japanese Empire; for a long time it was actually a backwater on par with many African countries, and a desolate landscape, torn by war and little in the form of stability. It was only thanks to the United States that it didn't get fully taken over by the North in the Korean War. But then, said Americans trained the Southern soldiers, and soon, they became absolute killing machines. By the time of the Vietnam War, its soldiers were admired by everyone, American, South Vietnamese, ANZAC, North Vietnamese, and Vietcong alike, for their ruthless efficiency and sheer badassery, having thought to have killed more than even the much more numerous Americans, and their marines especially were The Dreaded for all the Vietcong and NVA, known for small units made up of One Man Armies capable to killing thousands with little casualties and literally chopping their enemies to death in melee combat with their bare hands. While it was still a backwater. From this war and aid from the United States, it rapidly modernized, becoming one of the "Four Asian Tigers" by the early 80s. Also, through sheer persistence, common citizens continued to resist the onslaught of dictators that again and again to subdue them until they were finally given democracy in the late 80s. Today it's an economic powerhouse, with an advanced standing army (that all men of age are required to join, with a decent amount of women also there in recent years; dodging the draft will get you ostracized for the rest of your life) that outclasses the outdated and poorly equipped North Korean army.
China, though this is more one preceded by a massive fall from grace. The country was prosperous for much of its history, as the local neighborhood boss of Eastern Asia and keeper of the hegemony, inventor of half the things in all of existence, admired by even far-off European countries, considering all around it mere barbarians compared to the majesty of the kingdom that stood at the center of all (hence "Middle Kingdom")... Then the British sold them boatloads of opium. And from there everythingabsolutely went to shit. By the late 19th century, it was the Chew Toy of the west, as well as previously friendly neighbor Japan, its population weak, traumatized, drugged, or all of the above, and by the early-mid 20th century it had become one big warzone as Japan continued on its warpath across the country, pillaging what was left of it. When Mao Tse-tung/Zedong took power with his take on Communism (after yet another 3 years of civil war that erupted almost immediately after Japan relinquished control) in the late 40's, it only served to somehow make things even worse. However, after the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping, climbing out of a dark abyss of almost 150 years of chaos, invasions, exploitation, natural disasters, chaos, disease, famine, civil war, and more chaos that would kill any normal country, in a mere 40 years or so it has once again become a global power that many believe even rivals, and may overtake, the USA. However, it's also thought that it pales in comparison to the glory that was Imperial China in some ways (i.e., Qing China used to make up a third of the world's GDP, now it's less than half that), and with its unstable economy, impending water crisis, exodus of millionaires and talent to other countries, and high amounts of corruption, it's unknown what awaits it in the long-term future.
Wild animals in general start out as tiny and very weak babies, only for them to grow up (if they survive long enough) and have things like venom, razor-sharp claws and teeth, horns, antlers, tusks, fast speed, huge strength etc. You could say the same about humanity, for that matter.
Sharks. For a long time in their history, sharks were the butt monkeys for all manner of nastier sea creatures. Sure, they were capable predators and numerous, but giant placoderms and mososaurs and bigger fish made life for them hell. That all changed after the KT Extinction Event. Sharks filled in the gaps left behind by the now-extinct aquatic predators and exploded into numerous variant species, living in every possible environment in the ocean, and becoming its top predators in many of those environments. It was only after the evolution of large toothed whales and dolphins like the sperm whale and orca that sharks had real competitors.
Speaking of evolution, everyone knows how badass Tyrannosaurus rex is, but not many people know that tyrannosaurs are coelurosaurs, NOT carnosaurs. In the Jurassic period, coelurosaurs were small, fluffy, and must have actually looked quite cute (Sinosauropteryx, the first known coelurosaur found with protofeathers, would be a good example.), but were Overshadowed by Awesome in the form of carnosaurs, spinosaurs, etc. However, come the Cretaceous period, the large meat-eaters of the Jurassic became old hat, and as they went into a decline, this left coelurosaurs with less competition. As you can imagine, SOMEONE *coughDilongcough* eventually thought it would be a good idea to crank the more advanced qualities of coelurosaurs Up to Eleven and take over the unoccupied apex predator spot that the carnosaurs had left behind, and history was made.
And speaking of dinosaurs, the T-Rex's bitter rival (at least on-screen) Triceratops was the end product of a long line of ceratopsian evolution that had rather humble origins. The very first ceratopsians were quite small, mostly ranging from dog to pig-sized. Some of them were truly strange, such as the bipedal Yinlong and the possibly amphibious Koreaceratops (This is a relatively recent discovery, so this may subject to change). However, towards the end of the Cretaceous period, the more recognizable four-legged, multiple large horned dinosaurs such as Triceratops, Torosaurus and Styracosaurus began to appear (though the bipedal line was still running around around the same time as their bigger, four-legged cousins). They and hadrosaurs had largely replaced the North American and Asian sauropod dinosaurs, much as the carnosaurs had largely been replaced by tyrannosaurs and dromaeosaurs in the same areas.
This applies to mammals as well. In the Mesozoic Era, the best they could really do was prey on young dinosaurs and other reptiles, and most of them were tiny, harmless critters that adapted to being nocturnal because of the intense competition. Their ancestors, the Synapsids, were fairly successful during the Permian period, but after the massive extinction that happened at the end made them into what could be called "The Chew Toy" of the animal kingdom. But, when the non-avian dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles kicked the bucket and ushered in the Cenozoic era, the mammals outcompeted every other vertebrate and became the dominant clade in the entire freakin' world.
Military training is designed to help recruits Take a Level in Badass via Training from Hell.
For diseases, the Shingles virus. Remember the Chicken Pox you had as a kid, the disease that probably didn't do anything besides make your skin splotchy and make you itch like an idiot for a few days? Well, it remembers you, and as an adult, it can come back, donning a new name and the ability to effectively light your skin on fire from the inside.
Two plants in the nightshade family got this after the Spanish explorations of the New World; the tomato and the potato. Both species of plant were relatively geographically isolated. The potato did not exist outside of what would be Peru and Bolivia, and the tomato was a part of the Aztec diet in Mexico. When the Conquistadores found them, they brought them to Europe, where both plants' popularity exploded. Try to imagine a world without potato chips, french fries, tomato sauce, barbecue sauce, sun-dried tomatoes or potato cannons! The potato in particular was especially important to the industrializing Europe, as the crop's heartiness and relatively cheap price kept millions in Ireland from starving (and did starve millions when a fungus caused the Potato Famine), fed millions more throughout Europe and was among the first crops grown in Europe's African and American colonies. It grew so popular that the potato became a subject of intense admiration. Marie Antoinette even wore a headdress made of potato flowers in appreciation of spuds everywhere. When the poster lady for the Ermine Cape Effect wears your reproductive organs as a hat, you know you've made it.
Similarly, chocolate's badassery went up a notch. Twice in its history. Originally, it was just a bitter drink enjoyed only by the cultures of Mesoamerica. After the Spanish conquered that region, they exported it back to Spain, where it became a sensation in the royal court, from there becoming a popular beverage for the well-to-do. But chocolate as we know it today didn't arrive until the Industrial Revolution, where a series of innovations culminating with the invention of milk chocolate by Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle in 1875 made it the mass-market product we know and love today. Now, chocolate comes in hundreds of different packages and variations. From cakes to candy bars, cookies to fruit coating and drinks both warm and cold. It's used to express love for your significant other, a treat for your kids, a gift of friendship and holds a significance in almost every major Western holiday from Valentines Day to Christmas and a staple all over the world.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and America's space program overall. Constantly lagging behind the Soviets in launching the first satellite, first mammal, first man, and first woman in space; it got so desperate President Kennedy brashly declared the United States would put a man on the moon first. The first official mission in this brash project, the Apollo program, saw the deaths of three astronauts on the launchpad. From such an abysmal low point, America succeeded in launching the first humans to actually enter deep space, rather than high orbit (Apollo 8), the first docking and undocking of space craft in lunar orbit (Apollos 9 & 10) and the fulfilled President Kennedy's declaration of putting a man on another celestial body (Apollo 11). Such was the badass of America's program that they even pulled off the successful return of astronauts after an explosion in space (Apollo 13).
But that's not the true level up. Not satisfied with beating their Russian rivals to the Moon, America then designs the first true spaceship (as opposed to one-off craft), the space shuttle, and among other moments of awesome including the Viking programs and the Mars rover, launched the first man-made object to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space. Took a Level In Awesome, indeed.
xkcd took a level in badass IRL when Bill Amend drew a guest comic for it. A well known, high profile artist drawing for YOUR webcomic gives you prestige +9000.
From an acting standpoint, anyone who goes from being a supporting actor to a leading man or lady is considered to have taken a level in badass.