Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.
Steve Rogers: Always a way out. You know, you may not be a threat, but you'd better stop pretending to be a hero.
Tony Stark: A hero? Like you? You're a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.
"Hero" is one of those labels where the word carries such strong positive connotations that said emotional response defines the word more than its literal meaning. Someone or something referred to as a "hero" or "heroic" indicates that they have done, or are expected to do, something to be praised. But this can be very subjective. For instance, many citizens consider their police or soldiers to be "heroes", but what if the cause they're fighting for is unjust or inhumane? Some would consider overcoming some sort of trauma or shortcoming to be "heroic" (such as a rape survivor coping with what was done to them, or someone with a disability trying to succeed at something nigh impossible for them to do), although the only alternative is just to let themselves suffer. Others still may use the term "heroes" for exceptional pioneers in fields like sports, science or business even though these may be entirely selfish endeavors. Or they may use the term for a little girl who isn't Afraid of Needles.
Some of this may come down to semantics. In English, for example, the word "hero" comes from the Greek word hērōs, which means "defender" or "to protect". Japanese works may use the English term "Hero" as a loanword, but it is often translated or used interchangeably with "Yuusha" (勇者) which means "person of bravery". This in itself can create dissonance: being brave doesn't always mean protecting, and protecting doesn't always require bravery.
Common dichotomies include:
- The Cape vs The Cowl
- All-Loving Hero vs Politically Incorrect Hero
- The Chosen One vs The Unchosen One
- By-the-Book Cop vs Cowboy Cop
- Fearless Fool vs Cowardly Lion
- The Fettered vs The Unfettered
- Guile Hero vs Idiot Hero
- Humble Hero vs Glory Seeker
- The Heart vs Sociopathic Hero
- Ideal Hero vs Anti-Hero
- Idealist vs. Pragmatist
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness vs Mr. Vice Guy
- Invincible Hero vs Heroic Spirit
- Knight in Shining Armor vs Punch-Clock Hero or Knight in Sour Armor
- The Paragon vs Hero with Bad Publicity
- Small Steps Hero vs Pragmatic Hero
- Scientist vs. Soldier
- Soldier vs. Warrior
- Team Mercy vs. Team Murder
- Villain Protagonist vs Hero Antagonist
Whatever the definition, this trope comes into play when one of the themes of a work is deciding what sort of actions or character make someone a "false" hero versus those that make them a "true" hero.
This commonly overlaps with Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. May also involve Pretender Diss, To Be Lawful or Good or Villains Do The Dirty Work. Hero Does Public Service may provide a strong argument for being a "true" hero, as would a More Hero than Thou moment. Compare You're Nothing Without Your Phlebotinum. Contrast Evil Hero.
- Done very subtly in Codename: Sailor V (the series that Sailor Moon is a sequel of): Early in her career as a superhero Minako would stop crimes just to show the police off (as she finds them too arrogant), eliciting the anger of inspector Toshio Wakagi who considers Sailor V nothing but a vigilante. It's only when it turns out Minako's Chronic Hero Syndrome has led her to suppress all crime in Minato Ward (she even captured a serial Panty Thief, among bank robbers and counterfeiters) and her devotion to duty over anything else that she's revealed to be a true hero herself, though the ending points out Wakagi had a point too by having Minako take a part-time job with the police.
- Dragon Ball: Most of the main characters are martial artists and other fighters by trade who primarily fight for sport or to challenge themselves. This caused a lot of controversy when much of the dialogue was changed in the English dub to make the heroes sound a lot more like superheroes, including Goku's infamous "I am the Hope of the Universe!" speech. That said, the original manga also included many scenes where the characters state that protecting the innocent and doing the right thing is just as important to a martial artist as simply being strong, making the dilemma very inconsistent. The character most agreed upon to be heroic and courageous is Trunks, who took it upon himself to fight not for sport but to protect the people of his world and is more than willing to forego a good fight to take care of a threat immediately. Mr. Satan/Hercule is also a major character for debate (again, both In-Universe and out) because while he is cowardly in overwhelming displays of power, he is more than willing to put his life on the line to save people against more mundane threats, and will even muster the courage to do his part against a world-threatening evil when it's clear he has no other choice. For that, some consider him (despite his proclivities) to be the truest hero of the story.
- My Hero Academia: This trope is the Central Theme of the entire show, centering around Izuku Midoriya, who idolizes All Might and is chosen to be his eventual successor. In their world, Everyone Is a Super who has some sort of superpower and this has led into a social system where the most skilled and powerful of those people become known as "Heroes". However, most of these heroes are only in it for wealth, fame or glory and not all that interested in helping others or saving people. All Might and Midoriya are both held up as shining exceptions to this, and many people (even some villains) consider them to be the only "true" heroes. And maybe Shoto Todoroki.
- One-Punch Man deals with this as a bit of a Central Theme. On one hand, we have the Hero Association who respond to the various threats no one else can, but a lot of the heroes (especially in the S-Class) are more in it for fame and ego stroking than altruism. More often than not, they can be just as problematic as the villains and monsters they face, sometimes showing no mercy to the few that have given up or aren't as dangerous as they seemspoiler , and are more than willing to Shoot the Hostage if it gets the job done. On the other, there are a few, such as Genos and Mumen Rider, who genuinely want to protect people even if their power is outclassed. The protagonist, Saitama, straddles the line between the two. He is a Comically Invincible Hero, but finds it boring and only really got into heroism just to find a good fight. However, when he does see innocents in danger, he won't hesitate to fight to defend people, nor will he allow less powerful heroes who put their lives on the line be slandered by an ungrateful public, even willing to put on an act as a "Glory Hound" and be hated if it allows others the recognition they deserve.
- Time Stop Brave: Kuzuno Sekai can stop time and constantly uses this for hedonism and perversion. A few critics like Princess Clau Belltree say he is not a real hero, though Clau changed her tune when he saved her life. Fury says he is a real hero because with his power, he can get away with anything and escape from any danger, but he actively chooses to do his best to save and protect everyone.
- Following 9/11 several comic books published stories focusing on policemen, firefighters, paramedics and others who work to save other people or keep the peace. In particular, their main roster of superheroes (and some villains) actually stepped aside to praise these real-world professions in comparison to their own comparatively fantastical adventures.
- Batman: Batman is sometimes argued to be the "real" hero in the DC Universe, because he lacks the superpowers almost all of his peers have. Batman gets by on his wits, genius and skill rather than superhuman abilities. In addition, most portrayals of the character portray him as somewhere between an Unscrupulous Hero or Pragmatic Hero, who is willing and able to get his hands dirty when it comes to saving people and stopping crime. Depending on where the story or audience fall on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, this is interpreted as either as being more of a "True Hero" than those who don't need to sacrifice half as much as he does and never had to work to achieve their abilities, his Good is Not Nice characterization makes him too much of Jerkass at times to actually be a worthy hero, or his strict refusal to kill even the worst of the worst has put innocent lives at risk, which in their mind nullifies Batman's status as a "True Hero" due to not getting his hands dirty enough.
- Batman (Tom King) reveals that Batman and Superman actually consider the other to be the better hero and man. In Issue #36, Bruce and Clark are talking to Selina and Lois respectively on how they feel about the other hero as they go to meet up. Bruce mentions how while he was "fated" or "needed" to become a hero because of his tragedy, Superman does heroics because it's the right thing to do despite being an outsider with an extensive amount of power. Superman meanwhile thinks that it was his powers and healthy upbringing that meant he could become a hero easier while Bruce had to face tragedy and chose to make that tragedy into something meaningful. It also humorously deconstructs the idea since it's this respect that keeps Bruce and Clark from talking a lot and when they meet up, it's Selina and Lois who break the ice. The two had been pushing for them to talk because Bruce has not yet done the obvious; asking Clark to be his best man for his and Selina's wedding.
- The Mighty Thor: This trope is one of the main theses of Thor as a character: due to an enchantment placed on his hammer by his father, if he stops being "worthy" he will lose the ability to use the hammer and most of his powers. This premise is intricately deconstructed later, though: by whose standards must he be "worthy"? Could there be someone else even more worthy? And can he be a hero even if he fails to meet such criteria?
- Nightwing is often considered even more of a hero than Batman, as he's just as much of a Badass Normal as his former mentor while also having more people skills, thus being a more natural leader than Batman and trusted more by the general public. One of the people who believes this? Batman himself.
- Captain America: Captain America is one of the few superheroes who sometimes gets a pass when a story wants to contrast The Real Heroes with superheroes, because Steve Rogers was a World War II soldier that enlisted to fight even though his poor health would have almost guaranteed that he'd get himself killed. His bravery is thus never questioned; the issue is with his loyalty: is it with America or the world, and with the American people or its government?
- The Incredible Hercules has been the subject of a number of stories where people become disillusioned after meeting the hero in the flesh and find a simple-minded, violent, misogynist drunk instead of the hero of legend that they expect and feel that someone like Thor, The Avengers or even Spider-Man make better heroes than him. Typically, this upsets or angers Hercules, who sees himself as the original standard by which later heroes all modeled themselves.
- The Incredible Hulk: Amadeus Cho has always said that he considers Hulk to be the truest hero in the Marvel Universe, because he has the most destructive, limitless power of them all and yet he somehow manages to control himself and protect innocent people despite the fact that everyone, even his fellow heroes, misunderstand him at best or hate him at worst.
- Spider-Man: Peter Parker's human flaws, relatively modest powers, and everyday problems and responsibilities often (both in-universe and out) see him as one of the greatest heroes because he shows that anyone can become a hero. In particular, in Ultimate Spider-Man, both J. Jonah Jameson and Captain America come to see Peter as the truest hero of all because he is the one that puts saving lives above more grandiose goals and is willing to sacrifice his own safety or personal needs to help others.
- Superman: A common argument raised both in and out-of-universe is whether or not Superman can truly be considered a "hero" for many of the things he does. Superman is a massively powerful, invulnerable and practically all-seeing entity who can easily stop the vast majority of crimes or catastrophes that befall the world without any real personal risk or sacrifice. For Superman, stopping a bank robbery or stopping a derailing train aren't very "brave" or difficult feats, but they still save lives or keep order. In addition, Superman is often noted to be one of (if not the only) hero for whom no job is too large or too small; whether it's punching out a Galactic Conqueror, stopping an asteroid, Talking Down the Suicidal, or rescuing a cat from a tree, he's there to help. Although many of his heroic deeds aren't dangerous for him, he is sacrificing his time and energy to make other people's lives better.
- ''Wonder Woman: Depending on the writer, Diana is depicted as a more tactful hero than others such as Superman or Batman, because she shares similar abilities and moral character to the former, but also has the intellect and skills of the latter. In addition to this, unlike Superman or Batman, she considers herself to be a diplomat and if a crisis can be solved by extending a hand in friendship, then she'll gladly seek that option. But if the problem requires more permanent measures to be resolved, then she'll do what she must.
- The Conceptual Blacksmith of Wrought Iron: Yuki Nonaka and the rest of the Hero Tribe believes a true hero is someone who exterminates supernatural beings to defend regular humans, so she has no problem with trying to kill Mio Naruse for being part demon and a potential threat. Shirou Emiya, who is sheltering Mio, defeats Yuki and lectures her that a true hero helps and protects anyone who needs help, causing Yuki to feel self-doubt.
- Lost to Dust: All Ruby Rose wanted was to be someone who protects and saves people from the Grimm and other threats. However, Charlemagne and Bradamante constantly criticize her and say she is not a hero, just a showoff. This is mostly due to misplaced anger over the fact that their best friend Astolfo died Taking the Bullet for Ruby in the previous fic, Fates Collide, with Bradamante angrily telling Ruby You Should Have Died Instead. Ruby goes into a Heroic BSoD over their harsh words, but a pep talk from Sakamoto Ryouma makes her realize that she shouldn't care what others think of her as long as she does the right thing. Charlemagne and Bradamante are forced to reevaluate their opinion of Ruby when she defends Bradamante from an attack, with Bradamante shocked that Ruby would defend a girl who had done nothing but belittle her and wish her dead. They are shocked when Ruby says it is because it is right and what Astolfo would have done.
- Monomyth: This is discussed between Lancer and Shirou while the former is trying to kill the latter, who have very different ideas of what a hero is.
Lancer: Any last words? Like I said, I came to talk too.
Shirou: Yeah I've got some, but they've been said before. What kind of hero are you? You say I don't know much about heroes, and maybe you're right, but I know that heroes save people! They don't hunt people down and kill them for no reason! They don't do this.
Lancer: You think that's what it means to be a hero? You're living in a fantasy world. Saving lives has nothing to do with being a hero, kid, and most of the heroes I've met never have. If you want to be a good person, great, and if you want to make the world a better place, more power to you. But if you want to be a hero? You have to go beyond the threshold. (raises his spear) And that's something that you've never done.
- Reenacting a legend: Despite betraying his mentor and trying to plunge the world into war, Vali Lucifer proudly declares he and his Khaos Brigade are heroes because they are the strongest warriors who can defeat all opposition and thus prove humanity is superior to the other races. Disgusted, Shirou Emiya tells him he has a really skewed idea of what a hero is and kicks his ass. Later, when Shirou and Xenovia meet the Hero Faction, they say in disgust that they are not heroes because all they care about is beating and killing people to become famous, and resort to underhanded tactics like brainwashing followers. Out of all the Hero Faction, only Jeanne genuinely wanted to help people and she was appalled when she learned her comrades' true nature.
Shirou: That's what a hero really is. A hero isn't just someone with power capable to killing monsters. That would make them no different than your average murderer. A hero is someone who takes action when no one does! A hero is someone that brings hope when humanity is facing adversity! A hero... is someone that can defy fate itself!
- The titular character of Hercules goes into training to become a "true hero" in hopes of restoring his godhood, which was taken from him as a baby, and rejoining his birth parents Zeus and Hera on Mount Olympus. After having become a superstar and beaten a ton of monsters, Hercules thinks he must have met the requirements. Reluctantly, Zeus tells Hercules that while his accomplishments are indeed impressive and worthy of praise, these are not enough. It is not until Herc sacrifices himself to save the woman he loves from Hades are the requirements fulfilled. When he reaches Mount Olympus, Zeus says that the measure of a hero is not the strength of his arm, but the strength of his heart.
- Teen Titans Go! To the Movies: When the Teen Titans demand to know why nobody praises or acknowledges them as heroes, an annoyed Superman says it is obviously because the Titans are selfish, irresponsible, and always goof off instead of actually doing anything heroic. It takes a while, but the Titans eventually manage to step up and prove themselves by saving the world from Slade's plan to take it over, causing the Justice League to praise them as heroes.
- The Avengers (2012): The argument between Captain America and Iron Man is about this. Steve sees Tony as some rich playboy with a cool toy, while Tony sees Steve as the lucky recipient of a science experiment. Of course, the audience knows that they are both wrong; Steve was chosen for the Super-Soldier serum because of his unending desire to do good, while Tony became a hero when he decided to clean up the mistakes that he and people like him had made. By the end of the movie, they've both realized this. Tony trusts Steve to give the orders in the final battle, and Steve trusts Tony to do the right thing when the chips are down.
- In Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane gives a poignant speech about what it means to be a hero. It's not glamorous, it's not rewarding, it's painful, and frightening, and nobody wants it, but that's not why you do it:
McClane: Do you know what you get for being a hero? Nothing. You get shot at. Pat on the back, blah blah blah. "Attaboy." You get divorced... Your wife can't remember your last name, kids don't want to talk to you... You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me, kid, nobody wants to be that guy. I do this, because there is nobody else to do it right now. Believe me, if there was somebody else to do it, I would let them do it. There’s not, so I'm doing it.
Matt Farrell: That's what makes you that guy.
- A Certain Magical Index: Touma Kamijou doesn't really care what anyone thinks of him and he has a few critics, but several characters like Accelerator think he is the best hero. He is completely humble and he helps and saves everybody, no matter who they are or what they have done, never ignoring them like many of the other characters do. Queen Elizard notes that while the saints of old would slay dragons to save innocents, Touma is the type who would save the people and the dragon.
- The Hero is Overpowered but Overly Cautious: Observers constantly question how much a "hero" Seiya is, with his tactless demeanor, unwillingness to fight "fairly", and desire to be overly-prepared for any eventuality. Princess Rosalie at one point even states that Seiya is unworthy of the definition of "Yuusha"note because it means "brave person", which could only barely describe Seiya and describes people like her father. For the most part, however, the series justifies Seiya's form of heroism and proves his methods to be correct more often than not. As the story continues, it is revealed that Seiya is a Deconstruction of the "person of bravery" Hero and a Reconstruction of the "protector" Hero.
- I Couldn't Become a Hero, So I Reluctantly Decided to Get a Job: This trope is the plot's Central Theme, taking place in the years following the defeat of the Demon Lord by an unknown party (leaving thousands of Heroes out of a job — including the protagonist Raul). Raul gets a job at a department store and tries to eke out a modest but unfulfilling life. However, several of Raul's fellow former Heroes can't cope with a world that has no need for Heroes and try to reignite the war so that they can be Heroes again. They try to sway Raul to their side, but he refuses, saying that their goals are not what true Heroes should fight for.
- Record of Lodoss War: Parn is the son of a disgraced knight who desperately wants to become a knight and reclaim his father's honor. He is unfortunately talentless and far too headstrong to be the hero he wants to be, seeing the world in stark black and white. It isn't until he lets go of these tendencies and become wiser that he's finally able to become the "Free Knight" who becomes famous for traveling the world righting wrongs.
- The Rising of the Shield Hero:
- Naofumi Iwatani was summoned into another world in order to serve as one of its Four Cardinal Heroes, destined to save the world from catastrophic Waves of Calamity. Three of these heroes fit perfectly into the standard Stock Light-Novel Hero archetype and remark that this new world is similar to an RPG they've played in the past. These three heroes are also worshipped by the populace as demigods and have powerful divine weapons to back it up. Naofumi, on the other hand, is the only one of the four who is unfamiliar with the game in question and is given a very weak shield as his divine weapon. These reasons, as well as various inherent prejudices within the world, make him the target of ridicule and hatred by the people, especially after he is framed for several crimes. This horrific experience turns Naofumi into a bitter, cynical person who commits several acts of questionable morality while trying to make himself strong enough to help fight the waves. However, over time, his struggles and turmoil give him a greater understanding of how the new world works and it turns out that the other heroes haven't been taking their quest seriously because they think they're in a game. In addition, Naofumi's cynical pragmatism lets him see through the lies of many of the story's villains and see the world's bright exterior for what it truly is. In time, several characters remark that of all of the "heroes" summoned, only Naofumi has truly lived up to the title.
- When Kizuna finds out that her friends have been trying to wipe out another world's heroes in a misguided attempt to save their world, she scolds them and says real heroes save everyone and what they should have done was work together with the other heroes to solve the problem.
- Lampshaded and discussed regarding the Doctor in Doctor Who. The main character doesn't always think of himself as a hero, just a person in a box who does the best they can. That being said, the number of lives the Doctor has saved just by doing the best they can is literally incaculable.
The Doctor: "I am not a good man! I am not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I'm definitely not a president. And no, I'm not an officer. Do you know what I am? I am an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning. I don't need an army. I never have, because I've got themnote . Always them."
- BIONICLE has the concept of heroes as a Central Theme, something made clear when a squad of Matoran became the Toa Inika/Mahri. Previously, they where captain guardsmen (Jaller, Kongu) pro-athletes (Hahli, Hewkii) an engineer (Nuparu), and an interpreter (Matoro), the last of which felt greatly under-qualified to be a Toa. However, when he was the one called upon to make the Heroic Sacrifice necessary to resuscitate Mata Nui, he did so without fear or complaint, his only insistence being to make sure the others were sent home safely. Said heroes declared that while he was not the mightiest Toa, he truly was the greatest.
Jaller: Because anything you are asked to do — even if it's hard, or painful, or you hate having to do it — you get done. Look, Matoro, back on Voya Nui you once questioned your worth to the team because you aren't a warrior. But being a Toa isn't about who's strongest or toughest or has the best mask power. It's about spirit. And by that measure, you are a great Toa.
- BlazBlue: One major theme for Jin Kisaragi is that he didn't feel he rightfully earned his "Hero of Ikaruga" title, because he discovered the dirty workings behind the Ikaruga Civil War — especially with the fact that one of the villains, Hazama, deliberately set things up so Jin can be the "figurehead" for the NOL's military that he can manipulate. This (among other things) makes him cynical and cold, but his Character Development in the second game makes him realize what being a real hero really means, and from then on he sets off to follow and uphold his ideals.
- Chrono Trigger: Frog (a.k.a. Glenn) is a wandering swordsman in the Middle Ages who mostly lives in solitude but comes to rescue the Queen, whereupon he meets the party. As the war against Magus's forces turns badly, a Legendary Hero appears whom legends say is destined to defeat Magus. The party tracks him down searching for the other item the Hero needs, the Masamune, but finds that he's just a cowardly little boy who happened to find the legendary Hero's Badge and had everyone calling him the Legendary Hero for having it. It turns out that the person truly meant to wield the Badge and Masamune is Frog, who ran away after watching his best friend Cyrus try and fail to defeat Magus wielding both and was turned into his Frog form by Magus himself afterward. Frog finally overcomes his fear and takes both items into his possession, helping Crono and his party defeat Magus — which is only the beginning of a much deeper quest.
- Metal Gear: One of the major themes of the franchise is that there are no "heroes" in war: only different sides. Today's allies may be tomorrow's enemies and vice-versa, and things are rarely as black-and-white as they seem. That said, The Boss is held up by almost everyone within the narrative as being the closest thing, with the words "true patriot" being used to describe her, after she gave up everything—her happiness, her unit, her good name, her family, and ultimately even her life—for her country. Even decades later, people are still trying to fulfill what they believe were her ultimate wishes simply because they held that much respect for the woman.
- Wandersong: The story has Audrey who was chosen by fate. A major theme is the player character, a bard and Friend to All Living Things, questioning who the real hero is.
- Fate/stay night explores the concept of being a hero and what it means to save people. Shirou Emiya, the protagonist, wants to carry on his adoptive father's dream of becoming an "ally of justice" that saves anyone he can—however, in the game's three routes, he's forced to examine how he can achieve this. The Fate route plays it straight, with him finding kinship in Saber's wish to save others; Unlimited Blade Works challenges the notion with Archer, who did try saving everybody and was satisfied with his work by the end of his life, but when he became a Counter Guardian was forced to confront that not everyone can be saved. Emiya learns that he can save who he can, and that the act of heroism is a flawed but beautiful ideal to pursue. Finally, Heaven's Feel looks at it from a more personal perspective: if being a hero means you have to indiscriminately save people, even when you have biases like friends and loved ones that you naturally want to save first, can you call yourself a true hero for wanting to put their well-being before others? This becomes especially muddied when Shirou's love interest in that route, Sakura Matou, is equal parts a victim who fights off the urge to want to be saved and one of the sources of conflict, as she is a vessel for the Holy Grail and the host of The Shadow going around and killing people while she's unconscious. Ultimately, his need to be somebody who saves was born from an extreme case of Survivor's Guilt, as he felt he needed to justify his existence by helping as many people as he can or die trying. The true conflict in his mind is reconciling that he doesn't need to sacrifice his personal happiness with others to make a difference in people's lives.
- When Team RWBY goes on an expedition with Professor Oobleck, Weiss, Blake and Yang wonder why they received Armor Piercing Questions on why they chose to become Huntresses when Ruby hasn't. Upon reflecting on their own motives for signing up (Weiss and Blake did so in misguided efforts to find personal justice, Yang was in it for the thrills), they realize that Ruby was the only one of them to have the right motivation: a desire to fight for those in need.
- The Cocoon Academy arc of Brawl in the Family contains a moment Dedede and Pinky asked their respective teachers what being a hero actually meant. Dedede's teacher, Mr. Dragmire, believes it to be about ambition, the strength of will to overcome any challenge in pursuit of your goals. Pinky's teacher, Prof. Oak, believes to be about sacrifice, the willingness to give all of yourself for The Needs of the Many. Dedede becomes far more confident than ever, whereas Pinky starts to second-guess himself. The sudden attack of Dark Matter proves the value in both qualities: Dedede ambitiously leads the other students to fight back against its forces, while Pinky is the one to throw himself directly at Dark Matter and deal the finishing blow. Years later, Mr. Dragmire (aka Ganondorf) and his students became Fallen Heroes, with Dedede himself becoming the self-absorbed King Dedede, while Pinky, despite exposure to Dark Matter leaving him disfigured and robbed of his inhaling power, became the grim yet valiant Meta Knight.
- The Non-Adventures of Wonderella has this exchange between the title character and a police officer:
Officer: You know, some super heroes go unnoticed: firemen, the police force, military personnel, even teachers. They may not win accolades, but every one gives their heart and soul making this world a better place. In their own way, they are the real "super heroes".
Wonderella: Nope! It's just me.
Wonderella: I have a cape!
- Captain Planet and the Planeteers: In "Rain of Terror", Ma-Ti, despising how small and relatively weak he is, decides to sit out the latest mission, claiming he'd only get in the others' way. Skumm captures the four older Planeteers and seals them in a Gas Chamber, leading Ma-Ti to decide he has to return, no matter what. Although Captain Planet deals with Skumm's latest scheme as usual, he declares that Ma-Ti, who overcame his fear and self-doubt to save his teammates, is the "real hero."
- DuckTales (1987): In the episode "Where No Duck has Gone Before", the triplets and their friend Doofus are major fans of a Sci-Fi show called Courage of the Cosmos. Circumstances lead to them meeting the main actor, and they're ecstatic, fawning over and hero-worshiping him despite Launchpad's objections that his derring-do isn't real and that legitimate heroes do their thing without cameras. Then Gyro's revamped sets for the show accidentally send the boys, Courage, and Launchpad on a trip through outer space. "Courage" reveals himself as a coward and Launchpad shows himself a hero in reality, not just in acting.
Real heroes just do their jobs!
- In the 2017 reboot's episode "The Duck Knight Returns!", Launchpad himself goes through a similar situation with Jim Starling, the actor who played Darkwing Duck, who he enlists to help bring some of the old show's spirit to a Darker and Edgier movie reboot of the show. Turns out Starling, much like Courage, is an Attention Whore who thinks about himself first and only, actually likes the Darker and Edgier direction of the film, and only agreed to Launchpad's plan to get his star-making role back, while the actor playing the part of Darkwing for the movie, Drake Mallard, is a fan of the original series trying to inspire kids with the role like the original show did with him, and goes on to become Darkwing Duck for real while Starling becomes Negaduck.
- Family Guy of all shows touches upon this concept in "A Hero Sits Next Door", in which paraplegic policeman Joe Swanson earns everyone's admiration, leaving Peter jealous. When Peter's own efforts to foil a bank robbery and prove himself a hero go south, his family cheers him up by saying that even if he can't do amazing things, all the little things he does for them makes him their hero, and that's good enough. (Enough for Peter to blow off a little old lady who was just robbed)
- While the exact terminology is "man" as opposed to "hero", the Gravity Falls episode "Dipper vs. Manliness" explores this when Dipper, a wimpy tween who's In Touch with His Feminine Side, desires to become a real man. A sect of overly macho minotaurs give him a quest to earn the coveted title of "manly", which culminates in slaying the Multi-Bear. Said creature turns out to be not only harmless, but a kindred spirit to Dipper, who promptly refuses the quest, even when told that he'll never be a real man. Thankfully, Grunkle Stan tells him that standing up for what he knew was right against popular opinion was pretty manly.
- This is parodied on The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy when Grim complains about how much the term "hero" has fallen into overuse note , and takes Billy back in time to show him what a true hero is, upon which Hoss Delgado's Identical Ancestor trains him to slay a dragon. Billy ends up befriending the (wimpy, friendly) dragon instead, and defends him from Boss, upon which the dragon proclaims Billy to be a real hero, even if Grim and Mandy aren't entirely convinced.
- Justice League, in the Unlimited episode, "Patriot Act", General Eiling is still distrustful of the League despite all the events of the previous season's Cadmus arc showing to the contrary. Despite Waller telling him to drop it, he decides to break into a former Cadamus lab and inject himself with a super serum, turning himself into a monster. He ends up attacking a parade that a few d-list heroes (Green Arrow, S.T.R.I.P.E., Stargirl, Shining Knight, Vigilante, Speedy, and Crimson Avenger) are overseeing while the other heroes are busy with a space mission. Eiling was hoping to fight Superman but decide they'll do, going on and on how meta-humans are a threat to the U.S. despite the irony that the people he's fighting aren't superpowered, just normal humans who use technology or normal weapons to fight. He beats them, but before he can finish them, the crowd rally and stand in his way, pointing out Eiling's hypocrisy of protecting people when he's the one with the powers, causing trouble and hiding behind the excuse of patriotism while those he defeated had no powers and fought to the bitter end to protect others despite being outclassed, showing their worth as true heroes.
- Aki Light, a.k.a. Mega Man, brings this question up in the opening narration of Mega Man: Fully Charged, and later explores it more thoroughly during "I.C.E. (In Case Of Emergency)" when his Power Copying gives him Ice Man's Literal-Minded problem, where Suna reminds him that he (as Mega Man) is a hero because he helps people because it's the right thing to do, and that "a hero does what's right because they can", and goes on to argue this point with Ice Man, who believes that heroes stop criminals regardless of the cost.
Aki: "What makes a hero? Someone who defends the helpless. Someone who fights for unity. Someone who stands for justice. Someone who defends humans and robots alike. Someone like... Mega Man!"
- The Simpsons: In the episode "Radioactive Man", Milhouse brings the filming of The Movie of the titular comic book hero to a grinding halt when he runs away, completely fed up with being forced to be an actor. When Bart finally finds him, Milhouse makes a speech about how he thinks fictional heroes are overrated and people like paramedics are true heroes. The concept of this trope then is immediately mocked by Bart, who calls them all losers because bad things keep happening and if you want real results you need the Schwarzeneggers, the Stallones and in a lesser measure the Van Dammes.
- Superman: The Animated Series: In the second season finale, Darkseid begins his invasion of Earth and starts by defeating Superman and parading him through the streets of Metropolis believing that this will cow humanity into submission. Instead, Dan Turpin tells Darkseid to stuff it and rallies the ordinary citizens into fighting back against Apokolips's forces. Turpin also frees Superman from his captivity, giving the superhero a Heroic Second Wind to hold off Darkseid long enough for the forces of New Genesis to arrive and declare Earth under their protection. Darkseid retreats back to Apokolips, but before leaving, kills Dan Turpin out of spite. At Turpin's funeral, both Superman and Turpin's tombstone acknowledge him as the true hero Earth needed all along.