"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 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". In Japanese, "hero" may be used as a loanword, but it is often 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
- Guile Hero vs Idiot Hero
- Humble Hero vs Glory Seeker
- The Heart vs Sociopathic Hero
- Ideal Hero vs Anti-Hero
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness vs Mr. Vice Guy
- Invincible Hero vs Heroic Spirit
- Knight in Shining Armor vs Punch-Clock Hero
- The Paragon vs Hero with Bad Publicity
- Small Steps Hero vs Pragmatic Hero
- Scientist vs. Soldier
- Soldier vs. Warrior
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 S-Class Rank) 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 Muman Rider who genuinely want to protect people even if their power is outclassed. The main protagonist, Saitama, straddles the line between the two. He has invincible power 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. To many, this resonates 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.
- Captain America: Captain America is one of the few superheres 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: 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.
- 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 fell 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- Batman (Rebirth) reveals that Batman and Superman actually consider the other the better hero and man. In Issue 36#, Bruce and Clark are talking to Selina and Lois respectably on how they feel in regards to 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 despire being an outsider.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 sice 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 since Bruce has not yet done the obvious, asking Clark to be his best man.
- Hercules: The titular character goes into training to become a true hero in hopes of rejoining his birth parents Zeus and Hera. After having become a superstar and beaten a ton of monsters, Hercules thinks he must have met the requirements. Reluctantly, Zeus tells him that while his accomplishments are impressive and they're proud of him, he hasn't yet become a true hero. Not until Herc sacrifices himself to save the woman he loves from Hades are the requirements fulfilled.
- BIONICLE has the concept of heroes as its 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 (aka 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 track him down searching for the other item the Hero needs, the Masamune, but find 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. 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 tomorrows enemies and vice-versa, and things are rarely as black-and-white as they seem.
- Wandersong: The story has Audrey, a Designated Hero chosen by fate. A major theme is the player character, a bard and Friend to All Living Things, questioning who the real hero is.
- 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 wasn't. Upon reflecting on their own motives for singing up (Weiss and Blake did so 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.
- 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.
- 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 an old lady who was 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 (Billy proves his point when proclaiming Irwin, Harold, and Skarr heroes for overcoming his "special problem", cramming down several pizzas without puking, and popping an enormous pimple on his back, respectively), 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 Hoss, upon which the dragon proclaims Billy to be a real hero, even if Grim and Mandy aren't entirely convinced.
- Superman: The Animated Series: In the first 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.