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Doomed Moral Victor

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"The tyrant dies, his rule ends. The martyr dies, and his rule begins."
Søren Kierkegaard, Journals

A villain, often an Evil Overlord with 0% Approval Rating, harms the hero or their people who are not nearly as high ranking and powerful. Despite being hopelessly outmatched, the brave hero strikes back and wins some battles through cleverness, willpower, and sheer charisma.

Ultimately though, our hero gets the worst of it in a very nasty way and finally bites the dust, Defiant to the End, with fighting spirit and charisma intact, if nothing else. The hero will show this through shouting or growling a lofty "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner or by dying calmly and full of dignity. In fact, the moment itself can be a Moment of Awesome in the hands of the right sort of hero.

A cynical viewer may wonder why the hero dying a miserable death after losing everything they ever had would encourage anyone to get on this villain's bad side, but the oppressed masses are animated by the notion that no matter how intimidating the opponent is, it's still possible to resist. These rebels sometimes lose too, which makes them all Doomed Moral Victors. Either that or a lot of people just liked this person, and now they're really pissed. There's also You Cannot Kill An Idea; true, the hero themselves might be dead, but the brave and inspirational way they met their end will ensure their example and ideas will continue to be passed on to others.

Not to mention that the hero will be reunited with their loved ones in the afterlife (provided the setting has one, of course), while the villain will never see them again.

This is heavily reliant on, as J. R. R. Tolkien called it, the "Theory of Courage," the idea present in older iterations of Norse Mythology that despite the foreknowledge or likelihood of failure, one must press on to do the moral thing for no better reason than the fact that you should.

A non-violent Doomed Moral Victor is someone who does Turn the Other Cheek and gets killed for it.

See Tragic Hero for a failing hero whose fate is their own fault. Inspirational Martyr is a subtrope - they aren't just doomed moral victors, they also swerve people to their cause. Contrast Tragic Dream, which in this case would mean that the DMV simply can never get the people on his side for one reason or another. When this trope is defied by the villain, see Don't Create a Martyr. See also Determined Defeatist, As Long as There Is One Man, My Death Is Just the Beginning, Evil Cannot Comprehend Good, Last Stand and Defiant Stone Throw. Often relies on inspiring Sympathy for the Hero.

As this is sometimes a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Happens at least twice in Fist of the North Star, and used as a Tear Jerker both times. Shuu dies after being forced to complete Souther's pyramid to protect his village, and Fudoh's heroic final stand against Raoh.
    "My body may die; I may be reduced to but a single drop of blood. But those with Kenshiro's courage will rise time and again to face you; while you, Raoh, will live for the rest of your life but a mere terrified coward!!"
    • Rei's death as well. His injuries at the hands of Raoh leave him with three days before dying horribly, which he uses to hunt down and kill his sworn enemy and Screw Destiny for Mamiya, before wandering off to die alone so no one will see the carnage.
  • Also happens in Basilisk, where Oboro can only free herself from her role as an Unwitting Pawn by killing herself rather than her major rival and love interest.
  • Franz from Gankutsuou, who secretly takes Albert's place in the duel with the Count. He knows very well that it's impossible for him to win, but he still goes through with it and tries his hardest to fight. He dies a very painful and bloody death.
    • However, Franz's "moral victory" is in some ways a literal one, as he not only succeeds in convincing Albert not to hate the Count for his actions, but a fragment of his sword, which got lodged in the Count's chest actually kills the Count later when he ceases to be Gankutsuou and becomes vulnerable again.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans: Tekkadan and McGillis have their vices (McGillis especially]]) but they at the very least have more scruples than Rustal Elion. After a season-long chess match between the two sides, McGillis springs his uprising within Gjallarhorn and Tekkadan meets Rustal's Arianrhod Fleet in open battle. However, Rustal claims victory after an attempt to blow up his flagship narrowly fails and spends the final few episodes hunting Tekkadan down, culminating in Mikazuki and Akihiro (and separately McGillis) mounting an epic last stand against the Arianrhod forces. While all of them die, they are able to buy enough time for the rest of Tekkadan to escape and find new lives, and they're able to leave enough of an imprint to force Rustal to give Mars its independence and implement some reforms to Gjallarhorn (although the changes Rustal enacts involve making himself sole leader of Gjallarhorn, so its questionable how much Gjallarhorn actually is reformed).
  • One Piece: Donquixote Rocinante's entire conflict with his older brother Donquixote Doflamingo. Rocinante dedicated his entire life to ending his brother's madness, but ultimately it ends in vain. Though, he still manages to get one up on his brother by preventing him from getting the Op-Op Fruit and giving it to Law, saving his life and allowing him to be free. On top of that, Law's love and devotion to Roci causes him to hate Doflamingo for his death and plan vengeance for the next thirteen years of his life. In essence, while Roci wasn't able to achieve his goal in life, his and his brother's actions created Doflamingo's worst enemy to take up his crusade against his brother in his stead, something that Doffy is very much aware of. Eventually, Roci's wishes come to pass when Law allies himself with Luffy, who finally ends Doflamingo's reign of terror for good.
    • In a broader sense, an incident like this is part of the series's premise: The legendary pirate captain Gold Roger, having been captured by the World Government and to be publicly executed, rather confidently tells the audience below that his treasure still exists and that anyone who finds it first can have it. This inspires huge amounts of people to go looking for it or to otherwise become pirates, creating a level of anarchy that the World Government, 22 years later, is still struggling with.
    • The scholars of Ohara continued their study of poneglyphs and the Void Century despite it being punishable with death because they believed all history deserved to be known. When they were finally caught red-handed, the amount they had learned was enough to startle the World Government's highest officials into ordering the island's complete destruction. Even as cannon fire and flames engulfed them, the scholars devoted their last minutes to saving as much of their knowledge as possible. In the end, they were able to protect a vast amount of books from the fires and Robin escaped to continue their search.

    Comic Strips 
  • A non-death example: In Peanuts Charlie Brown will always go after that football. He knows he will fail, and so does the audience. In 50 years, he has never kicked that football, going through every trope of failure under the sun. Yet still he tries. In the end, he is the one the audience roots for, because the alternative is just giving up and not trying at all.
  • Another non-death example: Calvin frames his alter-ego Stupendous Man as one to cover for the fact that if it weren't for his moral victories, he'd never achieve any at all.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Spartacus is the classic example. He is a slave who becomes the leader of a slave uprising against the Roman Empire. After a string of stunning victories, they're finally utterly defeated and he and his rebels are crucified along the road to Rome. He and his whole army become martyrs when they refuse to give him up to the authorities in exchange for their lives. "I'm Spartacus!"
  • The title character in Gladiator becomes a darling of the public, kills the emperor in a duel, and dies afterward.
  • William Wallace of the movie Braveheart builds an army to drive the English garrison out, gets betrayed, captured, refuses to bow before the king, and is tortured and killed. Then his army wins a decisive battle.
  • In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robin Hood's father Lord Locksley charges out of his castle and attacks the Sheriff of Nottingham's men, dying in the process. This motivates Robin to oppose the Sheriff.
  • The anarchist being sent to the gulag delivers an impassioned speech to the passengers on the train in Doctor Zhivago that they are the real slaves and he is the only free man on the train.
  • The central theme of V for Vendetta is that it's worth being a Doomed Moral Victor. Valerie Page's refusal to give in even as she's tortured, experimented upon, and eventually killed by Norsefire for no greater crime than being a lesbian forms the emotional climax of the film. She writes that her integrity was more important to her than her life, which sparks a similar mental and emotional change in V and later Evey when they read her story: V becomes a freedom fighter who knows there is no place for him in the world he wants to build, and Evey learns to stop fearing death because compromise would be worse.
  • Leonidas and the Spartans of 300, railing against the inevitable conquest of a gigantic army that proves not so inevitable after all. But not until after they've died to a man proving it. In fact, the historical Leonidas was told by the oracle that the only way to save Sparta was for him to die in combat, causing him to deliberately invoke the trope.
  • In Jojo Rabbit Jojo's mother Rosie gets hanged in the town square for trying to work against the Nazis from within Germany.
  • Averted in Scarface (1983), when Tony Montana was about to kill the anti-drug activist from the Bolivian government, but instead shoots the backup assassin at the last moment. Played straight later, however; Tony's having standards and refusal to hurt children lead Sosa to decide that He Has Outlived His Usefulness.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, as the death of Billy inspires McMurphy to attack Nurse Ratched, and the lobotomy of McMurphy inspires the Chief to escape, and one assumes the others escaped through the hole in the window as well, though that isn't shown.
  • Parodied in Monty Python's Life of Brian, where instead of the PFJ coming to rescue Brian from the cross, they leave him up there precisely for this trope, much to his dismay.
  • Yimou Zhang's films tend to feature characters actively choosing 'the impossible task,' becoming Doomed Moral Victors.
  • Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth. This parallels the CNT-FAI in the Spanish Civil War, the setting of the film. While the communist rebels win the day and kill the main villain. Unfortunately, they will ultimately fail to liberate Spain and Franco will rule for the next 31 years.
  • The White Rose activists in Sophie Scholl - The Final Days, as one can observe from the following very simple equation;
    "Executed for treason by Nazi Germany = National hero in modern Germany".
  • Free State of Jones: It's pretty clear to anyone who knows about the events after the American Civil War that the freedmen and white supporters such as Newton Knight will not make out well. For Newt, his "victory" is simply surviving, while former slave Moses is not so lucky.
  • Rogue One: The main characters are killed by the Death Star, but not before finding and transmitting the Death Star's weakness to the rebels, ensuring the Empire's defeat at the hands of the Rebel Alliance.
  • The Last Samurai for the final battle has a modern army of conscripts, cannons and gatling guns against a traditional Japanese army of samurai and retainers with bows, swords, and spears, and the former also outnumber the latter six to one. The samurai still manage to kill two-thirds of the modern army before being killed almost to the last man themselves. In so doing, they win the moral victory, as the intention was to show that traditional values, and especially courage in the face of difficult odds, need to be respected.
  • In The Wicker Man (1973), Howie is in the end sacrificed by the pagan islanders to bring about the harvest next season. Before he goes, however, he warns their leader that if the crop fails (and it likely will because fruit was never meant to grow in the island's frigid Scottish climate) then the islanders will have no choice but to sacrifice him next. After all, he may not believe that the appeasement of Celtic deities leads to bountiful harvests, but he has convinced the islanders that it does.
  • The Prophet: Though Mustafa was sent to prison for seven years because of his political writings, his words have inspired so many people. Even when he's let out, they flock to him to hear him speak. The Commandant orders him to recant his words or face death, but Mustafa merely states that his words aren't unique, he only gave a voice to what people were saying. Killing him won't silence what he's said and in the end, Kamila and Almitra seek to keep his writings and spread them.
  • In Mad Max: Fury Road, the Splendid Angharad dies during the escape, which temporarily demoralizes the group but they press on nonetheless in her honor. It serves as another contrast between her and Immortan Joe: her ideology lives beyond her, while his dies with him.
  • 13 Minutes: Elser fails to kill Hitler, obviously, and is later shot by the SS for it. However, he's remembered as a hero for trying.
  • In Shredder Orpheus, Axel has this view of Orpheus in the ending. While he failed his mission to save Eurydice and was decapitated, the younger generation is inspired by him, and he hopes one day they'll realize what he did it for.
  • The Star: The entire Russian reconnaissance squad, which has been operating behind German lines, is killed when they are cornered in a farmhouse. But before they died they radioed back the necessary intel that allowed the Soviets to crush the German attack — and of course the Russians are going to win the war eventually.

  • Subverted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the protagonists think their struggle will end like this, but they are both broken and changed by the Party instead, making it a case of Shoot the Shaggy Dog.
  • In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the death of Billy inspires McMurphy to attack Nurse Ratched, and the lobotomy of McMurphy leads to Ratched's downfall. We're explicitly told that one by one the other named patients have checked out. The Chief is just the last one to go.
  • "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman is a story much like 1984, where Harlequin is captured, broken and changed in the end. Despite this, he still wins something as his actions have an effect.
  • Discworld:
    • Parodied in the book Night Watch, where rebels (somewhat based upon La Résistance in Les Misérables) use as their slogan something like "you may kill us, but you'll never take our freedom", which Pratchett notes that the villains consider the stupidest slogan they've ever heard. Ultimately, the book does present the rebels as a somewhat straight example of doomed moral victors, given that the evil ruler is assassinated and his forces are defeated, but this is tempered by the fact that his seemingly benevolent successor ends up being even worse. The entire fight is pointless anyway, the plot to assassinate Lord Winder was around since before La Résistance and occurs identically in both time lines, despite the pivotal (and only) battle going the opposite way.
    • Invoked by Twoflower's daughters in Interesting Times when it becomes evident that their rebellion has failed. Rincewind, a hardcore cynic and self-proclaimed Dirty Coward promptly explodes in anger at their acceptance of this, angrily telling them that there is no such thing as a cause worth dying for, as a person can pick up five causes on any street corner, but only has one life. The aghast girls ask how Rincewind can live with such a philosophy — Rincewind's answer is a bitter, vehement "Continuously!"
      • The book features a running gag of bit characters defiantly telling Cohen they would "Rather die!" than betray their Emperor. So then Cohen kills them, mistaking their bluster for this trope. Eventually the other characters start cautioning everyone that they make sure they're feeling very, very sincere about such comments before they say them.
    • Nearly invoked in Small Gods when Brutha is condemned to die by crucifixion on an iron turtle. Urn wants to rush the altar and save him, but Simony urges him to wait because if Brutha dies, he'll become a martyr and the rebels can use him as a rallying cry. Urn is rather horrified and points out that this cold-blooded calculation is exactly the kind of thing the Big Bad who ordered the execution would do. Explicitly defied in the same book, when the philosopher Dactylos is forced by the church to recant his teaching that the world moves through space in a clear parallel to Galileo, everyone is startled when he cheerfully goes along with it, happily signing the retraction without any resistance.
    • When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have gathered to fight the Auditors in Thief of Time, protecting life and humanity from being extinguished in favour of a mechanically simple universe, War points out that they're vastly outnumbered.
      Death: RIGHT IS ON OUR SIDE.
      War: Speaking as War, I'd hate to tell you what happens to very small armies that have Right on their side.
  • Inverted rather tragically in The Saga of Darren Shan, with Kurda Smahlt. After discovering that his friend is a traitor, Darren exposes the plot and helps the vampires wipe out Kurda's allies... only for it to be revealed at the later trial that Kurda was trying to save the vampires from the war that was destined to happen, that would wipe them all out. Darren comes to see his point of view, somewhat, but due to the vampires' Honor Before Reason attitude, Kurda is still seen as a traitor and absolute scum, completely dishonored. After Kurda's death, Darren is offered the throne that was to have been Kurda's, and Darren is regarded as a hero for his role in exposing the plot. Later on, several characters acknowledge the fact that Kurda had good points that should have been listened to before it even came to that, but it's too little, too late.
  • Pretty much every named character in Brave New World. They end up banished to islands.
  • Due to the Values Dissonance between the 17th and 20th centuries, Don Quixote is now seen as one of these. This is especially true in The Musical Man of La Mancha with its song "Dream the Impossible Dream".
  • The fourth book of Jerry Pournelle's War World anthology series has a short story by S. M. Stirling called "Kings Who Die", in which a scholar/soldier-turned-bandit-refugee-turned-tribal-founder deliberately invokes this trope when he martyrs himself fighting a vastly superior foe in single combat; he chooses to become a legend to inspire his newly-established society.
  • Stirling uses the trope again in the Emberverse at the end of A Meeting at Corvallis.
  • Played with in The Red and the Black as the reader is meant to see the Anti-Hero as this when he is able to happily go to the guillotine after finally renouncing his Holier Than Thou persona and religion in general, and being authentic for the first time, despite the fact that society as a whole likely views him as scum.
    • Likewise, the death of Meursault in The Stranger, which was inspired by the above.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms has Liu Bei, who's trying to uphold the doomed Han Dynasty. Well, except when the book itself subverts the "moral" part.
    • Various other officers are also examples. Chen Gong refused Cao Cao's pardon because he felt Cao was too evil to serve and was executed instead. The physician Ji Ping dies without ratting out his confederates in a plot to assassinate Cao Cao, despite Cao's best efforts to get him to confess. One of Liu Zhang's officers commits suicide at Liu Zhang's feet when his warning about Liu Bei is ignored.
  • In Roger Zelazny's short story The Keys to December, the main character's people are terraforming a world to fit them since the only world they could live on was destroyed. The native lifeforms, under the new evolutionary pressure, evolve sentience and religion (worshiping the main character as he awakes every 250 years and patrols the world to see how the terraforming is going). He realizes that they cannot evolve further and, after failing to convince his people to stop or slow the terraforming, leads his believers in a rebellion. Finally, he and his main rival agree to put the question to a vote of their people—as the main character says, if he loses, "I'll retire and you can be God." He loses, and lives out his life as the God of the presumably now-doomed people.
  • Les Misérables is probably one of the older uses of this trope - the Friends of the ABC are courageous and noble and ultimately, in spite of their barricade and all their preparations, totally helpless against the forces of the government.
    • Made explicit in the musical: "Let others rise to take our place until the earth is free!"
  • To Kill a Mockingbird downplayed this trope in Atticus Finch: he was doomed to lose his case, not die. In doing so, though, he achieved the same goals of a martyr.
  • Mistborn has a couple of cases. First the Skaa rebellion, which is purposefully trying to invoke this trope to inspire the masses to revolt, and second, Kelsier who was also intentionally invoking this trope, but had a better plan for it.
    • Somewhat subverted, given that Kelsier's plan to overthrow the empire actually succeeds
    • Except that the plan doesn't succeed because of Kelsier's actions, because Kelsier vastly underestimated the power the Lord Ruler wielded. While he accepted the Lord Ruler was powerful enough to kill him (which is what he planned), he didn't realise (because the Lord Ruler had kept the true extent of his powers a secret) that The Lord Ruler was somewhat justified in claiming to be a God - the Skaa rebellion didn't faze him because if he wanted to, he could kill all of them without any difficulty. It only succeeds because Vin realises his one weakness (ironically through the use of a metal which Kelsier had told them, lying, was the secret to beating the Lord Ruler, in order to give them hope) and exploits it to kill him.
  • Not played exactly straight in The Wheel of Time, but Rand, once he goes full-blown Jerkass Mode, throws former allies and even his best friends into battles, not because they've actually got a shot, but because they pulled it out of their ass before and he's hoping they can do it again.
  • Albus Dumbledore, from the Harry Potter novels, died a Doomed Moral Victor because, in the end, his death was All According to Plan. By choosing the time and means of his death, he denied Lord Voldemort mastery of the Elder Wand, something that was key to the villain's ultimate demise. Additionally, by committing "Suicide by Snape", Dumbledore succeeded in one of his secondary goals: keeping Draco Malfoy from crossing the Moral Event Horizon.
  • Mme. Raquin in Thérèse Raquin watches Thérèse and Laurent die and gets satisfaction that her son is avenged. However, the ending is ambiguous as to her fate. The implication is she died not long after, but even if she didn't her paralyzed and silent state means that she is completely dependent and will die unless someone finds her.
  • In Michael Flynn's Up Jim River, Zorba discussed how he rescued a wannabe doomed moral victor on the grounds that the revolt would only lead to a Full-Circle Revolution.
  • Wild Cards' Jetboy.
  • Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail is an Alternate History textbook that features a failed American Revolution as its Point of Divergence, with George Washington and his compatriots acting as this for American readers.
  • Eddard Stark of A Song of Ice and Fire is set up like this. He is facing death after a failed coup to remove the illegitimate Joffrey as king. Varys, whom he thought an ally, threatens his daughters into confessing guilt to stop war. He recants but is executed anyway and dies a traitor. It's ambiguous whether this is a Subversion (ie. whether or not he is actually a "moral victor") especially since his family ends up getting scattered and slaughtered afterwards, or if subsequent events prove that he was right all along as the characters who lack his honour don't really fare any better were probably planning to kill him to begin with, and in certain cases were planning to engineer a civil war from the start regardless of what Ned personally did.
    • Prince Oberyn Martell intends to avenge the rape and murder of his sister Elia Martell by Ser Gregor Clegane "the Mountain that Rides", who also murdered Elia's infant son. He takes Tyrion Lannister's side in a trial by combat against the Mountain and wounds Gregor, but delays in killing them as he wants a confession that the Mountain performed the murder, and is killed when the Mountain smashes his skull. However, in a way Oberyn still succeeds as he coated his spear with poison he treated to work slowly, leading to the Mountain spending weeks dying in agony.
    • Davos Seaworth goes to White Harbor to convince the Manderlys to fight for Stannis but is arrested and sentenced to execution. Then subverted, Lord Wyman Manderly executes a common criminal in Davos' place and tells Davos he had to work secretly as his son Wylis Manderly was a prisoner. When they are returned he reveals his plans to Davos to restore the Starks.
    • Robb Stark dies trying to make amends to the Freys after breaking a wedding pact, and his family and his mother's family are deposed from their places of power as a result. Stark loyalists in the Riverlands remain in open revolt (mostly pacified by Jaime, but the Brotherhood Without Banners is still killing any Frey they can get their hands on). The Northern lords play nice with the Boltons, but events around Winterfell make it clear at least some of them are just waiting for an excuse to openly revolt.
  • Timeline-191: Cassius (the setting's analogue for Vladimir Lenin) ultimately fails to bring about the black revolution he'd hoped for, and the Congaree Socialist Republic is crushed by the weight of the Confederate Army. However, the blow he struck against the Confederacy ensures that they lose WWI to the Union, and years later, Cassius's namesake, Cassius Madison, becomes the one to kill Confederate President Jake Featherston, ending the CSA's oppression of its black population and ensuring that newly Re-United States will grant blacks equal rights.
  • Wolf Hall
    • In a rather meta moment, Thomas Cromwell complains that Thomas More wants to die a martyr as though he's a character in a play in which he is the innocent victim and Cromwell is the foolish oppressor. More does admit to being afraid of execution but he adamantly refuses to recognize Henry as the head of England's church even though Cromwell tries every method of persuasion short of sticking the quill in his hand and moving it over the page.
    • Cromwell doesn't think a lot of the idea of being a martyr in general—he's a Protestant, but he's trying to influence Henry into it so that his associates will stop getting burned as heretics. He's not impressed by John Tyndale's refusal to approve of Henry's marriage even though it would probably make it safe for him to return to England and advance his cause and says that he's not that different from More—"mules who pose as men."
  • Arbron and the Mountain Taxxons in the Animorphs Spin-Off The Andalite Chronicles. Arbron is trapped in Taxxon morph and leads an uprising against the Yeerks on the Taxxon homeworld, which fails but provides cover for Elfangor to steal a ship and get off-planet. Arbron himself actually survives and leads a Taxxon resistance movement that lasts into the late stages of the main series; the Taxxons are ultimately freed from the Yeerks and morph themselves into snakes to escape their eternal hunger.
  • In Five Little Pigs, many of the people Hercule Poirot interviews about Caroline Crayle, the woman convicted for the murder that he has been hired to exonerate, note that although they don't believe in her innocence, the brave and dignified way she meets her conviction and eventual death was really quite impressive. And she actually turns out to be this for the real murderer, who — in addition to ruining her life and chances for future happiness due to her crime — can't even take any satisfaction in seeing Caroline go down for the murder she committed because Caroline's bravery and nobility just further remind her of how empty and pathetic she really is deep down.
  • In Tom Kratman's "Okuyyuki", protagonist Reilly dies saving his fellow soldiers from an enemy ambush, completing his mission but knowing that he will only be vilified for it by the politically correct authorities, or else utterly ignored at best. (Which, indeed, is exactly what happens.) He considers it worth it even so.
  • Caging Skies: Roswita, the mother of the Nazi Protagonist, is hanged for being a part of The Resistance of Nazi Germany. Made even more heartbreaking in the film, where her 10-year-old son finds her hanged corpse in the public street.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien was, perhaps a little bit overly, fond of invoking this trope. Eomer invokes it at the climax of The Lord of the Rings, only to be dramatically saved by a Plot Twist. Aragorn also invokes it at the Black Gate: and again, gets dramatically saved. Of course, not everyone who invokes the trope gets saved: at least one Ent perishes in their attack on Isengard, as was their intention. And their actions do pave the way for Saruman's downfall at the hands of Wormtongue, by making him see that the fallen wizard is not invincible. But perhaps the straightest example of this trope in the Legendarium comes from The Silmarillion: with the death of Fingolfin. Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, upon seeing the devastation wrought by the Dagor Bragollach gets so angry, people mistake him for a Vala and challenges Morgoth to single combat with the entirely predictable result of getting himself horribly killed. However, because of his moral power he manages to Morgoth permanently and his actions ultimately pave the way for Morgoth's eventual downfall at the hands of the Valar. Although a bunch of other really bad stuff happens first, including Maedhros crossing the Despair Event Horizon after the death of Fingolfin's son Fingon, and averting this trope in the most horrifying way possible.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The crew in Blake's 7, according to one interpretation of the Bolivian Army Ending of "Blake". Considering that the group manages to take out more than two-thirds of the Federation's military forces, allow for several other human powers to expand, and begin a full-scale (though now leaderless) rebellion by uniting various warlords, it's easy to see why.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Ned Stark is remembered by many as a good man undone by the Decadent Court.
    • Robb Stark admits it's starting to look this way in "The Climb":
      Robb: I've won every battle, but I'm losing this war.
    • Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen is her father's rightful heir but she is treacherously usurped and killed. Her claim is eventually vindicated when her son becomes King Aegon III after Aegon II's whole family died in their war.
  • Doctor Who: Played for Laughs in "Army of Ghosts". The TARDIS has just materialized in the secret organisation's base; only problem is, they knew he was coming, and the scanner is turned on to reveal lots of men with automatic weapons pointed at the TARDIS doors. The Doctor steps out anyway, pleased that they're "cutting to the chase".
    Rose: Doctor, they've got guns.
    The Doctor: And I haven't. Which makes me the better person, don't you think? They can shoot me dead, but the moral high ground is mine.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
    • A Bajoran priestess hangs herself in protest of the Dominion during the occupation of Deep Space 9 in "Rocks and Shoals". This galvanizes the main characters remaining aboard (mainly Kira and Rom) to start sabotaging the occupiers.
    • Defied to much controversy among the fandom in "In the Pale Moonlight". Sisko ultimately refuses to be a Doomed Moral Victor, deciding that the survival and independence of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant nations as sovereign states trumps compromising his morality. He covers up Garak's murder of a Romulan senator and False Flag Operation implicating the Dominion as having tried to silence the senator before he could reveal a planned invasion of Romulan space, thereby bringing the Romulan Star Empire into the war on the Federation's side.
    • A somewhat less dire and literal version happens in the episode "Take Me Out to the Holosuite", during which the station home team (called "The Niners") gets absolutely creamed by the visiting Logicians, an all-Vulcan team. Vulcans have vastly superior strength and speed to most other humanoid species, and it is implied that they've been training for quite a while just to beat whatever team Captain Sisko could pull together on short notice. In the end, the Niners only manage to score a single run against the Logicians' eleven, but they have fun doing it.
    • Legate Damar for the Cardassian resistance against the Dominion. He begins the military rebellion, inspires the grassroots civilian uprising even after his forces are crushed and defeated, but dies in the final battle to free their homeworld.
  • Robin Hood:
    • This happens to Marian at the end of the second season. She finally stands up to Guy and admits to him (and herself) that she's in love with Robin. Guy then runs her through with his sword.
    • Robin gets this at the end of the third season.
  • Happens to the original Robin Hood, Robin of Loxley, in Robin of Sherwood in the first series finale "Time of the Wolf". Sending the other outlaws to safety, he is cornered by the Sheriff and Gisborne, but fires an arrow next to the Sheriff's head, showing his arch-enemy that he could have killed him had he chosen to, before being killed himself. His mantle is taken up by the new Robin In the Hood, Robert of Huntingdon.
  • Invoked in Community episode "Beginner Pottery" when Shirley becomes one when she captains her ship into a "storm" in order to save Pierce, stating she would rather be nice than strong. Her reward: becoming an admiral, at least in the eyes of the professor.
  • From Lexx, Kai and the other Brunnen-G who chose to stand up to His Divine Shadow when the rest of their race decided to simply wait for death. The famous (among fans) "Brunnen-G Fight Song" is all about this trope and facing death as a Warrior Poet; it is traditionally sung when headed into a hopeless battle that must be fought anyway. Translated lyrics: Fighters to the fight/ For our home and for our hearts/ We will fight and die/ Forever Brunnen-G
    • As a mockery of both their spirit and the prophecy which stated the last of their race would defeat him, His Divine Shadow, turned Kai into his personal undead assassin. Bit him in his Genre Blind ass a few thousand years later.
  • Spartacus: Blood and Sand: Spartacus again. War of the Damned shows the Foregone Conclusion of his war. It plays it truer to history than the film, however. His army is routed, but the Romans are unable to recover his body. He is carried away by a few of his allies, after defeating the Big Bad in personal combat, and dies surrounded by friends. The survivors made up of a few fighters and most of the non-fighters then escape to freedom.
  • Subverted in one episode of The Shadow of the Tower miniseries which featured a heretical/protestant preacher in what was then a Catholic England. The preacher refused to recant his beliefs knowing that he would have been burnt at the stake either way. He managed to remain steadfast (though somewhat conflicted) even an argument from King Henry VII himself and it seemed that he will die while maintaining his beliefs. Just moments before his execution though, he was overwhelmed by the fear of uncertainty and finally recanted his beliefs.
  • Wolf Hall
    • Thomas More's refusal to sign the Oath of Supremacy that recognizes Henry VIII as the head of the church in England. Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist, is not at all impressed and grumbles that More is deliberately trying to go down as a martyr just to make them look bad.
    • James Bainham is a Composite Character of three Protestants who were burned at the stake. Even after being tortured into recantation, he goes back into church to read aloud from Tyndale's English translation of the Bible because he feels a moral obligation to do so, and even if Cromwell snuck him out of jail he'd just go back and do it again.

  • In the music video for My Chemical Romance's "SING", all of the heroes, or Killjoys, as they are known in the story, are shot by either the main antagonist, Korse, or his army of Draculoids, save for the youngest of the group, played by Grace Clark.
  • The David Byrne and Fatboy Slim album Here Lies Love portrays Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino this way in "Seven Years" and "Why Don't You Love Me?". Ninoy, opponent of the Philippines' president Ferdinand Marcos, declines an offer to remain safe in the US. He returns to the Philippines, and President Marcos assassinates him. However, this "triggers the collapse of the whole house of cards"—Ferdinand loses his office, and the whole family flees the country.
  • Subverted in The Protomen, twice.
    • In Act II, Joe dies a hero taking out Dr. Wily's broadcast, which would theoretically inspire people, but it turns out Wily had a backup plus an army of robots and uses the attack to declare martial law, cowing the citizens into obedience.
    • In Act I, after Megaman kills Protoman, the latter whispers to his brother that if the citizens pass on his story, maybe someday they'll see a hero is just a man who knows he's free. The crowd immediately cheers Megaman for killing his brother and disavows Protoman entirely, leading him to leave the City in disgust as Wily's remaining forces turn on the crowd for thinking of rebelling at all.

     Religion & Mythology 
  • There's Prometheus, whose opponents are the Greek gods. They are not exactly villains, but certainly powerful and unforgiving foes to have. He is later freed by Hercules and the gods eventually just leave him alone, but the image of his torture on the rock is the most enduring in popular culture.
  • Jesus Christ. According to The Bible, dying for humanity was his entire raison d'etre. He only doubts his cause once, praying after the Last Supper at Gethsmane to God, asking if there is any way for events to transpire differently, then concluding that God knows best (Mark 14:36).
  • Norse Mythology before Christians influenced it, when There Was Nothing After Death and evil won in the end. Of course, it's not quite all there since there is nobody left to fight after Ragnarok. In later versions, it's played straight when the new world is reborn.
  • In several countries, memories of historical defeats are treasured more in folklore than historical victories.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 event The Fall of Medusa V was a world-wide tournament effort. Various official tournament results were submitted, and the results would be aggregated and used to determine the fate of the planet Medusa V. There were several Space Marine armies participating (as expected for Games Workshop's iconic flagship army) but many of these armies lost, dragging their overall average well below many other factions participating (it could be speculated that as a popular starter army they had a per portion higher number of inexperienced players participating.) As these losses would seriously undermine the image of the face of their entire brand, Games Workshop declared that though they had lost most of the land battles, the Space Marines had won a "moral victory" by succeeding at most of the space battles (which were not part of the calculation from the player base anyway.) Understandably, several players of the other factions which did succeed were a bit sore about this.
    • Humanity can be considered a Doomed Moral Victor, what with the Tyranids coming in to eat everything alive, Necrons waking up and finding humans occupying their tomb worlds, Chaos erupting if the oppressive religious regime lets up for even a second, and all the other alien factions muscling in on their territory... And yet they still fight.
    • 40K being the fun and happy place it is, Chaos can use this trope as well. Since the Dark Gods are incarnations of an emotion, it doesn't matter who feels it for it to feed them (e.g. the Sense Freak Slaaneshi cultists who enjoy defeat as much as they do victory since it's still a different sensation from the norm).
  • The concept is occasionally used in game victory conditions for initial setups where one side is much weaker but is considered to "win" if it is played well enough to inflict a certain level of damage and/or delay on the superior enemy forces.
  • In 13 Days the game can end prematurely if nuclear war is triggered. In that case, the faction who did not start the war is declared the winner (presumably future generations of survivors will consider them the "good guys"). This is sometimes subverted as the faction behind on victory points will often trick the other faction into starting nuclear war and thus really has no moral ground to stand on.
  • Something similar happens in Twilight Struggle. If DEFCON reaches 1, nuclear war breaks out, and whoever's turn it was when that happens loses the game - even if they didn't play the cards that triggered it, history will record them as being on watch when civilization burned to the ground, making the other player the "winner".

  • Defied in Hadestown, where Hades initially threatens to kill Orpheus after he sings "one more song" for him. Once Orpheus actually sings it and moves Hades' heart, Hades realizes killing him will make him a martyr to his workers while letting him go will make them agitate for freedom, so he arranges the famous test.

    Video Games 
  • Pulled off well in Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. Zack Fair dies in a heroic Last Stand against the corporate army that has been hunting him down like a dog, and while he doesn't even come close to achieving his goals, his death empowers the guy who eventually overthrows Shinra.
    Zack: Boy oh boy. The price of freedom is steep...
    • Zack, of course, had no intention of overthrowing Shinra. All he was trying to do was protect his comatose friend and earn their freedom. When he inevitably fails (seriously, how can you go up against an army and win? But then, he knew that...), he still wins, because his actions saved Cloud's life and gave him a future. Everyone else might forget Zack, his entire history might be erased by Shinra, but Cloud will remember him. And that's all he ever wanted: proof of his existence, proof that he had a dream. His life was brief and sad, but he lived.
  • Ramza of Final Fantasy Tactics who, despite those who would pervert the idea of righteousness persecuting him more and more, constantly struggles against the evils of his world. His refusal to resort to the sort of tactics Delita employs in such a world makes it all too obvious as to where this path will lead him; Ramza is aware of this, and will not change his course.
    • Zalbaag is probably a better example. Depending on how you view the ending, Ramza might never really qualify as doomed. Zalbaag dies specifically trying to do what is right. The only reason he doesn't do so sooner in the plot is that Ramza's accusations are unbelievable because of others' ploys. As soon as he finds evidence proving them, he fights and dies for it. Ramza doesn't do so.
    • Wiegraf and his rebellion are this. Even their name (the Corpse Brigade) even refers to the fact they know they are going to die, but they fight because they feel they are morally in the right against the corrupt aristocracy.
    • Orran Durai writes an account of Ramza's life that not only reveals the latter's innocence, but also the underlying political corruption of Ivalice. And he is burned at the stake for it. But eventually the account is published by his descendant, bettering the nation and making Orran's death at least somewhat worthwhile.
  • Gorath from Betrayal at Krondor becomes a shining example of cooperation and friendship with humans as well as acting at personal expense for the good of your people, and favoring mercy over a thirst for vengeance. That last one dooms him - he chooses to spare his Arch-Enemy Delekhan and shortly dies stopping him from activating the Lifestone. Unfortunately, the top-secret circumstances and the discontinued nature of that plot line prevent him from influencing his people or his friends in the martyr fashion typical of this trope.
  • Captain Brenner/O'Brian, the mentor of Advance Wars: Days of Ruin/Dark Conflict. Although he dies, his army unit carries on in his name and The Hero eventually wins.
  • The Hyrulean soldiers who are cut down by the invading Zant and his Twilit monsters, in the explanatory cut scenes of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The massacre is stopped only by Princess Zelda surrendering to spare their lives.
  • The apprentice/Starkiller/Galen Marek from The Force Unleashed eventually becomes this, when he becomes the mask, embraces the new Rebellion, and is then killed and made into a martyr for the Rebel cause.
  • One of your choices at the end of the dystopian IF game Kaged can have this effect. You end up in a stadium, facing the Inquisitor. You can either accept his "heads, life sentence, tails you die" offer, or leap at him with your hands around his neck. If you do the latter, snipers among the crowd in the stadium kill you, but it's hinted that the Inquisitor dies and you inspire the rebellion.
  • The obscure, semi-canonical (Bradbury was on the dev team), text-adventure sequel to Fahrenheit451. Guy manages to break into the Library and find Clarisse (who apparently faked her death at the end of the book), who has stolen a monumental stash of microcassettes containing the contents of the New York Public Library. They lock themselves in a transmitter room long enough to upload the cassettes' content to the Underground's archives all over the world. They finish their upload but don't have time to escape when the Firemen bust in and immolate
  • This is one way to look at Mass Effect 3's Refusal ending. Shepard, either unwilling to believe the Catalyst about the Crucible's abilities or not wanting to use the Crucible's powers for one moral reason or another, chooses to denounce the Reaper AI and take their chances at defeating the Reapers in a conventional fight, stating that if they die, they will "die free". It doesn't work out for them or current galactic civilization. It does, however, give the next galactic cycle the chance to defeat the Reapers.
  • This is the stated plan of the Vendrian Guards' Rebellion at the start of Tyranny. Having already been defeated by, and surrendered to, the forces of Overlord Kyros, they're well aware that they can't hope to prevail - but they hope that by setting an example of defiance, they can inspire the other conquered territories, in The Tiers and beyond, to rebel as well. Somewhat ironically, it never actually WORKS - the only way for a successful rebellion to occur is for the player to side with them, in which case they avert the 'Doomed' qualifier thanks to some clever trickery on your part.
  • Assassin's Creed III: At the end of the game, Desmond is faced with a Sadistic Choice: Use Juno's device to save Earth from a solar flare, and let her loose, which will kill him, or let the world burn, become a new messiah, and let human history repeat itself. Desmond regards the later choice as hopeless and decides to go with the sacrifice, reasoning that someone will manage to stop Juno. Later works show Desmond was right on that score when the Assassins ultimately killed Juno once and for all with the help of his son Elijah. But he still dies. And Abstergo steals and mutilates his corpse to make video games.
  • In Disco Elysium, you can choose to play the board game Suzerainty with Kim. The game has you play as a colonial official competing for resources and favor, and enables several different strategies for victory, most of which are decidedly morally cruel, such as plundering other states for treasure or exploiting your workers to death. However, you can also play the game far more beneficently, and focus your resources on building infrastructure and improving the lives of the people, becoming a beloved leader... which yields far less victory points than the alternatives, only providing a small increase in resource gain, and trying to go down this path will cause you to lose (if anything, it results in you losing points). Kim, your opponent, points out that the game is about glorifying Revachol's imperialist past through the perspective of its aristocracy; its rules are going to be steeped against you if you aren't on board with the kind of monstrous actions they partook in, and they didn't particularly care about their citizenry, either. Nonetheless, he compliments you for sticking to your guns.

    Visual Novels 
  • Satoko in Higurashi: When They Cry's Meakashi arc is brutally killed via stabbing by Shion proclaiming that she will neither cry nor beg for her brother to save her. And she doesn't. It's enough to make Shion realize what horrible things they've been doing. In a manner of speaking, because she feels she's gone too far to deserve redemption. It does influence her in a later arc, however, where Shion has now become Satoko's loving surrogate sister and is willing to risk her life to protect her.
  • This is the crux of Heroic Spirit Emiya aka Archer's character in Fate/stay night. In life he spent himself relentlessly pursuing the highest moral choices; saving as many people as possible on either side of a conflict without regard for his own feelings or situation. His reward was dying tired and alone on a hill of swords. He was actually okay with this until he went to the Throne of Heroes after death, and was tasked with protecting humanity from itself by slaughtering humans whose actions would lead to humanity's self-destruction. In the face of humanity's self-destructive nature, he came to hate humanity and his own ideals.
  • Nearly the case in Sharin no Kuni with Natsumi's planned execution, but averted.
  • Whether or not to go through with this is the point of the last case of Ace Attorney's second and third games.
    • In the second game, you can choose to abandon your client and get him outed as guilty, which is the correct moral choice, but doing so will end up killing Maya and driving Phoenix from the legal profession forever, a broken man.
    • In the third game, after the exorcism of the true villain, Godot stops the end of the trial to point out that they still haven't found the killer and insists on using the evidence to do so, knowing that it will undeniably lead to him being accused (correctly) of murder. It's done to point out that the guilty must always be punished, no matter how sympathetic their goals or efforts are, especially when Phoenix realizes what the truth is and desperately tries to avoid it.


    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • In the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "The Last Patrol!", the Doom Patrol is reunited by their old enemy General Zahl, only to be Killed Off for Real by the vengeful general. However, since it's a Heroic Sacrifice and they Face Death with Dignity, their courageous example leads Zahl's victims to rebel against him, turning his triumph into a Pyrrhic Victory.
  • Played for Laughs in The Boondocks when it's shown that during the Civil Rights Movement Robert Got Volunteered by a group of Suicidal Pacifist Freedom Riders who sought to invoke this trope by letting the racist mob kill them. Both Robert and the narrator point out how insane they sound, and the episode ends with them all being arrested.
  • TRON: Uprising: We know from seeing the Crapsack World that is TRON: Legacy that Beck's rebellion doesn't do squat against Clu, that Big Good Tron is Reforged into a Minion, and that even their equivalent of God is a broken coward beaten back into exile. The series "cheerfully" reminds us of this by making the latter half of it a study in Cerebus Syndrome, with torture, Mind Rape, and killing off several of Beck's allies. The season (series?) finale? Clu sends in a massive invasion fleet to level Argon City and the rebels with it.
  • From The Legend of Korra we have Wan, the very first Avatar. After releasing chaos into the world and sealing it back up again, he (along with Raava, the embodiment of good and order) travel the world in an effort to prevent violence and war while Wan learns all four bending arts. Many years later, Wan dies of fatal wounds on a battlefield, with Wan lamenting his inability to keep the balance. Raava promises him that they will always be together until they create a world of peace. And thus, the Avatar cycle is created.
  • Duchess Satine in Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a pacifist and idealist, determined to keep her people out of the war and hopes to restore the republic to its rightful state as a peaceful institution. Unfortunately, in a war that is beyond your control, pacifism will only get you killed. Which is exactly what happens to Satine when the war comes to Mandalore, courtesy of Darth Maul.