The world can be a cruel, dreadful place sometimes, but thankfully, there's people that want to change that. There's only so many times the universe can kick the dog before the dog bites back, and at least a few individuals rise to fight the injustices of the world time and again.
But these saviors are, quite often, just people. They have their virtues and their flaws like anyone else, and though they have made up their own mind about how they want to change the world, sometimes these opinions clash. They may agree on why the world needs saving, but they don't agree on the how. Snide comments are thrown, furious arguments ensue, and next thing you know, the people who are humanity's best hope are now tragically at each other's throats. And possibly more.
Dueling Messiahs is what happens when two or more people want to save the world, but their differing methods on how lead to conflict. This is the stuff of tragedy: human folly gets in the way of the betterment of the world, and two people who might be fast friends otherwise instead become irreconcilable enemies.
This trope is difficult to handle properly, since it's very easy to make one of the messiahs a Designated Hero/Designated Villain or too much of a Well-Intentioned Extremist to be sympathetic. In addition, Too much mudslinging from both sides while forgetting about fixing their world is also a one way ticket for the audience hating both sides. But handled properly, you'll have two guys who both have compelling arguments to their methods and a fandom split right in the middle over which one of them's right.
Compare Opposed Mentors, who are more concerned with doing right by one person than the entire world, Good Versus Good depending on how "moral" the messiahs in question are, Not Quite the Right Thing, and Small Steps Hero. Compare Headbutting Heroes.
This trope leads to some interesting conflicts:
- To Be Lawful or Good: One of the saviors wants to better the world by maintaining order, while the other wants to save the world through general goodness and compassion. While superficially they might seem compatible, it's also easily apparent how they might clash: the lawful savior might take it in the extreme of Utopia Justifies the Means, but the other one could be too much of an Idiot Hero to realize that there needs to be established order for good to be able to persist and not just be a temporary solution.
- All-Loving Hero vs the Dark Messiah: One of the classic scenarios with this trope: one of the saviors believes the world is inherently rotten, and to save it you have to play by its rules. However, the Dark Messiah CAN be made sympathetic if the world is enough of a shithole that his methods can clearly be seen as effective, or he has a past tragic enough that one can see how he'd end up with a dark outlook in life. This can become particularly interesting if later events prove that the Dark messiah actually kinda knew what he was talking about.
- Right Makes Might vs Might Makes Right: One savior's methods are idealistic and peaceful, while the other's methods are violent and pragmatic.
- Illya and Julian Ainsworth in Fate/kaleid liner PRISMA☆ILLYA, as it turns out. Angelica reveals that their world (i.e. Miyu's home dimension) is running out of mana, and will become uninhabitable very soon. Julian's plan is to sacrifice Miyu as the Holy Grail, and wish for humans to be able to survive the coming disaster. Illya is then presented with the Sadistic Choice of saving Miyu or the world, and eventually decides to take the third option and find a way to save both, somehow.
- Kenshiro vs Raoh in Fist of the North Star. Both are students of Hokuto Shinken, the most powerful martial art on the planet which produces men of great brilliance and destiny, and both recognize that the post-apocalyptic world in which they live could stand to be a better place. But while Kenshiro believes that one should use strength to inspire humanity towards peace and protect the weak, Raoh believes that the world will improve by becoming the leader and forcing those under him to maintain order. Toki, the third Hokuto Brother, strives for peace and non-violence, using Hokuto Shinken to ease the suffering of others as a healer. This puts him at odds with Raoh, but on Kenshiro's side.
- Negi and Fate in Mahou Sensei Negima!, in a similar manner to the Fate/kaleid liner PRISMA☆ILLYA example above. Negi and the gang eventually discover that Fate and the Cosmo Entelechia are trying to save the human inhabitants of the Magical World, which is about to collapse and in turn cause the humans to be stranded on Mars, the landscape of which was used to create the Magical World. Negi opposes their plan to send the humans to a never-ending dream world by sacrificing Asuna and the Magical World's non-human inhabitants, and tries to get them to help him find another way.
- Naruto fights Pain. Pain wanted to bring peace by creating a horrifically destructive jutsu (which would get used), thereby horrifying/scaring everyone into peace for a long time. Once time lets people get over it, they will use it again, after this there will be a very long period of peace, rinse and repeat till the end of time. Naruto wanted to achieve peace in a much more moral yet still unexplained way that he still probably hasn't come up with.
- Dark Messiah Madara and Wide-Eyed Idealist Hashirama came to believe in conflicting ideas on how to bring lasting peace to the world, culminating in their battle at the Valley of the End. After Hashirama's death, Madara continued to work on his plan and passed it on to Obito. Naruto's emergence as the Hope Bringer has set him as the new messiah opposing Obito.
- In the original Saint Seiya the reason behind the Forever War that flared up every few centuries between Poseidon and Athena was based on Poseidon wanting to pull a Noah's flood to fix the world, while Athena wanted to protect it and allow humans to develop on their own terms.
- Saint Seiya Omega is interesting since it has not one, but two Messiah's and one Dark Messiah. Athena wants to protect the world from evil forces, and Mars wants to destroy, remake, and refine it because his Start of Darkness (and Dark Is Evil based powers) influenced him to think only the strong should rule in order to stop senseless suffering. Caught between them is Aria, who would like to be like Athena, but Mars is using her as a figurehead to fool others and enact his evil plan.
- Code Geass deals with childhood best friends Lelouch Lamperouge and Suzaku Kururugi, both of whom agree on one thing - that the current regime, the Britannian empire, is horrible. However, their methods of changing it differ drastically - Lelouch has enough of a Dark and Troubled Past to want to overthrow his father the Emperor, and will settle for nothing less than the complete destruction of the monarchy (of which he is a part of - except, of course, for his beloved little sister and long-lost younger half sister he still cares for). Suzaku, on the other hand, rejects an offer to join Lelouch more than once and enlists in the Britannian military (despite being Japanese) because he believes the Britannian empire can be changed from the inside. There is, of course, more than meets the eye.
- X1999: Actually invoked by Fuuma and Kamui's dynamic; Kamui is a stock Messianic Archetype, a boy destined to either save the world or destroy it, depending on whether he thinks it's worth saving or not. Fuuma himself is destined to become Kamui's Evil Counterpart of sorts; he's supposed to fight for whatever side Kamui doesn't pick. Because of No Ending, it remains to be seen how this dynamic will play out.
- Big Mama vs Sacher Torte in Sorcerer Hunters. Both believe that the world is not a nice place anymore, but while Big Mama strives to heal it, Sacher Torte wants to destroy it and rebuild it from scratch, believing it too far gone for redemption. Big Mama's dedication to maintaining the world is so absolute, she even attempted to KILL Carrot so he wouldn't turn into the God of Destruction.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica takes this to transcendental level. On one side, you have an All-Loving Hero Kaname Madoka who would take all the magical girls turning into Witches to her personal valhalla before they can turn into monsters. On the other side, you have Dark Messiah Kriemhild Gretchen, one of said monsters, who will take the entire world (if not the entire universe) into her, a paradise where no one suffers. Both of them are the same Extreme Doormat person, even!
- [C] - Control ends up with partisans of two rival economic ideologies fighting for control; one messiah wants to mortgage the future to preserve Japan in the present (a metaphor for supporting a failing economy with more government debt), and the other wants to sacrifice the present and destroy Japan's status as a financial center to rebuild the future (which is supposed to represent financial austerity). As this is a pro-austerity propaganda piece, the second hero wins.
- Captain America vs Iron Man in Civil War. After the tragedy at Stanford results in civilian casualties during a supervillain attack, the government puts into motion the Superhuman Registration Act. Iron Man takes the "Lawful" side of the conflict, while Cap takes the "Good" side.
- Professor Charles Xavier vs Magneto in X-Men. Both want the welfare of the Mutant race, but their methods could not differ more. Xavier wants Mutants to be one with humanity, using their abilities for the betterment of mankind and living with humans as equals. Magneto, by contrast, wants Mutants to be the rulers of humanity, considering them genetically superior. While this might make Magneto seem like the bad guy(and he is, to an extent), his backstory also gives him valid reasons for his way of thinking and disbelief that humanity is capable of existing in harmony even with itself (let alone a race of super-powered individuals): being a Holocaust survivor, he's faced persecution before, and has sworn that the people of his race shall not face it while he's around.
- In Dynamite's The Shadow the Light arc, the Shadow vs the eponymous character. Both think they are fighting the good fight, but they have their differences: The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and judges them not by their thoughts or desires but only when they put that evil into action. The Light seeks to purge all who have tainted souls, even if they are innocent of actual wrongdoing.
- Both Cassandra and The Seraphim seek to do God’s will in Angel Of The Bat. Cassie by protecting Gotham and giving it hope, The Seraphim by destroying the sinners he holds responsible for its evils.
- In Origins, a Mass Effect/Star Wars/Borderlands/Halo Massive Multiplayer Crossover, the Eridians have a major religious spat. One faction wants to continue on as they always have, carefully tending to the lesser races but remaining remote enough to not interfere in a way that would unduly influence their development. The other faction is sick of this and believes the first group to have succumbed to Happiness in Slavery, instead proposing the duty of caretaker be outsourced. The former retorts this is just Insane Troll Logic. Ultimately, this leads to the creation of Sarah the closest thing any language has to "Selfless Servant of the Mantle", which fails spectacularly until some Mind Wipe/Brainwashing is employed.
- In Kamen Rider Gaim, we have Kouta Kazuraba versus Kaito Kumon. Kaito is a ruthless Social Darwinist Dark Messiah who wants to let the world be destroyed and start again with 'a form of life that will not seek power to oppress'. Kouta argues that the current world is capable of becoming that, citing those who fought beside them against the world-ending threat as examples that power does not result in a loss of compassion.
- This becomes the central conflict in the later seasons of Person of Interest as Samaritan rises in opposition to the Machine. Although both AIs seek to protect humanity, the Machine values individual human lives and freedoms, while Samaritan has no qualms about committing acts of murder and oppression to fulfill his goals.
- Watch Commander Sam Vimes (who believes, in a cynical kind of way, in trying to enforce justice) vs benevolent dictator Lord Vetinari, in Discworld. Both want what's best for Ankh-Morpork, but they often butt heads when Vetinari's using some of his more... unsavory methods, while Vimes's policing just flat out ruins Vetinari's plans.
- The three emperors of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. All three want to unify China, but their methods and motivations are incompatible with each other.
- In Harry Potter there was a legendary duel between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald because the dark wizard, Grindelwald, wanted to lead the wizards out of hiding and have them subjugate muggles, while Dumbeldore had become the champion for those without magic. However, what finally pushed Dumbledore into acting was the fact that Grindelwald started a massive war with countless casualties in order to have his way.
- Discussed in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov writes a narrative poem in which Jesus returns to Earth in the Middle Ages... and the Catholic Inquisition arrests him. The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus to his face that the Church has improved on his message, and they really don't need Jesus any more.
- Invoked by Demandred in the last book of The Wheel of Time, setting himself up as "the Wyld", a figure from Sharan prophecy in opposition to "the Dragon" aka Rand al'Thor, the main character and Messianic Archetype of the series and reincarnation of Demandred's hated rival. Demandred repeatedly describes himself as a savior, says of Rand that "he is false and I am true" and challenges Rand to come and fight him to prove who is the real messiah. Rather amusingly, Demandred never actually meets Rand on-page; he's killed off by Lan, a perfectly ordinary mortal (albeit one of the greatest swordsmen of all time) and because of his assumed messianic role, his death utterly breaks the morale of his troops.
- Prior to Demandred, were the false Dragons, Taim and an unnamed one, who were both engaged in battle when Rand was declared Dragon by fulfilling the prophecy. They were knocked from their horses. Taim was captured, but the other one wasn't so lucky. It was explained that with the true Dragon revealed, the Pattern rejected any false ones.
- In A Whisper Of Wings by Paul Kidd we end up with not just dueling messiahs but dueling sisters, as the elder seeks to end the stagnant, calcified rule of the royal and religious casts (of which she's a member of the royals) by stirring her mountain-dwelling people into bloody war on the plains people below while the younger seeks to do things more peacefully (and only ends up opposing her in the first place primarily due to the older sister handing her over to the priesthood and killing her unborn child).
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, there are so far three messiah candidates, and each has their own method and their own weakness that prevents them from saving the world.
- Stannis Baratheon believes in rolling evil over with military force, but he is somewhat short of military force and knows little about the world-ending menace known as the Others, he more concentrates on trying to unite humanity. He's a little short of military force for even that.
- Jon Snow is the most knowledgeable about the threat, and his approach is trying to find their weak spot (such as depriving the Others from wight candidates by recruiting wildlings to his side, guessing which weapons could kill the Others and sending his bookish friend to the Citadel to gain a scientist on his side).
- Daenerys Targaryen is so far the most well-equipped to defeat the Others (she has dragons, which, most likely, are the ultimate weapon against them), but she is too far from the North and knows absolutely nothing about the world needing saving.
- All three have political differences which make any possible alliance between them an Enemy Mine at best. Jon is right now in a very uneasy alliance with Stannis, and Daenerys hates Stannis for being the younger brother of Robert Baratheon, who overthrew Daenerys' family and killed her older brother Rhaegar in battle.
- The Book of the New Sun: though it may not be apparent to the protagonist, there are two apparent candidates for the messiah figure known as the Conciliator, namely Bardanders and Serverian himself. Naturally they end up fighting - the trigger being the science-driven former destroying a relic belonging to the faith-driven latter.
- Sort of joked about in the Dire Straits song "Industrial Disease":
I go down to Speaker's Corner and I'm thunderstruckThey got free speech, tourists, police in trucksTwo men say they're Jesus, one of them must be wrongThere's a protest singer, he's singing protest songs
Meanwhile the first Jesus says 'I'll cure it soonAbolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons'The other one's on a hunger strike he's dying by degreesHow come Jesus gets Industrial Disease?
- ... then coming back to them later
- The Later-Day Saint view on the War in Heaven states that Satan proposed a plan with himself as "Savior", but mankind would live on Earth without agency. Jesus offered to be the one to save the world as God wanted, with agency. Obviously God chose Jesus as the Messiah.
- There are many religions in the world. They have the goal of bringing humanity to a state of non-suffering, be it in a distant paradise or as peace of self. Some of those religions don't get along very well. We're not calling names.
- Exalted: Due to the game mechanic, this is unavoidable. These eponymous heroes are are required to have moral excellence (called Virtues) if they want to be able to fuel their magic. The other requirement is a grand Motivation to change the world to their ideal state. That they come to a loggerhead is an inevitability. World-shattering, heaven-rending, nation-crushing loggerheads.
- Just about everybody in Warhammer Fantasy has their own idea of what's best for the world, unfortunately these ideas tend to clash with reality. The Slann rearranged entire continents to better suit the Old Ones' plan (that the dwarves were kind living in those continents was of no concern to them) or believe that the only way to get said plan to fruition is to get all three elven factions back into Ulthuan (they hate each other), while the vampire von Carstein has a way to forever prevent the powers of Chaos from getting new victims... by turning the world's population into zombies. Each of the revived Khemri tomb kings believes himself the rightful ruler of Khemri and will wage war on all enemies of the kingdom, inside and out.
- Commander Shepard vs The Illusive Man in the Mass Effect series. Both strive to serve and move humanity forward and save them from the Reapers, but while Shepard does it through heroic, direct action, the Illusive Man prefers more unsavory, underhanded tactics. However, it's valid to point out that, initially, they DID work together, until the Illusive Man went too far with his more ruthless methods. The Illusive Man was indoctrinated at some point, sure, but he was genuinely trying to serve humanity beforehand, and his indoctrination by the Reapers was through manipulation of his desire to help humanity. Being a Fallen Hero does not stop one from still being a Messiah of sorts.
- That being said, Shepard can become him/herself a Dark Messiah if you play him/her as a full Renegade in Mass Effect 3, still not as bad as the Illusive Man, but pretty close. Even more evident if you chose the Control Ending, which is basically what the Illusive Man wanted to accomplish, but couldn't due to him being indoctrinated.
- Also from BioWare, Dragon Age: Origins has the Grey Warden and Teryn Loghain. Loghain truly believes that he is the only one capable of saving Ferelden from the Blight and acts accordingly, but misunderstands certain crucial facts with disastrous results (and to be fair, some of those facts were deliberately kept secret). Under different circumstances, he might well have remained the hero he was in the past. Towards the end of the game he can be made aware how badly he's screwed things up, causing him to either Face Death with Dignity, knowing that he's leaving Ferelden in the Warden's capable hands or join the Wardens himself.
- Many Shin Megami Tensei games deal with these, with you choosing which "Messiah" you will support. Typically, the games take place after or during The End of the World as We Know It, and some characters will come up with ideas to form the new world that fall along the lines of Law-Neutral-Chaos. The Law character will suggest a society where the law is absolute and free will is minimized, while the chaos character will suggest The Social Darwinist society. The Neutral path is normally characterized by a non-Messianic approach; the objective there is either to return society to the way it was before everything went down, or if that's not possible, to simply kill off the Messiahs of both sides and let the survivors of humanity sort out the rubble without their interference.
- Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is an interesting example, with FOUR potential saviors. The Demi-Fiend is the main arbiter of what direction the world will go into, but there are also three other characters with their own opinions of the direction the world can take. Chiaki strives to create a world based on Social Darwinism, where the strong flourish and the weak perish. Isamu wants to create a world based on individuality, in which everyone will have their own world suited to them and sever ties with everyone else. Hikawa wants to create a world of "emptiness", where no one has free will and thus no evil can be performed. The Demi-Fiend can side with one of these saviors or defy all three and take a fourth option or fifth option. One of them is to give the world back to humans exactly as it was, trusting them to create their own destiny, while the other one is to defeat Lucifer to become the new ruler of Hell and assault Heaven to kick God's ass. Yikes.
- Aleph and Daleth are both declared the Messiah in Shin Megami Tensei II, and fight over the title. Their rivalry has nothing to do with their views on how the world should be saved; it's all over who gets to save it because they're actually working for the same people. It turns out that this was invoked by the Messians; they created both Aleph and Daleth in a gambit to create the Messiah. Aleph was designed to be the real Messiah, and Daleth was supposed to be a strawman for Aleph to triumph over.
- Touhou has the mutual dislike between Byakuren Hijiri (former Black Mage turned All Loving Hero Antagonist Buddhist who attempts to create peace by saving Youkai from being exterminated) and Toyosatomimi no Miko (extremely hammy sanctified emperor Taoist who practiced Buddhism for political gain and planned to "administrate" the humans for their own good). It's mostly a conflict between pro-youkai idealism and pro-human pragmatism, but Byakuren knowingly putting her temple over Miko's grave didn't make it any better. However, they aren't outright antagonistic (compared to how Gensokyo residents usually behave) and even team up to fight a common enemy.
- Shirou vs Archer in Fate/stay night's Unlimited Blade Works route, pitting Shirou's naive ideal of "the hero who saves everyone" against Archer's cynical attitude of "a hero must choose who to save". Made all the more complex by Archer being Shirou from the future, remembering which way his idealism took him. The end of the route implies their conflict has prevented Shirou from going down the same path however.
- In Pokémon Black and White, the hero and N Harmonia take the roles of the heroes of Unova - one representing truth, one representing ideals. If N wins, then humans and Pokemon will be separated and Ghetsis Harmonia will take control of the entire region, but if you win then the region will stay as it is and Ghetsis's plans will fall apart.
- In a strange way, South Park does this with their three-part Superhero Episode. The Coon/Cartman is definitely the evil one, but thinks of himself as a superhero for mass-murdering hippies and destroying synagogues. Mysterion/Kenny, however, is the one willing to sacrifice his life to save his friends from a world of torment.
Coon: It's not my fault you guys turned evil, Kenny!Mysterion: You are the bad guy, fat boy! YOU!Coon: I'm going around making the world a better place!Mysterion: FOR YOU! You're making it a better place FOR YOU!
- A psychology experiment in 1959 placed three schizophrenics in the same room, each believing he was Jesus Christ. Doing so did nothing to relieve them of their delusions, only making it stronger and causing them to fight over which one of them should be worshipped. Eventually they rationalized their conflicting identities with their own explanations, such that the other two were mental patients or that the other two were robots. Two years later, each man still believed he was Jesus, and the doctor in charge of the experiment felt tremendous guilt over the experiment and renounced his methods.