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Historical Badass Upgrade

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"So, all in all, just a normal day in the life of Leonardo da Vinci. Turn lead into gold, paint the most famous portrait of all time, and invent the first hang glider. And I bet it’s not even 9 AM."

Sometimes a Historical Domain Character is portrayed by adding a copious amount of badassery and Stuff Blowing Up, that was either far lesser or non-existent with the Real Life person. The reasons could range from sloppy research to Rule of Cool.

Maybe a king, who was known for very little else but diplomacy, gets to be a war hero instead. Maybe Mahatma Gandhi gets to fist-fight grizzlies. Maybe a pope was a vampire hunter in his spare time.

Kung-Fu Jesus and Historical Domain Superperson are subtropes.

Compare Beethoven Was an Alien Spy (a possible justification of this trope), Adaptational Badass (when this happens to a character from a previous work) and Memetic Badass (when the Badassery is upgraded through Memetic Mutation). Giving the same treatment to a living famous person would generally fall under Celebrity Power.

See also Historical Hero Upgrade and Historical Villain Upgrade, both of which this trope may very well overlap with if the character's more heroic or more villainous actions come off as Badass.

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Examples using real people:

    Media in General/Common Persons 
  • Nikola Tesla was undoubtedly a major influence on the Mad Scientist trope, but what a lot of people either forget or choose to ignore is that after he got bored of sane science, his career bombed. Media depicting Tesla often give Thomas Edison (who, in all fairness, was by no means a particularly nice guy in Real Life) a Historical Villain Upgrade and posit some kind of grand conspiracy to suppress Tesla's discoveries, when in reality his attempts at creating a Death Ray or Weather-Control Machine or whatever else he was hoping to build that week just plain didn't work. Additionally, Edison didn't actually have a rivalry with Tesla; his rivalry was with George Westinghouse, whom Tesla worked for at various points, and Tesla's own accounts generally spoke of Edison neutrally at worst. Accounts of the War of the Currents tend to treat Tesla as if he were leading the charge and downplay or ignore Westinghouse entirely. He did some important early work on the physics of radar and may have been the first person to file a patent on a VTOL aircraft, but neither would actually be built until decades later with the actual nut-and-bolts engineering being done by someone else.
  • General George S. Patton has often been portrayed as a highly badass American general, a lover of general Nazi-asskicking and getting his hands dirty, and is simultaneously given a Historical Beauty Update in regards to his height and appearance. All of this was mainly due to the film Patton and to his very much real attitude of an all-American tough guy; however, despite being portrayed as youthful, tall, booming-voiced, and tough, he was actually fairly advanced in years and appearance when the War came around. He didn't enjoy public speaking due to his short height and raspy, non-booming voice, and he never actively went out in the field to get his hands dirty in combat, partly due to poor physical health. A good commander he was, Rambo he wasn't.note 
  • The battleship Yamato, in real life, was one of the iconic examples of Awesome, but Impractical for military historians; the largest battleship ever built, but so flawed in design, so mismatched against its opponents, and so badly outdated that it did far more damage to the Japanese economy than it ever did to the American fleet. It only engaged other ships in one battle (Samar), where it outweighed the entire force it was going up against and had 23 ships backing it up, but at most only managed to contribute to the sinking of three much smaller ships. In its final battle, it was shredded to death by aircraft that took fairly minimal casualties, never even seeing the carriers that sent them out. Yet because of its cool factor and the undoubted accomplishments in engineering needed to build the thing, it was a pretty firm symbol of Japanese nationalism for its entire lifespan, meaning that any depiction of it in fiction (most famously Space Battleship Yamato) will invariably show it as being a lot more powerful than it really was.
  • Whether it gets depicted in a negative or (much more rarely) positive light, chances are that the Waffen-SS will be portrayed as Nazi Germany's Elite Mooks. This was not the case in reality. Waffen-SS members were "elite" only in a societal sense, and its members were selected for how well they seemed to fit Nazi ideas, not their capabilities. While some of its units and members were legitimately badass, the organization as a whole did not have a particularly impressive combat record. See Nazis with Gnarly Weapons for more on why their popular perception as impressive elite fighters is untrue.
  • Similar to the above (though even less likely to be portrayed in a positive light) is Werwolf, an underground network of Nazi military operatives who conducted sabotage and guerilla warfare in parts of Germany captured by the Allies, and spent some time as The Remnant after the war was over. Fiction tends to depict the organization as a terrifying "hidden army" that had a legitimate chance of reviving Nazi Germany. This is a far cry from what it was actually like. Werwolf was never seriously intended as an insurgency that would continue the fight after Germany's official defeat (since Hitler and other Nazi leaders considered even acknowledging the possibility that Germany could lose as "defeatist" and "cowardly"), and its propaganda value far outweighed its actual achievements. Even revisionist historians like Perry Biddiscombe who consider Werwolf to be more accomplished than the mainstream position says they were nevertheless generally insist it was no real threat to the Allied occupation after summer 1945 for a number of reasons.
  • Fictional portrayals of Joan of Arc tend to depict her as an Action Girl who's often leading troops in charges, if not a master swordfighter with physical strength to match a well-trained knight's physical conditioning. She's also often depicted as being singlehandedly responsible for changing the tides of the Hundred Years War in France's favor, leading to its ultimate victory in the conflict. Some works even depict her as having magical powers. While the real Joan's accomplishments were certainly impressive — especially considering her background, age and gender — she wasn't the Four-Star Badass and Knight in Shining Armor she's often imagined to be. By her own admission, she never personally killed anybody or commanded directly, although the individuals who did command considered her advice to be divinely inspired and didn't hesitate to give it at least partial credit for their victories. She also wasn't the only woman to serve in the French army — many widows had joined up after their husbands were killed — and not even the only woman to lead an army. But she was by far the youngest to do all these things.
  • For a given definition of "historical", Prehistoric Life are frequent recipients of this treatment. On the whole, extinct creatures are often thought of as always being more badass compared to modern animals due to the larger, more unusual, and more dangerous animals being more frequently portrayed in media and/or better preserved in the fossil record.
    • Raptors are often portrayed as being able to take down prey animals hundreds of times their size, such as healthy adult hadrosaurs, ceratopsians, or even sauropods. In reality, it's extremely unlikely they'd have been able to manage such a feat even in a best-case scenario; most species would have preferred small to mid-sized herbivores depending on the species' size.note 
    • Similarly, dire wolves tend to get depicted as huge (often horse-sized) beasts able to take down huge megafauna like mammoths and mastodons. In reality, they were only slightly larger (and stockier) than modern grey wolves, and probably would not have been that much more dangerous than a spotted hyena. While they were better able to take on larger prey than grey wolves due to their stockier forms and stronger bites, they would have mainly hunted horses, bison, and camels.
    • Wooly mammoths themselves are often assumed to be much larger than African bush elephants and with massive tusks. In reality, wooly mammoths were smaller than bush elephants and closer in size to Asian elephants. There were larger mammoth species, but they generally lived in warmer climates and were most likely hairless. The tusks also grew during the whole life of the mammoth, like they do in elephants, so only the very old would have the great tusks they are often pictured with. As for American mastodons, they are often confused with wooly mammoths, but they were even smaller and there isn't evidence that they were fully covered in hair like they are traditionally depicted to be.
  • The ancient Spartans are often depicted as top-of-the-top of soldierly skill, but their actual track record in combat was a lot more lackluster. While having an edge over most other Greeks, their training methods were at best Awesome, but Impractical, their over-reliance on heavy infantry came back to bite them on multiple occasions, and at least some of their biggest victories can be attributed to enemy blunders or to having for a change cared to look at the bigger picture beyond immediate soldiering. Additionally, writers tend to upplay their performances against Persia, and downplay most other periods—they failed to dislodge Athens for decades in the Peloponnesian War due to their inability to sustain campaigns until they relied on Persian support, needed Persian aid again in the Corinthian War, were soundly defeated by Thebes in the Theban-Spartan War, and ended up utterly crushed by Macedon and Rome. Curiously however, they were already on the receiving end of Badass Upgrade in their own times (by other Greeks to boot), so a writer trying to avoid it faces a weight of tradition to overcome.
  • The Rhodesian Defense Forces, while certainly far from incompetent, have had their capabilities greatly exaggerated both during and after the end of Rhodesia. One frequent claim is that thanks to them, Rhodesia was never defeated on the battlefield but lost at the negotiating table; while this is debatably true,note  they never really scored many (if any) decisive victories either, and a big part in why Rhodesia chose to negotiate with its enemies was because it knew their capabilities were increasing while those of the RDF were only decreasing as emigration and sanctions took their toll. A big part of this has actually come from Rhodesia's current and former enemies: during the war, the Patriotic Front played up how dangerous the RDF was to emphasize the need for improvement; after it, they talked of what valiant and deadly adversaries they were to make their eventual victory seem all the more impressive.
  • Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known by his nom de guerre Carlos the Jackal, was for a long time viewed as one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. The Bourne Series played him up as Jason Bourne's archenemy and a Diabolical Mastermind par excellence who has a number of prominent assassinations under his belt, including that of JFK. After his capture in 1994, however, his performance was re-evaluated and he's now largely seen by serious historians as more of a bumbling Smug Snake whose previous reputation was highly exaggerated.

  • There was a pair of advertisements during the 2007 elections in Argentina, where a guy casually mentions that he is not even aware which party he voted for, that he simply took the first one he saw. In the first one, Manuel Belgrano runs to him, does a flying karate kick and a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, and then reties his topknot and leaves with "Saludo a la bandera" in the background. In the other, José de San Martín stomps the guy with a cavalry charge, gives another No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, and then leaves, but not before kicking him while he's down. Belgrano and San Martín are both national heroes of Argentina, from the 19th century wars of independence. Both advertisements end by saying "There are people who gave their lives for this country. This sunday, vote with responsibility".

    Anime and Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • The Manhattan Projects feature robot Wernher Von Braun, irradiated skull Harry Daghlian, cannibal Evil Twin of Oppenheimer, evil parallel universe Einstein, and FDR AI meeting aliens, discovering wormholes and fighting robots zen powered by death monks.
  • In Atomic Robo, virtually any historical figure to appear will get this unless they were badass already, but special mention has to go to Carl Sagan, who gets to take a break from talking about the universe to blast the crap out of an Eldritch Abomination with a lightning gun while talking about the universe.
  • The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: Samuel Steele was certainly an exemplary officer of the RCMP who re-established order in the lawless Yukon during the Gold Rush, but writer Don Rosa tops this by making him The Ace. The meanest, orneriest prospector imaginable rides into town on a friggin' bear, but is so scared of Steele that he rushes off before the man arrives. In fact, Steele is SO badass that explosions can't even hurt him.
  • In Über, Alan Turing and General Patton are turned into Ubers, being the only historical figures so far in the comic to be enhanced.
  • Superman: In the "Camelot Falls" arc, Superman in a possible future faces against Khyber, or Hassan-i Sabbah. In real life, Hassan is already considered relatively badass, being the founder of the Order of Assassins. In DC, Hassan in that possible future is shown to be strong enough to fight Superman, cause global devastation by hurling Superman into the Earth and destroying part of a continent, and finally be able to kill Superman (albeit he had to use all of his energy and took advantage of Superman's hesitation to kill him).

    Fan Works 
  • In Codex Equus, many historical figures in real life become badass once they're adapted into the Codexverse.
    • Blue Suede Heartstrings is based on Elvis Presley, one of the most famous rock stars of his time. They are musicians who are also former soldiers who served during World War II. However, while Elvis continues to be remembered as an influential figure in the development of both rock-and-roll and modern rock, he's also remembered for his degrading career and obesity in his later years, ending with a rather Undignified Death. By contrast, Blue would meet Luminiferous during a very low point in his life while he was still relatively young. The pep-talk he received from Luminiferous motivated Blue to quit his job as a career musician and travel around the world, doing good deeds until he became an Alicorn god of Music and Humility (something he sees as ironic due to his religious background).
    • Bossa Nova Heartstrings, Blue's older identical twin brother, is based on Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis Presley's older identical twin brother who came out stillborn. While he came out stillborn like his character inspiration, Bossa Nova was adopted by the Three Deaths, giving him a (rather large) surrogate family of his own. His noble upbringing influenced him to eventually become something great - an Alicorn god - despite being dead, and being a Death god means he's still rather powerful despite not being a "prodigy" deity like his younger brother.
    • President Theddeus Moosepelt is based on Theodore Roosevelt, who is venerated for his reforms and was something of a Renaissance Man when he was alive. Here, he served five consecutive terms (Franklin D. Roosevelt served four terms as President), and was responsible for various reforms, including the federal income tax, workers' rights, monopoly/trust-busting, electoral reform, prohibition of alcohol, universal suffrage, desegregation of the Federal Government, and greater civil rights for minorities. It's noted that many of his reforms had been met with mixed or considerable success.
  • Until the End of Time: Adolf Hitler turns into a Super Saiyan to battle Goku. Despite his preference for people with a Saiyan’s description (blonde hair, blue eyes), Hitler in real life is not known to have possessed such abilities.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Qin Shi Huangdi in Hero (2002), as befitting a character in the wuxia genre.
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: The eponymous President is depicted as a badass vampire hunter who started his profession after learning what really killed his birth mother.
  • Jurassic Park: Many of the dinosaurs and recreated animals in this franchise are subjected to this trope, most notably the theropods. The Velociraptor is an intelligent and social killer, a far cry from the solo hunting, turkey-sized and not outright stupid but rather simple-minded ambush hunter, the Spinosaurus can now apparently kill large and dangerous prey such as tyrannosaurs when its anatomy is clearly that of a pisciverous water-lover, and Compsognathus is no-longer a solitary, cat-like predator of small prey and now a sort of land-piranha with toxic saliva. Zig-zagged in the Dilophosaur's case, as she is shrank, but armed with toxic spraying powers and a menacing frill on her neck. Ironically, the Tyrannosaurus rex itself is something of an Adaptational Wimp, as she retains most of the real animal's power, she is slightly handicapped with terrible eyesight, when real tyrannosaurs had excellent vision.
  • The character of Phillip Thomsen in Das Boot is very loosely based on Heinz Hirsacker, the real life commander of U-572. Hirsacker was not as noble or brave as Thomsen is portrayed in the film and was never awarded a combat decoration for his U-Boat service, much less the Knight's Cross. He was further accused in 1942 of cowardice before the enemy after repeatedly avoiding enemy ships and retreating to base at the first sign of pursuit. Hirsacker was convicted by a court martial and sentenced to death, but committed suicide in 1943 before the sentence could be carried out.
  • I Shot Jesse James: In this film, the character John Kelley is meant to represent Edward Capehart O'Kelley, who came into conflict with main character Robert Ford. In real life, O’Kelley had a history of drunkenness and only beat Robert Ford when he surprised him in Ford’s own tent. In the film, he’s able to take on two men at the same time and defeat Robert Ford in a duel by playing to Bob’s dislike of shooting men in the back.
  • 300: The film is a World of Badass, so everything is heightened. The Spartans are all One-Man Army superheroes. The Persians ride monstrous creatures. Xerxes is a giant.
  • The Untouchables (1987) presents Frank Nitti as Al Capone's top assassin. In real life, while Capone's second-in-command, Nitti left the actual dirty work to others.

  • Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. That is all.
  • In The Alice Network, the Femme Fatale Spy Eve uses the Code Name of Marguerite le Français. In Real Life, a woman with this name actually was arrested with Louise de Bettignies, but the real Marguerite almost certainly wasn't a spy. Our fictional Marguerite, on the other hand....
  • Belisarius Series. You would think the Real Life Belisarius was badass enough, but this Belisarius defeats an evil cyborg Conqueror from the Future.
  • Almost everyone in The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel who's a historical figure has taken a level or two in badass. This includes the ones who were badass already, like Joan of Arc, as well as the ones who weren't, like the Flamels and John Dee.
  • The Baroque Cycle portrays Peter the Great as a giant Boisterous Bruiser with enormous strength. While Peter was in reality extremely tall, especially for his era, he was also very thin and had health problems.
  • Roughly half the cast of The Pyrates, but particularly Calico Jack (who becomes an intelligent, level-headed, superhumanly strong leader of men) and Captain Avery (historical records are sketchy, but the real Henry Avery was definitely not a Master Swordsman Chick Magnet Canon Sue). The big exception to this is Colonel Thomas Blood, who in the book is merely a roguish, charming, highly capable antiheroic badass, but in real life was, if anything, a couple of steps up from that.
  • Older Than Feudalism: Goliath in The Bible is described as a mammoth six cubits and a span (9'9" or 2.97 metres). In the Dead Sea scrolls (the oldest version of the story we have) he's a still impressive but much more plausible four cubits and a span (6'9", or 2.10 metres). The tallest human whose size is reliably documented, Robert Wadlow, was 2.72 metres (8'11").
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms: While many of the main characters were generals and war leaders, the romance heightens everything and turns many historical figures into Four-Star Badass front-line warriors who single-handedly turn the tides of battles with their fierce fighting prowess. Some commanders are also given more brilliance than historical records document. For example, Zhuge Liang in real life was known to be a brilliant administrator but only average as a military commander, while the Romance turns him into an supernaturally gifted commander, giving him credit for a number of strategies not specifically attributed to him by history, as well as actual magical powers.
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians: It's mentioned that many a famous historical figure is secretly a demigod, which also implies that they went to Camp Half-Blood and fought mythological monsters in their youth.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Blackadder Back and Forth features a working Time Machine based on plans by Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Black Sails:
    • The show portrays Ann Bonny as a Dark Action Girl and a deadly fencer who bests everyone she fights and acts as the enforcer to her foppish boyfriend Jack Rackham. While Bonny was a real pirate who did participate in ship combat, there's no evidence that she was an exceptional fighter.
    • The historic Jack Rackham was a raging alcoholic pirate captain who met his end from being too drunk to help fight off attackers. The show gives him a completely different character as a brainy Dragon-in-Chief Non-Action Guy who is an ineffective fighter but still very dangerous by virtue of being devious.
  • Doctor Who: Whenever a historical figure teams up with the Doctor, they will always prove very capable in a tight spot and help win the day.
  • America's Founding Fathers are given this treatment in Sons of Liberty. In reality, they were mostly middle-aged and spent their time debating and writing pamphlets, contrary to the series' portrayal of them as a band of scruffy thirty-somethings who can jump between rooftops and excel in combat.
  • Spartacus: Blood and Sand: Every historical person shown fighting is given a healthy dose of this due to the stylized combat. Marcus Crassus, however, is also portrayed as a tyrannical Magnificent Bastard. In real life, Crassus (by many estimates the richest person who ever lived) is believed to have simply bought his way to the top and eventually got himself killed in what is generally considered an ill-advised quest for military glory.
  • Supernatural:
    • Dean Winchester is thrown back in time and meets Elliot Ness, who went down in history as a badass lawman, only to discover he is also a monster hunter.
    • L. Frank Baum is revealed to have been one of the Men of Letters.
  • This is the entire premise of Warehouse 13. The emotion-based Magical Realism of the setting makes every last Historical Domain Character ever mentioned into a terrifying badass and makes their belongings into Artifacts of Doom.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Pathfinder includes, in its Reign of Winter adventure path, an encounter with the evil mastermind Rasputin the Mad Monk. Not a fantasy counterpart, the actual historical figure. In this version, he has dark magic and is capable of being a boss battle against a party of experienced adventurers; a Rasputinian Death indeed.

    Video Games 

    Web Original 
  • Cox and Combes' Washington presents the titular Washington in increasingly glowing terms, until he's Washington, Washington, twelve stories high / made of radiation.
  • The Pope John Paul II has a good claim on being a Real Life badass, as he is often credited for playing a major role in the downfall of the Soviet bloc. But regardless of whether you agree with this opinion or not, Polish memesters from the local Image Boards have re-imagined him as a genocidal warlord and a were-cheetah, two things he most certainly wasn't. (They also cast him as a Paedophile Priest, but we all can agree it hardly counts as badass.)
  • In Jreg's Centricide, the spirits of Kim Il Sung, Ayn Rand, Julius Evola, Che Guevara joined forces and went on to possess YouTuber Greg Guevara and make jrem become the embodiment of anti-centrism, forming Jregnote . Together, they led a group of extremists of various kinds in their quest to eradicate centrism in the Centricide.
  • The Fire Never Dies: Almost every single Red Army general fits this to a degree, being largely composed of veteran union organizers. The only exceptions were Leon Bronstein, Charles Whittlesley, and Omar Bradley, all of whom were accomplished commanders IOTL.
    • Arguably applies to many Ku Klux Klan leaders who become senior officers, although their military records tended to be short on victories and long on atrocities.

    Western Animation 
  • Robot Chicken does this frequently:
  • Futurama has done this occasionally.
    • Benjamin Franklin invented a weapon he dubbed "The Franklin-ator": a live badger tied to the end of a club.
    • Harry Truman in "Roswell that Ends Well" can punch his way out of a crate.
    • Inverted and then played straight with Leonardo da Vinci, who is revealed to be an alien who is one of the least intelligent of his speciesnote , but designs and builds a giant killing machine to extract revenge for his ill-treatment.

In-Universe examples

    Film — Live-Action 
  • UHF: The Show Within a Show Gandhi II reimagines the passive resistance leader as a Death Wish-style vigilante who drives a Ferrari and fights thugs in the street.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Star Trek: Voyager episode "Living Witness". The story focuses on the historical depiction of an encounter with Voyager by an alien civilization hundreds of years before. The actual Voyager crew were stranded in a distant part of the galaxy on a ship built primarily for exploration and diplomacy who were constantly outclassed by far more aggressive enemies. The biased depiction portrays them as a ruthlessly violent gang of Nazi-like thugs, and the Voyager as an impenetrable warship armed to the teeth with advanced weaponry, and containing a complement of Borg drones at the captain's disposal.

    Western Animation 
  • In Gravity Falls, we have Nathaniel Northwest, a supposed badass pioneer and the touted founder of Gravity Falls. In reality he was a waste-shoveling village idiot who was used to hide the existence of the real founder of Gravity Falls and America's most embarrassing secret, the 8th and 1/2 President of the United States, Quentin Trembley. Although later it turns out he wasn't so much an idiot as a Manipulative Bastard, making this more of a Historical Hero Upgrade.
  • Mayor Dewey tried to do this in Steven Universe with his ancestor William Dewey, but he wrote him as too over-the-top — he gave his ordinary human ancestor the power to grow 50 feet tall at will, entirely to invoke this trope. Pearl, who was actually there for the events the play covers, rewrote the whole thing to be more historically accurate and less absurd.
  • Jebediah Springfield, eponymous founder of Springfield in The Simpsons. Pop history holds that he killed a bear with his bare hands, but evidence suggests it was actually the other way around. It's also said that he tamed a buffalo, but by his own confession, it was already tame; he merely shot it. His presence at the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga has been questioned. It turns out he was a murderous pirate, and while he was a brawler, his involvement in the American Revolution is probably a post-hoc interpolation, since he was called Hans Sprungfeld until 1795. According to the same episode, he actually died of disease.


Video Example(s):



Robot Chicken imagines the American Revolution in the style of 300.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (9 votes)

Example of:

Main / HistoricalBadassUpgrade

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