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Historical Villain Upgrade

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Grigori Rasputin had his faults, sure, but he probably wasn't an evil lich...

"... And every tale condemns me for a villain."

OK, let's say you're still writing that movie, which is Very Loosely Based on a True Story. You chose a period of history that involves a lot of exciting fight scenes and explosions so your audience won't fall asleep and now you need some main characters.

But there's a problem: most of the Real Life figures were morally grey and complex people. How are you going to make sure that your audience knows who the bad guy is?

Well, all you have to do is to pick someone who wasn't on your side. If you're American all you have to do is choose an evil Briton or German or Russian or Arab. Or failing that, an Italian or a Scotsman (just as long as they fought alongside those dastardly Anglo-commie-terror-nazis.) And if you're English you'll want to use one of the Anglo-Saxon bastards against the brave and heroic King Arthur. Or those treacherous English bastards against that brave and heroic King William the Con... Hey—wait a second...


But hang on. There's another problem. Your new villain wasn't actually "evil" per se. Well, all you have to do is give your newfound villain a few Kick the Dog moments, adjust his appearance to something more recognizably evil and ignore anything of his life that doesn't fit your artistic vision.

Note that just because this happens to someone does NOT mean that he or she was a good person in Real Life; it is perfectly possible to make absolutely anyone seem even more evil than in reality (yes, even Hitler). Also note that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it is often done to make a better story.

A lot of sports movies do this to the coach of the Opposing Sports Team; turning him or her from a paid professional whose job is to ensure that his team wins to a callous bastard whose philosophy is "win at any cost".


This trope is the opposite of a Historical Hero Upgrade, although many figures often get one of those as well in works with a different viewpoint. They may also appear alongside each other when applied to different people, to make the Black and White Morality contrast even more obvious.

Usually this is a part of Politically Correct History. When Fan Fic writers do this to a canon character, it's Ron the Death Eater. When an adaptation does it to a character from a previous story, it's Adaptational Villainy. Simply using bad people from history as villains goes under History's Crime Wave.

May overlap with Historical Badass Upgrade, Beethoven Was an Alien Spy, Ancient Conspiracy, and Flanderization. Compare with Hijacked by Jesus and Everybody Hates Hades, which do this to a member of a polytheistic pantheon. Contrast with Historical Villain Downgrade.

Sub-Trope of Demonization.
And Super-Trope to:

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Examples using real people

    Audio Plays 
  • In Big Finish Doctor Who Fifth Doctor story the Kingmaker, Richard III is actually confronted by his own Historical Villain Upgrade. The reason why this entry isn't under the In-Universe page is because: this story does the same to William Shakespeare, who became very bitter due to the way the Fifth Doctor treated him, and nabbed a Time Machine and was willing to assassinate him, and his companions, and due to a Timey-Wimey Ball ends up becoming Richard III at his last battle, and Richard III takes up the mantle of William Shakespeare.

    Fan Works 
  • Happens to Thomas Edison and others in the legendary Peter Chimaera's Book of Hsitorical Faffiction.
  • This is quite common in the work of Shakespeare Hemmingway.
    • Lionel Logue is depicted as a Nazi spy in "The King's Garfield".
    • Whatever one may think of Kanye West, it's very doubtful that he'd react to a perceived snub by threatening to infect people with Ebola. But this is exactly what he does in "The Garfield Bowl" after Garfield is chosen for the next Super Bowl's halftime act instead of him.
    • In "The Garfield Network", Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake try to steal "the Facebook" from its real creator.
    • And of course, we can't forget Garfield: Royal Rescue, where Prince William is a wannabe Bond villain, while his younger brother Harry is an unstable psycho.

    Film — Animation 
  • Governor Ratcliffe from Disney's Pocahontas. The real John Ratcliffe seems to have been more foolishly trusting than villainous. By the way, he was tortured to death (flayed alive, actually) by the Powhatan Indians, who seem to have received a bit of a Historical Hero Upgrade in the movie.
  • Granted, the Huns weren't all that nice, but Disney's demonic portrayal of them in Mulan (complete with inhuman yellow eyes) is pretty extreme. They shouldn't even have been Huns. The tribe that Mulan fought against were the Xiongnu, a similar but distinct tribe.
  • Fitting in with the other depictions of Prince John, listed above, Disney's Robin Hood portrays the guy as an effeminate Large Ham who is prone to childish tantrums upon mention of his brother and always begins sobbing at the mention of his mother. He also taxes Nottingham until most of the citizens are in jail because they invented a song that insulted him and plans to have Friar Tuck hanged to lure out Robin Hood.
  • Queen Victoria was not a particularly mean person. The version of her that appears in Aardman Animations' The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, on the other hand, has been described as "a fiend in human form."
  • In Don Bluth's Anastasia Rasputin the Mad Monk is an undead evil sorcerer who sold his soul in exchanged for a demon-powered reliquary, and sparked the Russian Revolution to kill the Romanovs, and is out to kill Anastasia. In real life, he was an eccentric but staunch ally of the Romanovs, and is revered to this day in his native Russia.
  • In the Spanish animation El Cid: The Legend, Yusuf ibn Tashfin is depicted as the Big Bad and is even more over-the-top than than his incarnation in El Cid, in contrast to his alleged reputation as an honorable man. While the real Yusuf and Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar were in opposite sides, the two never even met with Rodrigo having fought mostly against Yusuf's nephew. He also does other things that never happened such as capturing Rodrigo's wife Jimena and giving her a Go-Go Enslavement treatment.
  • Hernán Cortés gets this treatment in The Road to El Dorado. Make no mistake, the real man was no Knight in Shining Armor, but he's portrayed as significantly worse than he was in reality. When he catches Miguel and Tulio aboard his ship, he says he'll sell them into slavery in Cuba. While the real Cortés did take Spanish prisoners after defeating a force sent to arrest him, the thought of enslaving fellow Christians would have horrified him. The real man was also a charming diplomat who forged genuine alliances with some native groups, while in the film he is a humorless hardass who uses the one native who submits to him as a tool to destroy and kill all the others, and betrays him the minute he doesn't get his way.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Rasputin in the Pathfinder module Reign Of Winter gets both this and a Historical Badass Upgrade. Pathfinder's Rasputin is a canonically Neutral Evil high-level divine spellcaster who is also the estranged son of Baba Yaga and has a sinister scheme to steal her power through occult means. He's the Big Bad of one of the major story arcs, and, appropriately, needs to be killed more than once for it to stick.
  • In Warhammer 40,000, Doombreed is one of Khorne's most ancient and powerful Daemon Princes, older even than the Primarchs, has a cloak made of a thousand Space Marine skulls, and was elevated for the slaughter he carried out on a massive scale during the 1st or 2nd Millenium. Fanon has it that he was better known in life by the name Genghis Khan, or less commonly Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin
    • Another minor Daemon character, Uraka Az'baramael the Warfiend, is noted to have lead horsebound armies as a mortal, killing and plundering at his command. He ascended by massacring an entire city after defeating it in a siege and offering the butchery to the god Khorne. This matches accounts of the devastation the Mongol hordes wrought, all but stating that Uraka is Genghis Khan.

    Visual Novels 
  • Some interesting cases in Shikkoku no Sharnoth. Any time you meet a historical figure, there's about a fifty/fifty chance that they're an antagonist, though not necessarily evil. The first is Josef Capek, oddly enough.

  • Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy Breaching Time and Space (yes) pretty much runs on this trope, which is of course inevitable.
  • In an extremely strange version of this trope, Grover Cleveland, U.S. President, in Casey and Andy. Even though the two main characters are set in current time, the story arcs have now coalesced in a situation where Grover Cleveland has hired a supervillain as his advisor, and is about to marry Satan (it's complicated).
  • Guttersnipe portrays Stanford-educated president Herbert Hoover as a bumbling manchild — literally, with an oval office full of baby toys.
  • Played with in Hark! A Vagrant's Genghis Khan comic. An amiable Genghis Khan reassures a terrified man that he's more than a "scary warlord," informing him that he's a nation-builder who runs a meritocracy. In the last panel:
    Genghis: We still kill all our enemies though.
    Man: Oh, no doubt.
    Genghis: I'm not gonna lie, it's pretty brutal.

    Web Original 
  • The internet gives this treatment to Lewis Carroll. In real life, he was a kind, innocent and cheerful man, and Alice Lidell was one of his fondest friends. But, as far as the internet is concerned, Carroll was a drug-addicted pedophile, and Lidell was his number-one victim.
  • The three Thomas More stories at this site, being James Bond parodies set in an Alternate History version of 16th century Europe, inevitably rely on this as well, giving several prominent historical figures of the Reformation and the thereabouts a Historical Bond Villain Upgrade. Here's a quote to demonstrate:
  • Cracked:
  • Epic Rap Battles of History:
    • Tesla finishes his rap by saying "If they knew you prevented me from making power free, they would curse the name Edison with every utility". This is presumably referring to the Wardclyffe Tower, which didn't actually work in the first place.
    • Done intentionally with Walt Disney, who is essentially a super villain in the ERB-verse.
    • Downplayed in "Babe Ruth vs. Lance Armstrong"; although the ERB version of the character didn't do anything the real Lance Armstrong didn't, Armstrong in real life seemed genuinely apologetic once he confessed. The ERB version is practically bragging about the fact that he cheated.
    • A minor case with Robert Oppenheimer in "Thanos vs. J. Robert Oppenheimer". In real life, Oppenheimer called himself "the destroyer of worlds" self-deprecatingly over the power of the atomic bomb. The Oppenheimer of ERB used it as a Basass Boast.
  • Through his articles started out as arguably legitimate criticisms of US domestic and foreign policy ( and that's all we'll say about this), the articles of Progressive blogger Stephen Lendman eventually ended up as this, going as far to portray Barack Obama and the entire leadership of America and NATO as a bunch of Always Chaotic Evil omnicidal maniacs waging war on the entire planet and planning to start World War III and destroy the world by nuking everyone For the Evulz through the usage of Abomination Accusation Attack.
  • Fear, Loathing and Gumbo on the Campaign Trail '72 has Donald Rumsfeld become a psychotic President who ends up creating the most oppressive government in US history, tanking the US economy with his crazed anarcho-capitalist economic policies, eliminating all forms of social welfare and consequently subjecting working-class Americans to truly dreadful poverty and working conditions, and privatising the US military and leading soldiers into many, many wars against "the communist nations" (which by Rumsfeld's reasoning is practically any country that's even slightly left-wing in any way — he even begins supporting the IRA just because Britain voted for a Labour government) with woefully inadequate equipment. It's hard to tell exactly when Rumsfeld crossed the Moral Event Horizon, but good candidates would be either holding up the genocidal apartheid government of South Africa as a bastion of freedom or ordering for wounded US soldiers to be executed to duck out of paying for their healthcare.
  • For All Time seems to make this a tradition, with some of the most marginalized figures in OTL becoming prominent figures here. Some prime examples include:
    • Jean Bedel-Bokassa: Becomes Emperor of France after the country suffers from a string of inept dictators and a civil war. He decides to solve famine by importing "equatorial pork," which is later found to be meat made from the flesh of slaughtered political prisoners.
    • Jim Jones: Becomes Governor of Pennsylvania and later President of the United States, where he begins locking his opponents in labor camps, ruthlessly crushing militants of all stripes, and creating a paramilitary force called the "National Volunteer Army" to help enforce his rule. He almost starts a nuclear war to fill a religious delusion, but he's quietly deposed in a coup before he can trigger it.
    • Andrei Chikatilo: Serves as the final premier of the Soviet Union, where he starts a nuclear war with China, launches an unprovoked nuclear attack on the Middle East, and later destroys his own country in a nuclear civil war.

    Western Animation 
  • A time-travelling episode of the 1990s Fantastic Four cartoon has the eponymous heroes popping up in the middle of the Battle of Marathon. The Thing asks whose side they're on, and Reed Richards responds "The Athenians invented democracy, while the Persians were ruthless tyrants". Neither statement is particularly accurate.
  • In the Princess Sissi TV series:
    • The biggest victim is Duchess Helene of Wittelsbach. Oh GOD, poor Helene. In Real Life, Nene actually got over Franz and was Happily Married to Prince Maximillian of Thurn und Taxis, and not to mention she and Sisi got along well enough to have Sisi as the recipient of Nene's Famous Last Words. In the series, she's an ungrateful and clingy Gold Digger who wants to ruin Sisi and Franz's happiness at any costs.
    • Also Arch-Duke Franz's mother, Arch-duchess Sophie, who was less of an Evil Matriarch Rich Bitch and more of an Ignored Expert with her own set of problems. Blame it on the Sisi movies, which have been turning her into this ever since The '60s (whereas Helene was mostly spared there).
    • Not to mention that in order to make the villianousness complete they erased familiar ties between them. Nene was Elisabeths older sister, not some duchess from I-don't-know-where and Sophie was her aunt. (weeeeeell... I can see why they removed the hint of Sissi and Franz being cousins, kids show and all that). Sophie at worst was adamant on holding up tradition and tried her best to make her daughter-in-law a good emperess, which clashed with Elisabeth's own free-spirited nature. Most basis for the villainous portrayal of Sophie comes from Elisabeth herself, while other sources described her as stern and strict but very caring and actually pretty worried for her daughter-in-law.
  • Richard Nixon was corrupt, but his Futurama persona is one of the best examples of President Evil. Although in the show his evil is partially attributed to his going mad after having to spend a thousand years as a body-less head in a jar.
  • God, the Devil and Bob: Richard Nixon is such a despicable person that he actually made it in Heaven because the Devil himself was unwilling to keep him in Hell, arguing he was disturbing the others.
  • The Real Ghostbusters:
    • As stated above, the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday were clearly no angels; however, when they appeared in one episode as restless spirits in they were clearly evil, tormenting the living for no apparent reason other than the fact that they felt like it.
    • Al Capone was the villain in another episode, and... Well, despite the fact that he was ruling a hellish dimension that resembled Prohibition era Chicago with a gang of demonic mobsters (and had magical powers to go with it), this may have been a downgrade, given the things the real one was responsible for (his kill-count in the actual episode was zero, given the type of cartoon it was, even though it did borrow a lot from the one in The Untouchables, perhaps).
  • One episode of The Smurfs portrays a cabal of Druids as evil sorcerers, who had been imprisoned inside a tree by more benign wizards centuries ago. While there is evidence that the real Druids (a class of priests among the Celtic peoples of Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and possibly elsewhere during the Iron Age) engaged in Human Sacrifice and other sinister acts, they were certainly not demonic practitioners of black magic as shown here — the leader doesn't even seem human; he lookes more like some robed ghost with glowing, red eyes peering out of a hood that hide the rest of his face. That having been said, the Druids were pagans, and this portrayal was in a cartoon series produced in a country that was — and still is — overwhelmingly Christian, so go figure.
  • The Twins of Destiny is set during the closing years of Empress Dowager Cixi's rule in China. The Empress Dowager is depicted as a tyrannical sorceress who turns dissidents into statues, and is the Big Bad of the series.

  • Walt Disney has long been rumored to be an anti-Semite. There's little evidence to support these rumors, and plenty that seems to contradict them (Walt had many Jews in the higher ranks of his studio and donated to Jewish charities, among other things), but a lack of objective evidence hasn't hurt them.
  • Marlene Dietrich had a biography written by her daughter, Maria Riva, which practically portrays her as Frau Engel. As such, most people take it a little skeptically, as for one it contradicts other things known about her (such as saying she was super Anti-Semitic, when in fact she helped refugees escape Nazi Germany as the main page suggests.)
  • Christopher Columbus is often blackwashed in all manner of media as a genocidal maniac who massacred the natives For the Evulz. While he did kill people, the vast majority were unintentional, due to him and his followers having viruses and bacteria the natives weren't immune to, which caused a massive epidemic. His Global Ignorance is often grossly exaggerated also: he didn't think the Earth was flat, nor did he think it was shaped like a pear, and while he did get the place he landed wrong, most people "in the know" at the time believed the same misconception.
  • Despite her status as a widely-admired woman, Mother Teresa was only human. As such, she had flaws and weaknesses, and made mistakes and questionable decisions. That being said, there are those who seek to "debunk" the conventional image of her as a near-perfect human being... and end up overcorrecting, especially after Christopher Hitchens got the ball rolling with his accusations that she was a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing who accepted embezzled money from notorious fraudster Robert Maxwell and let people suffer when she could have prevented it. In truth, there's no evidence that she knew the money was embezzled when she accepted the donation and many of her critics fail to understand the context of some of the other things she did. Mother Theresa's entire operation was about an absolute open door policy. Nobody could be turned aside, nobody would be left on the streets, etc. This meant that her hospices (not hospitals) focused more on quantity than quality, given that Calcutta had an absolutely enormous population of poor people. Another reason her hospices weren't up to the standards of Western hospitals is simply because of where and when she operated: in India well before its economy started taking off. India also had some strong restrictions on painkillers at the time, meaning the medicines she gets criticized for not using were unavailable to her.
  • Kate "Ma" Barker is frequently imagined as the leader of the Barker–Karpis gang. But historians generally believe that the image of her as a criminal mastermind was made up by J. Edgar Hoover after her death, since it would be hard to justify killing an old woman who may not even have fired a weapon in the shootout where she died. She certainly knew of the gang's activities and even helped them before and after they committed their crimes — making her an accomplice — but there's no evidence that she was involved in their planning or execution, and multiple people associated with the gang have said her main role was to help them pretend to be an ordinary family. The real leader of the gang was probably the infamous Canadian gangster Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.

In-Universe examples

    Fan Works 
  • Xander in the prologue of Ship of the Line: The Death Star, provides a Mercy Kill for the whole of humanity on Earth once they've run out of time to evacuate after all Hell breaks loose (literally). However, it's acknowledged by several characters that despite his intentions, within a century he'd be known as the monster who killed six billion people and destroyed the Earth. This is part of why Xander insists on pulling the trigger himself.
  • Sonic X: Dark Chaos:
  • Fuuka in Eroninja has a few legends based around her time as a revenant, such as a wicked pirate who devoured the souls of her entire crew. In reality, she was still an Anti-Hero at the time and insisted on only attacking fellow pirates. Her crew mutined and tried to kill her, causing her to kill them in response.
  • Salazar Slytherin is known in the Harry Potter history as a bigot who advocated Pureblood Supremacy ideas and left the school after the other founders disagreed with him, though not before hiding a Basilisk that can only be controlled by his heir to massacre muggle-borns. In Izzyaro's Tales of the Founder series, Slytherin is a good person despite being highly suspicious of muggles (with good reasons). "Strange Visitors From Another Century" will presumably explain how his legacy would become so twisted in Harry's timeline.
  • crawlersout: Another Harry Potter example, though significantly downplayed. While Gellert Grindelwald is remembered as a monster in Fem!Harry's time, and rightfully so, when she meets the man herself she is left wondering if this is in play. Grindelwald's revolution was driven by legitimate concerns, specifically the stagnation of Wizarding Society, problems that Harry and her friends are still dealing with now in their own time and universe. She eventually comes to the conclusion that while his intentions and ideals were noble, they were also twisted by his megalomania and in no way justifies the many atrocities he will go on to commit.
  • In Inverted Fate, the monsters have a far more negative view of Chara than they did in Undertale as since Undyne was the Royal Scientist, she released the True Lab tapes to the Underground, revealing to monsters Chara's plan and the truth behind Chara's and Asriel's deaths.

    Film — Animated 
  • In Coco, Héctor is remembered in the present as a man who abandoned his wife and child to pursue his selfish dream of becoming a musician when he actually wanted to support his family and would have returned home quicker if Ernesto hadn't poisoned him. Miguel is later able to set the record straight.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: Voyager: In the episode "Living Witness", the entire Voyager crew receives this treatment from the Kyrians, who pieced together their biased view of history from the incomplete ship's logs they found. Voyager is portrayed as warship whose crew aided the Vaskans, the enemy species of the Kyrians, to carry out a Kyrian genocide. It isn't until a historian manages to activate a backup of the EMH program that he realizes how wrong the accepted view of Voyager's involvement in the Vaskan/Kyrian conflict is, namely, how wrongly Janeway and her crew were vilified.

  • Girl Genius: Klaus Wulfenbach. Stories featuring him with the Heterodynes have depicted him as both a cowardly sidekick and a outright villain. This is also an in-universe example of Characterization Marches On. Before Klaus made himself hugely unpopular by... you know... blowing stuff up and invading places no-one could spell, he was portrayed as a more classic Side Kick, slightly naive and clueless and very accident-prone, but competent and unfailingly loyal.

    Western Animation 
  • Nightmare Moon of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Word of God is that Princess Luna's transformation into her was due to some form of Demonic Possession or similar outside influence, but this didn't make it into the legends we see in the show. On top of that, Equestria's equivalent of Halloween is based around a Historical Villain Upgrade which suggests she flies around one night every year looking for ponies to eat. Not surprisingly, she doesn't take this particularly well when she finds out.
  • In one episode of The Fairly OddParents!, Cosmo has to learn to be evil for a day, so Timmy asks Wanda to introduce him to the most evil person in history; she ultimately comes back with... Genghis Khan. Played for Laughs and blatantly due to the fact that anyone worse than him would be un-PC for a kids' show, but he's still not the usual figure most would apply that lofty label to.
  • In G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, this was taken Up to Eleven and then completely Inverted with Serpentor. He was a clone created by splicing the DNA of dozens of notorious historical tyrants and conquerors, and due to errors and incompetence involved in his creation, would likely have caused every one of them to be embarrassed to be associated with him. He was barely better than the guy he replaced.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Aang attends a Fire Nation school which claims that the Air Nation had armies. They in fact did not have a formal military system at all. Justified as this is Fire Nation propaganda.
  • In My Life as a Teenage Robot, Queen Vexus propagandizes her attempts to conquer Earth as her defending the Cluster from Jenny. When Jenny ends up on Cluster Prime, nobody recognizes her because they only know of her through state propaganda that depicts her as a deranged monster. This leads to the Cluster citizens turning on her when the lie is exposed and they realize Jenny is actually a hero who cares more about them than their own queen does.
  • Star vs. the Forces of Evil: when first mentioned, Eclipsa the Queen of Darkness is presented as the Buttefly family's Black Sheep and The Dreaded, who dwelled into The Dark Arts to the point she wrote an entire chapter about it in the family's grimoire, abandoned her husband to marry a monster and had to be trapt inside a crystal to stop her evil. When she is freed and actually starts showing up in person, however, we gradually find out that not only is she a perfectly nice, if quirky, woman, whose worst flaw is being slightly selfish, but she never actually did anything truly evil; while she did write the "evil" chapter in the family's book she didn't consider the magic described in it evil (people just assumed it was because she wrote it and never actually read it out of fear it'd corrupt them), and her husband was a colossal Jerkass who she left to marry a monster she genuinely loved; she then got crystallized immediately before she had time to do anything, on the sole basis her people have strong Fantastic Racism toward monsters, and her taking one as a lover was seen as a dishonor to her family.
  • Bob's Burgers: In the episode "Topsy", Louise creates a play about Thomas Edison for a science fair project. She portrays Edison as a ruthless animal-abuser who kills the titular elephant by electrocution. While parts of that story is true, Louise overemphasized Edison's bad characteristics just so she could spite her bullying substitute science teacher who was a massive Edison fanboy. When Gene takes over the project, he turns it into a love story between Edison and Topsy.
  • Steven Universe: In Garnet's story, Pink Diamond was presented as a despicable monster who didn't care about the life on Earth, and openly mocked Rose Quartz for questioning her. She was also a Dirty Coward who called her fellow Diamonds for help when her back was against the wall. In order to stop the war, Rose was forced to shatter her. In reality, Pink Diamond was Rose Quartz. Everything Rose learned about humanity were actually things Pink learned. She created the Rebellion and faked her death in an elaborate scheme to save the Earth and free herself from her duties as a Diamond. Presumably, the story Garnet told was the version Rose gave the Crystal Gems, specifically Invoking this trope.


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