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I Should Have Been Better

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EMT: Hey Peter, good job saving that girl today.
Peter: Her mother died. I should have gotten there sooner.
EMT: Should have...? Peter, you got there faster than is humanly possible.
Peter: I should have been faster.

It's an old standby: The hero has done his absolute best, saved everyone he possibly could...but not everyone. Someone died, nearly always in a way completely outside the hero's control. He went above and beyond the call of duty, but it wasn't enough.


Can lead to Training from Hell, Heroic BSoD, and, in rare cases, Jumping Off the Slippery Slope. See also Chronic Hero Syndrome and Samaritan Syndrome. Friends will often respond with, "You Did Everything You Could."

Related to Guilt Complex or My Greatest Failure.


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • In Marvel Comics, this is part of The Sentry's mental problems. He has the power of a million exploding suns, but whom does he choose to save and whom to let die?
    • In fact, the same could be said for The Sentry's inspiration, Superman himself. Despite his vast powers, he is not a god. He is still someone with his own life yet is burdened by the fact that he cannot always be there for people that need him and having his supersenses means he knows when so many people are in trouble.
      • As listed in film, a very poignant and Tearjerking example was the inability to save Pa Kent.
  • This is one of the key elements of Spider-Man. Our friendly neighborhood superhero never congratulates himself on the fact that he saves 99% of the people who fall into danger, but he always blames himself for that 1% he couldn't save.
  • Batman. It's his shtick; he wasn't able to save his family as a child, leading him to become the criminal-pulping badass he is today. All in the name of trying to make sure no eight-year-old boy ever has his parents taken away by a punk with a gun, ever again. It's highly unlikely that he'll succeed, but we still love the journey.

    Comic Strips 

  • RainbowDoubleDash's Lunaverse: Princess Luna starts off the Grand Galloping Gala with one of these, delivered to the town of Ponyville, for letting her Night Court get out of control.
  • Kyoshi Rising: the title character constantly beats herself up over failing to defend her home from bandits, and like the Batman example above she sets out to make sure that no one else has to go through the same experience.
  • In Fractured, a Mass Effect/Star Wars/Borderlands crossover and its sequel, Origins, Samantha Shepard experiences this trope full-force. She blames herself for her own Heroic BSoD in Fractured, and then insists (against all reason) that she is also somehow responsible for the Flood's taking over the galaxy.

    Films — Animation 
  • Mr. Incredible feels like this near the end of The Incredibles for an atypical reason - he says that he's "not strong enough", which Helen assumes to mean this. Bob was referring to having watched their plane get shot down and fearing the worst just hours before.
    Bob: I can't lose you again! ...I can't. Not again. I'm not... strong enough.
    Helen: If we work together, you won't have to be.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The famous scene at the end of Schindler's List in which Oskar Schindler laments that he could have saved more Jews than he did if he'd thought to sell more of his possessions, in particular his Nazi party lapel pin (which is gold). Itzhak Stern tries reassuring him by pointing out he saved over eleven hundred of them:
    Oskar Schindler: I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't! And I... I didn't!
  • Star Wars: Anakin Skywalker feels this way in Attack of the Clones after failing to save his mother in time. His desperation to become so powerful that such a thing never happens again makes a monster out of him as he pledges himself to Darth Sidious, immerses himself in the Dark Side of the Force and becomes The Dreaded Darth Vader.
  • Rather poignantly stated in the first Superman film, about Clark's father, Jonathan Kent: "All these powers, and I couldn't even save him."
  • In Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker loses his powers for whatever reason but then decides to run into a burning building anyway to rescue a little girl. After fighting his way through the blaze and saving the girl, the firefighters praise Peter's heroics, then talk amongst themselves about someone else on one of the upper levels who wasn't so lucky. By the look on his face, it's clear that Peter doesn't feel very heroic about that. It's less of an "I should have saved him too as a de-powered normal person" and more a case of "I could have saved him if I still had spider powers."
  • Happens to Indiana Jones at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Elsa Schneider sets off an earthquake by taking the holy grail past the temple’s seal. Indiana manages to grab her just before she falls in a crevasse and is about to pull her up to safety. But Elsa, consumed by greed, uses her free hand to reach for the grail below her. Indiana struggles to hold her because the leather glove on her hand is too slippery. He desperately tries to get through to her, but she’s too obsessed with the grail. The glove finally slips off and she falls to her death. Afterwards, he looks back at the collapsed temple with regret that he couldn’t save her.
    • In the novelization, Indy wonders if he could have saved her by telling her what his father told him: "Let it go."
  • Played for laughs in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. During a spoof of Cliffhanger to open the film, Ace is attempting to rescue a raccoon trapped on a mountainside but loses his grip and the animal falls to its death. Cue Time Skip, and Ace is holed up in a monastery attempting to find inner peace over the failure.

  • In The Dresden Files, Harry goes through this from time to time, especially as it relates to Susan getting put on the road to vampirism by the Red Court, courtesy of Harry's dose of Chronic Hero Syndrome. The fact that he was usually lucky to have survived himself does little to help him cope.
  • Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive has this as basically his defining character trait. He starts off as a surgeon's apprentice who gets depressed every time a patient dies, then he becomes a soldier and gets depressed every time a squadmate dies, then he ends up a slave essentially acting as bait for the army and gets depressed when he can't save his fellow slaves. The fact that others are constantly telling him how lucky it is to have him around seems to only make it worse, as he focuses only on the people he failed rather than those he saved. Of course he ends up becoming part of an ancient order of magic knight whose powers are based on their oaths to protect others.
  • The hero of the Cybernarc novels goes through this twice in the first book, once when his squad is ambushed by drug smugglers and again when the same smugglers attack his family. Both times he does everything he could have done, but still feels guilty that he didn't save everybody.
  • In Aftershock!, the sequel to Shatterbelt, Tracy expresses some guilt about not being smart enough to figure out that her psychic visions were pointing her to an earthquake. "I couldn't get the message, not until the very last minute when Sally showed me the sundial and the motto. And even then I got it wrong. I thought it would be an explosion, a bomb." Her mother Helen tries to remind her that her intervention saved hundreds of lives and that no one will forget that, but Tracy remains fixated on her failure to save Pamela's dog Kazan.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Peter Petrelli of Heroes, as the page quote indicates, falls into this a lot.
  • The X-Files: Fox Mulder expresses this sentiment in the first-season episode "Young at Heart": on his first field assignment for the FBI, he hesitated to shoot a criminal, who killed the hostage and an FBI agent. Although subsequent investigation proved that he did everything right, he could never forgive himself.
  • A sort of example that does involve wanting to be better, but not for heroic reasons: Angel and Spike, being the only two vampires with souls, have a deep rivalry when Spike makes the switch from the show Buffy to Angel in the fifth season. At one point, they fight over what they believe to be a cup of extreme suffering, destined to be drunk only by the true champion of the world. It turns out to just be a fake chalice filled with Mountain Dew. After Spike beats Angel, even after the drink is revealed to be a fake, Angel expresses this, feeling he should have wanted it enough to beat Spike.
    • In Buffy's "After Life," we learn that Spike has been feeling this way about Buffy's death and has some serious guilt over it.
    Spike: Uh, I do remember what I said. The promise... to protect her. If I'da done that... even if I didn't make it... you wouldn't have had to jump. But I want you to know I did save you. Not when it counted, of course, but, after that. Every night after that. I'd see it all again... I do something different. Faster or more clever, you know? Dozens of times, lots of different ways... Every night I save you.
  • One episode of Seven Days involves Frank on a time-critical mission to save his boss from capture (and from taking a Suicide Pill to avoid interrogation). Along the way, Frank witnesses a shootout between gangsters, where an innocent civilian dies in the crossfire. Problem is, if he saves the civilian, he doesn't reach his boss in time. If he focuses on his primary mission, he sees the civilian die. Frank is eventually able to voluntarily invoke enough Groundhog Day Loops to save both.
  • The title protagonist of Doctor Who has lamented many times about the people and even whole races he couldn't save, including the Nestene, the Time Lords, and even the Daleks and Davros, his greatest enemies. At least two occasions in the more recent series have seen him save the world/universe at the cost of losing a companion, leading him to decide he will be better by performing a Heroic Sacrifice for them.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Captain Picard reveals to his brother he feels this way about his experience at the hands of the Borg.
    Picard: They used me to kill and to destroy and I couldn't stop them! I should have been able to stop them! I tried. I tried so hard! But I wasn't strong enough! I wasn't good enough. I should've been able to stop them. I should, I should.
  • Game of Thrones: Jon laments that his mission to Hardhome was a failure because he did not save enough people. Sam consoles him by pointing to the people he did save.
  • In Supernatural, Sam, Dean, Bobby, and Castiel...hell, all the good guys (or semi-good) have this problem. They save a lot of people, but never the "ones they needed to" or "the ones they should have". Dean almost goes into Heroic BSoD after failing to save Sam from the trials without allowing an evil angel to possess him and heal him from the inside, and then kill Kevin Tran, who Dean felt was his responsibility.
  • In Elementary, Sherlock actually encourages this mindset in his proteges; if they screw things up and apologise, he usually replies with "Don't be sorry, be better." In his view, being sorry leads to wallowing in guilt and self-recrimination which does nobody any good, and it's much more useful to make sure the mistake is not repeated in the future. He tries to hold himself to the same standards and doesn't object when the same proteges call him out if he goes into a Heroic BSoD after mistakes of his own.
  • This is one of the many issues of Taiga Hanaya in Kamen Rider Ex-Aid. He failed to save a patient at Zero Day and has been always holding onto this failure from that day onwards. While it helped him Take a Level in Badass and generally keeps him going, it also makes him just a mess of self-loathing under the prickly exterior. This eventually leads to him being gravely injured in a fight against Graphite. He scolds himself for failing to beat him (again) and apologizes to Nico for not being able to take care of her any further.
  • In the Family Matters episode "I Should Have Done Something", Carl is depressed because it's the one-year anniversary of an incident where he responded to a hostage situation at a convenience store that led to an innocent man getting shot and killed, and he feels guilty because he believes that things might have gone differently had he done something to save the man.
    Harriette: Listen to me, Carl, that was a year ago. It was not your fault.
    Carl: I know that here. (points to his head) But the problem is...I'm not sure I know that here. (points to his heart)

    Video Games 
  • In a very meta way, speed runners often have this opinion of their successes. Sure, they just beat their personal record (or world record if they're really good), but after the dust is settled they can only think of every minor mistake they made on their run that added precious seconds to the clock. A much more lighthearted example of this trope, of course, because nobody would follow speed runners if they stopped trying for better times and they all enjoy what they do, even when they fail.
  • Mass Effect:
  • In the climax of The Park, Lorraine seemingly manages to escape Atlantic Island Park's influence just long enough to try and rescue Callum from the basement of the House of Horrors; then Nathaniel Winter appears and mind-controls Lorraine into murdering her son in cold blood. The Secret World reveals that Lorraine never recovered from the incident, and experienced this trope heavily: when you follow the trail of nightmares she's forced herself through, one of the fears she set out to confront manifests itself as a scenario in which she struggles to reach Callum while hobbled and in agony, always arriving too late. According to her dream diary, this is the incarnation of the fear of not being good enough.

  • MegaTokyo: Yuki has a variant of this in the unMod Bonus Material after she saves the girls and the police officers, but not the traffickers. It's not clear whether she could have saved everyone, and chose not to, or she couldn't save everyone and prioritized the victims. Either way, her innocence has been tarnished.
  • Digger, after killing He-Is, berates herself for being unable to prevent Ed's death.
  • In Our Little Adventure, speculated as the motive for Julie's anguish over Pauline's death.
  • Vaarsuvius in The Order of the Stick went into a deep Heroic BSoD after hir magic was depleted in the Battle Of Azure City, rendering V incapable of saving hundreds of Azurites. Best seen in this quote:
    Durkon: V, no one blames ye for runnin' when ye ran out o' spells.
    Vaarsuvius: Of course not. Fleeing at that point was the only sound tactical decision. I am saying that I am to blame for my magic not being powerful enough to avoid that situation in the first place. I could have saved the lives of countless soldiers with only a slightly greater application of arcane force, but I did not possess the requisite capacity.
  • Grace in El Goonish Shive, when she learns she was created as a weapon, immediately has the reaction that she should have fought against Damian, and blames herself for not doing so. Even though she was only intended to be a weapon, but one of the scientists involved decided to make her into something else.
  • In Love and Capes, the fact that you can't save everyone is frequently noted to be something that weighs on every true superhero's mind.

    Web Original 
  • In Worm, Eidolon is the single most powerful superhero on the planet. Capable of selecting and using any three powers at once, he is essentially the entire reason why humanity is still alive in the face of the Endbringers. However, in spite of all his power, he has never been able to kill any of the Endbringers, and humanity is slowly being ground down. To make things worse, his powers are slowly fading. It gets to the point where he hits himself with this after every major fight.

    Western Animation 
  • Aang of Avatar: The Last Airbender feels this heavily at the beginning of Season 3, after the fall of Ba Sing Se. Somewhat justified, in that his initial Refusal of the Call meant he wasn't around to stop the war 100 years ago when it began (and he wasn't there when his people, the Air Nomads, were wiped out in a genocidal first strike by the Fire Nation, though since he was only 12, there wasn't much he could've done). This time, he was there at Ba Sing Se and still couldn't save the city from being conquered.
  • While it's usually never spoken of aloud, many versions of Optimus Prime of the Transformers multiverse appear to take their failures very seriously.
  • Leonardo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003) feels this way for a long time after the turtles challenged Shredder while he was trying to leave Earth. They ended up soundly defeated by Shredder and resorted in the end to trying to overload the power core of the space ship. Something that they were all saved from thanks to the Utroms stepping in at the last moment. Afterward, Leo's frustration and anger over that hopeless situation lead to him accidentally injuring Splinter during training, thus he was sent off to train under The Ancient One, who manages to get convince him that that he shouldn't be so hard on himself for doing his best.
    Leonardo: I did the best I could! There was nothing more I could have done!
    Ancient One: If you did everything you could, then why do you punish yourself so?


Video Example(s):


The Toxic Avenger Part II

Toxie, feeling low due to the shortage of evil to fight, takes a blow to his confidence when Apocalypse Inc. got away with destroying the House for the Blind.

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