(Tarzan presses the barrels right to Clayton's throat... and mimics the sound of a loud gunshot.)
Tarzan: Not a man like YOU! (breaks the gun)
The hero has finally subdued the hordes of evil, thwarted the Evil Plan, and subdued the Big Bad in one final showdown. However, the villain couldn't make things simple and die in battle. Now he's helpless at the hero's feet, and the hero stops. Maybe he throws away his weapon and says, "I'm not like you." Maybe he was about to kill, but his companion shouts something like, "You're better than him!" Maybe the villain taunts them about being not so different. Either way, he refuses to kill.
This trope is grounded on the basis that the act of killing is always wrong, no matter who it is directed against or how well-deserved, or even if it is done with the hope of preventing more evil in the future. This can come across as slightly disingenuous if the hero has slaughtered his way through dozens of faceless mooks just to reach the villain, only to hesitate or spare him at the end because "killing is wrong." In such a scenario, only Character Development can make the disparity make sense. From a Doylist perspective, it is also a common justification for maintaining a villain's Joker Immunity.
Equally disingenuous is the villain trying to pull this on the hero (If You Kill, You Will Be Just Like Me), drawing a moral equivalency between the people he has killed to achieve his ends, and the minions the hero has killed trying to stop him. True, they've both killed, but most people understand the difference between killing for power or wealth and killing in self-defense.
Naturally, with all these difficulties with the trope, some writers find a way to make this argument seem plausible, namely by showing that the villain is similar to the hero by virtue of being a Shadow Archetype. The villain and the hero have a similar past until partaking a morally questionable act put them on the path of becoming a Fallen Hero or Well-Intentioned Extremist, providing evidence the hero is at risk of eventually becoming just like the villain if they take the role of executioner.
If a villain clearly deserves death, he may become a self-disposing villain, suffer a Disney Villain Death, be killed by his own men (often henchmen he abused in the past), another evil character, or by the hero's Token Evil Teammate. This way the villain is dead, and the hero gets to walk away scot-free and blameless for the deed.
With this trope in play, killing is treated as a special kind of evil. Even things like eternal imprisonment or horrible maiming are treated as more moral than a quick death. Anything really, just so long as the hero doesn't kill. A Technical Pacifist is likely to go along these lines. Revenge Is Not Justice is always invoked in these topics.
In rare cases, someone will agree that killing the villain will make them no better than them and still kill them, either because they feel that revenge is too sweet to pass up or they're cynical enough to believe that they have to go down to the level of villains to stop them.
It's common to see this in Crime Drama shows where the police have cornered the killer-of-the-week, and a would-be victim/relative of a victim has the killer at gunpoint, ready to kill them; generally, the police officers will opt to use this line in an emotional speech in order to get them to stand down so they can arrest the killer. If they choose to kill, then it's a show of Vigilante Injustice.
Contrast with Kill Him Already!. Compare with Save the Villain and Sword over Head. Anti Heroes are exempt. Compare/Contrast Strike Me Down with All of Your Hatred!. When this is played literally or when it leads to a Full-Circle Revolution, it can be a case of You Kill It, You Bought It. Often What Measure Is a Mook? gets involved as these dilemmas arise when important baddies are at the heroes mercy but rarely do such sentiments pop up when they are mowing down waves of faceless goonsnote
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- In With Strings Attached, John uses this, more or less, to calm Paul down after the Hunter slaughters a bunch of wolves in front of him and Paul struggles not to go berserk on his ass. It works on both Paul and the Hunter; the latter is stunned that people with such power would choose to not use it to kill, and he eventually does a HeelFace Turn because of it.
- Stated on Ask Ernst Stavro Blofeld as the most likely reason why James Bond had Ernst Stavro Blofeld jailed instead of killing him. Although Blofeld suggests there might be an element of Cruel Mercy to it indeed, controlling people behind the scenes is so fundamental to Blofeld's character that he doesn't take being brought down to just an inmate in a prison very well.
- The Stars Will Aid Their Escape: Rainbow Dash prevents Applejack's Roaring Rampage of Revenge against Trixie (who they've been led to believe is the Big Bad), by stating that she doesn't want to see her become a killer too.
- Reconciliator of Empire City has Cole MacGrath berating Kitty Pryde for her attempt in killing Emma Frost in Astonishing X-Men #18.
Cole: Now, tell me, Kitty, you got Emma at gunpoint, and then you kill her, what next? [Kitty has no answer] Exactly, and then you will be alone, like me.
- Averted in Eakin's Hard Reset twice during one loop. Celestia needs no prompting to teleport away rather than kill a helpless prisoner, even one mocking her with the face of the sister that fell to an ambush mere hours before. Twilight explains to Chrysalis that Celestia is better than that to no effect; then adds "I'm not better than you," before using dark magic to kill her as horribly as possible.
- Deconstructed in Yu-Gi-Oh: The Thousand Year Door, Redux. As this confrontation between Andy and the Shadow Queen proves, the heroes really don't think it's true, despite her Hannibal Lecture:
Shadow Queen: Admit it You liked that.
(Beat Andy says nothing.)
Shadow Queen: People like you say things like "I'm sorry it has to come to this" or "it didn't have to end this way". I've heard it so many times. But it's hard to believe them. I mean, come on After all that's happened, weren't you so anxious to do that?
Andy: Shut up.
Shadow Queen: Seriously, You finally got your chance. Felt kind of good, huh? Seeing me hurt? Hearing me scream? (Pauses as she gets up). Philosophers and philanthropists always say, Andy, that taking pleasure in the suffering of others is immoral Would that mean that someone who does so is an immoral person?
Andy: If killing you prevents innocent people from suffering, I have no problem with it. (Looks at watch.)'' Now, I believe official tournament rules say that refusing to take your turn more than three minutes after your opponent ends his is grounds for disqualification, and I ended my turn about Let's see Forty seconds ago.
Stan: Honestly, Iris, you watch too much television. That routine never works anymore.
- Kingdom Hearts 3: Final Stand: In chapter 32, after defeating Vanitas, Terra remarks that he most likely should just kill him because of all the pain he's caused, but won't do so because "that would make [him] like Xehanort."
- Sonic the Hedgehog: Heroes of Mobius: In chapter 15, after being de-roboticized, Sonic is so furious at what happened that he personally attacks Eggman and nearly kills him, but Tails talks him down by invoking this trope.
- Hope for the Heartless: When Avalina attempts to escape from the Horned King's castle, she's attacked by the Mad Pack and only the Horned King's arrival saves her life. After he kills the wolves and collapses, she nearly takes her chance to be free of him, but her heart argues with her head if it's right to leave the monstrous warlord who imprisoned and nearly killed her and yet just saved her to die. Knowing that she couldn't live with herself if she did that and would be as guilty of murder as the Horned King is, she takes him back to the castle to be tended.
- In Harry's New Home, Snape strongly disputes this, when Harry expresses fear that his own desire to kill Voldemort makes him as evil as the Dark Lord.
Snape: Voldemort used to go to Muggle villages just to kill people. He sought to hurt as many people as possible. He targeted men, women, and children indiscriminately. He made no distinction between Auror and civilian. He wanted a high body count and when attacked, would use Muggles as shields. It is never acceptable to deliberately kill people who have done you no harm and who are just going about their daily business.
Aurors, by contrast, may kill in the line of duty, but they do it to protect civilians. In the war, they did not deliberately target the children of Death Eaters, while the Dark Lord and his followers attacked many families just as he did yours. It is ridiculous to say that any death is a tragedy or that all deaths are morally equivalent. There are people who, by their own actions, deserve to die, and killing someone in order to protect yourself or the innocent, is not murder.
- During the final arc in Book Two of The Last Son, Superman cites the trope on Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, who has Magneto at her mercy and is more than ready to kill him. Superman tells Wanda of Magneto's past as a Holocaust survivor and how it turned him into what he is, and admits that he probably does deserve to die for his crimes, but also that killing for revenge, justified or not, is a very slippery rope, and she's risking going down the same path as her father if she lets her hatred take over. She ultimately relents and decides to let Magneto live.
- Parodied in Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum. When Harry goes to kill Voldemort, Sal warns him that doing so will make him just like the man.
Harry: I'll be just like him. I'll be just like a mass murderer if I kill the man who killed my family and keeps trying to kill me.
Sal: Eh. I don't get it either, but people always say something like that before your first kill. It's like a tradition.
- Played straight in many Disney Animated Canon movies:
- One notable example is The Lion King:
Scar: What are you going to do? You wouldn't kill your own uncle, would you?
Simba: No, Scar. I'm not like you.
- Simba immediately followed this by giving Scar a particularly ironic form of Cruel Mercy, which, although to note, did lead to his death.
- At the climax of Tarzan, Tarzan has an easy opportunity to off Clayton with his own gun. When Clayton taunts him to go ahead and do it, Tarzan comes to his senses and throws the gun away in disgust.
Clayton: Go ahead, shoot me! (Tarzan hesitates, Clayton laughs) Be a man!
(Tarzan presses the barrels right to Clayton's throat...and imitates a gunshot)
Tarzan: Not a man like YOU! (smashes the gun to pieces)
- Hans does this to Elsa in Frozen, when he pleads with her not to kill Weaselton's guards in self-defense. This momentarily stops Elsa in her tracks and makes her realize what she has done. However, given Hans's status as The Evil Prince, it is clear that he only does it to get Elsa off-guard and purposely knock her unconscious with a chandelier so he can take her to the castle so as to maintain a good image in the eyes of his subjects.
- One notable example is The Lion King:
- In Batman: Under the Red Hood, Batman explains that the reason he didn't kill the Joker after the latter killed Jason Todd was that if he went there, he'd never come back. Jason failed to understand the reason behind his statement, though.
- This is very much true in Christianity. Even in the earliest books of the Old Testament, personally carrying out revenge by death is outright forbidden. In fact, not paying evil unto evil, but rather with forgiveness, is a fundamental aspect of Biblical Christianity.
- Towards the end of the Karda Nui arc in BIONICLE, a shadow corrupted Takanuva enters a near-Unstoppable Rage and almost kills a few Makuta in revenge for what they did to him. He is stopped when Kopaka pulls a Get a Hold of Yourself, Man! and cites the Toa's Thou Shalt Not Kill code when he tells that he'd just be giving into that darkness inside if he did it.
- Birthright: Takes this quite literally, as a hero attempting to slay an awnshegh (blood abomination monster) may end up getting overwhelmed by the evil power in the monster's bloodline and become just as tainted.
- In Urinetown, Little Sally raises this objection, but The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized:
Little Sally: Wait a minute! You can't just give her the rope!
Hot Blades Harry: Why not?!
Little Sally: Because killin' her would make us no better than them.
Little Becky Two-Shoes: Haven't you heard, Little Sally? We are no better than them. In fact, we're worse.
- Carolina does this in the season fifteen finale of Red vs. Blue, after Temple is defeated and Tucker is about to finish him off.
- Subverted in It's Walky! In the final battle, Head Alien tries to pull this on Sal, who kills him anyway.
- Parodied in the Sluggy Freelance story arc "That Which Redeems." When demons invade the Dimension of Lame and start eating and killing people for fun, most people still feel that killing demons would make them no better than demons. Unfortunately, when Torg tries to organize a human resistance, he discovers most Dimension of Lame residents think stubbing demons' toes or throwing pies also makes them as bad as demons. Torg ignores their protests and cuts demons into little bits anyway.
- Inverted in GastroPhobia, where the protagonist Phobia is nearly killed by a deer-turned-monster attempting to avenge his mother (who Phobia killed six years ago). But upon seeing that Phobia is herself a mother, the deer can't bring himself to kill her. Giving her an opening to stab him to death.
- Played straight in Shadowgirls when Paul stops Lin from killing mad doctor, even if he has more reasons to see him dead as anyone else, because as a police officer he would have to arrest a killer.
- Invoked in Everyday Heroes when Mr. Mighty stops Jane from killing her former boss, who just murdered her best friend.
- In Goblins, this is the implication for why Dellyn is still alive to make Minmax and Forgath plot-relevant again.
- In Kagerou, this is Fuuka's reason for stopping Kano's No-Holds-Barred Beatdown of Red - because it is in fact literally true, sort of.
- In General Protection Fault, after Nega-Nick is captured, Nega-Trudy expresses a desire to kill him, but Nick tells her that it would make her no better than he is. Nick then goes on to say that his experience in the universe taught him about opposites (as he earlier admits, Nega-Nick is what he might have become), and killing Nega-Nick would easily put her on the same dark path as her prime counterpart.
- Schlock Mercenary plays around with this a bit. The protagonists are mercenaries who rarely if ever care about killing or not, but once one of their foes had made it personal by killing one of their friends, and Nick offered to kill him, Kevyn told him that'd take him to a very dark place. Instead, they'd turn him in to the proper authorities... who would, as is tradition, kill him and eat him, little by little.
Nick: Your place sounds darker, sir.
Kevyn: It has the advantage of being legal.
- Parodied in this Picnicface video.
- In the SF Debris review of the Stargate SG-1 episode "Bloodlines", Chuck talks about Carter's citing this trope in regard to the jarful of Goa'uld symbiotes, and says he can't really blame Daniel for machine-gunning them anyway.
- In The Last Podcast on the Left's series on Richard Chase, "The Vampire of Sacremento", the hosts mention an interview moment where the officer who arrested Chase talks about realizing this. The officer was initially planning to just shoot the family-killing murderer and be done with it, but at the last moment decided to go for the collar because he realized if he shot Richard Chase then he would be like Richard Chase and he did not want to be like that.
Ben Kissel: Well, only if he cuts up the corpse and drinks its blood.
Henry Zabrowski: Well that's the extreme version.