In many works of fiction, the hero does good deeds on a level that would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone in the real world to emulate. They stop wars, dismantle criminal syndicates, Save the World so often it becomes part of their regular schedule, and never shy away from performing a Heroic Sacrifice (sometimes even giving their lives for the greater good several times). Yet if the hero runs into a firefighter, volunteer worker, or soldier (if they're on the idealistic side of the spectrum), the hero will often make a comment along the lines of, "You guys are the real heroes."
The idea of such a scene is usually to pay tribute to real life heroes, who may not have their own TV shows or look like supermodels, but still give of themselves to save other people's lives. This is a noble motive on the writer's part, but it can create some problems if the story's Fourth Wall is firmly in place. The characters don't know they're fictional, after all; from their perspective, Superman tossing a nuclear bomb into outer space is no less real than a firefighter saving someone from a burning building. This can make the audience wonder why the story's hero considers him/herself a lesser hero than some guy who's never even saved the world once. If the main character is a superhero, writers justify this by pointing out that rushing into danger takes a lot more courage if you're not Nigh Invulnerable or rich enough to create high-tech gadgets.
On the other hand, there's nothing that suggests that the various heroes have to be at odds with one another. Cops who handle Mooks, firefighters who fight blazes after a big showdown, and emergency workers who take care of wounded Innocent Bystanders can free up the superhero to deal with the Big Bad who's causing all the problems to begin with. Likewise, these same emergency workers might appreciate the help of the superheroes—being a firefighter is dangerous at the best of times, but having to dodge the attacks of a flame-spitting Pyro Maniac while trying to fight the fires he started risks becoming a suicide mission unless someone can deal with him. The basic point is to pay reverence to the mundane heroes who risk their lives to save others in our world.
Compare The Paragon (who even wants to invoke this among others).
- Parodied spectacularly with the series of Budweiser commercial "Real American Heroes". Was renamed "Real Men Of Genius" post-9/11, when paying sincere respect to The Real Heroes was a national obsession and mocking that sentiment seemed tasteless.
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- In one "Got Milk?" commercial, a milkman doing his rounds falls down a trapdoor, and into a conference room where The Avengers and a couple other Marvel heroes are meeting, who assume he's there for an interview. While his only "power" is the ability to deliver his much-desired product to customers, they consider that enough for him to join them.
- In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Strikers, when Teana suffers a Heroic B.S.O.D. after realizing she'll never be an ace of the Bureau, Nanoha (herself one of the most decorated aces) gives her a pep talk that boils down to the idea that the Bureau doesn't need more aces—it needs honest, hard-working young people who get the job done—like Teana. Of course, Teana would later go on to be an Ace herself (Nanoha's point was that she could get there at a more sensible pace rather than performing life threatening Training from Hell).
- In Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's, the police are usually depicted as enemies, and a lot of them are, indeed, corrupt bullies, especially towards Satellite residents. However, Ushio's Heel–Face Turn begins when he meets a child at the orphanage who worships them, as a result of them saving him from a criminal who had killed his father during a robbery.
- The Aesop of the first chapter of Gamma is that the muggle employees of the Earth Defense Force do just as much, if not more good for the communities they defend as the masked superheroes. Yuri breaks it to the Presidentman (a depowered superhero who enlists in EDF because he doesn't have any other special skills except saving people) by pointing out that to the nameless boy he has carried out of an alien attack, he is the hero of the day, not the superheroes who ended up defeating the aliens.
- Discussed in the manga remake of One-Punch Man, where a police chief laments to Saitama how they're doing their best but have lost the public respect because the members of the Hero Association are more imposing and publicize everything they do while the police prefer to just do their job and go on as usual. Saitama then silently plays the trope straight when a Mysterious Being attacks the police station and he kills the monster, dons a police uniform and throws its body at the feet of the Heroes that had been called to deal with it and the media crew a Hero Association higher-up had sent with them, so the police for once will get the respect they deserve.
- Toshio Wakagi from Codename: Sailor V is a police officer, and always trying to help-even going after youma. He also happens to be the Butt-Monkey as Sailor V considers police officers arrogant blowhards and goes out of her way to make them look bad by doing their job before they can (she'd do it anyway, she's just going overboard to humiliate them), resulting in him gaining a rather justified dislike for the heroine and eventually being transferred to Siberia (for obvious reasons, he was rather surprised when he found out the superintendent-general was not joking) due Sailor V solving too many of his cases. He's also implied to have a role in Sailor V finally gaining respect for (some) cops, once he's transferred back to Tokyo.
- A great number of comic books companies and creators rushed to publish stories featuring The Real Heroes in the aftermath of 9/11 and with good reason. note
- Played with in Watchmen as the police and normal citizens eventually grow to resent the costumed vigilantes who take the hero-ing business into their own hands. This fake PSA advertising the movie mentions "real American heroes" who "don't need to wear masks", and at one point a group of rioters is seen with a sign reading "Police, not masked freaks". (The film version changes this to "Badges Not Masks".) You can kind of see where they're coming from.
- The one hero who quit the business before the civilians came to resent the superheroes, Ozymandias, retains a lot of public respect after his retirement in his public identity as Adrian Veidt, to the point of even being able to sell action figures in his own image.
- Interestingly, the original Nite Owl was a cop, moonlighting as a costumed vigilante in his spare time.
- A City of Heroes fan story published in the monthly comic had a short tale about a hero defeating a gang of Trolls that were threatening a young couple - the hero denied that he receive any praise for what he did, as the Trolls were of no threat to him, but instead drew attention to the fact that the young man stood up to the thugs, protecting his girlfriend - even though he could have been killed with a single punch.
- Samaritan from Astro City says this when receiving an award from the fire service. He really believes it, though he wishes he could skip the ceremonies and spend more time saving civilians instead.
- There's also a poster seen in one story of the Silver Agent next to a police officer. "Silver Agent says salute your local heroes!"
- And the story "Since the Fire", written for one of the 9/11 benefit books, is all about this.
- When Metropolis featured a non-powered superhero, Gangbuster, he and Superman had a talk in this vein: Gangbuster has actually run into fights joining Superman, when he was in far more danger than Superman was, and Superman tells him that he deeply admires it and wonders whether he would do the same without his powers (for the record, he did, literally assuming the Gangbuster identity himself when he briefly lost his powers).
- Superman: Doomsday: Superman and Lois discuss a reporter note who is going to Afghanistan to cover the war. Superman says that, because he's invulnerable, he's not putting his life on the line when he does what he does, as opposed to the people who are fighting fires, fighting for freedom, and bringing the truth of such feats to the world. He even explicitly states that he's not brave, he just can take a bullet better than others.
- A Power Girl issue manages to squeeze it in, and it does not even seem too Anvilicious, it actually makes perfect sense given the context. Power Girl is unconscious and lying in the middle of a large blast crater, being tended to by firefighters and EMT's. When she regains consciousness while being carried off on a stretcher they put her down and work to clear away the growing crowd of onlookers taking pictures while one firefighter helps her walk away. He says that he rarely gets a chance to help somebody like her ("Like me?" "Yeah...a hero") and she replies "I can say the same thing about you."
- In Crisis on Infinite Earths issue #4, Supergirl and Batgirl's final conversation revolves around Barbara's helplessness in the face of universal obliteration. At least her Kryptonian friend can fight thanks to her godlike powers, but what she can do? Kara reminds her nobody needs to powers to be a hero:
Supergirl: Barbara, there are thousands of people out there— without powers like mine... the police, firemen, soldiers— They're all ordinary people trying their best to keep this world from falling apart before its time.
- While never specifically addressed, the issue is confused in Top 10. When everyone is super, who are the real heroes?
- A bunch of these turn up at the end of Civil War to stop Captain America finishing off Iron Man.
- Naturally, there's no reason that superheroes and "ordinary" heroes have to be antagonists. One issue of Iron Man has Firebrand set fire to a homeless shelter while trying to kill Iron Man and Captain America. Cap and James Rhodes (who's serving as a Costume Copycat in wearing the suit for Tony Stark) concentrate at first on protecting the inhabitants of the shelter, but once the emergency crews show up Iron Man leaves them to take care of the fire and the wounded while he keeps Firebrand from doing any more damage.
- Gotham Central explored the implications of this trope in depth, as we see how frontline police officers deal with the costumed psychopaths that infest the city like a plague...as well as the hero who fights them.
- One of the hooks behind The Order is that the team was chosen from a group of volunteers, all of whom were in one way or another some kind of "hero" in civilian life. Meaning that a guy who developed advanced prosthetics and a decorated war hero are now superheroes, too.
- A couple of Spider-Man comics published in the early 1980s took a decidedly more grim look at this trope:
- One issue involved police officer Joey Macone, who's known for his recklessly heroic actions on the job. The risks he takes are putting a serious strain on his marriage, and his wife is afraid he'll get himself killed. Macone helps Spider-Man defeat the Beetle, but it literally costs him an arm and a leg as the Beetle's punch breaks both of these limbs. The story ends with Macone sitting in a wheelchair and getting a medal from the police commissioner, but his wife is still extremely upset and Peter Parker gets a firsthand look at how stressful a cop's life can get.
- Another issue featured Spidey helping a pair of beat cops fight a gang of gun smugglers. Spider-Man saves one of the cops from being shot, but the other officer isn't so lucky and gets killed by the gun runners. Spider-Man is naturally torn up about it, and the surviving officer points out that makes six of them: Spider-Man, the surviving officer, and the dead officer's widow and three children. The wall-crawler feels lower than ever after hearing this, but the surviving officer reminds him that Spidey saved his hide. As for the officer who was killed, the cops know the risks they take when they put on the badge.
- Ultimate Spider-Man has a scene where Peter Parker and John Jonah Jameson have a talk about heroics. He claims (in a surprisingly non-brash way) that Spider-Man is just a punk in a costume while people like his son (an astronaut) are truly doing good for this world. Ironically, this is just before the Daily Bugle starts praising the Wall-Crawler.
- Mostly subverted in JLA: Act of God, where every superbeing is depowered. They do pay some lip service to this trope but when Supergirl tries to continue fighting as a cop, she gets tired of doing the paperwork and decides to join some other depowered heroes to learn the Bad Ass Normal school of fighting. In this story, guys like Batman are the Real Heroes.
- Some comics will take a slightly subtler approach by having the hero work side-by-side with the rescue worker in mutual respect for each others abilities. It doesn't grind the book to a halt so the hero can praise them, but shows that police and firefighters are courageous and risk their lives, even in the comic's universe. One such example is from 52 where Steel uses his super-strength to support a burning building about to collapse so firemen can rush in and carry out the people inside.
- This trope was invoked in a series of variant covers for Marvel Comics from July 2011. With the theme of "I Am Captain America" (released to coincide with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger), the covers featured people of various professions(police officer, fighter fighter, judge, soldier, teacher, paralympic athlete, etc), with each illustration incorporating elements of Captain America's shield or uniform.
- Some of these covers can be seen here.
- Daredevil invoked this trope in a confrontation with The Punisher's new female partner, giving an epic "The Reason You Suck" Speech in response to her assertion that all heroes are driven by tragedy;
"Don't you ever say that to me, ever again! That is a repellent statement. It's a vomitous insult to every cop, every fireman, every soldier who steps up to fight for those who can't! I am sorry for your loss, but if you genuinely believe that only the death of a loved one can motivate a human being to take up a cause...then get your pathetic, cynical ass out of my way so I can do my job!"
- Also from the Marvel universe: Meet Zig the fire-fighter, who exploits and subverts the trope. Why exploiting? Because he's mostly interested in impressing women, and hey look ladies he is a Real Hero! How is he a subversion? The guy's real name is Sigurd (the Ever-Glorious), the Sigurd from Norse legends. He killed dragons, and pretty much nothing in a mundane fire could hurt him. But why bother with old timey heroism since the Standard Hero Reward went out of fashion?
- Post 9/11 Marvel penned a series of comics called The Call of Duty. No, not Call Of Duty, these focused on very real people honoring those who did everything they could during the terrorist attacks, and not a cape or superpower in sight. One story, The Wagon, had an EMT having nightmares of future attacks, which may be psychic or simply down to stress. Another, The Precinct, centered of two brothers in the NYPD, one a practicing priest and the other an atheist. The third concentrated on The Brotherhood, firefighters.
- In the X-Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills it's a cop who takes down reverend William Stryker. Cops had been at the rally for a while, complaining they had to protect a racist' free speech but still did their job, but the moment Stryker aimed a gun at Kitty Pride one of them shot him because you just don't kill an unarmed little girl on their watch.
- Fanfic "February 1, 2003" has Superman telling Wonder Woman that HE can fly into space without any threat of personal harm, which is why he admires non-powered astronauts who do it regardless.
- A downplayed example in the Star Trek fanfic Heroes; Spock admits (mentally) that Kirk is his hero even more than Surak, because Kirk's friendship and respect help him on a daily basis.
- This is a Discussed Trope in Hancock. Ray tells him to say "Good job" to the local policemen to improve his image. Hancock responds "If they're doing a good job, then why do I have to show up?" Ray then gives the They're-Not-Invincible line from the description. He ultimately does it, and the policeman says it right back.
- The construction workers in the climax of The Amazing Spider-Man. There's even an American Flag prominently displayed during it.
- At the end of Mystery Men, The Shoveler said this to the TV reporters interviewing him.
- The Avengers took time during the climactic battle to show ordinary fire fighters helping people from destroyed buildings and tending to their wounds and the NYPD doing their best to shoot down the Chitauri with just their service pistols.
- Captain America also directly requests their help in protecting people in ways the Avengers just don't have the numbers to do. Once they get a demonstration (on the Chitauri) they leave the asskicking to him and help protect the civilians.
- The Dark Knight Rises has the entire GCPD fight off Bane's army in the climax of the movie.
- Robocop implies with the cops depicted as brave working stiffs who have to manage an future urban war zone. As for the title character, Alex Murphy always regards himself as one of them and his comrades come to accept him as simply a tougher comrade who can safely take on the tough stuff and draw their fire as his fellows maneuver for position.
- After the finale of It Came from Beneath the Sea, the protagonists listen to a radio broadcast that congratulates "the unsung heroes" of the attack on San Francisco: the civilian defense volunteers, the crossing guards and the street railway employees.
- Spider-Man Trilogy:
- Spider-Man (2001) had the citizens of New York helping Spider-Man, by throwing trash and rocks at the Green Goblin, while they shout motivating lines such as "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!". Although it's never acknowledged, this saves not just Spider-Man's, but also Mary Jane's, and a group of kid's lives. And this was long after Green Goblin warning Spider-Man that the public will eventually turn against him.
- An unusual variation of this happens in Spider-Man 2. Upon narrowly stopping a train from plummeting and falling off its track, Spider-Man faints and is brought into the train by the citizens he just saved. As Spidey had already taken his mask off during the preceding fight, they see that the hero who saved them, and has been saving New York all this time, is a teenager who looks just like any other. Like the above example it's unacknowledged, but it's showing that, despite Peter having super-powers, he's still a normal teenager, who has a normal teenager life. Yet, he's the person who puts his life on the line constantly, to save them, time and time again. It's a rare example of the unappreciated fact that super-heroes are still (for the most part) humans who go out their way to help the "everyday folk", being acknowledged.
- In The Magnificent Seven, Bernardo is one of seven gunslingers hired by a Mexican village. The kids call him a hero but he feels the farmers are the real heroes since they work a tough, monotonous job full of responsibility that he never was brave enough to take on, despite his obvious affection for children.
- In the novelization of Superman Returns, Superman thinks to himself (page quote) as he saves a jet.
- In The Pale King, the IRS employees are likened to policeman, firefighters, and other emergency service members in a few places. Chapter 17 is a single paragraph that explains the idea, and the IRS seal depicts the mythical hero Bellerophon slaying the Chimera.
- Referenced occasionally in Victoria, with protagonist John Rumford reminding us that in the end, even an Alexander or Napoleon is nothing without good soldiers to command—and it is usually the latter who end up giving their all more than the former.
- Dirty Jobs is all about this, since the whole point of the show is to show just what happens behind the scenes to keep modern society functioning as well as it does.
- Played for Laughs in Monty Python's Flying Circus, where all the normal Supermen stand in awe of their hero, Bicycle Repair Man. He makes repairing bicycles look awesome.
- Played in Witchblade, The Savage Dragon and Rising Stars - main characters from the first two, and one from the third have superpowers and fight crime not as superheroes, but cops.
- Inverted by Dwight Schrute on The Office (US): "No, don't call me a hero. Do you know who the real heroes are? The guys who wake up every morning and go into their normal jobs and get a distress call from the commissioner and take off their glasses and change into capes and fly around, fighting crime. Those are the real heroes."
- Tomica Hero Rescue Force and its sequel, Rescue Fire, both had episodes dedicated to the team learning about/assisting Hyper Rescue, a real life rescue organization that inspired both shows. Naturally, Hyper Rescue ended up receiving a good amount of praise.
- Touched upon in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: We have Buffy, Faith, Kennedy, ect, superpowered women who kick ass. Willow's like the most powerful witch in the world. Angel and Spike, vampires. What about Xander? Or Dawn? Or Giles? Or Tara? Pretty much Badass Normal, and are credited for not only being able to survive, but thrive in such a Crapsack World.
- Power Rangers
- Several episodes during the arc in the original series with the Rangers de-aged to children and unable to perform any heroic actions shows the Angel Grove Police actually managing to keep order and preventing panic during the crisis.
- In Zeo, Lt. Stone has a moment where he stumbles upon Goldar and Rito. Thinking an invasion was a foot. he chases them all over the park to try to arrest them. (Granted, the two were amnesic and not doing anything evil, but Stone didn't know that.)
- Saturday Night Live featured a real life tearjerker moment where the first episode after 9/11 had New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduce actual 9/11 responders to the audience in the Cold Open. Talking with Lorne Michaels, Michaels asked if they (after an event like this) can be funny. Giuliani replied "Why start now?" to a standing ovation. In a retrospect Tracy Morgan said he greeted the responders and patted one on the shoulder, seeing dust fly off; they literally came from the field.
- In Supergirl, several firefighters help the titular character against two of her super-villains, and several Badass Bystanders run to form a wall between them and the exhausted heroine.
Firefighter: Supergirl...it's our turn to help you.
- This becomes even more meaningful, given that shortly before, she'd gone on a Red Kryptonite-inspired rampage and lost the city's trust. Narmy? Possibly. But still, for many of the viewers, incredibly meaningful.
- The Doctor seems to feel this way, often commenting that Humans Are Special and that anyone can be a hero, not just people who fight aliens.
- Rush deals with this theme in the song "Nobody's Hero".
- The Eric Bogle song "Our National Pride" was written after a group of volunteer firefighters were killed battling a bushfire in Victoria. It is all about how these people, and not athletes, deserve to be called heroes.
- Citizen Soldiers by 3 Doors Down.
I walk beside you, but you may not see me.
The strongest among you may not wear a crown.
- In the tabletop roleplaying game Silver Age Sentinels, Officer Promitheus (super-liaison between NYPD and the local superhero team) lampshades this, pointing out that people hope a superhero will save them, but when things go wrong, they call the police.
- The Imperial Guard sometimes get viewed in a similar light by Space Marines. They have no power armor or bio-augmentation to aid them, yet they still hold strong against the untold horrors and abominations that threaten humanity.
- This was actually inverted by various editions: Ollanius Pius, patron saint of Guardsmen, was at first a single soldier who stood between the Emperor and Warmaster Horus, knowing full well that an ordinary human had no chance against a fifteen-foot-tall genetically-engineered monstrous demigod wearing armor thicker than tanks and powered by the various Chaos Gods. Then in later editions, he was Ret-Conned as being an Astartes Terminator (himself a seven foot-tall Space Marine in inch-thick armor), then a Custodes (the God-Emperor's personal guard, who are to Space Marines what a Space Marine is to a regular human), and these days was actually one of several immortals who's been around since the dawn of humanity.
- Played with in The Non-Adventures of Wonderella: Wonderella, being a Jerkass, refuses to acknowledge The Real Heroes. After all, she has a cape.
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: "Lex Luthor had a much easier time"...
- Played for laughs in Bruno the Bandit.
- Questionable Content: John Ellicott-Chatham (a.k.a. Hannerdad), who is the father of strong artificial intelligence, designer of the first permanent space habitat and one of the greatest minds in robotics and cybernetics, is a great admirer of plumbers. A lot of this stems back to the construction of said space habitat, which is at least half ducts and pipes.
- Near the end of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Captain Hammer sings a song with this message. Unfortunately, his massive ego prevents him from going too far with this, repeatedly pointing out just how much cooler a hero he is:
Captain Hammer: Everyone's a hero in their own way/In their own not-that-heroic way.
Everyone's a hero in their own way/You and you and mostly me and you.
- This is pointed out in the Less Wrong article Superhero Bias. What shows you're heroic is that you're willing to put yourself in harms way even if there's relatively little at stake and you have a high chance of getting killed. This is not something that tends to happen among superheroes.
- This was pretty much the premise of the kids' show Higglytown Heroes. Although there were no superheroes in that show, it was all about "normal" people being heroic for different reasons.
- Parodied in an episode of The Fairly OddParents!. The first time Timmy needs a number of regular adults with jobs to help him (such as a firewoman to help him against Francis or a milkman to give him some milk when he has a mouth full of peanut butter) they're distracted by Cosmo, who is currently in cat form. They end up helping to take down Nega-Chin.
- The Looney Tunes short "Super Rabbit" has Bugs Bunny receive a supply of Supercarrots that turn him into the titular Super-Rabbit. At the end of the cartoon, he loses his carrots to the bad guy and his horse after he unwittingly dropped the case and carrots midflight (and running out of power), at which point he says, "Hmm, this looks like a job for a real Superman!" He then runs into a phone booth and emerges wearing a Marine uniform, then he marches off to fight in World War II. The Marines were so thrilled by this, they made Bugs Bunny an honorary Marine Master Sergeant.
- Taken to a logical conclusion in the Rescue Heroes cartoon based on the toyline, where the characters are a team of firefighters, police and other professions (mountain climber, construction worker, doctor) who operate like superheroes, who focus on disaster relief and rescues around the world rather than fighting crime.
- Played straight in the Justice League Unlimited episode "Patriot Act":
Police Officer: I just want to thank you Justice League guys for turning out in force. It means a lot to us.
Green Arrow: Hey, we can't thank you enough—you're the real heroes.
- Done in an episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show when Mario and Luigi find a way to return to New York. Unfortunately, Bowser and the Koopas follow them, and Bowser decides to conquer Earth along with the Mushroom Kingdom. Fortunately, the NYPD is there to help Mario and Luigi fight the Koopas.
- In the episode of The Simpsons where Milhouse is chosen to play the Kid Sidekick in the new Radioactive Man film, Milhouse invokes this trope after being sick of shooting the picture and running away. Bart however responds that they are all pathetic losers who haven't solved any of the world's problems and that the true heroes are the Van Dammes and the Stallones.
- Batman: The Animated Series:
- This trope is the Central Theme of the episode "Joker's Favor". The subplot mentions that Gordon doesn't think he deserves an homage, but Batman does. Batman remarks that Gordon deals with Gotham's insanity 24/7 while the Batman only works at night.
- Similarly, as Gordon recovers from being wounded in "I Am the Night":
Gordon: If only I were younger could have been a hero like you.
Batman: You are a hero, Jim.
- Superman: The Animated Series: As Clark Kent observes at the funeral of Detective Dan Turpin, "In the end, the world didn't really need a super man. Just a brave one."
- Subverted in "Dan Vs. The Superhero" when Smug Super Terrifi-guy tells a group of firefighters he just helped out that they're the real heroes... except that they can't fly or stop bullets or anything cool like that.
- In an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, the team's firehouse is in danger of being repossessed; later, a freak accident transports the heroes back in time to the 60's, where due to the same accident, the city has a sudden ghost problem, and the firefighters who originally owned the building are dealing with it. The Ghostbusters aid them discreetly from the sidelines, and when they return to the present day, their troubles regarding the firehouse are over; due to what happened, those same firefighters were regarded as heroes, the firehouse regarded as a memorial site because of it.
- One episode of The Powerpuff Girls involves a Dirty Cop kidnapping the Girls because he thinks they outshine the actual police; the more benign cops are the ones who pull the Big Damn Heroes moment.