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Heroes sometimes lose. It's pretty common and, with a few exceptions, it's the general rule of fiction to the point of being a near Omnipresent Trope. That said, losing in Acts 1 and 2 doesn't mean a hero won't beat the villain in Act 3; this is a good way of establishing conflict and drama while keeping them far away from being a Butt Monkey. Expanding this, a hero may well consistently win but still learn valuable lessons out of it, get Character Development, and just sometimes lose to keep the villains fresh and threatening.

And then there are heroes who never win. Ever. Especially in series-resolving situations. He might make some headway against a rival in the first or second round, but the rival neatly trounces them before the end credits, sometimes thanks to a Diabolus Ex Machina. Any "wins" he does pull off are ambiguous and open-ended, further the villain's plan or blatantly make things that much worse for the unwitting hero. This of course tends to rob a given episode or movie franchise of dramatic punch when the viewer's reaction to a hero making steps to resolving their lifelong goal is "You're Just Yanking Our Chains!"

Behind this is usually the idea that the hero sucks that much. Plus he's the hero; the side of good is in an eternal struggle with evil! This is especially common in comedies where the hero is a failure of some kind or where advancing his goals would end the show. If taken to extremes - and not in the comedic sense -- leads to Anti-Sue.

The Evil Twin of Invincible Hero. Not as prevalent as its sibling, but still common enough to warrant its own trope.

Please note that being saddled with the pesky Status Quo Is God or Failure Is the Only Option tropes isn't enough to qualify someone as a Failure Hero; they must fail at not only the thing the shows says they can't succeed at but at nearly everything else due to continual plot contrivances.

Contrast Showy Invincible Hero. Also see Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain, the evil counterpart.

Examples: Spoilers Ahoy


Anime and Manga

  • Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion embodies this trope perfectly. Every awesome moment he has is negated by an even worse failure shortly after.
  • Naruto: Repeatedly applying The Worf Effect to secondary cast members without giving them any wins has this side effect. Sakura Haruno and Rock Lee arguably have it the worst, made all the more poignant by how very hard they try to avoid failure.
  • Yamcha from Dragon Ball suffers this way due to The Worf Effect. Early on, he was used in each Tenkaichi Budoukai to show off how amazing some new character was. This continued with successive new enemies killing or almost killing him first to prove their threat level. After Android #20 impaled him through the chest, Yamcha decided just to call it quits for the day and start rocking a yellow Miami Vice suit. He still ended up being murdered (again) by the Big Bad an arc later, though.
  • While Clare from Claymore is introduced as a badass demon hunter with a cold attitude, it appears most of the reason for her existence the entire rest of the series is to show how much more awesome her comrades are than her.
    • Albeit understandable, as she's ranked dead last by the Organization.
    • As a matter of fact, most of the heroes in the series spend the majority of their battles being Curb Stomped and horribly mutilated by every other baddie they face. It's not even an uncommon occurrence for the warriors to outright lose their fights, or even die without ever having their conflict resolved. Though one could argue that this makes the series a tad more realistic -- if you were to go up against an army of all-powerful demons with only half their blood keeping you anywhere close to even footing, you'd damn well better expect them to mop the floor with your half-breed ass.
    • Though, many of Clare's early failures are justified by the revelation later on that she focused all of her training on fighting Awakened Beings -- while all the Claymores tend to get curb-stomped by them, she's usually able to fight far above her weight class when they're involved.
  • From Black Lagoon, one gets the sense the author is a sadist from the fact that Rock is never going to learn that trying to do good in the Crapsack World he voluntarily entered will always end in tears.
  • Kuro from Kurokami ends up falling into this, since she rarely wins, and the few times she DOES win is either against very early opponents, due to a Deus Ex Machina, made moot anyway by plot events, or several of these at once. Probably because, much like Yuusuke Urameshi, even she has problems catching up.
  • Kou Uraki, who only manages to fight his main antagonist to a draw two times, and ultimately fails to avert the Colony Drop at the end.
  • The Royal Knights Saga of Digimon Frontier turned every one of the heroes into this.
  • Ladies and gents, let us introduce Saya Kisaragi of Blood C. Taking Failure Hero to a whole new level. If there's a monster attack, and she has to save you, it's time to make peace with whoever you pray to, because you are screwed.


Comic Books

  • Superheroes in general have this problem, due to the effects of Joker Immunity in regards to villains. Due to popularity, all of the most well-known villains will be unlikely to be truly killed or defeated, as all they need is a Hand Wave whenever a writer wants to use them again. Regardless, a few heroes have it worse than others. (see below)
    • Spider-Man unfortunately was thrown headlong into this trope after the events of One More Day took away his only consolation prize for his life of misery and failure. Many fans still aren't happy about it at all.
      • Spider-Man in general can be quite easy to Flanderize into one of these; whilst his life has not been without it's difficulties, many of the poorer writers who have handled his character tend to forget about his successes and reasons for optimism (which he is not entirely without) and make him 'all failure, all the time'. While the appeal of the character has always been the struggles and losses, when written badly, he's just a total loser instead of an example of a relatable, grounded superhero.
        • The truth is that he's mostly a self-pitier with low self esteem. Even during his nerd years, he had beautiful girls throwing themselves at him. He's been a successful photographer and a pretty good high school teacher and that's underachieving due to his time as Spider-Man keeping from using his genius level intellect to build a career as a scientist.
      • The newspaper comic version of Spidey has always been this. He's utterly incompetent and completely ineffective. It's not at all unusual to have a street thug get the drop on him and knock him out with a piece of debris they found nearby. He's often shown more likely to just sit around and watch TV and some of his storylines have even resolved without Spider-Man actually doing anything.
  • Steve Gerber's Author Avatar Richard Rory fits this bill, and he's not happy about it.
  • Empowered frequently crosses into this trope. Especially in her earliest stories which played the trope brutally straight. She is a perennial loser who is constantly getting captured and tied up by supervillains, even bush leaguers like Glue Gun Gil and regular old non-super thugs. In fact it isn't until about the middle of the vol. 1 that the reader actually sees Emp succeed at anything. Even when she does succeed it often backfires on her or her victory goes unnoticed by her fellow capes. Like when she defeated a supervillain that had taken out most of the Superhomeys by ramming him with a Humvee she ended up tangled in the seatbelt and Major Havok, despite being unconscious at the time, took credit for Emp's victory. Then again when the Capey's were besieged by Fleshmasteraka dWARf! Emp single-handedly defeated him and saved the day!...And then her teammates promptly accused her of being the real mastermind behind the whole thing. All that being said, in the latest volume Emp went up against Deathmonger and totally mopped the floor with him. Though it remains to be seen whether this victory will net her any appreciation from her super-peers.
  • Jon/Skeleton Man from Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose is this in spades. Besides the fact that he's in a world full of dragons, witches, The Fair Folk and worse, his ineptitude is legendary. The most notorious example is probably when he's forced to stop pursuing a cadre of homicidal ghosts because they refuse to tell him the address of their next victim. His only consistent victories are over grave robbers and vandals (which are surprisingly common in Salem).
    • Tarot has shades of this. Over the course of the series, her effectiveness in battle is heavily degraded to the point where she can be stripped naked in a duel with her Evil Counterpart, a random fish minion in her own home, and animated snowmen. She'd have died several issues ago if not for the fact that her opponents need her for something, taunt her, or are Too Dumb to Live.


Film


Literature


Live Action TV

  • Heroes can't seem to write a good guy who isn't one of these, with Peter and Mohinder getting the worst of it (and Hiro beginning to catch up). On the rare occasions they aren't carrying the Idiot Ball or Villain Ball or doing a Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, they're up against opponents heavily favored by Diabolus Ex Machina. It's no coincidence that characters like Angela Petrelli, Noah Bennet and Sylar -- ranging from morally ambiguous to downright evil -- tend to be extremely popular, given that they have been shown actually succeeding at their goals on a fairly regular basis.
    • It feels like the Writers constantly throw the idiot balls at Peter because, let's face it - if he actually knew how to use his powers correctly he would be a God Mode Sue, while the others... the writers just don't know how to write dramatic tension.
  • This was part of the massive Cerebus Syndrome that hit Supernatural. In the later seasons, there was very rarely an episode where hunting was portrayed as a good thing or that they were doing it for the right reasons and more often than not, someone got a little bit more destroyed or slipped down the humanity scale, died or managed to break something.
  • Torchwood. They can't straight-up win the day ever, ending up with Pyrrhic Victory at best. By the end of Children of Earth, three of the initial five main characters are dead, one's on effective maternity leave and one's buggered off into space.
    • This trend continues right into Torchwood: Miracle Day. As of episode five Jack has lost his immortality, Ester has gotten her sister separated from her children by child care services, Oswald Danes refused to fight Phil Corp, Rex destroyed the throat of the one man who could give them information on the villains, Vera has been burned alive and Gwen has her father set up to go down the same route. Go Torchwood!
  • Ninja Warrior competitor Katsumi Yamada has not only never managed to obtain Total Victory, but from the 14th tournament on he hasn't even manage to complete the first stage. The fact that he's focused his life completely on this (which cost him his job and his family) makes it all the more heartbreaking. Nevertheless, he is considered an All-Star and fans (as well as the other All-Stars) continue to cheer him on for him to one day reach on top of Midoriyama.
  • Wallander seems to be this, especially in the Kenneth Branagh version. He's basically a Swedish Shinji Ikari. The moment something goes right for him in his personal or professional life, it is certain to ultimately end in tears. Usually Wallander's, who cries in literally five out of six episodes of the six-episode series. Because he fails. All the time.
  • The Three Stooges. Nobody can fail as epically as they can.
  • Pity the Science Patrol in Ultraman. It's their lot to spend the first twenty minutes of every episode throwing everything they've got at the Monster of the Week to absolutely no effect, until Ultraman shows up and saves the day in the last five minutes. This is Lampshaded in an episode of Ultraman Tiga, where the team's leader comes to resent Tiga a bit for always having to bail them out; but by the end of the episode, he's decided he's okay with it.
    • Played With in Ultraman Mebius, as the Ultramen are there to protect the earth, but really want to fight alongside humanity as equals.
      • Arguably Subverted in Mebius. Though Mebius usually gets to kill the Monster of the Week at the end of the episode, GUYS often helps pull his butt out of the fire during the battle, are usually the ones to neutralize the monster's special abilities, and often get to score monster kills in the beginning and middle of the episode. In fact, due to one particular episode, they actually end the series with a kill count higher than Ultraman's.


Newspaper Comics

  • Charlie Brown is the world champion of this trope, forever destined to demolish all challengers to the throne with his hilariously cruel world finding new and creative ways to make him to suck at life.
    • To be clear, Charlie Brown fails, often through no visible fault of his own, in ways that are explicitly stated by other characters to be physically impossible. Not that this stops them from blaming him.
      • Charlie Brown did win a game of marbles, winning back Rerun's marbles from a bully in his last animated special. Lucy could not believe it.
      • And he won a motocross competition in one of the animated shorts...though his prize was less than impressive.
      • And he kicked the damn football while taunting Lucy in It's Magic, Charlie Brown.
      • There was a baseball game that Charlie Brown's team won. He was doing a happy dance like you would not believe. He was happily proclaiming "I won! I won!" The person he was saying this to responded "You won?"
  • The cast of Funky Winkerbean comes a close second though, especially in recent years.
  • Averted in Garfield, where Garfield's owner Jon finally gets the girl of his dreams after 28 years. In these 28 years, however, all of Jon's plans to get a relationship fail horribly. Even when he scores a date, you can bet that either he, Garfield or the environment would ruin it.
  • Tom the Dancing Bug sporadically features Sam Roland, the Detective Who Dies. Each appearance gives us another case of Sam dying before solving the crime. Sometimes before answering the phone to get a new case.


Professional Wrestling

  • Cited as one of the main reasons why WCW went under in its later years; every single Face that tried to go up against the Heel stable NWO invariably got ruthlessly squashed, including Sting, Ric Flair, and even in one of its most infamous moments in history Goldberg, who was a Showy Invincible Hero before.
    • It was almost a ridiculous cycle of kicking the dog and then yanking its chain just to get it back into kicking range. Sting seemed to have the nWo beat... and then it resurged. Ric Flair returned and the Four Horsemen were reformed... and they did nothing. Bill Goldberg was, well, Bill Goldberg... and Nash beat him with outside interference. Nash was all right though, because his nWo was opposed to Hogan's... and then the Finger-Poke of Doom happened.
  • They're called Jobbers for a reason -- the very few occasions when a dedicated midcarder ever achieves anything remotely resembling success, their hopes are quickly dashed.
  • ROH had a case where a number of factors combined to create a team of Failure Heroes. Early in 2007, longtime tag team partners Austin Aries and Roderick Strong split, with Strong forming the No Remorse Corps alongside hot new talents Davey Richards and Rocky Romero. Aries, the Face in this feud, teamed up with the less established wrestlers Matt Cross and Erick Stevens. Unfortunately, Aries was soon forced to leave ROH for a few months due to contract obligations with TNA - leaving Cross and Stevens woefully outmatched by the No Remorse Corps. Wrestling logic dictated that the NRC get the early advantage in the feud, but without Aries around, Cross & Stevens had no credibility to begin with. By the time Aries returned, Cross and Stevens had already lost to the NRC so many times that nobody could get excited about their comeback.
  • In TNA EV2.0 has been this since day one, whether if its during their feud with Fortune or Immortal. Whatever victory they manage to obtain is only short term as to this day they have lost FBI, Sabu, Rhino, and Raven.
  • Ted Dibiase (The son, not The "Million Dollar Man") has slowly become a Failure Villain. Lampshaded by his girlfriend Maryse, who even accuses him of causing her to lose matches by association and outright calls him a loser.
    • On the 1/26/11 edition of NXT, however, he did finally managed to score a win. Who? Daniel Bryan! Cleanly. And Maryse actually complemented him! And his rookie Brodus Clay won the Fatal Four Way elimination match! ...But wait! That match Brodus won? The winning rookie had the opportunity to switch Pros! Brodus then pointed out all of DiBiase's failings before ditching him for Alberto Del Rio. And to add insult to injury, he takes him out with the Tongan Death Drip!
    • As of recently Dibiase has leaned more into Face territory and started to gain more actual victories. He's still in mid card placement, but still at least he can get clean wins every once and a while.
  • MVP went through a similar situation during a heel run, losing every match he had for a very long period of time (albeit for different reasons ranging from legitimate failures to outside interference and flukes). Story actually implied he was becoming backrupt as a result of this, leading him to gradually gain audience sympathy and eventually get cheered with great enthusiasm as he finally started to gain wins as a face.


Video Games

  • Chrono Cross's Serge unfortunately became this trope after his third Nice Job Breaking It, Hero. There's a reason that why that trope was named after him in the The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Cliches.
  • Leo of Zone of the Enders. Despite some victories, things still get destroyed all around him, and the end of the game is a humiliating defeat. He has better luck in the sequel, but that's when he's not using Jehuty.
    • Debatable. You can save plenty of civilians from BAHRAM if you're good enough, you prevent Jehuty from falling BAHRAM hands, and you save the colony from destruction before you're defeated by Nohman.
  • Rameses is Interactive Fiction's Ur Example. There are even conversation choices where you can stand up to the bully, insult the toadie, or defend The Woobie, but the PC will nearly always reject them with a variation of "Why bother? I couldn't do that anyway."
  • A problem in the Metal Gear series after Metal Gear Solid, which applied via Retcon. Anything the main characters do advances the Ancient Conspiracy's goals somehow. If the series didn't get a sequel after 3 it would have been a The Bad Guy Wins Downer Ending to the series.
  • Leonard in White Knight Chronicles, the actual main character of the game. Despite being possessing the power to transform into an indestructible 20 foot tall walking tank whenever he feels like it, he consistently fails to achieve his goals or take any action that isn't a direct response to the actions of the antagonist. He allows the Princess he's supposed to be saving to get kidnapped in front of his eyes multiple times, even allowing to her to get recaptured after rescuing her for about 15 seconds. He is consistently fooled by the bad guy's spies and infiltrators, and can't wrap his head around the fact that every time his friend Kara disappears, the evil Black Knight appears. He suffers a Heroic BSOD and outright quits the party for half of the second game. Then, in a misguided attempt to save the day, he parachutes back into the party during a crucial battle underleveled, underdeveloped, and undergeared and usually gets the entire party killed as a result of the player being forced to field an unprepared character. And finally, he leads the charge into the final dungeon and defeats Big Bad Wannabe, only to wind up fulfilling the real Big Bad's Evil Plan and become the final boss himself via a Grand Theft Me. He's last seen limping off screen slumped over someone else's shoulder, with the Princess he spent the last game repeatedly failing to rescue having killed the Big Bad herself when everyone else wasn't looking.


Western Animation

  • Wacky Races' Dick Dastardly, despite being as lukewarm a Villain Protagonist as you can possibly get, definitely falls into this trope. Even in the rare instances he conquers his obsession to cheat he still manages to become a Boring Failure Hero.
    • Well, he did win. Once. To everybody's surprise. Including his own. And the narrator's.
    • His Expy Phantom Fink suffers the same problem; when he does win, the prize is absolutely horrible.
    • No matter who wins in Yogi's Space Race, something happens to make the prize undesirable. One wonders why the racers keep coming back.
  • The protagonists of Ed, Edd n Eddy. Not only do Eddy and his crew fail at their attempts to scam kids, they also completely fail at legitimate ventures or even completely innocent goals like gaining a little respect from their friends. The constant teasing and harassing of their Jerkass neighbors only rubs salt into the wound.
    • In the movie this is subverted. The other kids finally accept the Eds into their group after seasons of turmoil.
  • The title character of The Buzz on Maggie. Mostly everything she tries to accomplish fails, or backfires in her face.
  • The members of Young Justice, no matter what they do, never seem to be able to win against the Light. Every victory they achieve either doesn't affect the Light's overall plan in any significant way, or is offset by the Light getting exactly what they wanted anyway.
  • The main theme of The Venture Brothers, where all the characters are failures, both heroes and villains.
    • It really says something when even the most badass character on the show, Brock Sampson, is a failure. Brock was a promising college football player who had to quit school because he accidentally killed a man on the field. Then he goes off to OSI, where he gets paired with a guy tagged as a crazy conspiracy theorist by the department. Despite being as awesome as he is, he gets assigned guard babysitter duty to Dr. Venture, a washed-up, sociopathic Omnidisciplinary Scientist, and his Cloudcuckoolander kids. He's viewed as just about as much a waste of great potential in his field as Dr. Venture in his own. On top of everything, he can get any woman on the planet, except the one woman he actually loves.
  • Chuck Jones' enterpretation of Daffy Duck was meant to represent a polar opposite of Bugs Bunny, constantly attempting to take on The Ace role, be it a super hero, a western sheriff or a detective, only to get his ass handed to him by even the most incompetant of villains, with real heroes Bugs or Porky usually clearing things up. Other directors occasionally placed Daffy as a bumbling hero as well, though it varied whether he was an actual failure or not.
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