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"Why aren't you a joke anymore?"
—Spider-Man to second-string villain, Hammerhead after just getting beat up by him,The Amazing Spider-Man
So you're flipping channels looking for something to watch and you come across a battle scene in a familiar show. One character in particular is making a very good showing, doing at least as much as the main character to save the day. But who is this mysterious person in the Badass Longcoat? Did you miss the episode where they were introduced? Why the nagging feeling of familiarity? And then it hits -- you know this kid. It's just that last time you saw them, he/she was a nebbishy wisecracker with the constitution of a glass-jawed squirrel. What happened to transform them so completely? Simple: last time they leveled up, they took a level in badass.
If the change is a result of a Face Heel Turn, see Super-Powered Evil Side and Good Is Dumb. If it's a result of a Heel Face Turn, then it's a case of Evil Is Dumb. If the change is due to time travel, see Future Badass. If it is the result of finding a powerful object, see Amulet of Concentrated Awesome. This can also happen because Prisons Are Gymnasiums.
There is also the Super-Hero Origin, where the first story gives some explanation for why they became the badass hero.
The reference comes from roleplaying, where it's sometimes possible to "take a level" in a completely different class. For instance: a level ten Fighter could take a level in Wizard, therefore being both a level ten Fighter and a level one Wizard. Although truer to the trope would be a level ten Wizard taking a level in Fighter and thus becoming significantly tougher and better with weapons, instantly. Blending this with modern gaming, however, one can achieve what is known as "badass grinding", where one takes multiple levels in badass.
Compare Obfuscating Stupidity, Let's Get Dangerous, Cowardly Lion, and Not So Harmless, where actually competent characters who have been hiding their powers finally reveal their abilities. Xenafication is when this happens to The Chick. Contrast Badass Decay, when a previously badass character ends up losing this level.
Adrenaline Makeover is when the love interest does this, along with becoming much more attractive. Also see Misfit Mobilization Moment, when a group of losers collectively takes a level in badass. Related to Dumbass No More, when the character gains a level in intelligence.
Not to be confused with the British variant Took an A level in Badarse, although you can bet that if that was a legitimate education option that everyone would do it. Also not to be confused with Took a Level In Jerkass, where a normally nice person becomes a bad seed.
Warning: Examples may contain unmarked spoilers.
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