When villains are first introduced, their villainy is sharp and clear. The atrocities that put them on the map in the first place are fresh in the mind, and the threat they pose to the protagonists is very real. Over time, though, the addition of complexity and nuance can take erstwhile Complete Monster
villains in a somewhat different direction. They are not exactly redeemed, or turned into "good guys," necessarily, but they are not pure evil either. What was once The Horde
becomes a Proud Warrior Race
. What was once Evil Inc.
turns out to be a more Incompetence, Inc.
. The Evil Genius
may have a splash of Absent-Minded Professor
to him: certainly not someone with a strong sense of ethics, but not someone trying to conquer the world either.
Meanwhile, as old villains accumulate nuance and grayness, a new villain is introduced, who sweeps onto the stage with torture, massacres, and all-around villainy. These new villains have none of the accumulated baggage of the old, so there is no doubt that they are pure evil -- at least, not yet.
The addition of nuance to old villains and the introduction of new villains are complementary processes: old villains losing their vileness without any new villains being introduced might leave a story short of antagonists, while the introduction of new villains without pruning back the list of high-priority foes can leave the story feeling crowded and messy. It isn't always clear which is the cause and which is the effect: whether the old villains were toned down a bit to make room for the new villain, or whether the new villain was introduced to provided a fresh threat in light of the old villain's increasingly nuanced nature.
In part 1, we are introduced to Always Chaotic Evil
villain #1. We see the heroes killing them for the good of the world without qualms
. In part 2, we learn that Always CE villain #1 is more complicated than that — they may still have some unsavory properties, but they're not just there to be shot or stabbed by the good guys. They have kids and spouses too!
However, stories still need villains, so we're introduced to Always Chaotic Evil villain #2, who are the new complete monsters
that can be stabbed and shot on sight without any misgivings. Then, in part 3, we learn that Always CE villain #2 turns out not to be so totally irredeemable either, and so on. With each new iteration, villains previously portrayed as utterly monstrous and inhuman are portrayed in a more nuanced light -- while a new villain is introduced that is as devoid of redeeming qualities as the previous villains were before their rehabilitation.
Anime and Manga
- Generality writes: "Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann does this in, appropriately enough, a cyclic way. There are at least three iterations of the characters finding out that their last enemy had some justification or at least a Freudian Excuse, while the next guy is apparently a Complete Monster. In the end, even the final Big Bad is given some pathos on his way out."
- HiWayXingFrog writes: "Naruto is an interesting example in which we seem to have something of a "Monster Sandwich." Uchiha Itachi and Pain/Nagato are certainly not the Complete Monsters they originally seemed, but Orochimaru and Madara (the series' first and current main antagonists, respectively) seem to be lacking in the realm of redeeming qualities."
Live Action Television
- Millstone writes: "Terminator 2 shows what a reprogrammed T-800 can learn from humans. Meanwhile, the T-1000 channels the fears inspired by the first terminator."
Table-top Roleplaying Games
- In Star Trek, the Klingons of the original Star Trek are the original Always CE villains. In later generations, relations with the Klingons become mostly peaceful, if not exactly friendly, but new villains, such as the Borg, Dominion, etc, take over. Similar arcs can be seen for Romulans, Cardassians, etc.
- In Dungeons & Dragons, the Eberron setting effectively takes the orcs and goblins of classical D&D and makes them more morally on par with other humanoids like humans — sometimes corrupt and selfish, occasionally noble and heroic, and usually somewhere in between. However, it introduces new races, such as the Daelkyr and their minions like Dolgrims who are effectively the new Always Chaotic Evil races.
- In the Fallout series, we see this trope repeatedly.
- In Fallout 1, the Master and his Super Mutants are the villains. In Fallout 2, we hear the Super Mutants' side of the story from Marcus — seeing that super mutants are capable of coexisting with ghouls and normal humans, but were mislead and caught up in the misguided ideals of the Master in an aggressive war, which makes them no worse than humans, who are also prone to following charismatic leaders into aggressive wars. However, the new Always CE group becomes the Enclave. Fallout 3 was somewhat unusual for Fallout in that both the Enclave and and Super Mutants reprise their role as irredeemable villains (except Fawkes). In Fallout: New Vegas, we learn that the Enclave weren't all monsters either, with the For Auld Lang Syne quest. Fallout: New Vegas is somewhat unusual in not having a single villain who must be destroyed to win the game, but the closest to an always chaotic evil group following in the footsteps of the Master and the Enclave of Fallouts 1, 2, and 3 would be Caesar's Legion (even though you can side with them).
- The Khans are similar. In Fallout 1, they're always chaotic evil villainous raiders. In Fallout 2, they reprise that role, but we get a marginally more sympathetic look at their leader, who survived the defeat of the original Khans from Fallout 1 and has serious Survivor Guilt. In Fallout: New Vegas, the Khans continue to be slightly villainous, being drug dealers and such, but aren't automatically hostile, and are regarded with more sympathy (having been kicked around in Fallout 1, Fallout 2, and between Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas by the NCR, Mr. House, etc). However, a new group of raiders in Fallout: New Vegas, the Fiends, take over the role of the Khans as always chaotic evil raiders who can be killed without qualms.
- Tifforo writes: "In the first Halo game, the main villain was Guilty Spark. In Halo 2, the main villain was the Prophet of Truth, while an entity resembling the first game's antagonist plays a minor role. In Halo 3, the main villain was Gravemind, while the Prophet of Truth seems to be a much smaller threat. The villain from the first game then shows up, but without his ability from the first game of tricking you into helping him because you think he's on your side he seems like a smaller threat compared to the third game's main villain."
- In Warcraft and Warcraft 2, the orcs (and their Warcraft 2 friends like trolls and goblins) are purely evil. In Warcraft 3, they switch to being a Proud Warrior Race. The undead scourge and demonic burning legion take over as the pure villains.
History of names (still open to suggestions):
Name 1: Redemption Treadmill
Name 2 & 5: Conservation of Villainy
Name 3: Conservation of Monsters
Name 4: Conservation of Monstrosity (Thanks to Aielyn)
Related to Villain Decay
, but it's more that the villains become less monstrous, not necessarily weaker. Either way, though, for action-centered stories, a new villain is needed.
Do We Have This One?
UPDATE: More rarely, this may apply to good guys as well. The plucky rebellion
, if it succeeds, may end up becoming a rather corrupt Banana Republic
. If so, it is possible that a purer force for good, untainted by power
, will step in from the wings. I'm not really sure whether this belongs on the same page or not. I'm pretty sure it's not widespread enough to be its own trope.
- The Followers of the Apocalypse from Fallout: New Vegas may fit this (although, strictly speaking, the Followers of the Apocalypse actually predate the New California Republic.).