You don't mind breaking the law? Watson:
Not in the least. Holmes:
Nor running a chance of arrest? Watson: Not in a good cause. Holmes:
Oh, the cause is excellent! Watson:
Then I am your man.
Caper Rationalization is how a caper story
featuring a charismatic, likable and funny group of thieves can avoid alienating the audience through Moral Dissonance
. After all, when you boil the story down to its essence, we have to admit that these so-called "heroes" we are cheering on are criminals
, and they are in the process of robbing
someone of something very valuable. Why are we rooting for them to succeed, again?
Oh yeah! Because they're not just stealing to get rich... they're stealing because they have a good reason
to steal. They are stealing their own property back
from the target, who took it from them in some unjust way. Or the caper is actually a rescue attempt
(or some variant thereof
). Or the target did something bad to the characters to make it a revenge
attempt. Or the target distastefully earned the wealth, and the heroes are targeting jerkasses
. Sometimes, the entire point of the caper is espionage or sabotage, which gives the heroic criminals a sort of patriotic "license to steal." Other times, the crew is a Tiger Team, and are breaking into a place to intentionally test its security.
The Caper Rationalization can be more or less believable depending on the situation. The point is, it allows the audience to enjoy it without feeling guilty.
Related to Justified Criminal
and Karmic Thief
. Compare Double Caper
, where the rationalization of the second caper is generally "to fix the stuff we broke by doing the first caper". See also Asshole Victim
, which can be used to "rationalize" a murder. Watch out, however, since the rationalization may be just a Motivational Lie
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
- Kaito Kid is a Phantom Thief who steals jewels. However, he's only looking for 1 jewel in particular to protect it from a secret organization who killed his father. Any other jewels he steals along the way that aren't it, he either discards to be found or returns himself.
- Get Backers consists of professional "retrieval experts" who "get back what shouldn't be gone." It's all in the name. Otherwise, it works a lot like The Caper, at least until the plot thickens.
- Lupin III would often steal from the obscenely rich (in one case claiming he was doing the victim a favor because the insurance payout would be greater than the value of the object stolen), or from dictators and criminals far worse than himself.
- The primary storylines in X-Thieves all dealt with Caper Rationalizations.
- You know how in "Jack and the Beanstalk", the giant had stolen his treasures from Jack's father? That was made up hundreds of years after the story was first written, perhaps because somebody realized that otherwise Jack was just a Jerk Ass Designated Hero.
- National Treasure, all the way. Ben Gates would never even conceive of stealing the Declaration of Independence if he didn't have the noble cause of keeping all that treasure and the Declaration itself out of the hands of the bad guys.
- He also doesn't like the term "Treasure hunter", preferring instead "Treasure protector". Makes sense, considering he doesn't want the treasure for its monetary value and doesn't plan to keep it.
- All three of the recent Danny Ocean movies starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney feature Caper Rationalizations that involve getting revenge against some really nasty individuals.
- In the first movie, only one of the characters is in it for revenge, and Danny is there to win his wife back. The others are in it mostly for the money. Still, the guy they're robbing is pretty unlikable.
- In the second movie, they are in it to get money so they can pay off the guy they robbed in the first movie. Otherwise, he will have them killed. The secondary reason is to get back at the Gentleman Thief who ratted them out.
- Only in the third movie is their rationalization purely revenge.
- They do offer the bad guy a chance to make amends and pay back what he stole from their friend. He refuses.
- Inception: Saito gives a theoretical Caper Rationalization toward the beginning of the movie, though the movie never shows whether it is true or not. On the other hand, DiCaprio's character is motivated by his desire to be able to return to his children, which Saito promises to arrange if he can pull off the titular Inception.
- Almost everyone else appears to be in it for the money. Except, maybe, Ariadne. She seems to just like being in dreams.
- Her original reason was that the dreams gave her limitless design capabilities. She's an even better architect than Cobb was, as stated by his father in law in the movie.
- The team in Sneakers is hired to steal an encryption device from a mathematician. Their employers claim to be NSA agents, and say that the mathematician is being funded by Russia. Actually, he's being funded by the NSA, and the employers work for the Mafia. (Communism was just a red herring.)
- The remake of The Italian Job has the crew pulling a caper against the guy who double-crossed them, murdered their original leader, and took the gold from their original caper.
- In Inside Man, the point of the bank job was to expose war crimes committed by one of the bank's account holders.
- In Hudson Hawk, Eddie doesn't even want to return to his catburglering ways, but is blackmailed into it. Also, when he fakes his arrest to avoid completing the third job, the villains go ahead without his help, resulting in innocent guards being killed compared to Eddie's non-lethal plans.
- In the original Ocean's 11, the team members have various reasons for wanting the money, ranging from putting a deprived son through college to financial liberation from a very rich mother.
- The Parole Officer features the Caper Crew breaking into a bank to steal a security tape that will both exonerate the protagonist and indict the bent copper who strangled a human being. Well, an accountant, anyway.
- The Anderson Tapes has Anderson invoking this trope over the theft he's planning. It's actually a favor to the victims, who over-insure property. The cops have somebody to chase, the newspapers have something to write about. The list goes on. Then he subverts it by saying he's just in it for the money.
- How To Steal A Million: The sculpture being stolen is a forgery, and by stealing it before the museum can have it authenticated, the museum (and its insurance company) won't even be on the hook for its supposed value.
- The Stainless Steel Rat has endless rationalizations on how the main character's crimes actually help society. Most of them turn out to be true.
- Most of what they do in the book, though, is usually for the best.
- When he finally figures out Angelina's backstory, he understands her rationalization - to look beautiful. Born unattractive, she began to steal and kill to pay for plastic surgeries. However, even now that she's a knockout, she continues stealing and killing, upping the stakes. He understands that, while she managed to make herself beautiful on the outside, she's still ugly on the inside (or, at least, she made herself that way). The Special Corps psychologists manage to fix her a bit, enough to reduce her sociopathic tendencies to a manageable level, and she becomes a good wife to Jim and a good mother to their twin sons.
- In The Hobbit, Bilbo is employed as a thief to help return the gold to the dwarves after it was taken by the dragon Smaug.
- In The Twelve Chairs, Vorobyaninov is trying to return what is technically his heirloom: diamonds that were hidden from the Soviet authorities in a chair. The Little Golden Calf, the undercover millionaire Koreiko made his fortune by large-scale fraud, sabotage, and indirect murder, and comes off as a less sympathetic criminal than the protagonist, the Lovable Rogue Ostap Bender. When Bender does get his one million rubles in the last third of the book, the writers conveniently never stress its illegal history, instead treating it as somewhat of a lucky find.
- In Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer, a group of people who have been swindled by a con man band together to steal from him exactly the amount he took from them.
- Gentleman Bastard: Locke Lamora is a priest of the Crooked Warden, the Nameless 13th God of the Twelve, who (despite being an outcast god) has a simple commandment. His priests and thieves steal so that "The rich remember"... that they are not gods, and are not so far above the common man as to be invulnerable.
- Sherlock Holmes does this repeatedly. As noted above, "A Scandal in Bohemia" revolves around retrieving a compromising photo their client is afraid might be used against him, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" retrieving letters from a blackmailer and failing to report or investigate his entirely justified murder, and in "the Bruce-Partington Plans" they break into a spy's apartment (admitting as much to the police officer with them, though he doesn't raise a fuss considering the diplomatic implications).
Live Action TV
- Leverage is all about this, because the heroes help the helpless.
- Interestingly, when they face off against another crew, they end up getting the mastermind to turn over a painting to its rightful owners. When asked if he likes feeling like a good guy, he points out that they're still thieves and are just fooling themselves.
- In a later season finale, though, the rationalization is revenge for killing Nate's father.
- The first season finale, at least for Nate, is almost exclusively to screw his former employer, an insurance company, for refusing to pay for his son's experimental surgery, resulting in the boy's death.
- Burn Notice, for precisely the same reason as the Leverage crew.
- The Firefly episode "Ariel." Simon plans a heist on a hospital, stealing medicines that the crew can sell for profit on the black market. The rationalization is two fold: One, that Simon's real goal is to get his sister River into an imaging suite so he can find out what the Alliance did to her at the Academy, and two, it's pointed out that as it's an Alliance hospital on a core world, they're insured and will be completely restocked within hours of the heist so no harm will be done.
Wash: "It's all very noble, us stealing from the rich… selling to the poor…"
- The point is emphasized by the contrast to the earlier episode, "The Train Job," in which the trope is initially averted — the plucky heroes are quite blase about the fact that they are committing crime for no reason other than their own pecuniary gain — but then subverted when they then return the stolen goods when they discover them to be medicine that is sorely needed on a poor planet.
Sheriff Bourne: (catching Mal returning stolen medicine to a plague-stricken town) You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours... well... then he has a choice.
Mal: I don't believe he does.
- And again in the episode Trash, where the group unites with Saffron to steal from an Alliance officer who designed chemical and biological weapons and then looted the places where he used them. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that whole story was a Motivational Lie on Saffron's part.
- Even after the truth about Saffron previously marrying and caring about the guy comes out, she insists that all she said about him is true.
- Doctor Who
- Subverted in the episode "Planet of the Dead", in which Lady Christina de Souza presented herself as this sort of thief: She only stole for good reasons. In the end, however, it was revealed that this was a put-on... she actually just stole for the money it brought her and the thrill of getting away with something illegal. The Doctor claims to disapprove... then admits he stole the TARDIS from his own people so he could go have adventures.
- Played with in the episode "Time Heist", in which the Doctor and Clara learn that they agreed to break into the galaxy's biggest bank, and then had their memories wiped to get past the telepathic security. They assume that there must be a caper rationalisation, even if they don't remember it, because otherwise they wouldn't have agreed. It eventually turns out that it's not a robbery, it's a rescue mission.
- In the Farscape episode "Liars, Guns and Money", the bank robbery planned and executed by the Moya crew is so they can buy D'Argo's son, who is about to be sold into slavery; however, just to keep the few morally-upstanding members of the crew from getting troubled, the bank Stark chose to rob is actually used exclusively by criminals to hide their ill-gotten gains.
- Mission: Impossible used the espionage or dealing with organized crime rationalizations. A bit of a twist on the trope since nearly all their cases were black-ops work for the government.
- Happens quite often in Hustle, though sometimes the main characters pull jobs just to take the other guy's money. (This is the most likely reason for their Catch Phrase, "You can't cheat an honest man," which ignores the fact that there are just as many cons that trade on a mark's honesty as on his/her greed.)
- However, they always choose an Asshole Victim as their mark as a matter of principle (and they are easy to con), reasoning that they are only robbing people who deserve it. The typical victim is either an outright unscrupulous criminal themselves, or someone who is managing to effectively rob people by pushing the boundaries of legality. Quite often they do it to help avenge an innocent or a friend who fell victim to the mark's villainy. That said, in a general sense, they are clearly in it for the money and the thrill, and are pretty up front about the fact, especially with each other.
- Also, they never go after violent criminals whenever they can avoid it, purely out of fear of what would happen to them if they were found out or caught (where this happens, they were always forced into it somehow, again usually to help a friend but sometimes out of personal danger). So while they like picking Asshole Victims, they are always of the Jerk Ass variety, out of self-preservation and little else.
- An episode of A.N.T. Farm had aspiring artist Fletcher meet his inspiration, who was now down on his luck. Fletcher gave the man one of his paintings, only to discover later that he was selling it as his own. The A.N.T.s decided to steal it back to prevent this, which Fletcher did... only he replaced it with an exact copy of the same painting!
- The Nickelodeon TV movie Swindle has a Double Subversion. At first, the group tries to steal the Honus Wagner card back from Swindell, but after realizing that even if they pulled it off, they would never be able to sell it, plot to get him to give it back to them so they can sell it legally... and they still pursue this goal in a highly illegal manner, but the audience doesn't mind since Swindell well, swindled Ben, who really needs the money.
- Dennis Stanton, a recurring character in Murder, She Wrote, started as a Gentleman Thief who was partly motivated by revenge. His wife had died of a rare disease and their insurance company refused to pay for a treatment that could have saved her. When he became a thief, he made a point of only stealing from people who could afford it, not stealing anything with sentimental value, and only stealing valuables that were insured by the company that refused his wife's treatment.
- Garrett, from Thief, typically steals from corrupt noblemen, cruel fanatic cults, or other villains. Though there's a mission in Thief 2 ("Shipping/Receiving") where he robs a couple of ordinary merchants. Part of this is simple pragmatism: poor people don't have that much money on them to steal, so it's more time-efficient to go after the noblemen and the church. Garrett makes no excuses for his thievery in any case; he needs money, he's good at stealing things, and that's all there is to it.
- Sly Cooper and the Cooper Gang generally target criminals, generally for the challenge.
- In the first game, the primary goal is to steal back the pages of the Thievius Raccoonus from the Fiendish Five.
- The second game has the crew trying to steal the body parts of cybernetic Big Bad Clockwerk of the first game from members of the Klaww Gang so that they can't be used for bad things (or worse yet, to revive Clockwerk).
- The third game has Sly trying to break into his family vault and reclaim his family legacy.
- Rhythm Thief has protagonist Raphael aka Phantom R stealing paintings from museums and returning them the next day. This is because his father forged said paintings, and thus Raphael made it a point that he'd only steal the forgeries to replace them with the originals, or find artworks that would lead him to his father.
- Kasumi Goto's loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, in which you break into Donovan Hock's vault in order to retrieve the graybox belonging to Kasumi's now-dead boyfriend (who was murdered by Hock, naturally enough).
- Being herself, Kasumi gets up to a fair amount of this in Mass Effect 3, notably by "obtaining" vital material needed for the Crucible project, while commenting how one would be surprised how many credits are just left laying around by the people she's obtained the material from. She also plans to rob a casino in the Citadel DLC, noting as she does so that the owner is a scumbag and that she'll happily donate the proceeds to a refugee fund.