"You don't understand. ...I really didn't want to leave you any clues. I really planned never to go back to Arkham Asylum. But I left you a clue anyway. So I... I have to go back there. Because I might need help. I... I might actually be crazy."
Perhaps Rousseau was onto something, and no human being is really happy being evil. Or at least some people are unfit for a life of villainy. Rather than being a construct of pure evil, a villain can be a surprisingly normal person despite the tragic flaws and obsessions driving him to hatred and madness. He may even manage to have admirable qualities, becoming a sympathetic Anti-Villain. Along comes a chance at salvation: a skilled plastic surgeon, an influential psychiatrist, a doctor with a miracle cure, or maybe just an old friend. With that person's help, the villain manages to overcome his madness and look forward to some semblance of a happy and productive normal life.
However, something eventually goes wrong. Maybe they start having blackouts, and can't remember what they've been doing. Maybe they get visited by an old comrade who forces them back into crime. The voices in their head may resume their chorus. Or maybe they see their old nemesis and just have to test them, for old times sake...Ultimately, their returning obsessions become too much, and they can't resist them any more. They give in, and they eventually fall back into their self-destructive, villainous lifestyle.
If done right, it's Tragedy. If done wrong, it seems like an Ass Pull. The likelihood that the writer's attempt falls flat is greater when the real reason for villain's relapse is not the result of an honest artistic decision, but is merely catering to the demands of Status Quo Is God. A sadistic god indeed, who will never, ever allow the villain redemption, no matter how many times he tries during the series' long, long run and many spinoffs, it will forever remain a Tragic Dream. Chronic Villainy is perhaps the uglier, vilertwin to Joker Immunity.
Compare Reformed, but Rejected, where the villain has repented and wants to go straight, but may find that the hero, or society in general, doesn't trust him enough to let him. Indeed, a particularly bad case of Reformed But Rejected can easily fuel a case of Chronic Villainy. A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, courtesy of What the Hell, Hero? or All of the Other Reindeer. Compare also Redemption Failure, where the villain is pushed back to The Dark Side not by internal residue compulsions, but by external circumstances.
Contrast The Farmer And The Viper, where a villain is given this same opportunity...and twists that goodness into a torment for the one who offered them redemption. Often, villains who try (and fail) to reform have some Idiosyncrazy.
Related to Science-Related Memetic Disorder and Shouldn't You Stop Stealing?.
For villains who only pretend to reform and settle down, see Civilian Villain.
Note that those with the opposite affliction, Chronic Hero Syndrome, rarely suffer as much angst over it.
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The Crown Prince of this is Batman's The Riddler, who has reformed countless times, only to fall back into crime due to obsessing over beating the Bat. However, this trope still applies to a large portion of Batman's rogues gallery, most prominently, Two-Face (who is probably a close second to the Riddler), The Ventriloquist, Mr. Freeze, and Harley Quinn. The second version, of a character whose power makes them evil and slowly returns them to villainy, is present in Man Bat and certain incarnations of Clayface.
One comic book for The Batman animated series had The Riddler asking Batman for help, because the Joker had kidnapped his favorite staff member at Arkham. But The Riddler couldn't just ask, he sent riddles, because it's his mental condition to do so, whether committing crimes or not.
This compulsion goes all the way back to the 1960's Adam WestBatman tv show. In one episode, Riddler's girlfriend asks him why he even bothers with riddles since Batman always figures them out. Riddler answers that the only reason he even became a criminal is so he could use riddles to stump Batman. Without riddles, he says, crime would be pointless.
The Joker underwent a Riddler Reform in "Going Sane", a Story Arc from the comic Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. The only times where he's ever been indicated to reform are when he thinks Batman's dead. When Batman ends up alive, he returns.
As such, Batman: The Animated Series had a couple of these. There was a noirish episode involving Two-Face in which this was the Twist Ending, and one involving The Riddler (aptly named "Riddler's Reform", the original suggested title for this trope) in which he gave up a fortune because he couldn't get past his obsessions.
What's particularly tragic about that episode is that he gets a human body, and for no explicable reason, gets his ice powers back. However, Mr. Freeze has a history of tragedy in the DCAU, and while his backstory gave him depth, his later appearances in the The New Batman Adventures made him a bit of a Butt Monkey. In Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, his wife is revived and cured of her illness. What happens? It turns out his body is rapidly decaying, and soon, all that's left of him is his head.
Harley Quinn got such an episode. Over the course of it, she gets better, and finally realizes that the Joker doesn't care about her (after being left for dead by him) but sees a card that says "Get well soon - J" and instantly snaps back. (If you know the character, it's not an Ass Pull.)
The Cluemaster, a minor Batman villain compelled to leave clues at the scenes of his crimes, was one of Arkham's few success stories. Unfortunately, he was cured of the compulsion to leave clues behind, not of a desire to steal things. His main claim to fame is being the father of Stephanie Brown and, later, Robin and Batgirl.
The Chronic Villainy of Batman's Rogues Gallery is justified by the common factor that almost all of them share: complete insanity. In their cases, villainy is almost their mental illness, one that seems impossible to remove. This is especially evident in The Dark Knight Returns, where both the Joker and Two Face go through apparent, but non-permanent, reforms.
Many enemies of The Flash who are genuinely insane have gone through this, most prominently, Wally West's ex-girlfriend, Magenta (another case of psychotic power). Pyromaniac recidivist Heat Wave went straight with a federal job...but he burnt down a bar he went to after leaving the office. (Frustratingly, this came after a pretty lengthy period of nonvillainy—the character has been straight for nearly as long as he's been a criminal.)
One Silver Age story had Abra Kadabra brainwash the governor into pardoning him, and then attempting to form a legitimate career as a puppeteer. However, the show he did was a sort of (extremely amateurish) parody of the Flash, who had a really oversensitive reaction to how popular it was and so decided to get intense in his war on crime, making him popular enough that the inhabitants of Central City (who are apparently all simpletons) stopped coming to the puppet show, so Abra Kadabra turned the Flash into a puppet and used him in the show.
It's been revealed that Barry Allen brainwashed one of his Rogues, the Top, into becoming a genuine hero. Unfortunately the brainwashing went wrong, and the Top performed a similar, subtler Mind Rape on a number of the Flash's other Rogues before he went insane. This was used to justify how Wally West was able to befriend people who'd been written as hardened criminals (well, by Silver Age standards) while Barry was alive. Eventually the Top invoked this trope himself by undoing the brainwashing.
The Bronze AgeSuperman story "Luthor Unleashed" has Lex suffer one painful defeat too many at Superman's hands, and decides to throw in the towel. He retires to the alien planet where he had once taken a wife (whom he had, till then, shamefully neglected) and tries to settle down to be a model citizen there. He even has a child. But despite his best efforts, he can't stop obsessing over the fact that Superman beat him. He finally builds a suit of Powered Armor in anticipation of Superman tracking him down, but then uses it to relieve his tensions by using it to wreak havoc on his new home, becoming its first supervillain. Superman does indeed arrive, and in the ensuing fight, Lex accidentally detonates a powerful gizmo and blows up the planet, killing his wife and infant son. He blames Superman and ends up more obsessed with his destruction than ever before.
This is a pretty defining point about Lex Luthor and one of the best and most tragic examples. In many stories, Lex is a man who genuinely wants to do right by humanity and use his intellect for good. Its just that he can never get past his hatred of Superman. It also leads into the selfish spect of his personality: He wants to destroy Superman so the world will see him as the true savior of mankind.
Eddie Brock, the former Venom, even after being separated from the symbiote. While trying to be a hero as Anti-Venom, he discovered that his benefactor, Mr. Li, was the supervillain Mr. Negative. He was so disillusioned that he now struggles with homicidal urges. Bets are open as to how long it will take for him to become Venom proper again. Plus all the times he went back and forth between being a villain and an Anti-Hero as the regular Venom.
Brock lost his powers as Anti-Venom and tried to go Anti-Hero again... by murdering other symbiotes, who he views as inherently evil. Small wonder that he's back to being Ax-Crazy now that he's bonded to Carnage's spawn, Toxin.
Spider-Man villain Norman Osborn has not reformed, but to the general public, it appears he has. However, nobody who actually knows him expects it to last, since everyone thinks he is going to have a Villainous Breakdown and go into a more overt form of this trope.
Loki never stops trying to usurp Asgard and defeat Thor for many reasons. He is The Unfavorite of Asgard, being a trickster magician instead of a warrior, and so he can never truly believe that Odin and Thor truly love him as family, despite the fact that every time Loki's schemes fail, Odin and Thor always eventually forgive him and give him another chance. It got so bad that Loki actually let himself die at the conclusion of "Siege" and be reborn as a relatively innocent child in an attempt to escape Chronic Villainy. As the last remnants of his past life explains to the new Loki, he had become predictable in his treachery and, as a god of chaos and trickery, he would rather die than be predictable. And, predictably, all of that actually was a scheme to dupe others into thinking that Loki has truly changed (at the moment when everyone but Thor gave up any hope of redeeming him), by using Kid Loki's innocence and then overwriting his personality with the Old Loki memories. Proving once again that Loki cannot escape this trope. His younger self calls him out on it, though he tries to deny it.
Greg Rucka's run on Elektra ended this way. After a whole run of issues in which she was forced to recognise just how much damage she'd done to innocent people, started seriously trying to reform, and came close to rejecting the conflict between the Chaste and the Hand altogether to just do good for its own sake, the Hand killed her new mentor and kidnapped the guy who first started her on the reform path. She killed all the Hand guys, but finally also killed the kidnapped guy because... well, presumably out of a momentary flash of despair that she'd been forced to kill a whole load of people, although it wasn't convincingly explained. There were stories that this was due to Executive Meddling, because the writer of an imminent crossover event decided that he wanted "classic" Elektra to be involved in it.
In the Death Note fic A Cure for Love Light is happy to remian as L's partner until Misa conspires to restore his Kira memories.
Cruella de Vil in 102 Dalmatians. Went to jail, got reformed, but an accident with the main puppy caused her to start seeing dalmatian spots all over town. Kind of a disturbing scene.
In a perversion of Pavlov's Dog, the researchers responsible for Cruella's behavioral modification into the saintly Ella accidentally discovered that the sound of a bell reverses the process. Needless to say, the minute Ella hears a bell ringing, she's back to being the sociopathic Cruella. This in a city that is famous for a hugantic friggin bell by the nickname of Big Ben.
Lord of War has Yuri Orlov, the greatest arms dealer in the world (described to have been on first-name basis with several dictators), tries to reform and run a lumber company when a Federal agent tells his wife what he does. But trying to live honestly is too hard (or not so much hard as boring), so he goes back to gun-running.
Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is a pretty solid example. After being subdued, taken captive, and his life subsequently spared by Frodo, he is slowly calmed and rehabilitated by Frodo's attempts at kindness until he ultimately breaks down in a "fight" between his two personalities, and defeats his Gollum side, reverting to a much more cheerful and helpful Sméagol persona. Then, an unfortunate run-in with Faramir has him beaten and seemingly betrayed by Frodo, making him break once and for all back into his murderous, deceptive self. A similar process occurs in the books, but is much more subtle.
It is made clear, though, that Sméagol, not Gollum, was the side that originally killed his friend in order to take hold of the Ring (Gollum references Sméagol being a murderer in both films he/they are featured in.) The Gollum personality came later, in the decades of isolation. Really, he's an example of someone who instantly fell into the power of the Ring, but was otherwise a relatively decent sort of person. Very susceptible to temptation, that's all. Either side would be perfectly willing to kill Frodo to get the ring, it's just that Sméagol is too frightened to try.
Michael Corleone in The Godfather Saga: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Well done by Mickey Rourke in the titular character of Johnny Handsome.
Frank Abagnale Jr in Catch Me If You Can eventually becomes addicted to the thrill of living like a playboy by conning money and eluding the authorities, while becoming tired from having to look over his shoulder all the time. He needs his father's support to stop, but Frank Sr. refuses for selfish reasons. Even when Frank tries to settle down his past catches up with him and he goes further into the criminal lifestyle. When Hanratty finally tracks him down in France Frank almost seems like a thrill-seeking junkie, and Hanratty has to save him from getting himself killed. Subverted when he is released from prison to work for the FBI catching criminals like himself, and he almost goes back to his former life. He comes back into work on Monday and greets Carl as usual.
Harmony Kendall from Angel. During her appearances on the show, her Chronic Villainy seemed to alternate between tragedy and Ass Pull. Either way, it seemed like she genuinely wanted to do the right thing, even though it was against her vampiric nature. She even once said, "It's not like have a soul! I have to try a lot harder!"
Spike from the Buffyverse flickers like a moral strobe light. Dark: the punk vampire based on Sid Vicious, his original form. Light: helps Buffy Save The World from Angelus because he likes it here and because he loves Drusilla. Dark: has Angel tortured for a phlebotinum ring. Light: has a chip in his brain that stops him hurting people, but helps Buffy because he can still attack other demons. Dark: drives a wedge between Buffy and her friends (The Yoko Factor) and kidnaps a doctor to get the chip removed. Light: falls in love with Buffy and goes back to fighting on her side; cries when she dies. Dark: takes sexual advantage of the risen Buffy's depression; tries to rape her when she comes to her senses. Light: gets his soul back, fights on Buffy's side again. Dark: used as a sleeper agent by The First. Light: saves the world at the cost of his own life. Dark: becomes a ghost and tries to rob Angel of his prophesied redemption. Light: takes over Angel's former job of helping the helpless; ends up fighting with Angel in the last battle. I count 11 toggles of the good/evil switch.
Arvin Sloane from Alias appears to go straight a few times (though whether the attempts were genuine is debatable) but he inevitably has to get involved with the prophecies of Rambaldi that he has an obsession with. One particularly disturbing scene has a Mook who states that Rambaldi's ultimate plan was to become immortal, causing Sloane to snap at his shallowness and beat him to death. (While that season showed that Rambaldi's plan was far more than immortality, the next season showed that a key part of it was immortality, which Sloane pursued with disturbing gusto.)
The tragedy of Londo Molari in Babylon 5. He is a good man at heart and frequently tries to use his influence for good or turn his back on the constant schemes of his old allies. But he is addicted to power and it takes only slight nudges from his former friends or personal tragedies to have him forget about his ideals and the previous times he set lose an avalanche of events he couldn't stop.
Breaking Bad: Former chemistry teacher and ruthless meth kingpin Walter White always go back to his meth business, regardless to how much danger he puts himself and his family in. In the last season, he eventually decides to leave the drug business and try and regain some semblance of normalcy in his life. Naturally, his crimes are discovered by his brother-in-law in the DEA less than 24 hours later, forcing him to go back to being Heisenberg again.
After seeing his biological father in a recent Volume 4 episode, however, this tendency might be In the Blood. When Sylar displays his regenerative ability, Daddy Gray, who is dying of lung cancer, tries to take it, even though he previously claimed to have gotten bored of killing and swore off it many years ago.
His actions have finally caught up with him by the end of the final season. His slew of trauma, murder, and issues all come to a head, and, as a last resort, he hunts down Parkman to have his mind wiped clean. Parkman isn't buying it and refuses until Sylar threatens his family.
Parkman: The last time I was in your head, you turned my life into a living hell. What makes you think I'm gonna risk that?
Sylar: Janice and the kid. I really do want to change. But I'm insane, remember? All I have to do is point.
The killer in the Criminal Minds episode "The Big Wheel" kills not because he wants to, but because he has a compulsive disorder forcing him to. The most he can do to stop himself is add the message "help me" to a video of one of his killings before sending it to the police. It seems that, in the past, he'd been a genuinely heartless killer, but the son of one of his victims somehow sparked in him the last vestige of goodness and made him reform. Unfortunately, when the kid is about to move away, the stress of this causes murder compulsions to overwhelm him. Towards the end of the episode, he dies, but not before telling the kid "forgive me...".Poor guy.
There was the guy from Everybody Hates Chris, who he sent to jail. He comes back and asks Chris to help him complete high school. They succeed, but he goes back to robbing because it's more exciting than a real job.
Happens both times the Stargate Atlantis team tries to use the retrovirus on Michael. The second time, they used it on a whole hive ship in addition to Michael. They just never learn.
In later seasons, Deep Space Nine's recurring bad guy, Gul Dukat, was portrayed as being on a path of redemption or at least Noble Demon status, as he saved his mixed race daughter from slavery (despite cultural precepts which said he should have killed her) and fought against the newly antagonistic Klingons as they invaded his people (seemingly gaining an ounce of empathy after being the underdog for once). Unfortunately, he finds an opportunity to regain power on Cardassia, and reverts right back his tyrannical old self. When his plan is revealed and he betrays the good guys, he even lampshades how it never seemed quite right that they were on the same side.
Glee is a perfect example in the Ass Pull category of this trope. No matter how many times Sue Sylvester takes a liking to the club or helps them or shows some depth to her personality, it will be completely forgotten by her next appearance and she will always return to her scheming and villainy.
Michael in Grand Theft Auto V. A former bank robber who retired and went into Witness Protection, he finds himself bored by civilian life and cannot come to terms with it, and therefore embellishes the financial troubles that his wife Amanda's spending causes him in order to more easily justify and excuse his wish to return to a life of crime.
Oasis suffers from this in Sluggy Freelance. Even when she resists her insane obsession with Torg and fights crime, she's still a particularly brutal Vigilante Woman who's a little too callous about slaughtering dozens of people. Her assassin instincts even kick in during mundane tasks, such as when she makes pancakes and "doesn't stir the batter so much as stab it lots."
To be fair to the woman, The Nostalgia Chickhas tried to be a good person before, and she does still have Pet the Dog moments. She's just so miserable in life and willing to crawl back into a bottle because she's lonely that it just never really lasts.
The Flash: James... You're off your meds, aren't you? The Trickster:Better off without 'em. Take them if I start feeling down. The Flash: You know that's not how the medicine works... You're not well. The Trickster: I'm fine... [Brightening up] You wanna throw some darts? The Flash: No. [Pause] Listen, James, you're wearing the suit again! The Trickster: I am? [Looking at his suit] Well, what do you know...
In Conan The Adventurer, Wrath-Amon's Dragon, Windfang, discovered a spell that would restore him to his human form. Soon after, he returned to his homeland, accompanied by Conan and his companions, to reclaim the throne. Unfortunately, two hundred years had passed since he became Windfang, and the entire kingdom, including the woman he loved, was long since gone. After Wrath-Amon found him and demanded that he return with him, the poor guy surrendered without a fight, now knowing that he had nothing to go back to.
In the WordGirl episode "Tobey Goes Good", Tobey McCallister III finally realizes that, to win WordGirl's affections, he must convert to the side of truth and justice. However, this is completely wiped away once his completely superior, humongous robot loses "The Young Inventors Challenge and Friendly Competition" to a combined apple and egg slicer because the judge liked the free food.
Tobey: I have to hand it to you, Word Girl, you were right about me. I hadn't changed into a no-good do-gooder! *Quickly wipes a tear away* It doesn't pay to be nice! After all, try to be nice — not destroy things — and look at what happens! You end up losing to an egg-slicer!
Xiaolin Showdown had an episode with the villain Jack Spicer offering to study with the heroes at the temple and become a xiaolin monk himself. His greed and ambition eventually get the better of him when he's presented with an opportunity to steal their Shen Gong Wu. The rules of a subsequent Xiaolin Showdown force him to talk to Omi about his betrayal and admit that he really was trying to reform.
In an even straighter example of the trope, the only reason he ran away was because he was afraid that he was not good at being good, and Failure Was The Only Option. Maybe Spicer's a bit more Genre Savvy than we'd guess.
A SpongeBob SquarePants episode had him befriending Plankton. Everything seemed fine until Plankton steals a krabby patty.
The Movie of Codename: Kids Next Door portrayed this trope tragically with the Delightful Children. The brainwashing Father put them under is so incredibly powerful and rooted deep into them that any attempts to undo it would be temporary at best, and they'll morph back into their evil selves. They cannot be good because they are forever under Father's influence.
Remy Buxaplenty on The Fairly Oddparents makes a truce with Timmy at the end of one episode. In his next appearance, he uses Timmy's new-found trust to trick him into his latest scheme.
Yuck, Yin and Yang's Evil Twin from Yin Yang Yo, ends up succumbing to this due to a particularly vicious case of Reformed, but Rejected from the two, culminating in beating him senseless at his unveiling of a statue dedicated to their new friendship, destroying the statue in the process.
In one T.U.F.F. Puppy episode, Snaptrap falls in love with Dudley's mom and quits D.O.O.M. and joins T.U.F.F. for her. However, he has trouble with the whole "good guys don't steal" thing, and he keeps letting all the bad guys get away.
Dr. Doofenshmirtz of Phineas and Ferb has twice attempted to quit villainy. The first attempt involved becoming a cheese maker, but that went south when Perry the Platypus, in a moment of weakness, ate the world's tastiest cheese Doof prepared while the doc's back was turned. This led Doof to use his cheese-aging 'inator for evil in response. The second attempt was in 'Agent Doof'; There, Doof joined the OWCA, but became a Hero with an F in Good, and subsequently fired. This time, however, he's elated to hear Major Monogram state that Doof was more of a threat inside the organization than outside it and went back to villainy thinking he still had it.
A particularly sadistic exemple in The Batman, where Dr Hugo Strange eventually succeeds in curing the Ventriloquist from his insanity. The guy immediatly tries to go back to a normal life... but Stange, being who he is, immediatly worked to ruin his life and turn him insane again for the sole sake of seeing how it'll turn out. By the end of the episode, he is back to being a criminal.
Norman Osborn in Ultimate Spider-Man is cured from his mutation into the Goblin at the end of Venom's Bomb. As he is trying to get back to a normal life, he genuinely attempts to make up for his crimes, tries to be a better father to Harry, and even becomes a super-hero as Iron Patriot. Sadly, a few episodes later, Dr Octopus, still trying to get revenge on him, kidnaps him and turns him back into the Goblin.
This is the tragic case when a real person has a relapse into drug abuse and/or an obsession.
Another possible case is when a real person abuses his or her loved ones, promises never to do it again, and does it again. Most of the time, they really do mean it when they say it, but if they don't get help and learn some other way of dealing with frustration, it just builds up and boils over the exact same way it did before.
This can seem like the case when dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder. The core of the disorder is a belief in one's own worthlessness or corruption. This leads the sufferer to 'test' the people he or she loves by subjecting them to abusive behavior, and externalizing his or her own faults and flaws because he or she can't stand being 'wrong'. When the tests become trying enough to drive someone away, fear of abandonment kicks in, and the sufferer becomes obsessed with bringing that person back (a book about this disorder summed up the whole cycle in its title 'I hate you, don't leave me'). The sad part is that those with Borderline Personality Disorder are completely genuine in both cases; they are being honest when they say they hate you, and they are being honest when they say they love you, even if they say those things only minutes apart.