Once again, the villain has gotten out of the Cardboard Prison. But this time, they've just served their sentence, with possible time off for good behavior, and guess what? They're no longer interested in crime, they just want to be an upstanding citizen. The system works!
And if you believe that, I've got a slightly usedDeath Rayto sell you. This is usually just a ruse on the part of the villain, who's plotting his crimes in secret. It may even be part of an elaborate scheme to get the heroes to drop their guard and insinuate the villain as a Heel Face Mole.
An important part of this plot is that everyone else will usually believe the villain right away, it's the heroes who are made to look like fools by their paranoid suspicions. This can veer into Through the Eyes of Madness territory. The villain may set up a situation that looks like he's up to his old tricks, so that the heroes will come barging in to stop his... perfectly lawful activities. This makes the villain look like an innocent victim of petty harassment and discredits any heroes who continue to suspect that he's still up to no good.
Sometimes the villain is so proficient at leading a normal life that you have to wonder why they even bother with being a villain. Couldn't they just get someone to Cut Lex Luthor a Check? This is more plausible if the villain is just insane or motivated by animosity toward the heroes.
In particularly tragic instances of this, the villain really does reform, but the mistrust from their environment (and possibly the hero in particular) convinces them it's not worth it, and they go back to villainy.
Compare Heel-Face Turn, where the villain becomes an out-and-out hero. Likewise compare Chronic Villainy for when a villain sincerely attempts to reform but cannot get over his old obsessions. Also compare Reformed, but Rejected, where the villain really does give up his evil ways — but the hero still doesn't believe it. See also Then Let Me Be Evil, where a character (re)turns to evil because everyone treats them with suspicion.
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Batman gets this one a lot, since his theme is "justice, not vengeance" and he's contractually obligated to give people a chance, even if he doesn't believe it himself.
In the "Going Sane" story in Legends of the Dark Knight, after The Joker thinks Batman has died, he gets plastic surgery and goes on a regime of prescription drugs to make himself look normal. In a short while, he forgets all about his life as the Joker and turns into a shy, kindly eccentric. (Amnesia of this kind can [very rarely] happen in the Real Life. Psychologists call this "fugue".) This all falls apart when the Batman re-appears.
Harvey Dent (AKA Two-Face) gets plastic surgery to fix his mutilated face, but it doesn't actually cure his insanity, despite a promising start. Batman really hoped it would work (especially since Bruce and Harvey were friends).
The Joker claims to have changed after decades in Arkham, and is released after his evaluation by a strawman liberal psychiatrist. He goes on a talkshow to prove he just wants to make people smile... and then kills everybody. And somehow, some people are surprised.
The Harvey Dent example later showed up in current DCU continuity when he received plastic surgery as part of the "Hush" conspiracy, but in an example of petard-hoisting, the surgery put Two-Face out of control, giving Dent his sanity back. Temporarily, anyway.
Much like the animated version, The Riddler has gone straight as both a ploy and legitimately several times, including (for a while) being a private detective who might actually exceed Batman in ability except he stays (mostly) by the book. He tends to relapse, though, and often. He's also one of the few members of Batman's rogue gallery that realized he has a serious compulsion, and "might actually be crazy".
Lex Luthor and the Joker team up with this gambit in World's Finest Comics #88, building nigh-indestructible industrial robots as a front for their actual plan.
A Pre Crisis Superman story had Luthor reforming after falling in love and deciding to marry. He even allowed Superman to scan his mind with a device to confirm it. Except it turned out to be a convoluted scheme even Luthor himself wasn't aware of since erasing his own memories was part of the plan— so he really DID go straight, only to return to evil when the plan failed and ended up banishing his new wife to another universe instead of Superman.
The Threat from the Golden AgeFlash story "Challenge of the Threat" (from All Flash Quarterly #2). Back when he was a small-time burglar named Joe Connor, he pretended to go straight when he went to jail, using his time to study and sophisticate himself as a secret revenge plot against the D.A. who sent him to jail. Upon being released, he makes peace with the D.A. and has his goons kidnap his only son. Connor moves to Valley Hill to bring up the child against his real father, but upon meeting Annie Crowley, he falls in love with her and goes straight for real, even having a daughter together with her. However, after Annie died, Connor went back to his revenge plot and told his adopted son that the D.A. killed his mother.
At one point, the Cyborg Superman attempted this, creating a new identity as a schoolteacher and befriending a high school student who, coincidentally, was involved in a few of Superman's adventures, mostly those in the original post-Crisis Kandar. When his identity was revealed, he snapped and attacked, only to escape once more.
Exploited in Mystery Men. Captain Amazing is running out of villains to fight and is financially reliant on superheroics to attract sponsors, and he's Genre Savvy enough to know Casanova Frankenstein will commence with an Evil Plan once he is let out of the asylum, so he has him freed.
Dee Snider's Strangeland.
Frank White in King Of New York wants everyone to believe that he was reformed by prison, and is now just a philanthropist with an interest in helping the poor. In reality, not so much.
In 102 Dalmations, Cruella is seemingly reformed via Heel-Face Brainwashing. After the effects get undone, she continues to act reformed as part of her plan.
Duke Roger is one of these for the last two books of the Song of the Lioness quartet. Before he died the first time, he tried to kill the crown prince as well as the queen, among others. After he came Back from the Dead, people just kind of accepted his word and Thom's that Roger wasn't dangerous anymore, having "changed." (He did. Instead of wanting the throne, he became an Omnicidal Maniac.)
Harry Potter: After Voldemort was defeated trying to murder baby Harry, some Death Eaters claimed to have been bewitched or unwilling participants and tried to go back to living a normal life. This was most successful in conjunction with ministry connections and large bribes. In most cases it was only a lie to keep them out of Azkaban. It is further implied that at least some of those who were sent to Azkaban really had been coerced or mind-slaved, and simply didn't have the money to bribe people. Not many people really cared about the truth as long as they got paid.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe gives us a few of these. Most of the time, the system actually does work. However, when it doesn't, it fails egregiously. Such is the case of Admiral Daala, an Imperial admiral who oversaw the construction of the Death Star, and the orbital bombardment of several planets. Her current job? Head of the Galactic Alliance!
Very common for recurring Special Guest Villains on Batman. For instance, the Penguin runs for mayor in "Hizzoner the Penguin," and in "Catwoman Goes To College," well.... In one episode, this trope actually works against the Penguin. After opening a high class restaurant to get the signatures of its rich clientele, he purposely tries to get put in prison so he can hook up with an expert forger. The Penguin actually proved somewhat inept at getting himself arrested.
In season three of Heroes it seems that four-years-later Sylar fits this trope. However it might be a subversion, as he seems to have actually changed his ways.
In the exceptionally dark story "Revelation of the Daleks", Davros takes to calling himself the Great Healer and offering a solution to galactic famine. Thanks to this, Davros can truly call himself humanitarian. (Somewhat subverted in that Davros somehow thinks that he can remain anonymous, despite his unique appearance. The story itself does not address this.)
Averted in The Wire. When Cutty is released from prison, drug lord Avon Barksdale offers him work as an enforcer; after trying it briefly, however, Cutty decides he can't stomach it anymore, and settles down for a quieter life as a boxing coach.
Eggman of Sonic the Hedgehog does this from time to time. (And in lots of incarnations, whether he's Eggman or Robotnik, not just the games.)
In Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, he claims to have "completely reformed". Nobody believes him, but they work with him anyway for a good stretch of the game since they legitimately need his tech. No prizes for guessing how that turned out.
The plot to Mega Man 3. Dr. Wily claims to have reformed, and works with Dr. Light to build a giant "peacekeeping robot" which Mega Man has to go out and get the components for. The components, oddly enough, are guarded by 8 robot masters... and once they've gathered them all, Dr. Wily steals the new robot and plots to use it to take over the world.
Wily does it again in 9, when he gets out of jail, having apparently reformed. He then frames Dr. Light as plotting to take over the world, and asks all the people of the world to send donations to his Swiss bank account so that he can build a new fighting robot to stop Light and his eight robot masters.
In Mega Man Battle Network 3, Mr. Match convinces Lan he's reformed, only to trick Lan himself into firebombing Sci Lab.
Ultros in Final Fantasy VI eventually becomes the receptionist at the Coliseum. Subverted in that he never attacks the party again. On the other hand, his pet Chupon also sticks around as the "bouncer" to kick you out if you try to wager something stupid (and let the arena keep your wager).
LeChuck seems to turn over a new leaf in Tales of Monkey Island when he is transformed into a human. Logically, Guybrush doesn't trust him for a minute, despite Elaine's pleas to let bygones be bygones.
In the comic Bob and George, Dr. Wily does this by faking amnesia to become Dr. Light's assistant again.
Bob and George is (just loosely enough) based on the actual plot of the games. Thus, this happens only because of association with them.
In Sonic The Comic Online villains Max Gamble and Nack the Weasel both have allegedly gone straight becoming zone leaders and helping groups of people out of the goodness of their hearts, Nack helping the weasels and Gamble helping insect refugees from the Special Zone (who are certainly not Family members), the truth is that Gamble is work for Don Long-Legs head of The Family, and Nack is trying to take over the Ocean Falls Zone.
Parodied by Legendary Frog's "The Return of Ganondorf", in which Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time comes back after his defeat claiming to have stopped being evil. Link doesn't believe him and keeps trying to spy on him to catch him being evil. In the end, it turns out he isn't evil after all, Link's just nuts.
Batman: The Animated Series had the Penguin reform, genuinely, only to go back to his villainous ways when the woman he loved betrayed him.
To twist the knife here, after the Penguin is done with his epic snap and Batman has rescued her, she admits, a bit sadly, "You know, I was really starting to grow fond of you."
Poison Ivy blurs the lines a bit in Batman: The Animated Series "House and Garden." She's out of prison, marries a biology professor and takes care of his two sons, Chris and Kelly. Batman spends half the episode tailing her and yeah, she seems OK. The catch? She wants to have a family on her terms, so she's locked up her husband and replaced him with a long series of plant/human hybrids using the professor's DNA. Robin realizes something's amiss when he points out the real Chris and Kelly are supposed to be girls, who the professor doesn't have custody of.
The Ventriloquist also genuinely reforms after getting some psychiatric help.
The Riddler also reforms in the episode "Riddler's Reform." He does seem to be genuinely trying to reform, and his legitimate business is quite lucrative, but his obsession with outsmarting Batman won't leave him alone, so he decides that the only solution is to kill him. When he thinks Batman is dead, he does burn his mask and swear to quit being the Riddler, but it doesn't work out that way.
The Riddler is seriously unbalanced in this episode, demonstrated by how he can't for the life of him even figure out how Batman survived being sealed in a room with a time bomb... and a giant safe.
In "Joker's Millions", the Joker becomes legitimately insanely rich by inheriting the wealth of an old enemy. He gives up crime and takes up things like golf. Unfortunately, the money turns out to be mostly counterfeit, and he goes back to his old ways when he tries to hijack an armored truck filled with cash when faced with the massive inheritance taxes and being the laughingstock of the underworld by being so thoroughly cheated. Considering it's the Joker we're talking about it's sort of justified. If word got out that he had been duped by an old rival who was on his death bed every wannabe super villain would be coming after his head either to make a name for themselves or seek revenge for something he'd done to them in the past.
Indeed, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker shows her as a stereotypical Jewish grandmother, and an extremely pissed one due to her granddaughters' fall to delinquency - in a gang called the Jokerz, no less!
In a short spinoff comic, the Scarecrow starts giving thought to his retirement plans, escapes Arkham, and goes back to teaching under a new identity - this time as an English professor, which has much less opportunity in the line of unethical experimentation. While he dislikes most of his students, he seems to be satisfied with his work otherwise, much to Batman's surprise—until he opens a can of fear gas on the Jerk Jock who abused (and possibly didworse to) his favorite pupil. At the end, though Batman chides him about "reverting to type," they're both arrested.
Lex Luthor in the Cadmus story arc of Justice League Unlimited does to discredit Superman. He knows that Superman will never believe he's going legit so he can make the Man of Steel look like a bully when he pretends he does.
Subversion: In one episode, he really had reformed despite Bart's suspicions, and actually saves his life. In a double subversion, he ends up in jail again anyway because the police didn't believe he wasn't involved in his brother's scheme.
Also, when they're in the police car:
Sideshow Bob: You can't do this! I saved the children!
Cecil: Tell them they'll live to regret this.
Sideshow Bob: You'll live to regret this! Oh, thanks a lot, now I look crazy.
This Subverted again when the the Simpsons find Bob as the Mayor of a small town in Italy who has once again reformed and started a family. It doesn't stick as Lisa accidentally ruins it, and Bob's new family want in on revenge.
As a parody/homage to/of Batman, Darkwing Duck faced something similar in one episode, with one twist: Darkwing, under his secret identity Drake, ended up hosting the criminal Tuskernini after (accidentally) enrolling in the city's 'Adopt-A-Con' program. His trick in getting Tuskernini to reveal his con? Convincing him that he, his daughter, and his sidekick were undercover criminals, that they believed Tuskernini all along, and that Tuskernini caught them in the act of plotting a robbery.
On Super Friends, the Legion of Doom pulled this once. Since they proceeded to travel into the future because they thought the Superfriends wouldn't find them there, the viewer is left to question why.
SpongebobSquarepants: Plankton pretends he changed in a convoluted charade to get Mr. Krabs's secret formula.
There was Gil from Kim Possible—Everybody bought it except for Ron, which ended up being the key to his defeat.
In Batman Beyond, Mister Freeze was subjected to this after he was given an honest shot at redemption and a normal life. Few people believed he was willing to change, with the exception of Terry, as a twist (elderly Bruce seems to have witnessed this trope being averted a few too many times to believe in Freeze's reform). Couldn't make good on it though, as the technology used to heal his body...wasn't that good. He was doing fine until the doctors treating him wanted to vivisect him to see why the treatment wasn't permanent.
After being defeated the first time in The Spectacular Spiderman, Doctor Octopus pretends to have returned to his original meek personality and asserts that criminal actions were the result of his tentacles forcing him into it. By doing this, it allows him to be kept at an institution under relatively low security and mastermind a break-out for his fellow villains, who, being sane, are kept in maximum security prison.
One Tuff Puppy episode has Snaptrap claim to have reformed, and everyone buys it except Kitty. He even does some good deeds for the city, but Kitty thinks he's up to his old tricks and ruins them, turning everyone against her. Then Snaptrap reveals he's still evil as he captures everyone in a death trap.
Scorpion in the "Love Stings" episode of Kung Fu Panda.
The episode "Bro Bots" from the Mega Man cartoon revolved around Proto Man pretending to have defected from Dr. Wily as part of a ploy to get in close during an election and replace the mayor and the city officials with Wily's robotic duplicates. Wily also fakes several attacks for Proto Man to defeat in order to further make him credible. There's even a notable, touching moment where he and Mega Man have a friendly moment of fun with Rush in the park and Mega Man admits that he really has always wanted to have a true brotherly relationship with Proto Man.