The villainous equivalent of Reed Richards Is Useless: A baddie who constantly fails at beating the heroes never realizestheir intellect and hard work might mean they'd get a lot more done if they did an honest day's work; any attempt at going straight is simply a ruse to lull heroes into a false sense of security. This may be more a factor of maintaining the Status Quo, and it's usually mentioned that the Mad Scientist is mad after all. Sometimes lampshaded at a villain's death with "If only he'd used his powers for good, instead of for evil." This is a dying trope as comic book characters became more complex, but was extremely common for many villains decades ago. The example is contagious; even if The Government gets a hold of secondhand ultratech, they just use it for ill-conceived attempts to either conquer other nations or abuse their citizens.
Consider, for a moment, the Trope Namer: Lex Luthor. His earliest incarnations were generally focused on using his Mad Scientist inventions for the sort of schemes typical in The Golden Age of Comic Books and The Silver Age of Comic Books, with the goals of pure monetary gain, "ruling the world", or eliminating Superman as an obstacle to monetary gain and ruling the world... The question is then raised as to why he just doesn't sell his amazing inventions legally. (In Luthor's defense, there is, of course, his origin story where he tried to do this after the accident where Superboy caused him to lose his hair, and doing so caused accidents that almost destroyed Smallville... twice. Combined with the earlier accident and the fact that Superboy had to save the town from both accidents, he thought that Superboy had sabotaged his projects and caused them, which further augmented the feud between them.)
In the Post Crisis world, however, author John Byrne decided to finally cut Lex Luthor a check and recreated him as a Corrupt Corporate Executive, already a multi-billionaire captain of industry before even meeting Supes. Now, having far more cash than a man could ever spend in one lifetime, Luthor's only want is power, and while he certainly has a great deal of it already, he wants more... and Superman, he feels, is standing in his way. He is still a ruthless criminal mastermind, but it's established that he became a billionaire specifically through marketing his brilliant inventions legally.
The current Luthor is a far cry from a purely Mad Scientist, he thus avoids the trope.
This trope could almost be a case of Reality Is Unrealistic. For all the criticisms thrown at comic book supervillains, many real life criminals make this trope Truth in Television, as seen below.
When this is avoided, the turn to the side of good is usually planned well in advance. Heroes may even precipitate it by simply asking "And Then What?".
Sometimes this trope is subverted by villains who start out using their talents for legitimate gain, but who end up becoming villains for one reason or another. Another subversion can be when the villain really does go straight, and is able to use the skills he demonstrated in his criminal career to land a legitimate job. This last one is Truth in Television for former criminals who manage to find legitimate work, or even start their own businesses, after getting busted. Compare Reluctant Mad Scientist. Rich Boredom may justify it because the character already is swimming in money and is seeking something else.
Of course, the trope itself is also Truth in Television, or at least a Justified Trope, due to the difficulty of those with criminal records getting honest work. After that first public criminal act, the villain may have trouble convincing the Dragon's Den that the new invention doesn't secretly brainwash purchasers, hijack computers, control the weather, etc. etc.
See Also: Fake Real Turn where a business that is serving as a front operation for a criminal activity or organization becomes so successful in its own right that characters decide to pursue it as a legitimate business. And You Could Have Used Your Powers for Good.
A subtrope of Misapplied Phlebotinum. Compare Reed Richards Is Useless, Screw the Rules, I Have Supernatural Powers!, and Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat. Contrast Visionary Villain and Pragmatic Villainy. See also Science-Related Memetic Disorder and Sanity Has Advantages for the possible justifications of this trope. Can end up leading to Boxed Crook when put into practice.
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Gaining more money legitimately
Anime & Manga
The Team Rocket trio in Pokémon invent some of the most impressive Death Traps one could ever imagine, almost every episode... until they occasionally run out of money. It's mentioned in one episode of the Johto series that they borrow their traps from Team Rocket, and that they were invented by the R&D at their HQ. They're also not above taking and maintaining legit work, until the inevitable screw up, and it's always manual labor anyway. Ironically, their "honest" work is almost always profitable. And they always prove to be much better at whatever work they do for extra cash than they ever are at being bad guys. They'd probably have better lives if they just stopped chasing Pikachu.
They once tried to set up a memorabilia stand for some Pokémon tournament, and did well. Then they sank all of their money into it, just in time for the tournament to end and the market for their stuff to disappear. In fact, Jessie eventually started entering Pokémon contests; not only is she pretty good at it, she has won a few, even progressing quite far in the Sinnoh Grand Festival. James also acts like pre-Flanderization Brock on occasion, showing potential to be a great Pokémon breeder. Meowth, being able to speak both Human language and Pokémon language, also could be filthy rich if he stopped being a criminal and just became a translator. In the Pikachu short film "Pokémon — Gotta Dance", Meowth is apparently a genius in that he invents a Pokébaton that can control Pokémon. However, he just uses it to make Pokémon dance, and he ends up allowing it to be destroyed. Meowth is a borderline Gadgeteer Genius; James mentioned that the cat's the one responsible for most of the Humongous Mecha that they throw at the twerps!
Considering just how dependent the Pokemon world is on the titular creatures, you'd think a Meowth that fluently spoke human language could give invaluable insight into the intelligence, psyche, and behavior of the creatures, especially since he's already solved a handful of issues in the show simply because he was able to understand what they were saying. Team Rocket is always trying to capture pikachu like he's some sort of rare and valuable pokemon, when they already have the world's rarest and most valuable as part of their wacky team! If they used Meowth properly they'd have more money than they knew what to do with and go down in history for changing the world.
Also subverted in that the few occasions Team Rocket actually tries to make a legitimate business, either demand fades, or it's the one time in a million that the twerps actually see through their Paper Thin Disguises and drive them out of business.
Subverted in Tsukihime canon; the 14th Dead Apostle Ancestor, Van-Fem, rather than drinking blood and harming humans, he took a preference to human society/life and built a highly-profitable casino boat in Monte Carlo shortly after World War One which earned him a high social status among humans.
Inverted in One Piece, when minor villain Wapol actually starts a new life and builds a massive toy-making empire by using his powers to recycle objects into toys. In fact, the alloy his power creates (dubbed "Wapometal") is apparently a unique and amazing compound, which makes him even richer when a scientist discovers its properties and Wapol begins capitalizing on that. Later in the series, Franky starts building tanks using the revolutionary metal.
Possibly lampshaded in Slayers NEXT. Martina is horribly, comically hopeless as a villain, but turns out to be sufficiently talented in retail and handicrafts to raise a small army of thugs out of her profits from selling (and making) paper flowers for a few episodes.
Averted in Baccano! when Nice (who qualifies as a villain only in the sense of being a criminal) invents a new form of explosive and immediately sells it to the mining industry.
As noted above, the Trope NamerLex Luthor played this straight originally, and then subverted it when his character was given a Re Tool. Some stories for both versions of Luthor suggest that the only reason he doesn't cut himself a check is because he hates Superman enough to devote everything into eliminating him.
It's implied that before the Re Tool Luthor still subverted this trope by gaining plenty of patents for his inventions under assumed names in order to fiance his goal of destroying Superman.
For all that he ends up being Worfed in practice, The Juggernaut of the Marvel Universe is in theory one of the most powerful people on earth, combining strength roughly equal to The Mighty Thor's with beingindestructible. Even if being capable of lifting mountains, immunity to any non-magical attack, not even being fazed by being Stripped to the Bone, and being incapable of getting hungry or tired doesn't present options in the legitimate world, Juggernaut could be a lot more of a villain than simply being a roving Brute.
Eventually subverted by the first Icicle, Joar Mahkent. He went into villainy partly for the thrills, but he used his time in jail to work on his inventions and made a legitimate fortune once he reformed, half of which he left to The Flash.
Averted with the Marvel Comics character Taskmaster. Able to flawlessly imitate anyone's physical abilities after seeing them in action once, he initially made money and his reputation training flunkies for supervillains, teaching them how to take down their superhero opponents. Once it became known he was a mercenary, not merely a dedicated villain, legitimate governments and law enforcement started hiring him to teach their people on how to take down superpowered threats. To the extent that, in his first appearance, he concludes that if he stayed and fought, he could probably defeat the entire Avengers team (and one of their more powerful line-ups at that). However, he sees no profit in it or point to fighting superheroes, and runs away instead.
Subverted by the villain Purple Man, who has pheromone-based mind-control powers. He lived the high life without doing anything to attract super-hero attention — only to get caught by Doctor Doom and used as a component in a world-conquest gizmo.
Averted with Wildstorm Universe villain Kaizen Gammora who sells battle-droids and pleasure robots to finance his country's terrorism.
Averted with The Avengers villain Kang The Conqueror. He journeyed back to 1900 Wisconsin, and used his futuristic technology to start a company as the aptly named Victor Timely.
Lampshade hung with Manhunter (2004 series, Kate Spencer version) in which the titular character tells her technical support and former supervillain weapons designer, Dylan Battles, to imagine what would happen if he focused his talents on curing cancer.
Subverted with the Turtle Man, a Silver Age villain that the Flash (Barry Allen) fought from time to time. After he inherited a fortune, he realized that he didn't need to commit crimes to make money any more. But he still did so - simply because it was fun.
In a Tom Strong storyline showing the alternate reality of Tom Stone, Tom (Stone) manages to convince would-be science villain Paul Saveen to use his genius for good by pointing out that while his plan to hold the city for ransom with his recent discovery phlogisten could get him thousands, selling phlogisten as a cheap heating source would make him a millionaire.
Earlier in the same conversation, Saveen all but directly stated that he was turning to villainy because his inventions up to now had gone ignored; for instance, there's no market for his flying car in Millennium City because they can't safely navigate the city's system of cable cars.
Inverted in Swamp Thing — While acting as a paid consultant, the Floronic Man discovers Swamp Thing's true nature, only to be promptly fired. His employer treated him as disposable, and drastically underestimated the importance of the reveal.
Also literally inverted later in the same series when the same group of villains who hired the Floronic Man hire Lex Luthor as a consultant to help take out Swamp Thing because, as one of them puts it, "He has a certain amount of experience in fighting invincible enemies." The consult takes five minutes, for which Luthor is paid $10 million.
Dr T.O. Morrow beats Luthor having built multiple fully sapient androids. Furthermore, one of his inventions, Amazo, can copy any superpower it encounters. Another formulated moral and ethical concepts that had deliberately been left out of its knowledge systems. You could fill this page with the ways Dr Morrow could make money off of any of those inventions.
Upheld in Demon #0 (Garth Ennis series, 1993-1995), where the human host, Jason Blood, as an unscrupulous World War I arms merchant, wishes to use the titular character to bring about an earlier Allied victory. However, the Demon likes all the bloodshed, and human depravity brought on by the war, and goes against Mr. Blood's plans.
Subverted in Human Curiosity, when the head of the HCS, in a burst of Genre Savvy, decides to sell the group's advanced weaponry to countries like North Korea before he disbands the organization.
Films - Live-Action
In the first Austin Powers film, Number Two grows furious with Dr. Evil for engaging in high-risk world-threatening schemes when their front companies were already making billions a year, legally and pretty much risk-free. Ratcheted up in the second movie where Dr. Evil has a time machine and only uses it to thwart Austin Powers and to attempt to hold the world ransom in a decade that has less money to extort.
Number Two: Why not use your knowledge of the future to play the stock market? We could make trillions.
Dr. Evil: Why make trillions when we could make... billions?
In Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, Godfrey conspires with the King of France to undermine England from the inside. However, Godfrey is best buddies with King John of England, who quickly promotes him to his second-in-command. Godfrey is already more powerful than Philip would ever make him, yet he follows through with the betrayal.
Ray in Face leads a team of bank robbers, but tells the newest member of the team that he could have made more money driving a truck.
In both of the modern Spider-Man film series, this trope was actually inverted.
Spider-Man: Norman Osborn becomes the Green Goblin when he tests an experimental formula on himself. He gains superpowers, but goes mad. It does allow him to operate the experimental armor and aircraft he was trying to sell to the military, which needed a working version of the formula to operate safely. So he uses it to destroy his competitor's project. And then kill his board of directors, when they try to kick him out of the company.
The Amazing Spider-Man: The Oscorp bio-cable, which comes from genetically modified spiders created by the research of Peter's father and Connors, is already being sold. It's implied it's used for things like airplane towing cables. It is also, presumably, rather expensive. Peter steals some of it to use as his webbing. This is also, it's implied, the most profitable use anyone's been able to get out of the work of Pete's dad, since he vanished with the formula.
Averted in Robot And Frank. Frank, a jewel thief, maintained a cover identity of a repairman, and states to his robot that he's actually an excellent repairman, having had to learn so that he could provide a source of income for taxes, but the jewel thefts make him much more money, and are more fun anyhow.
The Goliath Corporation in the Thursday Next novels are an absolutely giant monolith who practically own Great Britain; still they insist on harebrained schemes like trying to enter fiction on a wide-scale basis. On the other hand, we infer that a large part of how they made their money in the first place was on evil schemes...
The memoirs of one James Crosbie, a moderately notorious armed robber, describe a fairly impressive list of achievements; he held a responsible position at a Kenyan mining company and for a long while was running his own quite successful metalwork business. And yet despite having earned better money during those times — to say nothing of not being on the run from the law — he claims to have felt a much lesser sense of achievement from this than from robbing banks, despite the much greater failure rate, smaller financial returns and lengthy prison sentences. Although we only have Crosbie's word for any of this...
In its earliest appearances, Mitsuhama Computer Technologies from Shadowrun were depicted as a front for the yakuza. Eventually, the writers caught on that a billion-nuyen criminal organization is hardly going to use a trillion-nuyen triple-A Mega Corp. as a cover.
This was retconned in later editions to show that Mitsuhama had several prominent Yakuza daimyo as capital investors in the company's initial formation, giving them a large, but not a majority, stake in the corporation. These many shady stockholders have since used their newfound wealth and clout when the company hit it big to, alternatively, go legit and/or use the company's resources to boost their illegal enterprises. The latter are looked upon by the former as a source of Old Shame, but are granted so much honor and prestige by their status as company "founders" in getting Mitsuhama off the ground that buying them out or expelling them from any corporate involvement would be unthinkable.
Star Wars: The Old Republic has Bareesh the Hutt. Formerly a crimelord, he realized he both made more profit and avoided being branded a criminal by doing legit business with the Republic.
From the Resident Evil series is the Mega Corp. Umbrella Corporation, which had enough legitimate profit as the world's leading pharmaceutical company to not be dabbling in bio-weapons. And on top of that, when you consider what they are able to accomplish with their research, they'd probably make much, much more money pursuing something legitimate and marketable, as opposed to selling mutants and skinless dogs on the black market.
What makes it even sadder is that all the money that was invested in making these biological weapons could have vastly improved the lives of the civilian world. All these villains could have helped people had they wanted to and still have made a huge profit off of it.
Edward Ashford, one of the three original founders of Umbrella, did indeed want to research the regenerative abilities of the Virus, if only for the scientific value and potentially healing the sick. He, however, contracted a viral infection (unspecified if it was related to said research). As Marcus, the other founder besides Spencer, had no business acumen, Spencer was left the defacto leader (until Marcus's assassination).
Resident Evil 5 revealed that Oswald Spencer's ultimate goal with Umbrella was to mutate a virus he'd discovered into something that would make him godlike and immortal. All the zombies, skinless dogs, and mutants were byproducts of this research. Spencer still crosses the Moral Event Horizon by trying to weaponize them and not giving a damn about any of his employees's lives.
One of the Resident Evil movies averts this by trying to say they were working on a skin creme that reanimated dead skin cells (as a beauty treatment).... except when they tested it, it turned the test subjects into zombies. Instead of scrapping the research, they kicked it to Bioweapons, and thus... zombies as weapons.
Then their secret third brother comes in and points out how they been squabbling over worthless piles of (literal) gravel, both ignoring the one thing worth a crap, Mann Company which is owned by Saxton Hale. Of course, he then sends armies of robots that run on money to take over it...
They also paid their mercenaries to invent technological marvels like a gun that heals mortal injuries in a matter of seconds, an implant that makes your body briefly indestructible, and a life support machine that can extend your life for more than a hundred years. A shame Blutarch and Redmond never considered entering the health care industry.
COBRA in G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. The majority of the plots in the cartoon involved stealing/kidnapping someone and ransoming them off for absurd amounts of money, through which they would be able to attain ultimate power. Only about a third of their plots directly incorporated demands of, "Hand over the keys to the entire world, or else!" This was lampshaded by Tamox and Xomat at one point, when they pointed out that Cobra already had absurd amounts of money from its front corporations, black market operations, etc, which is how they got all their ridiculous contraptions to pull off the schemes in the first place.
Averted in The Incredibles. Syndrome sells his inventions to finance his real scheme, which will get him something that money can't buy. He also notes that, while he kept his best inventions to himself, he fully plans on selling those too in his old age when he can't play hero anymore.
Averted by billionaire David Xanatos. Although some of his clever schemes necessitate expending unimaginable sums of money (putting a medieval Scottish castle on top of the tallest building in the world, for example), it's only when he wants something he can't simply buy outright. On a normal day he uses his brilliance to run his corporate empire and make himself another fortune or two, only occasionally resorting to extremes like Time Travel for self-enrichment.
Later played straight by Demona. Her company Nightstone is just a front to further her plans to exterminate humanity, so wealth is not her goal but a means to an end.
Superman: The Animated Series started out with a very interesting subversion. Lex Luthor was going to use a giant mech, something which was stated to cost millions of dollars to make, to make money illegally. However, Lex wasn't going to use it to rob the banks or other such schemes, he was secretly selling it to terrorists (who were paying him a billion dollars) knowing that the US government would later hire Luthor to design a better mech to fight the one the terrorists "stole". Superman ruined that scheme.
In an episode of Spongebob Squarepants, Plankton actually sold all of his evil inventions in order to get enough money to pay everyone in town to sign a petition to bulldoze the Krusty Krab. He even managed to buy Mr. Krab's signature... four times! The only person who didn't sign the petition was Spongebob, but he still had the majority on his side "and in a democracy, that's all you need'', so the Krusty Krab got bulldozed one foot away so it would comply with the new law that says all fast food restaurants were at least 100 feet away from each other.
In an episode of Phineas and Ferb, Doofenshmirtz's technology was being used in optometrist appointments and he started receiving royalty checks, however, he was angry that his invention was being used for good. So he decided to "balance it out" by making an -inator that would give people poor vision, forcing them to use the same device and give him even more money.
Doofenshmirtz actually appeared on an episode of Shark Tank, a series where inventors pitch their ideas to a panel of potential investors. Doofenshmirtz pitched his Shrinkinator, stating that he originally designed it to shrink city hall and put it in his pocket for ransom, but decided that everyone could use one, giving examples of making more closet space and shrinking your car if you can't find a parking space. It's simple to use, as there's only two controls: a forward-reverse switch...and a self-destruct button. Doofenshmirtz stated that each one costs $1,000 to make and would sell them for $1,001. Mark Cuban offed to accept the pitch, on the basis of owning 95% of the company and receiving a $2 royalty for every $1 Doofenshmirtz got for selling a Shrinkinator. Doofenshmirtz thought the deal sounded pretty good and would have accepted if he hadn't accidentally pressed the self destruct button.
Notably averted in one episode of Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. The immensely (but not superhumanly) strong Superthug has hired an engineer to build a strength enhancing exo-skeleton. His plan is not to use it to commit super-crimes, but to mass produce it, and sell the copies to other criminals so they can commit super-crimes and give him a small percentage.
Deconstructed in Superman: Doomsday - Lex Luthor finds cure for muscular dystrophy and orders his assistant to turn it into expensive, lifelong treatment.
In Xiaolin Chronicles Jack Spicer actually uses his tech skills to make money in episode nine (though in more of a Geek Squad way than by using his own inventions). Especially noticeable since he often makes huge robotics breakthroughs (both in this series and the previous one) and has never really seemed to consider selling his skills until now. However, he only started having money troubles recently, so he might not have needed to before (in the first series he explicitly has rich parents).
Frank William Abagnale, Jr., the real-life inspiration behind Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Catch Me If You Can, went on to found and run a financial fraud consultancy company, preventing wannabe criminals from pulling off the same crimes he once did.
Possibility of gaining more money legitimately
Anime & Manga
Lampshaded in Coyote Ragtime Show when a swindler manages to sneak his way into a high-paying executive job for a major bank purely so he'll be in a position to test himself against their reputedly 'impenetrable' vault — he could easily have lived a comfortable and stable life with a job like that, but the money wasn't the issue.
In Dragon Ball Z, Dr. Gero was capable of building machines that have infinite fuel. Given the world's demand for fuel, he could easily become the richest man in the world with this technology. Plus being able to make androids capable of defeating Super Sayians, just imagine if he put that kind of technology into construction or space travel. Too bad he was only interested in getting revenge against Goku.
Lampshaded in Durarara!! when Shuji wonders why the unnaturallysuperhuman Shizuo Heiwajima is slumming it in a rather low status and low-paying job as a debt collector/bodyguard when he could potentially use his abilities to become stupidly rich or famous. He gets his answer soon enough: Shizuo's so violently unstable that it's only by virtue of Ultimate Job Security that he has any job at all. A later Light Novel has Shinra pointing out that Shizuo's probably one of the few people that could consider supervillainry as his most viable career option, and the fact that he hasn't is a reason why Shinra usually gives him the benefit of the doubt when the situation looks bad. ("Sorry. Nah, how would you ever bother to kidnap anyone? With your power it would be much faster to go to a bank and tear down the door of its vault if you wanted money.")
The villains in Karakuridouji Ultimo have some truly unusual day jobs, including music composer, elementary school teacher, and pro golfer. It never seems to occur to them that they'd be better off using their incredibly powerful robot servants to pay the bills instead. The exception is K, who only joined the villains so he could quit his job and bum around all day. The manga constantly reminds us that he is unemployed.
Hideaki Anno is reported to have asked why Neo-Atlantis in Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water wants to conquer the world instead of just using their superior technology for their own benefit. Reportedly, he got no answer. Wikipedia reports this, although the actual source seems unfindable.
Pumpkin Scissors. This trope is almost the premise of the series — this is a world where rather than building safer tanks or devices to protect people from chemical weapons, they engineer people who can withstand tank-fire and chemical weapons. Lampshaded in the interlude where a lab assistant finds a report about the protective fluid that the Flamethrower Troopers use and mentions that they could be used to help burn victims. Her superior replies to that by telling her to throw it out because he doesn't need it anymore.
Sunred points this out to his Friendly Enemy General Vamp in Tentai Senshi Sunred. Vamp is such a good homemaker that Sunred tells him, "You oughta give up the world domination thing and open a restaurant."
In theory, any supervillain who uses expensive, fantastic technology for theft could subvert this: provided the technology is a one-time expense, they would eventually make back the money and start profiting if they manage to steal enough, meaning they can do it for the money andFor the Evulz. The problem is, in a world where superheroes are everywhere thwarting your every move, this isn't likely to happen.
In All-Star Superman Lex is so bitter and twisted towards Superman that he can't really be bothered doing anything that isn't related in some way to his vendetta. At the end, when he tries to accuse Superman of encouraging Holding Out for a Hero, Superman points out this trope to him: If Lex had truly ever wanted to save the world, he could have done it years ago.
In the Spider-Man/X-MenExpanded Universe novel Time's Arrow: The Present, written by Adam Troy-Castro, Spidey muses on "the guys who spend six million dollars building robot suits so they can rob banks". He compares this with his own initial decision to make money as a masked wrestler/novelty act, rather than sell his webbing formula to an adhesives company, and concludes that it's not really about the money; it's about proving something to everyone who ever laughed at them.
In the first issue of The Hood, a friend of the Villain Protagonist spots Electro in a bar and speculates on why Electro doesn't just take a job with the electric company and earn millions that way. He points out that his friend would never last an hour at a straight job.
Doctor Alchemy somehow got his hands on the Philosopher's Stone — giving him the power to create infinite amounts of riches, transmute any substance to anything else, psychokinesis, and makes him immortal. He uses it to commit petty crimes which repeatedly get him sent to jail. This is lampshaded extensively and hilariously in the opening narration of Manhunter #7.
Mirror Master is arguably the greatest inventor in the history of the world. He has created such devices as a matter duplicator, teleportation, and interdimensional portals. The first Mirror Master used these things to rob banks, the third uses them for mercenary work. If they just sold them they could become obscenely rich and not have to get the crap beaten out of them by a pajama-clad speedster. The third Mirror Master actually ruminated on this once, that he and most of the people he ran with could become filthy rich beyond anything they could earn in petty crimes if they sold even half their individual tech, and that people had outright pointed this out to him before. He, however, concluded he LIKED running around being a supervillain far too much to really consider going legit.
In another story, a police detective who is forced to team up with Captain Cold calls him out for his criminal tendencies, pointing out how a man who invented a device that could manipulate matter on a molecular level (his "Cold Gun") would have had no problem getting rich legitimately. The Captain responds by pointing out the detective's preference for expensive suits despite their impracticality in his line of work. "We all have our vices."
In a Silver Age story, the Flash encounters the villain Element Master, whose gimmick is, well... the atomic elements. In the climax of the story, Element Master says he discovered a new element (the creatively dubbed "elemento") that is a sort of magnetic light, which he uses to send the Flash to the Moon. Ignoring everything wrong with that idea, if it were true, Element Master would've completely changed the way we look at the elements, magnetism, Einstein's theory of relativity, and space travel, easily becoming the most important scientific figure in recent history. Instead... he tries to steal stores of "elements" like gold, platinum, and diamonds (carbon).
Averted by villain the Chunk, who gave up supervillainy and used his suction powers (being able to siphon off material to another universe inside his own body) to start a personal removal business.
With many of the "science villains" who make up the Rogues Gallery for The Flash, it's noted that the reason they don't turn their talents towards legitimate profit is because they often genuinely are too unstable to either think of it or even to want to. For example, Dr. Alchemy has two personalities; one of them is an incredible douche who thinks of all other humans as insignificant, so he thinks that sharing his Philosopher's Stone is beneath him, while the other is more benevolent but can't actually make the Stone.
In the Marvel comic Heroes for Hire, a mercenary named Paladin breaks into a special armory where the props and weapons of various former gimmick villains are stored, seeking valuable weapons to both arm himself with and to sell. He comes across the "alchemy gun" of the former supervillain Chemistro, and comments amusedly that "This guy invented a gun that could turn lead into gold, and all he could think of was to rob banks with it". Moments later, he had a lightbulb moment, saying "Waitaminute — this thing turns lead into gold... I'm good with just this!" and attempts to escape with it. Unfortunately, the gun is destroyed in the course of fighting his way out. He presumably was unaware of the fact that any object transmuted by the alchemy gun turns into dust after exposure to heat or after a certain amount of time.
Luke Cage would eventually comment that Chemistro was just one of those guys who had power and wanted to throw it around so people knew he meant business. If he turned things into gold and made himself rich, no one would be afraid of him or know who was boss. Chemistro's alchemy gun is in fact a subversion. In one issue of Iron Man, Curtis Carr tells Tony Stark that he has in fact tried to create new alchemy guns by attempting to duplicate the radiation field that gave his original gun its powers. As much as Carr might want to mass-produce his invention and get rich that way, so far he's had no luck.
Even if he just had the one gun, there are millions if not billions to be made by hiring yourself out to turn nuclear and chemical waste into gold, then letting it disintegrate into harmless powder. Or for that matter, he could just turn random objects into gold, sell them for big bucks, then be gone before they disintegrate. Illegal, but not in the high-profile way that tends to attract superhero attention.
The comic loves to simultaneously subvert, lampshade and justify this trope, by pointing out the Unfortunate Implications of letting weaponized supervillain tech (or, more frequently, Iron Man's repulsor tech) out into the world. Once one of his enemies implanted repulsor-variant technology into terrorists' bodies, turning them into high-end suicide bombers. Hundreds were killed and Stark Industries was completely wiped out.
Iron Man once defeated a villain called the Living Laser. An alternate universe comic has him simply hiring the certified genius as Tony Stark. Unfortunately, this doesn't work because like most villains, he doesn't fit into society. This is arguably the best reason for not cutting Lex a check... villains who don't fit in still don't with money.
Averted with Astro City's Mock Turtle, who put his skills to creating Powered Armor for a company, only for them to forbid him from piloting it, so he snapped and stole it.
In the Tarnished Angel arc, Steeljack interviews the loved ones of supervillains who had recently turned up dead. The boyfriend of the Chain said that he always thought the Chain's technology to transfer one's consciousness into a metal body had a lot of potential in deep sea or space exploration, but whenever he brought that up the Chain would look at him like he's an idiot and say he doesn't understand.
A minor Marvel Comics D-lister known as the Porcupine was a similar case to Mock Turtle above; he invented a suit of porcupine-themed Powered Armor, which the military scrapped because it was ridiculous, and became a supervillain with it to prove its legitimacy.
Subverted by the Ultimate version of the Thinker, who turned to crime after he was fired from Roxxon for proposing alternative energy based on Vibranium.
The Ultimate Mad Thinker, though, fails to use her Super Intelligence productively because A: she's insane (a girl who cuts out chunks of her own brother's brain to graft to her own brain and "boost her thinking capabilities" is clearly not playing with a full deck), and B: she's out to get revenge on the governmental think-tank that expelled her for being too crazy.
Averted in some Marvel comic or other. Molecule Man chats with another supervillain: "So eventually I got out of prison, and I thought?" "Now I shall have my revenge!" "No, no. Who needs the grief? With my powers I can live in luxury without ever doing anything to draw the heroes' attention."
An issue of Ultimate Spider-Man lampshaded and subverted this trope with Ultimate Shocker. Unlike the main universe version, the ultimate version is a real loser seen as a joke by everyone and constantly mocked by Spider-Man. However, after learning that Shocker had created his blasters himself, Spider-Man asked him why he didn't make a fortune selling the technology. The subversion: Shocker reveals that he had worked for a big company creating inventions, and while said company made even more money, he was fired without seeing a single cent. Which also added a tragic aspect to the formerly laughable character, because he also explains how he studied at MIT until his eyes bled.
Lampshaded and played straight, one right after the other in Spider-Man. When the Man Who Would Be Hobgoblin first examines the Green Goblin's cache of equipment, he remarks on how incredible the technology is. Specifically, that the personal bat glider must surely represent a breakthrough in the field of aeronautics, and how this proves Norman Osborn's insanity, since he could have made far more money by patenting the design than he could ever have hoped to by using it for crime. In his very next breath, however, the man states that keeping such a thing to yourself would be one part of proving yourself better than those around you, and thus using it for personal gain makes sense.
The Vulture is another one of those subversions who started out making money honestly. It was only after he had been ripped off by his business partner that Adrian Toomes decided to use his new flying harness as a professional criminal. In one of the Web of Spider-Man comics he actually goes further into this when asked by a fellow prisoner (who was the leader of a gang blackmailing him to build a vulture suit to fly out) why Toomes didn't just sell his technology (his partner is gone and can easily build the equipment with little resources — he was making it in prison for at least the second time). He tells him that since the partner who betrayed Toomes looked down on him as weak, he uses the equipment to do what ever he wanted so that no one ever would think he was weak again.
One of Spider-Man's oldest enemies is the Tinkerer, an Insufferable Genius who specializes in making powerful weapons out of used technology. At first he was both a supplier to criminals and a criminal himself. However, after too many defeats that almost proved lethal for him, he gave up committing crimes himself, but still worked as an underworld weapons supplier. He may be an egomaniac (something that Spidey himself has called him) but he is perfectly lucid and could probably bring in far more profit if he worked for honest customers. (To emphasize how good he is... he's also the Crazy-Prepared type. His inventions usually tend to have some sort of mechanism in them that he can trigger if a client refuses to pay him, making sure that they regret it.)
Averted with Dr. Octopus in most of his incarnations: He was a scientist who invented and used his arms for legitimate research purposes. It took a lab accident fusing the arms to his body and driving him insane to turn him into a supervillain. Further subverted with the Ultimate Marvel version of Dr. Octopus. He was caught in an explosion as per usual, but S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Henry Pym let his condition deteriorate to the point where his arms couldn't be removed. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero. Ock went on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the man he blamed for the explosion until he was captured. He later escaped from prison twice, both times attempting to continue his revenge spree against first S.H.I.E.L.D. and then his ex-wife, who was trying to profit off of his story. Upon subsequent arrest and running out of people to get revenge on, Ock made a deal with the FBI to use his knowledge of Spider-Man's DNA to produce Spider-Man clones for the agency. In the end it's played straight in a fight with Spider-Man, as Ock realizes that he likes being a supervillain, even if it's stupid and doesn't work out for him.
Actually, Spider-Man himself is a good example. Peter Parker invented a web-casting technology that can hold guys like the Rhino for up to an hour if he gets it on thick enough. He can fund the creation of more web fluid with a freelance photographer's salary, and the only thing he uses it for is to fight crime, all the while worrying about Aunt May. If he sold his web shooters to Police/Swat/SHIELD they would have an inexpensive, non-lethal way to hold villains that are Immune to Bullets and Peter could afford to get Aunt May regular access to Doctors at world class hospitals. Back when he was a teenager the legal hurdles might have been problematic, but now that he is buddies with Tony Stark it seems like Stark's lawyers could help smooth that stuff out (and Nick Fury likely being eager to push defense contractor money through the bureaucracy in exchange for web pistols for all his agents). Peter doesn't even need to stop being Spider-Man.
Spiderman has tried to sell his web before, but usually as more household friendly items like glue. Chemists were interesting in it's strength, until they realized it dissolved in an hour, and Peter hadn't gotten around to making a more permanent formula.
Since Spidey once used his webbing to hold together a damaged building until the cops could evacuate the area, there'd also be a solid market in using it to shore up damaged or unstable buildings and environments until more permanent supports can be built and brought in.
Averted when The Riddler performs a variant of this based on his compulsive disorder and rampant ego: he becomes a detective, to keep his ego inflated and potentially beat Batman at his own game, without having to worry about the inevitable Bat-Fist to the face and subsequent jail time should he fail.
Averted when, at one point, the Riddler is seen chatting with Penguin, who has discovered he can make more money as a legitimate businessman selling cheaply made merchandise at extortionate, but legal, markups. Penguin averts this trope again with the Iceberg Lounge. Criminal empires are fun, but Batman tends to kick your ass. Solution? Open a prestigious nightclub that doubles as a Bad Guy Bar for Batman's huge Rogues Gallery. It tends to get blown up a lot, but it provides a steady source of legal income.
Sort of occurred with the Mad Hatter. He used to use his mind controlling hats to commit crimes, feeling that the riches he made this way would make him happy. So did he realize that he could cut out the middleman and sell the technology for all the riches he wanted? No! He realized that he could use the hats on himself to become blissfully happy whenever he wants, thus cutting out two middlemen. He still commits crimes, but now it's just for fun.
In one comic, where Batman was relating to one of the Robins all of the death traps that he has foiled, Batman mentions a Haunted House of Death that the Scarecrow created to try and kill Batman. Robin states that Scarecrow would have made a fortune in the entertainment industry, making haunted houses for theme parks. Batman actually states that he recommended that to the Scarecrow after capturing him, but, Scarecrow being Scarecrow, he didn't listen.
In one Golden AgeBatman story, Catwoman establishes up a fashion magazine as part of plan to steal a fur coat. Think about what the investment versus return on that particular caper must have been. Somewhat justifiable; the Catwoman — no matter her incarnation — isn't in the game for the profit; she's in it for the rush.
Another Golden AgeBatman story has a character named Carlos who had a phony mind-reading show; Bruce figured right away he was using code words to get the answers, gaining real mind-reading powers following a car accident and emergency brain surgery that "Fate slyly played its hand in". He does use his power to make money somewhat legally at first, in card games and radio shows, but decides to turn to crime so he can make even more money. He hits this trope head on when he learns Batman and Robin's real names, but can't think of anything better than to blackmail them into keeping away from him. It bites him on the ass when his last robbery victim fatally shoots him in the back while he's distracted fighting Batman.
There was another Golden AgeBatman story featuring a person with a photographic memory. Despite graduating from college with every degree possible, this guy couldn't get any work better than stage acts. He was recruited by mobsters so that he could memorize secret information without taking the relevant documents themselves and later sell said info, under the condition that the mobsters don't kill anyone during their jobs. The man's skills are proven when he forces Batman to fight dirty, renders him and Robin unconscious via nerve pinching, and perfectly copies the Batplane. Ultimately, since this story takes place during WWII, the story is subverted when Batman saves the man's life and recommends him to the army so his talents can be used against the Axis to atone for what he's done.
Victor Fries, or Mr. Freeze, was originally an inexplicable cold-based villain, already falling under this trope. The guy has a gun that turns thermodynamics upside down and rather than patent that and claim his Nobel, he robs banks. Batman: The Animated Series established he was trying to save his frozen wife and committed crimes to get the necessary funds. He was a downright sympathetic Anti-Villain. He's also essentially ageless with a technology that could be invaluable to the rest of the world. Given he's not just in it For the Evulz, one's got to wonder why he doesn't just go legit, prove what he's done, and wait for university and corporate backers to line up just for a chance to throw resources at him. One comic suggested that, while he is not in it For the Evulz, he's also not willing to part with any of his inventions (with the occasional case-by-case exception) until Nora is all fixed. In Batman: Arkham City, Hugo Strange pokes at this idea when he speaks with Freeze, claiming that Victor could have cured Nora a long time ago if he'd gone to others for help and not spent his time working alone and blaming others. Considering that it's Hugo Strange, however, it's debatable how much of that he actually believes.
Linkara points out in The Agony Booth review of Batman #147, that the scientist Garth could have patented an age-reversing ray instead of working with jewel thieves.
In Shadow of the Bat, there was this one Batman villain named the Human Flea who invented a device allowing him to jump extraordinarily high. The Human Flea went around robbing diners to save his father from going bankrupt. After capturing the Human Flea, Batman tells the supervillain that he could make himself rich off patenting his invention. The Human Flea responds that he never thought of that.
Poison Ivy falls into a variant of this that actually exists in real life: ecoterrorism, wherein an attempt at enacting social/environmental change is done in such a way that discourages people from doing as desired. Making things far worse than real cases, she really is an absolute genius with plants, able to create miraculous strains that could solve all sorts of environmental problems that harm the plant ecosystem, the sort of thing she fights for... if only she would market her creations on the legitimate market, rather than turning them into weapons to try and wipe out all humanity, if not all animal life, like, for instance, ending logging by selling seeds for a tree that produces wood that can be harvested in large quantities without killing the tree (and does so much more frequently than letting trees grow the old way), instead of making trees that have digestive systems and eat loggers.
Subverted with the villain 8-Ball, who actually started out working for a defense firm as an engineer, before he was fired when his employers thought he was selling company secrets to pay his large gambling debts, leading him to create his weapons and costumed identity.
Subverted with Spectra, who first got a job in a laboratory so she could rob the place, only to obtain superhuman powers after Sleepwalker interferes in the robbery. At first, she seems poised to become a criminal, but when she reappears it turns out she's gotten a legitimate job using her light-generating powers.
One of his first villains was Crimewave, who wanted to, among other things, kidnap models and hold the valuable clothes they were wearing hostage... using his remote-controlled, armored van with a tentacles-and-guns self-defense system. This is justified, as the bad guy cares more about fame—he even has his own cameraman—than actually making a profit or toppling Kingpin.
In the Teen Titans 1967 holiday Christmas special the 'bad guys' have a ray gun which makes broken down junk good as new. The use it to import junk from overseas cheaply, repair it fast and inexpensively and sell it at the price the items would normally sell at as new without having to pay any duty. To make things more unbelievable, everyone acts like this is something illegal when it's no different from someone buying a broken item, fixing it up and selling it on for more money. No point of what they are doing is illegal.
Lampshaded by the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird when Baxter Stockman, already very wealthy from his legitimate technology company, begins using his Mouser robots for crime. When April asks him why he'd do it when he's already rich, Stockman, who is already mentally unhinged to begin with, simply claims that it's fun!
Doctor Lovecraft in the Justice League initially did legitimate work for his company, but when they pursued financial wrongdoing, they allowed him to pursue more dangerous experiments to create mutates to steal for the company. As these mutates later devolved out of sentience, this explains why he could not have gone public with his results.
The Revenant has managed to "convince" a number of villains of the PS238 universe that it is better for them to find a more practical way to use their abilities. For example, Mr. Godwin, a.k.a. the Crystal Skull, was convinced to stop robbing banks and to take money from people voluntarily... by running a legit casino.
The Trapster follows this trope to a T. He invented a type of super adhesive and decided to use it to rob banks instead of just patenting it, for some reason that they never explained. He even got a pardon after his first criminal outing, by helping the Avengers defeat Baron Zemo and yet still went back to crime after that. In a rather excellent print short story, the Trapster completely subverts this trope. He changes his name and begins selling his products on behalf of a Seen on TV company. His inventions are successful, he starts dating, and he even gets to ham it up on television. Unfortunately his old colleague the Wizard sees him enjoying himself and threatens him into going back to his Trapster identity and threatening a live studio audience, but his girlfriend talks him down in a touching on camera scene just before U.S. Agent clocks him in the jaw. As the story ends, Trapster is a sympathetic reformed criminal who keeps the girl and his job and gets legal representation to help clear up his parole problems. None of this is canon.
The third issue ever of the Fantastic Four has an inverted invocation of this trope: the villain in this case, the Miracle Man, is a stage magician who used his skills as a hypnotist and illusionist to fool the Fantastic Four into thinking he has powers far greater than theirs. Then he uses these powers to fight them off as he went around stealing jewelry. Reed Richards ultimately deduced that his powers were phony and pointed out that if those powers were real the Miracle Man could easily have conjured up all the jewels and treasure he wanted without having to stoop to such petty thievery in the first place.
Averted with The Atom's foe the Bug-Eyed Bandit, who became a criminal because no one would buy his technology — no one would fund his research without a working model of it, but he couldn't build a working model of it without funding. Eventually, he got so ticked off that he just stole the money he needed, built his tech at last and used it to become a career criminal.
Linkara called the one-shot Daredevil villain "The Surgeon General" on her whole organ-stealing shtick, which inherently relies on being a skilled surgeon. On the other hand, selling black-market organs would probably be more profitable than the average medical practice... the savings on malpractice insurance alone would be immense.
The Authority tends to do this in varied ways. "Tank Man" is simply talked into giving up his murderous ways and settling down (it doesn't turn out well, but they tried). Jacob Krigstien is given an outlet for his world-changing habits by being allowed to do it in a non-killing-people way. An animal-abusing psychopath is put on retainer for when the Authority needs to get information out of human-abusing psychopaths.
Hilariously subverted in the short-lived DC parody comic book the Inferior Five. The would-be superteam's first nemesis was Dr. Gregory Gruesome, a brilliant, evil Mad Scientist who was so poor he lived in a dilapidated wooden hut in the middle of a junkyard and his sole henchman was a dim-witted vagabond. Despite lamenting about his inability to "turn out multi-million-dollar missiles like they were paper planes" like this trope's namesake, he actually created some remarkably effective machines by cobbling together garbage, scrap, and various other odds and ends.
Lampshaded in one Robin issue where he's beating up the Trickster. He points out to him that he has shoes that can walk on air, and by mass producing them, he'd be ten times richer than Bruce Wayne. Instead, he rents himself out as a mercenary.
In an earlier issue of Blue Devil, the first Trickster is also asked why he didn't market his shoes. He points out they've just finished a storyline in which he tried to do that and the buyers tried to A) kill him and B) forcibly secede California, though he does consider trying to resell to a "reputable" organization like SKULL. Also, Depending on the Writer, he may have been more interested in the attention than the money.
At one point, he became a professional hero-distracter, doing things like putting people's lives at risk so Superman would let crooks get away to save them.
One of the Bananaman comics in The Dandy had this with a villain (well, his villainy was trying to scare the hero), running a fancy fake haunted house with holographic ghosts and what not. It subverted the trope because at the end, the villain DID do a Heel-Face Turn and use his abilities to run a theme park Haunted House ride.
The Circus of Crime may be D-list villains, but they're excellent circus performers. If they would go straight and abandon the "hypnotize the crowd and rob them blind" shtick, they could pull in plenty of money without getting beat up and thrown in jail. At least one comic had them propose doing that... then lament that it wouldn't really be all that profitable, since not too many people care about the circus anymore.
The Adventures of Tintin has a subversion in Flight 714. Dr. Krollspell has developed a working, if unperfected, truth serum. Now, you might reasonably assume that every intelligence or security agency in the world would pay a king's ransom for it. However, instead of marketing it, Dr. Krollspell takes a job from Rastapopoulos to use it on millionaire Laszlo Carreidas to get a bank account number. This trope could even conceivably apply to Rastapopoulos too. He could have bankrolled the distribution of a massive invention... except that the truth serum doesn't work, as Carreidas ends up babbling on about everything except the bank account number. Rastapopoulos could have injected Carreidas with Rajaijah Juice and gotten the same result.
The serum does work, the problem is that Carreidas says the truth about everything but what Rastapopoulos wants him to speak about.
Minor-league Marvel Comics supervillain The Ringer thoroughly subverts this trope. He actually started out working as a legitimate engineer for NASA, but he got a serious case of Green-Eyed Monster syndrome when he saw wealthy business executives like Kyle Richmond getting rich off the hard work of people like him. The Ringer originally embarked on his career to get revenge for the little guy by robbing Kyle Richmond, who was secretly the superhero Nighthawk. After Nighthawk defeated him and he escaped from jail, the Ringer tried again with an upgraded battlesuit that allowed him to gather condensed air particulates and assemble them into a substance that was almost as strong as steel and that he could use to make additional rings whenever he needed them. Despite the fact that this invention could probably have revolutionized the steel industry, to say nothing of manufacturing in general, the Ringer simply uses it to... try and market the battlesuit to his criminal contacts, but then the Beetle forces him to fight Spider-Man and he gets his ass kicked.
Another minor league supervillain, the Water Wizard, originally got the power to control water after a freak accident, but simply couldn't figure out what to do with it. It was only after a friend of his suggested he use his powers for crime that he became a supervillain, although he turned out to be an utter washout as a supervillain. He improved somewhat after changing his codename to Aqueduct, but not by much.
Diabolik is the best thief in the world thanks to his abilities as acrobat, martial artist, chemist, engineer, and detective. He could make a legit fortune with any of those professions, or simply patent his perfect masks and enjoy the royalties (the request for these is actually a plot point, as nobody but him can make masks that don't break down and melt after a few hours), but he doesn't care. It went to the point that one of his heists involved him creating two Diabolik-proof safes: once Ginko found and removed the devices that read the combination (thus allowing the heist), the safes were impregnable even to Diabolik.
The villains of the Disney Ducks Comic Universe and Mickey Mouse Comic Universe regularly menace the world using invisibility cloaks, cloning machines, mind-control rays etc., but you shouldn't expect anyone to point out that their inventions are a revolutionary miracle of science that, by all logic, should have changed civilization as we know it years ago.
Invincible once run into a guy who'd invented a "gravity gun" in his basement and used it to rob a bank. He had considered selling his invention, but he needed the money now and that sounded like a long and complicated process. He is really bad at being a supervillain, and Mark lets him go (and returns the money back to the bank) with the advice that he should just sell the technology. In next issue it turns out that he sold the gun...to a bank robber. He didn't know who to see or call about this stuff. After capturing the second robber, Mark takes the guy to Cecil, who gives him a very high-paying job to invent new weapons.
Astro City deconstructs the trope in Volume 2, Issue 10, "The Old Villain With the Money." Hiram Potterstone became the Junkman precisely because he wasn't allowed to work legitimately anymore, having been forced into retirement by the company he founded and not being able to find work elsewhere due to his age. And when he manages to pull off a bank heist and retire to Rio, he finds he's ill at ease because nobody ever found out who did it. He didn't want the money, he just wanted people to recognize that he was still brilliant.
FoxTrot has Jason Fox, who tries several ludicrous schemes to make money, (including thousand-dollar SNOW DINOSAURS, which, you know, would MELT come Spring!) despite the fact that he has effortlessly built machines and coded programs that could have made him MILLIONS had he simply sold them. He once tried to form a one-man corporation, but all he had to show investors was "a dinky little program I wrote for fun." Unfortunately for him and them, the Darth Jason virus did not "kill off interest," it "killed off the Internet." Possibly justified in that, while genius at some things, Jason is still a child and thus doesn't always have the best common sense.
That, and Jason cares more about making mischief than money. If the thought ever occurs to him to make money off of the things he produces, it's only so he can buy materials needed to cause greater mischief. For instance, he sent a computer worm directly to the White House, easily bypassing all security, solely to mess with his older sister (which is his most common motivating factor).
Deconstructed to a great extent in issue #16 of Ultimate Spider-Woman: Change With the Light, when the Beetle provides a number of rebuttals to the arguments that supervillains should just patent their technology. Even if you can patent your technology, there's always the danger that some Corrupt Corporate Executive will try and screw you out of your share of the profits, something the Beetle claims happened to the Shocker when he tried selling his shock blasters to Justin Hammer. Starting your own business is no guarantee of success either, particularly when many businesses fail within their first year of operation. Then there's the fact that many supervillains do not want to spend their time working for people they view as Pointy Haired Bosses who got ahead through asskissing and brownnosing, rather than actual talent. This obviously isn't the case most of the time, but supervillains as a whole tend to be misanthropes....
Films — Animation
The villain of Up, Charles F. Muntz wants to get fame and recognition by catching a rare bird. To accomplish this he invents devices that allow dogs to communicate verbally, and fly airplanes! Even if he wanted fame and renown rather than money, being known as the person who invented the device that lets dogs talk to humans would be far more likely to make him famous than catching a new species of bird! Considering the dogs don't even need to bark to speak with this, the profits from engineering it to allow mute humans and humans who are completely paralyzed to speak would ensure his honor among the greats. This is, however, justified and lampshaded to some extent by showing that he has become psychotically obsessed with the bird. His museum is full of dozens of skeletons of other species, all of them of a bizarre nature and undiscovered to science. Had he brought any of those back instead, he would have made far more of a profit in the scientific realm than the capture of a single colorful ostrich.
He was mostly bitter that the one he brought back as a skeleton was declared a fake and obsessed with clearing his name. If he hadn't taken it with him and spent decades hiding in the jungle DNA tests would have proved it long before the time of the movie.
Films — Live-Action
Averted in Goldmember. Number Two finally hits upon the brilliant scheme of making the organization a legitimate business with the ethics of an evil organization, by turning it into a talent agency.
In Lord of War, Yuri Orlov eventually abandons his business as an arms dealer and adopts, in his words, "more legal methods of exploiting Third World countries", but notes that it isn't as thrilling as his old line of work, and there is comparatively more competition. He inevitably returns to arms dealing, with the change that it is government sponsored.
Dr. Octopus is researching a new power source in Spider-Man 2. In order to control it, he invents a system of mechanical arms that interface with his brain, have artificial intelligence, are indestructible, have the strength to throw cars, and never seem to need new batteries. Every aspect of the things would seem to merit a Nobel Prize, but Octavius and the rest of the world initially only treat them as a simple tool.
And in Spider-Man 3 Sandman needs to raise money for his sick daughter and turns to a life of crime. When he becomes living sand, you'd think he could strike a deal to work off his debt to society for a little government health care. It's not like a guy who can meld with sand wouldn't come in handy in any ongoing warzones. Instead, he simply robs banks.
In The Prestige, Nicolas Tesla tries to invent a teleportation machine for Robert Angier to use in his magic shows. The problem was, the machine ended up copying things instead of teleporting them. But Angier still used the machine to perform his magic trick, creating copies of himself so that it appeared as though he was teleporting across long distances. Angiers could become the richest man in the world almost overnight by copying valuable objects with the machine, but he's already a wealthy gentleman who is more interested in magic than riches. He could also do things like completely end world hunger by copying food and so forth, but his obsession to out-do his magical rival blinds him to all other goals.
In Street Fighter, M. Bison is the dictator of some tiny southeastern Asian country, but somehow has developed both super-soldier biochemical engineering, as well as hover boots, with which he wants to use to conquer the world. He could probably become the de facto ruler of the world just by marketing those two bits of technology.
Mr. Freeze's appearance in Batman & Robin has him stealing giant diamonds and using them to both fuel his suit and build a giant freeze ray he plans to use to hold Gotham hostage in exchange for funds to further the research he needs to save his wife. Why he doesn't just sell the giant diamonds is never explained. If not that, could have just patented the smaller ray immediately, waited for the Nobel, and wondered how many new laws in physics will be named after him. The applications are endless and he's just disproved everything known about thermodynamics. He would never again want for funds no matter what he's researching. At the end of the film Batman talks him into doing just that. Oh, and giving him the cure to the early stage of the horrible disease his wife had. The stage, coincidentally, Alfred happens to have. Freeze trades the cure for a cell with Poison Ivy, since he learned she tried to kill his wife.
Played both ways in Iron Man 2 with Ivan Vanko. Vanko's capable of replicating the Arc Reactor with his father/Tony's father's incomplete diagrams. While not as potent as Tony Stark's variant, it still catches the eye of Tony and he is left to wonder why Vanko is using it to terrorize him instead of selling it to the highest bidder, be they legitimate or otherwise. The real reason is that Vanko's father did try to sell it for massive profit but Howard Stark would have none of it, exiling him from the US instead. Ivan is out for Tony's blood as his family stole the opportunity to have that check cut for them. In other words, the ship already sailed long ago for Ivan as far as making money, he's just interested in making Tony suffer by this point.
The Avengers (1998). Sir August could have legally made billions of dollars just by selling the services of his Weather Control Machine to the governments of the world. Possibly justified because he's insane and wanted revenge on the British government for firing him.
In the Disney film Sky High villain Royal Pain invents a weapon that reverts it's target to being an infant. Let that sink in. She has made a device that can make an individual instantly young again. It's also heavily implied the device can actually pinpoint a specific age regardless of how old you are. So she could quite easily create and market a device that makes you (biologically speaking) 18 every time you use it. The financial rewards for marketing this would be so unimaginably vast that any power the supervillain desired would be easily gained legally. So obviously it's used in a zany evil scheme instead.
Upstream Color features several mysterious people who exploit the unique properties of a blue substance that produces hypnotizing effects and amazing empathic links between people. Introducing it to the world could yield untold fortunes, with world-changing possibilities. Instead, one of them uses it to steal the savings of random people he encounters, while another uses it to inspire his music.
Those in possession of Elysium level technology seem to be oddly spiteful in making sure that poor people are never able to benefit by it. For example one would think someone would have found a way to profit by making the healing technology more widely available available, especially when resources were being wasted on less advanced healthcare services on Earth. That would also reduce the desperation of those trying to get to Elysium, which ostensibly the antagonists' primary goal.
In Making Money, Moist von Lipwig averts, subverts and lampshades this. As someone who had previously been a con man and was now making a respectable living, he now found himself still desiring the thrill of the chase, and "keeping his hand in" with schemes of various sorts. Someone actually mentions to him how silly it is for people to swindle and trick when better money could be made out of living honestly... he glosses over the point. Specifically, he mentions to himself that while the legal way is more profitable and in many ways easier, its also less fun.
This is also lampshaded in Equal Rites wherein it is pointed out that the time and effort a group of brigands puts into robbing caravans could have quite easily allowed them to earn a good living if they were to work that hard at a honest trade.
In The Last Continent, a wizard reminisces about a classmate who, sentenced to copy out lines of text as a punishment, invented a multi-pencil apparatus to write the same line several times simultaneously. Building and improving his invention took more time and effort than simply copying the lines would have and eventually led to the student's accidental death.
A much simpler device, made of coat hangers, was used in the novel Who Ran My Underwear up the Flagpole? by Jerry Spinelli. The character in question is assigned to write a hundred lines on the board, then the teacher stepped out for a coffee. When he gets back, there are 120 lines on the board and the student is gone. When he finds out what the kid's done, he's so impressed that he isn't even punished. The same kid also has a custom skateboard, and it is implied he'll be some sort of inventor when he grows up.
A comment is offered in Vanity Fair about one character who is a stingy and sly aristocrat. The author notes that if he had been born in obscurity, he could have become a wealthy Amoral Attorney, but as a baronet, he does things like being so stingy his crops fail and engaging in constant law suits which while profitable when he wins are more frequently a financial drain.
In the Paul Jennings short story The Strap Box Flier, an inventor goes from town to town selling his amazing glue which, in demonstrations, bonds instantly with a grip like steel. He then gets as far away as possible, before the townsfolk figure out the glue comes undone after four hours. Apparently it never occurred to him that a glue which allowed you to fix something immovably into place for a predictable amount of time, after which it would come undone of its own accord, would be worth an incredible fortune.
Subverted when, at the end of the Serpentwar Saga. Dashel Jameson, Sheriff of Krondor, renounces his noble titles and becomes the Upright Man, leader of the Krondorian Thieves Guild, succeeding his late great-uncle, Lyle Rigger. His new second-in-command asks him why he's doing this, since as the son of a Duke and the younger brother of an Earl, there's no way he could make as much money as a thief as he could legitimately. He did it as a point of honor: he had promised a thief he had fallen in love with who had died protecting the city from Keshian raiders that he would look out for the thieves.
Subverted by Artemis Fowl, who does use his genius to make money in more legitimate ways. Among others, he holds several patents and won a competition to design a new opera house in Dublin. However, as well as his legitimate enterprises and investments are doing, the kind of crimes he commits are far more profitable. His first heist netted him one ton of gold, which in August 2012 was worth 35,000,000 USD.
One telling of Hansel and Gretel outright states that the witch built her gingerbread house just to lure in children to eat. Apparently, it never occurred to her that being able to produce enough sweets to build a house from them in the middle of a famine could be a mighty profitable skill. Then again, kids are food for witches. Sure, they could make money by selling the candy, but if they eat kids, the money wouldn't do them much good — they wouldn't be able to buy any at a store for dinner, after all, and who would sell them a spare kid to eat?
Considering that the story originally resulted because the father couldn't afford to feed his children and himself, and thus his wife convinced him to leave them in the woods to die, it probably wouldn't be too hard to convince people to sell their kids to the witch in exchange for a ton of free food, and just claim that the children died of something else.
The Company in Prison Break is an example. They have the technology to solve most of humanity's energy and agriculture problems and hence would become both the richest and most heralded people on the planet if they were up front and honest. Instead, they run currency scams in third world countries and sell weapons to belligerents that will make them hundreds of millions, but have the potential to wipe out all of humanity if used.
Warren Mears could have made billions with his life-like androids. Instead, he pisses away his genius robbing banks in a small California town. Then again, Warren is very emotionally immature, such that he may well not have thought of the ramifications of his machines. That, and he liked the idea of being a supervillain.
Word of God is that the super-science used by the trio and a few other villains is actually an applied form of magic (which the user may not be aware of), and cannot be used in any large-scale capacity since the tech doesn't actually work.
In Season 8 he uses his skills to work for the government (and Twilight).
Nevel on iCarly is a tweenage computer science and coding genius. He has a popular website already, and has impressive skills in coding, web design, writing, hacking. Instead of just concentrating on his own work where he could use Google Adsense, or directly sell ads for his site and Youtube Partnership for his video content, he wastes all his time trying to take over the iCarly webshow.
The Twilight Zone. The episode "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" has a group of gold thieves trying to evade the law. One of them accomplishes this by using a gas he created to put the gang in suspended animation for a hundred years instead of patenting the substance and becoming a well respected and incredibly rich scientist. This may have been because of societal reasons due to the era Twilight Zone was aired.
Averted in Dalek Empire (Big Finish Doctor Who spinoffs), where the Daleks seek an alternate history where they've already conquered the entire universe. What they get is an alternate reality where the equivalent of Davros decided that you catch more flies with honey, and decided to make the Daleks good or at least well-intentioned. "You Daleks have conquered this galaxy?" "Correct" "You have waged war against its peoples, you have destroyed, you have subjugated." "Correct!" "You have committed the greatest crimes our universe has ever known! Neutralise them!" Unsurprisingly, by not being genocidal jerks, they've been far more successful, and the Daleks are rapidly reduced to the edge of extinction yet again.
Subverted in the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds", where Mal, upon confronting Saffron, points out that "All the lying, all the games... there's got to be an easier way to steal." At which point she replies that Mal is assuming the payoff for her is the money.
Lampshaded in an episode of Hancock's Half Hour when the Honest John "Sid Balmory James" discovers that spending all his time thinking up elaborate cons is a lot harder than simply going to the bank and getting an overdraft.
In Harry's Law, it's averted at the end of the series premiere. The main character used to be a patent lawyer, and three thugs had rigged up a device to get car doors open. They decided they wanted to patent it instead.
The Reality ShowIt Takes a Thief (2005) is an aversion, a security makeover show where former thieves first (with permission of the owner, who gets to watch it, live, on cameras the show installs to let them, and us, as the audience, see what the crooks are doing), burgle the home or business in question, and then they have professionals install security systems that would've prevented them in the first place. Then they test them to see if the owners are using it properly. On more than one occasion they've found the homeowners have left the front door unlocked.
Batman episode "The Joker's Flying Saucer". The Joker creates a flying saucer that can (based on the Joker's comments) travel through outer space to other planets. He decides on the standard "conquer the world" strategy when he could have just sold the design to NASA for billions of dollars. Then again, this is the Joker.
A theme in Sons of Anarchy. Jax and Nero talk about how much they want to go straight, but when they each have the opportunity to make money legitimately, they admit that they no longer want to. Damon Pope is a particular example in that he's already making millions legitimately but still maintains a narcotics empire on top of it. Jax points this out to him.
Neal Caffrey of White Collar, similar to the real-life examples below, is said to be one of the best forgers in the world. His attempt at a sculpture, which was done relatively quickly, was not only declared authentic, but as the seminal example of the artist whose work he was copying (beating the pants off the attempts of the original artist's assistant/protege). If he had gone straight form the beginning, perhaps he'd be a world-class artist by now. But perhaps not; he's shown to have both a thieving bent and problems developing his own style. (He blames his Disappeared Dad and family instability but that's just a cop-out.
In 24 series 5, within a couple of hours of getting hold of Lynn's access card, Lynn's sister's boyfriend is able to find the terrorists to sell it to them. This guy should have been working for CTU!
MAD once had a article that said that your laziness factor factored in the amount of work you're willing to go through to get out of doing work.
Mitsuhama Computer Technologies from Shadowrun underwent revision to avert this trope, making the original investors some yakuza oyabun who are now retired (and obscenely rich) oyabun, who still cheerfully keep in touch with their old friends whenever MCT needs some deniable subcontractors.
Subverted by The Thieves' Guild, a criminal gang in the Freedom City setting of Mutants & Masterminds. 6 inventors, all brilliant in their particular field, and they rob banks. They're also all psychotic in their own particular way.
Zig Zagged in BioShock, as Frank Fontaine's ultimate goal is to become the richest and most adored man alive after killing off anyone who could get in his way by bringing Rapture's technology such as ADAM to the surface.
Lampshaded in City of Heroes. Sometimes NPCs will say "If the Sky Raiders really only wanted money they would just sell their jetpack designs. There is something more." Crey Corporation plays this straight. They make a lot of products that could be much more valuable as actual products rather than tools of mass destruction. They also make countless products just for consumer and military purchase.
Averted in the original Mega Man Battle Network game by Higsby, a teacher employed by the WWW to brainwash the students of ACDC and steal their rare chips for himself. He later opens up a chip shop. In the subsequent games of the series, Dr. Regal and Wily do this too.
Dr Wily became the villain in the series because years ago, his research on robotics was shunned over Dr Hikaris research on network. In the end he finally quits being a villain and has one of his creation do real good.
The Bonne Family—Particularly Tron Bonne from the Mega Man Legends series would probably be well suited for work as diggers or business owners (Tron shows a nack for penny pinching) if their choice of profession didn't have to be piracy. Alas, Poor Villains.
It's possible that many of Eggman's theme parks and casinos are legitimate enterprises, since he has to get money from somewhere. He consistently makes the mistake of powering them with Chaos Emerald and/or rings every time, giving Sonic and co. an excuse to blow through and wreck the place every game.
In Sonic Battle Rouge outright states that Eggman sells some of his security robots in exchange for cash. There's also Robotnik Corp., a business venture of Eggman's that produces Extreme Gear.
In Sonic Colors, he manages to grab several planets, build amusement parks and rides on them, and tethers them to the Earth with a Space Elevator without affecting any planet's gravity. He broke so many rules of physics with the stunt alone, and the 3DS version implies it is a really fun park (in the Wii version, Sonic snuck his way in there the day before it opened.) If only Eggman wasn't using this as an excuse to harvest life energy from aliens to build a Mind Control Ray to Take Over the World!
Zig Zagged by Wario. After a couple of games serving as Mario's rival and all the while playing a greedy Anti-Hero role, he finally went on to become the founder of the honest WarioWare business and is presumably wealthier than ever. However, anything with Wario's name in it is not likely to be honest. Case in point: he never actually pays any of his employees.
Zig-zagged in Touhou spinoff material where Mystia Lorelei uses her Magic Music to strike humans night-blind and sells them grilled lamprey as a night-blindness cure. The con is seen as a minor issue in Gensokyo, and her cooking is good enough that she gets away with it, and gets return business and turns a profit. She's also explicitly not in it for the money: she's a bird youkai, so she wants humans to stop eating poultry.
Fallout: New Vegas had Mr. House, an expy of the real-life Howard Hughes turned Man in the Machine, who had invented the Securitron as well as lasers that were able to shoot nukes out of the sky before they hit. Had the Great War happened a mere 6 hours later than it did, House would have been able to upgrade with the Platinum Chip and shot down all the nukes headed for his beloved Las Vegas, instead of just most of them. In the wake of the disaster, he still has his Securitron army, but rather than marketing the technology out to the highest bidder he used it to gain control over various raider tribes in the area, re-create Las Vegas in the post-apocalyptic world, complete with casinos, and used the cuts from said casinos to fund his operations. If the player finally does upgrade the securitron army with the Platinum Chip, New Vegas becomes the dominant power in the region, capable of fending off both the NCR and Caesar's Legion.
Granted, "marketing the technology out to the highest bidder" wouldn't exactly work in a postapocalyptic wasteland where he is legitimately the only person with anything of real value, but once the other factions with their own economies (NCR and Legion) show up, he refuses to sell to them. Though the reason is largely ideology; House is an egomaniac and doesn't want the fiefdom he established be taken over by outsiders.
Minor example in Mass Effect 1. A salarian named Schells asks Shepard to help him perfect his invention that will enable him to cheat at Quasar (he claims he isn't actually going to use it himself: he's going to sell it to others... for some reason, he thinks this makes it legal). If Shepard chooses to expose what he's doing to the casino owner, Schells despairs at what he's going to do from now on. Shepard's team will point out that with his obvious talents, landing a well-paying job as a programmer or engineer shouldn't be too difficult for him. He scoffs at this.
Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2. His primary motivation is to find the vault containing The Warrior, so he can use it to take over Pandora... except that he's already the CEO of what's implied to be one of the most powerful Mega Corps in the setting, and if he would use his vast resources for something useful rather than wasting untold amounts of money trying to find the vault or on useless vanity projects like Opportunity, he would probably be able to rule the planet legitimately. Or decide to move his efforts to another planet that isn't a Death World.
Played with in Bioshock. Fantastic inventions designed by Rapture's scientists are constantly sold in the hyper-economy that it's based on. Unfortunately, Ryan's disillusionment with the rest of the world means that all foreign transportation becomes illegal. It's implied that the REAL reason behind Rapture's fall isn't because of a designer gene-drug that slowly erodes your humanity, but because the Rapture economy and technological progress isn't shared with the outside world, and commodities that you can't get/produce in Rapture (such as the sun and the Bible) help create a black market with a very destructive monopolist. So essentially, Rapture (a place cut off from the violent and bickering world) was doomed to fail because of its isolationism; if they had sold to the world instead of each other, they wouldn't have devolved into a bickering civil war.
Also, in Bioshock Infinite, one can think of a hundred different ways to use trans-dimensional teleportation or energy-independent antigravity to make the world a better place. All Comstock uses it for are predicting the future with 99% accuracy and making a giant floating city. Subverted when it's revealed that Comstock doesn't believe the world deserves it and wants to Kill 'em All and restart civilization. With his daughter at the helm.
Averting this trope is the driving force behind Evil Inc., a comic about a supervillain who starts a legitimate company to cater to supervillains. When a traditionalist complains he is losing sight of what evil is, he just shows him the legitimate profit margins and smiles. An often repeated motto in the strip is, "You can do more evil if you do it legally."
Averted in Rusty and Co.'s Fourth Wall Mail Slot which informs us that Rusty's metal-corroding ability is routinely used for "antiquing furniture for fun an' profit". For a rust monster it means being paid for licking food (carefully).
Averted in Sam and Fuzzy, where Mr. Sin's core idea is to market his inventions and get rich on them. Played straight in that he's a Mad Scientist and most of his inventions are created in very illegal ways, and tend to go terribly, terribly wrong during the development stage.
Averted in the Whateley Universe. Plenty of the Mad Scientists do, in fact, patent their inventions, and figure out uses for them. Furthermore, Ayla Goodkind is making sure to look for these people and CUT them checks. And this is mercilessly lampshaded by Ayla Goodkind herself, when she complains that Whateley Academy needs better contract law help for these inventors, and courses to teach the inventors how not to get robbed by the Corrupt Corporate Executive so they have to turn to crime later in life.
This is Edwin Windsor's job in How to Succeed in Evil — talk to would-be supervillains and try to get them to use their abilities and talents in an efficient and profitable manner, rather than for grandiose and overly complex schemes they seem so fond of. To his endless frustration, they rarely listen to him.
In another article, Cracked claimed that the fact that the villains in Scooby-Doo couldn't find decent employment despite the skills necessary to pull off their schemes coupled with the endless amount of abandoned locations "proved" that the Scooby-Doo universe had suffered some sort of horrific economic collapse.
According to his backstory, Doctor Steel wanted to sell his rather twisted toy designs, but the toy company he worked for just couldn't see his vision. So, after burning down their factory, he started his own toy company... and started building giant robots with which to take over the world.
During one Global Guardians story, the heroic Achilles confronts the Emperor, leader of the criminal conspiracy known as Tarot, about this. He points out that Tarot has nearly unlimited financial resources and equipment and its own army, so why risk all of that trying to control the world's economy? The Emperor responds, "How do you think we got all those resources...", acknowledging that its expensive, trying to run a worldwide criminal empire.
In Worm, this trope is played with. While there exists a subset of parahumans called "rogues" who turn their attention entirely to legal ventures with their powers, Tinkers almost always end up as either heroes or villains, being as (a) the alternative is being coerced into producing equipment for heroes or villains and (b) Tinker equipment isn't generally fit for mass production.
Centives breaks down the costs of half-a-dozen crooks going or staying legit. Impressive for some villains, and decidedly tongue-in-cheek.
Many of the Captain Planet and the Planeteers villains. Dr. Blight, for example, can invent a time machine, but her best plan for making money with it is to sell a nuke to Hitler. Averted, however, with Sly Sludge, who eventually does go legit after being told recycling could be just as profitable as his usual poaching/polluting gigs (except for metals, it isn't). In a very strange play on this, he invents a device that shrinks garbage in response to a landfill crisis.
Batman: The Animated Series explored the concept with some of its reoccurring villains. The Penguin is sane enough to admit associating with criminal riffraff is pretty distasteful anyway and he'd make much more profit with a skimming-off-the-top grey market nightclub. Subverted in that he still doesn't turn his act around in the end.
Averted in the spinoff comic The Batman Adventures. The Riddler signs a deal with some out-of-town businessmen who find that the device he's used to hijack broadcasts can be the basis for a super-advanced cell phone which makes him millions. He finds an outlet for his ongoing urges by sending Batman riddles without actual crimes attached.
In the episode "Riddler's Reform", the Riddler signs a contract with a toy company, using his genius for riddles and puzzles to design puzzle toys and the notoriety he earned as a criminal to pitch them in TV commercials. It almost works for him... but the compulsion to outwit Batman is too great, and he decides that the only way he could enjoy his new life is to lure Batman into a death trap and get rid of him altogether. Unfortunately, this doesn't work, and Riddler goes back to prison.
Mr. Freeze's appearance averts this. It's mentioned that he is wealthy and puts his fortune towards making amends to the families who were hurt by his villainous actions in the past. Unfortunately, it all Goes Horribly Wrong...
Zig zagged with this version of Spellbinder, a psychologist who uses sophisticated Mind Control devices to hypnotize people into stealing for him. Aside from the fact that he's invented all this hypnotic equipment but can't think of anything better to do with it than trick people into stealing for him, he probably doesn't even make a profit on his crimes. However, in his introductory episode Spellbinder goes on a rant which indicates that this may be more about revenge than greed. It took another turn when Spellbinder got wiser and began marketing his equipment as virtual reality generators that allowed people to live out their fantasies. He "marketed" it like a drug pusher and got taken down by Batman for it.
Inverted with Shriek, who developed a suit that could amplify and direct sound waves for demolition purposes. However, his boss' first reaction upon seeing the suit in action is "dynamite's cheaper" — his invention isn't practical and couldn't turn a profit if put on the market. His boss, Corrupt Corporate Executive Derek Powers, decides to use him to take care of Batman instead.
In Wacky Races, Dick Dastardly's Mean Machine is obviously the fastest car in the races and he always manages to get ahead of everyone else. If he wasn't so adamant in cheating and causing the other racers to get further behind of his considerable lead, he could have easily won every single race.
The Beagle Boys Inc. from the Scrooge McDuck universe have moments of clarity: in one story, they realize that at their rate of success, they make an average 14 cents per hour. In another story, they open an ice cream parlor as a front to plan a bank robbery, and to their own surprise make good honest money with it. Subverted because they don't go straight.
A doubly subversive episode has them realizing they have musical talent. Ma Beagle signs them in a record deal under Scrooge's label as part of a plan to rob the Money Bin. However, the Boys find their new lifestyle extremely profitable... even Scrooge is making money off of them, despite their excessive demands, so they go legit. However, Ma Beagle is a believer in Bad is Good and Good is Bad, and as such sabotages them so they're forced to go back to being villains.
Darkwing Duck's enemy Quackerjack is smart enough to build a time machine but he uses it for really dumb reasons, like trying to prevent the yo-yo from being invented. In his defense, he is completely insane.
An episode of Back at the Barnyard, while admittedly a parody, has "Cowman" fighting a botany-themed villain. His motives boiled down to his monstrous plant hybrids never winning the blue ribbon at the county fair. However, while pretending to be a friendly Willy Wonka-style wandering botanist, he plants a seed that instantly sprouts into an ice cream tree. Perhaps that one alone could have won him a blue ribbon. Or Nobel Prize.
In Transformers Animated, when the creator of the Headmasters is fired for wanting to make something with military applications, he decides to make his own company... and start it by stealing approximately 6.3 metric buttloads of money. This requires him to ignore that 1) he could just get a grant from any number of other companies that do work with the military without stealing and 2) if he actually got the amount of money he demanded, he and several dozen generations of his descendants would never have to work another day in their lives. But then he's a Straw Losergamer nerd, so...
His introductory episode heavily implies his creations are incredibly Cool, but Inefficient: his Headmaster can take control of any robot, but any Earth-made one will immediately collapse under the unit's weight. So it would be near useless in any war-situation that didn't involve Cybertronians.
The villains in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated have this worse than any of the others, as their costumes are far more realistic and advanced than previous series. What's even worse about this? Crystal Cove, the place they're haunting, has hauntings as their primary tourist attraction. The ones who are after money could make a fortune by opening a haunted house legally. But they just use their costumes and schemes to steal stuff, or do it for their own personal grudges. However, It turns out they're only compelled to do it because they are influenced by an ancient alien entity underneath Crystal Cove that has been manipulating the townspeople to eventually free itself. When it is finally killed at the end of season 2, the hauntings stop and the town is a happier place.
Stripperella. Parodied with El Cheapo, who plans elaborate crimes designed to get him the world's largest fake diamond, or a stash of copper bars worth up to $16.
According to Word of God, a Missing Episode of SWAT Kats would've averted this trope, with the re-captured villains Hard Drive and former Madcat Lenny Ringtail being hired by the Enforcers as detectives.
The Butcher has the power to produce seemingly-infinite meat from his hands, but rarely seems to use this power to actually sell meat, despite the fact that he could do it at unbeatable prices with every cent being profit.
Likewise Dr. Two-Brains and Tobey never seem to think of using their genius engineering skills to a more profitable use than stealing cheese and throwing annoyed fits, respectively.
This might be excused by the fact that Two-Brains has his brain fused with that of a mouse, and Tobey is a Child Prodigy. Neither situation gives a person top-notch reasoning skills.
While not as skilled as the above three, Chuck the Evil Sandwich-Making Guy has attempted a legitimate job in no less than three episodes: "Chuck the Nice Pencil Selling Guy", "Chuck Makes a Buck" and "Lunchlady Chuck", only to go back to crime at the end due to some small slight.
Every scheme the title characters of Ed, Edd n Eddy try takes so much work to set up, just to fleece a few quarters from other kids, that they'd have gotten a lot richer if they'd devoted the same effort to mowing peoples' lawns. Often, the ramshackle gadgets Edd designs as part of the scams would be salable in their own right. In fact, when Jimmy tries his hand at "scamming" people, he just goes for a simple trampoline and charging for use time, becoming far more successful than anything the Eds have tried. They tend to have more success when they sell more legit services rather than scams that cut corners, break, and make the kids demand a refund.
In the movie, it's revealed that most of Eddy's actions are motivated by maintaining this whole myth he's built about how he's the protege of the coolest brother ever. Edd occasionally tries to convince Eddy to do something less stupid, but is quickly overruled by the more boisterous Eddy.
Challenge of the Super Friends was notorious for this. Lex Luthor invents a time machine? He and the Legion of Doom use it to steal a few treasures from the past, and never use it again. A teleportation device? They use it to avoid being captured at the end of the episode. But never any other way. Invisibility cloak? Used for a few petty crimes, and never heard from again.
...This was so the Legion of Doom could force the world to give them money. I'm no electronically enhanced genius, but if the Legion of Doom is really hurting for money, maybe they shouldn't have built a fucking planet out of toys millions of light years away in the center of a black hole. Put some in the bank.
In ReBoot, Dot saves the day and ends an episode by helping The Crimson Binome turn his villainous ways into a legitimate business, because it has higher profit margins.
Averted on Johnny Test. Brainfreezer wishes he was less evil so he could just use his ice based technology for a legit business. After Johnny helps him, he does just that.
Mad Scientist Prof. Nimnul of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers is frequently motivated by this. Created a machine that can shrink/enlarge anything? Obvious use: Enlarge common insects to act as "alien invaders" and use them to extort gold from people. Levitation technology? Weave it into rugs and have them fly out of the house with everyone's furniture and goodies. Found a way to temporarily turn yourself into an animal? Commit petty thefts you'll never be suspected of!
Oddly, sometimes he tries to sell his inventions honestly, but hits an unexpected snag that turns him dishonest use out of spite. In one episode he has built a lightning generator whose power supply is the static electricity you get from rubbing several hundred fuzzy cats. In his Motive Rant, he claims to have tried selling it to a power company, but the design was so silly that they wouldn't take him seriously. His response is to blast them with the lightning. Nimnul also starts another episode honestly trying to sell a time-acceleration device to dairy companies, so they can convert milk to cheese in seconds. The demonstration doesn't go well, they throw him out on his ear, and he quickly reverts to Who's Laughing Now? mode.
In an episode of The Critic, an actress tried to get Jay to like her in order to get a positive review from him. However, when he gives his honest opinion (that she's terrible), she turns nasty. However, buttering Jay up required her to constantly stay in character and be convincing. If she put that much of her acting talent into her movies, she'd have a shelf filled with Oscars.
The Misfits in Jem are a genuinely successful and popular music group in their own right, just not quite as successful as Jem and the Holograms. Their efforts to one-up and sabotage Jem generally only succeed in making themselves look bad; if they weren't so fixated on outdoing Jem and the Holograms and focused on their own performances, they'd have nothing to complain about. This is shown with particular clarity in the three-part "Starbright" episode; they manage to buy their way into and eventually take over the movie production that Jem had won the contract for in a previous episode, and their constant efforts to harass and sabotage Jem and the Holograms eventually drive the latter off the film - along with everyone else competent associated with the production, all of whom join Jem in shooting the original script. The Misfits' film is an unwatchable mess that went severely over its already multi-million-dollar budget only to crash and burn at the box office, no doubt resulting in their popularity taking a hit; they could have profited in both money and popularity if they'd simply spent the time touring instead, especially since Jem couldn't schedule any performances during the shooting of the movie.
It also goes for their manager Eric Raymond. It costs him a fortune just to keep the Misfits out of trouble and he'd be better off promoting a group that was less trouble.
Dr. Doofenshmirtz builds, rebuilds, or reuses a new "-Inator" nearly every episode. Almost all of them work to or beyond specifications. If he'd just stop trying to use them to take over the Tri-State Area, he would be rich.
He cares less about getting rich, since he gets all his money from his wife's alimony. Plus his "-inators" tend to be built to fail on their own.
Like his "-inators", Doofenshmirtz's traps work amazingly well. They are almost always set exactly where they need to be to trap Agent P. Sure, Perry eventually escapes, but he's a secret agent. If Doof would just start a security company or consulting agency to capture run-of-the-mill criminals, he could buy the Tri-State area.
Phineas and Ferb's Big Plan for each episode usually follows suit, though they do it for the fun, not the money or any potential for money.
Disney's Aladdin: The Series had Mechanicles, a Greek inventor who made robots. Lots of them. Though they were bulky, powered by steam, and made of bronze, they still had functionality well beyond what we are capable of in the modern day. In any episode where he appeared, he would use them to steal things, either because he wanted them, or just to build more robots. Though Mechanicles was also really arrogant and prissy, so maybe everyone simply refused to do business with him?
Wired magazine ran this article on a hacker who, for a time, had a day job helping corporations protect themselves from the likes of him, and spent his time trying to penetrate the same kinds of networks. He eventually got busted, big time, for credit card fraud. His partner in crime remarked:
"I couldn't figure it out; what is this guy doing? Why doesn't he just go get a job? Then it dawned on me, many years later: Max just likes to hack."
Kevin Mitnick, hacker, became a successful security consultant.
The best example with the Mafia is their role in Las Vegas. Here they had a legal, profitable gambling business that didn't become a criminal enterprise until they started skimming casino profits. Justified in that Nevada gaming regulations make it illegal for a convicted felon to own and operate a casino, so they had to get front men to buy the casinos and then skim off their own profits under the table.
It also is an unofficial tradition in sin city for the Casinos to hire former cheaters as security personnel, since they're familiar with the tricks and the methods to make sure no one notices.
In the MSNBC documentary The Marrying Kind, con artist George Washington Upton embezzled money from his wives and established companies selling non-existent services. Upon his arrest, one of his former wives said that he was smart enough to have made just as much money through legal means but chose to do fraud instead.
The "Friday Night Bank Robber", Carl Gugasian, could have had a bright future with his mathematical ability, but he was arrested and imprisoned for a crime committed when he was 15. After getting out of jail, he believed that no one would ever give him legitimate work, so he became a very successful (until he got caught) bank robber.
In the latter two cases the fraud was initiated when the legitimate businesses each was engaged in wound up in financial trouble and they resorted to fraud to prevent being seen as failures and losing their wealth. Even in the case of Crazy Eddie most of the profit came from fraud and tax evasion. Just because someone can become reasonably successful doesn't mean they have the skill to become as successful as criminal activity would allow.
On the plus side, many criminals have been able to use the notoriety they gain from their dishonest dealings to find legitimate careers. In addition to ex-hackers going on to work for computer companies and embezzlers who go on to become fraud consultants mentioned above, there were two former burglars who became security consultants teaching people how to protect their houses from break-ins (and later had their own popular Discovery Channel series doing the same), a counterfeiter who used his skills to get a high-level job at a computer company, and a marijuana smuggler who later advertised his services as a business consultant and entrepreneur based on the skills he'd gained building his dope-smuggling ring. Some art forgers become so notorious for their crimes that people became interested in their own original work, enabling them to make a living as legitimate artists.
Canadian Brian O'Dea built a multimillion-dollar marijuana smuggling ring in the 1980s and 1990s before he was arrested and imprisoned. After he served his sentence and got out of jail, he decided to get a legitimate job. He took out a series of ads in the National Post, one of Canada's major national newspapers, advertising his services as a business manager. As proof of his skills, he cited his success in building up his dope empire. And It Worked, since O'Dea received almost 600 job offers in response to his ad.
Don King. "Only in America" (as he himself says so often) can a man with a criminal record like his that involves illegal bookmaking and second-degree murder (albeit reduced to nonnegligent manslaughter later) become so successful.
FBI profiler John Douglas, in his autobiography Manhunter, mentions how, when still a police officer, he helped break up a gambling operation and at one point had a "very talkative bookie" in the back of his squad car. When he observed that the bookie was smart enough to earn money legitimately, the man simply replied that he did it for the thrill, and elaborated on his view. "You see those two raindrops on your windshield? I'll bet you that the one on the left will make it down before the one on the right. You can't stop us, John. It's what we are." Douglas writes that it was this conversation that led him to wonder whether people who continually engage in criminal acts legitimately think differently from law-abiding citizens.
Generally, many break-in artists, forgers, embezzlers, and other criminals demonstrate a surprising amount of skill and intellect in committing their crimes, when they could have easily used those talents to make money legitimately. It's one thing to be raised in an environment where crime is almost the only way out, but when you consider how many of these guys are already in a position to make a comfortable living with their skills, this trope is played straight in real life much more than you'd think.
The TV show Masterminds is all about some of the most brilliant criminals ever to operate in the USA. Two of them, the Mission Impossible Burglar and The Florida Housebreaker, were caught and later went into business using their skills to prevent crime. Then the Mission Impossible Burglar went back to crime afterwards anyway.
When Meyer Lansky was arrested in the early 1970s, an FBI agent was quoted as saying "He could have been the CEO of General Motors if he had wanted."
Look at the extent to which many students go towards cheating. With all that hard work, you wonder if it wouldn't be easier for them to do their work legitimately. Furthermore, students often rely on extra credit assignments to make up for regular assignments into which they gave little effort. However, the extra credit often turns out to be more difficult than the regular assignments, thus defeating the purpose of slacking off in the first place.
Unless extra activities closely fit the interests or previous knowledge of the student so he or she can excel in them with much less effort in comparison with assignments they find boring or consider useless.
The American educational system is infamously broken (some argue that it needs to be scrapped entirely and rebuilt from the ground up); it's possible (nay, probable) that the cheating is a much more stimulating and educational use of their time than trying to memorize facts so that they can spit them out onto an exam, then forget them to make room for the facts they need to put on the next exam.
Many of the people who make Chinese bootleg videogames seem to be surprisingly talented - while there're lots of terrible ones, there're also surprisingly well-made things like Barver Battle Saga (only a bootleg because it was made using assets from other games) and, more shockingly, an NES version of Chrono Trigger that goes all the way up to the fight with Magus.
A man broke into Marriott International's computer network and tried to blackmail the company into giving him a job in their IT department. They didn't.
George Marquardt, the "Drug Wizard of Wichita", pulled off some amazing things - not only did he manufacture massive amounts of Fentanyl, a drug similar to Heroin but a hundred times more potent, but during his career as a drug chemist developed an even stronger analogue called 3-methylfentanyl. He also manufactured AIDS medication for the uninsured just for the fun of it and supplied the key components for a nerve gas to some survivalists. A former colleague of his once said: "He should go on to college, but he seems to be convinced that he's too smart." At twenty, he was tried for and pleaded guilty to impersonating an official of the Atomic Energy Commission; his release is scheduled for 2014, and he has so far expressed no desire to stop doing what he always did.
Adolf Hitler almost single-handedly hauled Germany out of a recession and restored their sense of National Pride. During the Olympics, America was extremely impressed with how advanced Germany had become. Regardless of how the economy was developing unhealthily, Hitler still probably could have turned Germany into a world power thirty years earlier if he hadn't invaded Poland. What a dick!
When you gain power through demagoguery it kind of limits your options going forward. nationalism has all sorts of short term benefits with long term consequences. Had Hitler been the sort of person to not want to conquer territory for colonization or defeat Bolshevism it wouldn't have come to power in the first place.
Given that Hitler's famed solution to economic recovery was to borrow money with no intention of paying it back, supplemented by mass seizures of property, there's not really as much genius in his methods than is commonly depicted.
Research into sociopathy/psychopathy by criminal psychologists like Robert D. Hare suggest that people who have the condition may be doomed to be victims of this trope. They're chronically bored, have an above-average need for stimulation, and have no conscience to hold them back. In other words, they often turn to crime not because it's particularly profitable, but because it's fun.
Darrell Issa was in his youth an ambitious but unsuccessful car thief. He then went into business selling car security devices, earning him a net worth of almost half a billion dollars. He then used his fortune to finance a political career, being elected to Congress seven times.