"When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always."
— Mahatma Gandhi
The Big Bad
has just finished consolidating his power or conquering nations, or maybe he's had a few decades to construct a Dystopia
, and all seems to be going well for him. The plucky heroes are trying to bring him down, but he's on a roll, and no one's going to stop him now... except maybe himself.
Suddenly his subjects seem a bit less cowed by his killing and imprisoning their loved ones, and his every effort to bring them in line just make things worse
. One or two of his plans don't quite go off as expected, thanks to infighting between his lieutenants
. And maybe his paranoia is getting the better of him, and he's starting to let slip the civil facade that keeps him from being an utter monster.
At the end of the day, the villain's downfall comes not just
from the efforts of the protagonists, but also from the very nature of their twisted, amoral way of life.
Without that specifically being addressed, this would just be Justice Will Prevail
This trope is rather rare, only appearing in odd mixes of realism-meets-idealism. On the one hand, it may seem naive to imply that a system won't work just because it's morally offensive. On the other hand, there is no perfect Evil Empire
in history like the ones we often see portrayed in fiction, because simply put, nothing is perfect. Just as a Stepford Suburbia
rubs us the wrong way in their eerie sense of too-perfect "goodness," a completely devoted following of faceless foot soldiers in a well oiled machine of empiricism ruled by a tyrant with complete control over his subjects smacks a bit of fairy-tale "evil."
Ultimately, this is a trope in a story that reminds us that battles aren't always won by the genius of the victorious general, but also the mistakes of the defeated one. Note that this doesn't have to be about a large group of evil: it could just as easily be an individual. Whether it's an excess of Greed or Pride that does the villain in, or the simple fact that victims of oppression will eventually rebel, Evil as a lifestyle or system cannot endure.
of Villain Ball
, No Honor Among Thieves
, Dystopia Is Hard
, and Enemy Civil War
. A more specific version is Hoist by His Own Petard
Inversion of No Delays For The Wicked
. Aversions can be examples of Evil Virtues
or Pragmatic Villainy
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- Thanos, Marvel Comics' resident Omnicidal Maniac, is so smart and powerful that he has been outright stated as being capable of losing only because he knows, deep inside, that he doesn't deserve the power he seeks, thus unconsciously sabotaging his own plans, giving the heroes openings to strike at him, etc.
- Similarly, Doctor Doom is motivated by an intense egomania that drives him to attempt to conquer the world and kill that blasted Reed Richards, but that very egomania prevents him from recognizing his own mistakes and frequently leads to his own defeat.
- Norman Osborn essentially became the most powerful man on earth for two years in Dark Reign. Unfortunately for him, his mental instability and arrogance eventually lead to his downfall more than any single hero ever could. And everyone except him knew it was going to happen.
Films — Animated
- In The Lion King its shown that, even if Simba hadn't shown up and pulled a Rightful King Returns, Scar's rule over the lion pride would have collapsed anyway since he'd driven the pridelands to the point of ecological ruin. Either the lions would have turned against him and left, or they would have all died along with him when the food and water ran out.
Films — Live-Action
- A Song of Ice and Fire includes a large plethora of varied shades of "evil," but whenever one of the really bad ones take power, various things go to hell in a handbasket as a result of their generally callous and power hungry worldviews. Just one example of many, Cersei can't stop the downward spiral of her city because she cares more about appointing people to positions of power who are loyal to her (and only her) than ones effective at doing their jobs. Not only that, but as soon as she falls from power the "loyal" people she appointed immediately turn against her, the only exception being Mad Doctor Qyburn, presumably because no sane/competent ruler would let him perform his experiments.
- Probably the best example though is the postumous caligula, Mad King Aerys, whose insanity caused him to alienate everyone in the Seven Kingdoms. By the end of the fifth book in the series, Ramsay Bolton's continual aversions of his father's Pragmatic Villainy are undermining their entire family, and it seems very unlikely that any rule of his would be sustainable.
- Tywin Lannister both averts this and plays it straight: politically he is a paragon of Pragmatic Villainy and his many extremely ruthless decisions are always well-planned, and consequently he is one of the most competent and long-lasting rulers in the books. Personally, however, he is too arrogant or hateful to accept when he really is in trouble, and it gets him killed.
- Averted and lampshaded in Dungeons & Dragons. The Drow culture is made of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder because their goddess wants them that way. But even the bloodthirsty goddess of chaos has enough sense to limit or eliminate the most dangerous individuals, because she knows a truly chaotic society would collapse upon itself.
- Played straight in the Dragonlance setting and novels, however, where it's a fundamental truism that "evil turns upon itself".
- In The Stand, Randall Flagg's half of civilization begins to deteriorate when the presence of so many volatile personalities mix in one society, fear stops being as effective for control, and every minor failure makes the Big Bad himself go into fits of rage and lose his focus, causing errors in judgement.
- The Sword of Truth series includes an empire that is completely oppressive to individuality and self-interest. As a result, when a high ranking member falls in love and is confronted with the dissonance of what he feels and what he believes, he commits suicide.
- The Lord of the Rings has a quote by Gandalf: "Oft evil will shall evil mar."
- In King Crow, Cormac's "prophecy" amounts to this:
"Tell me, do you believe your position to be secure?" Cormac asked the tyrant softly.
"Who says it isn't?" demanded Bregant, looking about.
"Listen," said Cormac. "My visions have told me the fate of all tyrants such as you. Beware the knife at your back, the mole at your feet, and the weapon that breaks in your hands. You will never be safe. Even the hills are crowned with fire, and that fire will come to consume you."
- Invoked by Chronicles of the Necromancer. Jared is a rotten ruler, with a 0% Approval Rating - refugees are pouring out from his country, and one by one he's pissing off all of his neighboring rulers. Which means Martris has no trouble finding supporters to help him seize the throne.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four is a notable inversion of this trope: the evil Big Brother governments of the world have things so completely under control and so tightly locked into their plans, that the book ends with the "resistance" depicted as a myth and the protagonist of the story successfully brainwashed into obedience.
- Although the appendix does talk about Ingsoc in the past tense, implying that in the end, evil failed after all.
- The gang in Valley of Fear is inherently unsustainable because their extortionist practices drive out the smaller businessmen, who are being steadily replaced by big magnates who will not be so easily cowed. Too bad they think The Complainer Is Always Wrong.
- The Thrawn Trilogy in the ''Star Wars Expanded Universe" employs this to great effect. Thrawn's not an outright horrible person, but it's a series of unethical actions - double-crossing Mara, deceiving the Noghri, trying to manipulate the smugglers - that lead to his downfall due to changed allegiances.
- It's also implied that the only reason the Empire can pull off as much as it does is that Thrawn is less evil than his predecessors like Vader and Isard. Unlike them, he doesn't execute subordinates on a whim or waste resources on his vanity, meaning more is available to bolster the military.
- The three villainous protagonists in The Canterbury Tales' "The Pardoner's Tale" end up killing each other due to their greed.
- In Harry Potter, what always sets Voldemort back is his inability to understand The Power of Love.
- In The Wire season 1, the nature of "The Game" of drug dealing has everyone looking out for themselves, to the point where innocent bystanders or even friends who might pose a risk have to be dealt with. It's this repeated brutality that ends up winning allies for the investigation team again and again from players who want out after someone they care about gets hurt.
- In Power Rangers in Space, evil would actually have won if not for the fact that villains don't exactly get along very well; the Bigger Bad was only defeated because The Starscream couldn't hold back his urge to backstab at the worst possible moment.
- Fallout has brought this up a number of times, namely when talking about Raiders.
- The Legend Of Korra: In Season 1, the Equalists' hatred of benders overrides the fact that Amon led them to take over Republic City, purge benders of their ability, and that he shares their ultimate goal. The Lieutenant turns on Amon when he discovers the man is a bloodbender, an altercation that leads to the Lieutenant's apparent death over his unwillingness to privately compromise his values for the sake of victory. Amon shortly loses all support among the Equalist rank and file when he publicly outs himself as a waterbender, causing him to flee the city moments after it happens.
- Eric Cartman in South Park exemplifies this trope quite often.
- Played for laughs in League of Super Evil
- In the X-Men animated series, this accidentally sets off the "Beyond Good and Evil" four-partner. Cable attacks Apocalypse's stronghold in 3999 AD, but the immortal genocidal warlord lures him into a trap to steal his enemy's time portal device, and prepares to execute Cable. He taunts Apocalypse that there will always be those who oppose his plans and that he can never truly win. Apocalypse ponders it for a moment, and acknowledges that he has been fighting the "inferior beings" for many thousands of years and still hasn't won, despairing that he might be stuck like this for all eternity like Sisyphus of Greek myth. Then he uses his new powers and inadvertently ends up in Axis of Time, the very nexus of all timelines, where he can undo everything to recreate it according to his own design.
- In Avatar The Last Airbender, once Princess Azula actually gets the power she desires and becomes Fire Lord, things quickly go downhill for her even without Team Avatar's intervention. Driven by paranoia and sociopathy, she banishes all her servants, alienates her closest allies, starts seeing things, and overall plummets into Villainous Breakdown.
- Mahatma Gandhi once famously invoked this trope:
When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it — always.
- If any real life organization would count, it's Nazi Germany. They wasted resources on the Final Solution that would have been better put to use against their Allied enemies. Hitler promoted infighting on the grounds that it would keep factions too weak to usurp him. And so on.
- Hitler was also an extraordinarily lazy leader; he mostly just gave opinions or huge ranting speeches and let advisers make up all the policy based on what they thought he wanted. He then would pick the plan that he liked best. They Plotted a Perfectly Good Waste in that the Nazi military command structure also was organized in a truly brain-bending clusterfuck. The system was meant to keep various elements arguing and competing. In a bizarre mix of Epic Fail and Gone Horribly Right, the system kept the various elements of the armed forces from uniting. However, it also made cooperation between different elements difficult. Nothing was really centralized and the different webs of organization between Wehrmacht, Panzer, Waffen SS, and Luftwaffe meant that coordination difficulties were significant impediments in the field.
- In fiction, criminal organizations are often portrayed as untouchable. Their members are never convicted, and they can just buy off or kill anyone in their way, with the protagonists as the only people who can truly stop them, if even then. In real life, it's not so bleak. Thanks to law enforcement efforts, the American Mafia is a shadow of its former self, and for various reasons it's incredibly unlikely that any other group will wield the influence they once did. In Colombia, the Medellín and Cali cartels were responsible for the majority of the world's cocaine supply, and practically ruled parts of the country. Despite all that, both of them were eventually split up into smaller organizations, who while still dangerous, don't have the monopoly that those organizations did. No matter how powerful a criminal organization might be, none of them are truly invincible. If they ever get to be unusually big, then they always go downhill because the galvanizing leadership is removed, law enforcement or citizen militias go on the counterattack, their rivals unite to defeat them, or market conditions change and render them nonviable.