Face it, some Big Bads stay popular enough it might be a bad idea to kill them for real. So they may stick around or keep coming back, but too much of this can start to undermine a (super)hero's perceived effectiveness. While a work focusing on a single hero or group can Hand Wave this as perhaps what's necessary to end the villain for good being beyond their moral code, it can get more egregious if the fictional universe starts to get larger and more interconnected, and the villain keeps pissing off more and more people. This leads to the question of why some of those other folks with a lotfewer qualms against killing haven't put a bullet in them yet.
This ends up being a question of whether the villain is just that good, or the writers are delaying things and stretching the patience of the audience. (Or maybe it's just that A Wizard Did It.)
Aside from rationalizations given in the story itself, most reasons for trope are outside the story in the form of Contractual Immortality:
The villain is very popular and lucrative, so franchises with indefinite continuity are hesitant to get rid of them. Particularly the Trope Namer: every would-be Batman writer dreams of writing a good Joker story and to get rid of him with any sense of finality would seemingly rob future writers of such a coveted opportunity. Ironically, a villain could be ostensibly lame, and killing them off is seen as too 'serious' a treatment rather than just putting them on a bus.
The story exists in a particular continuity or on a sliding timescale; the actual time the villain has been around for a particular story may be smaller than we suppose. Again regarding the Trope Namer, it may seem like the Joker's been mass-murdering people for however-many-decades in Real Time, but in the comic book universe it's only been a handful of years at most.
The villain, especially those in a Rogues Gallery, are so heavily identified with a particular hero their exploits are specific to him out of a kind of authorial respect (e.g. Marvel's Carnage is heavily identified with Spider-Man, but is both monstrous-looking and much less popular lately, and thus can be killed).
The Joker's had this from day one. He was originally conceived as a one-off villain (co-creator Bill Finger worried that Batman, and law enforcement would look pretty incompetent if the villains kept escaping prison), and Batman didn't even have his no-kill code back in those early days, but the Joker proved too good a villain to waste by killing after one issue so a last minute edit had him survive. He's been laughing at readers ever since. Joker has become something of a Base Breaker in the wider DC comics fandom due to this trope. Go to any comic board, and the thread that most often pops up is why Batman hasn't shrugged off his no-kill policy just this once and snapped Joker's neck.
There was even a comic book from the 1940's where the Joker got the death penalty and was brought Back from the Dead, only to be conveniently ignored later on when he couldn't be punished again for the same crimes.
Jason Todd: Why? I'm not talking about killing Penguin or Scarecrow or Dent. I'm talking about him. Just him.
Batman does go to justify the reason, admitting he thought about just killing him every day. But Bats recognized that that would be his point of no return, and he wouldn't stop killing criminals.
In a nice case of Strawman Has a Point, Jason immediately points out the Strawman Fallacy of that argument, asking why every "cub scout" seems to think that killing one person, an irredeemable, unquestionably evil monster of a person, will somehow lead to them cutting down every crook. He's not saying that Batman should kill the Penguin, Scarecrow, Clayface, Riddler or Two-Face. Just the Joker. The number one monster of Gotham City.
Death Of The Family has a new reason: Batman confides to Alfred that the main reason he refuses to kill Joker is because he sincerely believes killing Joker wouldn't make things any better. Gotham would just send someone worse, or bring Joker back from the dead, or something. To Bruce, the Joker is just one facet of the true Big Bad of his story: Gotham City itself.
Sergio Aragonďs Destroys DC: Parodied and Lampshaded:
Batman: Tell me one reason why I should not kill you just now!
The Joker: Merchandising! The WB cannot afford to lose your principal villain!
The Elseworld comic Kingdom Come's backstory in fact starts when a rising Superhero violates The Joker's own Joker Immunity. The Joker had just killed the entire staff of the Daily Planet - Lois Lane included. Superman apprehends him, but while in custody of the Metropolis Police, Magog shoots and kills the Joker as he's being taken in by the cops, in a scene that mirrors the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. When Magog is acquitted, and most civilians agree with Magog's move, Superman leaves in disgust. Magog's example is then used by all the new generation of superheroes as inspiration that they do not have to pull their punches. The Novelization explains that Lois Lane's Heroic Sacrifice (stalling The Joker til Supes arrived) became a Senseless Sacrifice thanks to Magog, and that is why Superman finally gave up.
Explicitly lampshaded in the Knightfall novelization, when Batman listed several of the times Joker should've died:
Would the world finally be rid of the Joker? No way to be sure. Batman had seen him survive explosions, gunfire, electrocution falling from aircraft, and yes, even plunging to the bottom of the Gotham River. What reason was there to believe the odds would finally catch up with him?
Surprisingly, the Joker is resistant to death in Batman: The Animated Series, as well. He can survive long falls and explosions that would kill just about anyone else. One would suspect that, like Team Rocket, the Joker is actually immortal, if he wasn't ironically one of the few characters to actually die in the show, although in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Tim is transformed into a clone of the Joker through a microchip, so the Joker returns once again, but is later destroyed. However, Harley falls to her "death" in the same sequence, and later turns out to be reformed and is the grandmother of Dee Dee, two of the Jokerz. And she's very disappointed in them for turning to a life of crime.
"Laughter After Midnight", a story by Paul Dini in The Batman Adventures Annual #1 deconstructs this trope begining with the Joker falling out of a police blimp after a climactic fight with Batman, and proceeds to show how he spends the rest of his night getting back to one of his lairs. First he survives by falling into a park's lake. Understandably angry that his archenemy threw him from a blimp, he begins a massacre of Gotham's midnight denizens while buying donuts and a paper. He asks Harley to pick him up, but the police are with her. A Red Shirt patrolman tries to arrest him and the Joker steals his patrol car. Then the Fridge Horror hits: Batman is The Only One who can stop Joker, but he believes Joker's dead because he saw him fall from a Zeppelin. So Batman will not come against Joker. For some hours, Joker is unstoppable. The comic ends in an eerie scene with the Joker trying to get home.
Joker:Oh who cares? I've been blown up, thrown down smokestacks, fed to sharks; I'm the Joker! I always survive!
Averted once again in the 1989 Batman film, where Joker unambiguously dies by falling off the top of Gotham Cathedral and breaking his skull on the pavement. They even have a long, rotating Dies Wide Open shot to hammer it in.
In some of the Batman films, our titular character kills other villains even when it is completely avoidable, and quite likely unnecessary, such as when Batman incinerates members of the Penguin's gang in Batman Returns.
There was one vigilante named the Wyld Carde whose family was killed by the Joker. Problem with the Wyld Carde that he was so obsessed with killing the Joker that he didn't know what to do once the Joker was killed. Upon confronting the Joker, the Wyld Carde kept hesitating to pull the gun trigger (leaving a Joker enough time to escape, and infect the opponent with Joker gas).
In fact, the DC wiki lists the Joker's powers as Cheating Death and "Comic Awareness".
Spider-Man comes very close to killing him in a Batman/Spider-Man crossover. The Joker taunts him when he refuses to go through with it. Spider-Man decides that beating the crap out of him is justified however.
Batman's moral code isn't the only flawed aspect of this, Joker has been spared the death penalty in the past due to being insane and as such its seen as unjustified to execute him. Now becomes Hilarious in Hindsight: Gotham is said to be in New Jersey. As of 2007, New Jersey has abolished capital punishment, so there is some justification for this.
Though several of the Joker's crimes would fall under federal, not state jurisdiction, and the federal government still practices capital punishment.
Rationalized in an issue of The Spectre. The Spectre is the embodied Wrath of God, and his whole shtick is executing murderers in ironic ways. When the Joker guest stars in his comic, the writers have to explain why the Spectre doesn't just kill him (by turning his smile inside-out or somesuch). The Spectre ends up discovering that the Joker has no functioning conscience, and thus can't tell right from wrong — and it would be unjust to kill him when he isn't consciously evil. (There's almost no good reason to believe that the Joker can't tell right from wrong, though.) Still doesn't explain why he doesn't go after Lex Luthor, though...
For a rather shocking and ironic exception to this trope, there's the ending of Batman for the NES. The game is based (more or less) on the movie, where, as mentioned earlier, The Joker plummets to his death. The surprising part is that Batman himself throws Joker out of a building. Nevertheless, this didn't stop Sunsoft from making a sequel to said game called Batman: Return of the Joker.
In Batman: Arkham City, Joker stays dead for all of five seconds before reviving to trap Batman... or so the Caped Crusader thinks. (Actually, he is only Faking the Dead before the disguised Clayface comes up behind Batman and ambushes him while the real Joker is still sleeping under the influence of the potion on the wheelchair.) The trope then gets a lampshade hung on it via the Enemy Chatter (I mean, it's not like the Joker ever dies, is it?) Then, it's completely subverted, as the Joker dies at the end.
Deconstructed as Joker seems to be banking on his own Joker Immunity and Batman's insistence on Thou Shalt Not Kill and Save the Villain. This is despite Joker's dying due to Titan poisoning from Batman: Arkham Asylum. It seems that Joker's Joker Immunity pays enough when he suddenly pops up healthier than ever before, but it is Clayface masquerading as him. Later, when Batman stops him from using a Lazarus Pit to cure himself, he stabs Batman when Batman wonders if he should save Joker from dying. Batman knows if he does, Joker will continue killing. Due to the stabbing Batman drops the antidote for Titan poisoning, and Joker loses his only remaining chance to live. And he then dies, averting his own Joker Immunity.
Batman:(sadly) Do you want to know something funny? Even after everything you've done, I would have saved you.
Joker:(laughing/coughing) That actually is... pretty funny...
Arkham City could be considered a double-subversion (as in it subverted the trope twice, not that the subversion was itself subverted) since Mark Hamill has declared that Arkham City was the last time he would ever voice the character, after which he would retire from the role forever. So this game could be seen as the final passing of Hamill's iconic interpretation of this iconic villain. A shame, but at least he went out on a high note.
Then there's Batman: Arkham Origins, when the Joker tries many ways to subvert his own Joker Immunity, like shooting himself in the head or strapping himself to an electric chair that is wired to Bane's heart, and yet Batman keeps saving him despite his notion to Batman that he is the monster who deserves to die for his crimes. The Clown Prince of Crime feels amazed, to the point where he's not sure what to think, that Batman would save the life of someone like him, even when Joker's trying to kill him, thus beginning his long obsession with the Dark Knight. When Origins is over, you can understand why he finally succeeded in subverting his Joker Immunity in both Asylum and City: the Joker has been a Death Seeker all along from the very beginning.
Injustice: Gods Among Us averts this big time in the very beginning of the game. The Joker creates a plan that ultimately leads to Supermankilling Lois Lanenote it involves the use of the Scarecrow's fear toxin laced with Kryptonite which makes Superman see Lois as Doomsday. He carries "Doomsday" out to space, which leads to her death. To make matters worse, Joker implanted a nuclear bomb detonator into her chest. When Lois dies, the bomb goes off. As for the location of the bomb, it's inside Metropolis. Sometime later during Batman's interrogation of the Joker, Superman interrupts them by promptly stabbing the latter withhis hand, killing him! Of course, this all took place in an Alternate Universe, where Superman eventually becomes a Fallen Hero. In the main universe of the game, the Joker is alive and remains that way.
Grant Morrison recently revealed in an interview that Batman did kill The Joker at the end of The Killing Joke. Minds = blown.
The final page from The Killing Joke script implies the opposite.
This is all nicely parodied in one strip of The Far Side, where the Joker is gunned down by a random Gotham citizen who simply says it was about time someone did it.
Parodied in a Robot Chicken skit featuring Hamill as The Joker. Batman literally beats him within an inch of his life before lamenting that he's promised to let the justice system to it's job and pondering what he should do. The scene then cuts to Joker having been given the death sentence after a testimony from the Batman, to which he says that it's now out of his hands.
Anime and Manga
A heavy subversion comes in the form of Friend, the evil mastermind Big Bad of 20th Century Boys. He's responsible for near every bad thing that happens in the story and has hidden personal ties to the heroes but even he can't survive a gunshot to the chest. This happens exactly halfway through and they reveal his identity soon after.
Team Rocket of Pokémon. You have to wonder why Ash simply won't tell the police about them. Considering they could get arrested for stalking alone, you'd think he would have at least considered it.
They do go to jail once (ironically when they are framed by Butch and Cassidy), but escape by digging a tunnel.
In fact, this is ironically only thing they are better at than most other members of Team Rocket, it seems; avoiding incarceration. Of course, one could say that other members of the organization probably deserve it much more. (A few of them do things that sicken even James and Jesse.)
As time goes on, they've become less of a threat and more of a joke compared to the bigger and incredibly threatening Story Arc villains of the particular arc. Even in the many cases where a group of officers are exposed to their presence, they either escape single-handedly, or the officials in question ignore them for the bigger threat. One episode had an Officer Jenny go after Team Rocket but was disappointed to see them escape but remarked that there were more dangerous members of Team Rocket around she had to take care of.
They end up in at the end of episodes in often inescapable situations, yet they always return without any explanation as to how they did. Also, they survive what would have killed Ash and the gang, such as falling into the river directly under a boat, falling over a waterfall, and at one point James gets knocked over a cliff into a canyon by a boulder, and should have been crushed to death or at least killed by the fall. Twice they survive a fall that THEY THINK is going to kill them: Once in Haunter vs. Kadabra, when Haunter makes them fall over a balcony toward a concrete road, and another in Pokémon 2000 where they let go of Lugia and supposedly fall to their deaths, yet clearly survive the fall and return in the ending sequence to throw another sledgehammer at the fourth wall. Likely the most grim example is an episode where they're trapped in a freezing ice cave, exhausted, and struggling to stay awake, a panicked Meowth shouting to them that they'll likely freeze to death if they fall asleep. (The episode ends on that note, and exactly how they got out of it, we may never know.)
Even Giovanni, the boss of Team Rocket, is immortal. In Mewtwo Strikes Back, Mewtwo blows up Dr. Fuji's lab and kills him. He later blows up Team Rocket headquarters after Giovanni pisses him off. The entire building is a pile of rubble by the time Jessie, James, and Meowth get there, and Giovanni & his Persian just get up without so much as a scratch.
They Took a Level in Badass in the Best Wishes arc, and often don't bother with Ash and his friends most of the time; just concentrating on individual missions.
InuYasha was infamous for its repeated use of Naraku, who after a hundred episodes was still causing trouble (it can even be safely said that he's the only antagonist still standing, and has been for several hundred issues). By that point, probably half of feudal Japan wanted his head, yet he still managed to stay alive. He also lasted through nearly all of the original manga too.
Naraku's ability to cheat death was so infamous that Rumiko Takahashi, the author, had Kagome wishing what was left of his spirit out of existence along with the Shikon no Tama to assure readers that he was Deader than Dead.
The three main bandits in Koihime†Musou. Simply why can't the Black-Haired Bandit Hunter just kill them?
Aizen from Bleach. He was the Big Bad for about 400 chapters. He's been defeated, but he's still not dead, leaving the possibility for a comeback
Katsuhiko Jinnai and the Bugroms from El-Hazard: The Magnificent World. They always ran away so they could return in the sequels or the next episode depending if you watch the OVA or TV version.
A minor example is Divine, Aki's Evil Mentor from Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds. His confrontation with Dark Signer Carly ended with him plummeting about thirty stories from the top floor of the Arcadia building; somehow, he survived, and appeared in a later episode, only to be swallowed by Earthbound God Ccarayhua.Word of God claims that, despite not appearing again, he survived that too, recovering along with the other victims of the Earthbound Gods, but that doesn't mean he was a Karma Houdini; he was quickly caught by Sector Security and hauled to jail.
Yami Bakura from the original series. By the Duelist Kingdom arc, he is thought to be sent to the card graveyard by the end of his debut, only to come back to confront Tristan of getting Mokuba's body to himself in the, but he gets knocked and the Millennium Ring, the item where he resides, gets tossed aside. This doesn't stop him from coming back in the end of the arc. Later, he appeared during the Battle City arc, only to get his soul banished to the Shadow Realm by Yami Marik, but like everyone he banished, returns to normal. In the last arc, he returns as the Big Bad, only to be finally destroyed for good along with Zorc.
Hao from Shaman King. He's been defeated and killed in ages past over and over, and still keeps coming back. Even at the end of the series, after becoming the Shaman King, he's not turned good, but merely been convinced to wait a bit and see how humanity is doing, instead of just killing everyone outright.
In DC's Flashpoint alternate reality, Batman has privatized the Gotham City Police Department and has killed off Killer Croc, Hush, Scarecrow, and Poison Ivy.
Occasionally a Batman villain DOES get killed off (i.e. Ventriloquist, KGBeast, Blockbuster I, Clayface II, Black Spider II, Ten-Eyed Man, Magpie etc.), by someone other than Batman, but, alas, being a comic, Death Is Cheap and they usually end up coming back anyway.
The KGBeast was originally an aversion to this trope, made to upheld the trope, and then became an aversion again. Batman realized that the villains sheer physical, and mental cunning made him too dangerous to leave alive. Thus Batman left the KGBeast locked inside a sewer room. The implication was that the KGBeast starved to death. Later comics rebooted the event to state that Batman later came back and took him to jail. Eventually, the villain was killed with shocking ease by an even more minor villain, the second Tally Man, who did it to frame a temporarily reformed Two-Face.
Some of Batman's villains in the New 52 (i.e. Deadshot, Harley Quinn), along with other rogues (i.e. King Shark), actually got placed on Death Row, but were exempted after they agreed to participate in the Suicide Squad.
Doomsday has a version of this trope, as he can die, but will return with total immunity from whatever it was that killed him.
If not for the Joker, this trope would be named Magneto Immunity, for the X-Men's premiere villain, who may hold the record for the highest number of sincere and permanent deaths, lobotomies, and depowerings of any villain in comic book history, but could no sooner be removed from X-Continuity than the Joker could from Batman.
Lampshaded in a story of West Coast Avengers where Magneto falls into a factory chimney (a la the Joker pic above) from a fight with the Avengers and the whole building blows up. One of the Avengers asks the rest of the group if they really believe Magneto to be dead; the response was a unanimous, "Naaaaah!"
One issue is a Lower Deck Episode about a guy who has it out for Magneto for killing his brother. The issue starts with Magneto being considered absolutely finally dead by everyone but him, and he has to convince people that the anti-Magneto weaponry he wants created is actually needed. Surprise, surprise, Magneto is alive. As the point of the story was 'revenge is bad,' this guy actually gets the chance to kill Magneto but doesn't go through with it. Magneto was on the good side of the Heel-Face Revolving Door at the time, and so didn't do anything to him.
Likewise, every story featuring X-Men villain Apocalypse ends with him being finally killed off permanently. And this time we mean it. For now.
Mystique has been suffering from this in the last 5 years. No matter how many times she screws with them and how much Darker and Edgier and willing to kill the X-Men get, they always let Mystique escape.
Mystique is becoming a queen of this trope. One showing had her and Wolverine fighting in a desert, and whilst she can hang because her shapeshifting gives her a form of a healing factor she eventually is left for dead bleeding out in the MIDDLE OF A DESERT. Next time she shows up? She acknowledges this happening but then doesn't bother to explain how she got out of that situation.
With X-Men comics taking Death Is Cheap to the limit even by comics standards, by now, nobody takes anybody's death seriously anymore, even in-universe because the writers could no longer keep the cast so epically Genre Blind as to have people hold funerals at every single No One Could Survive That moment. Sure enough, the character always returns and nobody's that surprised. Beast even says it about the villain of the previous arc when it wasn't a bad guy with a long history and a wide fanbase. "The more certain the death, the more sure the resurrection," he says of... some purple guy. However, we haven't seen Khan since.
Sabretooth beats even Mystique's example on this one. There's this sword, right? It's basically magical, and can cut through anything and no Healing Factor can do anything with the wounds it makes. An arc of Wolverine's solo comic ends with him relieving archnemesis Sabretooth of his head using this blade. We see him again soon enough... in Hell. In a battle in hell, Sabretooth gets his head lopped of again. (It could happen to anyone once, but twice and you're just being careless.) Farewell, Sabes. You were a great villain, and you'll be mi-what do you mean he's back alive and well in less than a year?
Doctor Doom is almost built on this trope, as it has become nearly a certainty that we are never witnessing the man himself in battle. His character dies in most engagements, turning out to be Actually a Doombot, programmed to impersonate him. It took damnation to Hell itself to keep the character down, and even then, he escaped.
Don't forget the good Doctor is also a sorcerer who can swap minds with nearby bystanders and had to do so to avoid being killed by Terrax once (and left the bystander's mind to die in his body). This means he's not even in his original body anymore and thus death need not take should you somehow destroy the 'real' Doctor Doom.
Marvel's Ultimate Universe series seems to be making a conscious effort at averting this trope, along with many of the other cliches from the mainstream Marvel universe. When a character dies (even major legacy ones like Red Skull, Dr. Doom, and the Kingpin), they STAY dead.
Recently Ultimate Hammerhead has returned to life with no explanation as to how he survived having his skull detonated by Ultimate Gambit (though the incident did leave him complaining about constant headaches).
Some Ultimate Universe villains (Dr. Doom and Kingpin) completely averted this trope. They were killed by opponents who just casually walked into the villains' headquarters and executed these nemeses with little effort. Other villains such as Magneto, have recently been resurrected in the Ultimate Universe.
The Ultimate Universe version of Dr. Octopus upheld this trope. Twice he either avoided or had his prison sentence reduced by lending out his scientific talents to the FBI, and Roxxon corporation. He would of been killed by one of Reed Richards terrorist attacks, but was saved by Peter Parker's female clone.
Also upheld with the Marvel-616 version of Dr. Octopus. He has been resurrected once, and recently had his mind transferred into Spider-Man's body, seemingly replacing the hero, although traces of Peter Parker's memory still remains.
Jigsaw of The Punisher, to the point that the story arc in Punisher War Journal by Matt Fraction about him specifically deals with this, as Jigsaw has become Genre Savvy over the years and even calls the Punisher out on this... mentioning others' opinions that it's due to Foe Yay. What makes this a notable example of Joker Immunity is that despite letting him go several times, Frank DID kill Jigsaw several years ago—he was brought back with voodoo or something. In general, Jigsaw is notable because his enemy is the Punisher, who usually kills any adversary he comes across — very few Punisher villains are recurring; it's really just Jigsaw and Rapido.
However, at the end of this arc, Jigsaw finally is killed by his allies Lynn Michaels and Ian. Soon after, however, Stuart Clarke, briefly Frank's "new Micro" before he discovered Frank killed his girlfriend, was horribly scarred on his face in a bloody fight with Frank, effectively becoming the new Jigsaw.
Recently revealed that he isn't dead after all.
Galvatron in the UK Transformers comic. Simon Furman brought in Galvatron from the Transformers movie, thanks to the magic of time travel, and used him as his principal villain (since the US comics weren't going to use the movie characters at all, meaning Furman didn't have to worry about contradicting the US continuity). Galvatron was used for two years, in which time he got shot, blown up, blasted with missiles and trapped inside a volcano which then exploded with ten times its normal force (due to his own dubious plan to tap the volcano with an energy-siphoning device), but survived each time due to reader popularity. For his final appearance, Galvatron had half his face blown off by an energy weapon so powerful its recoil killed its wielder (Roadbuster) and was then attacked by just about ever single still-breathing character in the comic. He finally died when a rip in the fabric of space/time tore him down to a robotic skeleton and finally consumed him, causing most of the comic readership to breathe a massive sigh of relief.
Furman then took over the US comic and decided it was a shame that the US readership had missed out on the Adventures of Insane Unkillable Uber Galvatron, so brought a new version of Galvatron into the comic from a parallel timeline. This Galvatron was somewhat saner than the previous one and wasn't the primary antagonist of the entire series, but him coming back in a new form seemed a bit cheesy given the lengths needed to kill his predecessor.
That wasn't even the first time Furman resurrected Galvatron: The UK comic storyline continued with the Autobots from the movie-era future who had helped destroy Galvatron returning to their own time...only to run into Galvatron. It turns out that their intervention in the past had changed history so Galvatron never went back in time and never died.
An even more and extreme example is Galvatron's creator (sort of) Unicron. Unicron appears in Transformers: The Movie and dies. His head survived as Cybertron's new moon and is revealed to still be functional in several cartoon episodes. The comics set after the movie, which follow a different continuity than the cartoon, also depict him surviving and nearly having a new body built before his head gets blown up, but his essence gets absorbed by the Matrix and occasionally emerges in a demonic spiritual form to wreak havoc. To then confuse things, Furman then proclaimed that a ton of time travel in the comics had changed the timeline so that the movie never happens, allowing the Unicron of the present (1990, in that case) to show up and attack Cybertron before getting killed. Unicron then makes a cameo appearance in Beast Wars before going on to be a primary antagonist in theUnicronTrilogy. Furman later ruled that Unicron (and his enemy, Primus) exists in every single dimension, timeline and reality of the Transformers Multiverse, and his destruction in one reality has no impact on the others, giving him carte blanche to resurrect Unicron at will no matter how many times or completely he dies.
However, Furman seemed to change his mind and decide this was rather silly: the new Transformers comics from IDW will apparently not feature the Unicron/Primus mythos at all. Granted, he said that about Female Transformers, too, then gave us Arcee anyway...
The Powers That Be have said that the same goes for Transformers Animated. However, the Transformers "powers that be" changing their minds would not be unprecedented. (However however, after three whole shows in which Unicron was highly prominent, letting the idea rest so as not to wear out his threat value with overuse - just ask the Borg what that's like - seems logical.)
Another Transformers example should surely include Starscream, who repeatedly came back in the cartoon, even after he was killed for real in the movie, as a ghost mind. Heck, he even came back in Beast Wars. Also his most recent incarnation in Animated came back after being killed, thanks to an All Spark fragment, which allowed him to repeatedly come back from then on. There's even a Montage of him being killed by Megatron, his body dumped, and him coming back again.
Beast Wars also had another example in Waspinator, though, unusually for this trope, he was the Butt Monkey of the series. Still, not only did he get blown to bits only to come back again afterwards (to be blown to bits again), but in a very true sense of this trope, he was supposed to be Killed Off for Real at the end of one season, but his Popularity among fans meant they decided against it. Similarly, Inferno was shown to be destroyed - hell, vaporized - at the end of one season, but at the beginning of the next season he was just shown to be extra scorched, though that one was more that the writers hadn't been expecting to get another season...
Megatron himself should count, given his longevity on the series and repeated monstrous acts.
Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog plays with this concept. Though Robotnik Prime (the Big Bad from the main universe) died, he was succeeeded by another, roboticized version of himself from an alternate timeline... one who was originally capable of surviving death for a period in the series. However, he is human again. And continuity tends to treat them as the same character, more or less.
Captain America's enemy Baron Zemo must have been somewhat popular to constantly return from certain death time and again, always having some barely-acceptable excuse at the ready. He'd fall into boiling-hot glue... but come back to reveal that there had been an escape trap in the vat just in case of an accident. He'd fall off a mansion roof to the concrete waiting below... only to return with a neckbrace, but other than that doing pretty good. Even Zemo once compared one of his deaths to a comic book "demise" and narrated it thusly for Spider-Man.
Although we're on the second Baron Zemo right now, the first having died in WWII, so at least one of them took.
Lampshaded in the first arc of Tom Strong with a subversion; whilst being led on a tour of one of his old bases by his recently-resurfaced arch-nemesis Paul Saveen, Tom comes across a row of waxwork statues of some of his old enemies, one of whom "actually died that last time [you fought]" by falling into the Niagara Falls and snapping her neck, implying she (and the others) had a tendency to stage deaths of this nature. Subverted again when it turns out Saveen, himself thought to be dead, actually is dead as well; the 'Saveen' involved here is an imposter.
Subverted as early as 1965 in Gilbert Shelton's Help! magazine strip Wonder Wart-hog. At the end of "The Return of the Masked Meanie," Wonder-Wart-Hog feeds the Meanie into a hand-cranked meat grinder. "And this," says the Hog of Steel, "will insure [sic] that you don't come back and pester us, Meanie." Below the panel, a breathless narration box intones: "Will the Masked Meanie survive the meat grinder and return to harass society? Will he? What a stupid question!" Except, of course, that the Meanie did return in "Wonder Wart-Hog and the Merciless, Menacing Masked Meanie."
Deconstructed in Alan Moore's Promethea. The Captain Ersatz of the Joker, the Painted Doll, is revealed to have been a series of robots built by a traitor in the team, each programmed to activate and climb out of the river with hazy memories when the previous one was deactivated. When they're all activated at once, they kill each other, and the last one standing decides to become a good guy.
The Red Skull practically invented this trope. He doesn't even have his original body anymore. Lampshaded in issue two of Ed Brubaker's "Captain America", where Cap refuses to believe that Red Skull is truly dead after A GUNSHOT WOUND TO THE HEAD!
And with good reason. The Red Skull has seemingly died numerous times throughout history but he always finds a way to cheat death to the point of being a Running Gag. Buried within the rubble of a bombed building? He gets put into suspended animation by experimental gas. Death by old age? He just had his mind put into a clone of Captain America. Obliterated by the cosmic cube? He reconstituted himself using the cube's power and sheer force of will. Assassinated by the aforementioned gunshot? He used another cosmic cube to transplant his mind into the very person who ordered him killed before dying. His host is ventilated by a machine gun? Armin Zola puts his mind into a robot body. Plots to transfer his mind into Captain America's body only to have it cast out? He transfers his mind into an even bigger robot body! Giant robot body blown up by missles?Just wait.
Currently, the Red Skull running around the Marvel Universe is a clone of the original. So whilst he technically is dead, for all intents and purposes he's not.
Really, as with Karma Houdini, almost every comic book supervillain will benefit from this trope. Only those who are notably unpopular or have since been replaced by different characters using the same gimmick will be done away with for good (even then it doesn't always stick).
Tannarak, foe of The Phantom Stranger, took this to ridiculous levels. He was killed by a falling statue in his first appearance. Then he came back, and died when a temple fell on him. Then he came back again, and was killed when the phoenix he was riding on fell to the ground. Then he came back yet again, and was de-aged into nothingness - and then returned in Batman and the Outsiders where he died again, of course. Tannarak gleefully lampshaded this phenomenon, always telling the Phantom Stranger (with a completely straight face): "Hah! Did you expect a falling statue/collapsing temple/etc. to really kill me?"
Manhunter (the one who's a working mother, and former prosecutor) began her career as a superhero because she's sick of this trope. Her successful kills include Copperhead (who escaped the death penalty under being not guilty by reasons of genetic anamoly), Monocle, and Dr. Moon. She decided not to kill Shadow Thief, on the basis that she ]] wanted to give the criminal justice system a chance to actually work.
Cobra Commander, the Big Bad of G.I. Joe, is an apt representation of this trope. In the first comic book series, he was shot dead, only to find out that it was actually an impostor who was killed. In the first animated movie, he was turned into a snake, and later got better. He has also been caught in numerous explosions that should have left him killed or maimed, only later to return without a scratch or an explanation of how he escaped.
Averted big time in "Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe" a What If?? where the Punisher (whose family in this universe were accidentally killed in a superhero battle rather than a mob slaying) kills off every superhuman on Earth, often using no more than common sense and real world weaponary.
Although, the "Joker Immunity" applied to the Punisher in the story as he kept escaping prison over and over again with nobody killing him before he could create new methods to kill off more superhumans.
Deadpool's Joker immunity is actually rationalized by his extreme healing factor, possibly even faster than Wolverine's, as a result of being "Cursed with Life" by Thanos - literal Plot Armor. But really who wouldn't love the 4th wall breaking merc with a mouth?
In John Ostrander's writing of the Spectre, his human host (Jim Coorigan) asks Father Cramer why the Spectre never responded to the murder of Coastal City. Father Cramer suggested that the Spectre was designed by God only to respond to certain cries for vengeance.
In the DC Universe, it seems significantly easier to qualify for the insanity defense than in the real world. Take the Scarecrow for example, the extent to which he prepares and analyzes his crimes suggests that he is aware of the difference between right and wrong.
Let us not forget Shredder. Since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was originally meant to be a one-shot, the Big Bad was killed by having Donatello bat a grenade in his face, knocking him off the building as it exploded. As the issue got unbelievably popular, Shredder was brought back to life through a kind of semi-mystical cloning involving a kind of worm that mutates into the tissue it devours.
Interestingly, the comic Shredder actually becomes an aversion. This semi-mystical clone eventually gets killed, and the Shredder himself never returns again, even with the Foot Clan remaining a prominent part of the book. Other versions of the Shredder, however...
Prior to Darkseid's death in Final Crisis, the villain seemed to be an apt representation of this trope. One time when the Hal Jordan Specter "killed" Darkseid, the villain was instantly ressurected. The suggested implication was that Darkseid was a universal necessity needed to represent evil (after all, you supposedly can't have good if there is no evil).
In the Warrior (the professional wrestler the Ultimtate Warrior) comic book, an evil spirit (Rock, creator of parts unknown) possessing the Ultimate Warrior's body murders over 42 major world leaders. Apparently secret service was a joke and there was only one witness who was able to testify on television. You can see the laughable absurdity here http://atopfourthwall.blogspot.com/2011/10/warrior-4.html.
As for the Warrior (and not his possessed body), he seems to possess the Joker immunity as well in an Ultimate Warrior Christmas Special. In that comic book, he murders numerous elves/space aliens, decimates Santa's workshop, and implicitly rapes Santa Claus. Apparently, the Warrior suffers no reprecussions for these crimes. Later on in real life, the Warrior (real name of former WWE wrestler the Ultimate Warrior) would go on to become a right-wing motivational speaker who said that "Queering doesn't make the world work."
The first Green Goblin (Norman Osborn) is an apt representation of the "Joker Immunity" After being dead for around 20 years, Norman was ressurected. He later got pardoned and was promoted to being head of the national security agency H.A.M.M.E.R and the Avengers during Dark Reign. After being arrested again for launching war against Asgard, Norman then got pardoned again and led his new band of Avengers.
In the new DC Universe, heroes such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Superman, and Hal Jordan seem to be fine with killing alien invaders in battle. Nevertheless, human villains such as Joker and Deathstroke continue to remain at large.
Maintained with the New DC Universe version of Harley Quinn, and Deadshot who shot through the spine and then completely healed with a Lazarus Pit injection from Amanda Waller..
Superman: Why is it that the good villains never die?
Batman: Clark, what the hell are "good villains"?
Basically meaning that Batman foe or not, if you're obscure enough that Warner Brothers doesn't actively profit from you on the merchandising front, you can be Killed Off for Real.
Wolverine's former Sensei Ogun was beheaded. Came back all the same under numerous guises, be it ghost or demon, apparation or possession.
Darkhell from Les Légendaires, thanks to his Arch-Enemy status, got apparently killed twice and came back both time. Surprisingly, however, he was eventually Killed Off for Real during the Anathos Cycle. And while Word of God confirmed he wouldn't be back this time, his inheritance keeps taking a large part in the plot...
Spirou and Fantasio (especially in the Animated Adaptation) has various criminals who routinely escape, but also Cyanure, the evil Robot Girl: Even when her creator decides to fully disassemble her, he eventually puts her back together out of loneliness.
Perhaps justified (EVENTUALLY) with Orlok the Assassin, responsible for millions of Mega-City One deaths during the Apocalypse Wars, from Judge Dredd. Eventually, a psychic bombardment reformed his evil ways. In return he journeyed to the planet of Zerbia to fight the genetic cleansing dictatorship of that planet.
An apt representation would be the teenage serial killer PJ Maybe from Judge Dredd. PJ Maybe was able to assume the form of Mega City-One's mayor, and thus avoid detection from the Justice Department. Nevertheless, as mayor, PJ Maybe brought much improvement to the city such as bringing human unemployment to an all-time low of 92%, and allowing mutants greater access to the city.
Another poster child for this trope would be Galactus, who has slaughtered untold trillions of seintient aliens in his hunger for planetary energy. As Galactus laid dying during John Byrne's run on Fantastic Four, Mr. Fantastic saved the villains life with NO conditions attached (i.e. staying away from planets with seintient life, stupidity beyond belief).
Except for the small fact that Galactus being alive is a cosmic need or else a multiverse level villain gets released.
Eventually averted with Dr. Light, who started off as a first-rate Justice League, and Atom villain. He was then mind-wiped into an idiotic third-rate villain by the Justice League of America after raping the Elongated Man's wife. Eventually, Dr. Light regained his intelligence, and deadliness. Finally, the Specter killed him off for good.
Originally this trope was averted with major DC villains such as the Phantom Zone kryptonians, and Sinestro were killed off by their heroic counterparts Superman, and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan). Eventually, it was reversed when continuity was retconned to establish that the villains were actually not killed.
Originally justified in Legion of Super-Heroes (pre-Crisis) with Roxxas, the murderer of Element Lad's race the Trommites. Upon being about to be killed by Element Lad, Roxxas is confronted by, and terrified by the ghosts of all his victims. The Legion realize that it would be a greater punishment to leave him alive. The trope is eventually maintained once Roxxas gets over his fears, is driven insane, and goes on another mass murder spree.
Another apt representation are the Dark Judges who have murdered tens of millions, but are already "dead" so are repeatedly confined to orbs which they manage to escape from. They even teamed up with the Joker once in Mega-City One. Conveniently (yet once again) for the Joker, he was instantly teleported back to Arkham Asylum before Judge Dredd (who has a lot fewer qualms against killing) could issue a sentence to our titular trope character.
Finally averted with Bullseye (one of Daredevil's arch-enemies) who use to be a representation of this trope. Having been left paralyzed, Daredevil refrained from killing him, only to have the villain regain his mobility through an adamantium skeleton. Eventually, a demonic possessed Daredevil killed Bullseye in Shadowland. Lady Bullseye then resurrected her male counterpart, only for him to be a quadriplegic with no sight, hearing, smell, taste, or feel, truly a fate worse than death.
Averted big-time in the New 52 DC Universe with Wonder Woman killing her long-time nemesis the God Of War.
The last shot of the James bond film Liveand Let Die showed voodoo master Baron Samedi laughing on the engine of the train that James Bond was on, even though he was shown being thrown into poisonous snakes.
Hand Waved because he's obviously Made of Iron, Blofeld on the other hand lives for 6 movies in which he had an active role in 4.
In Moonraker Jaws pulls a Heel-Face Turn at the end, which pretty much exempts him from the trope at that point (it was also the last Bond movie to feature Jaws, as actor Richard Kiel felt he was becoming typecast and a change in production philosophy forced later Bond villains into a more 'realistic' pattern).
Subverted by C. S. Lewis in Prince Caspian, and played up in the movie version, with the villains' failed plan to resurrect The White Witch.
Then played straight when she (maybe) comes back in The Silver Chair. It could, and likely is, a different witch — there's not really anyone left at the end of Prince Caspian to go through on Nikabrik's plan to resurrect the White Witch. Same race of "Northern Witches", though.
In Warrior Cats, Tigerstar takes this to the logical extreme, since he keeps appearing even though he died over two series ago. However, his limited interaction with the living world makes him much less of a threat then when he was alive, and his involvement in the earlier books of tPoT was somewhat lacking. But on the other hand, the author has made some Word of God statements regarding whether or not dead cats can die again, and it sounds as if there is simply no way to get rid of him.
Yawgmoth would almost fit the trope, if anyone cared about the Onslaught cycle.
And even if anyone did, unfortunately (for this editor and other Yawgie fans) the Time Spiral cycle confirmed it was All Just a Dream Karona was having.
In the Harry Potter books, the Series Goal is to defeat Lord Voldemort, so obviously he can't be killed until the end of the last book.
Justified in universe - indeed the final plot was how to get rid of his Joker Immunity.
Artemis Fowl and Captain Holly Short will stop being tormented by Opal Koboi when readers stop finding her mania amusing. And considering all she's survived so far, it doesn't look like that world's most insane pixie will be going anywhere any time soon.
Finally revoked in the final book, where she gets a rather nasty death in which her black magic essentially eats her from the inside out.
Visser One in Animorphs ended at least two books in some kind of highly ambiguous, possible-death situation only to reappear in later books.
The Man in Black (a.k.a. Richard Fannin, Randall Flagg, Marten Broadcloak, etc.) from The Dark Tower seems to have a form of this. He always turns up again even if defeated, and none of the protagonists are able to kill him. Mordred, however, gobbled him up cause he was hungry, effectively ending his immunity.
Soulcatcher from the Black Company series is the Joker of literature. There seems to be nothing that can kill her off, and even if an opportunity presents itself the good guys always find a reason not to do it, even though she ends up to be the major reason behind any kind of grief they run into.
The Limper has this, too. He manages to escape punishment by both the good guys and the bigger villains, and if he doesn't he just comes back in one form or another. Until it stops being funny and he is killed off for real.
Live Action TV
Off-and-on Big Bad Scorpius was only supposed to be part of a two episode arc on Farscape but ended up sticking around and becoming very popular and kept returning, even after being shot and buried on screen. He even earned a Promotion to Opening Titles after we learned that he's actually a Well-Intentioned Extremist with an enemy in common with the heroes.
The Master of Doctor Who. Despite causing widespread death and destruction in his very first appearance, he returned for every episode of the season and then some. Sure, the Doctor may be a Technical Pacifist, but UNIT and The Brigadier would have no qualms about a quick execution. To further the trope, he was killed off in "Planet of Fire", then in the Made-for-TV Movie, and most recently in the new series - twice. No one expects it to stick.
It's especially strange in the Master's case when they usually don't even bother explaining his survivals by having him regenerate.
The Daleks rival the Master for the amount of times they've been "killed off completely", with a total of seven times (one off-screen). In order: The Daleks, The Evil of the Daleks, Rememberance of the Daleks, the Time War, "Dalek", "The Parting of the Ways", and "Journey's End." (They also get nearly wiped out in "Doomsday" and "Evolution of the Daleks," though in both cases a survivor or four escapes using "E-MER-GEN-CY TEM-POR-AL SHIFT!") Thankfully, Steven Moffat left out an escape route for the Daleks in the first story under his tenure. Davros has a similar reputation, apparently being killed off in every appearance apart from Remembrance of the Daleks.
The Doctor lampshades this trope in "Victory of the Daleks" when, after being so sure he had properly genocided them all in "Journey's End", he finds them not only alive, but merrily strolling around Blitz-torn London posing as Allied weapons. He eventually flies into a hysterical fit of rage that can pretty much be summed up as "for God's sake, not AGAIN!!!" and takes a leaf out of his old companion Ace's book by whaling on one of them furiously with a giant wrench.
The Cybermen are frequently killed off or otherwise sealed away, though due to severe Anachronic Order of their stories and multiple factions of Cybermen this can muddle things incredibly.
Heroes' Sylar for whom the universe will bend over backwards to let continue killing people and acquiring powers. Possibly the most ridiculous case is the Volume 4 opener where a squad has been given orders to shoot to kill, and instructions on how to make it stick... and when they get the shot, managing to take him by surprise and everything, they use tasers.
Even more egregious given that he was "dead" at the end of Volume 3 and then re-appeared without so much as a handwave at the start of Volume 4. After a number of Volume 4 episodes they did handwave it, but it was pretty stupid even for a handwave.
In the penultimate episode of Volume 4, he gets knifed in the back of the head by Danko, only to get right back up in complete violation of the show's Magic A Is Magic A for regeneration.
Which was handwaved in the finale as his shapeshifting allowing him to move "the button" that turns the brain off. Um, as in the brain stem??
In the Volume 4 finale, the heroes finally render him unconscious and have this one chance to end him for good. But Angela and Noah collectively grab the Idiot Ball and order Matt Parkman to erase his memories and force him to assume Nathan Patrelli's life (whom he had Killed Off for Real). This genius idea only holds for 4 episodes before Sylar reverts, and meanwhile a Sylar Durden hallucination has been tormenting Parkman.
In Volume 5, not one but two major characters try to take him down with heroic sacrifices. Neither work. Nathan's, which involved jumping off a building, was undone before he even hit the ground.
Making this even more ridiculous is how he was originally intended to die at the end of the first Volume, involving him being impaled through the chest.
Murdoc the Assassin in MacGyver. He keeps "dying" in over the top ways (died in a collapsing building, took a fatal dive off a mountain after cutting his own rope, plunged into a fiery pool after being electrocuted, been careless with dynamite, drowned in a flooded mine shaft, drove a Jeep off of a cliff) and even if he's pronounced dead each time, they never find his body though he couldn't possibly have survived that! It's never adequately explained how he just keeps surviving certain death. After a while, MacGyver simply assumes that if there isn't a body, Mudoc will turn up to try to kill him again eventually, an expectation that causes him increasing tension in time, and understandably so.
Buffy had lots of opportunities to kill Spike and Dru, but she kept letting them get away.
Darla is actually killed about four times over the course of Buffy and Angel (if one counts siring as "death"), but only the last one takes.
Apophis is like this in the early seasons of Stargate SG-1. When they finally manage to make his death stick, Anubis takes on the mantle.
O'Neill: Son of a bitch! Someone's gotta teach that guy how to die.
Ben Linus from LOST is too adored by the fan base to get rid of. He lies, manipulates and murders to his hearts content. He's tried to kill Locke so many times we lost count, and he succeeded in season 5. Sayid has been the only one that actually tried to kill him. This is more of a What the Hell, Hero?-moment seeing as Ben is just a kid at the time, and it is heavily implied this attempted murder is what makes Ben what he is today. The writers make up for all this though by having him beat up a lot.
By the end of the show he killed (directly or indirectly) four of the main characters, namely Charlie Pace (by giving Mikhail the order to do it), Michael Dawson (by killing Keamy and triggering the explosives), Charlotte Lewis (by initiating time-travel which fried her brain) and John Locke (straight) and several supporting allies, including Jacob himself, and the audience still adores him!
Lex Luthor in Smallville. He's been shot, stabbed, and mindwiped. He's had the Fortress of Solitude collapse on his head reducing him to an Evil Cripple, and been blown up in a truck explosion shortly afterwards. The series concludes with his resurrection from the dead, which was of course, a Foregone Conclusion.
"Dead Larry" Sizemore of Burn Notice, partly because of his badass spy skills and his relationship to The Hero, partly because he's just too cool to kill off. In the season 5 summer finale, it looked like death had finally caught up with him... and then a newspaper article said that two people had been found dead. There were three people in that building. Of course, he was literally inches away from the bomb that supposedly killed him, so there might not have been enough left to recognize.
Forget Damon and Katherine. Klaus fits it even better, considering that he even got his own spin off show, The Originals.
James Horton in Highlander seemed to die twice, but came back. (the first time, Joe got him to a hospital, as his brother-in-law, he didn't want to stand and watch him die. But he then came back after appearing to die a second time. Macleod finally did off him the third time)
On Alias, both Julian Sark (whose constant escapes eventually become a Running Gag) and Arvin Sloane (who, at one point, manages to survive his own execution) enjoyed this immunity.
In The Walking Dead the Governor seems to have this, to the intense displeasure of at least a non-neglibile portion of the fandom.
Playing this trope for laughs with its feline nuisance is the entire point to the song "The Cat Came Back". Subverted in versions where the cat does die eventually; however, it expires for reasons unrelated to its owner's over-the-top efforts to dispose of it, and its ''ghost'' still comes back.
Played for laughs in "Scary Song," by the Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13: "The boogeyman only wants to take your life / Can't kill him off, he'll just come right back in Part 2."
The Undertaker is the embodiment of this Trope in the world of Wrestling. During his career, he has been locked inside several flaming caskets, been buried alive, had his career 'ended' following high profile matches and actually 'died and ascended to Heaven'. Despite this, he always returns, once Mark Callaway's nagging injuries have recovered or his holiday time are up.
Edge, anyone? For Christ's sake, the man got sent to Hell! And yet he managed to benefit from both this trope andKarma Houdini!
Vince McMahon is the ultimate example of this trope. Justified in that he's the owner of WWE in both Real Life and Kayfabe, making him the only person who can revoke his own immunity, while everyone else can potentially be released(though it's HIGHLY unlikely in the case of certain people) Considering that he plans on running the company until the day he dies and that his character survived events such as limo explosions(with the real life intentions being merely temporary breaks from television before invoking this trope again), this one ain't being revoked.
In Dungeons & Dragons, the tarrasque embodies this trope. How many other monsters' descriptions explicitly state that it takes a Wish spell on top of massive damage and disintegration to make them stay dead?
With wish gone in fourth edition, the description of the tarrasque outright states it to be impossible to kill permanently without launching it into outer space.
Back in 3rd edition, it's still possible, however. It can be done in 13 levels or less . For example, you can use duplicates, a pit of water and a giant weight, an army of level 1's with massive magic weapons, a one-man magical army, a bunch of bards playing "Macross" or "Elan", hitting it when it sleeps (find it?), or just plain being badder and nastier than it is.
Strahd von Zarovich has his own personal Revolving Door Afterlife. He's played the starring role in two 1st Edition modules, a pick-a-path book, an entire 2nd Edition campaign setting, and a 3rd edition hardback adventure; in most he winds up destroyed at the end, yet it never seems to take. Ads for the hardback actually urged 3E gamers: "This time, make sure he's DEAD dead!", yet the Count's back again in 4E, for a boardgame and appearance in Open Grave.
Pretty much all the Darklords of the Ravenloft campaign setting (of which Strahd is the most prominent) have it. The true nature of Ravenloft is left intentionally vague, but it functions like a prison dimension from which even death is no escape. All but the weakest Darklords either physically can't die or will return to life in short order if killed.
The Quori in Eberron are designed to be this: They are spirits possessing mortal vessels and the death of the host does not kill the inhabiting Quori. Their actual bodies live in a plane of existence (Dal Quor) that cannot be reached by normal planar travel, and only the death of it's actual body will kill a Quori, making them the ideal enemy to throw at the party repeatedly. Oh, and to make things tougher, time in Dal Quor goes by a lot faster than on the material plane, meaning Quoris gets a lot more planning time then the party has access to.
Numerous characters in Warhammer 40,000 can and have been killed, but due to the general nature of the Warp this is rarely permanent. Eldar Phoenix Lords live on within their armor, their spirit inhabiting the next person who wears it until they are killed. Lucius the Eternal (and most probably other Champions of the Chaos Gods) is effectively immortal, as anyone who kills him becomes him, becoming yet another person trapped within his armor. Then there's the Daemon Princes and Greater Daemons (also present in Warhammer), which can never be killed, only banished to the Warp where they can be summoned again.
Lucius only Body Snatches if the opponent takes satisfaction in his kill. So, Tyranids or Necrons or Wraithguards/lords (basically, any emotionless race/character) should all be able to kill him permanently. They never do, though.
The Tyranid Swarmlord could also count, in a sense. While it can die, its consciousness will be reabsorbed into the Hive Mind and stored until the Swarmlord is needed again.
In the same vein, any Tyranid Tyrant also counts, although unlike the Swarmlord, they're tied to their particular hive fleets, and Hive Fleets can be destroyed.
One of the justifications for having "named characters" dying in tabletop games is that they're not really dead, just suffered a horribly incapacitating wound. This allows the players to also create their own characters and build stories for them, without needing to come up with flimsy justifications on how they suck at living.
In Magic: The Gathering, the nation/world/culture/force of Phyrexia has Joker Immunity. It affected the storyline of most of the game's sets and was the unambiguous villain of a dozen of them, but was finally defeated, apparently for good... but one single drop of oil on Mirrodin was enough to ultimately turn that world into New Phyrexia.
The main villain, Xehanort/Ansem seems to be falling into this one as well. Sora killed his Heartless in the first game, but Chain of Memories makes it clear that he's still bumping around inside Riku's mind. He returns in two forms in Kingdom Hearts II with his Nobody, Xemnas and Riku taking his form, having somewhat lost his battle with his Darkness. Both are defeated by the game: Xemnas is dead for good, and Riku is back to normal. However, according to Word of God, this just means his Nobody and heart will merge to form a whole person again (like Axel / Lea), and Xehanort will eventually be back for another round. The prequel game reveals that he's been doing this for a while now, having stolen Terra's body after being defeated for the first time.
Maleficent is killed in her dragon form in the first game, but when her pet Diablo brings her cloak to the three fairies their sheer terror of her is apparently enough to resurrect her. She then does the same for Oogie Boogie. The really confusing case is Ursula showing up again.
Oddly, it's implied through dialogue that Bowser did die prior to Luigi's Mansion, at Mario's hands no less.
The "thrown into a star" example (Super Mario Galaxy) is particularly weird. Bowser apparently "dies", but then again, the entire universe is sucked into a black hole, resulting in a Big Crunch and a new Big Bang, recreating everything... So he DOES die, he's just regenerated with everything else.
They actually have good reason for wanting him around; in Super Paper Mario, it is revealed he is one of four heroes (with Mario, Peach, and Luigi as the other three) who will stop Count Bleck and the prophecy of doom that threatens to destroy all worlds. Near the end, when Bowser is seemingly crushed, Peach says she isn't worried about him because he isn't easy to get rid of, and has survived worse. Sure enough, Bowser survives due to his tendency to fall through the floor.
Seriously played with in New Super Mario Bros. where he's killed 3 times over the course of the game but actually has to be brought back to life.
Since those sections are the easiest part of the series, by far, I would probably chalk up the lives to being a joke.
In the same vein as Bowser, rival team Star Wolf in the Star Fox series are more resilient than any major villain. Even the ex-members manage to come back in Star Fox Command, and in the default ending, Star Wolf manage to attack the enemy base in an acidic ocean and come back in one piece.
Similarly, Star Wolf trio lured the Aparoid underlings away from Star Fox so that the player could finally finish off the Aparoid Queen. At the end, they thought Star Wolf was done for, but then they saw Peppy alive with some minor bruises, making Fox smile and saying that Wolf and the others are alive and well.
In subversion to this, in Mission 7: Corneria in Star Fox Assault, during the part where Fox rides Wolf's Wolfen. If Fox fails to protect the Wolfen, Wolf actually dies as his ship explodes, while Fox falls to his death while yelling.
Just to clarify, Ganon is the only character in the Zelda series with this kind of immunity. Link and Zelda get old and die after every couple of games, and the next one stars a new version of them in the distant past or future. Ganon is pretty much the same person in every game, meaning that he seems to have all the time in the world to achieve his final victory.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Swordseemingly gives an explanation for Ganondorf/Ganon's inability to fully die; he's part of a curse laid on Link/Zelda and all of their descendants by Big Bad Demise, though the Triforce of Power also seems to play a part in it as well.
Gilgamesh from Final Fantasy V. He survived getting tossed into the void, and EXPLODING himself on an enemy. And he has appeared in half the games in the series (with a few retcons). In ALL of his appearances save for 8, he gets his ass handed to him by the main party and apparently recovers enough for the next game where the cycle restarts again. Now this is all despite the fact that most of the time he is portrayed has utterly incompetent, which is the reason he got his ass hurled into the void in the first place.
In Final Fantasy VII Sephiroth has died a total of three times so far and keeps coming back for more. The novellas Lifestream Black and Lifestream White deal with the specifics in further detail - basic idea is that as long as Jenova cells exist in some way on the Planet, Sephiroth can use their shapeshifting powers to craft a new body for himself. Besides that, as long as he can maintain his sense of self to avoid dissolution, The Lifestream can never claim him and he'll float around the planet for eternity trapped between life and death. Sephiroth's penchant for avoiding death has carried over to the spin-offs: in Kingdom Hearts II and Dissidia: Final Fantasy he's defeated but isn't killed, because only Cloud is capable of killing him.
M. Bison in Street Fighter may be getting this despite his most chronologically recent death having his soul sent to hell. IVtakes place a year after II and a few years before III. Additionally, Akuma's Dynamic Entry with his Shun Goku Satsu on Bison was retconned, according to Word of God. In Ties That Bind, a canon animated feature that came with IV, Bison is shown killing himself to prevent capture at the hands of the heroes, his soul hovering around post-mortem untila suitable replacement body is made (much like in Alpha 3). His fate after IV is still undetermined, although Urien's cryptic remarks with Chun-Li in 3rd Strike at least suggest that Shadaloo was dismantled in the interim.
Revolver Ocelot, the only surviving boss from from Metal Gear Solid, went on to plague Snake in every subsequent game. In his second appearance, he evades doom by wearing a kinetic shield, making him literally immune to bullets. The prequel focused on his early career in Spetnaz, so you can assume he's safe in this outing; but even then, Hideo Kojima can't leave well enough alone, lobbing bullets, bees, rockets, explosions, planes, and who knows what else at poor Ocelot. He survives everything, even a few tight scrapes with Big Boss himself, who consciously spares Ocelot's life (as he feels a certain kinship with a fellow "Son of The Boss".) Ocelot finally dies in Metal Gear Solid 4.
Not to mention all the inescapable explosions he's been caught in where he survives with nothing but a coat of ash on him. He has apparently survived the repeated crashes or explosions of his enormous bases with little more than Amusing Injuries in nearly all interpretations of the franchise (his Death Egg burst into flames and crash landed on Angel Island in the climax of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 only for Sonic 3 to reveal he nearly immediately started work on his next scheme just following that).
Inverted slightly for the Archie comics depiction. In the Endgame arc Julian Robotnik is indeed killed by his vengeful minion and nephew Snively, twenty or so issues played with the concept of other villains and problems following his defeat, only for a second Robotnik from an alternate timeline to enter and take over from his position (this Robotnik would later take the modern "Eggman" form seen in later games and continues being the Big Bad to this day).
Metal Sonic (who was created as a replacement for the deceased Silver Sonic and Mecha Sonic) seemed to get this trope as well. Supposedly killed in Sonic CD, he returns in Knuckles Chaotix, is supposedly killed along with Eggman, returns in Sonic Triple Trouble... He even transforms into a final form when he's the main villain in Sonic Heroes, but unlike the similar battle with Black Doom/Devil Doom in the following game, Metal Sonic survives. He has appeared in 10 games (11 once Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode II comes out) - even when completely pulverized (such as his defeat in Sonic Generations), he'll just be rebuilt again at some point...
Dr. Albert W. Wily from Mega Man. When Mega Man finally lands his ass in prison, he easily breaks out of it (albeit six months later).
In Mega Man 7, Mega is literally a trigger-pull away from killing Wily once and for all, but when Wily brings up the first law of robotics (A Robot must never harm a human) he hesitates just long enough for Bass to save the day (or Wily, whatever). In 8, after Mega's apparent sanity break, Wily never actually gets cornered, so Mega doesn't get to try killing him again (Duo takes care of things, keeping Mega from a final blow). 9 apparently has Mega back to his non-killing attitude for no readily apparent reason, but then, considering he lost his charge shots and his slide ability, it's no wonder he's lost a few other things.
Sigma keeps getting killed in the Mega Man X series, only to continue as long as the Sigma virus does. However, this finally came to an end in X8, where his virus was spread out too thinly to kick in his regeneratative abilities.
Doctor Weil/Vile from the Mega Man Zero series. So much so that Nigh-Invulnerability (of the regeneration/regrowth variant) is explicitly part of his ability set. Even when it seemed like the Colony Drop at the end of Zero 4 had finally killed him, his remnants popped up again as the driving threat in the Mega Man ZX series.
Ridley in the Metroid series cruelly and sneakily subverts this, with gamers noticing around 2012 that these scenarios were cases of [[Never Found the Body]]. He has appeared in all games in the series apart from Metroid II: Return of Samus, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Metroid Prime Hunters. Often serves as the(literal)Dragon to a specific game's Big Bad, but he is considered to be Samus' Arch-Enemy more than any of the other Big Bads (including Mother Brain), as he is personally responsible for the attack on Samus' homeworld that resulted in the death of her parents. Appearances listed in order of the universe's internal chronology:
He is seemingly killed for real in Metroid/Zero Mission, and accompanied by a robot double in Zero Mission, but Metroid Other M possibly hand waves this by showing he's 'really' good at playing dead, even if he needed a robo boost to survive.
He is then revived as Meta Ridley in Metroid Prime, and guards the entrance to the Impact Crater. Torizo Statues knock him off a cliff, and Torizos arn't known to be that effective in the first place, and the player never actually sees him die.
Meta Ridley is apparently "killed" again at the start of Corruption, but returns as the guardian of the Pirate Homeworld Leviathan as Omega Ridley. Players noticed his shadow flying away for a sneaky split second.
He is killed yet again (as his original form, somehow. Possibly hand waved by his armor becoming pure Phazite, which like all Phazon was destroyed) in Super Metroid This is later confirmed in a buzz killing way to be his [[killed off for real]] moment as his returns had become a running gag. However...
... a cloned Ridley appears in Metroid: Other M, gets wounded by Samus, and consumed by the Metroid Queen. Dies a lot quicker than the slippery bastard the original was.
The clone's drained, frozen husk turns up in Fusion, is consumed by an X, and is later fought as Ridley X. He never really comes back, it's just an X mimicking him, and like the suspiciously Super Metroid Tourian like area he appears in, is likely for [[fanservice]].
Eliphas the Inheritor of Warhammer 40,000: 'Dawn of War. He's suppose to be dead in Dark Crusade, but due to his popularity he was somehow resurrected for Dawn of War II Chaos Rising. He gets killed there to then he's resurrected again. Likewise for the wonderfully hilarious Gorgutz, who canonically didn't win any of the campaigns he appeared in, but keeps getting away; he's not shown up in Dawn of War II yet, unfortunately, but there's no evidence he's dead either.
SNK's Geese Howard is an odd example; in the continuity of King of Fighters, he's alive and well, but in his home continuity of Fatal Fury, he's dead. And even then, he's appeared in games where he's canonically dead in the form of "Nightmare Geese", a much more powerful "spirit" version of his normal self.
In the second, he was revived by voodoo as a zombie.
In the third, he became a demon by mastering a hellish portal.
And in Tales, he has a voodoo spell secured in the Crossroads, the pirate afterlife.
Arguably Dr Neo Cortex from the Crash Bandicoot series who has survived numerous supposedly inescapable demises, then again due to the slapstick nature, the large majority of the series' Rogues Gallery is the same par maybe the Evil Twins being eaten by Evil Crash in Crash Twinsanity). It helps that Cortex and a lot of other villains take the role of Iron Butt Monkey.
Destroyman is sliced in half by Travis Touchdown in the first No More Heroes. This doesn't stop him from returning in the sequel (as two separate people with cybernetics replacing the missing halves). Also, Dr. Shake, Letz Shake's machine, survives being chopped in half and is revealed to be fully sentient in the second game. Suda confirmed that the machine is sentient and it's not Letz Shake, who died in the first game.
Zigzagged with Dracula in the Castlevania series. He spent most of the series being defeated and resurrected over and over again, before finally being defeated offscreen in 1999... and then being reincarnated as Soma Cruz in Castlevania: Chronicles of Sorrow.
Not only this, it is hinted that Dracula gets stronger each time he returns. Still, given how hopeless the Belmont family's job seems, only one of them has tried to refuse the legacy bestowed on them and try not to fight him - he learned the hard way that he couldn't.
Mara Aramov from the Syphon Filter series gets headshot twice, but survives until Dark Mirror.
Every character EVER in Mortal Kombat. For a game that's all about killing your defeated opponents, none of the heroes ever manage to permanently put down the villains, unless they're being replaced by someone bigger and badder the next game.
And don't forget the reboot. Liu Kang punches through Shao Khan at the end of the Mortal Kombat 2 story. We see the wound from the chest through the back and everything. Shao Khan collapses, his lieutenants all surrender before Liu Kang, Outworld is free! No wait, the next scene shows Shao Khan limping back to his throne, surrounded by his loyal minions as they immediately announce their next plan to take over Earthrealm.
King K. Rool in Donkey Kong Country. Many, many games (three SNES platformers, the Nintendo 64 game, most spinoffs prior to Donkey Kong Country Returns) and despite going through things that would kill any normal individual (blown up, punched through windows, attacked by sharks, caught in a volcano, electrocuted and attacked by the Kongs multiple times), he keeps coming back for more. Yes, even after his actions destroyed his home country.
Averted in Deus Ex, where nearly every boss can be killed before the big confrontation. Sometimes they can be killed while they are still aligned as friendly and through surreptitious and underhanded ways.
Executioners: The Executioners defeat the Final Boss Cannibal Ed Bujone. Ed blows up the factory with dynamite strapped to in a Taking You with Me manuever, but the Es escape. Later, the Es are at a restaurant, ordering a fine meal to celebrate their victory. The waiter suddenly says the Catch Phrase, "So much meat, so little time!" The Es can only look up in horror as their waiter turns out to be Ed, alive, well(?), and letting out an Evil Laugh. Word of God outright stated that Ed is his favourite character, which would explain how he survived and returned so quickly.
Kane: Survived from the 1950s to the 1990s without aging, survived an Ion Cannon strike, a metal pole to the chest, and all the while manipulated the Scrin into invading Earth.
Albert Wesker from Resident Evil. He gets impaled by a Tyrant in the end of the first game, but it's just used to activate the virus that he injected himself early on that gave him his powers. In 5, he manages to survive from Jill's Heroic Sacrifice. That is until he dies for real in the end.
Come to think of it, the only villains who manages to escape being killed are HUNK and Nicolai.
Speaking of Wesker, his House of the Deadcounterpart, Caleb Goldman is one, for he has appeared in 4. It becomes subverted when it turns out that his appearances are just flashbacks and recorded messages.
With green hair and laughing maniacally while mocking people, Hazama IS the joker of the Blazblue series. Made even more so that he is already dead but kept alive by people's hatred of him.
Both used and averted in The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, which is partially inspired by Batman. Certain villains won't seem to die at the end of the story arc despite the Doc not considering prison an option for his foes, including Ronald McDonald, Dracula, and King Radical. However, in the "DARE" arc, which was more inspired by 80's action movies, the villain dies NOT!, and Doc shows no mercy toward pirates.
Oasis from Sluggy Freelance fits this trope perfectly, regularly returning from the dead. The comic even Lampshaded the trope after another of her deaths. "Yes, a dynamic character with a proven ability to return from certain death falls from a great height leaving no sign of a corpse? Yeah, We'll never see her again."
Jack Noir/Spades Slick of Homestuck. We have seen four different incarnations of the same Archagent, and the only time one of them was seen dead was in an averted timeline. Andrew Hussie even goes so far as to somehow rescue Spades Slick from the destroyed A2 universe and nurse him back to health in an as-of-yet unspecified location.
Played literally with the revelation that Gamzee cannot die, not because he's God Tier, but because he's a clown.
Inverted in Crushed The Doomed Kitty Adventures. As MMORPG characters, the protagonists can't be permanently killed; they just respawn at the nearest temple. Villains and monsters, however, have but one life to live. The first Big Bad's plan is permanently undoing this, allowing the villains' greater numbers to win the day.
Dr. Insano from The Spoony Experiment arguably becoming a Breakout Villain for Channel Awesome as whole, has made a number appearances in other reviewers' shows as well as his series of origin, and his popularity and Laughably Evil nature means it's unlikely he'll ever be killed off. Even Noah Antwiler departure from Channel Awesome hasn't removed him.
From Atop the Fourth Wall, the series original Knight of Cerebus Mechakara, whose introductory arc ended with him getting turned to scrap, only for him to rebuilt by Lord Vyce and sent after Linkara and destroyed a second time, with the episode's commentary by Lewis Luvhaug stating he had plans to use him again in the future, and sure enough, Mechakara returned in To Boldy Flee with no explanation for his recovering, Word of God being he regenerated with the magic coin. In short, it's unlikely he's finished.
Likewise Lord Vyce; Linkara originally abandoned him in a parallel dimension, only for Vyce to turn himself into living data and infect Likara's Robot Buddy Pollo. After getting Thrown Out the Airlock, he spends several real-world months uploading himself into Comicron-1note His old spaceship, which Linkara took over after Vyce's initial defeat, making it look like Linkara's benevolent A.I. Nimue was going [[Film/2001ASpaceOdyssey HAL-9000]] on him. Nimue gets restored and apparently deletes Vyce in a Battle in the Center of the Mind, but the end of the episode reveals that Vyce downloaded himself into the body of one of his Mooks and escaped. At this point the immunity gets lampshaded by an angry Linkara, who rants that he's spent the last five years dealing with this villain and he's sick of it.
Well, that, and both of the listed villains (among others, of course) are masters of Villain Exit Stage Left and the Cardboard Prison, assuming they even get directly involved to start with. In fact, the closest Gadget ever came to apprehending Dr. Claw was likely the show's humorous opening sequence (and even then, it was a booby-trap left by the villain).
Although they've never come close to actually dying, Winx Club's Trix seem to be masters of returning from impossible situations. They get turned into children at one point, but are their regular ages in their next appearance; they get trapped in an alternate reality in the end of the second season (with the items used to open the portal connecting the Magical Dimension to the one they're trapped in destroyed), but are somehow pulled out between the second and third seasons, with the season three premiere featuring them escaping imprisonment within the FIRST FIVE MINUTES; and in the fifth season, they start out imprisoned underwater without their powers (how they ended up in this situation hasn't been explained yet), and are released and have their powers restored by a prisoner shortly after he meets them. Not to mention that they've outlived a god (Darkar), an immortal (Valtar), and the spirits of their ancient evil ancestors (the Ancient Witches) with seemingly no ill effects except the loss of whatever power boost was given to them by their previous master.
Then there was Judgement Day, where a new vigilante called the Judge was giving more severe punishment to criminals, and actually trying to kill them. Batman pressures a politician who was helping the Judge, saying that the Judge would kill someone eventually. The politician fires back, saying that the people of Gotham just would not care if Two-Face, or Killer Croc or any super-villain gets killed off as opposed to being sent to a Card Board Prison they'll just escape from. He gives Batman due credit, but he reiterates that the people want something permanent.
Clay Face should get a mention here since he has had at least 2 on screen deaths only to get back up later.
Ernie the Giant Chicken on Family Guy always returns for another round of his eternal blood feud with Peter Griffin, despite having suffered a twenty-story fall (although Peter himself survived that), been eviscerated by an airplane propeller, suffered massive cranial trauma, and being set on fire WHILE being impaled up the anus by a giant spike.
This is mutual, as when Sideshow Bob had the chance to finally kill Bart, he can't do it because he's grown accustomed to his face, owing his very existence to hating him.
Mr. Burns is an apt representation of the trope with his constant polluting, corporate greed, and mere belligenrance. Part of the reason that he is still around is due to making a deal with the devil.
In Teen Titans, Slade plays this one straight, but with surprisingly good in-story justification. In the first two seasons, he's The Chessmaster, so the Titans never actually face him directly until the season finales. Season one gives him a Villain Exit Stage Left, but season two (seemingly) averts this trope by actually killing him. His only appearance in the third season is as a hallucination tormenting Robin, and he's specifically resurrected to serve as The Dragon by season four's new Big Bad, Trigon. As a result, this is clearly a case of the writers wanting to keep the villain around because they like him, but it's always justified in-story (which is actually somewhat surprising, seeing as the Teen Titans team used plenty of tropes without bothering to justify them with anything but Rule of Cool).
Averted with Professor Milo in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, who is eaten by his abused lab rats after being turned into cheese by the Spectre. Played straight with most the recurring villains
Even before his permanent death, when he once suffered a Disney Villain Death, in which he was left inside an exploding building after his exo-suit was disabled, the Turtles don't doubt he survived and display no surprise when he returned. His appearance in the season 3 finale Exodus had Put On Bus, in the form of leaving him on a remote ice asteroid light years away from any hope of rescue, likely intended to permanent, and he still returned.
Vilgax from the Ben 10 franchise. He's been strapped to a missile, thrown into the void of space, trapped in another dimension, and had a spaceship explode in his face three times — but the squid-faced bastard just keeps coming back. Even in another alternate timeline, when a grown-up Ben tore Vilgax to pieces and froze what was left, Vilgax was quickly revived and no less dangerous. It's gotten so ridiculous that Vilgax himself lampshades his miraculous survival in "The Flame Keeper's Circle".
In Batman Beyond, the villain Mad Stan points out how he'll just break out of prison and keep coming back over and over after Batman foils his latest terrorist bombing, prompting Batman to beat him to death. It was really Barbara Gordon getting a hallucination from the villain Spellbinder; Mad Stan was alive and returns in another episode.
That said, Batman Beyond has a startling tendency to avert Joker Immunity a number of times, mostly because Terry is unable or unwilling to save villains from themselves.
Albert W Wily's immunity is even more noticeable in the Mega Man Ruby-Spears cartoon than in the games; his Skull Castle is incredibly conspicuous and immovable, yet the military never once tries to attack it. To add insult to injury, he and his robots slip out of Mega Man's grasp every single episode, no matter how close he was to finally apprehending him. It's a wonder Mega hasn't snapped yet.
ReBoot's Megabyte has this in spades. He's in a city that doesn't have the capacity to delete him, protected by a Guardian who doesn't want to (Except for that one time.), and has a much more powerful sister who, despite having ample capability and opportunity to do so, doesn't. Even when they finally manage to get rid of him, he comes back, with whole new powers, and his sister conveniently taken out of the picture not long before.
Dr. Doofenshmirtz constantly blows up with his inventions but is never seriously hurt. Some of the time, Perry the Platypus will save him when he is falling, but most of the time, he has terrible things happen to him and just lives. Of course, killing or even injuring Doofenshmirtz in a show like Phineas and Ferb would hardly be a good idea.
Psycho from Max Steel. The man has been blown up, infected with a deadly fungus while trapped in a burning building, thrown into space, and he always comes back. To his credit, Max Steel is Genre Savvy enough to expect him to survive and just deal with him.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Foregone Conclusion means that any character that's alive in existing material set after the series will survive, but it's most noticeable with Count Dooku and General Grievous, as no matter what attempts any of the protagonists make to catch or kill them, they always survive.
In the beginning of the Iraq war, before Saddam Hussein was actually captured, Patton Oswalt referred to people believing he was already dead, saying "That's how the Joker dies every month in Batman!"
Fidel Castro has outlived ten U.S. administrations, several of which had actively been trying to kill him with a series of increasingly Wile E. Coyote-esque plots. Ultimately it looks like Old Man Time is what's going to do him in. His bodyguard claims there have been 638 assassination attempts.
While the number of administrations sounds impressive (and is), it becomes a lot more understandable when you realize that each administration in the US has a maximum lifespan of under 8 years, due term limits. With 3 being less than a 4 year term. (Eisenhowernote Castro came into power in 1959 less than 2 years before Eisenhower was replaced, Kennedy and Ford)
Osama bin Laden had managed to evade the American military, who had been actively pursuing him for at least a decade. It reached the point where when bin Laden was reported to have been shot dead, a fifth of Americans didn't believe it happened.
Likewise, during the current Libyan revolution, there'd been so many prior false reports of Gaddafi's death or capture that news services and government officials had to await solid verification before acknowledging that he'd finally been killed.
North Korea is an apt example of this trope. Despite having ruinous famines (an equal percentage of both soldiers and civilians perished during the 1990's famine) the regime still continues its economically/humanitarian disastrous policies. The third and recent ruler, Kim Jong Un, gives no indication of changing the country's policies.
Ancient Rome had a version of this. It lasted in one form or another for over a thousand years (753 B.C.E to 476 C.E) Then it limped on for another millenium as the Byzantine Empire (476 C.E to 1453 C.E). Then imitators such as the Ottomans and Muscovites started using Roman titles (Kaysar-i-Rum, and Czar respectively) and some cultural mannerisms. Later on, men such as Napoleon (First Consul and later Emperor), Mussolini and Hitler would draw comparisons between themselves and the Romans.
There have been online posters pointing out that James Holmes (the man behind the Aurora movie theater shootings, and caused the 2012 US Presidential campaign to stop for one day), looks noticeably different from the time he was caught by authorities compared to when he was brought to trial. Many speculate that these were two different people, thus bringing the Joker immunity to a real life (after all James Holmes did claim to be the Joker). Furthermore, the judge has recently agreed to hear Holmes' appeal for the insanity defense. If the insanity defense fails, James Holmes could very well face the death penalty, thus either upholding or averting his Joker Immunity.
Adam Lanza, murderer of Sandy Hook Elementary and also responsible for causing "the worst day of the Obama administration" might be a representation of the Joker Immunity in that he escaped justice via suicide.
Assad seems to be an apt example of this trope. His family has ruled Syria through brutality for decades. With a civil war that has lasted 2 years so far, an estimated 90,000 dead (with atrocities committed by both sides), countless refugees, and seriously injured, and global condemnation, Assad still holds on.
John Hinckley inadvertently averted this trope when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting President Regan and several cabinet members. As a result, many states made it a lot harder to qualify for the insanity defense (thus making it more likely for such criminals to get the death penalty), and three states abolished it all together.
Diplomatic immunity. A diplomat can be very obviously being in league with a dictator up to and including blatantly importing weapons from the diplomat's home country, but if the dictator is toppled, the new government can't do anything about said diplomat. This has been the case with U.S. diplomats in Latin America and Middle Eastern countries, such as during the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Not quite true. Foreign diplomats are immune to local prosecution, but can always be expelled whenever the host country feels like it. They have no right to remain in the country. Additionally, the origin country can always chose to prosecute in their country, and can also chose to waive the immunity so that the host country can prosecute. In addition, actions like importation of weapons is subject to interception by the local authorities (i.e. the diplomat might have immunity, but any associates certainly don't, and the weapons certainly have no protection); of course, if the diplomat was importing for the dictator, then there was no crime being committed, and any change of government has no basis for prosecution. Diplomatic immunity is severely misrepresented in popular media as to its real nature and limitations.
Not every diplomat has the same level of immunity. The highest ranking diplomats may enjoy full protection (and even that does not give you immunity against everything, as noted above) but lower ranking diplomats only enjoy a partial protection, say while "performing official duty." The specifics of who enjoys how much immunity can vary from case to case, as per agreements between countries involved and can leave a lot of gray area for lawyers (and other diplomats) to be involved.