Meaningless Villain Victory

"You're telling me that I'll die soon, now that I'm more powerful than anyone? I'm gonna...die!?"

The villain has the hero on the ropes. The villain's plan actually was foolproof this time, and he's staked his claim on the prize so thoroughly that even a court of law wouldn't take it away.

The Bad Guy Wins.

Well, sorta. Evil may have won, but there's going to be a last second caveat that renders the whole point moot. The big pile of gold he's just won turns out to be pyrite; the ancient superweapon he's claimed is irreparably broken, and probably has been for a long time. However it plays out, the audience can rest assured that evil never pays, and the villain has just blown a boatload of his evil resources on a Snipe Hunt.

Often involves a Literal Genie or Prophecy Twist. In folklore, a Deal with the Devil can often be broken in this way.

Also known as a Quibble; arguably synonymous with Exact Words. Compare to Pyrrhic Victory, Pyrrhic Villainy, and And Then What?.

Not to be confused with Off the Table, the trope formerly known as Pound Of Flesh. This trope was formerly known as Pound Of Flesh Twist.

Compare Victory Is Boring.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Z:
    • Freeza, who was trying to get the Dragon Balls for immortality, gets to Porunga and wishes for it before Dende can wish Namek's residents off the exploding planet. However, due to his lack of access to the Namekian language, Freeza's wish is ignored and Dende's, which was spoken in said language, is granted instead. Even if he could learn the language, since he was fighting off Goku, whose best friend he blew up on top of all the murders he had committed, his plans were at an end. Earlier on, Freeza gets access to all the Namekian Dragon Balls via the Ginyu Force. Except without knowing Namekian or the dragon's name, he can't even summon it, much less make a wish.
    • And before that, Vegeta manages to get Dende to make the wish to make Vegeta immortal... but just before Dende finishes making the wish, Guru dies, and since the Dragon Balls become useless if their creator dies, the dragon vanishes and Vegeta remains mortal.
    • In one of the movies, the villain Garlic Jr. actually obtains immortality... before being sealed in an empty dimension.
  • By the nature of the work, Lupin III is excessively fond of these. Since Lupin is a criminal, technically a villainous character, and chased by a good guy upholding the law, examples are limited to when a third party is competing against Lupin and the gang.
    • "Emmanuelle in Bangkok": Lupin allows Fujiko and Emmanuelle to fight over the treasure, a box made to contain the Scripture of Immortality or the "Fountain of Youth", as it might otherwise be known. It's crumbled to dust.
    • Another caper set around Christmas time had Lupin and the gang managing to steal a vintage and princless wine and swap it with a garden variety one along with a crate that they think is money. However, when they drink the wine itself, they find out it tastes horrible (which likewise saved Zenegatia's hide, as it kept the U.S delegates from tasting it), but that crate turned out to be filled with dolls which were supposed to delivered to kids for Christmas. At least,Lupin realizes his mistake on this and air-dropped the dolls across the land as an apology.
  • Fairy Tail: When the crew goes off on an S-Ranked mission to save an island from a curse that turns them into demons, they find that there is a demon on the island that was sealed away in ice and the villains are trying to thaw and resurrect it. The villains manage it, only to find that it was already dead.
  • In Soul Eater, the heretic witch Arachne spends a good deal of resources sending an army to an island where the good guys are also assembled, all to recover the Demon Tool BREW. When her man finally succeeds in recovering the mystic tool, it turns out that it is broken beyond repair. However, it is subverted in that Medusa had actually switched the real BREW out for a fake. BREW itself was still usable and eventually falls into the hands of another villain, but as far as Arachne is concerned, it is played straight.
  • In Azumanga Daioh, Yukari and Nyamo bet ten thousand yen on the outcome of the Sports Festival. Yukari's class wins, Nyamo hands her the money... and then Nyamo points out that Yukari borrowed ten thousand yen from her a while back. Yoink!
  • One Piece: The Whitebeard War. To say the results were mixed is to sugarcoat it. Both the Marines and the World Government ended up much worse off in the long run, even if they completed their initial objectives. Oh sure, Ace and Whitebeard are dead, but now the Marines got an even worse pirate on the rise with two Devil Fruit powers, one of which was Whitebeard's quake ability, and absolutely none of the self-control to go with it. Also, several Level Six Impel Down prisoners are on the loose, thousands of Marines are dead, and the worst generation of pirates (the Eleven Supernovas) are wreaking absolute havoc in the New World. They've also lost three major assets (Sengoku, Garp, and Aokiji) due to disgust with the World Government. Akainu is now Fleet Admiral, so more needless civilian deaths and property damage abound. To top it all off, Whitebeard's death was supposed to act as a warning to pirates everywhere, just like Gold Roger's death, and snuff out the Golden Age of Piracy. But, thanks to his proclamation that One Piece truly does exist, he ended up starting an entirely new age of piracy. The World Government and Marines were better off when Whitebeard was alive and the Golden Age of Piracy was in full swing.
    • A lesser-scale example is in the Dressrosa arc, chapter 742: Usopp is the only person left who can knock out Sugar and return all the people she transformed into toys to normal. He tries to stand up against her bodyguard Trebol, but gets thoroughly beaten. However, Sugar becomes overconfident and feeds Usopp the ultra-spicy grape that was intended to knock her out. This causes him to scream and make a spectacular Nightmare Face, scary enough to make her scream and faint in turn, rendering her victory moot.
  • Transformers Armada: Megatron has just successfully killed Optimus Prime, but it had left him empty as he has no rival anymore, and spent that next few episodes doing nothing till Optimus is resurrected.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure really loves this trope. Some worthwhile mentions:
    • Part 1&3: Dio manages to kill the hero, Jonathan Joestar, and steal his body, but is trapped inside a burning ship for 100 years while Jonathan's wife and unborn child live on. Also, fusing with Jonathan's body leaves him physically weaker than he would be otherwise and indirectly causes Jonathan's descendants to gain powerful Stands along with him.
    • Part 2: Cars acquires the Complete Immortality he sought so hard for thousands of years, but is blasted into space with no way of returning to Earth. The cold air freezes the chemicals within his body and turns him to stone, where he slowly loses his mind as he drifts aimlessly through space for all eternity.
    • Part 6: Enrico Pucci achieves the power to kill Jotaro and Jolyne, ending the (direct) bloodline of Joestars for good and rewriting them out of reality. Then he is killed before he could do the finishing touches, and reality reshapes again and the dead protagonists get reborn in a new reality without their original memories.
    • Part 7: Diego Brando (from yet another alternate dimension) beats Johnny Joestar soundly, steals the Holy Corpse, and wins the first prize of the race, but Lucy Steel doesn't let him get away with it.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Yep, Instrumentality goes down. ...but people can leave at any time. So why bother?
  • Pokémon: In the episode that focused on Erika, Team Rocket manages to get away with a supposedly rare perfume while everyone is busy trying to put out the fires that resulted from their bombs. However it's revealed that said "perfume" was actually just one ingredient required in making the secret perfume — the essence of Gloom (i.e. very stinky).
  • Idolmaster: Xenoglossia: In the second-to-last episode, Chihaya, desperate to get Imber back, turns herself into energy and actually merges with Imber, which would pretty much guarantee that she won, except that Imber won't have it and fires her essence back out not long after, killing her as a result.
  • In Adolf, Adolf Kaufmann (a Nazi) eventually gets his hands on the documents that prove Hitler's Jewish ancestry to finally destroy them, after having spent most of his life looking for said papers. Immediately after, however, he is told that Hitler died and Germany surrendered. He realizes that what he's holding is now just useless trash and has a Villainous Breakdown.
  • The Gundam franchise has quite a few.
  • The Touhou Bougetsushou manga has the God-Mode Sue Watatsuki sisters utterly stomp Reimu, Marisa, Sakuya, Remilia, and even Yukari Yakumo herself. A pity their victory's price included a significant amount of favors to their old teacher Eirin Yagokoro, put them in a shaky political position, and did absolutely squat to stop Yukari's actual plans.

    Comic Books 
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe:
    • A Carl Barks story has Uncle Scrooge unwittingly signing a contract in which he agrees to give the Beagle Boys all of his fortune if he fails to deliver unharmed a dozen eggs from a rare kind of egg-laying rabbit. The Beagle Boys then try to destroy the eggs through various means throughout the story, but although they actually succeed in shattering the eggs in the end, the eggs are revealed to actually be chicken eggs, rendering the contract void.
    Scrooge McDuck: "So, you villainous Beagle Boys misrepresented the cargo. The contract is no good."
    • A Little Something Special: Thanks to teaming up with Scrooge's other enemies, Magica DeSpell actually obtains her goal of stealing Scrooge's Number One Dime, which she needs to melt down for a special amulet. However, Scrooge points out that the spell specified the first dime of the world's richest man, making it worthless when the rest of Scrooge's fortune has been stolen by the Beagle Boys.
  • A hilarious example came from when Dracula fought Superman. Dracula succeeded in hypnotizing him so he could get close enough to drink Superman's blood and gain his immense power — only for it to turn out that because Superman is solar powered, when he drank his blood, his head exploded.
  • In Sonic the Hedgehog Issue #7, Sonic and his friends are trying to find a treasure chest hidden away by Uncle Chuck, believing it to be a key tool in defeating Robotnik. However, he swoops in and steals it away before the Freedom Fighters can get their hands on it. It is then that Sonic remembers that what was inside the box was of sentimental value. The next panel has Robotnik having a hysterical Villainous Breakdown after finding out it was Sonic's bronze baby shoes.
  • "Justice League Adventures," the comic-tie in with the "Justice League" series, in issue #15 had Kanjar Ro hired by Kromm and Sayyar, two Warlords who were in "war games" with Queen Hyathis. Kanjor Ro ends up capturing Hyathis' latest prize, the Gamma Gong, and the Justice League as well. Kanjar Ro uses the Gamma Gong to entrance Hyathis' people, and loot her trophies. When Ro seems he'd get away with his loot when the Gong's destroyed, Hyathis gives him a proposition Batman advises her to: join the Warlords in their games. This gives Kanjar Ro "respectability" as it means he's no longer scurrying around like a thief; but Queen Hyathis then reminds Ro he's limited in the use of his loot. And that she'd watch him, Kromm, and Sayyar to make sure they don't cheat from here on. To help with enforcement of this...the Queen shows her new allies — The Justice League!
  • The Wacky Races story "The Scavenger Scramble" (Gold Key #7, April 1972) had a big purse up for grabs to the winner (a "big purse" interpreted as a cash prize as per standard race). Dick Dastardly wins, and he receives the prize — a big, flowery ladies' purse.

    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In the movie version of Richie Rich, Big Bad Van Dough finally gets Mr. and Mrs. Rich to open the Rich family vault, only to find that it's filled with priceless possessions of the Rich family that would be of no monetary value (like baby pictures, a tricycle, and bowling trophies), and not a single cent of money. When Van Dough angrily demands to know where the money is, Mr. Rich simply says that it's in banks, the stock market, and real estate, not sitting around in a zero-interest vault on their property. Van Dough does attempt to kill the Rich family there, but Richie and Cadbury foil that plan, too.
  • In A Simple Plan, the brothers played by Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton kill a lot of people, including their third partner and his wife, to get the money they found in the crashed plane, ending with Thornton forcing Paxton to kill him, as it's the only way for the plan to work at that point. Unfortunately, it turns out the money was the ransom in a kidnapping, and the serial numbers are on file at the FBI, making the money useless.
  • A similar twist occurs in the underrated comedy Screwed. Miss Crock's assistant, Chip, steals the money intended as the ransom in the fake kidnapping of main character Willard, but is busted when one of his accomplices uses one of the bills to buy flowers, not aware of the serial number practice.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Nazis decide to "try out" the Ark of the Covenant as a weapon of mass destruction, only to be destroyed themselves for not reading the fine print.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: The Big Bad wishes for knowledge, and gets more than can fit in her skull.
  • In The Book of Eli, Big Bad Carnegie has gone through great lengths to wrest the book from Eli. He finally has it in his grasp and has a locksmith open it to find that it's in Braille. And he can't read Braille. This turns into a Humiliation Conga when it's revealed that his town has totally slipped out of his control because he sacrificed almost all of his men to get it, the blind woman he's been abusing for the whole film tells him to shove it when he tries to get her to read the book to him, and finally, a relatively minor wound he suffered earlier in the film is now badly infected, and he's likely to die from it if the uprising doesn't kill him first. Meanwhile, Eli memorized the book, so the good guys can start printing their own copies as they please. Protip: Don't piss off God.
  • The Maltese Falcon from the film and the book of the same name. Supposedly a gold statue disguised as lead, turns out to actually be lead. The people obsessed with it (to the point of being willing to kill for it) decide that it must be a copy and the original must still be out there somewhere.
  • In The Doberman Gang, a group of criminals train a pack of dobermans to commit an ingenious bank robbery. They succeed. But by the end, only one of the criminals is left. The person who trained the dogs is gone, and since he was the only one the dogs trusted, the criminals are unable to recover the money. The dogs escape, carrying all the loot with them.
  • In The Avengers (2012), Tony Stark points out the futility of Loki's plan, because even if he wins, he's never going to be able to rule over anyone. Humanity would rather just keep fighting until the bitter end. And the Avengers, regardless of whatever else happens, will be gunning for him;
    Tony: You're missing the point — there's no throne, there is no version of this where you come out on top! Maybe your army comes, and maybe it's too much for us, but it's all on you... 'Cause if we can't protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we'll avenge it!
  • In Big Fish, Edward Bloom gets inadvertently caught up in a bank robbery when his old friend Norther decides to rob the place while talking to him in line. Norther takes the guard's gun and tells Ed to clean out the vault. Unfortunately, this robbery took place at one of the corrupt Savings & Loans in the 1980s, so the vault was actually empty. The woman opening the vault even tells Ed that he can't tell anyone about this.
    Norther: opens a small envelope "This is it? The whole vault?"
    Edward: "'Fraid so."
    Norther: sighs "Edward, it's still got your deposit slip on it."
    Edward: "Well, I didn't want you to leave empty-handed..."
  • Ocean's Eleven (at least the Frank Sinatra original) has something like this: Danny and crew are the protagonists, and they're not exactly "villains" in the usual sense (though they are criminals). Their plan to rob the casinos goes off like clockwork, but in the end the money is destroyed (they do manage to give the widow and children of a friend $10,000 first, so it's not a complete loss).
  • Spartacus provides a more nuanced (albeit historically suspect) example. The Roman Republic defeats Spartacus's slaves, installing Marcus Licinius Crassus as dictator and starting the road to Empire. Yet Crassus can't enjoy his victory, both from personal insecurity and realizing how weak his grasp on power is. Crassus's final scene has him fretting over his protege, Julius Caesar, whom he predicts will one day overtake him.

  • Norse myth tells of Loki, who bet his head to the dwarf Brokk of whom could give the Aesir the better gift. 'Betting your head' in Norse society meant 'betting a sum of gold equal to your head's worth', but when Brokk (who was rich enough to begin with) won the bet, he decided he wanted the bet paid literally. Loki at that point pointed out he'd never bet any of his neck, and neither side could agree on what constituted the head and what constituted the neck. In a final inversion of the trope, one version of the myth tells that Brokk got annoyed by being cheated out of what he considered rightfully his and sewed Loki's mouth shut to stop his word twisting (Loki was unable to argue that it was in any way not part of his head).
  • Piers Shonks, a knight on Mediaeval England, killed a dragon belonging to Satan, who turned up in a rage and promised that "whether you're buried in the church or out, I'll have your soul!" When Shonks died, he was buried in the wall of a church near Brent Pelham, with the inscription "Shonke one serpent kills, t'other defies / And in this wall as in a fortress lies."

  • In Thomas by Robin Jarvis, the protagonists meet a magician and find themselves caught up in a quest to defeat an evil cult hoping to resurrect their demon master by recapturing the pieces of a magical egg from which he will hatch. The heroes end up prisoners, helpless witnesses to the dark ritual... except it goes wrong. The magician gloats to the confused baddies that they've fallen into the goodies' trap — the Big Good knew this would happen one day, so he and his followers spent years enchanting the egg with goodness so that it would destroy the demon instead of reviving him if the heroes failed to stop the cult. Unfortunately, it turns out that demonic abominations are good at improvising...
  • Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Millennium Falcon does it twice in a row. The Heroes and their competitors are looking for a location of something "of immeasurable value". The Heroes get to it first and find an old relic made of common materials. The competitor then arrives and explains that the item had collector's value to him all along. But then he discovers that the item is actually a replica and the original relic is still out there somewhere — a Shout-Out to the Maltese Falcon, on which the plot was based.
  • The Bad Beginning, first in A Series of Unfortunate Events, ends with Violet successfully arguing that a marriage contract to her evil uncle wasn't signed "in her own hand" because she used her non-dominant hand (and thus it wasn't her true signature).
  • Occurs at the very end of The Dresden Files: Ghost Story, when Harry ultimately realizes that, although he is the Winter Knight, Mab still doesn't have any actual power over him, allowing him to retain his free will and enabling him to determine how or even if he follows Mab's orders.
    • This is different from the original Winter Knight, who was punished for allying with Summer, his supposed mortal enemies. As long as he doesn't commit treason, Harry is completely unbound. When Mab is told that he knows of this, she goes from creepy maternal to outright scary slave-owner in seconds, and Harry laughs in her face.
  • The original plot is subverted in the Star Trek novel 'Dark Mirror'. Picard reads a mirror universe version of The Merchant of Venice. In the Mirror Universe Shylock gets his pound of flesh because no one would really think you can really get a pound of flesh without shedding blood. They weigh it, it is too much, and they laughingly say he can take some of it back.
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire, everything starts going to hell for the Lannisters right after their apparent victory over House Stark in the War of Five Kings, rendering it pointless. Joffrey is poisoned. Tyrion snaps after being falsely accused and convicted of Joffrey's murder and turns against his family. Tywin is shot in the bowels while on the privy by the vengeful Tyrion. Cersei proceeds to run the Seven Kingdoms into the ground with her incompetent leadership. Meanwhile, House Stark isn't quite as dead as everyone believes, with some of the surviving Stark children poised to take a level in badass.
    • Despite Oberyn Martell having the upper hand during the bout, Gregor Clegane wins the Trial by Combat that condemns Tyrion Lannister to death. However, Tyrion escapes due to the intervention of his brother Jaime, and, because Martell had poisoned his weapon, Clegane dies a long and painful death.
  • In the Left Behind book Kingdom Come, Abdullah Smith points out to Sarsour the futility of Satan's and The Other Light's plan to overthrow God by telling him that even if Satan has a chance of winning, he wouldn't be able to resurrect all the people who died as martyrs for The Other Light because God hasn't given Satan the power to do so.
  • In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort spends a large portion of the book looking for the Elder Wand, and eventually takes it in Dumbledore's tomb. However, the Elder Wand changes allegiance when its current master is Disarmed (or murdered). Malfoy Disarmed Dumbledore, then Harry Disarmed Malfoy of his regular wand later on (Malfoy never had the Elder Wand despite having been its master), so when Voldemort tries to kill Harry with it, the wand refuses to kill its master, the Killing Curse backfires, and Voldemort bites the dust.
  • In Starlight And Shadows, various factions of evil drow attempt to steal a powerful magical artifact called the Windwalker from Liriel. Liriel's main nemesis, Shakti, eventually succeeds in claiming it; but by that point its magic has been exhausted and it is worthless.

    Live Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: "The Five Doctors". Time Lord President Borusa, having manipulated the Doctors into granting him access to Rassilon's tomb, claims the reward of immortality promised to the winner of the game of death. Rassilon grants it, which, unfortunately for Borusa, takes the form of being turned into a living statue.
    • Another Doctor Who example: "The Hand of Fear". Eldrad the Kastrian, having long ago been executed by his people for attempting to usurp rulership of Kastria, is resurrected on Earth many centuries later. He returns to Kastria to become its ruler, only to find the planet entirely dead. A final message from King Rokon (the king who Eldrad planned to usurp) crowns him 'King of Nothing'.
    • This was repeated in "Dragonfire", where Kane finally frees himself only to discover that he's outlived everyone he wanted to take revenge on, and promptly commits a very gruesome suicide.
  • Star Trek: Voyager does the What Measure Is a Non-Human? plot involving the Doctor's property rights to a holonovel he's written. His publisher argues that the Doctor can not own his work, as, legally, a holonovel is the property of the artist who created it, and an artist is defined as "a person who creates an artistic work". Going against the handful of precedents set in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the courts find that the Doctor doesn't count as a person, which ought to disqualify him. But the victory is a hollow (or holo) one for the publisher, as the courts instead decide to expand the definition of artist, so that personhood is not a necessary precondition.
    • Which turns a loss into a similar hollow victory for the doctor, who's now legally an artist, but still no person.
    • By this point, it was clear that the Federation was trying really hard not to admit that they had accidentally created a slave race.
      • It should be noted the courts did this without breaking precedents in Star Trek: The Next Generation S2E9 "The Measure of a Man". The holding there was that since Data could possibly have a soul, the judge presumed sentience. Thus, if enough evidence is provided that a being may reasonably have a soul, it is sentient. The doctor differs from Data in that Star Fleet has all the programming for the Doctor and knows how to make copies of him and the limitations of his design. The same is not true for Data, he is a "curiosity", and therefore the courts could hold sentience in Data but not the doctor.
  • Used against the heroes in the final season of Red Dwarf: Having been imprisoned for stealing and destroying a Starbug, their attempt to escape and prove their innocence demonstrates to the captain that their story is true, exonerating them regarding the theft. But it also demonstrates that they had improperly accessed classified personnel files, a crime carrying exactly the same penalty. (The files would have revealed the Captain bribed his way up the career ladder, which explains why he was looking for the loophole.)
  • Used in the Battlestar Galactica episode about abortion. A girl wants to have an abortion; her parents won't let her, and the religious beliefs of the colony she was from before the Cylon attack forbade it despite its legality. Though pro-choice herself, President Roslin understands that there are less than fifty thousand humans left in the universe, and that they will have to grow their numbers if they're to survive as a species. In the end, she outlaws abortion via executive order... after the girl has had her abortion and has applied for asylum aboard Galactica so she doesn't have to go back to her parents. Roslin makes an explicit reference to the trope, which becomes interesting when you wonder how far along in her pregnancy the girl was...
    Roslin: You have your pound of flesh.
    • This was done as an inverse of the Real Life Example: Roe v. Wade. Jane Roe (not her real name) fought to have an abortion and the case eventually led to the legalization of abortion, but Jane had already given birth and put her baby up for adoption long before the case was decided.
      • ...and later became an advocate against abortion (she maintains that the lawyers had manipulated her into pursuing the case). There was more than one twist in that case.
  • The episode of The Twilight Zone "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" featured a band of crooks who pulled off a gold heist and put themselves in suspended animation to avoid the statute of limitations, sleeping for 100 years. The rest of the story deals with the lengths each member went to (culminating in every one of them dying) trying to get the most gold. Then we learn that gold is worthless, because it can now be manufactured.
  • The final episode of Alias has Sloane finally achieving immortality... only for Jack to sacrifice himself in an effort to seal Sloane beneath a mountain for all eternity.
  • In an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a band of thieves that the barfly Morn used to work with tries to find the loot he helped them steal (and swiped from under their nose) in a famous heist after he tried Faking the Dead (because the statute of limitations was up and he knew they'd finally be coming for him), dragging our good old Ferengi friend Quark along for the ride. Ultimately, they fail to force Quark to help them, but turn on each other as soon as the loot is in their hands. Quark is ecstatic that now it's all his nice and legally... but it turns out Morn had long ago extracted the valuable parts from it, leaving behind a bunch of Worthless Yellow Rocks, rendering the thieves' search moot, even if they had succeeded in finding it.
  • Illyria of Angel nearly laid claim to the world. She sacrificed her immortal demon form, high priest, and a good chunk of power in order to access the alternate dimension where her demonic army awaited her command. Only Wesley managed to follow Illyria as she prepared to unleash the army... only to find that her army had fallen into ruin, leaving her with nothing.
    • Illyria was at this point so powerful it's not clear she even needed her army to conquer the world... but the fact that the army was long dead shocked her into realizing that her time had come and gone. She proceeded to hang out with the heroes because she had nothing better to do.
    • An extra case of this because it turned out that she was too powerful for her new form, which led to her being depowered so she could survive. Even if she had kept her army, at best she'd have been only slightly more powerful than them. At worst she'd have died shortly after conquering the planet.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-part episode "Gambit", a militant Vulcan seeks an ancient weapon, and it's as deadly as expected. But Picard realizes that the weapon is based on emotion, so when the ancient Vulcans embraced logic and emotional control, the weapon was abandoned; by suppressing their own emotions, the Enterprise crew easily apprehends the villain.
  • At the end of The Wire, Marlo survives and keeps his freedom and money, on the condition that he not return to the drug scene... which is all he really cares about.
  • The Australian children's education program Infinity Limited had a group of trouble-shooters helping a pet shop to use a new computer for inventory control while their "rival" company (and comic relief), Vortex Ventures with Valerian Vortex and Arthur Plankton tries to win a competition where you need to guess the number of a certain product which would fit into a sports stadium. After Vortex and Plankton fiddle with the shop's computer in an effort to get it to calculate the number, they end up accidentally ordering a huge amount of "plankton" fish food. Arthur wins the contest by simply guessing a number and Valerian immediately assumes ownership of the money... then the Infinity Limited people arrive, having figured out who ordered all of that Plankton. The money they won will just cover the cost of all that fish food...
  • An episode of The Dukes of Hazzard has the Duke Boys in a race for buried treasure against Boss Hogg and Roscoe. This is one of the few times that Boss Hogg manages to come out on top, only for the buried treasure to be worthless Confederate money.
    • Well, worthless except to collectors who'll pay up to thousands of dollars for genuine Confederate money. (Even counterfeit Confederate money printed during the Civil War can go for $10 to $100 per bill.)
  • An episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? involved a mummified Egyptian princess and a ring that would grant eternity. Towards the end of the episode, the museum curator (not sure if he was the curator), revealed to be the bad guy, corners the main characters and their father, threatening to burn down the museum if they don't give him the ring. After giving him the ring, the curator decides he'll burn down the museum anyway so that the good guys can't tell the authorities on him. However, the brother in the sibling pair decides to ask the curator if he'll put the ring on first to see if it makes him immortal. The bad guy does so, but after glowing a few colors, he gets turned into a statue and the father of the siblings says that the curator got what he wanted, immortality.
  • In one episode of The Dead Zone, the villains are after the cargo of a crashed plane. All they know about the cargo is that it was insured for millions of dollars. They force Johnny to help them find it at gunpoint, and they do ultimately get their hands on it, but it turns out to be a crate of 3-year-old computer chips. Given how fast computer technology becomes obsolete, they're essentially worthless.

  • In Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Beethoven's Last Night, Mephistopheles forces Beethoven to give up his 10th Symphony in exchange for not torturing a homeless girl to death. Fate (literally) steps in, and Mephistopheles signs a contract for one copy of the 10th Symphony, written by Ludwig von Beethoven, first son of his parents. However, the composer is actually Ludwig von Beethoven the second, as his elder brother of the same name died shortly after birth.
    • While you could say that they can't pay up and Meph gets a refund? It was implied in-script as the fact that his soul in Heaven could write music and that the tenth symphony of Ludwig the elder (should it ever be written) will belong to Mephistopheles.
  • One Tin Soldier. In it, the people of the valley slaughter the people of the mountain for their treasure (which the people of the mountain had offered to share). They find that the treasure is simply a message stating "peace on earth."

  • The former Trope Namer comes from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: Shylock pleads his case in court, and the court finds that, indeed, the contract he made with Antonio is binding, giving Shylock every legal right to extract a pound of flesh from him. However, the obviously biased court also rules that Shylock is not entitled to any blood. Therefore he would have to take the flesh without spilling a drop of blood, which everyone simply accepts is impossible.
    • Not just that - he asked for a pound of flesh, which also means he can't take any more or less than an exact pound of Antonio's flesh (without violating his contract), and this along with the fact that his contract never included not being held accountable for potentially killing Antonio means that the Anti-Semitic court can use this Loophole Abuse to bring down the full force of the law upon Shylock. To rub salt into the wound, he is forced to convert to Christianity by the man he tried to take vengeance on, and he cannot even take his own life to get out of it (note that by the standards of Shakespeare's time his forced conversion would be a just punishment and be considered salvation of the "villain"; Values Dissonance makes it come off as extremely cruel and religiously-intolerant).

    Video Games 
  • Jak 3: Wastelander features Veger accomplishing his goals to meet the Precursors, as well as become one of them. But, it turns out the Precursors are actually ottsels, like Daxter. And Veger only learns that after he wishes to become a Precursor, leading him to realize this mid-sentence before he's polymorphed into a fuzzy rodent.
  • In Golden Sun, Alex manipulates both the heroes and the villains into breaking the seal on Psynergy so that he can claim the awesome powers of the Golden Sun for himself. And succeeds. But then The Wise One shows up and informs him that it placed a small portion of the Golden Sun's energy into the Mars Star that Issac carries, rendering Alex's powers slightly less than god-like. Now, being almost omnipotent should be prize enough, except for the fact that the Wise One is omnipotent, and swiftly renders Alex unable to move.
    • It's also a case of Chekhov's Gun. At the very beginning of the first game, the Wise One asks Isaac to show up the Mars Star for a brief moment. Nothing is made of it until that moment.
  • In the final case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All, Matt Engarde confronts Phoenix with the sadistic choice of getting a sociopathic murderer acquitted and sending an innocent woman to jail, or having his sidekick be killed by an assassin. Phoenix gets Engarde the verdict he wanted but also reveals to Shelly de Killer that Engarde taped him killing Juan Corrida and planned to blackmail him with the footage. This means he's broken his bond of trust with de Killer, a very fatal mistake. Engarde is forced to plead guilty in order to be protected from de Killer... and it's possible even that plan didn't succeed. Even before then, it can be argued that Matt's reputation had already been destroyed, as the Judge points out that he can't think of him as an innocent and good person, knowing that he drove Celeste to suicide, even if he didn't kill Juan.
  • Ganondorf's manipulation of Zelda and Link in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time nets him access to the Sacred Realm and the Triforce and neither of them can do anything to stop him... But unfortunately for him, the Triforce has a caveat that unless a human is perfectly balanced with its virtues, they can only possess one piece of it. This means that Ganondorf only gets one third. The most powerful third, yes, but still not *quite* the ultimate power he had envisioned, and he becomes doomed by fate to forever be thwarted by the owners of the other two pieces (Zelda and Link, for those not in the know), which together overpower Ganondorf.
    • Ganondorf actually gets this one twice. At the end of the sequel, Wind Waker, after he beats up Link and summons the full Triforce before him, King Daphnes Nohanson Hyrule comes out of nowhere and touches the Triforce, causing his wish to be granted instead of Ganondorf's.
  • In Sonic Riders, Eggman appears after Sonic and co. make it through the Very Definitely Final Dungeon, and when the treasure for which Eggman sacrificed the Chaos Emeralds, the series's go-to Mineral Macguffins, is within sight, he actually holds off the heroes with a laser gun in order to grab the treasure at the last minute. However, when Eggman opens the chest containing said treasure, he finds an ancient prototype Gear in the form of a Flying Carpet, outclassed by every other Gear currently available to the public and therefore worthless to Eggman. At least it was a really nice rug...
  • In the Chzo Mythos, this trope is in effect for the Chzo cultists. Chzo finally has the bridge to crossover from the World of Magic into the World of Technology. Problem is that the cultists vastly overestimated Chzo's interest in doing so. Chzo was more interested in the pain and suffering the cultists inflected upon themselves in making the bridge and the emotional pain when they realized Chzo doesn't really care about them.
  • In Final Fantasy IX, Kuja's mastery of Xanatos Speed Chess allows him to out-maneuver every other character and eventually ascend to become a Person of Mass Destruction unrivaled by any other in the story. He celebrates by killing his master, and then prepares to finally Take Over the World. However, the spirit of his master then tells him that his victory is meaningless, because Kuja was designed to have a finite lifespan and thus will die soon. Kuja... does not take it well. At all.

    Web Comics 
  • In an early arc of Antihero for Hire, Doctor Nefarious successfully launches and uses his mind-control satellite, only to learn that he doesn't have the ability to issue orders to anyone the satellite is controlling, making it useless.
  • One strip of Nodwick has Artax deconstruct the fact that villains are experts in planning but always seem to go wrong with the execution which renders any victories moot.
    • An evil warlord raised an army and sacked a celestial temple to lay claim to a powerful artifact. Only to discover that the item can only be worn by a size 1 waist and requires some exotic anatomy.
    • An evil sorceress summoned a powerful elemental storm to lay waste to the enemy kingdom to the west. Forgetting that her castle was on the east side of her domain.
    • The clerics of an evil deity gained the power to foul any liquid they touched and used it destroy city water supplies. However they forgot that they funded their church primarily through wine sales.

    Western Animation 
  • The 1980 Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner short Soup or Sonic. In the last gag, Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner through a series of smaller-diameter pipes until they come out tiny at the end. Wile E. waves the Road Runner back through. Out the large end, the Road Runner is back to normal, but Wile E. is still tiny. At this point, the Road Runner allows Wile E. to "catch" him. But he is now way too big for Wile E. to actually eat.
    Wile E. Coyote (signs to the audience): Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him. Now what do I do?
  • In Invader Zim, Zim uses Mind Rape (via virtual reality helmets) in order to sell millions of candy bars and win a school fundraiser. He makes first place, but the "secret prize" he coveted so badly turns out to be literally nothing.
  • In Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko and Ed run for city dog catcher, with Rocko being (justifiably) afraid that Ed will be cruel to the dogs. Thanks to a ton of mudslinging, Ed wins in a veritable landslide... but another measure passes that turns the dog catcher position into an undesirable job with no real power.
  • In Kim Possible, Drakken steals the royalty money Ron gets for inventing the Naco. After Kim fails to get it back, he spends it on a giant laser that doesn't work as expected and destroys itself and his lab.
  • In an episode of the '80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show ("April Foolish"), Shredder manages to get away with a rare isotope. Unfortunately for the bad guys, the isotope is unstable under high atmospheric pressures (especially those deep within the Earth), and the sample explodes after the Shredder returns to the Technodrome—parked many miles beneath the Earth's surface.
    • In ("Shredderville") Shredder becomes emperor of the world and mismanages it so badly that when the turtles arrive he begs them to take him to their world where he doesn't rule. Though this turns out to all be a dream the Turtles have.
  • In Ben 10; after spending the episode racing against Enoch of the forever knights to obtain an ancient mayan superweapon, Max lets him have it after a Friend or Idol Decision when the kids were about to fall to their deaths. Enoch aims the weapon at them and prepares to fire it... only to have it crumble into dust. Even an ancient superweapon can't stand against a few millenia of decomposition. The episode ends with Max and the kids walking back to their van laughing as Enoch tries to cusp the dust into his hands, obviously mentally broken.
  • Wakfu has this as the end result of the plans of its first season villian, Nox. He's spent 200 years killing living things in order to gather their wakfu to use that energy to rewind time and prevent the death of his family. Turns out that much wakfu was only good for a 20 minute rewind, making everything he's spent the last 200 years trying to achieve pointless.
  • Free Willy: Jessie and Willy were looking for a lost treasure and lost it to the villain. Then, it was revealed the chest actually contained whistles.
  • Yogi's Treasure Hunt: An alien known as Dr. Mars gave a 24-hour deadline for an old chest to be recovered or Earth would be destroyed. Dick Dastardly and Muttley found it and left Earth with it and the flying saucer of Dr. Mars, who explained to the heroes the chest contained no treasure but a bomb.
  • Fender Bender 500: The Fender Bender racers were in Russia to compete for "The Red Square Prize". Dick Dastardly won, and the prize was a red square instead of that Red Square.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
    • In "Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000", the Flim Flam Brothers win the cider-producing contest to claim the exclusive rights to sell cider in Ponyville. But to do it, they had to turn their machine's quality control off, resulting in a horrible product. Combined with the way they thoroughly alienated everyone in town with their gloating over winning, they're quickly convinced to leave.
    • In "Keep Calm and Flutter On", Discord secures his freedom by making Fluttershy promise to never use the Element of Kindness against him (thus neutralizing all of the Elements of Harmony, as they have to be used together), a promise she refuses to break because doing so would invalidate the trust and friendship they have built up. But she makes it clear that if he returns to his old ways, their friendship is over, and Discord realizes that Fluttershy has worked her way into his heart enough that it just isn't worth it. Well played indeed.
    • An even more epic one happens in "Twilight's Kingdom". Tirek sets out to steal all magic from Equestria for himself... and he succeeds, with Twilight exchanging all the alicorn magic she was imbued with for the safety of her friends. The aftermath ends up with more and even more powerful magic being created, and the seemingly all-powerful Tirek being Curb Stomped back to Tartarus with an express ticket.
    • In "Rarity Takes Manehattan," Suri gets away with stealing Rarity's designs and the prestige that came with them. However, Rarity still manages to beat her in the fashion contest with new designs she whipped up the previous night, and her actions also cost her her Hypercompetent Sidekick Coco Pommel, meaning she's left in no position to build her business any further.
  • Played with in The Dreamstone. There are actually moments Zordrak succeeds in sending nightmares to the Land Of Dreams, and while he does actually savor that victory, the negative effect it has on the heroes is so short lived (to the point of sometimes being offscreen) and usually met with a far more brutal retaliation (a few instances the Urpneys managed to send dreams they were met with a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown), that it's hard not to view it as this trope. This is especially evident for the Urpneys, who usually hate their job and usually the best they hope out of a victory is that it keeps their Bad Boss from lashing out at them.
  • In Generator Rex, Van Kleiss gets his hands on the Meta-Nanites, the keys to godhood, before anyone else... only to learn that he can't tap into their united power because Cesar and his parents programmed them in such a way that only Rex could do it.
  • In The Smurfs episode "Flighty's Plight", Gargamel gets his hands on his godfather Balthazar's book that contains the gold-making formula and escapes his castle with it...but unfortunately the book isn't written with waterproof ink, as Gargamel finds out when he opens the book after coming out of the moat.
  • In Batman: The Animated Series, shy researcher Jarvis Tetch has been friendzoned by his co-worker Alice, with whom he is infatuated. He uses his mind control research (earlier demonstrated to work just as well on humans as it does on mice) in order to secure the perfect Wonderland date with her (including putting her in an appropriately-themed outfit). When Batman shows up, he calls Tetch out on it, pointing out that any part of her personality that might have attracted him has been suppressed by the mind control stuff, leaving her as a perfectly compliant but utterly blank doll. Tetch has a breakdown and lets her go.
  • In one episode of Adventures of the Gummi Bears, a villain tries to get control of the Great Book, by stealing Zummi's medallion. In the end, after Zummi outright gives him the medallion, he promptly tries to kill the Gummi Bears... and is himself incinerated instead, since "Nothing in the Great Book can hurt Gummi Bears."
  • One arc of Rocky and Bullwinkle had Bullwinkle discover he was the heir to a recently dead British aristocrat and stood to inherit something like "a million pound note." Some of the aristocrat's relatives believed themselves the rightful heirs and did everything they could to keep him from inheriting. In the end it turned out he wasn't the heir after all (or was he?) and the relatives got their prize, a million pound PROMISSORY note. They were now responsible for paying back the aristocrat's debts, while Bullwinkle and Rocky literally sailed off into the sunset.
  • In one Gargoyles episode, "The Price" David Xanatos discovers a method to immortality based on the cauldron of life story. He kidnaps Hudson as a plan to test the formula by forcing him to bathe in it first, but Hudson is able to escape. Afterwards, Owen decides to dip his right arm into the formula. It's discovered that the formula does work, only it turns the person into ageless, solid, stone. Owen's arm remains turned to stone for the rest of the series. Good thing he was really Puck in disguise and can easily neutralize the effect with his magic.
    Xanatos: "What does the legend say? Whoever bathes in it will live as long as the mountain stones. How literal minded."
    • "Metamorphosis" has Xanatos gain the loyalty of several humans mutated into creatures similar to the Gargoyles, and they don't appear again until well into the show's second season, which ends with them turning on Xanatos.
    • Another episode ends with Xanatos acquiring a dangerous computer virus that nearly destroyed the cyborg Gargoyle Coldstone, and is never brought up again.
  • M.A.S.K. did this a few times:
    • Similar to the Dukes of Hazzard example above, one episode has a search for buried money in Washington, D.C. which turns out to be worthless Confederate money.
    • Another episode has a search for a golden totem pole. Mayhem gets his hands on it first, but scans it for purity and discovers it's actually amber.
    • Another episode has a search through the Scottish Highlands to find a buried treasure. Mayhem is last seen climbing out of the treasure chamber asking "Is that all there is?" and escaping. It turns out the "treasure" was the warmth of the cavern during cold weather.
  • While most of the victories by The Light in Young Justice play some part in their larger scheme, even events were their involvement seems tagged on, the episode that introduced Lex Luthor, which ended with him gaining the trust of the leaders of Korea stand ins, turns into this simply because it's never ever brought up again.
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars has Darth Maul work with Deathwatch to take over Mandalor, and then pulls and Eviler Than Thou on their leader leaving him the uncontested ruler of the planet. This is followed by Palpatine/Darth Sidious showing up and pulling an Eviler Than Thou (along with a Curb-Stomp Battle) on him, rendering his victory moot.
  • Pac-Man: When Pac-Man has to drive an armored truck, Mezmaron believes it contains power pellets and orders the ghost monsters to steal it. They do steal it but, instead of power pellets, it has fireworks.
  • Spongebob Squarepants
    • In "Plankton's Army", with the help of his brethren, Plankton manages to get into the Krusty Krab safe and procure the Krabby Patty formula. As he reads the ingredients out loud, he discovers that the most important one is four pounds of freshly ground plankton, which causes Plankton and his family to run out of the Krusty Krab. It's then revealed that what Plankton found wasn't even the real formula and that Mr. Krabs has the actual one in his home under his mattress.
    • "Bucket Sweet Bucket" has another one involving Plankton. After tricking Spongebob, Patrick, and Squidward into fixing up the Chum Bucket, Plankton manages to get into the Krusty Krab safe and find the formula, only for it not to be the formula, but a To Do list and that Mr. Krabs had the formula with him while he was on vacation. In addition, since Spongebob and Patrick used the entire Krusty Krab to fix up the Chum Bucket, Plankton also lost his restaurant when Mr. Krabs pushes his back to its normal spot.
    • The episode "I Heart Dancing" has this combined with Karmic Twist Ending. Spongebob has been chosen to audition for a role in a dance number, but Squidward, jealous of him, decides to "teach" Spongebob various dances in an effort to overwork him so he can't go to the audition and eventually works him like a dog. In the end, Spongebob is too tired to go and Squidward auditions instead and gets the part. However, it turns out that the number Squidward's going to be dancing in is Squilliam's, who proceeds to work Squidward like a dog much like Squidward worked Spongebob like one.
  • An episode of Doug involved a soap box derby that many of the kids take part in that has a top secret mystery grand prize. When Bebe and Chalky end up in trouble towards the end of the race, Doug and Skeeter decide to turn back and save them, allowing Roger to win the race. However, as Doug puts in his journal at the end of the episode, Roger won the mystery grand prize that everyone thought they wanted, a week as vice mayor, a.k.a. a desk job where Roger has to do paperwork for Mayor White.
  • In The Wild Thornberrys, an episode involved a reindeer race that Kip O'Donnel and Neil Beiderman took part in where the prize was 1000 lievos. At the end of the race, Eliza exposes Kip and Beiderman's reindeer as a racehorse in disguise, which disqualifies them, but they're then shown making off with the 1000 lievos anyway. Turns out that "lievos" means "pastry" and that Kip now has 1000 pastries (no wait, 12 of them are Beiderman's).
  • American Dad!: After Haley and Jeff absconded with $50,000, Roger tracks them down and begins harassing them to get the money (mostly by just making a really annoying sound over and over, which drives them crazy). After an elaborate chase around the world, they finally give in and give him the money... or what's left of it, since they spent most of it trying to get away from him.
  • Kidd Video and his band once came across Master Blaster's good twin brother who's been imprisoned by the villain. It turns out he's the mayor of a city based around plumbing and has access to the city treasury. The kids try to get the good one recognized as the real deal, but their mother intervenes to let Master Blaster have the treasury. And he does go to take it...only to discover it's a pile of shower heads.
  • In the Rick and Morty episode "Rick Potion #9", the virus Rick inadvertently created successfully turns everyone on Earth apart from the Smiths into monsters. Rick and Morty then move to an alternate universe where it never happened.
  • Happens several times to Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz on Phineas and Ferb, mostly due to his childish misunderstanding of things. For instance, in one episode his plan was to steal the key to the city. He succeeds, only to belatedly realize how pointless it was.

Alternative Title(s): Pound Of Flesh Twist, Empty Villain Victory