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- Dragon Ball Super: During the events of the Future Trunks Saga, after meeting an incarnation of Zamasu helping Goku Black wipe out humanity in Future Trunks' Alternate Timeline, Goku and co., with help from Beerus and Whis, initially think that Zamasu will use the Super Dragon Balls to wish for Complete Immortality, then create an Evil Knockoff of Goku to help him wipe out all mortal life. As it turns out, Goku Black is in fact an Alternate Self of Zamasu who used the Super Dragon Balls to pull off a Grand Theft Me on Goku; the immortal Zamasu who was helping him is actually Zamasu's counterpart from Trunks' timeline, who Black convinced to aid him.
- Happens in Fullmetal Alchemist, when Dr. Marcoh asks Envy if they're planning to use Amestris to create a gigantic Philosopher's Stone. Envy responds: "Oooh, so close. But that's not it." It turns out their plan is to use the people of Amestris to create a gigantic gateway to the afterlife (or whatever regulates all Alchemy) so that Father can usurp God's power.
- Played for Laughs in Ranma ˝. Pantyhose Tarō arrives with a grudge against Happōsai. The audience believes this grudge is his One-Winged Angel cursed form given to him because of Happōsai, however he actually enjoys its enhanced power; the real reason for the grudge is his Embarrassing First Name, which Happōsai also gave him.
- In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Sayaka realizes that Homura is trying to stop Madoka from becoming a magical girl. However, due to her dislike of Homura and ignorance of the true nature of magical girls, she assumes that Homura is jealous of Madoka's magical potential. In reality, Homura is only trying to save Madoka's life...but isn't willing or capable of explaining this to Sayaka.
- Fantastic Four: Mister Fantastic makes this mistake with Doctor Doom all the freaking time.
- In Watchmen, Rorschach is convinced that someone is trying to take out all the former vigilantes when the Comedian is found dead. His killer's true motives are different, and he's invoking the trope to draw attention away from him.
- Spider-Man once tracked down Doctor Octopus through various thefts, only for Doc Ock to give up once his experiment failed. The real motive wasn't criminal; Doc Ock wanted to create a cure for cancer to save an old flame.
- In Sleeper, TAO's motives are completely unknown to the characters, and the readers are led to believe he's running an incredibly complex Gambit Roulette to try to Take Over the World. It turns out he's planning on setting off World War III For the Evulz.
- Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Early on, Raphael believes that Batman is just a "selfish little rich kid" who puts on a costume and fights bad guys purely for the thrills and fun of it, until Batman takes him to Crime Alley, where he watched his parents die, and explains that it's that loss that motivates him to be a hero.
Films — Animation
- Randall in Monsters, Inc.. Mike (and most of the audience) thinks he's trying to cheat his way to the all-time scream record, when he's really up to something much worse...
Films — Live-Action
- In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas Angel believes the murders in Sandford were happening as part of a very lucrative property swindle. In reality, the fact that all the murders that occurred since he arrivednote in Sandford were tangentially connected to a land swindle was a coincidence. They were really taking place because the victims were a threat to the town's title of "Village of the Year"....and they had been going on for years, with scores and scores of victims, and an entire conspiracy of murderers. Note that many of the movie's deleted scenes would have served to further expand on that Red Herring and explain how it was going on.
- Die Hard:
- In the orignal Die Hard, the LAPD and FBI are led to believe Hans Gruber and his men are terrorists, holding the Nakatomi Plaza building hostage in exchange for numerous terrorist prisoners being released, though the hero John McClane isn't fooled and immediately realises that they are up to something else when he hears their "demands". In reality, Hans is deliberately leading the FBI to believe this, as the FBI's protocols for dealing with a terrorist threat are exactly what he needs to rob the place, and get away with the cash.
- This is repeated with Hans' brother in Die Hard with a Vengeance where he first tricks authorities to believe that he's a terrorist who wants revenge on McClane, but is actually using the confusion to set up a huge robbery. The fact that he would also get revenge on the cop who killed his brother is just icing on the cake. He then almost convinces the world that he carried out the robbery in order to destroy the gold rather than keep it, which as a mercenary he has actually been paid to do. In this case, blowing up the gold was the actual Evil Plan, but Simon being part of a Big Bad Duumvirate (with Middle Eastern radicals) decided to make some changes to that part of the scheme.
McClane: I know the man, I know the family. The only thing better than destroying a hundred and forty billion dollars in gold is making everyone think you did.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, everyone assumes that the Spanish are racing towards the Fountain of Youth in order to attain immortality. In fact, the Catholics hate the idea of immortality achieved via pagan means as opposed to faith in God and wish to destroy the Fountain before anyone can use it. Which makes them arguably the only people with good intentions aside from Phillip in the film. Everyone else is out for personal gain or vengeance.
- In Psycho when Marion's sister and fiancee become convinced that both Marion and the Private Detective they hired were both killed at the Bates Hotel, they're sure that Norman Bates robbed Marion and then covered it up. In reality, of course, Norman is just crazy and never even knew about the money that Marion had.
- In Austin Powers in Goldmember, Austin arrives at his apartment to find Mini-Me with what looks like a knife, and concludes that Mini-Me is here to assassinate him, sparking a fight. Actually, the "knife" is a letter opener (Mini-Me was trying to open an envelope that the mole gave him), and Mini-Me's real reason for being at Austin's apartment is to defect to his side.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- In Thor, Thor's friends are right to suspect that Loki is behind the Frost Giants' attack on Asgard. However, their pre-existing distrust of him, combined with his acting ability and tendency to keep his motives to himself, have the effect of convincing them that his motives are a lot worse than they actually are, in this movie, at least.
- The Maximoff twins misidentify Ultron's motives, as well as his plan, in Avengers: Age of Ultron at first, much to their regret.
- In Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers and the rest of Team Captain America, and later Tony Stark once he gets aware that the evidences against Bucky Barnes were faked believe that Helmut Zemo is looking for the remnants of the Winter Soldier program to revive it and use the five remaining Super Soldiers for some nefarious plot. In truth Zemo never cared for the Winter Soldiers except as bait, and the first thing he does on finding them is killing them all in cryosleep. What he wants all along is to bring a wedge between the Avengers so that they'd fight and destroy each other, and for this he needs the report of Bucky's involvement with the murder of the Starks that is hidden in the Siberian HYDRA facility.
- In The Spy Who Loved Me, when Karl Stromberg threatens to start World War III by launching nuclear missiles, the heroes assume he's trying to hold the world for ransom, until he rejects their offers of money and reveals he hates humanity and wants to wipe it out except for those in his undersea utopia.
- Don't Breathe: The burglars think that the Blind Man is fighting back to protect his money. What he's really defending, however, is his kidnapped hostage in the basement, carrying his child.
- In The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Sherlock Holmes misidentifies his client's suspicious wife's motive, and is for once proven wrong. It turns out that there was nothing villainous about the wife's true motive.
- Harry Potter:
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: Played with a bit in this case. Harry is correct that the motive for stealing the Philosopher's Stone is to bring Voledemort back to life, however, he's completely wrong about which character actually has that motive.
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Harry and most likely everyone else assumes the heir of Slytherin has reopened the Chamber to carry out Salazar Slytherin's mission to purge Hogwarts of Muggle-borns. When Harry meets the Heir of Slytherin, Tom Riddle a.k.a. Voldemort, he explains that his target all along has been Harry. All the near-killings were bait (though he certainly didn't mind attacking the Muggle-borns).
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Everyone believes that the reason Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban prison and traveled to Hogwarts is to kill Harry. It turns out he actually broke out to protect Harry because he discovered that Peter Pettigrew, the one who actually sold Harry's parents to Voldemort and framed Sirius for it, has disguised himself as Ron's pet rat Scabbers, waiting for the right moment to bring Harry to Voldemort.
- Also in Goblet of Fire, the heroes initially suspect that someone entered Harry's name in the Triwizard tournament in order to get him killed while competing. The truth is quite the opposite: Barty Crouch Jr. intends for Harry to win the tournament and claim the trophy in the center of the maze which has been transformed into a Portkey, sending him into a trap so his blood can be used to resurrect Voldemort, without anyone being any the wiser as to where he's gone.
- When Snape kills Dumbledore, it's easy to assume that he did it because he's been evil all along. The fact that he was acting on Dumbledore's orders never occurs to any of them.
- Happens numerous times in Agatha Christie. Most notably, in The ABC Murders, the police and Hercules Poirot believe a series of murders are the work of a mad killer and have to figure his next target. As it turns out it's a man killing his brother for his inheritance and committing the other murders to cover it up.
- The Death and the Compass, a Genre Deconstruction of the Detective Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges
Scharlach remained standing, indifferent. He had not participated in the brief struggle, and he scarcely extended his hand to receive Lönnrot’s revolver. He spoke; Lönnrot noted in his voice a fatigued triumph, a hatred the size of the universe, a sadness not less than that hatred."No,” said Scharlach. “I am seeking something more ephemeral and perishable, I am seeking Erik Lönnrot..
- In Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain, everyone assumes there's an elaborate plan behind everything The Inscrutable Machine does, assuming they're professionally trained criminal masterminds instead of just a couple of kids who happened to get lucky.
- A posthumous one occurs in-story in the Honor Harrington series when it's discovered that Arnold Giancola forged diplomatic documents that resulted in a resumption of the war between Manticore and Haven, and then he dies in a legitimate car accident before he can be questioned. The Grand Alliance leadership later assume he did it at the behest of the Mesan Alignment in order to further weaken Manticore and Haven, who then killed him to silence him. In fact, he did it for personal gain to be seen as the hero who would step in at the last minute to stop the war, and the Mesans had nothing to do with it.
- Wet Desert: Tracking Down a Terrorist on the Colorado River: After excluding Islamic terrorism, the investigators at first think that the bomber may have had a vendetta against boaters or the like, until the Colorado River Aqueduct is bombed.
- In Worm, the supervillain Cherish has high-end emotion-reading powers that she used to establish a dossier on every parahuman in Brockton Bay for the rest of her team, but she made a number of serious errors in interpreting motivations — most notably completely misreading Skitter's.
- As one would guess from its title, the procedural drama Motive uses this as the start of each episode tells the audience who is the killer and flashbacks show events leading to the murder. The final flashback, however, will often show the motive for the killing being different than what the audience was led to believe.
- A limo driver seemed to have killed a cop to defend his girlfriend. It turns out the driver found out the two were in chaoots for a con on him.
- A woman appears to have murdered a high-class call girl for having an affair with her ex-husband. It turns out the call girl had discovered the woman was running a ponzi scheme and was killed to keep it quiet.
- A pilot appears to have been balancing two women at once and killed one girlfriend to prevent her from telling his fiancee. It turns out the "girlfriend" was a stalker who he killed in self-defense when she attacked him in a rage.
- A family man is murdered by someone who then kidnaps the man's daughter. It turns out to be the girl's real father as the "victim" had kidnapped her years before.
- A unique case has the wife of a pro athlete killed. It turns out she was a trans woman who faked her death with the help of her then-wife before transitioning. Said alleged widow is more frantic about the secret being revealed and her ex assumes it's because of how it will give them bad press. In reality, she is worried the insurance company will want back the million dollars she got off the life insurance policy she put out on her ex's old identity. It's this, more than the public reaction, that drives her to kill her ex.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
- In the episode "Earshot," Buffy finds Jonathan in the school bell-tower with a high-powered rifle and immediately assumes he's out to perpetrate a student massacre, and gives him a whole speech condemning it. A confused Jonathan replies that he came up there to kill himself.
- In the episode "Forever," the episode after the death of Buffy's mother, Spike shows up with a bouquet of flowers, only to be stopped by Willow and Xander, who believe that he's trying to take advantage of the situation to score points with Buffy. Spike insists that he wants to pay his respects to Joyce, since she was the only one of their "lot" that was ever nice to him. When it becomes clear that Xander won't be swayed, Spike gives in, throws the bouquet down, and storms off; immediately afterwards, Willow and Xander examine the bouquet and discover that Spike didn't include a card with the flowers, which forces them to acknowledge that Spike really was trying to pay his respects.
- Occurs from time to time in Law & Order: In "Doped", the prosecutors assumed the defendant spiked the victim's nasal spray (which caused her to have a car accident that killed herself and seven others) to try and discredit her whistle blower testimony and protect his employers. Turns out, he did it out of outrage that she wasn't going to keep any of the reward money she'd get with a successful action against their employer (a pharmaceutical company pushing an expensive, but near-useless cancer drug with false advertising).
- Happens from time to time in Leverage. In their Christmas episode, they believe that the plot at the local mall is to steal everyone's credit card numbers for massive identity fraud. So they shut down the power in the whole area. Then it turns out that the Magnificent Bastard behind it wanted them to do just that. The power outage disabled the security system at the nearby bank (their real target) and he and his goons were free to move in and rob it. Of course, this being Leverage, they were still able to stop him in time. Still one of the only times when the villain was a step ahead of the team.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Hunted" has an enhanced war veteran who does this constantly while trying to evade Enterprise security. Even when they are aware that he uses misdirection to conceal his true objective, they are still unable to stop him.
- On Graceland, Agent Badillo thinks that Briggs is stealing drugs because he's working for the Caza cartel. Briggs is really Odin Rossi, an unaffiliated drug supplier whom the Caza cartel is trying to assassinate. Badillo's plan to confront Briggs disguised as a Caza assassin goes very badly for all concerned.
- In the NCIS episode "Leap of Faith", Tony is convinced that a suicidal naval officer was killed by his wife simply because he always suspects the wife, especially if money's involved. It turns out that Tony's half-right — the wife did kill him, but it was because she was a Syrian Mole and he was a loose end.
- Altaïr of Assassin's Creed I accuses Majd Addin of murdering ordinary people simply for believing differently than him. Majd Addin corrects Altaïr by telling him he did it because he could and because it was fun. This is what Altaïr used to think about assassinating, before he was demoted to novice and forced to kill powerful people with basic equipment as penance for his arrogance. So he stabs Majd in the neck twice.
- In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, everyone believes Ganondorf has returned to destroy the world. It turns out that he originally wanted to take over the lush Hyrule to free his people from the harsh desert. It's quite sad, really.
- Magus from Chrono Trigger is a send-up of Japanese fantasy RPG tropes: as the Fiendlord, he sends forth his monstrous armies in a bid for world domination. He's also identified as the creator of Lavos, the titanic hellspawn fated to destroy the world in 1999 AD. Crono and company set off to defeat Magus and prevent him from triggering the end of the world; unfortunately, it turns out that Magus was actually trying to destroy Lavos all along, and they interrupt him just in time to hasten Lavos' awakening, putting the world on schedule for destruction in 1999 AD.note
- Ratchet & Clank:
- This happens in the climax of the first Ratchet & Clank, when the title duo confront Chairman Drek as he's about to destroy Ratchet's home planet to make room for the Blarg's new planet (the raw materials of which came from the destruction of several other inhabited planets).
Clank: There must be a better way to find a home for your people!
Drek: Fool! You think that's what this is about? Who do you think polluted the last planet? I did. This is about one thing and one thing only: cash! And lots of it. You see, I've been paid for every square inch of my new planet. Once the inhabitants move in, I'll begin polluting this planet as well! And the whole thing starts all over again. Aah. Brilliant.
Clank: Y-you evil little—
- Drek's expy in the non-canon Size Matters, Otto Destruct, makes it clear towards the end that him kidnapping Ratchet to make clones of him were not for proving to the universe that Technomites were real and should have credit for their part in the development of technology, but rather, to kidnap bright minds for their intelligence. Clank calls him "pure evil".
- Also happens at the very beginning of A Crack in Time when Clank accuses Dr. Nefarious of seeking vengeance.
Nefarious: Vengeance? You think I went to all this trouble for mere vengeance? *to self* And they say I'm egomaniacal.
- This happens in the climax of the first Ratchet & Clank, when the title duo confront Chairman Drek as he's about to destroy Ratchet's home planet to make room for the Blarg's new planet (the raw materials of which came from the destruction of several other inhabited planets).
- In the Mount Hyjal area in World of Warcraft, one questline has the player infiltrating the Twilight's Hammer cult and assassinating a number of their higher-ups. Near the end, the Twilight Hammer instructor who you've been taking orders from reveals that she knows that you're the one killing them, but she believes that you're trying to climb the food chain and take charge rather than sabotaging the Twilight's Hammer from within.
- Max Payne 3: Max gets a job as a bodyguard (as in, kill all enemies like he usually does and the bystanders who survive will pay him), only for his Boss' wife to get kidnapped despite all that slow-motion perfect shooting. What seems like a classic kidnapping heist (trade three million dollars in exchange for Mrs. Bronco's safety... for three more weeks) expands into an over-the-top Evil Plan that involves Victor Bronco, the brother of Max's boss, attempting to harvest organs from the slums en masse so that he can get elected as Sao Paolo's mayor and turn Sao Paolo into the largest organ market ever. And Max is the scapegoat, because he's so good at staying alive and butchering people other than the police. Max's partner seems to be in on this plan, but Passos claims that Victor paid him and the gangsters to terrorize the boss into early retirement, giving Victor the family fortune. Needless to say, this is definitely not what happened.
- In Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Raiden accuses Big Bad Senator Armstrong of being a typical greedy self-serving politician using the war economy to boost his own position. The villain initially plays along with this assumption. After Raiden destroys his Metal Gear, he figures that Raiden deserves to know his real goal and gives a Motive Rant while delivering a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown. He's actually a Social Darwinist who hates War for Fun and Profit, and he wants to tear down America and rebuild it as a nation where everyone is free to fight for what they believe following no law other than their own will. Raiden amends his earlier opinion of the man, saying "you're not greedy...you're BATSHIT INSANE!"
- In the Grand Theft Auto V show-within-a-game Impotent Rage, this trope leads to a case of Villain Misidentification. The title character (a parody of Captain Planet) shows up at a protest against fracking and mistakenly assumes that "fracking" is a euphemism for sex, and that the protesters are religious fundamentalists protesting the right of the (male) businessmen to "frack" each other. Only after he sends the protesters flying into the sun does his nemesis, Uberman, explain to him that fracking (aka hydraulic fracturing) was actually a controversial form of natural gas drilling, and that the Corrupt Corporate Executives he defended were now free to pollute the water as they saw fit.
- Once their existence is revealed, just about everyone in the Mass Effect trilogy assumes the goal of the Reapers is to render organic life extinct, an assumption seemingly supported when the player scans assorted planets across all three games and the in-game description describes formerly inhabited worlds blasted so hard that if they aren't lifeless then life is rare, often just single-celled, and clinging to survival. Then the player finds out that due to the Insane Troll Logic of a rogue AI from a billion or so years ago, the Reapers claim to be preserving advanced life from extinction by liquifying members of the galaxy's dominant species to make new Reapers while leaving primitive species alone to develop, only to repeat the process every 50,000 years. Just so that advanced species don't create synthetic life that will possibly make all organics life go extinct.
- Sly 2: Band of Thieves: At the end of the game, Sly initially believes that Arpeggio only planned to reassemble Clockwerk's frame because he's Driven by Envy over the fact that other birds can fly while he cannot, outright calling him pathetic. However, Arpeggio soon reveals that he actually wants to use the Clockwerk parts for immortality.
- Fire Emblem Awakening: During one of their support conversations, Olivia sees Henry, the team's resident Combat Sadomasochist and Dark Mage, cornering an injured dog and orders him to get away from it, believing that he intends to sacrifice it to his "dark god." Much to her surprise, Henry loves animals and actually intended to nurse the dog back to health.
- Downplayed in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Players weren't wrong to think that Zero wanted to take revenge on Craddle Pharmaceutical higher-up for creating the first nonary game. That was indeed Zero's goal, just not the only goal, or even primary goal. The real reason Zero orchestrated the events of the game was to activate Junpeis psychic powers in order to send information to the past that Akane needed to survive the first nonary game.
- RWBY: Throughout the first few volumes of the series, Blake believes that Adam shared her idealism for a world where humans and Faunus peacefully co-exist, and even though she ultimately left the organization for his extremism, she still believes that he's just gone too far in pursuit of a noble goal. It isn't until the very end of Volume 3 that Blake realizes that Adam never shared her dream, which he believes impossible, and merely wants to wipe out the human race completely... starting with everyone Blake loves and cares about to punish her for abandoning the White Fang.
- The Order of the Stick:
- Xykon murdered Roy's father's master and took his crown. Roy thought he did it because the crown was magical and powerful; it turns out, it's neither of these things. Xykon just wanted the crown because it looked cool.
- The Sapphire Guard believes the Bearer of the Crimson Mantle's goals are to destroy the universe. While an acceptable loss, the reality is that he is actually out to blackmail the gods for his species' dominance over others. Or fair and even treatment. He'll settle for that, as well. Though it's that or the end of the universe...
- In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Doc initially believes that King Radical's plan is to turn an army of jerks into wizards. He only wants to turn one of those jerks into a wizard as a by-product of his larger scheme to transform this reality into the new Radical Land.
- Daily Grind deals with a LOT of these. Fitting, since the Daily Grind agency deals with sleuthing, research, and killing demon overlords:
- What seems to be a racist rally of cats against dogs (it's a furry webcomic) turns out to be a plot for a young gangster to kill his sister, drive his mother into a heart attack, and inherit over a billion dollars in stocks. The racism was publicized so that it would look like his sister dying was a hate crime and not a bid for family fortunes.
- One poor mage is forced to try and kill the Demon Bunny Tharka, or let his friends die (since his magic is connected to them, he can't commit suicide). They order him to make it look like he's just another crazy mage on a roll.
- Happens to the "heroes" in Schlock Mercenary, after they complete a job to take down a sleazy holovision network the police believe they conspired with the network's CEO to profit off of it.
Tagon: "Can we plead, 'that's not how we did it'?"
- In Justice League Unlimited, the Question confronted Lex Luthor about Luthor's current evil scheme. The Question thinks Lex was trying to discredit the League in order to win the presidency; a Lex Luthor from an alternate universe had done this, killed the Flash, leading to that universe's League going rogue and becoming Evil Overlords. Question went to kill Luthor (because he was known to be insane, so the League's reputation wouldn't suffer as much); unfortunately, Luthor reveals he has superpowers, and proceeds to beat the tar out of the Question, at the same time revealing his whole presidential bid was just a ruse to tick Superman off. The Question wasn't even close. His actual plan? To continually pit the government agent backing him and the League against each other, so as to distract both from his development of a machine to give himself A.M.A.Z.O.'s nigh-godlike superpowers. And then it turns out not even Luthor knew his own motives, as his entire thought process was being influenced by Brainiac, who wanted a new body.
Luthor: President? Do you know how much power I'd have to give up to be president? That's right, conspiracy buff. I spent $75 million on a fake presidential campaign, all just to tick Superman off.
- One episode of The Mask featured a dognapper and a chili maker who bought the abducted dogs. Stanley thought they were turning the dogs into chili but he later learned they were just having the dogs try a new brand of dog food.
- In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Clock King", the eponymous villain's Motive Rant seems to blame Mayor Hill for ruining his company; instead, he's more upset that Hill made him late.
- Tends to happen with Professor XXX-L in Codename: Kids Next Door. He does kidnap Numbah One in an episode and tends to get into conflicts with the KND, but his motive is to create the perfect snowcone.