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No work of fiction is complete without a villain of some sort
. After all, if there's no villain, who will create the conflict? Who will the heroes confront in the climax? Who will sing the best songs?
But sometimes, writers encounter a problem. See, sometimes... what the antagonist is doing? It's not illegal, or even immoral. At all. Like, in a sports story, the antagonist would just be the leader of the Opposing Sports Team
. If, say, you're writing an inspiring story about an underdog who aspires to be a great chef, the antagonist would be a tough-to-please food critic, or the owner of a rival restaurant. Sure, these people's success would make the hero's life worse, but in real life, nobody would hold it against these people. That's just the way the world works. Surely, these stories are forever bound to having both a hero protagonist and
a Hero Antagonist
, right? ...right?
Meet the Villainy-Free Villain, the very personification of Felony Misdemeanor
. To make sure that viewer sympathy is still squarely on the protagonist, the Villainy-Free Villain is an antagonist who compensates for his completely socially acceptable aspirations by being as much of a Jerkass
about them as humanly possible. He's not a villain, but he sure acts like one. It's as if he doesn't care about his own well-being, but sees his actions as a wonderful opportunity to crush the protagonist's hopes and dreams.
In any work of fiction in which an innocent person has been framed for a heinous crime and needs to track down the real culprit
, the law enforcers mistakenly chasing after the innocent person
are inevitably going to appear unsympathetic to the audience, even if their motives are beyond reproach. The hero may even end up fighting them as much as the villain. Authority figures who have to control children (teachers, especially) also make fine default villains
. So do any authority figures whose job requires them to be harsh
: police officers, judges, Drill Sergeant Nasties
This is a clear case of Truth in Television
. A person doesn't have to kill or steal to be unlikeable. If you're a complete jerk to people and rub your own victories in the faces of the people you step over, you'll still be seen in a bad light.
Note that a character cannot qualify to be a Villainy-Free Villain if he participates in unethical activities. As the name suggests, this antagonist has all the aspects of the villain except the actual villainy.
Also, for a character to qualify, he has to actually BE as unpleasant as a normal villain, enough so for the viewer to not sympathize with him. Otherwise, he's just a Designated Villain.
On the other hand, if he is unpleasant but barely even does anything to fill the "antagonist" role, then he's a Plot Irrelevant Villain
. If he isn't necessarily unpleasant—heck, he can be even downright nice—yet his actions are the cause of unpleasant effects for other innocents without his knowing, he's Obliviously Evil
. Compare Hate Sink
, who isn't the main conflict-maker but acts nasty so the audience has someone to root against. For the Fanon
version, see Ron the Death Eater
, where a character is good in Canon, but the fans treat him or her as evil.
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Anime and Manga
- Weevil in Yu-Gi-Oh! is kind of a jerk (and has a really bad introduction), but he's the only "villain" who never actually tries to kill anybody. Yugi and friends still treat him as the scum of the earth.
- Weevil might not count as he does cheat (he sabotages both Yugi's and Joey's decks) but Rex Raptor is a clean - if vicious - player who is also classified as a full fledge villain despite doing even less than Weevil, but being more of a jerk about it.
- In the anime Weevil and Rex forfeited any rights to be considered Villainy-Free in the Waking the Dragons arc, when they willingly joined Dartz's forces and tried to make Yami and Joey lose their souls (something both of them already knew what's like) just to increase the power of their decks. Later, in the Grand Championship Arc, they kidnap an entrant known as Fortunes Salim and steal his cape so they could duel in his place. Since we have no clue to how far the real Fortunes Salim would have gone in the tournament, he could fit the trope by contesting Yugi's victory but was instead seen with other people applauding.
- Pokémon has several cases of Pokemon trainer who do nothing worse than being huge jerks and fighting against the protagonists with their Pokemon, which is perfectly normal in the Pokemon world. Quite often, they will become nicer by the end of the episode.
- Mickey Mouse once opened a pizza parlor and its success led someone to open a rival pizza parlor in front of Mickey's. While the readers were expected to cheer for Mickey, his competitor couldn't realistically be called a villain until near the end, when he sicced some animals to eat a giant pizza made by Mickey (and even then, it's made clear he didn't like doing this and considered it as a Last Resort). Fortunately, some of the animals ate the rival's own giant pizza as well. After that, Mickey ran out of flour and his rival ran out of cheese and the two of them decided to share to avoid bankruptcy.
- John D. Rockerduck was this in the only story Carl Barks ever used him. All he did was enter a boat into an upcoming race to prove his gasoline was better than Scrooge's.
Films — Animated
- Anton Ego of Ratatouille seems to fit this trope to a T at first. He's a food critic. Food critics can and do give restaurants negative reviews. He also hates Gusteau's populist philosophy that "anyone can cook," so he's looking forward to hating the restaurant's food. Ego even Lampshades it in his introduction to Linguini: "Pardon me for interrupting your premature celebration, but I thought it only fair to give you a sporting chance as you are new to this game... and you've been playing without an opponent, which is, as you may have guessed, against the rules." However, when being served a genuinely delicious dish, he gives the restaurant glowing praise even knowing full well that he'll be throwing his career away should anyone discover who is cooking the food. And they do.
- Well-meaning but prissy Aunt Sarah from Lady and the Tramp. Sarah's main flaw is being a Horrible Judge of Character. She fails to recognize the only two (okay, three) true villains of the film: the rat that Tramp kills and Si and Am, her two Siamese cats. She remains convinced that her cats are incapable of doing anything wrong and blames all of their misdeeds on Lady.
- Sid from Toy Story. He can't really be faulted for mutilating and destroying toys if he doesn't even know that they're alive. His worst actual offense is being a jerk to his younger sister and mutilating her toys.
- Sure enough, once he learned that they were alive, he never hurt another toy again (even if they let him know they were alive by scaring the sh*t out of him).
Films — Live-Action
- Jonathan Poe, the final opponent of the protagonist, Josh Waitzkin, in Searching for Bobby Fischer. Quite possibly one of the most unpleasant chess players in all of cinema, this kid is just begging to get his head handed to him by Josh. "Trick or Treat" indeed.
- Dr. Jonas Miller, the protagonists' tornado-chasing rival in Twister. His sins? Taking corporate funding, creating a competitor to the protagonists' experimental prototype, being a Smug Snake, and riding around in a caravan of black SUVs. Jonas even has plenty of valid points that he and Bill are Not So Different. Both Bill and Jonas left their old crew for better-paying jobs (Jonas for his corporate sponsors, Bill as a TV weatherman.) Bill also abandoned his idea for the "Dorothy" system, and Jonas built a working prototype without him.
- Richard "Dick" Vernon in The Breakfast Club. He's really just an embittered guy who found out teaching wasn't as easy has he thought it would be and takes it out on the students in detention. He also peeks into the personnel files of other teachers.
- Jeanie Bueller and arguably Edward R. Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Rooney clearly shortsightedly oversteps his authority by the end of the film, but Jeanie never does anything immoral - rather she counters several of Ferris' immoral acts. However, being entirely motivated by spite lauches her straight into antagonist territory.
- Big Daddy, another Adam Sandler film:
- Played perfectly straight with Arthur Brooks (Josh Mostel), the social worker who takes Sonny to court. He really does care about the welfare of the boy Sonny has adopted, but the story still makes him out to be an antagonist when he shows up in Sonny's apartment and coldly drags away the boy, who is clearly frightened and can't understand what's happening. But he never actually acts maliciously, and when he loses his case against Sonny at the climax of the film, he realizes that Sonny really is a well-meaning family man.
- In My Cousin Vinny, the prosecutor and the judge are this. Of course viewers are rooting for Vinny to get the protagonists off the hook for murder, but the prosecutor is a friendly, nice guy who offers Vinny his cabin to stay in to get away from noise that's keeping him from getting any sleep in his motel, and mentions he left a lucrative position in private practice because he felt uncomfortable defending obviously guilty criminals. The judge meanwhile is constantly riding Vinny and annoying him, but only because Vinny refuses to follow proper courtroom procedure, and because he's Properly Paranoid that Vinny is lying about his credentials.
- In Grumpy Old Men, Snyder of the IRS is just doing his job, trying to collect back taxes John owes. And (off-screen) he is actually fairly reasonable - Jacob talks him into waiving the late fees if the original amount is paid. Doesn't stop Max from insulting him and playing a few hilarious practical jokes on him.
- The Mayor and (especially) The Mayor's Wife from Rock of Ages want to shut down a poorly run nightclub that owes the city a small fortune in unpaid taxes and clean up a sleazy neighbourhood and are willing to do so through the completely legal means of a public protest. Luckily they turn out to be Straw Hypocrites when it comes to sex so it is okay for the audience to hate them.
- In Be Kind Rewind, film companies send a cease and desist order against the video store for presenting their "sweded" remakes as the original films, violating copyright. Their lawyers grandstand their actions by steamrolling all the films in front of the whole neighborhood, putting the struggling video store out of business. The lawyers even lampshade the trope as they look at the crowd's reaction, snorting, "Oh, now we're the bad guy, huh?"
- In the remake of The Karate Kid, the opposing martial arts teacher is harsh and unlikable, but he never does anything actually villainous.
- Until the semi-finals, when he instructs the protagonist's adversary to injure him so he'd not be able to fight at the finals.
- In The Fighter, Mickey Ward wins a championship by beating Shea Neary, who was arrogant and disrespectful during their press conference and does not touch gloves at the beginning of the fight.
- Miss Leavey (Jan Hooks) in Simon Birch is thought of as a villain by her students, but she isn't evil - just grouchy.
- Inverted with Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) in First Blood (the first Rambo) movie, who actively antagonizes Rambo almost from the beginning, yet is ultimately portrayed as an Anti-Villain at worst.
- Dean Wormer from Animal House is an unpleasant Jerkass Has a Point antagonist type who is merely trying to enforce campus rules without committing immoral actions against hilarious but admittedly proto-delinquents frat boys. Part of his problem is that he's under pressure from the town's mayor, a genuinely evil amalgam of Mafia don and authoritarian plutocrat, who goes so far as to threaten to have Wormer physically crippled if the Deltas do anything to embarrass him.
- The small-town mayor in Jaws means well, but he's at heart a pompous politician who cares too much about public image, and honestly doesn't believe the shark is dangerous: "My kids were on that beach, too."
- The mayor (these characters so often seem to be mayors, don't they?) of New York City in the 1998 American remake of Godzilla isn't a villain by any means (and, to the extent that he could be considered one, he's treated to a Karma Houdini at the end), but he's such an obnoxious blowhard that it's perfectly okay to dislike him.
- The concierge in Home Alone 2 has every right to be wary and suspicious of a ten-year-old checking into a four-star hotel by himself, so the film has him act as though his very life is consumed by a desire to nail Kevin for "credit card fraud."
- It's also worth mentioning if he succeeded in apprehending Kevin, the movie would have been over. The police would have come and taken Kevin into custody, his parents would have been contacted, they would have located him, and the entire thing would have been revealed to be a huge misunderstanding. The entire third act of the movie essentially would have been skipped, and the concierge would have been a hero for locating the missing Kevin McCallister.
- Miles Edgeworth is this for the first part of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney movie. He's a Smug Snake who ruthlessly fights to win each case, but he is doing his job and even tells the defense at one point that all of his methods are perfectly legal.
- Lampshaded a bit in The Movie of The Fugitive, in which Marshal Sam Gerard's reckless actions in enforcing the law are questioned even by his colleagues. But Gerard earns our respect by his courageous determination to see justice done and his uncanny intelligence ("Never argue with the big dog, because the big dog is always right") - enough to be repackaged as the main hero of the sequel, U.S. Marshals.
- Team Zeus in Real Steel. Their evil acts consist of 1) building the absolutely strongest boxing robot they could via the means and methods available to them (which is pretty much what the protagonists do as well), 2) trying to buy the protagonist robot as they think it will make a good sparring partner for their champion robot (to remove any serious competition), and 3) not handling a win that isn't a complete rout well, as their robot takes an immense pounding in the final match but does not get KO'd and ultimately gets the technical win on points. The film seems to recognize this, and includes a secondary antagonist figure who does more straightforward villain acts.
- Putnam in The Wizard. Despite being a colossal jerkass and a sleazy private detective, he was legitimately hired by one of the kid's parents to track down them down after they ran off to California. His only real "crime" is his greed and attempting to prevent the father and brother from finding the kids first, so he can claim the reward money (granted, that did involve vandalizing their car).
- Rivers of London has Tyburn. She's a Rich Bitch Jerkass who really takes far too much pleasure in one-upping Peter and while she might be a bit of The Starscream to her mother, her real intentions are to modernise how London (and the rest of the United Kingdom) deals with magic, get everything systematised and above board, and do away with the tangles of "arrangements" and "agreements" that have accumulated over the years. Something that Peter himself is pretty keen on, she just goes about it all in a really arsehole-ish ways.
- Les Misérables has Trope Namer Inspector Javert, who pursues Justified Criminal Jean Valjean because...he broke his parole. How sympathetic he is depends on the adaptation, but as Valjean acknowledges when he saves Javert's life, Javert's actions are completely in accordance with the law.
Valjean: "You've done your duty, nothing more."
- Any "villain" on Survivor or any other reality show is bound to be this (the casting department should've weeded out the actual psychos). Villainy isn't defined by dirty play here - "heroes" have also done their share of deceptive moves, and villains don't noticeably break the rules lest production kick them out. The villains are the ones that are mean-spirited about it and annoy everyone with bragging and the like. For Survivor, this inevitably led to complications in their Heroes vs Villains season when half the contestants on the villains team weren't even villains anyways. It's incredibly tough to determine in a series like that who is a hero or villain because everyone does something underhanded eventually. Even one of the quintessential "heroes" of the series, Rupert Boneham, stole the entire other tribe's shoes in the first episode of his first season. Probably the only true villains of the series are Johnny Fairplay (who concocted a story about his grandma dying to gain sympathy and roll through to the finals), Russell Hantz and Colton Cumbie (complete and unrepentant dicks), and Brandon Hantz (who, while sympathetic, has issues and turns out to be one of the "psychos" casting should've weeded out).
- Skyler on Breaking Bad only wants to know what her sick husband was up to while she was at home struggling with a disabled son and another kid on the way. Her notable offences include returning an unattractive piece of jewelery she got from her sister, faking labor to avoid being arrested (for something she didn't do), and being luke warm to her husband's sexual advances. She later becomes a typical shrewish, visitation-denying, ex-wife and an adulterous white collar criminal, but her main function from early on is to put more pressure on Walt's already stressful double-life, making her somewhat unsympathetic by default. Vince Gilligan has stated that he's disturbed by the level of hatred some of the fans have for her, and if they're still keeping it up by season three it's probably just pure misogyny. Then subverted, as she starts getting involved in Walt's business and proves to be far more level-headed than he.
- Steven Spreck of Community isn't quite evil, but he is shown to be rather underhanded (and creepy) in his attempts to get rid of Greendale.
- Captain Sharon Ryder on The Closer is portrayed as an antagonist to Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, but in fact she's just doing her job, and at one point she actually tells Johnson she's only investigating her because she has to, and tries to hint to her to be more careful (hints which Johnson doesn't seem to pick up on). She's also had several Enemy Mine moments with Johnson, eventually forming a mutual respect with her, and eventually taking over her team after Johnson retired.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- Bruce Maddox from "The Measure of a Man" wanted to disassemble Data in order to find out how to replicate his design. Although his goal is noble, Data refuses when it becomes obvious that Maddox doesn't have a very good idea of what he is doing, and Maddox spends the rest of the episode trying to legally force him into compliance. This is mostly because Maddox does not see Data as a self-determining individual and does not believe he has the right to refuse. He comes around at the end.
- Christopher Hobson, briefly Data's first officer, constantly second-guesses his orders under the assumption that an android would not be a competent leader. He justifies this with the idea that some races are naturally more or less suited to certain tasks, which does have some validity, but since Data is one-of-a-kind and Hobson has no real knowledge of his abilities, his opinion comes off as arbitrary and bigoted. Like Maddox, Data eventually manages to earn his respect.
- Admiral Nechayev and Picard never saw eye-to-eye on matters of policy, since Nechayev was far more hawkish than Picard. Whenever she appeared in an episode, it was usually a sign that she was about to browbeat Picard over his latest command decisions in the most condescending and jerkassy way possible.
- Captain Edward Jellico could be considered a subversion of this trope. He is given command of the Enterprise during the "Chain of Command" two-parter and obviously doesn't get along well with the crew. His brusque and demanding style of command makes him easy to dislike, both for the crew and the audience, he appears to lack diplomatic savvy, and he even relieves Riker of his position. Despite this, Jellico is vindicated by his success in resolving the crisis of the day, saving Picard from the Cardassians and averting an armed conflict.
- Parodied on How I Met Your Mother with the Story Within a Story, The Wedding Bride. It's based on events that happened during How I Met Your Mother's fourth season, but recasts Ted as the villain of the story rather than the victim; to make up for the fact that Ted never did anything villainous, the character based on him just acts like the most over-the-top asshole imaginable in every single scene.
- The high-school teacher (played by Mark Metcalf) in Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" videos. He acts harshly toward his students, yes, but he isn't exactly cruel to them; he actually seems to believe that they're "bad" kids and they really need his help. But his behavior is so angry and unreasoning that it's still a pleasure to see the "cool" kid finally shut him down.
- Heather from Misfile fits very nicely here. She is a complete ass, but has actually played fairer than our heroes when it has come to her races.
- The comic later subverts this. Heather isn't actually a cruel person, she's just vindictive and dislikes Ash, Emily, and Missy simply because she's Yandere for James (which is, admittedly, just a bit stupid considering Ash and the others only dislike her in retaliation). She actually has something of a Hidden Heart of Gold, but prefers to have a reputation as an unapproachable bitch. She even tells Ash off for believing her to be inherently nasty and even states that she just doesn't want to make good with Team Misfile.
- Played straight when one of the villains from CharCole is attacked by the titular character. Later, his conscience lambasts him for throwing the first punch in a situation that could have been avoided by talking or even just doing nothing, when the guy is just a complete douche, "which isn't illegal, by the way."
- Teresa from Exiern has genuinely meant well, but is the designated antagonist due to her being a(n unwitting) racist snob. It is a good job she is though because otherwise having our hero(ine) make unfounded accusations of pedophilia towards her and verbally bully her simply because she enjoys being an attractive woman, while our hero is all mopey about it, could have been a real moment of Moral Dissonance.
- Van Parker is only doing his job when he captures Riley and Flint, chronic escapees of the Mercia Sanitarium and Straitjacket Emporium. He's not exactly discriminating about when he tries to grab them, though, so he might be interrupting important work at the time (bearing in mind that the two men are under the employ of the King of Mercia himself).
- While capable of being a straight-out villain, Pete from the Classic Disney Shorts often fell into this category, particularly in his shorts with Donald Duck. Shorts like The Riveter, Timber! and most of Donald and Pete's wartime cartoons feature Pete in perfectly legit professions, but still acting like a bullying Jerkass.
- Sapphira in Pearlie, whose ultimate evil goal is to discredit her cousin Pearlie and have a lot of people come to her spa... Yes, somebody has loads of ambition.
- Subverted in that she has no ethical reason for discrediting Pearlie; however, her goal in most episodes involves exposing Pearlie's screw-ups, rather than frame her for anything.
- Gargoyles has Oberon, who merely tries to reclaim Avalon from a gargoyle clan that has taken up residence in his absence. One of the squatters even notes that he's within his rights to do so, but her concerns are quickly dismissed. (As stated in a creator commentary, "good thing our heroes are sympathetic and Oberon isn't".) Of course, then he tries to take Xanatos' baby son a few episodes later and the "Villainy-Free" part goes out the window. He's still more Chaotic Neutral than anything else, though.
- In The Simpsons episode "The Twisted World of Marge Simpson", the Investorettes weren't really doing anything wrong by kicking Marge out of their investment group (Marge herself admitted she didn't like "the whole idea of 'investing'"), and they were well within their rights to compete with her when they both started up mobile snack businesses. But they're such jerks about it that you're not sad at all when Marge's Mafia goons blow up their truck.
- Keep in mind, Marge didn't know about Homer getting the Mafia involved at first, but didn't have much choice to go along with it to save both their necks when they wanted their cut. The Investorettes on the other hand, knowingly hired the Yakuza to compete and take down Marge.
- Dick Dastardly was the token villain on Wacky Races, but when he got his own show a year later, he became more of a Butt Monkey hired to do a thankless and futile job.
- Professor Farnsworth's Jerkass rival scientist, WERNSTROM!! Both men are frequently called to come up with solutions to various world-threatening calamities and the fact that he keeps being called back, proves that Wernstrom is just as much of a Science Hero as Farnsworth... the only difference is he's a colossal dick about it! However, when Farnsworth meekly asks for a teamup, Wernstrom states it would be his honour.
- This happened in the Martha Speaks episode "Martha Out West"; Alice's Big Brother Bully Ronald didn't want to play an outlaw in the western movie they were filming (since outlaws do illegal things) so they made him a guy who buys the town and forces everyone to leave.
- Remy Buxaplenty from The Fairly OddParents isn't really doing anything wrong by one-upping Timmy, and his backstory makes him easy to sympathize with, except that he's such a huge jerk about it.
- He starts out like this, but we see that get pulled apart when we see him attempt to bribe Timmy from his fairies and later enter a magical duel with him. After they tie, Timmy tries to get Remy to just call it a draw, mentioning he doesn't care if Remy has fairies. However, it's an issue for Remy because he doesn't view it as fair for Timmy to have both loving (if not idiotic) parents and his godparents. He ends up losing his (but returns in a later episode and a few more times.) He changed the moment he decided that he'd risk losing his fairy just for the chance for Timmy to lose his
- The Dinkleburgs too, who are, for the most part, completely harmless, but enjoy rubbing their accomplishments in Timmy's dad's face. That being said, the show does portray Timmy's dad in a less-than-flattering light for him hating them so much. However, one episode did feature Mr. Dinkleburg act like an evil villain just to make Timmy's dad appear Properly Paranoid (though we discover Dinkleburg did it to try and cheer Mr. Turner up).
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has plenty of these — though, admittedly, they also have plenty of genuine villains, too. Jet Set and Upper Crust from "Sweet and Elite" are snobby elitists who walk around with their muzzles in the air and disparage Rarity because she comes from a rural town — the moment that they go from admiring Rarity's hat design to dismissing it as worthless because they just found out she comes from Ponyville is the moment they get revealed as "the bad guys" of the episode. Prince Blueblood in "Best Night Ever" is a Royal Brat - but if you think about it, he may actually just be trying to shake off an unwanted woman who's acting like a Gold Digger. Trixie, who is often regarded as one of the show's more memorable villains, was only guilty of showboating and humiliating three of the protagonists in "Boast Busters". The giant bear who trashed the town, while blamed on Trixie, was actually led there by Snips and Snails, who were only encouraged to do so by Spike - Trixie's only real involvement was that she had made claims of being able to stop such a threat and it was clearly just part of the show. No one sensible would have believed her story was real, and Trixie did step up to try and stop it, even if she failed.
- Ranger Smith from Yogi Bear is by no means a bad guy. He's simply trying to do his job to keep Jellystone Park trouble free and keep Yogi and Boo-Boo from stealing picnic baskets from the campers.
- While capable of being an outright villain Depending on the Episode Plankton at times can be a legitimate competitor towards Mr. Krabs with no real malicious intention, once even offering to give up attempting to steal the formula for one single customer. Worse case scenario in these situations Plankton just wants to drive Krabs nuts.
- Zordrak of The Dreamstone is as demonic and comfortable in his Evil Overlord role as possible, but in many episodes, his only interest is to give people nightmares, which is kinda mean, but a standard mundane issue everyone faces in real life. This exceeds to the point that he means far more harm to his own Mooks, the Urpneys (who he tortures or ''kills' for failure) than the heroes themselves. The later episodes give him a somewhat more menacing world domination motive, likely also so the heroes weren't dishing out Disproportionate Retribution every time they brutalized the villains for 'provoking' them.