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Blackmail Backfire

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This will end badly for at least one of them.

"Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands, and your plan is to blackmail this person? [beat]... Good luck!"
Lucius Fox, The Dark Knight

This is when a Blackmail scheme goes wrong for the blackmailer. It can happen in a few ways.

  1. The blackmailer doesn't have much (if any) leverage.
    1. The victim has no problem with the information being made public — he doesn't really care very much, feels that there is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity, or even considers the "blackmail material" something worth boasting about, or maybe the blackmailer was oblivious to the fact that the information was already public knowledge.
    2. The victim decides that the blackmailer's terms are worse than having the information publicized, and may even reveal the information themselves.
      1. The consequences the victim will face if this information becomes public aren't as bad as the consequences the blackmailer will face if the victim reveals that the blackmailer is blackmailing him.
      2. The means by which the blackmailer got the information is worse than the information itself.
    3. The information isn't as secret as the blackmailer originally presumed it to be. The blackmailee's wife/girlfriend/other-individual-of-importance is already well aware.
    4. Whatever the blackmailer held over the blackmailee ceases to have any importance.
      1. The person the blackmailer would have revealed it to dies (or is killed).
    5. The blackmailee makes it clear that if the blackmailer tries to push him around, he will destroy the blackmailer even if that means his own ruin.
    6. The blackmailer is blackmailing the wrong person (because of Mistaken Identity or some other issue). The blackmailee really couldn't give a damn.
    7. Turns out that Everyone Has Standards: the blackmailer has enough lack of scruples to look for dirt and then threaten someone with blackmail, but doesn't have the guts (or lack of heart, in more heartwarming/humanizing examples) to actually follow through and ruin someone's life.
  2. The blackmailee is Crazy-Prepared and the blackmailer has bitten off more than he or she can chew.
  3. The scheme doesn't just go wrong for the blackmailer; it goes horribly wrong, and the blackmailer is screwed.
    1. The blackmailer made the unwise choice of blackmailing someone who has no qualms about murder (or in the best-case scenarios, either unleashes all of his power and influence and destroys the blackmailer socially and/or financially before he can do any damage or is so violent that a significant amount of the blackmailer's money is probably going to go into paying the eventual hospital stay).
    2. The victim has been so ruined by their life experience that he or she has nothing left to lose and only wants one thing: Revenge (or at least to stop the blackmailer in his/her tracks).
    3. The blackmailee asks "Have You Told Anyone Else?" and the blackmailer hasn't, so Murder Is the Best Solution.
    4. The victim is already being blackmailed (or protected) by a different criminal, and in the ensuing war of Colliding Criminal Conspiracies, the blackmailer is the one with insufficient firepower.
    5. The victim obtains blackmail-worthy information on the blackmailer (which, for the sake of Laser-Guided Karma, will probably be even worse than what the blackmailer has on him) and either makes clear that if the blackmail continues Mutually Assured Destruction will ensue or will use it to force the blackmailer to suffer an equal or worse indignity.
    6. The blackmailer is blackmailing someone over a murder they know that person has committed, not stopping to consider that if a target has already killed his/her way out of a previous dilemma, they're unlikely to have any problem with doing it again.

The third is the most common in fiction. Of course the situation occasionally backfires for the blackmailed subject nevertheless because the blackmailer decides that, now that the subtle option is out of the way (or worse yet, and quite ironically, he is the Cornered Rattlesnake in the situation), he must recur to violence.

Related to Bribe Backfire and Sub-Trope of Threat Backfire.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Dragon Ball Super, actor Barry Khan is upset that Videl jilted him over an autograph, thus sets up a trap to try to get back at her by trying to ruin her relationship via a Honey Trap. He even shows "proof" of this via photos he took. However, Videl sees right through this and gives him a stinging "The Reason You Suck" Speech followed by Gohan telling him to Get Out! before he wakes up their daughter.
  • GTO: The Early Years: Ryuji and Eikichi try to blackmail Mariko and Ayumi by threatening to tell the school board they almost had sex with the boys, their students, demanding that they meet them at a motel to actually have sex with them. When they show up, instead of the girls they meet a triad enforcer who attempts to sodomize Eikichi (Ryuji decided against going in, and then ran into Ayumi on the way out).
  • The "loss of leverage" type appears in episode 16 of Tantei Team KZ Jiken Note. As Sunahara stated he has evidence against the Japanese Delinquents group of scamming his foster family, leader Onozuka threatened to expose to the police all the laws the former broke under his orders. However, as it turns out, Sunahara is Crazy-Prepared enough to not break any law.
    Sunahara: Don't underestimate me. I only ever got close to you to gather evidence on you. All the money I said I stole for you was mine.
  • Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches: Subverted. When Odagiri tries to blackmail Yamada by saying she'll share a photo of him sneaking around the girls' room on the field trip (actually Shiraishi in his body), Yamada stands his ground by telling a half-truth that he actually just went to get Shiraishi's books for her, and Odagiri can just ask Shiraishi to confirm it. The subversion comes when Odagiri then shows a photo of "Yamada" holding Shiraishi's panties, and Yamada realizes he has no excuse to get out of that one, after which he's forced to give in to Odagiri's demands.

    Comic Books 
  • In Batman: Year One, the corrupt police commissioner tries to bring Gordon under heel by taking compromising photos of him and Sarah Essen, whom he had a brief affair with. However, Gordon simply tells his wife the truth, and when the commissioner goes through with his threat, Mrs. Gordon tells him that she knows about Sarah and to never bother her again. Of course, it only force Loeb to go for a more direct threat.
  • The Black Spider: Mike Ganns, Big Bad of Super-Mystery Comics v1 #4, is on a mission to kill the jurors who are blackmailing him so they don't expose his bribery of them.
  • In Secret Six #20, Catman's infant son gets held hostage, and the hostage-takers threaten to drop him off a building. For every one of his team he kills in the next five minutes, they will allow his son to live for one year. After long deliberation, Catman tells them to go ahead and drop his son, and that he is going to hunt them all down. He then goes on a pre-emptive Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • In Suicide Squad corrupt Senator Cray tries to use the Squad to get him re-elected, threatening to reveal the existence of the program. Not knowing Amanda Waller has handled Cray and his aide, Tolliver, Rick Flagg kills Tolliver and, confronting Cray, points out how foolish it is to blackmail a team of super-villans.
    Flagg: When you set out to blackmail the Squad, Senator, didn't you realize you were trying to coerce thugs and killers? Ruthless people. Didn't it ever occur to you that the easiest way of dealing with you was to kill you?
  • Superman:
    • The crux of Superman: Truth (and the "Lies" arc that preceded it) is Lois Lane exposing Superman's secret identity in order to try to trigger this from an unknown blackmailer... and the drama that ensues because the blackmailer remains unknown and the lives of Clark Kent and everybody he knows goes to hell in a hand basket, souring Superman to everybody (including his lover Wonder Woman... and especially Lois). The discussion between Kal-El and a still somewhat-unapologetic Lois is that Lois thinks the removal of the threat was a good idea, but Superman insists that the threat was his (and only his) to bear, and Lois seemed to him a bit too eager to try to cut the knot.
    • Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl provides a funny, light-hearted example. Bruce jokingly says he'll tell Gotham about the Batcave if Batgirl isn't nice to him. She replies that his disappearance has been duly scheduled.
    • Last Daughter of Krypton: After waving her stolen ship's Sunstone in Supergirl's face, Simon Tycho says that she can have it back in exchange for a drop of her blood. Kara responds by setting his space station on fire and then taking her Sunstone from him.
    • In Bizarrogirl, Supergirl threatens to smash the eponymous villain's rocket if she doesn't release her prisoners. It turns out to be a bad idea, since Bizarrogirl flies off the handle and almost turns Kara to stone.
  • The Vision (2015): Leon Kinzky, the father of one of Viv's classmates, saw Virginia burying the Grim Reaper and recorded it. He later sent her the video and called several times until she gave in and agreed to arrange a meeting. Leon threatened with making the video public unless Virginia and her family move out of their home. He ends up in a coma Virginia theorizes he will never come out of, and with his son Chris dead.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Black Room, a servant girl reveals that she knows where Gregor's been hiding the bodies in order to get her to marry him. He kills her instead.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Secretary of Defense and member of HYDRA Alexander Pierce figures that Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow's dark past would keep her from releasing all of SHIELD's private information, which included her aforementioned past and SHIELD's interlaced relationship with HYDRA, onto the public Internet. She proves him wrong.
  • The Dark Knight:
  • The Death of Stalin: Khrushchev makes Beria indirectly responsible for the deaths of over a thousand mourners who get shot by the NKVD guarding Moscow, turning the Presidium against him. When Beria learns he's to be held responsible (which would hamper his prospects of becoming the new leader of the CCCP) he flips out and goes on a rant, revealing he has blackmail material on every single member of the Presidium that could cause them to get branded as traitors in the court of public opinion and shot. Instead of scaring them into line, this threat to their lives instead galvanize the hold-out members into supporting Khrushchev over Beria, leading to the latter's deposing and execution.
  • Edge of Tomorrow centers around Major William Cage, a sleazy PR man who's been covering the recent victory over the Mimics from the safety of the home front. When Genral Brigham assigns him to the front lines to cover what he deems to be the final victory over the Mimics, Cage tries to weasel his way out by threatening to release some unsavory information about the general. The general responds by demoting Cage to private, labels him a traitor and deserter, and sentences him to fight in the first wave of the attack.
  • In Faceless, Mrs. Sherman works out that something illegal is going on at the clinic, and attempts to blackmail Dr. Flamand over it. Flamand does his best to persuade her that her suspicions are groundless, but when she persists, he sends Nathalie to kill her.
  • In I Saw What You Did, Amy should have realised that blackmailing a man who has just murdered his wife into marrying her was potentially a really bad idea.
  • In Jack the Ripper (1976), Charlie goes to confront Dr. Orloff and demands 500 guineas or else he will go to the police with proof that Orloff is Jack the Ripper. Unsurprisingly, the next scene has Orloff's landlady finding Charlie hanging dead by his neck.
  • In A Jolly Bad Fellow, Delia attempts to blackmail Bowles-Otterly into marrying her. Attempting to blackmail a poisoner proves to be a very bad idea.
  • Knives Out:
    • After Harlan Thrombey, renowned author and publisher, dies and leaves everything to Marta, his nurse and confidant, his family becomes infuriated and demand the fortune they feel is rightfully theirs be returned. When Marta tries to sneak away from her house to avoid the media circus outside her apartment building, Walt Thornbey, Harlan's youngest son, goes and tries to recover the inheritance. Saying that he and his family can use their money to hire good lawyers to prevent her mother from getting deported, should that information get out. She then counters that she can use her money, acquired from Harlan's inheritance, to hire her own lawyers to keep her mother from getting deported, and slams the door in his face.
    • Fran, the housekeeper, finds out that Harlan's grandson Ransom is responsible for Harlan's death, and attempts extortion, only to discover that the subtle and indirect method Ransom used on Harlan doesn't mean Ransom isn't also able and willing to end a threat by direct and immediate means.
  • In Long Shot: Charlotte gets blackmailed to drop her environmental agenda, with President Chamber threatening to withdraw his presidential endorsement, and his ally Parker Wembley threatening to release a video of Charlotte's boyfriend Fred masturbating to one of her speeches and ejaculating over his face. In the end, she decides to brave the consequences and denounces them. When they do release the video in retaliation, it just comes across as verifying her claims of being blackmailed and stirs up a lot of public sympathy for her.
  • In The Mad Magician, Rinaldi thinks he can blackmail Gallico into continuing to construct illusions for him by threatening to go to the police with his suspicions that Gallico murdered Ormond. It seems he didn't take into account the depth of Gallico's hate for him, or the implications of Gallico having already murdered once. As Gallico later says to Lt. Bruce, he'll get the chair whether he committed one murder or four.
  • The Man Who Knew Too Little: After learning their their plot due to pillow talk, Hooker with a Heart of Gold Lori is trying to blackmail Embleton and his fellow Spooks about their assassination plot. Predictably, they send an assassin to kill her, but she survives due to Wallace and the assassin accidentally getting each other's instructions.
  • Momentum: Quite spectacularly. Kevin and co-conspirator Jessica foolishly decide to blackmail the senator with a secretly recorded sex tape. We're talking about a US Presidential candidate who hires criminals to rob banks. The silly woman didn't even make a backup. Mr. Washington scoffs about how stupid she was before he kills her.
  • The plot of Motherless Brooklyn is kicked off when private detective Frank Minna is killed after trying to blackmail Moses Randolph with incriminating evidence about his Child by Rape Laura that could jeopardize his rise to power and political career.
  • Mulholland Falls: The bad guys try to blackmail Detective Hoover with his affair with Allison by holding the film reels of their liasons over his head. The problem is, they mailed the copy of the reels directly to his house, as opposed to his office or a safety deposit box, so his wife has already seen them by the time he finds out. He later points out to the blackmailers that he really doesn't give a crap anymore who they send it to now, making their whole scheme worthless.
  • The Natural: The Judge tries to do this to Roy (he had gained possession of photos of a woman who killed herself after wounding Roy in compromising circumstances when he was younger), but, after Roy declines his offer, the Judge in his shock declares that he thought he could rely on Roy's "honor"—which Roy then replies to with "you're about to" before heading back to the field to hit the pennant-winning home run.
  • No Man of Her Own: Stephan doesn't know the lengths that Helen will go to to protect her identity and her son from being discovered. She's willing to kill him to keep him silent. Same with her beau, Bill.
  • In None Shall Escape, Karl is preparing to leave Nazi Germany for good and threatens to reveal Wilhelm's role in the Reichstag fire and the "Schleicher murder" (i.e. the Night of the Long Knives) unless he leaves the Nazi Party. In a Have You Told Anyone Else?-esque twist, he threatens to put it in writing when he arrives at his destination. Wilhelm solves his predicament by having Karl arrested and deported to a concentration camp before he has a chance to leave.
  • In Quicksand, Mackey attempts to blackmail Dan for $3000 over the theft of the sedan. When Dan can only come up with $1800, Mackey takes the cash and then tries to call the police. In an attempt to stop him, Dan winds up strangling him. And the kicker is Dan later learns that Mackey didn't know Dan had stolen the car. He ran the same line on all of his employees and Dan was the only who bit.
  • Red Rock West: Kurt is shot for trying to blackmail a wanted fugitive. Unusually for the trope, he survives his injuries.
  • In Rōnin, Gregor meets a Russian gangster and demands more money for his briefcase's contents. He informs the gangster that his girlfriend, Natacha, a gorgeous skater, has a sniper being trained on her, ready to kill her in the middle of a performance. Gregor counts down the time until the sniper fires, waiting for the gangster to pay up to save his girlfriend. At "zero," the gangster raises up his own gun and too late Gregor realizes the man has absolutely no qualms about letting his girlfriend die rather than pay up more.
  • In Sweet Smell of Success, Sidney Falco tries to muscle one of his boss JJ Hunsecker's rival columnists by implying that he knows about an adulterous affair the columnist had. The columnist confesses to his wife right then and there, makes up with her, and launches into a "The Reason You Suck" Speech aimed at both Falco and Hunsecker.
  • Thunderball: SPECTRE operative Angelo Palazzi tries to blackmail his organization into paying him more money at the last second before his part in the plans to steal several nuclear weapons occurs (as he points out, he is the only infiltrator available for the job, with his surgically-changed face and all; and there is no way SPECTRE will get a replacement in such short notice. He also points out that said face is all the evidence he needs to show any agency that some dirty deeds are afoot). SPECTRE agrees, only to kill him rather unceremoniously once he has outlived his usefulness.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: R.K. Maroon's plan to blackmail Marvin Acme fails when Acme is murdered, and Maroon tries to repair the damage by trying to find Acme's will, and ends up murdered as well.
  • On Zero Effect, this almost happens. While the blackmailer and Daryl Zero have their own plans on how to deal with the blackmail, the blackmail-ee Stark has grown obscenely paranoid and skittish by the time Zero starts his investigation and insists on wanting to arm himself to blow away the blackmailer if he ever meets him in person (which Arlo needs to talk him out of repeatedly).

  • In Midst, Moc Weepe kills Atticus for trying to blackmail him. He doesn't care that Atticus found out that the Black Candle Cabaret is a front for hiding refugees—until Atticus realizes that he was planning to betray them to the Trust himself.


    Web Comics 
  • Aisopos: Drakon refuses to promote Yadmon as an Arcon and tells him he is going to be his puppet, in return for not revealing that it was Yadmon's father who attacked Athens. The next day he ends up mysteriously "suffocating" during the victory celebrations in Aigina.
  • Full Frontal Nerdity: Lewis gets a blackmail phonecall from hackers who got access to his ten-year old Yahoo account note . Lewis asks if they can forward those forum links, because he lost them when a previous computer got fried.
  • Briefly discussed early on in A Girl and Her Fed, wherein Hope immediately realizes that you can't blackmail someone if your secret is a million times bigger than theirs, such as, for example, the ability to remotely access even air-gapped systems in instants. (The systems, in this case, need not even be digital.)
    Hope: Blam, thud, and we're shopping for an extra-large coffin.
    Speedy: Or a hacksaw.

     Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation: SCP-4645, the Blackmailing Computer, is a computer that every day threatens the Foundation to do something horrible (releasing Keter SCPs, executing the O5 council, taking over the world, et cetera) or the computer will carry out some threat. This doesn't work for two reasons: At first, the computer only made ridiculously minor threats like deleting Minecraft accounts and having all staff stub their toes, and after it started escalating to more serious threats (researchers being badly injured, major security breaches, and so on) the Foundation figured out that it was learning what threats they wouldn't take seriously and escalating until they did, so they started wiping its memory every so often so it would start over at the minor threats.

    Real Life 
  • The KGB had several women pose as flight stewardesses and seduce Indonesian president Sukarno. The orgy was secretly filmed and the KGB showed it to Sukarno with the intention of blackmailing him. Instead, Sukarno thanked the KGB for a lovely night and asked for a copy of the tape — he wanted to release it to Indonesian theatres so his subjects would see how virile their president was.
    • Allegedly, in an attempt to leverage him, the CIA tried to do the same with similar results.
  • The KGB once tried to blackmail the French consul, by threatening to expose him with pictures of him having sex with other men. His response? "Go ahead, I don't care. Everybody knows I'm gay."
    • Apparently, something similar was considered by the CIA: to discredit a Middle Eastern leader, they were going to leak fake pictures of the man having sex with other men. It wouldn't have worked; apparently, in this man's country, such acts were considered a minor transgression, like a French president's mistress.
  • This trope is the reason why the blackmail version of Honey Trap is so fraught with difficulties. The target may not actually care if the "compromising" information is released. (The other reason is that most influential and powerful men are smart enough to recognize the plot beforehand.) Indeed, a good rule of thumb is to presume that a person's proclivities are known to their superiors.
  • The author of the book "Silk", about the KGB blackmailing Westerners, revealed that the CIA tried something similar, which didn't work because Eastern Europeans didn't care; being seduced by foreigners was considered one of the perks of the job.
  • This happened to a girl who had sex with hockey player Jaromir Jagr. She then took a selfie with him and planned to blackmail him to not reveal. But Jagr was not in any kind of relationship at the moment, and also had a reputation for being a really weird guy, so he just shrugged it off.
  • When the famous London courtesan Harriette Wilson was about to publish a tell-all memoir, one of the famous names involved was the Duke of Wellington, a national hero known for his defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. The publisher contacted Wellington, letting him know that unless Wellington paid up, Wilson's stories about Wellington would be included. Wellington's response was simply "Publish and be damned!" His reputation not only survived, he became Prime Minister; Wilson and her publisher had a brief windfall from the memoirs, but the publisher was soon devastated by libel suits and Wilson fell on hard times and died in obscurity.
  • Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and the richest man in the world, was contacted by the publishers of The National Enquirer, informing him that they had evidence of him having an affair, including raunchy texts and nude photos. They offered to bury the story in return for retracting claims he'd made against their parent company. The problem was that Bezos was already planning to end his marriage and marry his mistress, and wasn't particularly concerned with being publicly exposed. He publicly admitted everything in a blog post, including publishing the blackmail messages, which exposed them to possible criminal charges. It didn't really cost him anything that he wasn't planning to give up anyway.
  • David Letterman was blackmailed by Joe Halderman, a producer on CBS threatening to reveal his sexual relationships with several of his female employees. Letterman stated that someone had left a package in his car with material he said the blackmailer would write into a screenplay and a book if Letterman did not pay him US$2 million. As soon as he saw the information, Letterman said that he contacted the Manhattan District Attorney's office and partook in a sting operation. Letterman then announced the affairs on his show after the producer was arrested.
  • In 2019, a hacker managed to acquire nude photos of Bella Thorne from her phone and threatened to release them unless she sent him money. She responded by releasing the photos herself, along with their chat logs.
    • Sia once did the same thing.
  • The expected "blackmailer killed by victim" outcome had a slight twist in an Indian case where the blackmail victim came clean with her boyfriend about the circumstances of the blackmail. The blackmailer expected the girl to break up with her boyfriend so he could be with her to protect the secret, or that he would release the photos publicly for the same effect, thinking no one else would want to be with her after that. He failed to consider that someone might Take a Third Option—that the boyfriend would remain protective of his girlfriend regardless of whatever transgression the photos supposedly revealed. The boyfriend of the victim proceeded to drug and strangle the blackmailer in a muddy field.
  • In late March 2021, freelance journalist Seth Hettena wrote a letter to anti-Republican PAC group MeidasTouch demanding responses towards obviously false and defamatory accusations towards the group, claiming they were doing these throughout the Georgia runoffs, despite not talking to them since after the initial elections. He planned to reveal these accusations in an issue of Rolling Stone. MeidasTouch's response? They lawyered up, responded to those questions in a tweet, then proceeded to reveal that Rolling Stone, once a shining beacon of rebellion, was now under the ownership of a pro-Trump and Saudi multimillionaire and was turning it into a mockery of itself.
  • What spelled the undoing of Maximilien Robespierre. Arriving at the National Assembly claiming he had a list full of traitors to expose, but refused to say who until the next day. When he tried naming them the next day, the entire assembly (His own party included) shouted him down, arrested him, put him on trial and executed him. Just in case they were on the supposed list.


Video Example(s):


The One Holding the Trump Card

In "Blood Hive" from "Yellowjackets," Shauna's daughter Callie decides to use her discovery of her mother's cheating to blackmail her into removing her curfew and basically allowing her to run riot as she wants. Shauna, however, beautifully shuts this down, explaining that the money for a divorce lawyer will come from her college fund and then she'll forced to deal with her crying father and then give him advice on dating girl's her own age. She then invites her to call her bluff by calling her father into the room.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / BlackmailBackfire

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