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"I'm at a loss for how to write a villain who doesn't do villainous things."

Moral Guardians often get into a tizzy over any sort of naughty, nasty, or even questionable business portrayed in the media. After all, in their minds those kids will imitate anything they see on the screen (and they would do in the real world). This tends to result in a world of clear-cut heroes and villains in media marketed as being "kid-friendly".

But villains are supposed to be evil, right? They can get away with doing all sorts of nasty things the moral guardians wouldn't approve of because they inevitably get what's coming to them in the end. But sometimes the guardians complain anyway, as if the viewers are too dumb to tell who's right and who's wrong (or the guardians might be afraid that Evil Is Cool, in the mind of kids who like acting someone cool). It's like they don't want the bad guys to be evil... and, of course, since most of these moralists believe in Black-and-White Morality, this attitude steers them dangerously close to Logic Bomb territory.

The result of this sort of thinking (if the writers don't tell the Moral Guardians to fuck off) is typically Villain Decay or a Harmless Villain or Friendly Enemy who isn't actually shown doing bad things. Any attempt by the villains to do bad things will get foiled by the heroes with a minimum of fuss.

To be fair, one of the oldest ways of Getting Crap Past the Radar is to create a Magnificent Bastard who outsmarts everyone, is much cooler than the heroes, and lives a life of (vividly described) debauchery, but gets killed in the last five minutes. Then the creators appease the Moral Guardians by saying, "Hey, he loses. That proves that all the debauchery and lying we showed isn't something you root for." (Goes at least as far back as Don Giovanni.) After Moral Guardians realize they've been hoaxed this way, they become paranoid and assume that any villain who succeeds at all is a case of Getting Crap Past the Radar.

Despite the snarky tone we're taking here, this trope is not necessarily a bad thing. No matter how clear a series makes it that the villain is not to be admired, some evil acts genuinely aren't appropriate for all audiences. This is why fairly light kids' shows like Scooby-Doo have their villains committing the more mundane crimes (theft, fraud, etc.) rather than the more disturbing ones (rape, graphic torture, etc.)

This trope is not about villains whose villany is toned-down to make them more sympathetic to the audience but about cases where it is toned-down to avoid being controversial or shocking. If you are looking for the former trope see Adaptational Nice Guy, Pet the Dog, Even Evil Has Standards or A Lighter Shade of Black.

Everyone Is Satan in Hell is a related phenomenon.

Perhaps the writers would write a story much safer for the audience by adding no villain at all.

When this trope involve censoring of Nazis it will often cross path with No Swastikas. See also Do Not Do This Cool Thing, Villainy-Free Villain, and The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. When this is done to a Historical Domain Character, see Historical Villain Downgrade.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • When 4Kids dubbed Shaman King, they left in a scene where 'Zeke' kicks Yoh in the head, much to the delight of fans who thought that this might be a sign that 4Kids was going to gradually stop Macekreing anime. The result was a massive outcry from parents against a villain actually kicking the hero in the head like that.
  • 4Kids was generally infamous for engaging in this sort of thing as one of the most prominent ways they would Bowdlerize anime they dubbed. Most notably, because of 4Kids' notorious Never Say "Die" policy, villains who engaged in any sort of murder would have it cut out — for instance, their One Piece dub alters Arlong's brutal murder of Nami's mother into him simply imprisoning her and even being willing to set her free if Nami brings him enough cash. Similarly, their take on Sonic X refused to allow the Government Conspiracy to kill people, so Maria Robotnik — a character who exists entirely as part of a Death by Origin Story — is simply arrested instead of being killed in cold blood for knowing too much, leading to plentiful Narm when we later meet the man who pulled the trigger in the original and he's still portrayed as being haunted by his no-longer-especially-evil actions.
  • The Italian dubbers of Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch apparently thought that, since Sara was really a princess and going to make a Heel–Face Turn later on, that her Villain Song - which says that "love and dreams are an illusion" - should be replaced by something more heroic that says "have faith in the princesses and The Power of Love." Never mind that this is the complete opposite of what Sara believes, and that much of the first season is spent trying to convince her of it.

    Comic Books 
  • It's a long-accepted fact for both the Marvel Universe and The DCU that sufficiently popular villains will often be subjected to this in the name of trying to shift them into good guys, regardless of how monstrously evil they were portrayed as before. Some infamous semi-successful examples include Venom and Harley Quinn (the latter in particular notoriously being depicted as a spree-killing lunatic who had no issue murdering children to please The Joker mere issues before making a switch to hero that received big push from DC). Infamous failed examples include Sabretooth and Clayface.
    • An offshoot of this phenomenon is situations where a villain depicted even slightly as a Noble Demon will receive big complaints if they're depicted as actually doing anything genuinely villainous. See, for example, the shitstorm that ensued when Grant Morrison depicted Magneto as a terroristic murderer willing to emulate the very people who caused his descent into villainy in the name of his anti-human Fantastic Racism, complete with running death camps and murdering his own henchmen for objecting. Despite all of this arguably just being the logical conclusion of Magneto's long-established goals and personality, fans and other writers revolted at the thought of Magneto actually engaging in the sort of human-targeting genocide he had been claiming to want for decades, immediately proceeding to create a massive Continuity Snarl in a rush to render the whole thing non-canon.
    • Another variant on this is the tendency for supervillains in adaptations to be given Adaptational Sympathy or have their evilness/dangerousness toned down to make them more likable harmless villains. It's rare for Batman cartoons to show his rogues actually seriously injuring or, God forbid, killing people like they do in the comics; Killer Croc won't be a cannibal, Joker won't cripple or murder hapless bystanders for fun, Penguin won't systematically destroy people's lives over petty slights, Black Mask won't be a misogynistic torturer, Poison Ivy won't engage in genuine ecoterrorism, and so on and so forth. Instead, they'll just do schemes where there aren't really any casualties or their actions will be subject to extreme levels of Could Have Been Messy.

    Fan Works 

    Film — Animation 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street was initially intended to be a child molester but to avoid controversies at the time, he was eventually turned into a Serial Killer who target children without any mention of sexual motives. Averted in the 2010 remake where he's flat out described as a pedophile.
  • In Lord of War the in-character reason that Yuri never supplied Al Qaeda is that Osama was bouncing cheques, but the scriptwriters' reason was almost certainly to allow him to be amoral, but not too amoral for the audience to handle only four years after 9/11.
  • Downfall drew quite a bit of controversy among some Moral Guardians for depicting Adolf Hitler as too sympathetic. It follows his last days as the Red Army closes in on Berlin, and largely Hitler is something of an old ship captain trying to retain some dignity and grace in a hopeless situation, a man capable of showing genuine kindness and charm around people and things he likes, but also cruel, petty, ineffectual and paranoid. Before you start feeling too sorry for him, there's a notable scene where he reminds you that he's Adolf Hitler by giving a big speech where he expresses pride in killing millions of people and hopes that the entire German people get wiped out for failing him.
  • The Little Mermaid (2023): The film version of "Poor Unfortunate Souls" from The Little Mermaid (1989) removes the verse about body language and women staying quiet to find a man, apparently because the song had been criticized by some parents for sending a bad message, despite the fact it was sung by the villain who was manipulating Ariel and was never presented as a legitimate moral.
  • Moonwalker: The Blu-Ray release was edited; we no longer see Mr. Big attempt to inject Katie, nor do we see Michael (try to) threaten Mr. Big

  • This happened with the second book in A Series of Unfortunate Events:
    • It was banned in one school because the villain says "Damn!" and "Hell!", and the really absurd part is that Snicket uses this as an occasion for an parody of overly moralistic children's authors about how swearing is something only a villain would do.
    • Daniel Handler eventually stated in an interview that he was deliberately trying to provoke this kind of thing, and was actually disappointed that he got so little attention compared to Harry Potter. His one real "victory" was the series being banned from a Georgia school due to Olaf trying to marry his own relative in the first book. After jokingly hinting at why Southerners in particular would object to that plot point, he went on, "I'm at a loss for how to write a villain who doesn't do villainous things."
    • There was also some amount of scandal involved with the book when several Christian groups found out that Daniel Handler was an atheist, and claimed that the book series would turn children into atheists.
  • Every villain in any of the Land of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. Baum talks about how evil and nasty they are and how they love being that way, but they're all talk and no show. In his sixth book, four teams of villains band together to make war on Oz in secret, but Ozma had three annoyingly convenient plot devices that put the kibosh on the war just seconds before it could happen. In his previous book, The Road to Oz, there is absolutely no conflict of villains at all. It may have been intentional because the prologues and epilogue of book six suggest that he really wished his fans would stop asking him to write the series.
  • Gary Karkofsky, a.k.a. Merciless: The Supervillain without MercyTM in The Supervillainy Saga, is the Villain Protagonist of the series. However, its repeatedly brought up he's not nearly as evil as its required to be one in Falconcest City. As such, he mostly restricts himself to robbing the super-rich and Poke the Poodle pranks.
  • Villains by Necessity: The villains never do much that's really bad (mostly killing to save the world or in self-defense, while Arcie's thefts never cause harm). Valerie is the worst, killing some dolphins just for fun. The evilest thing that the others are shown doing is dropping a tree on a village full of Smurf expies, which is Played for Laughs.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Lord Zedd, one of the truly genuinely creepy villains in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, got turned into an Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain by the network after parents complained he was "too scary" for their kids.
    • Made especially jarring considering that the Rangers' response to any monster's crime is to blow them up (twice!). Heck, most monsters don't even get to commit a crime before being destroyed.
    • Similarly, the number of "bad guy" figures released in the series' accompanying toy line has diminished over the years; in Power Rangers' early days, a good handful of bad guy figures were released along with the Ranger figures, sold under their own name, but nowadays you'll be hard-pressed to find even one baddie among the sea of Ranger merchandise... and if you do, it's under the generic term of "Evil Space Alien". Who exactly the kids are supposed to play-fight with their Power Ranger action figures is a mystery.
  • An in-universe example (sort of): The Couch Gag of Que Vida Mas Triste is the actors (not the characters) discussing show-related stuff. One of them is about Borja receiving mail from a feminist association denouncing him because his character treats women like sex objects. Except not only Borja Can't Get Away with Nuthin', his experiences with women usually end the worst. So, apparently, you can't be sexist against women, even if this is shown to be a bad thing. That, or the writers didn't think the joke very well.
  • Siegfried, the agent of KAOS who usually fought against Max Smart in Get Smart, definitely falls into this trope. Sure, he was "involved" in KAOS's schemes, but whenever he ran up against Max, the more common thing for them to do was trade commiserations about comparative health benefits, retirement benefits, and working conditions between KAOS and CONTROL, with each one trying to get the other to defect. Oh, and argue over whether KAOS or CONTROL's spy gadgets were better.
  • The Handmaid's Tale: In the original book, Gilead was racist, sexist, militarist and generally they fulfilled every possible negative stereotype of the Right-Wing Militia Fanatic to the maximum extent. This adaptation actually amplifies the regime's misogyny, or at least the attention it receives, but seemingly omits the racism, even showing the system actively promoting higher black birthrates. Unlike the above examples (with The Handmaid's Tale being a million miles from kid friendly in the first place) this change was made for pragmatic reasons, as the makers reasoned that a society built around plummeting birth rates could ill afford to deport fertile women based on racial grounds. They also have black people in their ranks, and are also fine with interracial marriage (this is also practical in that it allows the show to avoid Monochrome Casting). Still, a disproportionate number of black people are in low-ranking positions and almost all Commanders are white. Remember this is in Boston, a city which is about 25% black. It indicates that black members of the regime are in a secondary position overall. The only explicit racism is one white Commander and Wife who refuse to have Handmaids of color, though.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Over the past several years, heels in World Wrestling Entertainment have been forced to tone down their behavior to the point that all but a few of them hardly seem worse than mere Jerkass status, and even appear unobjectionable compared to some of the faces of the Attitude Era. Often this will be taken to ridiculous extremes, with the heels portrayed as full-blown Dirty Cowards who are too afraid to attack anyone openly - and worse, sometimes crying or begging for mercy, when a real-life villain would just try to kill or maim his opponent, or at least display a token amount of hatred. Making insulting remarks regarding race or ethnicity - even one's own race or ethnicity - has been generally forbidden since the mid-2000s. References to Satanism or the occult are a no-no (unless you're The Undertaker or Kane, since the former is a Face and both benefit from the Grandfather Clause). It is still permissible to bully, threaten, or lecherously leer at a woman, but actually hitting a woman is blatantly crossing the Moral Event Horizon and isn't attempted except in the most serious of stories. (Sexist comments are generally okay, but only if the victim kicks the man's ass afterwards.) And while firearms are popular in almost every other entertainment medium, it's surprisingly very, very rare to see even the most violent villain in pro wrestling brandishing a gun (the few times it's happened, it's been called "controversial," as if nothing else in WWE programming could be that). If you think about it, relying on this trope is quite counterproductive for wrestling, since trying to diminish a heel's level of evil will make it much more difficult for him to draw Cheap Heat.

  • Hamish and Andy: During a sketch about the idea about making a new version of Google maps called Google treasure maps that would be tailored specifically for pirates. Then one of the pirates mentioned his intention of using the map to find a port were he could pillage and “inappropriately touch” women.

    Video Games 
  • In Team Fortress 2, the Medic is a German near-sociopathic mad doctor who considers healing people a mere side effect of curing his own morbid curiosity, and the game's time period makes it clear he would've been around during the World Wars. However, the game's writers have gone out of their way to confirm that he's not nor has ever been a Nazi. In this case, the reasoning for it is less to do with avoiding controversy, and more because making him a Nazi would have been "too easy, and too boring." It also avoids the natural Fridge Logic that would arise from a Nazi serving on a team with a black man and a Russian (the latter of which he also happens to be a close friend with).
  • Inverted in the case of the Syndicate remake. Reviewers called out Starbreeze for throwing in a Heel–Face Turn instead of letting you fully embrace the Villain Protagonist role of the originals.
  • The evil(er) Overlord in Overlord is more funny-evil than evil-evil. He has a harem of kidnapped village girls who don't actually do anything but stand there and wonder if they can get something less revealing to wear.

    Visual Novels 
  • On the title character's romantic path in Melody, Steve and Bethany, the vengeful exes who plot to destroy Melody and the protagonist, get redemption scenes late in the story.

    Web Originals 
  • Parodied by Homestar Runner in the Strong Bad Email "being mean", where Strong Bad makes fun of an e-mailer known as "Nice Dad" who scolds him for "being mean" and tries to convince him to "point out why being mean isn't always the best choice". Strong Bad then shows a "high school drama club" production by "Coach Z's Nicetown Players", in which Head Male Cheerleader (Coach Z) and Marzipan's character are at a party making (rather defanged) jibes at Strong Mad in the role of a stupid nerd. After the fun is made, the party's going great... until suddenly the gigantic muscular nerd comes back to bash Head Male Cheerleader with a bat full of nails.
  • The Child Care Action Project will count points against a movie using its WISDOM score system regardless of which characters perpetrate the wrongdoing, even or especially if it's the villain, and even if said villain is some unlikeable loser like Prince John from Disney's Robin Hood (1973), who no child would want to emulate anyway.

    Western Animation 
  • This was one reason why Mark Hamill was cast as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. The role was originally going to go to Tim Curry, still one of the patron deities of the Monster Clown for his role in It (1990), but that fell through for two reasons. One was that the laugh threatened to damage Curry's throat, but the other was that Curry was too creepy for a role in what was ultimately a kids' show.
  • All the way back before any actual Transformers fiction was created, Hasbro representatives initially complained that the name "Megatron" sounded too dangerous, until reminded that the character was intended to be the Big Bad.
    Bob Budiansky: Megatron – I had to fight for that one. Hasbro initially turned it down because they felt it was too scary, because back in the 1980s, megatons meant nuclear bombs and had a very scary connotation, which was my intent. [...] On other occasions, they turned down names, but with Megatron, I felt it had a nice ring to it and I fought for it. They said it was too scary and I said, well, he is the head of the bad guys, he’s supposed to be scary. So they reconsidered.
  • In early VeggieTales, before DVD, "Rack, Shack, and Benny" retold a Biblical story of idolatry, replacing chocolate bunnies for the idol. The bag guy, Mr. Nezzer, sang "The Bunny Song", with lyrics about neglecting parents, school, and church. The heroes achieve their moral victory by refusing to sing along—but the song was so ridiculously catchy that Real Life kids started singing it for real. The show responded, first by offering a "New & Improved Bunny Song", as sung by the reformed Mr. Nezzer, in their first sing-along video: the tune was the same, but the words were about getting a stomach ache from eating too many chocolate bunnies. ("I need to eat good food to help me to grow / I'll obey my mama, 'cause she loves me so.") And when his backing singers sang the same lyrics from the old song, Mr. Nezzer scolded them. Then, reprints of "Rack, Shack, and Benny" bowdlerized the villainous version of "The Bunny Song", to make it more focused on neglecting healthy food. Now, the original version of the song is only around at VHS quality. You can see it here.
  • The Simpsons: According to Matt Groening, Bart Simpson was created out of his frustration with this trope; as he put it, the traditional brat in television was usually just a decently mannered kid who spoke too loud, in contrast to Bart's genuinely disruptive and anti-authority behavior.
    • Of course, back in the day Matt got what he wanted and more: when The Simpsons first began airing (and particularly during the first two seasons) Bart's behavior set off a firestorm of protests from angry parents' groups saying Bart was a terrible role model. Unlike many examples on this page, though, all this complaining was roundly ignored by the show's writers, who refused to change a thing. In fact, it inspired an episode where Marge stages a censorship campaign against Itchy and Scratchy. The campaign works, and I&S becomes incredibly bland and boring as a result.
    • Ironically, either through shifting culture or Menace Decay (probably a little of both), Bart can now be reasonably accurately described as a "decently mannered kid who speaks too loud".
      • Even in his heyday, Bart could almost be a subversion. While he genuinely enjoyed causing mayhem, most of his antics were more meant to drive authority figures crazy rather than cause any genuine harm. There were lines that even Bart wouldn't cross, and when he realized he went too far, he'd actually feel bad about it and try to make up for it. The prime examples would be he'd happily torment Homer and raise hell for Skinner but cares about Marge's opinion of him and never pranks Maggie. He'll tease Lisa relentlessly but if anything ELSE bothers Lisa he'll step in to help her out.
  • In Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles, Big Bad Xanatos and his wife Fox got a really jarring Heel–Face Turn and became complete saints (in the canon comics by the original creator, Greg Weisman, they do a much more natural semi-Heel–Face Turn to become Anti Heroes, and even though they're now allies of the protagonists are still very morally grey and rather untrustworthy).
  • The Venture Bros. proves that even shows aimed very squarely at adults can fall victim to this, as shown by a story one of the creators likes to tell at conventions about how his own mother got on his case for including a scene where the Monarch calls somebody a retard. He responded by doing two things; first, pointing out the obvious fact that the whole point of the scene was that Monarch is a Jerkass Politically Incorrect Villain who is uncaring towards others' feelings, and second, making the scene longer to include a gag about people haranguing Monarch for using the word and him just doubling down on it.

  • The treatment many Neopets villains receive (and nearly all that aren't part of the regular character lineup). Goes hand-in-hand with the prevalent Villain Decay.