The Big Bad has just finished consolidating his power or conquering nations, or maybe he's had a few decades to construct a Dystopia, and all seems to be going well for him. The plucky heroes are trying to bring him down, but he's on a roll, and no one's going to stop him now... except maybe himself.
Suddenly his subjects seem a bit less cowed by his killing and imprisoning their loved ones, and his every effort to bring them in line just make things worse. One or two of his plans don't quite go off as expected, thanks to infighting between his lieutenants. And maybe his paranoia is getting the better of him, and he's starting to let slip the civil facade that keeps him from being an utter monster.
At the end of the day, the villain's downfall comes not just from the efforts of the protagonists, but also from the very nature of their twisted, amoral way of life. Without that specifically being addressed, this would just be Justice Will Prevail.
This trope is rather rare, only appearing in odd mixes of realism-meets-idealism. On the one hand, it may seem naive to imply that a system won't work just because it's morally offensive. On the other hand, there is no perfect Evil Empire in history like the ones we often see portrayed in fiction, because simply put, nothing is perfect. Just as a Stepford Suburbia rubs us the wrong way in their eerie sense of too-perfect "goodness," a completely devoted following of faceless foot soldiers in a well oiled machine of an empire ruled by a tyrant with complete control over his subjects smacks a bit of fairy-tale "evil."
Ultimately, this is a trope in a story that reminds us that battles aren't always won by the genius of the victorious general, but also the mistakes of the defeated one. Note that this doesn't have to be about a large group of evil: it could just as easily be an individual. Whether it's an excess of Greed or Pride that does the villain in, valuing negative-sum interactions, a mentality of always defecting on the Prisoner's Dilemma, or the simple fact that victims of oppression will eventually rebel, Evil as a lifestyle or system cannot endure.
- Thanos, Marvel Comics' resident Omnicidal Maniac, is so smart and powerful that he has been outright stated as being capable of losing only because he knows, deep inside, that he doesn't deserve the power he seeks, thus unconsciously sabotaging his own plans, giving the heroes openings to strike at him, etc.
- Similarly, Doctor Doom is motivated by an intense egomania that drives him to attempt to conquer the world and kill that blasted Reed Richards, but that very egomania prevents him from recognizing his own mistakes and frequently leads to his own defeat.
- Norman Osborn essentially became the most powerful man on earth for two years (six months in-universe) in Dark Reign. Unfortunately for him, his mental instability and arrogance eventually led to his downfall more than any single hero ever could. And everyone except him knew it was going to happen.
- In The Lion King, it's shown that, even if Simba hadn't shown up and pulled a Rightful King Returns, Scar's rule over the lion pride would have collapsed anyway since he'd driven the pridelands to the point of ecological ruin. Either the lions would have turned against him and left, the hyenas would have turned on him and ripped him apart for making them scapegoats, or everyone would have died along with him when the food and water ran out. Simba showing up when he did just put a more dramatic end to Scar.
- GoodFellas: The three characters:
- Tommy's Hair-Trigger Temper makes him murder a made man without permission, one of the biggest breaches of the mobster code, which gets him unceremoniously shot in the back of the head (so his mother can't have an open casket for him).
- Jimmy decides to kill his associates after the heist to have the entire haul for himself, which proves to be his undoing.
- Henry gets greedy and sets up his own operation that gets him arrested. Worse, he has no regrets over his life of crime other than getting caught.
- Hobo with a Shotgun: As The Drake mocks The Hobo, who he has stuck in a manhole and prepped for decapitation by car, The Hobo tells him: "Drake... Eventually, evil will turn against evil. It'll wipe itself out. Leaving nothing but wreckage and fucked up memories!"
- In The Prestige, stage magician Angier's steady descent into his revenge-fueled obsession ultimately culminates in betrayal by his engineer and closest friend, who no longer agrees with his methods and goals.
- Star Wars: A New Hope: "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers." The Empire's 0% Approval Rating directly contributes to the Rebel Alliance's success, to the point where long before he had a personal stake in the conflict, even Luke, the resident of a backwater world with far more pressing local problems than Imperial oppression, took it for granted that it was an evil worth fighting against. While the Rebel Alliance in A New Hope has been reduced to a few small bases with no real fleet to speak of (Rogue One confirms this, with only a handful of ships larger than corvettes, sallying out on a critical mission, and all getting destroyed at Scarif), by Return of the Jedi they can field a massive fleet of hundreds of cruisers in the final battle at Endor, visually illustrating that the rebellion did become stronger.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, including books and video games, too much infighting among the Sith led to the Rule of Two, which restricts the existence of the Sith to only two at a time: the Master and the Apprentice, who eventually tries to usurp the Master by killing them and taking their place, only to take on an Apprentice they know will one day try and kill them. If they weren't so evil that they couldn't coexist peacefully, they could easily grow in numbers and become virtually unstoppable.
- The "doomed to fail" rule of the Sith has been averted twice — the Old Sith Empire, and its successor set up in the Unknown Regions. Both had plenty of infighting as well but both lasted more than a millennium, and functioned relatively well, though that said, they were usually not quite as evil as the ones that fell apart. Aside from them, Bane's Sith Order managed to last 1,000 years in secrecy and was still around for a while after the death of Palpatine, if as a shadow of its former self. The other orders lasted long enough to do significant damage to the galaxy at large in each of their turns.
- The Revenge of the Sith novelization explicitly states at one point that the Jedi Order has been keeping itself in condition and passing on ways to defeat a Sith threat which is like that of the Old Sith Empire. Meanwhile, the tiny 'true' Sith order has always been either undetected or underestimated, and in the end Yoda comes to believe that the entire time they've been evolving to attack and take down the much larger Jedi Order. That's been their tight focus. The Galactic Empire that the Sith came to command was not itself Sith, mostly, but Palpatine's mishandling of his people was a big part in how the Rebel Alliance was able to form.
- Coulson tells Loki in The Avengers that no matter what he does, he will not win against them.
Coulson: You’re going to lose. It's in your nature. You lack conviction.
- Also, later on, Tony does the same thing.
Tony: There's no throne. There is no version of this where you come out on top. Maybe your army comes, and maybe it's too much for us, but it's all on you. 'Cause if we can't protect the Earth, you can be damn well sure we'll avenge it.
- Also, later on, Tony does the same thing.
- In the film version of the musical Camelot, Arthur tries to convince Mordred that evil winds up destroying itself. He claims the best that evil can ever get is Pyrrhic Villainy, because while evil can be triumphant for a time, it can never be happy, and it inevitably causes its own downfall as a result.
- A Song of Ice and Fire includes a large plethora of varied shades of "evil," but whenever one of the really bad ones take power, various things go to hell in a handbasket as a result of their generally callous and power-hungry worldviews.
- Joffrey Baratheon is a Spoiled Brat who has no sense of self-control or restraint, making enemies of both the rich and the poor, just because he loves to flaunt his power and his prestige. This gets him assassinated by poison. Because he's such an asshole, nobody is really sure who did it (because everybody has some reason to do it by this point) and nobody cares enough to find out.
- Cersei can't stop the downward spiral of her city because she cares more about appointing people to positions of power who are loyal to her (and only her) than ones effective at doing their jobs. Not only that, but as soon as she falls from power, the "loyal" people she appointed immediately turn against her, the only exception being Mad Doctor Qyburn, presumably because no sane/competent ruler would let him perform his experiments.
- The posthumous caligula, Mad King Aerys, whose insanity caused him to alienate everyone in the Seven Kingdoms and eventually got him killed by a member of his own Kingsguard, Jaime Lannister, who he ordered to burn down the entire city of King's Landing when it looked like they were about to lose the war.
- By the end of the fifth book in the series, Ramsay Bolton's continual aversions of his father's Pragmatic Villainy are undermining their entire family, and it seems very unlikely that any rule of his would be sustainable.
- Tywin Lannister both averts this and plays it straight: politically, he is a paragon of Pragmatic Villainy, and his many extremely ruthless decisions are always well-planned, and consequently he is one of the most competent and long-lasting rulers in the books. Personally, however, he is too arrogant or hateful to accept when he really is in trouble, and it gets him killed.
- Subverted and lampshaded in Dungeons & Dragons. The Drow culture is made of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder because their goddess enables their behavior. However, she also is the thing that keeps their society functioning since the goddess knows that otherwise, their society would collapse. However, it is still played somewhat straight in that the only thing keeping the Drow culture together is literal divine intervention and without it, would've ended quickly.
- Played straight in the Dragonlance setting and novels, however, where it's a fundamental truism that "evil turns upon itself".
- In The Stand, Randall Flagg's half of civilization begins to deteriorate when the presence of so many volatile personalities mix in one society, fear stops being as effective for control, and every minor failure makes the Big Bad himself go into fits of rage and lose his focus, causing errors in judgement.
- The Sword of Truth series includes an empire that is completely oppressive to individuality and self-interest. As a result, when a high-ranking member falls in love and is confronted with the dissonance of what he feels and what he believes, he commits suicide.
- The Lord of the Rings has a quote by Gandalf: "Oft evil will shall evil mar."
"If I, wearing [the Ring], were to command you, you would obey, even if it were to leap from a precipice or cast yourself into the fire. And such would be my command."
- Indeed, this is rather prevalent in Tolkien's work, if somewhat subtly. Saruman' grasping of the Villain Ball by destroying Fangorn Forest leads to the Ents marching on Orthanc and destroying it. An even greater example is that Gollum, driven mad by obsession with the Ring, bites it off Frodo's finger, dances around in glee...and plummets into the Crack of Doom, thus destroying it. At one point, Frodo (wearing the Ring) had stated:
"And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."
- Later, Frodo (while wearing the Ring, which it's implied was speaking through him) commands him that "if you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom." The Ring was destroyed by its own malice.
- And in the very beginning of the Silmarillion, Eru Iluvatar says to Melkor:
- In King Crow, Cormac's "prophecy" amounts to this:
"Tell me, do you believe your position to be secure?" Cormac asked the tyrant softly.
"Who says it isn't?" demanded Bregant, looking about.
"Listen," said Cormac. "My visions have told me the fate of all tyrants such as you. Beware the knife at your back, the mole at your feet, and the weapon that breaks in your hands. You will never be safe. Even the hills are crowned with fire, and that fire will come to consume you."
- Invoked by Chronicles of the Necromancer. Jared is a rotten ruler, with a 0% Approval Rating — refugees are pouring out from his country, and one by one he's pissing off all of his neighboring rulers. Which means Martris has no trouble finding supporters to help him seize the throne.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four is a notable inversion of this trope: the evil Big Brother governments of the world have things so completely under control and so tightly locked into their plans, that the book ends with the "resistance" depicted as a myth and the protagonist of the story successfully brainwashed into obedience. Although the appendix does talk about Ingsoc in the past tense, implying that in the end, evil failed after all.
- The gang in Valley of Fear is inherently unsustainable because their extortionist practices drive out the smaller businessmen, who are being steadily replaced by big magnates who will not be so easily cowed. Too bad they think The Complainer Is Always Wrong.
- The Thrawn Trilogy in the ''Star Wars Expanded Universe" employs this to great effect. Thrawn's not an outright horrible person, but it's a series of unethical actions — double-crossing Mara, deceiving the Noghri, trying to manipulate the smugglers — that lead to his downfall due to changed allegiances.
- It's also implied that the only reason the Empire can pull off as much as it does is that Thrawn is less evil than his predecessors like Vader and Isard. Unlike them, he doesn't execute subordinates on a whim or waste resources on his vanity, meaning more is available to bolster the military.
- The three villainous protagonists in The Canterbury Tales' "The Pardoner's Tale" end up killing each other due to their greed.
- In Harry Potter, what always sets Voldemort back is his inability to understand The Power of Love.
- In Mariel of Redwall one good character chastises an evil one for thinking he'd ever win, since it's evil's nature to defeat itself. The series shows that villains are generally too power-hungry and back-stabbing to ever actually be efficient in the long run. Half their defeat comes from this without any effort by the good characters at all.
- This is the fundamental hope of protagonist John Rumford and his allies, who battle the dystopian future US regime in Victoria, and ultimately also the message of the book. While the federal government, military-industrial complex, Wall Street financial oligarchs and liberal mainstream media giants look formidable and unbeatable, they are in fact already corroding under the very weight of their own corruption and reality-denying ideologies. And they will only get weaker as they degenerate further and become more oppressive and tyrannical, leaving freedom's victory assured so long as good men have remained to organize and prepare for the day of opportunity.
- Once someone is in Purgatory in The Divine Comedy, they are destined to reach Heaven, no matter how many serpents and demons try to stop them.
- In The Wire season 1, the nature of "The Game" of drug dealing has everyone looking out for themselves, to the point where innocent bystanders or even friends who might pose a risk have to be dealt with. It's this repeated brutality that ends up winning allies for the investigation team again and again from players who want out after someone they care about gets hurt.
- In Power Rangers in Space, evil would actually have won if not for the fact that villains don't exactly get along very well. The Bigger Bad was only defeated because The Starscream couldn't hold back his urge to backstab somebody at the worst possible moment.
- In Breaking Bad, every major player in the drug game — the Cartel, Gus Fring, Walter White — ends up falling due to infighting and a basic lack of trust among associates. Generally speaking, the closer to the black end of the Black and Grey Morality spectrum they are, the harder they fall. The DEA, while hard-working and occasionally heroic, mostly just picks up the pieces of the various turf wars and occasionally knocks off some low-hanging fruit.
- In Stargate Continuum the Goa'uld, under Ba'al, have become an unbeatable force. However, the treacherous nature of the Goa'uld rears its head, and Ba'al is literally stabbed in the back, which ultimately leads to the end of the Goa'uld empire.
- Babylon 5: After the Centauri Republic conquers the Narn homeworld, Centauri ambassador Mollari demands that Narn ambassador G'Kar be ejected from the Babylon 5 Advisory Council (since he represents a government that no longer exists). Before leaving the council chamber, G'Kar invokes this trope:
G'Kar: No dictator, no invader can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, tyrants and dictators cannot stand. The Centauri learned that lesson once. We will teach it to them again. Though it take a thousand years, we will be free.
- Game of Thrones: House Bolton, probably the most unambiguously cruel and evil house in the series, is destroyed by their own penchant for cruelty and backstabbing nature after the last remaining member Ramsay Bolton, who killed everyone else in the family, gets fed to his own dogs when his Karma Houdini Warranty runs out. Furthermore, despite their faction's successes Joffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister are killed as a result of their evil actions.
- The ancient religion Zoroastrianism actually has this. The world has not one, but two supreme gods. One is Ahura Mazda, the God of Good and represents every benevolence. The other is Angra Mainyu, the God of Evil and represents every malevolence. Although both are equal in power and position, Angra Mainyu will lose in the end, because of the self-destructiveness of being evil.
- Warhammer 40,000: Comes up most often with Chaos. The Chaos God Tzeentch is waging a war against the other Chaos gods but he would die if any of his plans ultimately succeeded because he'd have nothing to plot against, and he knows it. So, he actually creates plans to run contrary to each other and even sabotages his own plans so they'll always backfire even if they can succeed by complete accident. All four of them qualify as Mad Gods but even among them Tzeentch has a reputation for being crazy and unknowable. Also to a lesser extent, the Orks, who are so hostile and violent that they'd never fully conquer the galaxy or even unite under one banner.
- Chronicles of Darkness: The main reason almost all the truly evil factions in the setting still have yet to win is because they tend to have self-destructive practices.
- Vampire: The Requiem: Belial's Brood always fail to grow truly powerful and influent like the main playable Covenants because they are satanistic Fully Embraced Fiends who just won't acknowledge the need for the Masquerade— meaning the authorities are usually fast to catch and kill them.
- Werewolf: The Forsaken: the Pure haven't exterminated the Forsaken yet despite widely outnumbering them because they can't get along with each other. Moreover, one of their three tribes, the Ivory Claws, have a major case of Fantastic Racism and practice selective breeding... which means they struggle to maintain their number.
- Mage: The Awakening: The Seers of the Throne still have yet to defeat the Orders of the Pentacles because they are a lazy, corrupt Deadly Decadent Court whose practice of encouraging backstabbing actually almost destroyed them once.
- Fallout has brought this up a number of times, namely when talking about Raiders.
- Another Bethesda creation, The Elder Scrolls, has the case for Potema Septim, the "Wolf Queen" of Solitude, in the backstory. Married off the Jarl of Solitude by her brother, Emperor Antiochus Septim, Potema was a prime Manipulative Bastard and Chessmaster. She lied to her new husband and got his son exiled to ensure that her own son, Uriel III, would take the throne of Solitude, and in time the Ruby Throne of all Tamriel. When her niece, Kintyra II, was declared heir instead of Uriel III, Potema engaged in a bloody conflict known as the War of the Red Diamond, and after years of violent conquest and inciting rebellion in Skyrim, Hammerfell, and High Rock, she captured and executed Kintyra II, put Uriel III on the throne, and killed anyone who disagreed. However, the loyalist forces, led by her other brother Cephorus, did not stop and fought against this puppet Emperor, with Uriel III himself dying a scant year or so into his rule when his caravan was intercepted by an angry mob who burned him to death. Upon hearing the news, what little humanity that remained in the Wolf-Queen was snuffed out, and her fury against the new Emperor Cephorus was terrible to behold. In her madness and spite, she began consorting with Daedra, and raising the dead on both sides as zombies and skeletons to fight for her. Stories of the Wolf-Queen being tended to by skeletal chambermaids, Lich advisors, and vampire lieutenants spread like wildfire, while any living servants who dared to offend her being sacrificed in bloody rituals to dark gods or worse. Her horrified allies abandoned her in droves. Eventually none who lived called themselves allies of the mad Wolf-Queen, and Solitude became a land of death. After alienating just about everyone else in Tamriel, their armies marched into Solitude and laid siege to the capital. Potema eventually died in her castle after a protracted, decade-long siege.
- Dangan Ronpa: The Big Bad, a very talented despair Nightmare Fetishist, sets up a Closed Circle where some students are manipulated into murdering each other or become prisoners forever. Their plan works as always, but they cannot understand that every student that survives becomes more difficult to manipulate and they Can't Catch Up with the hero: The Mole they planted makes a Heroic Sacrifice and becomes a Doomed Moral Victor. The Big Bad tries to kill the Amateur Sleuth and blame the Great Detective, causing the Amateur Sleuth to become a Messianic Archetype. In the Final Battle, they try again to get every survivor to betray the Messianic Archetype, incapable of realizing that this works only once and they would not do it a second time. Even when the Big Bad still manages to control the situation, and they could easily retire and learn from their errors to torture their prisoners later, they cannot conceive that idea, so they prefer to destroy themselves because they are a Nightmare Fetishist for their own despair.
- The Evil Elder Powers from Nexus Clash have this in spades, as worlds shaped by their hands tend to burn out and die quickly on account of them being personifications of ideals like Chaos, Selfishness, and Violence. They still win the most often. Subverted in that all of the Elder Powers, even the benevolent ones, have flaws in their ideologies that cause their worlds to come apart eventually, which forces another cycle of the Eternal Recurrence that drives the series.
- Comes up a lot with the Nazis from Wolfenstein: The New Order and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The world has just too many different people in the world for you to subjugate without them all banding together to destroy you, and not even your ill-begotten Nazi super-tech can prevent that.
- In the X-Men animated series, this accidentally sets off the "Beyond Good and Evil" four-partner. Cable attacks Apocalypse's stronghold in 3999 AD, but the immortal genocidal warlord lures him into a trap to steal his enemy's time portal device, and prepares to execute Cable. He taunts Apocalypse that there will always be those who oppose his plans and that he can never truly win. Apocalypse ponders it for a moment, and acknowledges that he has been fighting the "inferior beings" for many thousands of years and still hasn't won, despairing that he might be stuck like this for all eternity like Sisyphus of Greek myth. Then he uses his new powers and inadvertently ends up in Axis of Time, the very nexus of all timelines, where he can undo everything to recreate it according to his own design. And he still fails.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, once Princess Azula actually gets the power she desires and becomes Fire Lord, things quickly go downhill for her even without Team Avatar's intervention. Driven by paranoia, sociopathy, and the pain of betrayal from her former "friends", she banishes all her servants, alienates her closest allies, starts seeing things, and overall plummets into Villainous Breakdown.
- In Legend of Korra, season 4 sees Kuvira undone by her own hubris. She systematically goes from state to state in the Earth Kingdom, occupying the country with her own loyal troops, and instituting puppet governors, as a means of seizing power for herself as a dictator. As the other nations are in no position to interfere, being an internal Earth Kingdom matter, both they and the true Earth King are powerless to stop her. She would have been completely successful had she not flown too close to the sun by invading the United Republic, with an army that could not match that of the United Forces were it not for her Humongous Mecha, which Team Avatar manages to destroy.
- Necrafa, the Big Bad of Mysticons, is ultimately defeated when her Dragon Dreadbane has in his possession the Macguffin that can destroy her. Dreadbane is in love with Necrafa, but she despises him. When she can't even say that she loves him in a convincing manner, he just drops the Macguffin, allowing the heroes to get it.
- In Jackie Chan Adventures, this is the Fatal Flaw of Shendu, who is chronically treacherous in his unwillingness to share power (like with his demon brethren) or riches (like the lost treasure he promised to reward the Dark Hand with for restoring him). This betraying habit costs him important victories and advantages at different points of the series. After he betrays the Dark Hand at the end of the 1st season, they follow him all the way to China in order to steal their promised reward and unknowingly bring with them Jade, who turns out to be crucial in Shendu's defeat. In the 2nd season, Shendu has been reduced to a spirit and forced to work for his siblings, who all give him hard time for never freeing them from their centuries-lasting imprisonment. In the 3rd season, he refuses to give Daolon Wong the reward he promised for resurrecting him and is ultimately brought down when Wong's desire for revenge is serious enough to make him reveal the spell created to imprison Shendu after being stripped of his own powers and arrested and by the end of the series, he's trapped in the demon realm fighting his own son.