Sonic: Well, that's a relief.
Once again, the villain has gotten out of the Cardboard Prison. But this time, they've just served their sentence, with possible time off for good behavior, and guess what? They're no longer interested in crime, they just want to be an upstanding citizen. The system works!
And if you believe that, I've got a slightly used Death Ray to sell you. This is usually just a ruse on the part of the villain, who's plotting thier crimes in secret. It may even be part of an elaborate scheme to get the heroes to drop their guard and insinuate the villain as a Heel–Face Mole.
An important part of this plot is that everyone else will usually believe the villain right away, it's the heroes who are made to look like fools by their paranoid suspicions. This can veer into Through the Eyes of Madness territory. The villain may set up a situation that looks like they’re up to old tricks, so that the heroes will come barging in to stop thier... perfectly lawful activities. This makes the villain look like an innocent victim of petty harassment and discredits any heroes who continue to suspect that they’re still up to no good. Matters may escalate to the point where the duped heroes end up with tarnished reputations or trouble with the law.
Sometimes the villain is so proficient at leading a normal life that you have to wonder why they even bother with being a villain. Couldn't they just get someone to Cut Lex Luthor a Check? This is more plausible if the villain is just insane or motivated by animosity toward the heroes.
In particularly tragic instances of this, the villain really does reform, but the mistrust from their environment (and possibly the hero in particular) convinces them it's not worth it, and they go back to villainy.
Contrast Heel–Face Turn (where the villain actually becomes an out-and-out hero) and/or Reformed Criminal (where the villain genuinely changes their ways), Retired Monster (where the villain gives up villainy simply because he's tired of it), Villain with Good Publicity (where the villain cultivates a long-term respectable reputation while continuing thier evil deeds out of the public eye), Chronic Villainy (the villain sincerely attempts to reform but cannot get over thier old obsessions), and Reformed, but Rejected (the villain really does give up thier evil ways — but the hero still doesn't believe it). See also Then Let Me Be Evil, where a character (re)turns to evil because everyone treats them with suspicion.
- Batman gets this one a lot, since his theme is "justice, not vengeance" and he's contractually obligated to give people a chance, even if he doesn't believe it himself.
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns has two instances of this:
- Harvey Dent (AKA Two-Face) gets plastic surgery to fix his mutilated face, but it doesn't actually cure his insanity, despite a promising start. Batman really hoped it would work (especially since Bruce and Harvey were friends). He puts on a façade for the cameras while plotting to blow up the Gotham Towers.
- The Joker claims to have changed after decades in Arkham, and is released after his evaluation by a strawman liberal psychiatrist. He goes on a talkshow to prove he just wants to make people smile... and then kills everybody. And somehow, some people are surprised.
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns has two instances of this:
- Lex Luthor and the Joker team up with this gambit in World's Finest Comics #88, building nigh-indestructible industrial robots as a front for their actual plan.
- A pre-Crisis Superman story had Luthor reforming after falling in love and deciding to marry. He even allowed Superman to scan his mind with a device to confirm it. Except it turned out to be a convoluted scheme even Luthor himself wasn't aware of since erasing his own memories was part of the plan— so he really DID go straight, only to return to evil when the plan failed and ended up banishing his new wife to another universe instead of Superman.
- The Threat from the Golden Age Flash story "Challenge of the Threat" (from All Flash Quarterly #2). Back when he was a small-time burglar named Joe Connor, he pretended to go straight when he went to jail, using his time to study and sophisticate himself as a secret revenge plot against the D.A. who sent him to jail. Upon being released, he makes peace with the D.A. and has his goons kidnap his only son. Connor moves to Valley Hill to bring up the child against his real father, but upon meeting Annie Crowley, he falls in love with her and goes straight for real, even having a daughter together with her. However, after Annie died, Connor went back to his revenge plot and told his adopted son that the D.A. killed his mother.
- Another Flash story, this one from the Silver Age, involved Heat Wave pretending to go straight in order to get parole and thus get back to committing crimes quicker. This enraged his partner-in-crime/friend Captain Cold, as Cold is a big believer in Honor Among Thieves and was disgusted/disappointed that Heat Wave would stoop to such a dishonorable trick (as he commented "If there's one thing I hate more than a straight man, it's a crook that pretends to go straight!")
- At one point, the Cyborg Superman attempted this, creating a new identity as a schoolteacher and befriending a high school student who, coincidentally, was involved in a few of Superman's adventures, mostly those in the original post-Crisis Kandar. When his identity was revealed, he snapped and attacked, only to escape once more.
- The plot of Justice involves the Legion of Doom pretending to quit supervillainy and use their abilities to help others. Naturally this turns out to simply be part of their latest evil scheme and so the Justice League not only have to stop the Legion, but also prove that the Heel–Face Turn is a hoax.
- One story arc of Spider-Man comic strip had Mysterio apparently quitting being a supervillain and becoming a special effects supervisor like he used to be before he became a bad guy. Spider-Man investigates under the ruse of helping the do the film Mysterio is working on as a publicity stunt. Sure enough it turns out that Mysterio was just using the film as a cover to pull off a big heist. In the climax, Spidey calls out Mysterio, pointing out that he could've just reformed for real and reforged his career as a special effects wizard, which would've been way more profitable and successful in the long-run. Mysterio admits that Spider-Man is correct but then reveals that he doesn't care; Mysterio's found that he enjoys being a card-carrying supercrook far more than he ever liked his old job.
- The Tinkerer from the canon Spider-Man comics plays it straight. After numerous failures that nearly killed him and destroyed his android assistant Toy, he gave up personally fighting good guys. However, he's still in the business of selling black market weaponry to villains (and anyone else with money, such as the Black Cat).
- A recurring plot in Paperinik stories:
- On one occasion, the Beagle Boys opened a job school for ex-convicts, the trick being that all students were pulling this alongside the BBs... And the Beagle Boys actually using Paperinik to create an alibi for some of their students. It ends when the Beagle Boys lead everyone in an assault to Scrooge's money bin... Only to find out that Paperinik had seen through their use of the security cameras to have him provide alibis and used it on them to make them believe he was at the school, and was waiting them with the entire police force.
- Another occasion is the apparent reform of Spectrus, who had apparently lost his hypnotic powers in an incident and reformed, even hypnotizing some dogs into attacking him so that everyone would believe he couldn't hypnotize anymore. After being released on parole, he took an honest job... And started committing heists with his hypnotic powers, with only Paperinik believing he hadn't lost his hypnotic powers. In the end, Spectrus is arrested when Paperinik catches him on camera as he hypnotizes some coworkers to provide him an alibi.
- In Olivia Goes West — a crossover between The Great Mouse Detective and An American Tail —, as part of his scheme to take over Green River (and then gradually America) with Professor Ratigan, Cat R. Waul pretends to have seen the error of his ways and become a vegetarian cat like Tiger. By using support of the charming Professor Ratigan (who's anonymous in America), some "tokens of atonement" and the captured Sheriff Wylie Burp's forced public verifications and promotion of Waul to the new sheriff, Waul and Ratigan win the trust of nearly all of Green River's inhabitants until their inconspicuous crimes are exposed by the heroes.
- Exploited in Mystery Men. Captain Amazing is running out of villains to fight and is financially reliant on superheroics to attract sponsors, and he's smart enough to know Casanova Frankenstein will commence with an Evil Plan once he is let out of the asylum, so he has him freed.
- Frank White in King of New York wants everyone to believe that he was reformed by prison, and is now just a philanthropist with an interest in helping the poor. In reality, not so much.
- 102 Dalmatians: Cruella undergoes a genuine Heel–Face Brainwashing so that she loves animals, but it later wears off. However, she then continues to act as a reformed person to hide her new plan to turn the puppies into fur coats.
- Duke Roger is one of these for the last two books of the Song of the Lioness quartet. Before he died the first time, he tried to kill the crown prince as well as the queen, among others. After he came Back from the Dead, people just kind of accepted his word and Thom's that Roger wasn't dangerous anymore, having "changed." (He did. Instead of wanting the throne, he became an Omnicidal Maniac.)
- Harry Potter: After Voldemort was defeated trying to murder baby Harry, some Death Eaters claimed to have been bewitched or unwilling participants and tried to go back to living a normal life. This was most successful in conjunction with ministry connections and large bribes. In most cases it was only a lie to keep them out of Azkaban. It is further implied that at least some of those who were sent to Azkaban really had been coerced or mind-slaved, and simply didn't have the money to bribe people. Not many people really cared about the truth as long as they got paid.
- Nefarian Serpine from Skulduggery Pleasant.
- The Star Wars Expanded Universe gives us a few of these. Most of the time, the system actually does work. However, when it doesn't, it fails egregiously. Such is the case of Admiral Daala, an Imperial admiral who oversaw the construction of the Death Star, and the orbital bombardment of several planets. Her current job? Head of the Galactic Alliance!
- Very common for recurring Special Guest Villains on Batman. For instance, the Penguin runs for mayor in "Hizzoner the Penguin," and in "Catwoman Goes To College," well.... In one episode, this trope actually works against the Penguin. After opening a high class restaurant to get the signatures of its rich clientele, he purposely tries to get put in prison so he can hook up with an expert forger. The Penguin actually proved somewhat inept at getting himself arrested.
- Doctor Who:
- In the exceptionally dark story "Revelation of the Daleks", Davros takes to calling himself the Great Healer and offering a solution to galactic famine. Thanks to this, Davros can truly call himself humanitarian. (Somewhat subverted in that Davros somehow thinks that he can remain anonymous, despite his unique appearance. The story itself does not address this.)
- Davros pulls this again in the Expanded Universe audio Davros. He puts off his colorful past as "controversial" and becomes a corporate asset, before (predictably) murdering everyone he can and trying to destroy human civilization financially.
- In the first Second Doctor episode, "The Power of the Daleks", and again in the new series episode "Victory of the Daleks", the Daleks pretend to be a friendly servitor race to buy time for another scheme.
- ICarly: In "IStill Psycho", Nora appears to have reformed after being released from prison and reunited with her parents and Carly, Sam, Freddie and Gibby all sympatize with her. Unfortunately, this was revealed to be trap.
- Eggman of Sonic the Hedgehog does this from time to time. (And in lots of incarnations, whether he's Eggman or Robotnik, not just the games.)
- In Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, he claims to have "completely reformed". Nobody believes him, but they work with him anyway for a good stretch of the game since they legitimately need his tech. No prizes for guessing how that turned out.
- Also, in Sonic Colors:
Dr. Eggman: "This amusement park was constructed entirely out of a sense of remorse for my past transgressions, and is in no way associated with any sort of evil plot or premeditated misdeeds."Sonic: "Well, that's a relief."
- The plot to Mega Man 3. Dr. Wily claims to have reformed, and works with Dr. Light to build a giant "peacekeeping robot" which Mega Man has to go out and get the components for. The components, oddly enough, are guarded by 8 robot masters... and once they've gathered them all, Dr. Wily steals the new robot and plots to use it to take over the world.
- Wily does it again in 9, when he gets out of jail, having apparently reformed. He then frames Dr. Light as plotting to take over the world, and asks all the people of the world to send donations to his Swiss bank account so that he can build a new fighting robot to stop Light and his eight robot masters.
- In Mega Man Battle Network 3, Mr. Match convinces Lan he's reformed, only to trick Lan himself into firebombing Sci Lab.
- Dr. Cortex in Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back pretends to be reformed, so that Crash will collect crystals for him so that he can "save the Earth".
- LeChuck seems to turn over a new leaf in Tales of Monkey Island when he is transformed into a human. Logically, Guybrush doesn't trust him for a minute, despite Elaine's pleas to let bygones be bygones.
- In Spider-Man, at the beginning, Doc Ock is shown to have supposedly reformed. Later on, he turns out to be the Big Bad.
- In the comic Bob and George, Dr. Wily does this by faking amnesia to become Dr. Light's assistant again.
- Bob and George is (just loosely enough) based on the actual plot of the games. Thus, this happens only because of association with them.
- In Sonic the Comic – Online! villains Max Gamble and Nack the Weasel both have allegedly gone straight becoming zone leaders and helping groups of people out of the goodness of their hearts, Nack helping the weasels and Gamble helping insect refugees from the Special Zone (who are certainly not Family members), the truth is that Gamble is work for Don Long-Legs head of The Family, and Nack is trying to take over the Ocean Falls Zone.
- Lex Luthor in the Cadmus story arc of Justice League Unlimited does to discredit Superman. He knows that Superman will never believe he's going legit so he can make the Man of Steel look like a bully when he pretends he does.
- The Simpsons:
- In "Black Widower", Bob pretends to go straight and marries Selma with the intention of murdering her.
- In "Sideshow Bob Roberts", Bob is paroled and pretends to be reformed to rig the election for mayor.
- In "Cape Feare", Bobs pretends to reform to get paroled, then pursues the Simpsons to extract revenge on Bart.
- Darkwing Duck: Darkwing, under his secret identity Drake, ended up hosting the criminal Tuskernini after (accidentally) enrolling in the city's 'Adopt-A-Con' program. His trick in getting Tuskernini to reveal his con? Convincing him that he, his daughter, and his sidekick were undercover criminals, that they believed Tuskernini all along, and that Tuskernini caught them in the act of plotting a robbery.
- On Super Friends, the Legion of Doom pulled this once. Since they proceeded to travel into the future because they thought the Superfriends wouldn't find them there, the viewer is left to question why.
- Plankton does this on two occasions in order to steal the Krabby Patty formula. Once in "F.U.N." and once in "New Leaf". He's foiled by Mr. Krabs both times.
- In an earlier episode, Man-Ray pretends to have changed in order to get revenge on Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. But, thanks to Spongebob's Tickle Torture, when he goes to rob a bank, he decides to just open a checking account instead. Later, however, he forms the villain group, E.V.I.L. Then, he's less proactive at evil deeds and decides to be a villain for hire.
- After being defeated the first time in The Spectacular Spiderman, Doctor Octopus pretends to have returned to his original meek personality and asserts that criminal actions were the result of his tentacles forcing him into it. By doing this, it allows him to be kept at an institution under relatively low security and mastermind a break-out for his fellow villains, who, being sane, are kept in maximum security prison.
- One Tuff Puppy episode has Snaptrap claim to have reformed, and everyone buys it except Kitty. He even does some good deeds for the city, but Kitty thinks he's up to his old tricks and ruins them, turning everyone against her. Then Snaptrap reveals he's still evil as he captures everyone in a death trap.
- The episode "Bro Bots" from the Mega Man cartoon revolved around Proto Man pretending to have defected from Dr. Wily as part of a ploy to get in close during an election and replace the mayor and the city officials with Wily's robotic duplicates. Wily also fakes several attacks for Proto Man to defeat in order to further make him credible. There's even a notable, touching moment where he and Mega Man have a friendly moment of fun with Rush in the park and Mega Man admits that he really has always wanted to have a true brotherly relationship with Proto Man.
- Done twice in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius:
- "Eggpire Strikes Back" has King Goobot and the other Yokians coming to Earth and pretending to have reformed. Everyone falls for it except Jimmy.
- "My Big Fat Spy Wedding" has Beautiful Gorgeous pretending to have changed and fallen in love with Jet Fusion. The two are getting married and Jimmy will be the best man. Beautiful hypnotizes Jet just before the wedding so he will kill Jimmy after he says "I have the ring".