We're all used to heroes winning out over the bad guys. The bad guys get theirs, justice is done, and the heroes walk away happy. Sometimes things are a little more bittersweet, but we at least expect the villain to lose in the end. One can even get away with a Downer Ending where it ends badly for the heroes, but many of these kinds of endings are "nobody wins" affairs where everybody pays the price (fatally or not). Even if the villain wins in these kinds of endings, it's usually at great enough personal cost to the villain that they are utterly ruined as a result.
Not so with this ultimate of Downer Endings. The Bad Guy Wins is Exactly What It Says on the Tin: complete and ultimate triumph for the villain, and complete and utter devastation (frequently with death or worse) for the hero or heroes who dared to oppose them. A bad guy who wins is a Karma Houdini by definition, and such endings can frequently be depressing as hell itself — even more so than your regular Downer Ending. When this trope is parodied, it is the happy ending stuck on for the villain instead which is despairingly from the hero's perspective.
History has plenty of examples of this trope, especially in stories of failed rebellions against a powerful empire or recountings of real life tragedies. But in Fictionland, when this kind of ending shows up, it's often used either as a hook for a sequel that will give the hero (or a new hero) the chance to succeed where they failed in the first one, or as a way of showing how much of an utter, hopeless Crapsack World that the characters live in — particularly in the case of Dystopias, where it serves as a warning to those living in the here and now not to let this kind of thing happen for real. There can be any number of other reasons for the bad guy winning: simply for the sake of a twist ending (especially in horror stories, which are often most effective if they leave the audience with a hugely emotionally negative final shock); out of the writer's desire to be original or to throw in a new twist to keep things fresh or unpredictable; because the writer is really pessimistic and/or believes that True Art Is Angsty; because the villain is a Well-Intentioned Extremist and in this case The Extremist Was Right; or just because the writer couldn't find any other way to end the story which suited them. Sometimes it may all just be part of a Black Comedy anyway.
Doomed by Canon often requires this trope. If the Big Bad's Backstory involves the Big Bad attaining all kinds of success to get him or her into the position that started the story, the Prequel requires them to win — and kill off any major characters, no matter how sympathetic, who do not make it to the original story, especially when the original story mentions the villain killing them. More generally, Villain Protagonists will benefit from this trope, particularly in video games where the player takes on the role of a bad guy.
Some stories may attempt to use this trope, yet still try to soften the blow. Perhaps the villain's goal is ultimately a good thing. Or the heroes aren't really that different after all and their loutish behavior keeps us from feeling too sorry for them. Another variant is for the villain to create a Villain World that the heroes must topple in a future story. In the case of video games with Multiple Endings, it is common for at least one ending to have the villain succeed in whatever their plan is, but this is rarely the true/canon ending, which is typically a Golden Ending instead.
In cases when the hero was particularly well-liked and/or the villain particularly hated, the audience may call for a sequel in which the villain gets a proper comeuppance. Or lacking that, they may decide to write their own.
The sixth form of You Are Too Late is one technique to bring this about. Another technique to invoke this is to form a Xanatos Gambit: the villain wins something regardless of whether the heroes foil their Evil Plan or not. A Last Stand commonly features them.
Doing this too often or having this happen almost inevitably will result in Invincible Villain.
See also: Downer Ending, Karma Houdini, Industrialized Evil, and Shoot the Shaggy Dog. Dystopias often end this way. Compare Team Rocket Wins, when the bad guys in question are usually so ineffectual the audience may actually be happy for them to catch a break. Contrast The Good Guys Always Win. Can overlap with Godwin's Law of Time Travel. May be considered a form of You Can't Thwart Stage One if it happens in a serial work. Also compare Meaningless Villain Victory, in which The Bad Guy Wins, but the victory is rendered hollow or meaningless or actually becomes a defeat due to some technicality or unforeseen chance. Near-Villain Victory is a typical subversion of the trope in which the bad guy does win for a time, only for the good guys to rebound and take that victory away.
Compare Pyrrhic Villainy when the villain's victory came at a great cost. This is NOT necessarily the same with Karma Houdini and Downer Ending, as there are plenty of happy endings where villains escape unscathed and a plenty of Downer Endings where the villains suffer as much as everyone.
If the story lacks a villain, nature (or the heroes' own flaws) might defeat them instead.
Note: This is a Spoilered Rotten trope, that means that EVERY SINGLE EXAMPLE on this list is a spoiler by default and most of them will be unmarked. This is your last warning, only proceed if you really believe you can handle this list.
- Anime & Manga
- Card Games
- Comic Books
- Fan Works
- Films Animated
- Films Live-Action
- Live-Action TV
- Professional Wrestling
- Tabletop Games
- Video Games
- Web Comics
- Web Original
- Western Animation
- A Toon Boom commercial has a movie shoot where this trope is supposed to happen, but one of the actors is distracted with his game.
- "Villains Unite the Night", Magic Kingdom's 2019 castle show that's exclusive to the "Disney Villains After Hours" event, centers on Hades as he plots to fulfill a prophecy that will grant him unlimited power when "the five planets align", allowing him to rule the entire universe. However, when Jafar, the Evil Queen, Dr. Facilier, and Maleficent butt in to reap the reward for themselves, the five villains eventually agree to split the power evenly amongst each other. At the end, the newfound Legion of Doom ultimately takes over Cinderella Castle, decorating the famous landmark with banners bearing their images. It's probably the only time where a Disney Park show ends with the villains outright taking over the universe.
Jafar: I have all the power of the cosmos!
Evil Queen: Now I am the most powerful of them all!
Dr. Facilier: Finally, my friends on the other side can't touch me.
- The Big Bad, Makuta Teridax, ended up becoming the universe itself and enslaving everyone in it at the end of the "Mask of Life" saga, which also marked the end of the original major Myth Arc. So yes, while the Toa managed to fulfill their mission set up eight real-world years before, namely to awaken the Great Spirit Mata Nui and thus save the universe, Makuta possessed Mata Nui's body in the nick of time. Also counts as a Sudden Downer Ending, because this was all revealed in the final chapter of a novel and on the last pages of a comic, while everyone was celebrating.
- To a lesser extent, the Barraki. Their main goal during the 2007 storyline was to get the Mask of Life so they could reverse their mutations, escape the Pit, and return to land to start reconquering their territories. While the mask eluded them and they were re-imprisoned, they were all later paroled by the Order of Mata Nui for more manpower to fight the Brotherhood. While Caparar died, the others survived both the war and Teridax's reign over the Matoran Universe, escaping to Spherus Magna and, thanks to Mata Nui using the Ignika's energy to restore the planet, also had their mutations cured as a side-effect with the perk of becoming amphibious on the side. Before the storyline ended, they were looking to set up shop on Spherus Magna with their new armies and carve out some territories for themselves, and looked to be ready to become part of a new Big Bad Ensemble. Unlike nearly every other villain, they actually ended the story much better off than when they started.
- In the pilot episodes, Lord Garmadon manipulates the Skulkin king Samukai into bringing all the Golden Weapons to the Underworld; when Samukai tried to betray him by taking all the Golden Weapons for himself, their power disintegrated him, opening a vortex through space and time that Garmadon uses to escape the Underworld.
- The Big Bad of the Sons of Garmadon arc successfully revives Garmadon as an Evil Overlord and conquers Ninjago by his side.
- DEATH BATTLE! has several instances of villains winning their battles, with at least six instances of villains triumphing over heroes (though some are played with as a few of the "villains" are more of particularly violent Anti-Heros than true villains, and for the most part villains are pitted against other villains).
- Played with in "Godzilla vs. Gamera" * has Godzilla destroy Gamera during an attack on a city.
- "Ryu vs. Scorpion" * has Scorpion incinerating Ryu in the netherworld.
- "Joker vs. Sweet Tooth" * has the Joker, after being impaled on a pipe, tricking Needles Kane, the driver of Sweet Tooth, into getting out of the vehicle to kill him up close and in person. The Joker, however, then sprays gaseous Joker Venom into Needles' face, causing him to die laughing.
- "Hulk vs. Doomsday" * has Doomsday stabbing Hulk with several poisonous spikes before delivering a savage No-Holds-Barred Beatdown to the Hulk before ripping his head off, to which Doomsday does a roar of victory, leaving the implication that Doomsday will continue his rampage with no one to stop him.
- "Sephiroth vs Vergil" * has the former using Supernova to burn Vergil, causing the latter`s Healing Factor to be overridden. While Vergil is initially successful in using his sword to escape the attack, his wounds leave him vulnerable to being stabbed and bisected by Sephrioth.
- "Gray vs Esdeath" * has Esdeath successfully freezing Gray to death, leaving Fiore (which she earlier turned into a wasteland by the use of the Ice Storm Commander-in-Chief) ripe for her to conquer even if she lost an arm and used all her trump cards in the process.
- "Shadow vs Ryuko" * has Ryuko try to crush Shadow with her scissor blades in Alumni Mode, only for Shadow to remove his Inhibitor Rings to gain the power to shatter them. Shadow then sends Ryuko crashing back to Earth, then finishes her off with a Chaos Blast, completely vaporizing her.
- "DIO vs Alucard" * has DIO destroy Alucard's soul army, thus taking away the source of his regeneration, crush Alucard's heart, and splatter his body into a blood rain.
- Happy Tree Friends:
- The Ants always successfully kill Sniffles in ways which are horrific even for the series.
- Fliqpy (Flippy's evil side) usually succeeds in killing everyone around him, though he's died a handful of times.
- By the end of Madness Combat 11: Expurgation, Hank and Sanford are dead and The Auditor is free to continue his reign over Nevada unopposed.
- Mappy: Episode 12 ends with Mappy and Dig Dug getting thrown into jail with Goro, who is pleased to have caused the downfall of his nemesis.
- The Most Epic Story Ever Told in All of Human History: The second episode begins with Ridiculously Epic stating that he took over the world. However, his bragging about this fact includes details about how to take the world back from him.
- Although this is more of a You Can't Thwart Stage One, Volume 3 ends with a major victory for the villains. Cinder Fall (who works for Salem) kills Pyrrha by shooting through the heart (and also literally through her heel), Beacon Academy is in ruins and crawling with Grimm, the city of Vale is overrun with Grimm, and nobody is trusting of each other, and Team RWBY is completely separated, with Ruby joining Jaunne, Ren and Nora, Weiss being taken back to her home by her father, Blake on the run, and Yang stuck in bed after losing an arm and being in a huge Heroic BSoD, possibly to the point of hitting the Despair Event Horizon, due to also losing her fighting will, too. Although Salem says that her grand scheme is only beginning, the villains had pulled off their plans with great success and came out on top.
- While not quite as bad as Volume 3, Volume 7 didnt exactly end on a high note. Ruby breaks Ironwood's trust by withholding information about the Relic of Knowledge, and Salem and Cinder's machinations cause him to lose all faith in Team RWBY and Ozpin, leading the general to cross the Moral Event Horizon by trying to kill Oscar. Additionally, Ironwood attempts to take matters into his own hands and decides to abandon Mantle and raise Atlas to keep Salem from getting the Relic of Creation, while leaving millions to die. In spite of Cinder failing to get the powers of the Winter Maiden and Penny receiving them instead, Neo scores a victory for the villains by stealing the Relic of Knowledge and creating a slight rift in Team JNR. Tyrian succeeds in killing Clover and framing Qrow before escaping while he and Robyn are arrested. Team RWBY and JNR are on the run from Atlesian military, including Winter who is grievously injured, as Salem arrives with her army of Grimm.
- Volume 8's finale is much, much worse. The heroes spent the Atlas Arc trying to save both Atlas and Mantle while also preventing Salem from obtaining the two Relics and the Winter Maiden's power, but unfortunatley, the villains obtain both Relics, Penny is killed off again (this time, for real) to protect the Winter Maiden power, and the heroes can rescue the citizens only by destroying both cities. They knowingly dump the refugees on Vacuo's doorstep without warning, losing Team RWBY and Jaune to the Void Between the Worlds in the process. Though Salem doesn't get the Maiden power and loses Jinn's third question, she's still very pleased with the results, and with Team [RWBY out of the picture, it seems no one else will be able to stop Cinder or Salem from recovering the last two Relics.
- Meta Runner: Season 1 ends with Lucks landing a massive blow against the heroes: He shoots Masas Meta Runner arm clean off, forces Sofia to surrender the incriminating info against TASCorp in exchange for Masas life, rattles MD-5 by letting Belle reveal Lucinas demise and Taris mysterious involvement with it to them, gets Tari to surrender and join his company in exchange for MD-5s freedom, and crushes Theos cartridge, holding him hostage within his own microchip and using him as collateral, threatening to permanently erase him if Tari or MD-5 try resisting him again. Tari and MD-5 share one more hopeful exchange before being taken away, and a device containing a backup of the incriminating data ends up in the hands of Belle, who keeps it for herself, but Lucks has totally won as far as hes concerned. He would however get his just desserts in a VERY Karmic Death at the end of Season 2, being shot down by his own gun via Masas new arm. Still downplays the trope somewhat, as this would end up with MD-5 becoming wanted by the authorities.
- In Underverse, this is more common than the good guys winning.
- The XTALE series has XTale!Chara and XTale!Frisk attempting to stop XGaster's repeated attempts to create a perfect universe. They fail in the end and XGaster succeeds at getting his chance of obtaining his perfect universe, and both of them end up unstable.
- In Underverse 0.0, half of Sans' soul is taken by X-Event!Chara and they escape.
- In Underverse 0.2, despite being beaten back and losing control of Underfell!Sans, Cross still manages to escape with Underfell's Snowdin.
- Underverse 0.3 really gives the cast a beating. Ink starts losing his emotions after X-Event!Chara is brought back to life, X-Event!Chara escapes with the Underswap cast, and the Underswap timeline is destroyed, with Underswap!Papyrus staying behind with Underswap!Chara until the very end.
- The nail in the coffin is Underverse 0.4. A good chunk of the cast is killed, including Underfell!Sans and Underswap!Sans, XGaster is revived, and the Doodle Sphere is gone, leaving behind a destroyed multiverse without alternate realities and thus leaving Error the "winner" of the truce. Had it not been for the revelation that CORE!Frisk managed to save a good amount of people as well as Cross and Dream safely escaping to the Omega Timeline, it could've been worse.