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Villain Decay
aka: Diminishing Villain Threat

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Peridot's villainy isn't the only thing that's gone down the can.
Sideshow Bob: Hello, Bart...
Bart: Oh, it's you, Bob. How' ya doin'?
Sideshow Bob: No screams? ... Not even... an "eep"?
Bart: Hey, I'm not afraid of you. Every time we tangle you wind up in jail!

The process by which a villain who is extremely scary on first appearance becomes a joke after a few more appearances.

In most shows, Failure Is the Only Option for the Villains, because success would mean that the villains Take Over the World, kill or imprison all the good guys, and otherwise do things that make future episodes impossible. However, this eventually results in a Foregone Conclusion and a predictable plot, since it makes the audience wonder why The Hero is so concerned about an enemy that they've beaten six times already. Note that this does not apply to shows where the villains are supposed to be incompetent jokes from the start.

Most writers will try to stop this decline in menace, which sometimes helps and sometimes makes the Villain Decay worse, but the fastest way to decay a villain is to make him switch sides.

Of course, you can prevent this by not having failure be the only option for the villain; let them win battles, but not the war, or let their Evil Plan come closer and closer to completion while the heroes race to prevent its final success. Another alternative is for there to be more than one villain in an evil organization with different levels of competence or seriousness, with a boss who the audience can take seriously even if his minions lose repeatedly. Or, for the really cunning villain, dupe the heroes into doing what they wanted all along or benefit from them foiling the plan. Subsequent writers may decide to make the villain Not So Harmless with a particularly shocking move on their part. Or you can make them a Disc-One Final Boss, and set up somebody who is far more evil and hasn't decayed yet.

This tends to happen as a result of the following process:

  1. An old or well-known series (particularly science fiction) has a famous signature villain that the fanbase loves.
  2. The hero beats said villain(s) in their traditional form several times.
  3. The writers become worried that fans will get bored with the villains unless they give said villains new strategies, or new forms of attack to use against the hero.
  4. As a result, a steadily larger amount of knowledge about the villains becomes accumulated, which violates the Nothing Is Scarier rule. Villains are much more intimidating if we hardly know anything about them, and they come across as just being single-minded forces of nature with no real motivation other than to destroy things for the sake of it. Once writers start psychoanalyzing them and giving them definite reasons for what they do, they lose their menace.

Villains who have gone through this process usually have three possible outcomes.

  1. They can begin the transition to Anti-Hero or Villain Protagonist, as did Warcraft's Orcs, and Star Trek's Borg ultimately did in isolated examples.
  2. They can become a Butt-Monkey or source of cheap comedy.
  3. They can be retired from use completely.

Note that Villain Decay is almost never caused by a lack of Offscreen Villain Dark Matter, a difficulty in recruiting Mooks, or even injuries from battle with the heroes — which is to say, they don't become worse off because they have lost. Also note that a Villainous Breakdown is not a guarantee of Villain Decay. Decay will only happen quicker if their entire Villain Pedigree is replaced. If you have an Invincible Hero - especially one who shouldn't be capable of winning but somehow always wins anyway – Villain Decay is almost assured, even for characters who haven't fought yet. Tends to be particularly hard to avoid for villains who manage to survive the heroes' climb up the Sorting Algorithm of Evil.

See also Badass Decay, Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain, Goldfish Poop Gang, Harmless Villain, Monster Threat Expiration, Motive Decay, and Vile Villain, Laughable Lackey.

Contrast Villain Sue, Invincible Villain, and Only the Author Can Save Them Now, where a villain is too effective or scary. Believe it or not, those tropes suck the tension out of the villains even worse than this one. Also contrast Adaptational Villainy, where a relatively non-villainous character in a work becomes dramatically more villainous in an adaptation, and Villain Forgot to Level Grind, where the villain never becomes any less formidable, but the hero becomes so much more powerful over time that a once threatening villain is no longer a problem.

Compare and contrast Failure Hero. Same concept - repeated failures ruins their credibility - different role.

See also Degraded Boss. Not to be confused with Redemption Demotion, where the villain's strength decays because of their Heel–Face Turn. Not related to Villainous Ethics Decay.

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    Fan Works 
  • Contraptionology!: The Nightmare, once a genocidal threat to Equestria, is reducing to trying to convince foals to let her possess them; Nightmare Scoot is a far cry from her glory days, and the main characters treat dealing with her constant reemergence as simply a tedious chore. She recovers most of her dignity in the story.
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: Mukrezar. Mukrezar is, and was, a Keeper of dubious competence, given to many Zany schemes (usually involving a Ring of Power). However, since his resurrection he has shown such an assessment is significantly lacking. Apparently his resourcefulness, ability to bounce back from crushing defeat, and, most importantly, willingness to take incredible chances- and then turn them into victories even if they failed -was his greatest asset. Every appearance has only increased the estimation of his threat, despite being Plucky Comic Relief.
  • In the beginning of Snow Angels, Disaster is introduced as an almighty being capable of driving people to madness just by seeing it. For a short while the heroes (who include a time traveler and Sufficiently Advanced Alien) actually have trouble fighting Disaster, but by the end of the first arc, Disaster has decayed so much that it's beaten up by perfectly-mundane schoolgirls. Ironically, Disaster is the same entity as Sasaki, so she actually received an upgrade before the decay.
  • My Brave Pony: Starfleet Magic:
    • Discord, god of chaos and in general considered one of the best characters in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, is reduced to a brainwashed monster henchman of Big Bad Titan near the end of the story and loses his reality warping abilities. To add insult to injury, he gets Killed Off for Real by Celestia.
    • The sequel also does this to Queen Chrysalis.
  • Harry Potter has Voldemort, who suffers a severe case of this in The Ariana Black Series. In canon, he's practically a personification of Nightmare Fuel. In the fanfic, he's just an incompetent mustache-twirler.
  • "Fading" actually explains Goldar's decay in Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers; he was dying of a rare disease that slowly crippled his combat skills, and he never told anyone because his culture considered it shameful to share details of their health.
  • Subverted in Ultimate Sleepwalker: The New Dreams or Ultimate Spider-Woman: Change With The Light. Given that the Sorting Algorithm of Evil does NOT apply in these series, and the heroes do not gain any new powersets or power boosts over the course of the series, villains who were introduced early on have remained constantly and deadly threats throughout both series' runs. In fact, the author has specifically gone out of his way to ensure that this trope is subverted by allowing villains who look like they might suffer from this trope to actually succeed in their evil plots.
  • Young Justice: Darkness Falls: Depending on what you might think about The Light, you could say they underwent a form of this, since a lot of their subtle manipulations, small progresses and the like gets thrown out with what seems like Vandal Savage's nest egg plan to use Darkseid as HIS endgame. And then when Luthor cuts off the Light's legs by giving the league information about their operations, the Light essentially goes into hibernation for the most part, with any plans they have either done in public by Luthor or done by brute force. But even then, Klarion wasn't working for the light that time.
  • Sonic X: Dark Chaos does this badly with the Metarex. In the canon Sonic X, the Metarex were a nearly unstoppable empire of powerful robots led by even more-powerful robot overlords that gave Super Sonic a run for his money. Dark Chaos reduces them to a side faction... and by the halfway point of the story, their armies are all but destroyed and their leaders have gone into hiding (with a collective Villainous Breakdown for good measure). It doesn't help that their motivations are also completely different from the canon; in the show, they wanted to exterminate all animal life in the galaxy and replace it with plant life. In Dark Chaos, they're just trying to find a way to kill Tsali and revive their species by any means necessary.
  • The Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc fanfic The Ultimate Hope does an excellent job giving this treatment to Monokuma (Junko Enoshima) through an amusing Failure Montage chronicling their inability to create despair.
  • The MLP Loops:
    • Due to the "Groundhog Day" Loop that has been going on for a very long time, none of the villains pose the slightest threat to even the weakest of loopers. Special mention goes to Nightmare Moon; the baseline loop starts just a few days before her return, so a new looper's rite of passage is to defeat her by themselves. Twilight institutes "the Challenge," where everyone gets a turn defeating all the villains in a single loop in the most interesting ways they can. Of course, most of the villains are also looping, so they can counter-troll the loopers fighting them when they're Awake.
      Chrysalis: Does it count if I defeat myself?
      Twilight: Yes, but only if you make it interesting.
    • Tirek, being a Magic Eater, can avert this—he is a serious threat even to loopers if he catches them unawares. However, if he doesn't catch them unawares, then he is just as much of a joke as everyone else.
      Tirek: And do you really think you can win this, little pony?
      Celestia: Oh, I think I can win this [dramatic pause] with a pineapple stuck on my horn! [sticks a pineapple on her horn] Feel free to try and taste my magic! All you'll get now is a delicious pina colada.
      Tirek: ...are you drunk?
      Celestia: [giggles] Not telling! And now, boot to the head!
      [Celestia dropkicks Tirek through a mountain. Cadance, Twilight, and Luna hold up cards reading "7.7", "8.4", and "4.2" respectively.]
      Celestia: Sheesh, family members are the harshest critics.
  • The Mega Man Killers undergo this in Mega Man: Defender of the Human Race. In their highlight episode, they nearly killed Mega Man twice before he managed to defeat them. After that, they just became as effective as regular Robot Masters. Punk got it the worse after he took a crippling blow from Proto Man in Episode 11. His heart just wasn't in it anymore since then and he was more prone to griping and staying out of the way than actually fighting.

  • Prince Charming, already a fairly ineffectual villain in the Shrek movies, gets decayed further to a minor protagonist in the Shrek pinball game.

  • Spoofed in Nebulous where K.E.N.T. mention battling "the Seaquel Devils" (a play on the Doctor Who monster the Sea Devils) - "They came back again. And again. Each time less effective than the last." Harry then reminds them of the Prequeloids - "We always knew how they did that!"

    Tabletop Games 
  • Whenever a new army in Warhammer 40,000 is introduced, they start as existential threats to the entire setting for a year or two and then decay into just another faction.
    • There's an obvious reason for this: profit. Make your new faction unstoppable arse-kickers who make mincemeat out of any opposition, and you've got a surefire way of getting eternal 13-year-old boys everywhere forking out on them just so that they can be the toughest tabletop warrior. Then throw out some heroic last stands for the Space Marines so that the existing factions don't get completely alienated. Wait a few years till everybody's got them, introduce a new, even more powerful, even more expensive faction. Rinse and repeat. Profit.
    • Necrons. When first formally introduced, they were supremely enigmatic horrors serving even more horrific beings, known for mysterious harvests of life, unknown plans, and ridiculously advanced technology. Fan perception of them quickly made them Omnicidal Maniacs to the public eye, and they began to be perceived as a race-wide Creator's Pet. The 5th Edition Codex has resulted in a serious hit to the Necrons' previously unknown and unstoppable nature in favor of shifting the focus towards the Tyranids and Chaos as the greatest threats facing humanity, revealing much of their past and giving plenty of Character Development to the race which as a natural consequence destroyed much of the mystery surrounding them, going from Nothing Is Scarier Omnicidal Maniacs to the Tomb Kings IN SPACE. The debate on whether this ruined the faction forever or breathed new life into them still rages to this day.
    • The Orks started off as a galaxy wide tide of death and destruction but degenerated into pub brawlers over time.
    • Tyranids also started off as unstoppable, galaxy-devouring horde of alien locusts, but their impending, full-scale invasion and eating of the galaxy kept getting delayed and delayed and then the tyranids inexplicably adopted an "attack in small numbers" strategy that made them less of a threat to the setting.
    • Then on a smaller scale you have some of the lords of Chaos. Abbadon the Despoiler is probably the number one offender. He is supposedly the heir to Horus and carries the title of Warmaster of Chaos, as well as the favor of all four Chaos Gods. However his Black Crusades seem to end in defeat more often than not, or at best as a stalemate.
    • Games Workshop has spent the better part of 2013 trying their hardest to dispel this notion about Abaddon, eventually resorting to retconning eleven of his thirteen Black Crusades. Advancing the storyline during the Gathering Storm storyline saw him finally succeed in busting out of the Eye of Terror and destroying Cadia, splitting the Imperium in two and throwing the entire galaxy into chaos.
    • During the Gathering Storm events, Asdrubael Vect, effective leader of the Dark Eldar, got hit pretty hard with this in one fell swoop, both in-universe and outside. An incident he couldn't have foreseen (Ynnead destructively picking an avatar) caused a giant cataclysm inside Commorragh that he had expected, yet the plans he had to stop it failed, he panicked in front of everyone (which severely undermined his reputation), and whatever improvisations he could come up with weren't enough to keep the situation under control, with other groups he didn't even have a hand in being the ones to save the day. As such, his plans were all shredded to nothing, there is active plotting to overthrow him (which used to be unthinkable), several of his loyal underlings ran off to join the new faction this spawned, and the moment he tried to say this was All According to Plan everyone smelled the bullshit from the start, ending his Consummate Liar streak. As a result, within Commorragh his reputation has basically inverted and his survival is uncertain, and to the fanbase he now just looks like a goon that will probably get cut down, his millennia of Magnificent Bastardry now lost in a deluge of unexpected plan-wrecking spanners. Later, it got bad enough that he was actually assassinated at last, which was once unthinkable... and then resurrection plans that played with his funeral were put into motion, and he came back with a vengeance, casting off the rust.

  • King George in Hamilton steadily loses poise as the British influence on the plot diminishes, first, at the start of the war, barely moving, singing at the audience in full regalia, then after Yorktown considerably more animated, and in the second act much more animated and more casually dressed, culminating in him joining in with the populace and throwing papers in Hamilton's face in "The Reynolds Pamphlet."


    Web Original 
  • Blood Boy, a big antagonist in the early stages of Survival of the Fittest version 3 had this occur in the last topic he appeared in, becoming an almost Jokeresque figure (to the point of almost directly quoting from The Dark Knight at one point). This does, however, have a fairly good reason: a different handler took over the character for that scene, one who, needless to say, had a rather different take on the character.
  • The Necromancer, in the Whateley Universe. Starts out as one of the top 60 supervillains on the Interpol rating scale. He's now oh-for-two against Team Kimba, who are high schoolers. Even with his team of supervillains working for him. Now one-for-two, making out like a bandit in the process, excluding one goal failing due to a Unknown Unknown.
  • On TWGTG, we have the Mad Scientist Dr. Insano that first appeared on The Spoony Experiment, whose early appearances depict him as a Laughably Evil, but none the less dangerous character. Later appearances, however, have him attempting no evil plans and just have him acting comedic.
    • The suave, chessmaster-like, psychotic Ask That Guy is slowly turning into a pathetic, needy, emotional wreck. Maybe played with because he's always been like that, he just can't seem to hide it anymore.
    • In his first appearance during the Nostalgia Critic's review of The Last Airbender, Shamalayan removed Critic's talent (he gets it back, even though "there wasn't much to lose"), and would have done it again in Devil if he hadn't been stopped by the actual Devil. Come After Earth, and he's become so predictable that Critic isn't even phased by him anymore. Heck, he even helps Critic out with his review of Pixels by making Peter Dinklage unfunny (a Reverse Shamalayan).
    • Evilina was portrayed as silly in her first appearance, but still capable of being a Cruel Mercy Manipulative Bitch. Later on she Took a Level in Dumbass and just cries when Critic punches her in the head.
  • Strong Bad, from the infamous Homestar Runner universe, used to try to do actually evil things, but he's gone under lots of Villain Decay. To quote him from the Strong Bad Email(sbemail) called "your edge"
    Strong Bad: Me and the Cheat, walked past this deflated basketball and consciously decided not to re-inflate it! And we feathered Strong Sad for a HALF HOUR!
  • In Noob, Dark Avenger is one of the most feared player killers of the game... except a Running Gag has Sparadrap accidentally killing him. He's shown to give other characters difficulty, but it made the decay slower rather than keeping it from happening. Writing Dark Avenger out of the series due to his actor moving away relied on having that decay reach the lowest point possible.
  • The C.C Corporation in Flander's Company started out as a relatively competent organisation who actually succeeded in taking over Trueman's company without him even noticing, and their leader Carla Burnelle was a Psycho Electro and Magnificent Bitch who could handle the whole team of protagonists of her own. Come season 3, the arrival of Aegis cause Carla to suffer a Villainous Breakdown, leading her to a Genre Blind decision. Her group is even worse, as most competent members are either Killed Off for Real or Put on a Bus, leaving her more and more Surrounded by Idiots.
  • RWBY:
    • Adam Taurus starts off as a dangerous terrorist who dominates the fights he is in, easily wins against even talented student Huntsmen, and can rally hundreds to his call through his charismatic leadership. His threat is built up through Volume 4 as a result of trauma he has inflicted on several characters, but his return in Volume 5 reveals him to have deteriorating mental health, leading to poor decision making. After the Battle of Haven, he is reduced to a lonely fugitive who is obsessed with stalking and killing the woman who dared to stand up to him.
    • Cinder Fall spends the first three volumes as a cunning, manipulative, and effective threat... until she crosses paths with Ruby. From Volume 4 onwards, she is consumed by sadism, pettiness, and a hunger for power and revenge that repeatedly ruins her own goals and those of Salem, too. After Watts gives her a brutal "The Reason You Suck" Speech about this behaviour in Volume 8, Cinder begins taking steps to rectify her decay.
  • Kravitz from The Adventure Zone: Balance is introduced in the Crystal Kingdom-arc as the main baddie, hunting down the Tres Horny Boys because of their many deaths. However, it turns out he's merely a Disk-One Final Boss when Legion shows up, and after the boys manage to defeat Legion and save his ass, Kravitz strikes a deal with them, agreeing to not reap their souls as long as they don't add to their death count. He turns out to be a reasonable guy just doing his job, and spends the rest of the podcast on friendly terms with the main characters. He even falls in love with Taako, and the two become an Official Couple during one of the Lunar Interludes.
  • CJ DaChamp discusses this in "Frieza: From Riches to Rags". CJ discusses how Frieza from Dragon Ball Z went from The Dreaded to a mild annoyance, and how every subsequent appearance that Frieza has makes him less and less scary because of how many times that Frieza ends up on the business end of a Curb-Stomp Battle.


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Alternative Title(s): Villain Threat Decay, Villain Downgrade, Increasingly Harmless Villain, Diminishing Villain Threat, Diminished Villain Threat


Garoa's New Job

After failing to defeat the Fivemen one too many times, the once-fearsome Captain Garoa is demoted to janitor by Galactic Empress Meadow and made to scrub toilets.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

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