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:
- An old or well-known series (particularly science fiction) has a famous signature villain that the fanbase loves.
- The hero beats said villain(s) in their traditional form several times.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- They can become a Butt-Monkey or source of cheap comedy.
- 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.
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.
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- 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.
- 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 thier inability to create despair.
- 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.
- Zigzagged with the Orks. No one in the setting, and very few outside of it, will argue that Ork hordes aren't a serious, ongoing threat to everyone else. The problem is, Orks have kinda been stuck in the status quo area for a while, and the big video games featuring them have them on the bottom of the Villain Pedigree.
- 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. One can argue on whether or not it's his fault but the community at large now looks at him as a bit of a joke, earning him the nickname Failbaddon.
- 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.
- 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."
- For the first two thirds of the 2009 storyline of BIONICLE, Tuma is built up as a Machiavellian badass, and his Skrall warriors as each able to curb-stomp even the best Glatorian and using advanced militaristic tactics. The Legend Reborn presents Tuma as the Dumb Muscle, who throws away any menace he had by holding onto the Villain Ball with both hands, and serves merely as The Dragon to Metus. The rest of the Skrall fare even worse, being tossed around effortlessly by the Glatorian they were supposedly more than a match for, while their tactics amount to Zerg Rushing their opponents.
- 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.
- Averted with Atop the Fourth Wall's villain Mechakara, who is presented as a Knight of Cerebus that almost kills Linkara in his first appearance, and when he later reappears, despite being Demoted to Dragon for the new Big Bad Lord Vyce, he's become even more a threat due to being upgraded, shown most notably in that his re-match with Linkara he No Sells the methods used to defeat him the first time. (And then in To Boldly Flee, he not only takes out Linkara in five seconds, but comes within an ace of killing the entire TGWTG cast.)
- 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.
- Adam Taurus of RWBY started off as a charismatic leader of the Vale chapter of the White Fang and a dangerous fighter who was able to beat Blake Belladonna physically and psychologically, and who was able to stop Yang Xiao Long in her tracks when she came to Blake's defense by cutting her arm off at the elbow, putting her out of commission for nearly an entire season. Come Volume 5, however, as his ambitions grow to the point of killing the leader of the entire White Fang, Sienna Khan, then taking her place, he begins to make increasingly illogical decisions, such as ordering the assassination of Ghira and Kali Belladonna purely to spite Blake, despite the fact that this did not align with the organization's goals and the fact that it would only turn Ghira into a martyr and turn the people of Menagerie against Adam. Sure enough, the plan fails and Blake is able to rally support to put a stop to Adam's plan to do to Haven Academy what he did to Beacon with the assistance of a shadowy organization. When Blake and her allies arrive at Haven, they quickly derail Adam's plan to blow up the school by alerting the Mistral Police. When Adam attempts to blow up the school anyway so that "it's over for everyone (his men included)", it's revealed that the explosives were disabled by former White Fang member Ilia Amitola, and he ends up losing the support of his men in the ensuing battle. When Adam attempts to break Blake, saying that she's still too afraid to face him without the support of her teammates, Blake shows how much she's gotten over her fear of Adam by claiming that she's "got more important things to deal with". This drives Adam over the edge, and though he puts up a bit of a fight against Blake and her friend, Sun Wukong, he ends up running away to avoid arrest and to lure Blake and Sun into a trap so that he can pick them off one by one, which Blake easily sees through. Ultimately, his actions end up turning those who once followed him against him, making his plans All for Nothing.
- 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.