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Villainous Ethics Decay

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"Used to be when you killed a man, you sent his wife flowers. Now? Now you send his wife with him!"
Silvio, Daredevil (2015)

Crime and villainy used to have rules and standards, or be about family, loyalty and honor, but now there's only violence and greed.

This is a trope heavily on the cynical side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism, and is a key sign that a work is Darker and Edgier than its predecessors or forebearers. It combines the Nostalgia Filter with the criminal underworld, creating a narrative thread where criminals at large have become much tougher, meaner and out-of-control... usually to a degree that current law and order are inequipped to deal with, and even older criminals, their prestige declining in the wake of the literal new blood, find too distressing to get involved with.

The trope is a hallmark of the Urban Hellscape trope, where cities have become overrun with crime. This sort of story always makes the case that modern crime needs more extreme or unorthodox methods to deal with, including heavy-handed justice, Cowboy Cop police who don't bother with pesky things like search warrants, cops who torture suspects, or vigilantes/superheroes who are willing to work outside the law (and, occasionally, "get their hands dirty"). Because being "soft" on crime is usually what got the characters into this mess in the first place. It also shows up in many Heroic Bloodshed movies, where criminals who believe in family, loyalty and honor are threatened by more vicious criminals who believe in none of these things.

See also Even Evil Has Standards, when a nostalgic criminal discusses this. If this trope isn't true, but the old-fashioned villain believes it was, you probably have an Evil Reactionary. A possible explanation of how things got here is if The Chicago Way is taken to its logical conclusion. Not to be confused with Jumping Off the Slippery Slope, where a morally ambiguous character decays into outright villainy.

This trope is the polar opposite of Outdated Hero vs. Improved Society. Not related to Villain Decay.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • One Piece: In the era before the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates were reputedly either carefree travelers roaming the world for the thrill and the adventure, or criminals whose powers and ambitions are vast. Even the most evil ones had some semblance of a code of honor. After the Golden Age kicked in, there was a boom of new pirates motivated purely for riches and fortune, and who would do anything to get them; compared to the older pirates (which acted more like organized crime), the newer pirates are more akin to street thugs and robbers, and thus tend to be scorned by veterans like Whitebeard.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Most depictions of Gotham fit this description, with crime being so out-of-hand by the time Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered that the police have either given up or have been bought out by the mob. Some books also argue that Batman only makes things worse, because his appearance only creates or inspires more powerful and psychotic criminals.
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns:
    • In the Bad Future of The Dark Knight returns, things have only gotten worse, with Gotham criminals being so bad in this time that even Batman has to resort to darker and meaner methods to stop it, and even noble characters like Superman have been bought out or controlled by corrupt Powers-That-Be.
    • Before his return to crimefighting, Bruce Wayne is accosted by two Mutants who size him up for a mugging (at the very least) but take off because he's still big and intimidating. He muses about Joe Chill, who he now recalls as sick and guilt ridden, in contrast to the ferocity of the new breed.
  • Daredevil: One comic features an elderly mob boss who is vetoing the mob from profiting from child prostitution and drug-dealing, as he believes the Mafia should be respectable businessmen, not animals. He is assassinated by his masseur, the man who will eventually become The Kingpin, who then launches a coup to put himself in charge of the mob and ends up profiting from many of the rackets his old boss was campaigning against.
  • Kyle Rayner Lampshades this in JLA (1997) when fighting Armek and Zenturion of the Hyperclan:
    "Reality check: I'm in the Gobi Desert, one super crazy's choking me to death and his huge armored pal just threatened to cripple me. What is it with super-villains nowadays? What happened to crazy jewel heists and dumb traps? Now they murder your girlfriend and stuff her in a fridge for kicks. The old Green Lantern had it easy.
  • Judge Dredd: In the world of Judge Dredd, violent criminals are such a constant presence that the megacities that survived the nuclear apocalypse now depend on the totalitarian rule of the "Judges", a police state where the cops are Judge, Jury, and Executioner. In the time the story takes place, "democracy" is seen as a dirty word amongst the populace, as it was a corrupt and megalomanical US President that caused the nuclear war leading the world to its current state.
  • The Punisher: Nicky Cavella was an up-and-coming young mobster who thought he'd make a strong impression on the world of organized crime by kidnapping a Triad boss' high-school son, murdering him, chopping him up and serving him to his father before murdering the other two sons. This leads to Nicky getting banished to Boston, not out of Even Evil Has Standards but sheer Pragmatic Villainy (the other mobsters prefer making money to fighting turf wars).
    Several years later, the mobsters turn to Nicky out of desperation to get rid of the Punisher. Nicky's plan of filming himself digging up the Castle family remains and pissing on them causes Frank to hit just about every criminal organization he knows, effectively doing even more damage to the Mafia than before, and Nicky's men abandon him once they realize he had no plan beyond pissing Frank off into a Leeroy Jenkins mistake.

    Film - Live Action 
  • The Dark Knight: The opening scene has the Joker and his mooks carry out a heist on a mob-owned bank, and secretly ordering each of the mooks to kill each other so they get a bigger share of the loot, then killing the last one and keeping it all for himself. After witnessing the heist, the disgusted bank manager comments that Gotham's criminals used to have some concept of respect and honor. The rest of the film then goes on to show that the criminals of Gotham have nothing on him.
  • The Godfather: Trying to avert this trope provides much of the drama in the first movie. Vito Corleone refuses to involve himself in the drug trade, and advises the other dons to stay away from it as well, because he believes that embracing it will be seen as this trope: many of those who tolerated the Mafia's involvement in gambling, racketeering, and political corruption will not be willing to do the same if it starts dealing drugs, which is seen as a much worse crime.
  • This shows up in the Ocean's Eleven series:
    • In the first movie, a character bemoans the penchant of its Big Bad for Disproportionate Retribution and targeting an enemy's friends, contrasting that "In the old days they'd just whack you." Benedict on the other hand, will not only kill someone who tries to steal from him, he'll also make it his life's work to ruin their friends and family too.
    • While the Big Bad of the third movie, Willy Bank, has a long reputation for backstabbing and treachery, nonetheless Reuben, a member of Danny Ocean's crew, goes into business with him. Reuben believes that as two members of Las Vegas' old guard, (as the film repeatedly puts it, "Guys who shook hands with Sinatra") Bank will respect the old-time code that they're supposed to abide by. Bank doesn't, and throughout the movie any number of characters express their anger at the breach of conduct. The younger generations, it's assumed, will act in such a way, but someone who shook Sinatra's hand should know better.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: In the earliest days of the Age of Pirates, a court of Pirate Lords formed a Code (inscribed in a book called the Codex) which stated the rules by which pirates would operate, which ensured that there was some form of civility and courtesy amongst them. By the time of the first three films, however, pirates have become far more thuggish (in part due to pressure from the East India Trading Company and other marine troops), and thus began overlooking the Code or treating its terms as "guidelines". However, this practice greatly irritates many of the older pirates—particularly Captain Teague (father of Jack Sparrow), who won't hesitate to murder anyone who even questions the Code.
    Captain Teague: Code is the law.
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming: As in many superhero movies, we see ordinary crime being taken into increasingly fantastical direction, in this case thanks to Adrian Toomes' black market network selling increasingly advanced and destructive alien or SHIELD weapons on the streets. Not all of the local criminals are happy about this evolution, which actually helps Spiderman when he tries to shut down Toomes.
    Aaron: I just something to stick up somebody! I'm not trying to shoot them back in time!

    Literature 
  • The Final Girl Support Group: In a World… where every major slasher of The '80s (or at least an Expy of them) is real and caused tremendous bloodshed, the Big Bad of this story is the misogynistic son of the therapist of the titular group, who considers slashers passĂ© and has decided to make his mark in criminal history by introducing the Final Girls to the demented killer of the Twenty-First Century: the mass shooter.
  • Jack Ryan: Subverted, justified, discussed, and otherwise played with. In general, Clancy has little patience for the romanticizing of criminals, and tends to ridicule the belief that there were ever any "good old days" in which they were something other than amoral scum. However, criminal behavior can and does evolve in much worse directions than might have existed in earlier times, and we see this repeatedly throughout the books. It's just that this evolution has more to do with the changes in opportunities available to criminals, and outside pressures acting upon them, than any innate ethics (or lack thereof) on their part. To wit:
    • Terrorism, in general, is portrayed as a criminal problem that's gone from bad to worse throughout the course of the series. As early as Patriot Games, British and American cops are found speaking fondly of the days when the most common public enemies they had to worry about were bank robbers, rather than people who commit murder to make a political statement. Then the Cold War ends, and the problem immediately becomes much worse: in the past, most terrorist groups were part of the East/West power struggle and had ties to national governments who could exercise some control over them. With the Cold War over, these groups have now been left to their own devices and no longer have any higher authority that could restrain them. Cue The War on Terror...
    • Drugs are similarly shown as having made a lot of countries' crime problem much worse throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The appetite for harder drugs starting in The '60s has sent street crime into an increasing spiral of violence, while making enormous profits for the more organized drug dealing networks that in turn allows them to further corrupt society, fuel violence, and gradually turn themselves into NGO Superpowers that fewer and fewer countries' governments have the means to take on. (By the time of Clear and Present Danger, one of the main reasons for the covert U.S. intervention in Colombia is the concern that the Medellin Cartel is no longer content to sell drugs and make money, but is now looking to take control of Colombia altogether. And then, perhaps, neighboring countries as well).
    • The fall of communism and rise of The New Russia has also created a much more dangerous class of criminal, as we see beginning in The Bear and the Dragon. On the one hand, the Corrupt Bureaucrats who took advantage of the Soviet system for so many years now have unimaginable opportunities for profit since their country was privatized and opened to the global economy. On the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet government has resulted in thousands of Former Regime Personnel from the Red Army or KGB who are now unemployed and willing to put their skills to work for anyone who'll pay them. Combine those two trends, and you have the modern version of The Mafiya. The FBI's liaison in Moscow sympathetically notes that the American Mafia even at its worst was nothing like this, and the Russian government, still recovering from its collapse, is really struggling to confront the problem.
  • Star Wars Legends:
    • X-Wing Series: Being a former cop from a family of cops, Corran Horn recalls his father complaining about how this has happened to organized crime. Black Sun (The Syndicate of the galaxy far far away) was always ruthless, but it's become increasingly indiscriminate in modern times: in the past, informants and traitors were always legitimate targets, as were law enforcement and enemy gangsters, but in recent years it's become normal to also murder their entire families just to send a message, or an entire room full of innocent bystanders because it's easier than hitting an individual. Political assassinations of officials Black Sun isn't able to buy off has also become the norm, and the drugs being dealt have become more and more addictive and destructive.
    • The way the underworld goes in the Bantam era (i.e. the couple of decades after Return of the Jedi) is a rare inversion. With Black Sun and the Hutt clans having been either destroyed or severely weakened by the end of the movie era, the largest underworld organization to fill the vacuum is the Smugglers Alliance - a combination Thieves' Guild and Weird Trade Union that brings together a number of smuggling crews like Han and Chewie. Under the leadership of Talon Karrde, the organization does adhere to a basic code of honor that would have been unthinkable for the underworld's previous big shots, treating all employees fairly and refusing to touch the nastier forms of crime such as slave trading. This encourages their somewhat rocky friendship with the New Republic.

    Live Action TV 
  • In an early episode of Castle, the title character consults an old jewel thief he knows for help with a recent string of home invasion jewel thefts. The thief waxes nostalgic about his day, wherein he was a "ghost," creeping into houses while the owner was away and relieving them of their jewelry without disturbing anything else. Meanwhile, the current thieves are "vampires," with a desire for blood and violence, who seem more concerned with making people suffer than actually making a profit off their goods. His skill with a Stealth Hi/Bye and the fact that his "revenge" against Castle for earlier revealing his identity is teaming up with his mother to embarrass him at a charity gala, while the current thieves beat a woman to death and shoved her into a wall safe does lend some credence to his description.
  • Leverage: Redemption: Befitting its Just Like Robin Hood premise, this show applies this trope to corporate abuse and political corruption rather than the street crime and organized crime it's more often applied to. Newcomer Harry Wilson argues that in the mere ten years since the original show, the elites' ability to commit crimes and get away with it has become worse than ever.
    Harry Wilson: These people you pursue, they don't just cheat anymore. They rewrote the rules. So now if they get caught, they never really get punished.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Daredevil (2015): In the time of Daredevil, Hell's Kitchen has fallen under the control of the Wilson Fisk crime ring, a crime syndicate so brutal that even old-time mobsters flee the city to avoid being involved. Matt Murdock's debut as Daredevil is seen as the only major threat to Fisk's icy control over the city. But, after Fisk sheds his humble facade, he resolves to become an even more ruthless and powerful villain to retake control of his empire.
    • Luke Cage (2016): Many criminals, such as Hernan "Shades" Alvarez, bemoan the tactics of modern criminals such as Tone, Zip, Diamondback and Mariah Dillard because he comes from an era where family and loyalty were more important than merely asserting power and getting the job done. All of the aforementioned criminals, however, are not above letting personal vendettas cloud their judgment or hurting innocent people to complete their objectives.
  • The Wire portrays The Game (as the underworld and police refer to the drug trade) as being in a more or less permanent downward spiral, morally speaking. Any unspoken code of conduct and morality agreed to by the various drug kingpins is temporary, because there will always be someone more ruthless and unscrupulous who will come along and get an advantage by violating those rules, at which point either everyone has to play just as ruthlessly or cede an advantage to the upstart newcomer. Specific examples of the downward spiral include:
    • When the infamous hitman Dennis "Cutty" Wise, gets out of prison after serving 14 years behind bars for murder, he's taken aback at the changes he finds in the world around him. He briefly tries to form a partnership with a local drug lieutenant called Fruit. Cutty gives Fruit a hefty supply of drugs with an agreement to split the profits. When Fruit later claims the police raided him and took the drugs, Cutty asks for a copy of the police slip from the raid, as in his day these were shared to show that someone wasn't ripping you off. Instead Fruit sticks a gun in Cutty's face, showing that he is blatantly backstabbing Cutty. It's also clear that Cutty is uncomfortable and out of place at the seedy party he attends once he goes to work for the Barksdale empire, and disgusted at the pointless (and often foolish) violence that the younger enforcers engage in.
      Cutty: The Game done changed.
      Slim Charles: Game the same. Just got more fierce.
    • Marlo Stanfield, the new drug kingpin who comes to prominence in the third season and then maintains an iron grip on the Baltimore underworld until almost the end of the show, is the personification of the drug trade's downward spiral. Marlo is a man with no morals, no respect for any rules or traditions, no care for any people at all, (with the exception of a very small inner circlenote ) and no hesitation to kill for even the most minor of offenses against him. (Including one time when he killed a man, the man's wife, and all but one of the man's children—only because he didn't see him—because of a rumor that the man had insulted Marlo behind his back.) Even other drug dealers and gangsters are frequently repulsed by Marlo, talking about how if Marlo had tried the same methods in years past the other gangs in the city would have teamed up to deal with him. The immediate aftermath of Marlo's downfall might be the only time in the show where things aren't getting worse in Baltimore's underworld, if only because the other kingpins left are too pragmatic to engage in Marlo's excesses, and the fall of Marlo's gang takes down the lieutenants who would have picked up right where Marlo left off... at least until they start getting out of prison.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000: The Chaos gods who embody rage, desire, despair, and hope (yes, really) are the amalgamation of those emotions felt by sentient beings across the universe. While they were once at least somewhat honorable, millenia of said sentients making war, lusting, killing and backstabbing each other (and not just humans either) means that now they're flanderized into, well, things that are called the Ruinous Powers for good reason (e.g. followers of Khorne wouldn't attack non-combatants, now the closest they come to that is killing any fighters before going back to defenseless massacres).

    Video Games 
  • The Darkness: The Big Bad, Paulie Franchetti, is an Ax-Crazy, remorseless Sadist who does things like blow up an orphanage with a bazooka to spite one of its former residents. Many of the older members of the Franchetti crime family, such as Jimmy the Grape and Aunt Sarah, are uncomfortable with his extreme methods and work with Jackie to bring him down.
  • In The Elder Scrolls games Morrowind and Oblivion, the Thieves' Guild is a largely heroic Just Like Robin Hood -type organization, seeking to steal from the rich and give to the poor and the downtrodden, to balance out the injustices of society. By the time of Skyrim, however, they have devolved into blackmailing thugs looking out only for themselves. This is suggested to have at least partially been caused by the greed of its current guildmaster, Mercer Frey, and the theft of the Skeleton Key.
  • Alluded to in the first Max Payne game, when Max's Private Eye Monologue describes Vladimir Lem as "one of the old school mob bosses, with honour and morals. That made him almost one of the good guys." Not that he has any illusions about Vlad being anything better than A Lighter Shade of Black, but Max isn't acting much like a hero himself by the time they find themselves with some enemies in common. This ends up coming back to haunt him when Vladimir's gang starts filling the power vacuum created by the events of the first game, which thanks to Alfred Woden's excellent Hero Insurance package getting Max his NYPD badge back is now his problem.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines: The Retired|Monster Professional Killer Lu Fang gripes about how the Tong these days are too disorganized and murder-happy, whereas in his era, they were at least better-organized. It's eventually revealed that gang violence in Chinatown really is getting worse, thanks to the recently arrived vampire Ming Xiao, who's indirectly sponsoring the Tong and exploiting the chaos to build her power base.

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Brave and the Bold: The Weeper was originally active when being a Fair-Play Villain was the norm and ended up with a long prison sentence so his ethics never decayed like other villains did. Initially this is a hindrance when he gets out of jail until Batman manages to violate Weepers sense of fairness and makes him dangerous enough to scare the Joker.
  • The Simpsons: Played for laughs in "The Great Louse Detective". When Homer hires Sideshow Bob for hunting down a potential murderer, they stop at the Kwik-E-Mart, where Bob chats with Apu. They look back wistfully on the robbery that got Bob arrested with fondness and Apu praises Bob as one who understood the theatrics of stick-up thieves, unlike the modern generation that just shoot Apu and take whatever they can before running off.
    Bob: Ah, yes, the Kwik-E-Mart. I haven't been here since I robbed it dressed as Krusty. My one successful crime.
    Apu: You were quite the gentleman. Today's robbers, they are all smash-and-grab. You understood the dance.
    Bob: Our time is passing, old friend.
    Homer: Uh, if you two country hens are finished clucking...
  • The Venture Bros.: In the 7th season, Red Death laments the decline of classic villainy over the years. His views are summarized in his speech towards the villain Blind Rage from the Peril Partnership.
    Red Death: Oh, you're up. Goody. We can start your history lesson. Long before there were loudmouth buff guys in spandex, there was the gentleman villain. His favourite sinister act was this: tying someone to a train track. It's simple, inexpensive, personal and deadly, but it gives you a little hope - maybe you'll escape. [Blind Rage's muffled screams interrupt] Lesson's NOT over, sonny! *sighs* Now, the gentleman villain had these old school time-bombs, three sticks of dynamite wired to an alarm clock. And what was so poetic about that is that they ticked. You could hear them - tick tick tick. Nowadays they're just digital - no sound, no peril. [the sound of an approaching train is heard, getting closer] Oh, ohoho, do you hear that? There's the tick. The train is coming! Is it on this track? Tick tick tick. Maybe it's on the other track! Tick tick tick! *cackles maniacally* Not bad for an old man, huh? I'm gonna get going, let you try to escape. And if you do, tell the Peril Partnership that the Guild isn't scared of punks. If you don't, eh, sorry.
    • He has a similar moment when The Monarch intends to assassinate him in a public park. He politely, but terrifyingly explains to The Monarch that he's "off the clock" and "keeps his work separate from his home life". He's not even mad that Monarch intended to kill him; he's mad that Monarch intended to do so when he was at the park with his daughter rather than at work.
      Red Death: We're not at the office right now, you see. That's the secret. You gotta separate your work from your life. It's a slippery slope when you start living as your character. The obsession starts. The darkness sets in. A man can do terrible things when he's lost his way. Terrible things...


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