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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, 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 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, torture, 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.


This trope is the polar opposite of Outdated Hero vs. Improved Society.


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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 
  • 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 which 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.
  • 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.
    Riddler: "You look around here these days, it's all different. It's all changed. The Joker's killing people, for God's sake! Did I miss something? Was I away when they changed the rules?"
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

     Live Action TV 
  • 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.
  • 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.

     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.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines: The retired 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.
  • 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.

     Western Animation 
  • 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.