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Caper Rationalization is how a caper story featuring a charismatic, likable and funny group of thieves can avoid alienating the audience through Values Dissonance. After all, when you boil the story down to its essence, we have to admit that these so-called "heroes" we are cheering on are criminals, and they are in the process of robbing someone of something very valuable. Why are we rooting for them to succeed, again?

Oh yeah! Because they're not just stealing to get rich... they're stealing because they have a good reason to steal. They are stealing their own property back from the target, who took it from them in some unjust way. Or the caper is actually a rescue attempt (or some variant thereof). Or the target did something bad to the characters to make it a revenge attempt. Or the target distastefully earned the wealth, and the heroes are trying to Pay Evil Unto Evil (you know, Just Like Robin Hood!). Sometimes, the entire point of the caper is espionage or sabotage, which gives the heroic criminals a sort of patriotic "license to steal." Other times, the crew is a Tiger Team, and are breaking into a place to intentionally test its security.

The Caper Rationalization can be more or less believable depending on the situation. The point is, it allows the audience to enjoy it without feeling guilty.

Related to Justified Criminal, Sympathetic Criminal, and Karmic Thief. Compare Double Caper, where the rationalization of the second caper is generally "to fix the stuff we broke by doing the first caper". See also Asshole Victim, which can be used to "rationalize" a murder.

Examples of Caper Rationalization include:


Manga & Anime

  • Kaito Kid is a Phantom Thief who steals jewels. However, he's only looking for 1 jewel in particular to protect it from a secret organization who killed his Father. Any other jewels he steals along way that aren't it he either discards to be found or returns himself.
  • GetBackers consists of professional "retrieval experts" who "get back what shouldn't be gone." It's all in the name. Otherwise, it works a lot like The Caper, at least until the plot thickens.
  • Lupin III Often steal from the obscenely rich (in one cast claiming he was doing the victim a favor because the insurance payout would be greater than the value of the object stolen), or from dictators and criminals far worse them himself.

Comic Books

  • The primary storylines in X-Thieves all dealt with Caper Rationalizations.

Fairy Tales

  • You know how in "Jack and the Beanstalk" the giant had stolen his treasures from Jack's father? That was basically made up hundreds of years after the story was first written, perhaps because somebody realized that otherwise Jack was just a Jerkass Designated Hero.

Film

  • National Treasure, all the way. Ben Gates would never even conceive of stealing the Declaration of Independence if he didn't have the noble cause of keeping all that treasure and the Declaration itself out of the hands of the bad guys.
  • All three of the recent Danny Ocean movies starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney feature Caper Rationalizations that involve getting revenge against some really nasty individuals.
    • In the first movie only one of the characters is in it for revenge and Danny is there to win his wife back. The others are in it mostly for the money.
    • In the second movie they are in it to get money so they can pay off the guy they robbed in the first movie. Otherwise he will have them killed. The secondary reason is to get back at the Gentleman Thief who ratted them out.
    • Only in the third movie is their rationalization purely revenge.
  • Inception: Saito gives a theoretical Caper Rationalization toward the beginning of the movie, though the movie never shows whether it is true or not. On the other hand, Di Carpio's character is motivated by his desire to be able to return to his children, which Saito promises to arrange if he can pull of the titular Inception.
  • The team in Sneakers is hired to steal an encryption device from a mathematician. Their employers claim to be NSA agents, and say that the mathematician is being funded by Russia. Actually, he's being funded by the NSA, and the employers work for the Mafia. (Communism was just a red herring.)
  • The remake of The Italian Job has the crew pulling a caper against the guy who double-crossed them, murdered their original leader (the lead's father), and took the gold from their original caper.
  • In Inside Man, the entire point of the bank job was to expose war crimes committed by one of the bank's account holders.
  • In Hudson Hawk Eddie doesn't even want to return to his catburglering ways, but is blackmailed into it. Also, when he fakes his arrest to avoid completing the third job the villains go ahead without his help, resulting in innocent guards being killed compared to Eddie's non-lethal plans.
  • In the original Oceans 11, the team members have various reasons for wanting the money, ranging from putting a deprived son through college to financial liberation from a very rich mother.
  • The Parole Officer features the Caper Crew breaking into a bank to steal a security tape that will both exonerate the protagonist and indict the bent copper who strangled a human being. Well, an accountant, anyway.

Literature

  • The Stainless Steel Rat has endless rationalizations on how the main character's crimes actually help society. Most of them turn out to be true.
  • In The Hobbit, Bilbo is employed as a thief to help return the gold to the dwarves after it was taken by the dragon Smaug.
  • In The Twelve Chairs, Vorobyaninov is trying to return what is technically his heirloom: diamonds that were hidden from the Soviet authorities in a chair. The Little Golden Calf, the undercover millionaire Koreiko made his fortune by large-scale fraud, sabotage and indirect murder, and comes off as a less sympathetic criminal than the protagonist, the Lovable Rogue Ostap Bender. When Bender does get his one million rubles in the last third of the book, the writers conveniently never stress its illegal history, instead treating it as somewhat of a lucky find.
  • In Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer, a group of people who have been swindled by a con man band together to steal from him exactly the amount he took from them.

Live Action TV

  • Leverage is all about this, because the heroes help the helpless.
  • Burn Notice, for precisely the same reason as the Leverage crew.
  • The Firefly episode "Ariel." Simon plans a heist on a hospital, stealing medicines that the crew can sell for profit on the black market. The rationalization is two fold: One, that Simon's real goal is to get his sister River into an imaging suite so he can find out what the hell the Alliance did to her at the Academy, and two, it's pointed out that as it's an Alliance hospital on a core world, they're insured and will be completely restocked within hours of the heist so no harm will be done.

  Wash: "It's all very noble, us stealing from the rich… selling to the poor…"

    • The point is emphasized by the contrast to the earlier episode, "The Train Job," in which the trope is initially averted--the plucky heroes are quite blase about the fact that they are committing crime for no reason other than their own pecuniary gain--but then subverted when they then return the stolen goods when they discover them to be medicine that is sorely needed on a poor planet.
  • Subverted in the Doctor Who episode "Planet of the Dead", in which Lady Christina de Souza presented herself as this sort of thief: She only stole for good reasons. In the end, however, it was revealed that this was a put-on... she actually just stole for the money it brought her and the thrill of getting away with something illegal. For some reason, the Doctor actively helps her escape the bobbies anyway.
  • In the Farscape episode "Liars, Guns and Money", the bank robbery planned and executed by the Moya crew is so they can buy D'Argo's son, who is about to be sold into slavery; however, just to take any moral greyness off the act of robbery, the bank chosen is actually used exclusively by criminals to hide their ill-gotten gains.
  • Mission Impossible used the "espionage" rationalization.
  • Happens quite often in Hustle, though sometimes the main characters pull jobs just to take the other guy's money. (This is the most likely reason for their Catch Phrase, "You can't cheat an honest man," which totally ignores the fact that there are just as many cons that trade on a mark's honesty as on his/her greed.)
    • However, they always choose an Asshole Victim as their mark as a matter of principle (and they are easy to con), reasoning that they are only robbing people who deserve it. The typical victim is either an outright unscrupulous criminal themselves, or someone who is managing to effectively rob people by pushing the boundaries of legality. Quite often they do it to help of avenge an innocent or a friend who fell victim to the marks villainy. That said, in a general sense they are clearly in it for the money and the thrill, and are pretty up front about the fact, especially with each other.
      • Also, the never go after violent criminals whenever they can avoid it, purely out of fear of what would happen to them if they were found out or caught (where this happens, they were always forced into it somehow, again usually to help a friend but sometimes out of personal danger.) So while they like picking Asshole Victims, they are always of the Jerkass and not the Complete Monster variety even if the latter is more deserving, out of self preservation and little else.
  • An episode of ANT Farm had aspiring artist Fletcher meet his inspiration, who was now down on his luck. Fletcher gave the man one of his paintings, only to discover later that he was selling it as his own. The A.N.T.s decided to steal it back to prevent this, which Fletcher did...only he replaced it with an exact copy of the same painting!

Video Games

  • Garrett, from Thief, typically steals from corrupt noblemen, cruel fanatic cults, or other villains. Though there's a mission in Thief 2 ("Shipping/Receiving") where he basically robs a couple of ordinary merchants.
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