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Once again, the villain has gotten out of the Cardboard Prison. But this time, they've just served their sentence, with possible time off for good behavior, and guess what? They're no longer interested in crime, they just want to be an upstanding citizen. The system works!

And if you believe that, I've got a slightly used Death Ray to sell you. This is usually just a ruse on the part of the villain, who's plotting his crimes in secret. It may even be part of an elaborate scheme to get the heroes to drop their guard and insinuate themselves as a Heel Face Mole.

An important part of this plot is that everyone else will usually believe the villain right away, it's the heroes who are made to look like fools by their paranoid suspicions. This can veer into Through the Eyes of Madness territory. The villain may set up a situation that looks like he's up to his old tricks, so that the heroes will come barging in to stop his... perfectly lawful activities. This makes the villain look like an innocent victim of petty harassment and discredits any heroes who continue to suspect that he's still up to no good.

Sometimes the villain is so proficient at leading a normal life that you have to wonder why they even bother with being a villain. Couldn't they just get someone to Cut Lex Luthor a Check? This is more plausible if the villain is just insane.

In particularly tragic instances of this, the villain really does reform, but the mistrust from their environment (and possibly the hero in particular) convinces them it's not worth it, and they go back to villainy.

Compare Heel Face Turn, where the villain becomes an out-and-out hero. Likewise compare Chronic Villainy for when a villain sincerely attempts to reform but cannot get over his old obsessions. Also compare Reformed but Rejected, where the villain really does give up his evil ways -- but the hero still doesn't believe it. See also Then Let Me Be Evil, where a character becomes evil because everyone keeps assuming they that they are.

Examples of Civilian Villain include:


Comicbooks

  • Subverted in Kurt Busiek's Astro City during the Tarnished Angel arc. Steeljack, former supervillain, does indeed try to go straight. No one believes him, and about the only work he can find is people who want to hire him to do criminal jobs for them. Then he discovers an actual evil conspiracy...only none of the good guys will believe a thing he says because of his past reputation. He does manage to go straight in the end, although he has to almost die before any of the heroes are willing to listen to him.
  • Batman gets this one a lot, since his theme is "justice, not vengeance" and he's contractually obligated to give people a chance, even if he doesn't believe it himself.
    • In the "Going Sane" story in Legends of the Dark Knight, after the Joker thinks Batman has died, he gets plastic surgery and goes on a regime of prescription drugs to make himself look normal. In a short while, he forgets all about his life as the Joker and turns into a shy, kindly eccentric. (Amnesia of this kind can [very rarely] happen in the Real Life. Psychologists call this "fugue".) Needless to say, this all falls apart when the Batman re-appears.
    • In one especially screwy story, an overly-suspicious Batman broke into Penguin's factory, realized Penguin wasn't doing anything wrong, and got him on a parole violation anyway--Penguin was trying to help other ex-cons go straight, but the terms of his parole were that he wasn't supposed to associate with them.
      • Batman storms out of the parole board hearing, after failing to convince them that the Penguin's heart was in the right place, complaining that they won't listen. (Ironically, the story began with Batman storming out of the original parole hearing because they let the Penguin out in the first place.)
    • The Dark Knight Returns has two instances of this:
      • Harvey Dent (AKA Two-Face) gets plastic surgery to fix his mutilated face, but it doesn't actually cure his insanity, despite a promising start. Batman really hoped it would work (especially since Bruce and Harvey were friends).
      • The Joker claims to have changed after decades in Arkham, and is released after his evaluation by a strawman liberal psychiatrist. He goes on a talkshow to prove he just wants to make people smile... and then kills everybody. And somehow, some people are surprised.
        • Ironically he used some Reverse Psychology on his psychiatrist, claiming to have been cured, but also that he doesn't deserve to ever walk free because of the horrible things he has done, and should just be locked up and forgotten for good. The psychiatrist sees this as a good enough reason to put him in a talkshow.
    • The Harvey Dent example later showed up in current DCU continuity when he received plastic surgery as part of the "Hush" conspiracy, but in an example of petard-hoisting, the surgery put Two-Face out of control, giving Dent his sanity back. He got worse.
    • Shockingly averted by the Penguin, who had been happily running a nightclub frequented by supervillains while doing nothing more criminal than overcharging for tee shirts in the gift shop for years, before eventually running for mayor of Gotham City... all above board, to the shock of both Batman and readers.
      • Not entirely. The Penguin did fence stolen property and arrange early paroles on the side (Batman tolerated it because the Penguin made a great stool pigeon when necessary), but he seems to have put even that behind him now.
    • More recently, the Riddler is making an honest try at being a private detective, and it mostly looks like he'll join the Penguin in averting the trope. Even Batman (as Bruce Wayne) hired him once.
    • Harley Quinn got this one, with a weird start. She was rejected parole(Bruce Wayne is on Arkham's board of directors), but then she was broken out of Arkham on the way back to her cell by Scarface. While she does play along with Scarface's scheme, she takes her first oppurtunity to call GCPD and get Batman to help attempt capture of the crooks and to escort her back to Arkham. Bruce Wayne called for a rehearing to reverse his vote and if what this troper has heard is correct, she has since gone on to reform.
      • She's still nuttier than a Snickers bar, but is no longer a serious threat to the society...although a friendly encounter with Mr J might change that at any time.
  • Lex Luthor and the Joker team up with this gambit in World's Finest Comics #88. In the classic Cut Lex Luthor a Check tradition, the nigh-indestructible industrial robots they were manufacturing as a front would have made them fabulously rich.
    • Of course, the Joker is insane. And Luthor is quite capable of making as much money as he feels like whenever he feels like it, but he's absolutely convinced that Superman is holding back Humanity from it's true potential. Neither of them are in it for the money, so cutting them a check won't work.
      • Also, it was the Silver Age.
  • Moloch from Watchmen. Unfortunately for him, Rorschach never forgives a former villain, and even breaks Moloch's finger when he tries to defend himself from Ror's unjustified home invasion.
  • A Pre Crisis Superman story had Luthor reforming after falling in love and deciding to marry. He even allowed Superman to scan his mind with a device to confirm it. Except it turned out to be a convoluted scheme even Luthor himself wasn't aware of since erasing his own memories was part of the plan-- so he really DID go straight, only to return to evil when the plan failed and ended up banishing his new wife to another universe instead of Superman.
  • Among others, Captain Cold in The Flash has done this several times. On at least one occasion he even fought crime alongside the vocally suspicious Flash on the encouragement of his then-girlfriend. Then it turned out that at night she was using his equipment and costume to commit burglaries so that he would take the blame if she was ever spotted. He promptly attempted murder-suicide.
  • At one point, the Cyborg Superman attempted this, creating a new identity as a schoolteacher and befriending a high school student who, co-incidentally, was involved in a few of Superman's adventures, mostly those in the original post-Crisis Kandar. When his identity was revealed, he snapped and attacked, only to escape once more.


Films

  • Casanova Frankenstein in Mystery Men. Captain Amazing is Genre Savvy enough to know this supervillain will commence at once on an Evil Plan once he is let out of the asylum (with great publicity), but not quite savvy enough to prevent himself from falling victim to it.
  • Dee Snider's Strangeland.
  • 102 Dalmatians: Cruella is let out of custody after being 'reformed'. It turns out she really is reformed... that is, until she starts seeing spots...
  • Frank White in King of New York wants everyone to believe that he was totally reformed by prison, and is now just a philanthropist with an interest in helping the poor. In reality, not so much.


Literature

  • In the backstory to The Lord of the Rings, Sauron, after the events of The Silmarillion, promised to abandon the ways of his former Evil Overlord and master Morgoth. Then he went and made the One Ring?
    • Things went in a bit different order; Sauron was implied to have genuinely regret his decision of siding with Morgoth after the first time he fell, if for no other reason than that it lead to such a humiliating defeat, but was too proud to beg for forgiveness, and soon fell into villainy, once again. The forging of the One Ring took place a millennia later, and at that time Sauron was an all-out villain, forced to disguise himself, and work under a false identity to get the elves trust him for awhile.
      • I heard somewhere that in addition to his pride, Sauron realized that with Morgoth defeated and the Valar returning to Valinor, he was now the most powerful being in Middle-Earth, and he decided to take advantage of it.
    • Of course this brings up the topic of Morgoth, who was let out from imprisonment and seemed to be an allright guy? Until he destroyed the trees, stole the Silmarils, and murdered Fëanor's father.
      • Not really. Morgoth is Tolkien's analogue for Satan: he is the incarnation of evil; he never reformed and never will. Morgoth's brother Manwë, the guy who released him, simply failed to understand why anybody would want to be evil. When I think of it, remind me why Eru Ilúvatar put Manwë in charge of the world…
  • Count Olaf pulls this trope multiple times over the course of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
  • In the Tortall Universe, Duke Roger is one of these for the last two books of the Lioness quartet. Before he died the first time, he tried to kill the crown prince as well as the queen, among others. After he came Back From the Dead, people just kind of accepted his word and the word of his necromancer that Roger wasn't dangerous anymore.
    • The belief was that having died had changed him, and it had - before he'd just been trying to gain the throne, but after being brought back he wanted to destroy everything.
  • Harry Potter: After Voldemort was defeated trying to murder baby Harry, some Death Eaters claimed to have been bewitched or unwilling participants and tried to go back to living a normal life. This was most successful in conjunction with ministry connections and large bribes. Of course, in most cases it was only a lie to keep them out of Azkaban.
    • It is further implied that at least some of those who were sent to Azkaban really had been coerced or mind-slaved, and simply didn't have the money to bribe people. Not many people really cared about the truth as long as they got paid.
  • Nefarian Serpine from Skulduggery Pleasant.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe gives us a few of these. Most of the time, the system actually does work. However, when it doesn't, it fails egregiously. Such is the case of Admiral Daala, an Imperial admiral who oversaw the construction of the Death Star, and the orbital bombardment of several planets. Her current job? Head of the Galactic Alliance!


Live-Action TV

  • Very common for recurring Special Guest Villains on Batman. For instance, the Penguin runs for mayor in "Hizzoner the Penguin," and in "Catwoman Goes To College," well.... In one episode, this trope actually works against the Penguin. After opening a high class restaurant to get the signatures of its rich clientele, he purposely tries to get put in prison so he can hook up with an expert forger. The Penguin actually proved somewhat inept at getting himself arrested.
  • In season three of Heroes it seems that four-years-later Sylar fits this trope. However it might be a subversion, as he seems to have actually changed his ways.
  • In the exceptionally dark Doctor Who story Revelation of the Daleks, Davros takes to calling himself the Great Healer and offering a solution to galactic famine. Thanks to this, Davros can truly call himself humanitarian. (Somewhat subverted in that Davros somehow thinks that he can remain anonymous, despite his unique appearance. The story itself does not address this.)
    • In The Curse of Peladon, where Proud Warrior Race the Ice Warriors claim to want to have given up their militaristic ways, which the Doctor does not believe. In fact, they have. Though as the next story, The Monster of Peladon, as with humans and Time Lords, you can trust some Ice Warriors but not others.
    • The first Second Doctor episode, The Power of the Daleks. I AM YOUR SER-VANT!
    • They do it again in the new series episode "Victory Of The Daleks" including "WOULD YOU CARE FOR SOME TEEEEA?"


Videogames

  • Eggman of Sonic the Hedgehog does this from time to time. (And in lots of incarnations, whether he's Eggman or Robotnik, not just the games.)
    • In Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, he claims to have "completely reformed". Nobody believes him, but they work with him anyway for a good stretch of the game since they legitimately need his tech. No prizes for guessing how that turned out.
    • Also, in Sonic Colors:

 Dr. Eggman: "This amusement park was constructed entirely out of a sense of remorse for my past transgressions, and is in no way associated with any sort of evil plot or premeditated misdeeds."

Sonic: "Well, that's a relief."

  • The plot to Mega Man 3. Dr. Wily claims to have reformed, and works with Dr. Light to build a giant "peacekeeping robot" which Mega Man has to go out and get the components for. The components, oddly enough, are guarded by 8 robot masters... and once they've gathered them all, Dr. Wily steals the new robot and plots to use it to take over the world, of course.
    • Wily does it again in 9, when he gets out of jail, having apparently reformed. He then frames Dr. Light as plotting to take over the world, and asks all the people of the world to send donations to his Swiss Bank Account so that he can build a new fighting robot to stop Light and his eight robot masters.
    • All of this when everything is Wily's fault.
  • Ultros in Final Fantasy VI eventually becomes the receptionist at the Coliseum. Subverted in that he never attacks the party again. On the other hand, his pet Chupon is now your only opponent in the arena, ever. Dammit.


Webcomics

  • In the comic Bob and George, Dr. Wily does this by faking amnesia to become Dr. Light's assistant again.
    • Bob and George is (just loosely enough) based on the actual plot of the games. Thus, this happens only because of association with them.


Web Originals

  • Parodied by Legendary Frog's "The Return of Ganondorf", in which Ganondorf from The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time comes back after his defeat claiming to have stopped being evil. Link doesn't believe him, of course, and keeps trying to spy on him to catch him being evil. In the end, it turns out he isn't evil after all, Link's just nuts.


Western Animation

  • Batman: The Animated Series had the Penguin reform, genuinely, only to go back to his villainous ways when the woman he loved betrayed him.
    • To twist the knife here, after the Penguin is done with his epic snap and Batman has rescued her, she admits, a bit sadly, "You know, I was really starting to grow fond of you."
    • Poison Ivy blurs the lines a bit in Batman: The Animated Series "House and Garden." She's out of prison, marries a biology professor and takes care of his two sons, Chris and Kelly. Batman spends half the episode tailing her and yeah, she seems OK. The catch? She wants to have a family on her terms, so she's locked up her husband and replaced him with a long series of plant/human hybrids using the professor's DNA. Robin realizes something's amiss when he points out the real Chris and Kelly are supposed to be girls.
    • The Ventriloquist also genuinely reforms after getting some psychiatric help.
    • The Riddler also reforms in the episode "Riddler's Reform." He does seem to be genuinely trying to reform, and his legitimate business is quite lucrative, but his obsession with outsmarting Batman won't leave him alone, so he decides that the only solution is to kill him. When he thinks Batman is dead, he does literally burn his mask and swear to quit being the Riddler, but of course it doesn't work out that way.
    • In Joker's Millions, the Joker becomes legitimately insanely rich by inheriting the wealth of an old enemy. He gives up crime and takes up things like golf. Unfortunately, the money turns out to be mostly counterfeit, and he goes back to his old ways when he tries to hijack an armored truck filled with cash when faced with the massive inheritance taxes and being the laughingstock of the underworld by being so thoroughly cheated.
    • Harley Quinn was once declared fit to re-enter society, and while she was still bubbly as all hell and kept giving other people the willies with her pet hyenas, she was well-behaved and did nothing illegal. Then a store clerk forgot to remove an anti-theft widget from a dress she bought, causing a store alarm to go off. Then things got sad, poor Harley. To mention nothing about the crazy general pursuing her on a tank.
      • Batman recognizes that Harley is one of his few villains who isn't irredeemable, just sort of misguided and broken. Word of God is that after the Joker's timely and well deserved death, Harley went straight and started a family.
      • Indeed, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker shows her as a stereotypical Jewish grandmother, and an extremely pissed one due to her granddaughters' fall to delinquency - in a gang called the Jokerz, no less!
    • In a short spinoff comic, the Scarecrow starts giving thought to his retirement plans, escapes Arkham, and goes back to teaching under a new identity - this time as an English professor, which has much less opportunity in the line of unethical experimentation. While he dislikes most of his students, he seems to be satisfied with his work otherwise, much to Batman's surprise--until he opens a can of fear gas on the Jerk Jock who abused (and possibly did worse to) his favorite pupil. At the end, though Batman chides him about "reverting to type," they're both arrested.
  • Lex Luthor in the Cadmus story arc of Justice League Unlimited does this as part of a Xanatos Gambit to discredit Superman.
  • About half of Sideshow Bob's appearances in The Simpsons.
    • Subversion: In one episode, he really had reformed despite Bart's suspicions, and actually saves his life. In a double subversion, he ends up in jail again anyway because the police didn't believe he wasn't involved in his brother's scheme.
      • Also, when they're in the police car:

 Sideshow Bob: You can't do this! I saved the children!

Cecil: Tell them they'll live to regret this.

Sideshow Bob: You'll live to regret this! Oh, thanks a lot, now I look crazy.

    • This Subverted again when the the Simpsons find Bob as the Mayor of a small town in Italy who has once again reformed and started a family. It doesn't stick as Lisa accidentally ruins it, and Bob's new family want in on revenge.
  • As a parody/homage to/of Batman, Darkwing Duck faced something similar in one episode, with one twist: Darkwing, under his secret identity Drake, ended up hosting the criminal Tuskernini after (accidentally) enrolling in the city's 'Adopt-A-Con' program. His trick in getting Tuskernini to reveal his con? Convincing him that he, his daughter, and his sidekick were undercover criminals, that they believed Tuskernini all along, and that Tuskernini caught them in the act of plotting a robbery.
  • On Superfriends, the Legion of Doom pulled this once. Of course since they proceeded to travel into the future because they thought the Superfriends wouldn't find them there, the viewer is left to question why.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants: Plankton pretends he changed in a convoluted charade to get Mr. Krabs's secret formula.
  • There was Gil from Kim Possible--Everybody bought it except for Ron, which ended up being the key to his defeat.
  • In Batman Beyond, Mister Freeze was subjected to this after he was given an honest shot at redemption and a normal life. Few people believed he was willing to change, with the exception of Terry, as a twist (elderly Bruce seems to have witnessed this trope being averted a few too many times to believe in Freeze's reform). Couldn't make good on it though, as the technology used to heal his body...wasn't that good. He was doing fine until the doctors treating him wanted to vivisect him to see why the treatment wasn't permanent.
  • After being defeated the first time in The Spectacular Spider-Man, Doctor Octopus pretends to have returned to his original meek personality and asserts that criminal actions were the result of his tentacles forcing him into it. By doing this, it allows him to be kept at an institution under relatively low security and mastermind a break-out for his fellow villains, who, being sane, are kept in maximum security prison.
  • There was one of these in the Powerpuff Girls. Perhaps dealing with Mojo Jo Jo?
  • One Tuff Puppy episode has Snaptrap claim to have reformed, and everyone buys it except Kitty. He even does some good deeds for the city, but Kitty thinks he's up to his old tricks and ruins them, turning everyone against her. Then Snaptrap reveals he's still evil as he captures everyone in a death trap.
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