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Sometimes, even Laser-Guided Karma misses its target.
The Big Bad has kicked the hero's dog, abducted that Ridiculously Cute Critter's loving family only to torture them to death, blew up the castle of King Elden the Good with him and his subjects in it, abused the most sympathetic of his Woobie minions, killed off the series' most popular Ensemble Darkhorse, invented a Kill Sat that uses babies as its primary fuel, ate little kids as a morning snack and jaywalked in front of a bus full of nuns.
He's done just about every conceivable thing that would make an audience boo, hiss and hate him with the burning fire of a thousand suns. So when the Karmic Hammer falls and the time for his comeuppance finally arrives, the audience is going to sit back and bask in the satisfaction that can only come from watching a Complete Monster get what he so richly deserves, up to and including a highly ironic and gruesomely appropriate death.
Only... that's not what happens. He doesn't get what he deserves. Instead, he gets away scot-free, thumbs his nose at the hero, dons his baby seal cape (made from baby harp seals he personally skinned alive), and walks off into the sunset.
And this isn't the comic book villain who has to escape, so he can come back and be thwarted by the hero time and time again. No. This is it. This is all there is to the story. The show is over. The book is finished. The author isn't going to write any more. The Word of God has been spoken. The villain has become a Karma Houdini.
So how does such a black-hearted scoundrel get away with it all and escape his justly-earned retribution? There could be a number of reasons.
- The Bad Guy Wins - He's achieved his goals and struck down all who could oppose him. It would feel cheap to resolve the situation with a random heart attack after that.
- Redemption Is Cheap - It's all well and good for a villain to see the light and change sides, but once that switch is flipped it's all too easy to forget about all the mayhem he caused before that moment (especially if the victims weren't named characters). Even if Redemption Equals Death, one heroic act at the end may not be enough to make up for a long career of dog football.
- What Happened to the Mouse? - The story has left the villain behind, and other issues have taken over. Once the heroes have dealt with Entropus the Destroyer of Worlds, sometimes the story forgets that there's still an Evil Overlord ruling his kingdom with an iron fist. Or the storyline just focuses on other aspects, considering the villain's punishment no longer important.
- The setting is a Crapsack World and/or the victims were Asshole Victims, and the author either doesn't feel the need to punish the character, or thinks that it would be out of place for the story. After all, if everyone, including our protagonist, has a long list of black deeds in their backstory, what makes this guy so special?
- Doomed by Canon / Death By Origin Story: Sometimes, the villain may kill a character this way. Usually when that happens, they only get a slap on the wrist or get away with it since it would violate canon.
- Horrible History - The story is based on a true story, where the antagonists were never brought to justice. If the writers care at all about historical accuracy, the villain will be a Karma Houdini by default.
- Executive Meddling - In some very rare cases, the author/filmmaker does write an appropriately grim death scene for the villainous character, but Executive Meddling determines that it's too gruesome, hurts the flow of the narrative, makes the movie run on too long, and so forth.
- Slipped the Sequel Hook - The writer may have left the villain alone so that he could return to cause more mayhem in a future sequel (and hopefully recieve his just desserts then). But sometimes the sequel never gets made...
- For a prequel or Interquel, a villain is shown to be much more vile than they were in their original series, so the punishment they did receive in the end is not proportionate.
- The villain did receive punishment for their actions, but some time in the future another author or franchise resurrected (literally or figuratively) the character and retroactively made them a Karma Houdini.
- Author Existence Failure, leading to an Orphaned Series - The story is left on a dangling hook before the villain gets his comeuppance.
- A couple Double Standard tropes that overlap with this.
- The Untouchable - The villain is simply too powerful for the heroes to handle. This tends to be the case in stories where the heroes are simply ordinary people thrown into a bad situation beyond their control; the best they can do is survive the story.
- An author grows too attached to a particular character and can't bring themselves to punish the character appropriately. Probably the most rage-inducing. The author may also expand the Happy Ending to all of the involved characters, even the villains.
- And sometimes, simply enough, Fiction Is Not Fair.
Needless to say, this is an easy and common way to make your already despicable villain even more despicable.
Compare Butt Monkey, for which a character ends up having many disproportionately bad things happen to them throughout the story (and may also technically qualify for this trope, as hard as that sounds). The extreme counterpart of that trope, Cosmic Plaything, can be considered this trope's polar Opposite Tropes.
Contrast Laser-Guided Karma for instances where the villain's comeuppance is swift and immediate.
No Real Life Examples, Please The list of historical personalities who got away with their crimes is just too damn long.
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