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The villain has the hero on the ropes. The villain's plan actually was foolproof this time, and he's staked his claim on the prize so thoroughly that even a court of law wouldn't take it away.

Evil has won.

Well, sorta. Evil may have won, but there's going to be a last second caveat that renders the whole point moot. The big pile of gold he's just won turns out to be pyrite; the ancient superweapon he's claimed is irreparably broken, and probably has been for a long time. However it plays out, the audience can rest assured that evil never pays, and the villain has just blown a boatload of his evil resources on a snipe hunt.

Often involves a Literal Genie or Prophecy Twist. In folklore, a Deal with the Devil can often be broken in this way.

Also known as a Quibble; arguably synonymous with Exact Words. Compare to Pyrrhic Victory.

Not to be confused with Off the Table, The Trope Formerly Known As Pound Of Flesh.

The Trope Namer comes from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, where the gain is a literal pound of flesh. Since one cannot extract a pound of flesh without also spilling blood, the contract is ruled null and void.

Examples of Pound of Flesh Twist include:


Anime and Manga

  • Dragon Ball Z: Freeza, who was trying to get the Dragon Balls for immortality, gets to Porunga and wishes for it before Dende can wish Namek's residents off the exploding planet. However, due to his lack of access to the Namekian language, Freeza's wish is ignored and Dende's, which was spoken in said language, is granted instead. Even if he could learn the language, since he was fighting off Goku, whose best friend he blew up on top of all the murders he had committed, his plans were at an end. Earlier on, Freeza gets access to all the Namekian Dragon Balls via the Ginyu Force, and makes his wish while everyone's busy. This is when he first learns that he can't make a wish without knowing the language.
  • Lupin III is excessively fond of these, nearly always pulling one or two on the villain AND the audience. Especially in the movies and the specials.
  • Fairy Tail: When the crew goes off on an S-Ranked mission to save an island from a curse that turns them into demons, they find that there is a demon on the island that was sealed away in ice and the villains are trying to resurrect it. The villains manage it, only to find that it was already dead.
  • In Soul Eater, the heretic witch Arachne spends a good deal of resources sending an army to an island where the good guys are also assembled, all to recover the Demon Tool BREW. When her man finally succeeds in recovering the mystic tool, it turns out that it is broken beyond repair. However, it is subverted in that Medusa had actually switched the real BREW out for a fake. BREW itself was still usable and eventually falls into the hands of another villain, but as far as Arachne is concerned it is played straight.

Comic Books

  • A Carl Barks Donald Duck story has Uncle Scrooge accidentally agreeing on giving the Beagle Boys all of his fortune if he failed to deliver a dozen eggs from a rare kind of egg-laying rabbit unharmed. At the end, the eggs are shattered, and revealed to actually be chicken eggs, making the contract worthless.
  • A hilarious example came from when Dracula fought Superman. Dracula succeeded in hypnotizing him so he could get close enough to drink Superman's blood and gain his immense power - only for it to turn out that because Superman is solar powered, when he drank his blood his head exploded.
  • "Justice League Adventures," the comic-tie in with the "Justice League" series, in issue #15 had Kanjar Ro hired by Kromm and Sayyar, two Warlords who were in "war games" with Queen Hyathis. Kanjor Ro ends up capturing Hyathis' latest prize, the Gamma Gong, and the Justice League as well. Kanjar Ro uses the Gamma Gong to entrance Hyathis' people, and loot her trophies. When Ro seems he'd get away with his loot when the Gong's destroyed, Hyathis gives him a proposition Batman advises her to: join the Warlords in their games. This gives Kanjar Ro "respectability" as it means he's no longer scurrying around like a thief; but Queen Hyathis then reminds Ro he's limited in the use of his loot. And that she'd watch him, Kromm and Sayyar to make sure they don't cheat from here on. To help with enforcement of this...the Queen shows her new allies--The Justice League!

Film

  • The immortality one is fairly common: in the animated film Heavy Metal 2000, the Man Behind the Man gets his immortality... of course, he then gets sealed in a chamber that can only be opened from the outside with a key lost in the depths of space.
  • In A Simple Plan, the brothers played by Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton kill a lot of people, including their third partner and his wife, to get the money they found in the crashed plane, ending with Thornton forcing Paxton to kill him, as it's the only way for the plan to work at that point. Unfortunately, it turns out the money was the ransom in a kidnapping, and the serial numbers are on file at the FBI, making the money useless.
  • A similar twist occurs in the underrated comedy Screwed. Miss Crock's assistant, Chip, steals the money intended as the ransom in the fake kidnapping of main character Willard, but is busted when one of his accomplices uses one of the bills to buy flowers, not aware of the serial number practice.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Nazis decide to "try out" the Ark of the Covenant as a weapon of mass destruction, only to be destroyed themselves for not reading the fine print.
  • In The Book of Eli, Big Bad Carnegie has gone through great lengths to wrest the book from Eli. He finally has it in his grasp and has a locksmith open it to find that it's in Braille. And he can't read Braille This turns into a Humiliation Conga when it's revealed that his town has totally slipped out of his control because he sacrificed almost all of his men to get it, the blind woman he's been abusing for the whole film tells him to shove it when he tries to get her to read the book to him, and finally, a relatively minor wound he suffered earlier in the film is now badly infected, and he's likely to die from it if the uprising doesn't kill him first. Protip: Don't piss off God.
  • The Maltese Falcon from the film and the book of the same name. Supposedly a gold statue disguised as lead, turns out to actually be lead. The people obsessed with it (to the point of being willing to kill for it) decide that it must be a copy and the original must still out there somewhere.
  • In The Doberman Gang, a group of criminals train a pack of dobermans to commit an ingenius bank robbery. They succeed. But by the end, only one of the criminals is left. The person who trained the dogs is gone, and since he was the only one the dogs trusted, the criminals are unable to recover the money. The dogs escape carrying all the loot with them.

Folklore

  • Even before Shakespeare and the Trope Namer incident, Norse myth tells of Loki, who bet his head to the dwarf Brokk of whom could give the Aesir the better gift. 'Betting your head' in Norse society meant 'betting a sum of gold equal to your head's worth', but when Brokk (who was rich enough to begin with) won the bet he decided he wanted the bet paid literally. Loki at that point pointed out he'd never bet any of his neck, and neither side could agree on what constituted the head and what constituted the neck. In a final inversion of the trope, one version of the myth tells that Brokk got annoyed by being cheated out of what he considered rightfully his and sewed Loki's mouth shut to stop his word twisting (Loki was unable to argue that it was in any way not part of his head).
  • Piers Shonks, a knight on Mediaeval England, killed a dragon belonging to Satan, who turned up in a rage and promised that "whether you're buried in the church or out, I'll have your soul!". When Shonks died, he was buried in the wall of a church near Brent Pelham, with the inscription "Shonke one serpent kills, t'other defies / And in this wall as in a fortress lies"

Literature

  • In Thomas by Robin Jarvis, the protagonists meet a magician and find themselves caught up in a quest to defeat an evil cult hoping to resurrect their demon master by recapturing the pieces of a magical egg from which he will hatch. The heroes end up prisoners, helpless witnesses to the dark ritual... except it goes wrong. The magician gloats to the confused baddies that they've fallen into the goodies' trap - the Big Good knew this would happen one day, so he and his followers spent years enchanting the egg with goodness so that it would destroy the demon instead of reviving him if the heroes failed to stop the cult. Still, the story isn't quite over...
  • Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Millennium Falcon does it twice in a row. The Heroes and their competitors are looking for a location of something "of immeasurable value". The Heroes get to it first and find an old relic made of common materials. The competitor then arrives and explains that the item had collector's value to him all along. But then he discovers that the item is actually a replica and the original relic is still out there somewhere -- a Shout-Out to the Maltese Falcon, on which the plot was based.
  • The Bad Beginning, first in A Series of Unfortunate Events, ends with Violet successfully arguing that a contract wasn't signed "in her own hand" because she used her non-dominant hand (and thus it wasn't her true signature).
  • Occurs at the very end of Ghost Story, when Harry ultimately realizes that, although he IS the Winter Knight, Mab still doesn't have any ACTUAL power over him, allowing him to retain his free will and enabling him to determine HOW or even IF he follows Mab's orders.
  • The original plot is subverted in the Star Trek novel 'Dark Mirror'. Picard reads a mirror universe version of the Merchant of Venice. In the Mirror Universe Shylock gets his pound of flesh because no one would really think you can really get a pound of flesh without shedding blood. They weigh it, it is too much, and they laughingly say he can take some of it back.

Live Action TV

  • Doctor Who: "The Five Doctors". Time Lord President Borusa, having manipulated the Doctors into granting him access to Rassilon's tomb, claims the reward of immortality promised to the winner of the game of death. Rassilon grants it, which, unfortunately for Borusa, takes the form of being turned into a living statue.
    • Another Doctor Who example: "The Hand of Fear". Eldrad the Kastrian, having long ago been executed by his people for attempting to usurp rulership of Kastria, is resurrected on Earth many centuries later. He returns to Kastria to become its ruler, only to find the planet entirely dead. A final message from King Rokon (the king who Eldrad planned to usurp) crowns him 'King of Nothing'.
  • Star Trek: Voyager does the What Measure Is a Non-Human? plot involving the Doctor's property rights to a holonovel he's written. His publisher argues that the Doctor can not own his work, as, legally, a holonovel is the property of the artist who created it, and an artist is defined as "a person who creates an artistic work". Going against the handful of precedents set in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the courts find that the Doctor doesn't count as a person, which ought to disqualify him. But the victory is a hollow (or holo) one for the publisher, as the courts instead decide to expand the definition of artist, so that personhood is not a necessary precondition.
    • Which turns a loss into a similar hollow victory for the doctor, who's now legally an artist, but still no person.
    • By this point it was clear that the Federation was trying really hard not to admit that they had accidentally created a slave race.
  • Used against the heroes in the final season of Red Dwarf: Having been imprisoned for stealing and destroying a Starbug, their attempt to escape and prove their innocence demonstrates to the captain that their story is true, exonerating them regarding the theft. But it also demonstrates that they had improperly accessed classified personnel files, a crime carrying exactly the same penalty. (The files would have revealed the Captain bribed his way up the career ladder, which explains why he was looking for the loophole.)
  • Used in the Battlestar Galactica episode about abortion. A girl wants to have an abortion; her parents won't let her, and the religious beliefs of the colony she was from before the Cylon attack forbade it despite its legality. Though pro-choice herself, President Roslin understands that there are less than fifty thousand humans left in the universe, and that they will have to grow their numbers if they're to survive as a species. In the end, she outlaws abortion via executive order... after the girl has had her abortion and has applied for asylum aboard Galactica so she doesn't have to go back to her parents. Roslin makes an explicit reference to the trope, which becomes interesting when you wonder how far along in her pregnancy the girl was...

 Roslin: You have your pound of flesh.

    • This was done as an inverse of the Real Life Example: Roe v. Wade. Jane Roe (not her real name) fought to have an abortion and the case eventually led to the legalization of abortion, but Jane had already given birth and put her baby up for adoption long before the case was decided.
      • ...and later became an advocate against abortion (she maintains that the lawyers had manipulated her into pursuing the case). There was more than one twist in that case.
  • The episode of The Twilight Zone "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" featured a band of crooks who pulled off a gold heist and put themselves in suspended animation to avoid the statute of limitations, sleeping for 100 years. The rest of the story deals with the lengths each member went to (culminating in every one of them dying) trying to get the most gold. Then we learn that gold is worthless, because it can now be manufactured.
  • The final episode of Alias has Sloane finally achieving immortality...only for Jack to sacrifice himself in an effort to seal Sloane beneath a mountain for all eternity.
  • In an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a band of thieves that the barfly Morn used to work with tries to find the loot he helped them steal (and swiped from under their nose) in a famous heist after he tried Faking the Dead, dragging our good old Ferengi friend Quark along for the ride. Ultimately, they fail, and end up being captured (other than Quark, who double-crossed them) before the loot was found, subverting the trope... but when the loot is recovered, later on, it turns out Morn had long ago extracted the valuable parts from it, leaving behind a bunch of Worthless Yellow Rocks, rendering the thieves' search moot, even if they had succeeded in finding it.
  • Illyria of Angel nearly laid claim to the world. She sacrificed her immortal demon form, high priest, and a good chunk of power in order to access the alternate dimension where her demonic army awaited her command. Only Wesley managed to follow Illyria as she prepared to unleash the army... only to find that her army had fallen into ruin, leaving her with nothing.
    • Illyria was at this point so powerful it's not clear she even needed her army to conquer the world...but the fact that the army was long dead shocked her into the realizing that her time had come and gone. She proceeded to hang out with the heroes because she had nothing better to do.

Music

  • In Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Beethoven's Last Night, Mephistopheles forces Beethoven to give up his 10th Symphony in exchange for not torturing a homeless girl to death. Fate (literally) steps in, and Mephistopheles signs a contract for one copy of the 10th Symphony, written by Ludwig von Beethoven, first son of his parents. However, the composer is actually Ludwig von Beethoven the second, as his elder brother of the same name died shortly after birth.
    • While you could say that they can't pay up and Meph gets a refund? It was implied in-script as the fact that his soul in Heaven could write music and that the tenth symphony of Ludwig the elder (should it ever be written) will belong to Mephistopheles.

Theater

  • The Trope Namer comes from Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice: Shylock pleads his case in court, and the court finds that, indeed, the contract he made with Antonio is binding, giving Shylock every legal right to extract a pound of flesh from him. However, the obviously biased court also rules that Shylock is not entitled to any blood. Therefore he would have to take the flesh without spilling a drop of blood, which everyone simply accepts is impossible.

Video Games

  • In Golden Sun, Alex manipulates both the heroes and the villains into breaking the seal on Psynergy so that he can claim the awesome powers of the Golden Sun for himself. And succeeds. But then The Wise One shows up and informs him that it placed a small portion of the Golden Sun's energy into the Mars Stone that Issac carries, rendering Alex's powers slightly less than god-like. Now, being almost omnipotent should be prize enough, except for the fact that the Wise One is omnipotent, and swiftly renders Alex unable to move..
    • It's also a case of Chekhov's Gun. At the very beginning of the first game, the Wise One asks Isaac to show up the Mars Star for a brief moment. Nothing is made of it until that moment.
  • In the final case of Ace Attorney: Justice for All, Matt Engarde confronts Phoenix with the sadistic choice of getting a sociopathic murderer acquitted and sending an innocent woman to jail, or having his sidekick be killed by an assassin. Phoenix gets Engarde the verdict he wanted but also reveals to Shelly de Killer that Engarde taped him killing Juan Corrida and planned to blackmail him with the footage. This means he's broken his bond of trust with de Killer, a very fatal mistake. Engarde is forced to plead guilty in order to be protected from de Killer...and it's possible even that plan didn't succeed.
  • Ganondorf's manipulation of Zelda and Link in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time nets him access to the Sacred Realm and the Triforce and neither of them can do anything to stop him... But unfortunately for him, the Triforce has a caveat that unless a human is perfectly balanced with its virtues, they can only possess one piece of it. This means that Ganondorf only gets one third. The most powerful third, yes, but still not *quite* the ultimate power he had envisioned, and he becomes doomed by fate to forever be thwarted by the owners of the other two pieces (Zelda and Link, for those not in the know), which together overpower Ganondorf.
  • In Sonic Riders, Eggman appears after Sonic and co. make it through the Very Definitely Final Dungeon, and when the treasure for which Eggman sacrificed the Chaos Emeralds, the series's go-to Mineral Macguffins, is within sight, he actually holds off the heroes with a laser gun in order to grab the treasure at the last minute. However, when Eggman opens the chest containing said treasure, he finds an ancient prototype Gear in the form of a Flying Carpet, outclassed by every other Gear currently available to the public and therefore worthless to Eggman. At least it was a really nice rug...

Western Animation

  • In Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko and Ed run for city dog catcher, with Rocko being (justifiably) afraid that Ed will be cruel to the dogs. Thanks to a ton of mudslinging, Ed wins in a veritable landslide... but another measure passes that turns the dog catcher position into an undesirable job with no real power.
  • In Kim Possible, Drakken steals the royalty money Ron gets for inventing the Naco. After Kim fails to get it back, he spends it on a giant laser that doesn't work as expected and destroys itself and his lab.
  • In an episode of the '80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show ("April Foolish"), Shredder manages to get away with a rare isotope. Unfortunately for the bad guys, the isotope is unstable under high atmospheric pressures (especially those deep within the Earth), and the sample explodes after the Shredder returns to the Technodrome--parked many miles beneath the Earth's surface.
  • In Ben10; after spending the episode racing against Enoch of the forever knights to obtain an ancient mayan superweapon, Max lets him have it after a "Friend or Idol?" Decision when the kids were about to fall to their deaths. Enoch aims the weapon at them and prepares to fire it... only to have it crumble into dust. Even an ancient superweapon can't stand against a few millenia of decomposition.
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