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"You don't understand. ...I really didn't want to leave you any clues. I really planned never to go back to Arkham Asylum. But I left you a clue anyway. So I... I have to go back there. Because I might need help. I... I might actually be crazy."
—The Riddler, Batman: Gotham Adventures #11
Perhaps Rousseau was onto something, and no human being is really happy being evil. Or at least some people are unfit for a life of villainy. Rather than being a construct of pure evil, a villain can be a surprisingly normal person despite the tragic flaws and obsessions driving him to hatred and madness. He may even manage to have admirable qualities, becoming a sympathetic Anti-Villain. Along comes a chance at salvation: a skilled plastic surgeon, an influential psychiatrist, a doctor with a miracle cure, or maybe just an old friend. With that person's help, the villain manages to overcome his madness and look forward to some semblance of a happy and productive normal life.
However, something eventually goes wrong. Maybe they start having blackouts, and can't remember what they've been doing. Maybe they get visited by an old comrade who forces them back into crime. The voices in their head may resume their chorus. Or maybe they see their old nemesis and just have to test them, for old times sake...Ultimately, their returning obsessions become too much, and they can't resist them any more. They give in, and they eventually fall back into their self-destructive, villainous lifestyle.
If done right, it's Tragedy. If done wrong, it seems like an Ass Pull. The likelihood that the writer's attempt falls flat is greater when the real reason for villain's relapse is not the result of an honest artistic decision, but is merely catering to the demands of Status Quo Is God. A sadistic god indeed, who will never, ever allow the villain redemption, no matter how many times he tries during the series' long, long run and many spinoffs, it will forever remain a Tragic Dream. Chronic Villainy is perhaps the uglier, viler twin to Joker Immunity.
Compare Reformed but Rejected, where the villain has repented and wants to go straight, but may find that the hero, or society in general, doesn't trust him enough to let him. Indeed, a particularly bad case of Reformed But Rejected can easily fuel a case of Chronic Villainy. A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, courtesy of What the Hell, Hero? or All of the Other Reindeer. Compare also Redemption Failure, where the villain is pushed back to The Dark Side not by internal residue compulsions, but by external circumstances.
Contrast The Farmer and the Viper, where a villain is given this same opportunity...and twists that goodness into a torment for the one who offered them redemption. Often, villains who try (and fail) to reform have some Idiosyncrazy.
Note that those with the opposite affliction, Chronic Hero Syndrome, rarely suffer as much angst over it.
Anime and Manga
- Ultimately averted with Akito Sohma from Fruits Basket, who manages to escape from their demons and have a Heel-Face Turn. At the very end she does throw an explosive tantrum that resembles her old ones during a talk with Shigure, but unlike in the past she manages to calm down with a bit of help from him.
- The Crown Prince of this is Batman's the Riddler, who has reformed countless times, only to fall back into crime due to obsessing over beating the Bat. However, this trope still applies to a large portion of Batman's rogues gallery, most prominently, Two-Face (who is probably a close second to the Riddler), The Ventriloquist, Mr. Freeze, and Harley Quinn. The second version, of a character whose power makes them evil and slowly returns them to villainy, is present in Man Bat and certain incarnations of Clayface.
- One comic book for the recent "The Batman" animated series had The Riddler asking Batman for help, because the Joker had kidnapped his favorite staff member at Arkham. But The Riddler couldn't just ask, he sent riddles, because it's his mental condition to do so, whether committing crimes or not.
- This compulsion goes all the way back to the 1960's Adam West Batman tv show. In one episode, Riddler's girlfriend asks him why he even bothers with riddles since Batman always figures them out. Riddler answers that the only reason he even became a criminal is so he could use riddles to stump Batman. Without riddles, he says, crime would be pointless.
- A reviewer of the Batman series once went to the point of calling it nigh-Calvinistic.
- The Joker underwent a Riddler Reform in "Going Sane", a Story Arc from the comic Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. The only times where he's ever been indicated to reform are when he thinks Batman's dead. When Batman ends up alive, he returns.
- As such, Batman the Animated Series had a couple of these. There was a noirish episode involving Two-Face in which this was the Twist Ending, and, of course, one involving The Riddler (aptly named "Riddler's Reform", the original suggested title for this trope) in which he gave up a fortune because he couldn't get past his obsessions.
- And in an episode of Batman Beyond, Mr. Freeze winds up as a particularly tragic example after spending most of the episode Reformed but Rejected.
- What's particularly tragic about that episode is that he gets a human body, and for no explicable reason, gets his ice powers back. However, Mr. Freeze has a history of tragedy in the DCAU, and while his Backstory gave him depth, his later appearances in the The New Batman Superman Adventures made him a bit of a Butt Monkey. In Batman and Mister Freeze Sub Zero, his wife is revived and cured of her illness. What happens? It turns out his body is rapidly decaying, and soon, all that's left of him is his head.
- Harley Quinn got such an episode. Over the course of it, she gets better, and finally realizes that the Joker doesn't care about her (after being left for dead by him) but sees a card that says "Get well soon - J" and instantly snaps back. (If you know the character, it's not an Ass Pull.)
- Many enemies of The Flash who are genuinely insane have gone through this, most prominently, Wally West's ex-girlfriend, Magenta (another case of psychotic power). Pyromaniac recidivist Heat Wave went straight with a federal job...but he burnt down a bar he went to after leaving the office. (Frustratingly, this came after a pretty lengthy period of nonvillainy—the character has been straight for nearly as long as he's been a criminal.)
- One Silver Age story had Abra Kadabra brainwash the governor into pardoning him, and then attempting to form a legitimate career as a puppeteer. However, the show he did was a sort of (extremely amateurish) parody of the Flash, who had a really oversensitive reaction to how popular it was and so decided to get intense in his war on crime, making him popular enough that the inhabitants of Central City (who are apparently all simpletons) stopped coming to the puppet show, so Abra Kadabra turned the Flash into a puppet and used him in the show.
- The Cluemaster, a minor Batman villain compelled to leave clues at the scenes of his crimes, was one of Arkham's few success stories. Unfortunately, he was cured of the compulsion to leave clues behind, not of a desire to steal things. His main claim to fame is being the father of Stephanie Brown and, later, Robin and Batgirl 2009.
- The Chronic Villainy of Batman's Rogues Gallery is justified by the common factor that almost all of them share: complete insanity. In their cases, villainy is almost literally their mental illness, one that seems impossible to remove.
- The Sandman, no, not that one, reformed somewhere in the '80s after going through Body Horror, and became a reserve Avenger and joined Silver Sable's Wildpack for a while. Then John Byrne got his mitts on him again, and had the Wizard hypnotize him into his "proper" personality, then he nearly turned good in an early 2000 Peter Parker: Spider-Man comic in which he split into four different Sandmen (and one Sandwoman), but at the end of the story, his evil side takes over his good side, and his good side, outside of the main body collaboration, dies.
- The Bronze Age of Comic Books Superman story "Luthor Unleashed" has Lex suffer one painful defeat too many at Superman's hands, and decides to throw in the towel. He retires to the alien planet where he had once taken a wife (whom he had, till then, shamefully neglected) and tries to settle down to be a model citizen there. He even has a child. But despite his best efforts, he can't stop obsessing over the fact that Superman beat him. He finally builds a suit of Powered Armor in anticipation of Superman tracking him down, but then uses it to relieve his tensions by using it to wreak havoc on his new home, becoming its first Super Villain. Superman does indeed arrive, and in the ensuing fight, Lex accidentally detonates a powerful gizmo and blows up the planet, killing his wife and infant son. He blames Superman and ends up more obsessed with his destruction than ever before.
- This is a pretty defining point about Lex Luthor and one of the best and most tragic examples. In many stories, Lex is a man who genuinely wants to do right by humanity and use his intellect for good. Its just that He can never get past his hatred of Superman. It also leads into the selfish spect of his personality: He wants to destroy Superman so the world will see him as the true savior of mankind.
- Eddie Brock, the former Venom, even after being separated from the symbiote. While trying to be a hero as Anti-Venom, he discovered that his benefactor, Mr. Li, was the Super Villain Mr. Negative. He was so disillusioned that he now struggles with homicidal urges. Bets are open as to how long it will take for him to become Venom proper again. Not to mention all the times he went back and forth between being a villain and an Anti-Hero as the regular Venom.
- Loki never stops trying to usurp Asgard and defeat Thor for many reasons. He is The Unfavorite of Asgard, being a trickster magician instead of a warrior, and so he can never truly believe that Odin and Thor truly love him as family, despite the fact that every time Loki's schemes fail, Odin and Thor always eventually forgive him and give him another chance. It got so bad that Loki actually let himself die at the conclusion of "Siege" and be reborn as a relatively innocent child in an attempt to escape Chronic Villainy. As the last remnants of his past life explains to the new Loki, he had become predictable in his treachery and, as a god of chaos and trickery, he would rather die than be predictable.
- Cruella de Vil in 102 Dalmatians. Went to jail, got reformed, but an accident with the main puppy caused her to start seeing dalmatian spots all over town. Kind of a disturbing scene.
- In a perversion of Pavlov's Dog, the researchers responsible for Cruella's behavioral modification into the saintly Ella accidentally discovered that the sound of a bell reverses the process. Needless to say, the minute Ella hears a bell ringing, she's back to being the sociopathic Cruella. This in a city that is famous for a hugantic friggin bell by the nickname of Big Ben.
- Lord of War had Yuri Orlov, the greatest arms dealer in the world (described to have been on first-name basis with several dictators), tries to reform and run a lumber company when a Federal agent tells his wife what he does. But trying to live honestly is too hard (or not so much hard as boring), so he goes back to gun-running.
- Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is a pretty solid example. After being subdued, taken captive, and his life subsequently spared by Frodo, he is slowly calmed and rehabilitated by Frodo's attempts at kindness until he ultimately breaks down in a "fight" between his two personalities, and defeats his Gollum side, reverting to a much more cheerful and helpful Smeagol persona. Then, an unfortunate run-in with Faramir has him beaten and seemingly betrayed by Frodo, making him break once and for all back into his murderous, deceptive self. A similar process occurs in the books, but is much more subtle.
- It is made clear, though, that Smeagol, not Gollum, was the side that originally killed his friend in order to take hold of the Ring (Gollum references Smeagol being a murderer in both films he/they are featured in.) The Gollum personality came later, in the decades of isolation. Really, he's an example of someone who instantly fell into the power of the Ring, but was otherwise a relatively decent sort of person. Very susceptible to temptation, that's all. Either side would be perfectly willing to kill Frodo to get the ring, it's just that Smeagol is too frightened to try.
- Michael Corleone in The Godfather Saga: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
- His father, Vito, wanted to avert this chronic loop and was truly brokenhearted when he failed.
- Well done by Mickey Rourke in the titular character of Johnny Handsome.
- In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Dr. Impossible knows that no matter how perfectly he builds his machines, no matter how well he prepares his world domination plot, no matter what he does, the invincible superhero Corefire will just waltz through all his weapons and defenses, beat him up, and put him back in jail. Probably on live television. But as of the book's start, he's on his thirteenth attempt.
- He also mentions that people at the extreme far end of the intelligence bell curve - like him - suffer from "Malign Hypercognition Disorder", which compels them to be evil supervillains and try to Take Over the World. Even though he knows he'd be better off using his genius in more legal ways, he can't help trying to conquer the world.
- Harmony Kendall from Angel. During her appearances on the show, her Chronic Villainy seemed to alternate between tragedy and Ass Pull. Either way, it seemed like she genuinely wanted to do the right thing, even though it was against her vampiric nature. She even once said, "It's not like have a soul! I have to try a lot harder!"
- Spike from the Buffy Verse flickers like a moral strobe light. Dark: the punk vampire based on Sid Vicious, his original form. Light: helps Buffy Save the World from Angelus because he likes it here and because he loves Drusilla. Dark: has Angel tortured for a Phlebotinum ring. Light: has a chip in his brain that stops him hurting people, but helps Buffy because he can still attack other demons. Dark: drives a wedge between Buffy and her friends (The Yoko Factor) and kidnaps a doctor to get the chip removed. Light: falls in love with Buffy and goes back to fighting on her side; cries when she dies. Dark: takes sexual advantage of the risen Buffy's depression; tries to rape her when she comes to her senses. Light: gets his soul back, fights on Buffy's side again. Dark: used as a sleeper agent by The First. Light: saves the world at the cost of his own life. Dark: becomes a ghost and tries to rob Angel of his prophesied redemption. Light: takes over Angel's former job of helping the helpless; ends up fighting with Angel in the last battle. I count 11 toggles of the good/evil switch.
- Arvin Sloane from Alias appears to go straight a few times (though whether the attempts were genuine is debatable) but he inevitably has to get involved with the prophecies of Rambaldi that he has an obsession with. One particularly disturbing scene has a Mook who states that Rambaldi's ultimate plan was to become immortal, causing Sloane to snap at his shallowness and beat him to death. (While that season showed that Rambaldi's plan was far more than immortality, the next season showed that a key part of it was immortality, which Sloane pursued with disturbing gusto.)
- The tragedy of Londo Molari in Babylon 5. He is a good man at heart and frequently tries to use his influence for good or turn his back on the constant schemes of his old allies. But he is pretty much addicted to power and it takes only slight nudges from his former friends or personal tragedies to have him forget about his ideals and the previous times he set lose an avalanche of events he couldn't stop.
- Sylar (a.k.a Gabriel Gray) from Heroes has become quite familiar with this trope lately. The show tried to play around with the idea of redemption somewhat inconsistently during Volume 3, but it didn't take, partially thanks to liberal amounts of extreme rejected reform, and as of the current story arc, he's back to his superpowered, sociopathic ways, only now, with 90% more snark and a Kid Sidekick.
- After seeing his biological father in a recent Volume 4 episode, however, this tendency might be In the Blood. When Sylar displays his regenerative ability, Daddy Gray, who is dying of lung cancer, tries to take it, even though he previously claimed to have gotten bored of killing and swore off it many years ago.
- His actions have finally caught up with him by the end of the final season. His slew of trauma, murder, and issues all come to a head, and, as a last resort, he hunts down Parkman to have his mind wiped clean. Parkman isn't buying it and refuses until Sylar threatens his family.
Parkman: The last time I was in your head, you turned my life into a living hell. What makes you think I'm gonna risk that?
- The killer in the Criminal Minds episode "The Big Wheel" kills not because he wants to, but because he has a compulsive disorder forcing him to. The most he can do to stop himself is add the message "help me" to a video of one of his killings before sending it to the police. It seems that, in the past, he'd been a genuinely heartless killer, but the son of one of his victims somehow sparked in him the last vestige of goodness and made him reform. Unfortunately, when the kid is about to move away, the stress of this causes murder compulsions to overwhelm him. Towards the end of the episode, he dies, but not before telling the kid "forgive me...". Poor guy.
- There was the guy from Everybody Hates Chris, who he sent to jail. He comes back and asks Chris to help him complete high school. They succeed, but he goes back to robbing because it's more exciting than a real job.
- Happens both times the Stargate Atlantis team tries to use the retrovirus on Michael. The second time, they used it on a whole hive ship in addition to Michael. They just never learn.
- In later seasons, Deep Space Nine's recurring bad guy, Gul Dukat, was portrayed as being on a path of redemption and even fought on the side of the Federation against his own people. Once he was able to regain power on Cardassia, though, he reverted right back.
- Played for drama in The Sopranos with Cousin Tony.
- Glee is a perfect example in the Ass Pull category of this trope. No matter how many times Sue Sylvester takes a liking to the club or helps Them or shows some depth to her personality, it will be completely forgotten by her next appearance and she will always return to her scheming and villainy.
- Fate Stay Night's Kirei Kotomine, so, so very much. He perfectly understands right and wrong, just the 'switch' inside humans where we feel good for doing good is stuck the other way. Did some evil, felt happy, realised he was doing evil, tried to do good, became a pirest specialising in healing magic, and settled down with a family. His wife died, and he realised that all he felt was disappointment that he hadn't been able to kill her. He then realises that he is utterly unable to get any pleasure from life unless he's causing pain and suffering. From there, it just took a small push (thank you, Gilgamesh) for him to try to unleash every evil known to mankind on the world. When The Hero asks him why he's doing it, he replies with a speech that can be summed up as: "Just as some people find music or art entertaining, I can only find amusement in watching other people suffer."
- As mentioned under Science-Related Memetic Disorder, this is a recurring problem for reforming mad scientists in A Miracle of Science; the medication makes their heads fuzzy so they can't think clearly, and they tend to abandon it and relapse. In the words of one, "When you're a recovering mad scientist, you're always afraid you'll lose control and wake up some morning with a half-built time machine and a plan to go back in time and pants Hitler..."
- Oasis suffers from this in Sluggy Freelance. Even when she resists her insane obsession with Torg and fights crime, she's still a particularly brutal Vigilante Woman who's a little too callous about slaughtering dozens of people. Her assassin instincts even kick in during mundane tasks, such as when she makes pancakes and "doesn't stir the batter so much as stab it lots."
- To be fair to the woman, The Nostalgia Chick has tried to be a good person before, and she does still have Pet the Dog moments. She's just so miserable in life and willing to crawl back into a bottle because she's lonely that it just never really lasts.
- Lampshaded in Justice League, where the Trickster relents to his obsessions and is talked down from it by The Flash.
The Flash: James... You're off your meds, aren't you?
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we have Jet, a character with justified obsessions with taking down the Fire Nation, and incredibly unjustified actions towards that aim. Eventually, he decides to stop and try to live a normal life as a refugee. However, upon discovering that Zuko and Iroh are Fire Nation (they were technically lying about being escaped Earth Kingdom POW's, but were still harmless nonetheless), his attempts to convince others of this fall on deaf ears, and his obsessions get the better of him, eventually resulting in him openly attacking them in a crowded shop, getting arrested, Brainwashed, sent to kill the Avatar, and eventually Killed Off for Real. Ouch.
- In Conan The Adventurer, Wrath-Amon's Dragon, Windfang, discovered a spell that would restore him to his human form. Soon after, he returned to his homeland, accompanied by Conan and his companions, to reclaim the throne. Unfortunately, two hundred years had passed since he became Windfang, and the entire kingdom, including the woman he loved, was long since gone. After Wrath-Amon found him and demanded that he return with him, the poor guy surrendered without a fight, now knowing that he had nothing to go back to.
- In the Word Girl episode "Tobey Goes Good", Tobey McCallister III finally realizes that, to win Wordgirl's affections, he must convert to the side of truth and justice. However, this is completely wiped away once his completely superior, humongous robot loses "The Young Inventors Challenge and Friendly Competition" to a combined apple and egg slicer because the judge liked the free food.
Tobey: I have to hand it to you, Word Girl, you were right about me. I hadn't changed into a no-good do-gooder! *Quickly wipes a tear away* It doesn't pay to be nice! After all, try to be nice — not destroy things — and look at what happens! You end up losing to an egg-slicer!
- Xiaolin Showdown had an episode with the villain Jack Spicer offering to study with the heroes at the temple and become a xiaolin monk himself. His greed and ambition eventually get the better of him when he's presented with an opportunity to steal their shen gong wu. The rules of a subsequent xiaolin showdown force him to talk to Omi about his betrayal and admit that he really was trying to reform.
- A SpongeBob SquarePants episode had him befriending Plankton. Everything seemed fine until Plankton steals a krabby patty.
- The Movie of Codename: Kids Next Door portrayed this trope tragically with the Delightful Children. The brainwashing Father put them under is so incredibly powerful and rooted deep into them that any attempts to undo it would be temporary at best, and they'll morph back into their evil selves. They literally cannot be good because they are forever under Father's influence.
- Remy Buxaplenty on The Fairly Odd Parents makes a truce with Timmy at the end of one episode. In his next appearance, he uses Timmy's new-found trust to trick him into his latest scheme.
- Yuck, Yin and Yang's Evil Twin from Yin Yang Yo, ends up succumbing to this due to a particularly vicious case of Reformed but Rejected from the two, culminating in beating him senseless at his unveiling of a statue dedicated to their new friendship, destroying the statue in the process.
- In one Tuff Puppy episode, Snaptrap falls in love with Dudley's mom and quits D.O.O.M. and joins T.U.F.F. for her. However, he has trouble with the whole "good guys don't steal" thing, and he keeps letting all the bad guys get away.
- This is the tragic case when a real person has a relapse into drug abuse and/or an obsession.
- Another possible case is when a real person abuses his or her loved ones, promises never to do it again, and does it again. Most of the time, they really do mean it when they say it, but if they don't get help and learn some other way of dealing with frustration, it just builds up and boils over the exact same way it did before.