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Aquaman: If I had discovered Black Manta was a part of something like this...
Flash: Right? How can we ensure any kind of justice if criminals are being given a hall pass?
~ A conversation between the Justice League regarding how their enemies can escape punishment by being enlisted into the Suicide Squad.
That's right, I committed the crime, but I'm not the one who gets punished... because I'm a winner.
~ Mai Mashiro

A Karma Houdini is a villain who is never punished (or is insufficiently punished) for their evil actions. As such, when the story is over, this villain is not really defeated; he/she remains in position to continue his/her misdeeds, either towards the protagonists or a new target or, in the most extreme cases, is still as much of a threat as he/she was before, or even worse.

This also concerns corporations, species, organizations, or teams who are not disbanded at the very end of the story, thus they are still able to pose a threat even if some of their majors or agents were killed or imprisoned (e.g. Dead Tube).

A Karma Houdini happens when:

  1. The villain is thwarted but not aptly punished in the resolution. This often happens when a villain is simply humiliated or harmed in a comical manner, but only faces a temporary punishment when they deserve worse, not enough to prevent them from striking again in the next episode, season or installment. Example: Sugar from Total Drama.
  2. The villain makes an escape at the story's climax. Probably the most common type. Often, the villain escapes while the heroes are preoccupied with some other danger (usually that they created), sometimes because, in most stories, preventing whatever disaster was caused by a villain is more important than going after the villain himself. Sometimes this is done to set up a sequel, or at least leave the story open for one. However, this does not count when they do get their just desserts in the sequel/final installment. Examples include Hannibal Lecter, Dodge, and Joker.
  3. The villain simply exits the story after performing their action, and is not encountered by the hero again. This usually occurs with minor antagonists (as opposed to central ones), as the most common scenario for this type of Karma Houdini is that the protagonist simply escapes the villain, who is not seen again because they are not relevant to the rest of the story. Examples: Honest John Worthington Foulfellow, Gideon, Stromboli, and the Coachman in Disney's Pinocchio, Scratcher from Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July, Bomb Voyage from The Incredibles and The Underminer from The Incredibles 2, DJ from Star Wars, Bulldog from Tom and Jerry: The Movie, Ryuk from Death Note, and Poppy's Killer from Married... With Children.
  4. The villain is forgiven at the last second, without being truly redeemed. These villains spend the story causing strife, but when the conflict is over, the protagonists do not bear them any ill will, and in some case welcome them into their group of friends. They do stop doing evil, but never apologize and do not display any intention to bettering themselves, and their misdeeds are swept under the rug. Examples: Aro in Twilight Saga,The Misfits in Jem and the Holograms or Isabela Keyes from Dead Rising 3.
  5. The villain outright wins at the end of the story, defeating the hero (or other villains) and succeeding in all their evil plans. For extremely obvious reasons, this is, by far, the least common type and can reasonably be expected to occur only in the very darkest of stories, and is in fact very common in modern horror stories. Examples: Mai Mashiro in Dead Tube, Shao Kahn in the Original Timeline, Audrey II in the most common ending of Little Shop of Horrors, Mary Shaw in Dead Silence, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street 2010, Gao Qiu in The Water Margin, Foxy Loxy form Chicken Little of 1943, Noah Cross from Chinatown, Invictus from Final Space, Rustal Elion in Mobile Suit Gundam IRON-BLOODED ORPHANS, the Fruit Winders Gang in all of their comic strips, and Bagul in Sinister.
  6. The villain is more of a jerk and thus many don't see the need to punish them (in general, they punish themselves). These kinds of villains are usually from sitcoms, children's cartoons or even racing films (If the protagonist wins) and thus are not really threats. Because of this, many heroes simply let the villain do what they want as long as they don't cause too much harm. Example: Chick Hicks from Cars.
  7. The villain is ousted and/or exiled but not brought to justice. These villains are driven out by the hero or some other force of good, but is not aptly defeated and often given the chance to come back and cause further harm. Examples: Idi Amin, Doc Hopper, Puffy Fluffy, Sergeant Crushida Pepper, Dr. Wily, Mina Loveberry, Agatha Trunchbull and Parker Selfridge.

Important Notes

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