Movies & TV Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for movie and tv enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

It seems that there is a rarity in films where the bad guy wins at the film's conclusion ("bad guys" being defined by the culture of the movie makers). By "win" I mean the good guy(s) have been defeated.

I'm not talking about bad guys with whom we sympathize such as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Léon Montana in The Professional, or any number of criminals & scoundrels depicted having a heart of gold. Rather the Villain or Antagonist in the James Bond or Marvel comics sense. Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian.

Are there actually rules, written or unwritten, preventing a script with victorious villains ever being made into a movie? Is it assumed audiences wouldn't be interested in such a film and ticket sales would suffer? Or is there any other reason those movies are so apparently rare?

Has there ever been a movie where the bad guy wins at the film's conclusion? How was this received by the audience and were there any problems involved with releasing such a film?

(I realize I'm asking two questions but I feel the second follows from the first.)

share|improve this question

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

18  
Heres an entire trope on it tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheBadGuyWins – cde Feb 9 at 20:44
4  
Horror movies are more likely to end with the antagonist winning. Occasionally there's a sports movie where the protagonist (team or individual) doesn't win. – stannius Feb 9 at 22:43
12  
I'm sure the OP means well, but I'm sorry, this is currently a list question. It's also quite broad, and based on a false premise: A trope being extremely common doesn't mean the opposite of it isn't extremely common as well. There are many, many dark thrillers, horror movies and noir flicks where evil prevailing is the entire point. – Walt Feb 10 at 0:20
3  
According to Barney Stinson, Die Hard, The Breakfast Club, The Terminator, and The Karate Kid are such movies. Can't seem to find a (short) video of this bit, so quote and article (about Karate Kid, with video) instead. – Eric Towers Feb 10 at 14:09
8  
It's not the good guy who usually wins, it's the protagonist---the character with whom the audience identifies. Watching the protagonist win makes you feel like a winner. Watching the antagonist win makes you feel like a loser. Naturally, films that make people feel like winners will be more popular than films that make them feel like losers. Sometimes, a protagonist is a bad guy, but that's hard to pull off: Most viewers don't like to identify with evil any more than they like to identify with losers. Usually, a "bad" progagonist turns out to be good on some deeper level. – james large Feb 10 at 18:40
up vote 105 down vote accepted

TLDR:

There are plenty of films where the "bad guy" wins.

Ultimately, the reason why the bad guy wins can come down to a number of reasons, including to be more realistic, to set up a later "good" ending in another film or because it's unexpected, to name a few reasons.

Long Answer (note: there will be spoilers for some films below):

There are really a few different things to look at here. For example:

  1. Films where a villain "wins" by physically or literally defeating a good guy.
  2. Films where a villain "wins" by psychologically defeating a good guy
  3. What exactly is a good guy versus a bad guy.
  4. What exactly does winning mean?

Now, the first film that comes to my mind when I think of villains winning is Seven. In it, two police officers hunt down a criminal who is murdering people based on the seven deadly sins. The film ends with the "bad guy" manipulated one of the good guys into killed him, thus fulfilling the "final" deadly sin.

Is this a win? I would consider it so. The good guy's morality was damaged and the bad guy got what he wanted - even if it meant his death. Therefore, I'd consider this under Option 2 above - psychologically defeating the good guy.

Another famous example is No Country for Old Men, where the "good guy" comes across a lot of money at the start of the film, and spends the film avoiding a hitman who is after him for it. He doesn't succeed. He is killed towards the end of the film. We see the hitman get involved in a car crash. He could have died. Instead, he recovers and walks away.

So the good guy is dead, the bad guy survives and walks away. A very clear example of Option 1.

Similarly, The Usual Suspects would fall down this road. But what about The Empire Strikes Back? Or Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince?. Or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The "bad guys" certainly won at the end of those films - but do those count, since they were part of an overall series where the good guys won?

When looking at Option 3, I mention the difficulty in defining good and bad. In years gone by, black and white hat symbolism could make this a simple task. But in modern media, it's increasingly difficult. Take a show like Game of Thrones - how does one determine who is "good" and who is "bad"? Everyone will have their own subjective opinion.

And what about horror films? Quite a few of the Saw films end with the bad guy winning. Many other horror films do. Do we count these?

Similarly, what about Option 4? What is winning. Does Amy win at the end of Gone Girl, a film about a woman who intentionally disappears to heap suspicion on her husband, but returns when it backfires (having murdered another person) and forced him into a situation where he must stay with her. Did they both lose? What about Nightcrawler, where a stringer who films live footage of crimes sets up a scene to kill his partner, so he can film it. He was the protagonist of the film, but that didn't make the creepy ending to this film any more comfortable - but it wasn't supposed to be comfortable.

There is a lot of subjectivity around all of this.

Therefore, I'd propose to set aside Points 3 and 4 for now. If we just focus on obvious examples of victory, through defeating the good guy or psychologically breaking him, there are a number of fascinating reasons why a film might let a bad guy win:

Unexpected

It is unexpected for bad guys to win. We got to the films, and watch TV, to be entertained. Often this involves rooting for the good guys, as many of us identify as good ourselves. Of course, these guys might be rogues (like Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo), but their characters are written in such a way as to be interesting, relateable and fun.

When the tables are turned and the good guy loses, it suddenly becomes unexpected and adds shock value.

Cliffhangers

Take a show like Mortal Kombat: Conquest. Its first series ended with almost all the good guys dying. The intention was a second series would have resolved this (supposedly by making the first series ending a dream). However, the show was cancelled. So for all of time, there is a depressing ending!

There are slightly different examples like I mentioned above, where films that are part of an overall story arc can have cliffhanger endings where the "bad guys" win - although this is often to set the good guys up for an even bigger win later on.

Realism

Films like No Country for Old Men displayed "bad guys" winning because it was a genuinely realistic finale that was intended to both shock and horrify. And it worked, brilliantly.

Historically accurate

Imagine an infamous criminal from modern or historical times who got rich, lived happy and survived until old age. He has technically "won" (and quite possibly defeated many good guys along the way). However, as this is a film that's historically accurate this "victory" will be shown, even if people watching the film find it distasteful.

So how do audiences react?

This is very difficulty to objectively judge. Are we basing this on critic reviews? On box office revenue? For films like The Usual Suspects and Seven, they reacted brilliantly. The endings are adored. For others, they are not.

Conclusion:

Ultimately, there are plenty of films where the bad guys win.

However, the biggest problem I believe for studios in deciding whether the "bad guy" should win, is understanding why he is wanted to win. If it is just "for fun", they're much less likely to do it. If it's for a twist ending, for shock value, to reflect the brutality of a situation, or to set up an ending for a later, more positive film - then it's much more likely to be acceptable.

Film studios do care about audience opinion. If they feel the audience will appreciate the ending or if it fits with the theme of the story, then they'll proceed with it.

share|improve this answer
21  
There's also a class of sports films where the "hero team" doesn't win the big game in the end... some of these are due to historical accuracy and others are to emphasize that it's the journey and achievement that matter. Not sure if this counts. – Catija Feb 9 at 20:41
3  
@madmada: happens all the time: The OP questioned this, so that's why they were included. Seven is a definite win - it's what the antagonist wanted and "completed" the entire purpose of his crimes. Without it, he would have failed. With it, he brought a good man down and succeeded in his mission. And for No Country for Old Men, despite seeing all three men's point of views, that doesn't change that the bad guy walks away at the end. – Andrew Martin Feb 9 at 23:43
1  
My point is that most of the examples were about bad guys not villains, I honestly don't see how those guys from "The Usual Suspects, Gone girl, Nightcrawler, and Saw" can be similar to "the Villain or Antagonist in the James Bond or Marvel comics sense" – madmada Feb 10 at 0:20
1  
@user568458: But the point is, who decides who we sympathise with? I certainly didn't sympathise with the killer in Seven. Or Soze in The Usual Suspects. They were both abhorrent. so it can be difficult to answer when the very idea of a bad guy is debateable. – Andrew Martin Feb 10 at 10:49
4  
@AndrewMartin I think the point is, the question is asking for clear cut textbook villains, clearly winning the day. "Aha, Mr Bond, I expect you to die, then I will destroy Washington with my space laser!" [James Bond dies] [Washington is destroyed by a space laser]. I've not actually seen those, but I know that Usual Suspects is a famous twist ending with ambiguous characters (I'm trying to dodge spoilers!) and Seven is a bit ambiguous about who won (they kinda "get the baddie", kinda). If it was me, I'd open with No Country for Old Men, then include the others as "these are arguable". – user568458 Feb 10 at 10:55

You asked a number of questions here; as often happens, not all of them got answered. Try to ask only one question per question.

Are there actually rules, written or unwritten, preventing a script with victorious villains ever being made into a movie?

Yes. Do a web search for the "Motion Picture Production Code", also known as the "Hays Code". If you've ever wondered why married people always sleep in twin beds and why the good guys always win in old movies, well, now you know.

Has there ever been a movie where the bad guy wins at the film's conclusion?

Sure. The entire film noir genre comes to mind. In noir films there often are no "good guys" -- there's just a bunch of bad guys. And even when the good guys "win", it's often a Pyrrhic victory. "Chinatown" comes immediately to mind as a film in which the villain thoroughly triumphs.

The horror genre also comes to mind; though often our hero wins out in the end in a horror movie, I can think of numerous examples where the monster wins. "Little Shop of Horrors". "Night of the Living Dead". And so on.

share|improve this answer
1  
Chinatown for sure. Also Election in a similar vein - the setup was that the protagonist was never in a position to "win" even though we identify with him – noobsmcgoobs Feb 10 at 9:08
7  
You might want to mention, though, that the Hays Code has long been officially abolished. There might be some remnants of it inofficially being adhered to, but the answer fails to adress that. – Napoleon Wilson Feb 10 at 11:40
1  
Little Shop Of Horrors is a quite interesting example here, because the original ending was so badly received by test audiences that the 1986 film was changed to a happy ending (without the apocalyptic finale, which had certainly taken a huge chunk of the budget to shoot). Only in 2012 was the original version published, on DVD. – leftaroundabout Feb 10 at 22:28
2  
@leftaroundabout: Right, I had forgotten about that. I most recently saw it live; the live version has the downbeat ending. – Eric Lippert Feb 10 at 22:30
2  
While the Hays Code placed a number of restrictions on the content of films, it placed no constraints on dramatic structure; an ending which showed an antagonist victorious would have been perfectly acceptable. Reading the text of the Hays Code may be informative. – duskwuff Feb 10 at 23:09

For a writer, it's important to get your audience to care about your protagonist (whether they are good, bad, ugly, or neutral). If they don't care about and aren't interested in the protagonist, and their plight, then they're not going to care about your story.

If you're thinking, well, I'll get the audience to care about the bad guy (etc.), then that other thing is your real protagonist. -- Whatever it is, your protagonist(s) are the "bread winner(s)" for your story.

Killing the protagonist, or having them fail their quest -- especially right at the climax of your story -- basically means you've spent all this time getting an audience hooked into your story, and then you're destroying the part that they care about the most.

It can be a good way to lose viewers and ratings. -- A really good example of this is the Game of Thrones / Ice and Fire series. For a couple of reasons:

  1. You can examine it, from the audiences' perspective yourself, every time you start getting to the point where you're feeling empathy for a character, and the ball really gets rolling, and then the character is just plain fucking dead. No recourse. That's life. -- It feels terrible. But at least it has a LOT of protagonists (and occasionally converts antagonists into protagonists), so it helps with the pain. Imagine the series if ALL of the POV characters had died in book 1. It would be a death sentence for the whole series.

  2. You can see fan reactions even in the current setup of the series (i.e. there is a lot of "my favorite character 'xyz' died, this show is now dead to me."

Despite those two things, the series is doing very well financially (IIUC), so killing your protagonists doesn't always have to be a deal breaker.

While that's true, it's far easier to pull off a cliff hanger than it is to kill your protagonists. Take the movie The Empire Strikes Back, for example -- the antagonists don't really "win" -- but instead, it ends with a cliff hanger. -- Where you take characters that the audience has built a lot of empathy with, and you don't quite kill them -- you don't quite make them lose -- you just put them on the run, in an impossible situation, with all the walls closing in around them (figuratively) -- and then you make the fans wait -- "tune in next time to see how our heroes get out of this one!" -- this helps to build anticipation. -- It works really well for multi-part stories (and historically, it's worked well with TV serieses that are trying to get renewed for another season...).

Useful Reference: Your Hero: Top Ten Rules (Expanded)

share|improve this answer
    
I think there's a huge difference between movies and miniseries. Minis can develop characters over a longer time and so can take more liberties with morality. Consider Breaking Bad, The Wire or the Shield where the bad guys are the 'heroes'. Movies have to wrap things up in a satisfying way for the audience and that means pretty much making them feel warm and fuzzily happy about the ending. – gbjbaanb Feb 10 at 16:39
    
@gbjbaanb it's a good point that minis can develop a character over time -- but honestly -- it just makes it hurt that much more when you kill them. -- Both genres though can let us have a "bad guy" as a protagonist -- you still don't want to kill the protagonist, or make them fail their quest -- regardless of their moral alignment. :-) – BrainSlugs83 Feb 12 at 11:22
    
This is certainly part of the answer. Even though the Hayes Code no longer applies to films(?), I suspect most audience members would be very upset and consider it poor storytelling or a dumb gimmick if the hero/protagonist was defeated and the bad guys won. I'd argue most people go to movies for uplifting stories as a form of escapism. – RobertF Feb 14 at 17:28

The first, most prominent film that springs to my mind is Star Wars : The Empire Strikes Back.

** spoiler alert **

By the end, a Rebel base has been destroyed.. our hero Luke has just had his hand cut off, Han Solo is in frozen in carbonite. Darth Vader and the Emprire definitely have the upper hand.

Of course this has to be viewed in the context of the trilogy - but taken at face value, the Bad Guys™ win this movie.

As for "how this was perceived by the audience" - many people cite Empire as their favourite of the entire series, and when asked why, they often give variations on the idea that it was the 'darkest', 'broodiest', etc.. Usually the same people who seem to hate Ewoks.

share|improve this answer
2  
The bad guys achieve a partial victory in ESB - but the heroes do survive to fight again in Return of the Jedi. – RobertF Feb 9 at 23:06
5  
It's more of a "Cliff-Hanger" ending, IMO -- none of the main protagonists is dead or has permanently failed their missions. -- They're all just in really terrible positions. -- It's a formula to used in multi part stories to keep fan interest and anticipation up. -- See my answer for a more detailed discussion. – BrainSlugs83 Feb 10 at 5:04
6  
Another Star Wars example where the bad guys clearly win is Revenge of the Sith. – Fatalize Feb 10 at 9:47

The film Swordfish (2001) has part of its plot around this particular subject. The good guys always winning, the bad guy losing; and the whole idea is for the audience to feel happy.

It's also an example of where arguably the bad guy does win. He does get to head off into the sunset having done what he intended. Okay, he paints himself as a good guy, but given what he does I don't think we can classify him as such.

share|improve this answer

There is a tradition in storytelling that dictate that the bad guy "wins" in the end. This is mostly prevalent in horror/ghost stories and can be found in almost all human cultures.

In most of these types of stories, the story structure is almost always a horror reveal where the story ends with the protagonist realising or confronting the real ghost/horror and dies. This is the typical structure of Asian horror stories (not movies, stories). It is also found in Western fairy tales but is not as common. It is common in Western urban legends though.

One of the most obvious examples of this in movies is The Wicker Man. But it's not quite the perfect example because, like the protagonist, we discover the true horror a bit too late.

A better example is The Skeleton Key. We find out who the villains are quite late in the movie but long before the ending. More to the point, the movie makes us suspect the villain even longer before that. But protagonist lose anyway and the villains get away scot-free (I won't spoil HOW the bad guys win in case you haven't watched it).

Twilight Zone episodes are also structured like this with the protagonist typically meeting their doom at the hands of a horror at the end of an episode.

share|improve this answer

First one that comes to mind is The Usual Suspects

Without giving it away, the plot takes you in one direction, before an abrupt (and clever) plot twist, and the result is that the main villain (Keyser Soze) wins.

We don't tend to get stories with the villan as winner, we tend to follow the heroic character and so invest feelings in them.

share|improve this answer
8  
surely that comes under the category of bad guys with whom we sympathize" – Francis Feb 9 at 22:45

The first movie that sprang to my mind was Shane, released in 1953. The bad guys don't really win, since they're all dead, but the good guy is implied to be dying as he heads into the sunset at the end. So, per your definition, the bad guys have won.

The movie was received well enough in general, but I can't find any references right off for how the ending was received. I personally know a number of people who were disappointed by the ending, but not enough to be useful as a representative population sample.

share|improve this answer

protected by Ankit Sharma Feb 10 at 10:46

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.