• Michael T. Christensen

A Decade of Terrible Twists Villains

The 2010s were marked by a lot of changes in film trends. Certainly the most obvious is that everybody wants a cinematic universe now. But there was another weird trend that happened to plague roughly one major movie every year: the terrible twist villain.

Don't misunderstand me. Having a villain who is revealed or subverted through a twist is not terrible in and of itself. This can be done extremely well in fiction.

The twist is somehow less successful, however, when it fits one of the following criteria:

  1. The character's identity was guessed from the moment the casting announcement came out, and was repeatedly denied by the filmmakers, only to preserve a twist that had been fully guessed by the audience.

  2. The villain in question is the rebooted version of an iconic villain from the franchise, but their introduction hinges on the audience understanding the villain's significance.

  3. The villain is revealed as a power behind the throne of the far more interesting villain who was in all the trailers.

  4. The villain reveal comes with a poorly-executed inclusion of a catch phrase that connects them to the franchise's history.

  5. The villain's inclusion feels like simply ticking a box, presenting what the writers think the audience wants with little regard for how the character affects the story.

You'd be amazed how often these twists checked most or all of these boxes.

Spoilers for some movies below:

2012 - The Dark Knight Rises

When Marion Cotillard was cast in the third of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, there was speculation that she was playing Talia al Ghul, the daughter of Liam Neeson's Ra's al Ghul from Batman Begins. But the creators denied it, insisting she was playing "Miranda Tate."

Sure enough, at the end of the film, Miranda Tate is revealed to be Talia al Ghul. She was the one calling the shots, meaning that Bane, the far more interesting and entertaining villain, was essentially a glorified henchman.

Character's identity guessed from casting? Check.

Power behind the throne of the better villain? Check.

2013 - Iron Man 3

How do you adapt a villain named "the Mandarin" for a modern audience? Well, Marvel's answer in 2013 was to cast Ben Kingsley, wrap him in a mishmash of villainous tropes (Middle-Eastern aesthetic, Chinese-inspired name, and in Tony's words, "Talks like a Baptist preacher").

And then it's revealed that he's just an actor, and the real villain is Aldritch Killian (Guy Pearce). I don't think this is as bad a twist as the others on this list - it's more a subversion of expectations than a hidden villain - but it definitely divided audiences. We'll talk about it more in a couple weeks when I talk about Iron Man 3, but I think it's telling that Marvel is now taking an entirely new approach to the Mandarin in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Power behind the throne of the better villain? Check.

Forced catch phrase? Partial check, for when Killian shouts, "I am the Mandarin!"

2013 Again - Star Trek Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch was the most common suggestion for who should play Khan Noonien Singh in the J. J. Abrams Star Trek films. So when he was cast as "John Harrison," nobody bought it. And sure enough, John Harrison turns out to be Khan.

But he doesn't just reveal it... he does it in the most dramatic way possible, practically flashing a neon sign that says, "This is from the old franchise, this is important!" But for people who didn't see Wrath of Khan, the reveal meant nothing. And for the people who did, they'd already guessed the twist.

Character's identity guessed from casting? Check

Rebooted villain introduced with nostalgia-dependent introduction? Check.

Power behind the throne of the better villain? Check.

Forced catch phrase? Check; all he does is say, "My name is Khan," but with so much ACTING that it's very clear the audience is meant to have a big reaction to it.

Ticking a box for misguided fan-service? Check.

2015 - Spectre

This movie is so bad. Everything that happened with Into Darkness happened here. Christoph Waltz was cast, the movie was called Spectre, so we all assumed he was playing Blofeld, the leader of the Spectre organization. The creators insisted he was playing "Franz Oberhauser." Nope, he's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, delivered with the same "This is a big twist" energy that failed in Into Darkness.

Character's identity guessed from casting? Check

Rebooted villain introduced with nostalgia-dependent introduction? Check.

Forced catch phrase? Check, but again this is just because his name is delivered like some sort of twist revealed.

2016 - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Colin Farrell was good in this movie. But then at the end, it turns out he's secretly Johnny Depp, playing the evil wizard Grindelwald. Setting aside the fact that we were all enjoying Colin Farrell's performance, the audience was pretty burnt out on seeing Johnny Depp in films - news had just broken about his divorce, and honestly the film Mortdecai had pissed away a lot of Depp's good will with audiences.

Power behind the throne of the better villain? Check.

Ticking a box for misguided fan-service? Check.

2017 - Wonder Woman

I think this is the best film on the list, and yet this twist really hurts the ending. Diana kills the man she thinks is Ares the god of war, but finds out she was wrong. Diana learns that war is complex and maybe Ares the god of war is not the reason for World War I.

And then the real Ares shows up and they fight, and as soon as she beats him, the war ends. Also, David Thewlis' head on a CGI bad guy body looks pretty ridiculous.

Power behind the throne of the better villain? Check (the better villain, in this case, was "the nature of man").

2018 - Solo: A Star Wars Story

This movie is fine (some parts are fun, some parts are pretty bad), but at the end, we find out that Emilia Clarke's character secretly works for Darth Maul, who pops up on a hologram and ignites his lightsaber. Turns out he didn't die in The Phantom Menace, which the real fans know because they watched Clone Wars. And if you're confused by the scene? Then I guess you're not a real Star Wars fan, sucks to suck.

This scene also makes the list because it's so clearly designed to set up a sequel/future appearances of Maul, yet the film drastically underperformed, so we were thankfully spared a few sequels about young Han Solo fighting Darth Maul's criminal underworld while never actually meeting him.

Rebooted villain introduced with nostalgia-dependent introduction? Check.

Power behind the throne of the better villain? Check.

Forced catch phrase? Maul only had three lines in the original film, but thanks to the lightsaber, we'll call this a check.

Ticking a box for misguided fan-service? Check.

2019 - Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Oh boy.

Oh boy oh boy.

Okay, so technically this twist was revealed in the trailers, and doesn't come toward the end of the film. But it was a completely bonkers, poorly executed, and not-at-all foreshadowed way to end the trilogy, so it counts.

Palpatine should not have come back. Palpatine was not the big bad for the two Star Wars movies that had come before, and so bringing him in at the very end checks all of these boxes. It also confirms a bunch of terrible fan-theories that Rey was a secret member of a Magically Powerful Bloodline from the Original Trilogy, which completely undermines the point of The Last Jedi - which, for the record, was a better film.

Character's identity guessed from casting? Check - as soon as Ian McDiarmid was cast, I had a bad feeling that he would be revealed as Rey's ancestor.

Rebooted villain introduced with nostalgia-dependent introduction? CHECK.

Power behind the throne of the better villain? Check; turns out he literally created Snoke in a test tube (which is dumb and bad) and he spends the film giving Kylo Ren orders, which also makes Kylo a worse character.

Forced catch phrase? "The Dark Side of the force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be... unnatural." Bonus points for supposedly being the explanation for how he came back to life, while also explaining nothing.

Ticking a box for misguided fan-service? Yeah, that's all the whole film was; just ticking every fan-service box they could think of, and barely considering how to hang a story onto them.

So What Did We Learn?

If you have a twist you want to establish in your story, and everybody guesses it, don't lie and say that it's not what you're doing, and then do it anyway and expect anybody to be surprised.

Also, maybe we should stop giving J. J. Abrams the keys to big franchises. I was on board for a while, but I think it's time to stop.

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