This summer, I’ve seen five massive blockbuster films, each with varying degrees of quality: Solo, Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, Incredibles 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Mission Impossible: Fallout. And while all five are action films, they could not be any more different in terms of story, with plot’s ranging from intergalactic crime syndicates to dinosaur islands to superhero family dramas (alright, fine, there’s a little overlap in that last one). But despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, each of these films are completely unique to one another, they all share one annoying similarity in their plot structure, one that seems to be viewed as mandatory for genre films as of late, and one that, frankly, is really starting to bug me. That similarity, of course, is the overused trend of the “Surprise Villain.” Spoilers ahead, obviously.
The “Surprise Villain” trope is, like its name suggests, is the cliché of having a character who has otherwise been portrayed as either wholly good or at worst benign is actually secretly evil. It’s also been called the “Evil All Along” and the “It Was Me!” twist, playing with the same basic dialogue that will inevitably accompany such a reveal. Granted, putting a surprise villain in a film isn’t exactly new. It’s pretty much been around as long as there’s been movies, and has been a staple in literature for centuries longer. But it’s the sheer frequency at which writers are resorting to this trope lately that I find troubling. All five of this summer’s big tent-pole releases, despite coming from several different studios and having individual, distinct writers, directors, and creative teams have the same exact reveal, either at their climax or soon thereafter, that one of their characters has secretly been evil (or, at least, antagonistic) this entire time. Let’s do a short recap:
- In Solo, Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett, Han Solo’s friend and mentor, turns on him at the last second in order to make a profit for himself.
- In Jurassic World, Eli Mills, the aid to the elderly Lockwood, reveals that he has secretly been planning to take over Lockwood’s estate and make a fortune on selling dinosaurs to the black market.
- Incredibles 2 reveals that Evelyn Deavor, half of the billionaire duo funding the return of superheroes to the public eye, is actually planning to permanently tarnish their reputations and kill them in the process.
- Ant-Man and the Wasp includes classic comic-character Bill Foster, played by Lawrence Fishburne, who has, unbeknownst to the film’s titular heroes, been assisting the (initially) villainous Ghost.
- And finally, the most recent installment in the seemingly-unending Mission Impossible franchise gave us Henry Cavill’s Walker, a CIA agent who is an undercover agent for a terrorist organization.
Seeing a trend here? All five of these films have plots which hinge on the idea that one of their characters has been, from the very beginning, working against their respective protagonists. And all five were released in the same summer, almost one after the other. Almost all of the summer’s biggest hits have the exact same plot device.
Now, just having this twist in these films isn’t in itself necessarily in itself a bad thing. There’s plenty of amazing film’s that use this twist (“They called me Mr. Glass,” anyone?). It’s the way the twist in these films is used, however, that’s a problem. In theory, there’s an infinite number of ways that a film could use the idea of a character being a secret antagonist, but the unfortunate reality is that, more often than not, movies lately seem to be falling into the same ruts in how they stylize and present the twist. Four out of five of the movies I mentioned suffer from one of two major flaws in their design. The first and most problematic is that the twist is too obvious, and can be seen from essentially the moment the traitorous characters are introduced. Both Incredibles and Mission Impossible suffer greatly from this, as does Jurassic World, for a much different reason.
Incredibles 2, taking place only moments after the original, somewhat pigeonholes itself by only really introducing the audience to two new characters, the siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor. We as the audience then immediately know that one of these characters has to be the villain, as there’s really no other option. And since the sister’s name is literally EVIL ENDEAVOR, it’s not a huge leap of logic to guess that it’s her. Frankly, ever since Pixar announced the cast of characters for the film, I knew Evelyn was either a massive red herring, or was the villain. And since Disney has been caught in a “surprise villain” rut for quite a while now, it seemed like a safe bet.
Likewise, Mission Impossible suffered from the same problem. Henry Cavill was really our only major new character, and since the plot of the film revolves around the team trying to find a mysterious terrorist leader with access to government secrets, who else could it be? It also didn’t particularly help matters that it was actually announced early in production that Cavill would be playing the film’s villain, a fact that the marketing seemed to sweep under the rug once it got closer to the film’s release date.
And finally, Jurassic World has perhaps the laziest symptoms of this problem, with a villain who’s just barely hidden as a villain at all. He’s a businessman in a Jurassic Park movie. If you didn’t immediately peg him as the bad guy, you clearly haven’t watched the other four movies in the franchise. The Fallen Kingdom could have taken the high road and done something unique for once, like make someone completely random and unexpected the antagonist, like maybe Hammond’s partner or one of the other useless side characters, so at least they had something to do. But nope. Another greedy businessman.
The second issue that these twists often have is that the reveal of the villain often feels completely unearned. When Beckett turns on Han at the end of Solo, it feels like there’s absolutely no build-up to that moment. Sure, he’s a criminal, but he seems to have genuinely bonded with Han over the course of the film, and there’s really no setup for his heel-turn at the end of the film. One second he’s a friendly, caring mentor, and the next he’s trying to shoot Han Solo in the face. Zero subtlety, with no satisfying payoff. It’s a twist for the sake of a twist, regardless of whether or not it’s actually in line with the story being told (otherwise known as “The Shyamalan Approach).
Granted, these are all massive franchise films, which aren’t exactly known for their originality. But look at other, smaller releases in the past few months as well. Both A24’s Hereditary and the Jason Statham shark-punching flick The Meg both had central characters which are suddenly revealed to working against their respective protagonists at some point during their runtime. And again, this isn’t a trend that just suddenly appeared out of the ether. There’s a ridiculous number of movies that follow this exact structure. Seriously, look at the TV Tropes page for it. It’s incredible. Just looking at the past three years or so alone, there’s so many examples. Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them all had secret villain twists. Not all of them were necessarily bad, mind you, but the fact remains that there’s a lot of examples. Like I said earlier, Disney in particular seems to be absolutely obsessed with this lately, with Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Coco, Zootopia, Big Hero 6, and Toy Story 3 all have surprise villains, and those are just the one’s off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s more.
So why does this keep happening? Well for one thing, it’s an incredibly cheap and easy way to get a shocked reaction from an audience. I say cheap because it really doesn’t require any set-up. In the case of Jurassic World, for example, Mills is evil just because he is. He has no real backstory, no concrete motivation besides money. He’s just suddenly bad, and the audience has no choice but to go along with it. It lets writers get away with not having to write too much for both the heroes and the villains in a film, in terms of motivation and character development, because it allows them to lump them all into one. Write your heroes, and then just nonchalantly decide at the end that one of them has conveniently been evil this whole time.
It’s also, I think, just pretty deeply ingrained now in pop culture as one of those archetypal things that we kind of just accept. We’re fine with things like the “heroic sacrifice,” the “dead parent/mentor,” and the “love interest was with me all along” tropes, so why not just go along with the “surprise villain” too? They’re all incredibly lazy, but they’re such staples in storytelling that I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon.
Now, that isn’t to say that the surprise villain twist can’t work ever. The reason that I neglected to mention what was wrong with the twist in Ant-Man and the Wasp is that, personally, I think it’s a great usage of the trope. Lawrence Fishburne’s Bill Foster is revealed to be working with the film’s villain, yes, but it defies both of the problems I listed above by doing two things:
- One, it’s unexpected. Comic fans know Bill Foster as Goliath, a member of the Avengers. He’s a hero, and one with a decent legacy in Marvel Comics history. So, his reveal as an aid to the film’s villain is against what we’ve come to expect.
- And two, most importantly, it’s earned. The setup is there. We’re told right off the bat that Foster hates Hank Pym, and vice versa. So he already has the seeds of a proper motivation. And then we learn the truth about villain, Ghost, and her terminal condition. Suddenly, we as an audience see exactly why Foster was working against our heroes: He was saving someone who he saw as his daughter. Although he was antagonistic, he wasn’t necessarily evil. And the film takes the time to tell us this.
Because of these two reasons, the villain reveal in Ant-Man and the Wasp manages to both surprise and satisfy the audience, without falling victim to the sins of so many other films attempting the same thing. And on top of all that, the character is redeemed in the end, and even helps the heroes. It defies the formulaic approach that the other four films take, and instead does something rather refreshing.
And there have, of course, been examples of the trope that are now considered absolute classics. Film’s like Se7en and The Usual Suspects both rely on the surprise villain reveal as a major component of their respective resolutions. Yet both of these films (which, coincidentally, both utilize Kevin Spacey in a villainous capacity) utilize the twist in such a way that both surprises the audience as well as satisfies them. The twist doesn’t entirely come from nowhere. The audience can track logically how the film reached this conclusion, and can understand why and how this character is suddenly behaving the way they are. The best part of a successful villain reveal is that it makes the film more interesting on a re-watch, knowing the ending and trying to see all the ways in which the film sets up the character’s sudden betrayal. Se7en in particular is fun to do this with, going back and seeing all the moments that Spacey’s John Doe appears earlier in the film. The same goes for films like Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, where the reveal of a character’s antagonistic or hidden nature makes them ultimately all the more interesting the second or third time around.
So, honestly, as much as I bemoan the surprise villain, I still absolutely love it when it works properly. Hell, my favorite movie of all time, Alien, has a surprise villain reveal. Even the first screenplay I ever worked on had one (which I’m not changing, mostly because I’m a massive hypocrite). I don’t hate the trope. I just wish it was used a bit more sparingly. Or at least made a bit more conspicuous. At the very least, for the sake of whichever poor sole inevitably goes to the theater with me and has to hear me announce, perhaps a bit too loudly, “Oh, he’s totally the bad guy.” And then deal with my inevitable smugness on the ride home when it turns out I’m right.